How to pick the perfect lens to breathe new life into your DSLR or mirrorless camera

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Zoom and prime lenses

Sigma 85mm 1.4 DG HSM Art
Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends

The convenience of a zoom lens can’t be beat, as it offers a wide range of focal lengths while a prime lens is stuck at just one. Beyond the basic 3x kit zooms there are 7x and 12x lenses, often called “superzooms,” that are very popular. You’ll see figures like 18-200mm or 28-300mm. Other lenses are made to pick up where your kit lens leaves off, like a 55-210mm, and so on.

The trade-off with zooms, particularly high-powered zooms that cover a long range, is that they generally aren’t as sharp or as bright as primes. Professional zoom lenses are quite good, but often offer less than 3x of zoom power and are considerably more expensive than kit zooms or prime lenses.

There are loads of zoom options; just check the manufacturer’s website for details and prices. If you just want more reach than your kit lens, something like a 55-200mm or 55-300mm (depending on what’s offered for your camera) is an affordable way to do that. And don’t be afraid to venture beyond the brand name on the front of your camera. There are third-party brands available — like Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina — that offer a variety of optics, often with better price/performance ratios than first-party lenses.

Prime lenses — or more specifically, fixed focal length lenses — offer just one field of view. Prime lenses are some of the best lenses you can get for the money, and in most cases offer better image quality and low light performance than their zoom counterparts. The 25mm and 50mm f/1.8 lenses we mentioned above are good examples of a prime lens. In particular, this focal length is a popular recommendation for photographers looking to move beyond the kit lens, thanks to the relatively low cost and fantastic image quality and low light performance.

There are also many specialty lenses that are more common in prime form, like macro and fisheye lenses. Portrait lenses and many super-telephoto lenses are also offered in fixed focal length form. Prime lenses typically come with larger apertures (denoted by the f-number, like f/1.8) that let in more light and allow for more background blur (which is nice, for example, when shooting portraits). With your standard kit zoom, you’ll have to start using the flash in instances where you can still work with available light when using a fast prime lens. Another reason to go with a prime is simply size. Especially with smaller mirrorless cameras, “pancake” lenses are very popular, which are ultra low-profile prime lenses that you can take with you anywhere.

Beginning photographers may feel limited by working with a prime, but you shouldn’t be: After all, a prime lens is what you’ve been shooting with on your phone all this time.

Open wide

Fujifilm XF56mm f1.2R APD review lens front
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

As you start searching for lenses, you may do several double-takes when you look at prices. You may see one 50mm for $120 and another for $1,600 from the same manufacturer. With both primes and zooms, there are many factors that can make one lens of the same focal length more expensive than another, but the key difference is the aperture (or how wide the lens can open). As we mentioned above, this is measured in f-stops, and in what seems counterintuitive, the lower the f-number, the more light you can capture. In the case of Canon’s $120 50mm lens, the maximum aperture is f/1.8. Canon’s $1,600 50mm features a brighter f/1.2 aperture. The latter also uses higher-quality glass and construction, leading to the huge price differential.

All but the most demanding professionals won’t need an f/1.2 lens, but if you do a lot of shooting in low light without a flash, investing in a lens with a wide aperture, maybe in the f/1.8 to f/2 range, is certainly worthwhile. (Just for fun, we’ll point out that one of the fastest lenses around is the 50mm Leica Noctilux lens rated at f/0.95 — which costs a cool $11,000.)

For comparison, most kit zoom lenses have apertures no wider than f/3.5, and almost always the effective aperture decreases as you zoom. This is why you’ll see a lens name written as something like 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6. That implies that at 18mm, the widest aperture is f/3.5, while at 55mm, the widest is f/5.6. A prime lens with a large aperture often lets in two, three, four or more times this amount of light. Professional-level zoom lenses typically max out at f/2.8, and are specially engineered to maintain that aperture throughout the zoom range. Something like a 24-70mm f/2.8 is a very popular lens of this type from many manufacturers, but such models can cost well over $2,000.

Stay steady

Many interchangeable lens cameras have image stabilization built into the body to help eliminate shaky shots. Any lens you attach to the camera will automatically be stabilized. Canon and Nikon are the two biggest companies who do not offer this on any interchangeable lens models (and it’s worth mentioning that Fujifilm only offers it on one, the flagship X-H1). If you want stabilization on one of these cameras, you have to buy a stabilized lens. Manufacturers use various tags to denote this feature, from Canon’s IS (Image Stabilization) to Nikon’s VR (Vibration Reduction) to Sony’s OSS (Optical Steady Shot). Stabilization isn’t always necessary for still photography — shooting at a fast shutter speed will keep things nice and sharp. However, when working in low light at slow shutter speeds, shooting video in any conditions, or using a very long focal length, stabilization is very important.

Many Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, and Pentax cameras offer built-in stabilization, but may still sell stabilized lenses, as well. It’s important to note that not all cameras made by these manufacturers have in-body stabilization, so be sure you check your specific model. For example, the Sony A6300 does not, but the almost identical-looking A6500 does.

In many cases, if you buy a camera with built-in stabilization, then buying lenses that also have stabilization won’t necessarily make any improvements, but nor will it harm anything. In this case, buy the lens you want to buy based on focal length, zoom power, and aperture; if it happens to be stabilized, just look at that as a bonus. However, Panasonic now offers what’s called Dual IS on some camera models, which can use both in-body stabilization and lens stabilization together, offering even more shake reduction power than just the lens or body alone.

Next steps

The best lens to add to your kit depends on what you want to shoot, but now that you understand focal length, aperture and extra features like stabilization, you know how to choose a lens that fits your style. A 50mm f/1.8 is an affordable bright lens that’s great for low-light photos, portraits, or snapping better pictures of your pets. For landscape and travel, a wide angle lens might be in order, while telephotos are excellent for bringing wildlife and athletes up close.

As you enter the world of interchangeable lenses, you can delve deeper with research into things like optical design, number of aperture blades, lens coatings, and all that other good stuff that makes expensive lenses so expensive. It can be a bit arcane, but as far we’re concerned, you’ve already taken the biggest leap of all simply by purchasing a DSLR or mirrorless camera. There is a wealth of information out there, but don’t let yourself be intimidated, and most importantly, remember to have fun.

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