Which lenses?

DSLR LensesFor those of you who are considering using a digital SLR camera for this class, you should learn a little bit about lenses.

When talking about image quality,  the lens is more important than the electronics inside your camera. When choosing a lens for your digital SLR camera, there are some basics to consider.

Here is decent discussion on lens basics: Lenses 101

Kit Lenses

Kit lenses, or the ones that come with many entry-level DSLRs, are fine for this class. They are typically inexpensive zoom lenses made of lightweight plastic and have acceptable optical quality. They are not built to last, but they are fine for learning the basics. Be aware of their limitations, however. They are what is called “variable aperture lenses”, meaning that the further you zoom out, the less light it allows to enter the camera. They are fine for shooting outdoors in the daytime. You may struggle with kit lenses indoors or anywhere in low light, but there’s really no reason why you couldn’t shoot every assignment for this class outdoors.

Stepping Up

If you decide to pass on the kit lens and buy one or two lenses separately, read this discussion about fixed and variable aperture lenses: Zoom Lens Maximum Aperture: Fixed and Variable Apertures

Note that this is from the Nikon web site, but it is applicable to any camera and lens manufacturer. Fixed aperture lenses are preferable because you don’t have to worry about losing light as you zoom out. They are more expensive, though.

Learn more about lens speed and aperture.

Prime Lenses

Zoom lenses are popular and handy because you can vary your perspective without having to move around. The kit zoom lenses that come with some cameras are cheap and of marginal quality. A professional level zoom lens – one that is both fast and well-built – is expensive. $1000 and up. There are some intermediate level zooms out there, but there is another alternative: fixed focal length, or “prime” lenses. Some folks refer to them as “sneaker zooms,” because you have to move your feet if you want to change your perspective. They have some advantages, especially for beginners, because they are cheaper than zoom lenses. They also tend to be faster, smaller and lighter in weight, and sharper.

A 50mm prime lens is about as basic as you get, but it’s an excellent place to start. Even a major brand name 50mm can be had for around $100, brand new. That gets you a decently built lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8, usually. That maximum aperture will allow you to shoot pictures in very low light and still get sharp images. I have been doing this job for over 20 years and still use a 50mm lens quite a bit.

Another alternative is a 35mm lens. They are also quite fast (usually around f/2.0) and cheap. It’s a little wider in perspective than the 50mm. It’s also a favorite of photographers who prefer to work a little closer to their subjects.

Keep in mind that the wider you get from 35mm and the longer you get from 50mm, the more expensive the lenses get. You should be able to shoot any assignment for this class with either of these lenses, however.

Alternative lens manufactures

There are companies that build lenses that mount on almost any brand name camera. The main advantage of these lenses is cost – sometimes as much as half the amount of a comparable lens that’s the same brand as your camera. Sigma, Tokina, and Tamron are probably the most reputable. Be wary of really cheap brands, though. You get what you pay for.

Sometimes there can be small compatibility issues with obscure camera functions and modes, but the optical quality of these lenses is often very, very good – sometimes as good as a major brand lens. If you find a lens you like that’s the same brand as your camera, perhaps take a little time and see if one of the alternative manufacturers makes a comparable lens. You might be pleased with both the quality and the savings. Be prepared to do a little research, though, and search for reviews.

Buy used

Consider looking for a used lens. A used lens is actually a much better value than a used camera. Much like computers, cameras become obsolete at a faster rate because of constant development in technology and electronics. Lenses, on the other hand, have much longer life expectancies. I still have – and use – a couple of lenses I purchased in college over 20 years ago.

In the end …

Buy what you can afford and we’ll make it work. If you think you’ll be using your equipment long after the final exam, shop and purchase something you can grow into. I’m always available for advice. If you can’t afford more than a kit lens, that’s okay, too. Like I said before, there’s no reason you can’t shoot every assignment for this class outdoors in good light.

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2 Responses to Which lenses?

  1. Pingback: Which camera? | Journalism 3333: Photojournalism

  2. Pingback: Spring 2015: Here we go! | Journalism 3333: Photojournalism

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