Change your glass, change your shot: Getting started with interchangeable lenses

interchangeable-lenses

So, you’ve decided to upgrade your camera from a point-and-shoot to an interchangeable lens model. It probably means you’re looking to do more with your photography and you want a camera that can deliver great image quality. Whether you’ve bought a traditional digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera or one of the new mirrorless models, the appeal of these shooters is that you can swap out the lens for different purposes. However, the camera only tells one part of the story. When it comes to great photography, oftentimes it’s all about the lens – all the fancy features in a camera are pointless if there’s no lens.

If you bought the camera from the local Best Buy or Costco, chances are it came with a lens or two. What you may or may not know is that the standard “kit” lens is a basic model that, while it does the job, barely unlocks the full potential of the camera; in fact, many consumers may not even realize there are hundreds of lens options available. While many of them cost thousands of dollars and are geared toward professional shooters, there are affordable options for the casual user.

Generally speaking, the lens that comes with a camera probably offers decent image quality but also comes with a few drawbacks. One is that they’re slow: Usually starting somewhere at f/3.5, they require you to bump up your ISO in low light if you’re handholding the camera. These lenses also have a variable aperture, which means that as you zoom in, your lens gets slower. You can tell a lens has a variable aperture when you see specs like f/3.5-5.6; if that lens has a focal range of 18-55mm, that means that at 18mm you can open up to f/3.5, but at 55mm you’d be limited to a very slow f/5.6. Variable aperture can make it difficult to get the right exposure in difficult lighting situations.

Some other limitations of kit lenses include slow/noisy autofocus motors, lack of image stabilization, and lower build quality. In recent years, however, lens manufacturers Canon and Nikon have enhanced the features to their kit lenses. In addition, there are numerous third-party manufacturers, such as Sigma and Tamron, that make lenses that are more affordable; while some are on par with those from camera makers in terms of quality, not all are.

If you are interested in upgrading your kit lens, there are a few different categories to consider. Lenses can generally be classified into one of six categories: standard or regular zoom, telephoto zoom, wide angle, macro, prime, and specialty. This isn’t designed to be a comprehensive guide, but once you familiarize yourself with the categories and decide which lens you would like to add to your arsenal, you can look into each lens type in more detail. Here’s a quick look at the six types of lenses.

(Note that, despite the name, not all lenses are interchangeable with any camera. For example, Canon lenses are designed to work with Canon cameras, and not Nikon or Sony. While there are third-party mounting adapters available, a Nikon camera won’t be able to utilize the features of a Canon lens, like image stabilization.)

Standard zoom

The kits lens that comes with a camera is most likely a standard or regular zoom lens, somewhere in the 18-55mm range; another common standard zoom range is 28-70mm. If you’re looking to upgrade your kit lens, this is a good place to start. For about $400-500 you can get a standard zoom with a constant f/2.8 aperture. It sounds like a lot of money, but it offers a major improvement in photo quality over the average kit lens, especially when you’re extending the zoom all the way.

Nikon AF Zoom-Nikkor 24-85mm f/2.8-4D IF standard zoom lens.
Nikon AF Zoom-Nikkor 24-85mm f/2.8-4D IF standard zoom lens.

Telephoto zoom

Telephoto zoom lenses have a much longer focal length than standard zoom lenses. A fairly common telephoto zoom range is 70-300mm. These lenses are good for getting close to nature or photographing your kid’s sporting event. Sigma makes a 70-300mm lens that retails for $549 MSRP, but it’s a little slow at f/4-5.6. Unfortunately, the price really jumps up for faster, constant aperture telephoto zooms. Sigma’s 70-200mm f/2.8 lens retails for around $2,470 MSRP.

Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 DG OS telephoto lens.
Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 DG OS telephoto lens.

Wide angle

On the opposite end of the spectrum you have the wide-angle lens. These lenses come in focal lengths that offer a maximum field of view. If your camera has an APS-C sized sensor, that increases the magnification or crop factor of your lens from 1.2-1.6 times, depending on the sensor.  This means if your lens has a focal length of 28mm, it will effectively be a 42mm lens on an APS-C sensor camera.  This is great on the telephoto side of things, but not great for capturing wide angle. Wide-angle lenses usually offer focal lengths between 10-24mm.

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Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 IS USM wide-angle lens.

Prime

If you plan on sticking with your kit lens, the next lens you might want to pick up is a prime lens. Prime lenses have fixed focal lengths, which mean they don’t have zooming capabilities . These lenses aren’t for the lazy photographer because you need to physically reposition yourself in order to recompose your photos. Despite this limitation, prime lenses are generally regarded as offering the highest image quality (and a price tag to match). If you’re going to purchase a prime lens, you need to weigh the pros and cons, and also consider what focal length best matches the kind of photography you’ll be using it for.

Sony SEL20F28 ”pancake” lens
Sony SEL20F28 ”pancake” lens for Alpha E-mount cameras, such as Sony’s mirrorless NEX series.

Macro

Macro lenses allow the shooter to get extremely close-up images, and are a favorite among photographers. They’re wonderful for exposing the tiny details of insects, flowers, and just about anything else out there that deserves a close-up shot. Like prime lenses, macro lenses are available in fixed focal lengths only. Also, they’re good for other types of photography, too – a 70 or 100mm macro prime lens would be excellent for taking portraits.

Pentax smc D FA 100mm F2.8 macro lens.
Pentax smc D FA 100mm F2.8 macro lens.

Specialty

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Panasonic Lumix G Fisheye 8mm F/3.5.

Lenses that fall into the specialty lens category are ones like fisheye and tilt-shift. Fisheye lenses create a highly distorted circular image in a wide-angle field of view. They’re not for every-day use, but can create some very interesting images. Tilt-shift lenses are some of the most unique lenses out there: a common feature is selective focus, which allows the photographer to select a specific part of the image to be in focus. These lenses are commonly used for “miniature faking,” taking normal life-sized scenes and making them look like they’re a miniature model.

Besides these two common specialty lenses, there are others like Lomography’s Diana toy camera lenses and Lensbaby’s creative lenses.

While the selection, quality, and price of lenses are vast, upgrading your lens is one of the best investments you can make in your camera collection, even more than replacing your camera body with a new one; while camera bodies will always continue to advance with new and better features, lenses tend to stay constant (for example, you can still use most Canon and Nikon lenses from decades ago with new DSLRs). Adding different lenses to your collection can open up a new world of shooting opportunities.

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