What lens should I buy for my digital camera?
Once you’ve bought a new interchangeable lens camera – either a digital SLR or one of the new breed of interchangeable lens compacts typified by Micro Four Thirds – you’ll inevitably start thinking of adding an extra lens or two to your arsenal. This is the first step to realizing the flexibility of a system camera, but with the bewildering variety of options available on the market, you could be forgiven for wondering just why you left behind the relative simplicity of a compact camera. In this guide we’ll lead you step-by-step through the process of understanding the different kinds of DSLR lenses, and choosing the right one for your needs.
How are lenses named?
Looking at the lens pages on manufacturers’ websites can be a little intimidating for a new user. Lens names often include long lists of letters and numbers, which certainly sound impressive but can also be thoroughly confusing to the newcomer. Luckily you can safely ignore most of them to start off with, and concentrate mainly on just a few things:
We’ll look into each of these in more detail below.
The first number used to describe a lens is its focal length; in combination with the camera’s sensor size, this defines the angle of view covered by the lens, with smaller numbers indicating a wider angle. Zoom lenses are named using two numbers which indicate the extremes of the range, for example 18-55mm for a typical kit zoom lens. Fixed focal length lenses which don’t zoom (also widely known as ‘primes’) just have a single number (e.g. 50mm).
The image below shows how the field of view varies with focal length on a camera with the most common sensor size, APS-C (as used by Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony). The conversion table shows how these relate to two other standard sensor sizes, namely ‘full-frame’ which is the same size as a 35mm film negative, and Four Thirds which is used by Olympus and Panasonic (see our DSLR Buying Guide for more information about sensor sizes).
For the sake of convenient comparison, lenses are often referred to by their ’35mm equivalent’ focal length, for example a 18-55mm kit lens may be described as a 28-90mm equivalent. It’s important to understand that this means simply that an 18-55mm lens on APS-C covers the same angle of view as a 28-90mm does on a 35mm camera, not that the focal length of a lens changes on different formats.
The aperture of a lens is the second major parameter used in its specification, and describes how much light it is capable of gathering (see our glossary for more detail). Apertures can be expressed in several different ways, with F4, f/4, 1:4 all meaning the same thing. A smaller number means the lens has a larger maximum aperture and therefore gathers more light; an F2.8 lens collects twice as much light as an F4, for example.
A lens with a larger maximum aperture allows you to shoot in lower light, and (for example) take pictures indoors without using flash. Larger apertures also give decreased depth of field (i.e. how much of the picture in front of and behind the focus point appears sharp), which is an important aspect of creative photography.
Image stabilization has become widespread across camera systems over the past few years, but the various manufacturers implement it in different ways. Pentax and Olympus incorporate it into the camera body, whereas Canon, Nikon, Panasonic and Samsung use systems built into the lens. Sony (slightly confusingly) uses in-body ‘Super Steady Shot’ for its Alpha SLRs, but in-lens ‘Optical Steady Shot’ for its Nex system cameras. Image stabilization is especially useful with telephoto lenses, so is worth bearing in mind when comparing the available options.
The various manufacturers all call lens-based optical image stabilization by different names, with corresponding initials in the lens names, so here’s what you need to look out for when buying:
Most affordable SLRs use APS-C sensors, which are approximately 24mm x 16mm in size, or less than half the size of the old 35mm film negative (Nikon calls these DX). However high end Canon, Nikon and Sony cameras sport so-called ‘full frame’ sensors, which means purely that they are about the same size as a 35mm negative, i.e. 24mm x 36mm (Canon’s high speed professional cameras use an intermediate sensor size, called APS-H). Panasonic and Olympus, meanwhile, use the slightly smaller Four Thirds sensor in their interchangeable-lens cameras.
All of the major manufacturers (aside of course from Olympus and Panasonic) now make a range of lenses specifically optimized for APS-C cameras, and these generally provide the best choice for general-purpose and wide angle zooms in particular. Lenses designed for full frame will also work just fine on APS-C cameras. However APS-C lenses won’t work properly on full-frame cameras, which is something worth bearing in mind if you are thinking of upgrading to a full frame system in the near future.
The manufacturers label their APS-C format lenses as follows:
Each camera maker uses its own proprietary lens mount, meaning that lenses can’t be swapped across brands; a Canon lens won’t fit on a Nikon body, for example. There are a couple of exceptions – Olympus and Panasonic both use the Four Thirds mount for DSLRs, and the Micro Four Thirds mount for their mirrorless interchangeable lens compacts (ILCs). Samsung’s SLRs were essentially re-badged Pentax KAF-mount models, however the company is now concentrating on its NX ILC series.
A number of third party manufacturers, most notably Sigma, Tamron and Tokina, also make lenses in a number of different mounts to fit the multiple camera brands. The table below lists the currently available lens mounts.
The new generation of interchangeable lens compacts all offer a degree of compatibility with the respective manufacturer’s SLR mount via lens adapters, but in general performance is compromised to some extent – in particular autofocus is often slow and hesitant.
Zoom vs. Prime
Zoom lenses have become almost ubiquitous over the past few years, and at first sight buying a lens which is restricted to a single angle of view might seem pointless. But prime lenses still have some very real advantages; compared to zooms they tend to be smaller and lighter, have faster maximum apertures, and give sharper images. These factors make them extremely useful for specific purposes, for example low light shooting where a large maximum aperture is advantageous.
Popular lens types
A standard zoom is a general-purpose lens that covers a range of focal lengths from wideangle to moderate telephoto. The most obvious example is the kit lens that comes with the camera (generally an 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 for APS-C), but this can be upgraded to something with slightly more range and better optical quality, or with a fast F2.8 maximum aperture.
Often the second lens that photographers buy, the telephoto zoom effectively allows you to get closer to your subject, and is therefore useful for photographing such things as sports, wildlife, or children running around playing.
Superzooms are all-in-one lenses which cover a full range of focal lengths from a moderate wideangle to long telephoto. They combine in one package the range of the kit zoom that came with the camera, plus that of a telephoto zoom, and therefore make perfect general purpose travel lenses. The technical image quality is often not quite as good as two separate lenses, but for many users this is more than made up for by the convenience.
The wideangle zoom extends the angle of view out beyond that captured with the kit zoom, allowing you to capture broad sweeping vistas. It’s therefore a popular choice for landscapes, architecture, and interior shots.
‘Macro’ is used to describe a lens with extreme close-focusing ability, which allows you to take photographs of small objects such as insects or flowers. Some zoom lenses use ‘macro’ in their name to indicate closer-than-usual focusing ability, but true macro lenses tend to have fixed focal lengths. In general, the longer the focal length, the further away you can be from your subject. (Nikon call these lenses ‘Micro’ instead.)
Fast Prime Lens
Fast prime lenses come in all focal lengths, from wide angle to ultra-telephoto, but what they share in common is the ability to capture a lot of light in a relatively small, discreet package with high optical quality. Once an endangered species, this class of lens has seen a resurgence in recent years, and undoubtedly the most popular is the 50mm F1.8, or the more expensive 50mm F1.4. On a camera with an APS-C sensor this makes for a short telephoto perspective, ideal for snapping pictures of friends and family using natural light.
The word ‘pancake’ is used to describe slimline lenses that are designed to make a camera as compact as possible. These have enjoyed a resurgence recently as a natural companion for Interchangeable Lens Compact cameras, but are also available for SLRs (most notably from Pentax).
Other lens features
There are a few other aspects of build and operation which you may wish to consider when buying a lens.
The autofocus system used by a lens can have a large impact on its focusing performance, particularly in terms of noise and speed. The focus motor can be positioned either in the camera body or in the lens, and in-lens focus motors come in a variety of types with different characteristics. Here’s an overview of the most important types:
As usual, each company has a different name for its ultrasonic motors, and uses the corresponding initials in the lens name.
Manual Focus Override
On most cameras and lenses there is a switch to change between autofocus and manual focus, and turning the focus ring when in auto mode can potentially damage the motor or gearing. Some lenses, however, employ a clutch mechanism that allows the photographer to tweak focus manually at any time without risking damage. In general this is limited to the more expensive ultrasonic-type lenses, but Pentax deserves credit here, as almost all of its current range has this feature (which the company calls ‘Quick Shift’ manual focus).
Manual Focus Lenses
A few companies still make high quality manual focus-only lenses, even in this era of autofocus. These tend to be fixed focal-length lenses with metal barrels and premium optics. The principal names to look out for here are Carl Zeiss and Voigtlander. Certain specialist optics from the major manufacturers are also manual focus only, including Canon and Nikon’s tilt and shift lenses.
Build Quality and Weathersealing
As a general rule, the more expensive a lens is, the better built it is likely to be. The kit lenses that come with cameras tend to rather lightweight and plastic in construction; spend a bit more and you can get something more durable. Some lenses incorporate environmental sealed against dust and water; in general this tends to be towards the top end of the price spectrum, but Pentax and Olympus in particular offer a decent range of mid-priced sealed lenses (Pentax even makes weather resistant ‘WR’ versions of its kit lenses to go with its top-end K7 DSLR).
Special mention must also be made of Pentax’s ‘Limited’ range of primes, which hark back to old fashioned manual focus lenses, with finely engineered and beautifully finished aluminium barrel construction.
One last word. When choosing a camera system to invest in, it’s important to appreciate that the lens has just as great an impact on the image quality as the camera. Lenses tend to last longer than cameras too, becoming obsolete less quickly than bodies, so it can be worth spending a little bit extra to get the quality or flexibility you really want. Most of the major players have broadly similar lens options (and there’s plenty of third-party alternatives for those that don’t), but inevitably each has its relative strengths and weaknesses. If you have a specific application that needs specialized lenses (or other accessories) it’s worth doing some research before committing to one system or another; dpreview’s lens reviews and userforums are an excellent place to start. Oh, and once bitten by the lens buying bug, many enthusiasts find it hard to stop; you have been warned…
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