February 18th, 2013

Beyond the kit lens: A buying guide


Open up the box of a new DSLR camera, and there are so many goodies inside: straps and cords, lens caps and battery packs. It’s awfully fun to put everything together and test it for the first time.

Accompanying your DSLR is a kit lens (in fact, my Nikon 5000 was bundled with 2 kit lenses). These lenses are great to get your feet wet—they usually can zoom out to have a decent wide angle, and zoom in for a respectable telephoto shot.

This is where the fun begins. Once you are comfortable with your kit lens, there are shelves and shelves of specialty lenses that can give you ridiculous levels of creativity and flexibility.

Start with your camera
Each brand of SLR has a unique lens mount. This means that Canon cameras don’t play nicely with Nikon or Olympus lens mounts, and vice versa. Your lens will be specific to the make (and sometimes the model) of your camera, so bring your camera with you.

Know the numbers
In my world, lenses would be labelled “Wide Angle” and “Telephoto,” preferably with pictures to show what they do. In the real world, they are labelled with a bunch of numbers.

Decoding focal lengths
The first set of numbers will be focal length. Practically speaking, focal length is how much of the scene will be captured or magnified. For zoom lenses, this will be a range of numbers; for a prime lens, only one.


Aperture size
The second set of numbers is the maximum aperture. It is expressed like this: f/2.8. In a zoom lens, it will be expressed as a range, like f/3.5-5.6.

The aperture is the hole that allows in light. A wide aperture lets in a lot of light, which allows for a faster shutter speed. Lenses with a wide maximum aperture (usually below f/2.0) are also called fast lenses, and they give you the greatest flexibility.

Lens manufacturers
Although the camera manufacturers sell their own lenses, there are also third party manufacturers who make lenses with specific mounts for the different camera brands. These manufacturers often have different selling points: some are an excellent value; some are specially crafted for very crisp detail. Do not shy away from these lenses: they offer some good options that might be perfect for you.

Your new lens will come with a cap for both ends and a carrying case to prevent scratches. There are some extra accessories you might want to consider.

Filters protect the delicate glass surface of your lens, while filtering out certain types of light rays. The most popular type is a polarizing filter that helps prevent glare and haziness in your images.

Lens cleaner
To keep your lenses clean, it is crucial to use a special cloth or lens cleaner—keep paper towel away!

Although tripods are excellent when using any type of lens, they are essential if you have a telephoto lens. Long lenses are not only heavy, they will magnify every small movement, including hand shake, unless you use a tripod.

Playing with the numbers

The ideal lens would take the widest of wide angles and the longest of long shots. You could use it for everything, never have to change lenses, never have to carry others around. The ideal lens would also weigh 30 pounds and cost more than your car.

Unless you are both strong and independently wealthy, choosing a lens will involve weighing your needs with your budget. If you take mainly portraits, for instance, you can opt for a lens with a shorter focal length, forgoing any telephoto features.

Bring in your camera, and take some lenses for a test drive. Our photo experts would love to show you the latest models and direct you to the perfect new lens.

by Angela Ford, photo blogger

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