Buying guide: Camera lenses
If you talk to people who are genuinely into photography, they will tell you that any camera is only as good as its lens. In fact, many professionals would vouch that buying a good SLR camera lens is probably more difficult than buying the SLR camera itself. Because not only are there a plethora of different types of lenses available, digital camera lenses are available in almost all imaginable price ranges. Plus, the entire issue is further complicated by the fact that most beginners are discovering their photography, and hence do not know what exactly are they looking for. In what follows, this guide will look at the various things that you need to consider before buying a camera lens.
More than anything else, the type of lens that is best suited for you is dependent on the purpose for which you are buying the lens. This depends on the kinds of subjects you shoot the most. Is your photography mainly indoors or is it mainly outdoors? Do you take pictures of closer objects or do you like to capture objects and events that are far away? Or is it that most of your objects are fast moving (i.e., action, sports, etc.)? Is it that you primarily need the lens to capture portraits and weddings? Or are you into nature and wildlife photography? Do you take pictures of small objects (flowers, insects, etc.)? Or is that you take pictures of landscapes, interiors, and/or architecture? Do you prefer more compact, convenient lenses or a more bulky, inconvenient lens that will help you take “better” pictures? Or are you only looking for a better all-purpose optical lens that will help you improve your photography? It is questions such as the above that you need to answer before you decide on a purchase. Do note that the above tasks cannot be done with one single lens; for example, a lens suited for natural and architectural photography is not apt for portraits and wedding photographs.
Before we go into detail on the types of lenses available in the market and what exactly are they best suited for, we will first look at the various characteristics of the lenses, and the various features that are available in modern day camera lenses. This is also essential given that the prices of lenses follow their own logic, and may seem very difficult to comprehend. As an example, consider that you will find that the lenses that have the widest ranges (as measured in terms of “optical zoom” or 3x/5x rating one finds on the lenses) usually are the cheaper ones among the lot, while the more expensive camera lenses are those that tend to have the most restrictive ranges. To understand this peculiarity vis-à-vis lenses, you need to understand a few basic things about lenses, which we shall elaborate on now.
- 1. Focal length: First up, we have the focal length. The focal length is one of the most important aspects of a lens. Indeed, the type of lens or the purpose for which the lens is most apt for is determined by its focal length (among other factors). The focal length is also one of the main determinants of the price of a lens. It is not necessary that only a lens with a high focal length will give you the best quality pictures. Depending on the distance from the object, you can obtain exceptional photos even using a normal 50 mm lens. A camera lens with a high focal length comes handy if you shoot objects that are far. Similarly, a camera lens with a low or very low focal length is best suited if you often take pictures of small objects from very small distances. In fact, a camera lens with a very low focal length will, in all likelihood, not perform well in normal indoor photography.
- 2. Aperture: Another factor that has a considerably bearing on cost is the size of the aperture. The aperture (indicated by a small f-number) is directly related to the cost of a lens: the larger the aperture, the more costly the lens. Also, note that a lens with a higher aperture has a huge, fat barrel, while a lens with a small aperture is skinny and compact. Though the bigger the aperture, the better the lens (in terms of image quality), a lens with a large aperture does cost a lot of money. If, however, you do indulge in low-light or night-time photography, a lens with a large aperture is a must. Though you would use flash in most such situations and will in all likelihood reduce the shutter speed considerably, having a lens with a bigger aperture is definitely no harm. Further, if you are not using a tripod and are handholding the shot, using a reduced shutter speed will introduce unwanted noise and blurriness, and in such situations, a lens with a bigger aperture is a definite must. A lens with a bigger aperture also comes handy if you like to take images where the background is blurred. Conversely, when you use a lens with a smaller aperture, the depth of field is much reduced, which ensures that a much bigger part of the image remains in focus. This is particularly handy when taking group pictures and when photographing indoors. Note; if you are mainly going to indulge in available-light indoor photography, an aperture of f/2.8 is the bare minimum that is necessary; however, it is recommended that a lens with an aperture of f/2.0 or higher is preferable. If you are mainly into indoor sports or action photography, a lens with an aperture of f/2.0 or larger is absolutely necessary, so that you are able to achieve the fast shutter speeds needed to freeze and capture the action; you would still require the lens to have a higher speeds for excellent pictures. However, if you usually take pictures outdoors and/or are looking for a lens that will let you take better outdoor shots, given that most of the times you will be working in decent light, a lens with an aperture of f/4 is probably rather decent for your needs. If you are looking for a lens for outdoor shots under excellent lighting conditions, a lens with an aperture of f/5.6 or above will do.
- 3. Diaphragm blades and “bokeh”: Another factor that plays a rather major role when it comes to focus and image blur is the number of diaphragm blades in the lens. The number of diaphragm blades in the lens has a direct bearing on the “bokeh” (a Japanese word that can be literally translated as “blur”), and determines how capable the lens is in handling the out of focus areas of an image. Needless to say, having more blades (7–9) is better than having fewer blades (5); this is because a lens with less diaphragm blades suffers from bad bokeh, and is characterized by the occurrence of distinct geometric shapes (like pentagons or hexagons) in place of smooth circles when certain elements are blurred out. If you usually take pictures where a major part of the picture needs to captured (such as when taking group photographs or when taking pictures of indoor events), it is recommended that you go in for a lens with a large number of diaphragm blades, but this might prove to be expensive.
- 4. Image Stabilization (IS): Image stabilization (IS) is a rather handy technology that can reduce the necessity of a larger aperture when you are taking pictures in low light conditions sans a tripod or any support. In rather crude and layman terms, image stabilization works very much like a “virtual tripod.” In recent years, there have been many advances in this technology, and in situations where it is not possible for you to bring along a tripod, the presence of IS can make a big difference, at times separating a photo that you would definitely want to keep and a photo that you would only be too embarrassed about. While the IS would considerably improve the quality of your image when handholding a shot, it is still necessary that you get a fast lens that provides you with a much higher shutter speed that will better freeze and capture the action.
- 5. Type of lens: After reading the above, you should at least have a rough idea of your needs, depending on which you can choose the type of lens that you need. Note that for every type of lens, there are lenses of varying budgets (largely because of the differences in the brand and/or presence/absence of additional features), and you can pick one that you find provides the most for your money. Some of the various types of lenses that are available are as follows. First, we have the single convenience lens that is apt for those who are looking to use it with their digital camera with decent results. While portable (and thus perfect for traveling), easy to use, and rather inexpensive, these lenses do make some compromises in quality because of the large range. Second, we have the standard zoom lens, which is better and faster than a single convenience lens, but is costlier and less portable. Third, we have the prime lens, which is most suited for taking portrait pictures or when shooting indoors in low-light conditions and other such tricky conditions. Next, we have the telephoto zoom lens that as the name suggests lets you capture distant objects with ease. These are heavy, costly, and of little benefit outside distant zooms. And finally, we have the ultra wide zoom lens, which allow for capturing of ultra wide shots. These are very expensive and will rarely be used if you are not a professional.
- 6. First-party vs. third-party lenses: While it is recommended that you get a first-party lens for your digital camera (that is, if you have a Nikon digital camera (Canon digital camera), you should go in for a Nikon camera lens (Canon camera lens)), this may prove to be expensive. Also, it is not that third-party camera lenses are bad, but first-party camera lenses are specifically designed to work with your camera. For example, a Sony camera lens (Minolta camera lens) is designed for use with a Sony digital camera (Minolta digital camera). Nevertheless, unless and until you are too peculiar, you can use a Canon lens or a Sigma lens with a Sony digital camera (Minolta digital camera).
- Many photographers will tell you that any camera is only as good as its lens. In fact, many professionals would vouch that buying a good lens for an SLR is probably more difficult than buying the SLR camera itself.
- More than anything else, the lens that is best suited to you is dependent on the purpose for which you are buying the lens. This depends on the kinds of subjects you shoot the most.
- Among the important characteristics of any lens are focal length, aperture, number of diaphragm blades, and image stabilization.
- The following are (some of) the different types of lenses: single convenience lens, standard zoom lens, prime lens, telephoto zoom lens, and ultra wide zoom lens.
- While it is recommended that you get a first-party lens for your digital camera (that is, if you have a Nikon digital camera (Canon digital camera), you should go in for a Nikon lens (Canon camera lens), it is not that third-party camera lenses are bad.
As you see, buying a lens is a bigger task than buying a camera, especially when you are not so sure what you are going to photograph the most. It is always preferable to research well when you are looking to invest in a good lens setup for your camera as good lenses make all the difference between pictures that are wonderful and those that are drab. This guide will assist you in making a well-informed and wise decision.
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