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The best lenses new photographers need in their bag

New photographers often spend hours narrowing down the options for a camera body, but mere seconds deciding on a lens. This isn’t your fault — camera manufacturers often bundle a kit lens (or two) with a camera to make it seem like you’re getting a great deal. While kit lenses may be fine for some situations, they’re far from ideal and rarely achieve your camera’s true potential of sharpness, depth of field control, and low light performance.

But what lens should you add to your bag, once you are ready to go beyond that basic kit lens? The best lenses for beginning photographers often fall into one of four basic categories. The best choice for you depends on what type of photography you want to be able to shoot.

Nifty fifty

Frank R./Unsplash

Versatile, bright, and affordable, the nifty fifty is usually the go-to recommendation for any new photographer’s first lens. “Nifty fifty” is simply a pet name for a 50mm f/1.8 lens. This prime lens can’t zoom, but more than makes up for that with a bright aperture, compact design, and affordable price.

On a camera with an APS-C sensor, which has a crop factor of 1.5X (or 1.6X for Canon), you’ll actually need something in the neighborhood of 35mm. To get a similar focal length on a Micro Four Thirds camera, which has a 2X crop factor, you’ll want to look for a 25mm lens.

Chances are, the kit lens that came with your camera has a maximum aperture of somewhere around f/3.5, and it gets even smaller as you zoom in. An f/1.8 lens is 2 stops brighter, meaning it lets in 4 times the amount of light. That not only allows you to take better photos indoors and in any low light scenario, but gives you more power to create blurry backgrounds. The wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field.

Shot on Nikon Z 50mm f/1.8 (full frame). Download full resolution

The 50mm focal length offers a mostly neutral field of view that keeps things looking normal and realistic. It’s not exactly exciting, but it gives you a decent working distance and minimal distortion. 50mm is good for a number of different uses, from portraits to street photography.

Most 50mm prime lenses are also compact and lightweight (except for the very high-end ones), and will be barely noticeably in your camera bag. But the real selling point is the cost. While prices vary from one manufacturer to the next, the 50mm is always among the cheapest lenses available for any given system.

Ultra-wide

Most kit lenses start at around 24 to 28mm (16 to 18mm on APS-C and 12 to 14MM on Four Thirds), but you can upgrade that kit by opting for a lens that’s even wider — or, even better, one that has both a wider focal length and a brighter aperture.

Wider lenses capture more of the scene, which can help add more context to the story in your photograph or just provide a unique perspective. Ultra-wide angle lenses are ideal for landscapes, travel, or interiors when you want to make a space feel even larger than it is. A wide-angle lens with a bright aperture is great for astrophotography.

If you take pictures in low light, which includes most indoor settings, invest in a wide-angle that has an f/2.8 aperture or wider. A zoom lens will offer more versatility, while a prime lens might offer an even brighter aperture.

Shot on the Sigma 20mm F1.4 Art (full frame).

There’s no one perfect focal length here like there is with a nifty fifty, but that doesn’t mean focal length is any less important. We recommend something in the 14 to 20mm range for full-frame, or the equivalent in other formats.

Wide-angle lenses exaggerate the distance between foreground and background. Objects close to the camera will look farther from the background than in reality. This can be great for emphasizing a skateboard or bike trick, but can wreak havoc for standard portraits by distorting the shape of a person’s face. For best results when photographing people with a wide angle, keep them near the center of the frame and don’t get too close.

Ultra-wide lenses are more expensive than a basic nifty fifty, but don’t be afraid to try third party brands if you need to stretch your budget farther. For Nikon and Canon DSLRs with APS-C sensors, for example, the Tokina 11-20mm f/2.8 offers a good zoom range and a relatively bright aperture for just $450.

Telephoto zoom

Buchen Wang/Unsplash

A telephoto zoom is what most people think of when they hear the term “zoom lens.” It’s for getting closer to your subject when you can’t physically walk right up to it.

The most common budget- and beginner-friendly telephoto is a 70-300mm lens (or equivalent). The versatile zoom range helps the lens adapt quickly to changing shooting distances, making this a good choice for your kids’ sports games. It’s also not a bad birding and wildlife lens, although photographers experienced in these genres would recommend something even longer.

Olympus OMD E M1

Telephoto lenses (which, to be clear, generally encompass any focal length above 50mm), also cause what’s called compression distortion. Opposite of a wide-angle lens, this makes objects appear closer together, and anything in the background will look large relative to objects in the foreground. You can use this effect to emphasize the density of a crowd in, say, a cross country race, or to make it look like you were much closer to that bear than you really were. Compression can also have a flattering effect for portraits, although anything beyond 200mm or so often looks too extreme.

The downside to a 70-300mm, particularly a budget-friendly lens, is that the aperture isn’t very bright, especially at the telephoto end where it may be f/5.6 or smaller. Therefore, such a lens isn’t great for indoor sporting events, where gymnasiums usually serve up dim fluorescent lighting. This is where something like a 70-200mm f/2.8 comes into play, but this high-end lens can be many times more expensive.

Macro

Music Fox/Unsplash

Most lenses can’t focus very close. If you try to take a photo of something closer than a few feet, you’ll be stuck with a blurry image. A macro lens is designed to focus much closer, although it isn’t focus distance itself that defines this type of lens.

A true macro has what’s called a 1:1 reproduction ratio, which means objects are captured on the camera sensor at the same size they are in real life. That’s enough to get extreme detail on objects the size of a quarter. True macros are typically prime lenses with medium telephoto focal lengths, usually in the range of 60 to 105mm or so. The term “macro” tends to get tossed around lightly, however, and you may even see it on some zooms. In these cases, the reproduction ratio is usually not 1:1, but 1:2 or even lower.

Shot with a Fujifilm XF 80mm F2.8 macro (APS-C).

From insects and flowers to turning everyday objects into abstract wonders, macro lenses open your camera to the world of the very small. They can be very fun and rewarding for this reason, but are also challenging. The closer you get to a subject, the narrower the depth of field becomes, which can make it difficult to keep your subject in focus at all (especially if it’s a moving subject, like an insect). For this reason, you might need to stop down to f/8 or smaller, but this can introduce the challenge of not having enough light. If you want to get serious about macro photography, invest in a sturdy tripod.

Macro lenses don’t have to be just for close-ups. A 105mm f/2.8 macro lens, for example, doubles as a fantastic portrait lens.

What lens should you buy first?

There’s no denying that getting into photography can open up a deep rabbit hole. A common challenge for any photographer starting to build their kit is affordability. You simply can’t buy all of these lenses at once. Sometimes, you’re not even sure where your photographic passion lies. Is it portraits? Sports? Landscapes? It may take some time to figure this out.

While the nifty fifty is always a safe bet, experiment with your kit lens (if you have one) and note the limitations you most often run into. Maybe it’s the low light performance, or maybe it’s the lack of telephoto reach. If you keep running into the same issue, look for a lens that will alleviate that issue first. That’s going to be the best place to start.

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