Buying Lens and Lens Attachments

Originally Written for SPIN:

What Lens to Get At Various Stages of your photography hobby.

This small article is based on the Nikon System and its compatible lens. That said, the discussion here can be extrapolated over to the other camera systems but it will be a bit different when it comes to the focal length/zoom reach as well as the maximum aperture at different focal length.

If you don’t understand what I just said, then is ok. Just save the money and learn with whatever you have and when the time comes, you would understand the terminology and you will buy the things you need, not the things you want.

Just Starting out

Kit Lens: Lens that comes with the camera

The kit lens, so called because it comes as a kit with the camera package, is usually for those who are buying a DSLR for the very first time and have no idea what to get.  So what the package comes with the camera are the Nikon 18-55 F3.5-5.6G Lens and for the more creative merchants they will entice you to get the Nikon 70-300mm f/4-5.6G as the full package.

For the newbie, then it looked really great because in one fell swoop you would have gotten the lens needed to shoot from normal landscape to ‘pa jiao’ zoom (nature bird shooting, or cross eye shooting depending how you want to use it). The problem would be the limitation that would be placed on the range of aperture settings you can use for kit lens. That would force the camera user to boost ISO or lower shutter speed just to take a shot; not a very good way to get sharp pictures unless one is very careful and know how to set it up properly.

However, the 18-55mm would be great for a beginner to learn basic photography. Although the zoom is roughly 3x (55/18= 3), it has wide angle lens for landscape to a good portrait reach. Remember we are dealing with DX/APS-C sized sensor so the actual reach for a film camera would be 27 (18*1.5) to 82.5mm (55*1.5). Because of the maximum aperture, the performance will be slightly better off than a mid range point and shoot compact camera. The reason is that it is made mostly with plastic lens and its lens and construction is for basic use.

Sometimes even worse than a compact camera if one do not know how to cover up the lens’ weaknesses.

Moving Up:

Portraiture/Food/Product: Nikon 50mm F1.8 Prime Lens
Once a learner has come to realise that the kit lens is performing at or slightly above a compact camera lens, then it is the time to really think of what to get.  Usually a person would think of getting a slightly faster lens. When we mean fast, that is saying the camera can allow much more light in by opening up the aperture, i.e. F1.8, F2.0 etc

The very first lens that people would think about is the Nikon 50mm F.18 Prime Lens.  It is cheap, it is sharp because there is much lesser lens inside and that simplify things.  The only problem is that it will curtail the user to a fix focal length. Again we must remember, the 50mm is translated to 75 mm (50mm x 1.5) which is great for portait, a close up for food or flower, and with a reverse ring, even a cheap form of macro lens without focusing mechanism.

Even if it is cheap, it will be around $200+ range and I would save the money first and get something more flexible for more uses.

For something that is a bit ‘higher’ would be the 35mm and shifting to 50mm, it is a good street camera. It will still struggle with landscape though.

If a prime is what you guys want to get, then for DX/APS-C is should be the 24mm.  It is still useful at FX since at 24mm it is a good landscape tool. But the price will be scary.

Paragraph of Advice: For someone who is pretty new to photography, I would suggest to get a zoom. Optically it will not beat the Prime lens. The fact is you would not know how many times the fixed Focal Length will be used. The best way to experiment is to turn the focal length on your zoom lens to the prime lens distance you are considering and then use a good scotch tape (GOOD ONE if not residue will form on the lens barrel) and forcing yourself to shoot at the distance for one good whole day. It will give you an idea if the lens is suitable for your style.

General Usage/Multiple Environment:
Sigma/Tamron 18-50mm F2.8 or the Nikkor 16-35mm F2.8

The reason why I would even suggest 18-50mm is for a simple reason. You have the flexibility of the reach of the old kit lens that you are used to (if you are training using the kit lens) but now is being upgraded with better optics and a fixed aperture of F2.8. It is not fast like F1.8 but it is fast enough to do simple handheld shots during night photography (assuming correct posture and breathing techniques) and usage of a lower ISO settings between ISO400-800.

As for the Nikkor, the zoom range is somewhat limited but is a extra wide lens and a good street photography lens maxing out at 52mm.

A Possible Buy:
Travel/General Day Lens: Nikon 18-200mm F3.5-5.6 VRII

This is a lens that is great for the less motivated (in other words: lazy).  The reach is fantastic, roughly 11x however it has the same issues with kit lens with the variable aperture settings. I will be honest with you that I can be lazy at times and when it comes to travels to places I have already been to, then I usually will pack this lens along with my 18-50mm F2.8.

It is a great travel companion if one can look beyond the obvious problems associated with super zoom lens such as pin-cushion and barrel distortion at both extreme ends of the lens zoom. However, when a picture turns out great, the distortion is not easily seen.

Still, the camera would be a handfull when it comes to night photography or event photography, even if one has vibration reduction/Image stabiliser/Optical stabiliser system in the lens. More on that later.

More Focused Use:
Events/Sports/Performance/Talk: Nikon 80-200mm F2.8 or Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8 VRII

If one wants to save some money and yet want to get the reach of 200mm for event photography and do not want the associated problems with a neither here nor there lens like the 18-200, then consider the 70-200mm or 80-200mm.  This lens is great for sports, events, stage performance and portrait/fashion shoot.  Coupled with the F2.8, the Bokeh would be delicious.  I personally would get the 80-200mm without the VR. The price is reasonable, around $1100-1200.

Macro/Micro/Product Photography:Tamron 90mm F2.8 Macro or Nikkor 105mm F2.8 Micro

This would be for those who are really into small things. The Tamron gives the best value for money but have a variable aperture when not in macro (not evident until one uses it). The Nikkor is the best you can find out there optically for the Nikon DSLRs but it is at a premium price.  Those who bought it swear by it.

If you keep swearing because of the price, then perhaps you can just get the Raynox add-on lens to your current lens.  It is really good without breaking the bank or just want to play with a bit of macro before planting more money into a fixed lens.

Pa Jiao/Nature Bird Shooting Lens for the budget Conscious:

No. It is not lens that cannot shoot properly. It is lens specifically for shooting down birds.  Nikon has a lot of good lens with good reach for birds. Typically a good reach is more than 300mm. And because we usually shoot birds during the day, then F4 is more than sufficient for the budget conscious.  I do have one candidate.

Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3
This something that people can buy and carry around much easily. I personally prefer this because you going to shoot bird and you want to move around better than those carrying bazookas or mortar tubes but still it is quite hefty.  it is 2-3K but at least not close to 8-10K for those who can afford.

Other options would be to buy a telecovertor but I wouldn’t go all the way to 2x. Remember it does affect the aperture settings too.

If money is no issue, the get the primes F4 that costs in the thousands. Nah. I rather get a good DSLR body or the Fujifilm x200 ILC.

“So Wilson what was your ideal upgrade path?”

Answer: There is no ideal upgrade path as there is no ideal camera system for everyone. Get the lens you would need as you develop your love for photography. However I can give an idea and then based on your needs, do the necessary upgrades.

Step 1:
Ditch Kit lens and buy body only if possible. This is highly probable for those who are going straight to Mid-level DSLR based on my advice given in my other article on buying DSLR.

Go ahead and get that 18-50mm F2.8 for a good overall general lens to use.  Feedback from those who followed my advice is that they start to enjoy photography and can use the camera in a lot more places than the kit lens.

Step 2:
a) Get the 80-200mm F2.8. Usually by this time you would be complaining about the lack of zoom on the 50mm range and would be loving that Bokeh ever since (if you follow my step 1 method)

b) What if the weight is an issue? Then get the 18-200mm Nikkor. I would settle for this rather than from Tamron or Sigma because the distortion from such a huge zoom range would be bad enough, get a better branded one.

Step 3: Now this step depends on what hobby you would love to go into and you can follow the lens to match the types of photography you will love to follow through.

I am fortunate enough to have both the 18-50mm F2.8 and 70-200mm F2.8 Sigma that are able to focus in Macro thereby. allow me to postpone buying a full fledged macro/micro lens   Why fortunate? They have stopped production.  The disadvantage is that image quality is not as great as those without macro focus capability but I do have a lot of flexibility especially during my travels.

“Wilson you were saying something about Vibration Reduction?”

Ans: Yes. VR/IS/OS is the mechanism that will prevent the camera from hand shaking hence one can make use of a slower shutter speed without camera shake being evident in the picture.

A slower shutter speed means you can use a lower ISO and produce a much cleaner photo overall. But what if the subject is moving when your shutter speed is slow and the ISO is not sensitive? You got it…the camera is not moving but the blur comes from moving subject.  So in the end to capture action you would have to up the ISO and/or lower the aperture to get a faster shutter speed to freeze the subject.

Since shutter speed got faster (Usually to freeze it must be at least 1/60s) for a 50mm lens or 1/160s for a 200mm lens) then vibration reduction is not really that necessary anymore.

But is it a good insurance to have? Having it on will make sure the camera is stable though it will use up your battery juice.  Those who understands the need for this technology will get it.

A cheaper solution and generally a better solution? Tripod. Really!  If I need to be stable yet mobile, then a monopod.  This is what I shot with my non-VR lens on a monopod in less than ideal stage lighting.


Lens used based on activity. A good guide though some choices are stretching it a bit:

Lens Technology and Explanations:

I prefer to read Thom Hogan’s Review rather than Ken Rockwell. This is his page about all things Nikon.

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