Camera Lenses – What Should I Buy?

Which one is the best? What should I buy? Which one is the sharpest?  

     An argument raging on photography forums all over the internet. My answer almost always is: Depends on what you want to use and buy, and your particular style of photography. I’ll try and keep specific brands and particular lenses out of this and we all know Leica users are pretty much exempt from this article, but I’ve seen these questions asked for just about every other SLR brand. …and why someone would buy a camera like a D3 or a Mark Series Canon and then have to ask this question only leads me to believe that the particular person posting just wasted thousands of dollars on a camera body that they won’t be able to fully use, understand or operate. Now, if you have the money, and are really passionate about photography, than by all means buy the best equipment you can, just realize that you’re going to have a much higher learning curve the more complicated the camera body gets, which isn’t always a good thing and can actually be really frustrating at times and can “test” your passion from time to time. 

     So what should I buy?  These are a few of my opinions, or answers, to a lot of questions I see and hear all the time. I could probably go on endlessly here but will just post a few that are stuck in my head:

     First and Foremost: It’s all opinion
. Realize that every photographer is different. Different needs, different wants, interested in different subjects. You need to buy equipment that YOU like to use and are satisfied with. It doesn’t matter what the guy on the other end of the thread likes or wants, because let’s face it, he/she isn’t putting up the money and they are only suggestion what THEY like to use. 

     Which is the sharpest lens? Who cares? I know, everyone wants the sharpest lens possible, but I do have to say that there aren’t many lenses produced today that aren’t sufficiently sharp. Pentax, Sony, Canon, Nikon, Olympus …all of their kit lenses are relatively great. The best? Absolutely not, but pretty good compared to comparative lenses produced just a few years back most of the time. Again, there is nothing wrong with buying the best, but in this case it comes not only with a monetary price, but also costs in size and weight a lot of the time.

     Sharpness, and most “technicals”, should come into question only after you narrow down your focal length needs and wants. I see too many people buying lenses because they are the sharpest they can find. They will buy it, take a few shots around the house and rave about the sharpness, than go out on a real shoot and find out that the lens is way too large to lug around or that they are actually changing out other gear just to accommodate the lens. Even worse, they get to the location and find out that they actually would have been better with a wider angle or longer tele-photo lens. So sure, question sharpness, but it should not be the most important criteria for buying a lens. 

     Zoom or Prime? Honestly, if you’re asking this, you probably should go zoom. A bad piece of advice, but my opinion, especially if your reading this. Reasoning: one of the single most important reasons to buy a prime is its ability to isolate a subject through the use of large apertures. You could also say the ability to use in lower light situations because of the aperture. If you’re asking the question, you may not know this. Of course there are other arguments and you may buy a prime and absolutely love it, …so back to all opinion. A few arguments I’ve seen going both ways: 

 • Zoom with your feet: There are some major flaws to this theory. Some off the top of my head from personal experience: Boats. Mine Fields. Warzones. Whenever photographing large animals …or poisonous ones. Really crowded areas. “Time Sensitive” shots (where it’s either take the shot before the moment is gone or don’t capture it). Honestly, the more I think about it, the stupider this theory is for me. I’m more of a “capture the moment” type of photographer and zooming with my feet is most often a very big problem. If you’re more into static type subject photography, than zoom with your feet theory could definitely have more bearing on you.

 • Primes are sharper than zooms: well, not always. Again, the sharpness thing. The one thing I like about certain primes is the way they “draw” an image. A combination of a lot of factors usually, not just sharpness. Are most primes sharper than most zooms, sure, but not always.

 • Primes are smaller, lighter and cheaper: These days, again, not always. Take a look at some of Canons and Nikons new offerings. Optically excellent lenses, but not so small, light or cheap. 

     Remember, these are only my opinions based on a few years of travel photography. Everyone is different and has different needs. I don’t like to give out advice, and always say that the guy who is so willing to give out advice is the guy that you should be most suspicious about. That’s why I want to make sure that the reader knows these are my opinions, and just about every other article on the web on this subject is opinion, not fact, and based on the certain individuals experience.

     I would almost say to beginners to just start out with a kit lens, which are almost always zooms, but not always. This way you can see what you like. What focal lengths you use most and what you feel you are missing most. This way you can minimize the cost of lenses through minimizing your period of trial and error. 

     One solid piece of advice I can give you is when you do buy a lens, learn how to use it. Learn its strengths and weaknesses. If you want to become a good photographer than learn technique, light, composition and other aspects of photography. Equipment comes in just about dead last in that learning curve. Any good photographer can create good pictures with just about any equipment. Become a photographer, not an equipment collector. I see way too many equipment collectors these days who tout themselves as having “all-pro” equipment …who can’t take a good picture if their equipment depended on it. 

     There are a lot of choices and they can become quite intimidating to beginners these days, so do the best you can with what you have or can afford. You don’t “need” to have the newest, most expensive equipment to take great photos. Its way more important to understand the equipment you do have. I’ve used zooms and I’ve used primes. Expensive and cheap lenses. Each one has had their uses and their faults. I wouldn’t say any one was better than any other in every situation though. Go out and have fun and don’t worry so much about equipment. A good focal point  will always allow you to create a more interesting, more dynamic and more memorable photo than just having a super sharp lens ever will. When you do decide on a lens, don’t second guess yourself. Don’t worry about what you don’t have or can’t afford. Do the best with what you have. That’s what I do. It works for me and could possibly work for you. My photos are never “the best” or “the sharpest”, but I like them, and at the end of the day, thats what matters most. I also know that I haven’t “broken the bank” buying equipment and that not only allows me to travel more, but allows me to travel more comfortably, not lugging around unwanted pounds (or kilos) of photography equipment …and thats a good thing.

     Any specific questions, or arguments, that you may have are always welcome. Just leave a comment or send me an email and I’ll answer as soon as possible.


4 comments on “Camera Lenses – What Should I Buy?

  1. Great call. It’s funny to see some people decked out in top notch gear only to have their camera set to “Auto”.

    I’d say one more argument for primes is learning composition. Sometimes you really have to work for the perfect shot vs. a zoom which makes you appreciate composition that much more.

    Personally, I rock a D40 and switch between a Tamron 10-24mm and the Nikon 35mm 1.8. But your shots with the 18-200 (I’m assuming) do make me a bit jealous!

  2. Thats a very good article. Personally I don’t even use an SLR….just a simple Nikon P100.
    But the article was very good and it is nice to learn from excellent photographers. 🙂

    • Thanks snowleopard!!! …and honestly, if your happy with the P&S than stay with it. I’m actually about to post an old shot that I took with a Canon G2 and I gotta tell you, I would love to travel with just a P&S. So much easier and cheaper …not to mention fun.

  3. The idea of prime lenses scared me at first but now I tell people that their first lens should be a 50mm prime. If you’re new to SLR photography and only use the kit lens I think it’s easy to get in a rut where you treat it like a P&S. A cheap prime shows them what the camera can do and hopefully pushes them to additional lenses.

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