Which Lenses Are Best For Which Types of Photography?
Lenses – All SLR users, film or digital, will usually fall into one of two camps when deciding which glass to buy for our cameras;
- Beginners or Amateurs on a limited budget (We all start somewhere)!
- Serious Amateurs, Professionals or people wanting to further their photography career.
Whatever budget you have, think about what you want to achieve both now and in the future, and get the best lens that you can afford long before looking at any other accessories like tripods, fancy filters or second cameras.
See your camera as a current working tool and the lens/s as an investment. A decent, quality lens will last a lifetime if looked after. You will upgrade your camera many times over before needing to update your lens collection, assuming that you stay with the same brand of camera.
Give me a cheap, old and battered but still useable film SLR camera with a well looked after and top quality lens and the chances are I will produce as good an image as I would with my Canon 1D MKII (within the confines of enlarging each image equally).
On the other hand, give me a Canon EOS 1Ds MKIII and a cheap, poor quality lens and I may as well use a disposable camera.
My point is that it is the lens that all your images pass through, the camera simply records that image. If the images get battered and distorted on their journey through the lens due to poor quality, you are fighting a losing battle from the minute you press the shutter.
If you haven’t done so already, when buying a digital SLR, don’t necessarily buy it with the kit lens, they can sometimes be sub-standard quality, even from my beloved Canon Corporation. Use the money to put towards a better lens; you will thank me for it one day!
Anyone interested in SLR photography has to start somewhere. Buying your first camera kit can be both exciting and overwhelming, where do you start? What manufacturer do you go with?
Choose wisely, as at the time of writing this, and with the massive advancement of digital photography, we are now seeing some of the older camera manufacturers pulling out of the digital SLR market altogether.
Read the photography forums, buy a few magazines. You will see that the industry leaders such as Canon, Nikon and Olympus have always maintained stability and kept up to date with technology. It is my reckoning that they will be around for a long time.
Do some research, choose your favourite (if you haven’t already) and try to buy their own brand of lenses if your pocket allows it.
If your budget doesn’t stretch to that, don’t panic, there are a few good third party companies that produce extremely high quality glass for a much lower price.
In my opinion, Sigma is one of the best and they make their lenses to fit most major brands of D/SLR. The past couple of years has seen their technology progress at a mighty rate and are fast becoming many peoples choice.
Their top-of-the-range glass has HSM (Hyper Sonic Movement) technology which allows fast, accurate and silent focussing, with high quality glass elements. They also come in a variety of sizes and prices, although I would recommend that you stay away from their earlier models that were made before their advanced research and development really kicked in.
Tamron are also fast becoming a contender and produce very reasonable quality at excellent prices. If you get the opportunity, take your camera to the shop, try the lens out and take a few shots. Take them home and process to see if they fit the bill.
The whole point of my rambling about quality lenses, is that all too often people are put off by incorrectly thinking that it is their photography technique that is poor when it is actually just the lens.
The more you progress and the better you become, the more you will scrutinise and criticize the quality of your own work. Give yourself a head start from the off.
Serious amateurs/Pros etc.
As you probably know, anyone falling into this category or aspiring to, should never compromise the quality of paid work with poor equipment.
Designers, publishers, wedding couples and basically anyone paying you for your time are all looking for the best quality they can get, especially the higher paid jobs such as Weddings.
An extremely important event for which you are 100% reliable for the quality you produce and are usually being paid well for. You need;
- “Fast” (F2.8) lenses that can cope with dark surroundings such as church interiors.
- Durable and solid lenses as they will all too often get a bit of a bashing.
- Quality as this is a one-time event no compromise.
- A good focal range from wide angle to short/medium telephoto.
- One or two zoom lenses for speed in adjusting composition as the day unfolds.
- At least one “prime” lens for the important shots where you need the best possible quality.
The chances are that commercial shots will be produced for anything from glossy magazines or brochures right up to 6 metre billboards, the quality must be spot on.
Any business that has taken the time and expense to produce quality goods and products will only want to portray them in their best light and that means quality images.
It isn’t just the sharpness and clarity that a quality lens will enhance, it is also the colour rendition which may be critical to certain products, and that can also determined by the quality of your lens.
I would recommend high quality prime lenses for any commercial work. If this is where you want your photography career to head, go for primes rather than zoom lenses.
You may well at some point wish to start uploading and selling your work on stock libraries. Even the smaller, yet fast-growing micro stock libraries are now asking for higher quality images.
The larger stock photography companies like Getty, Corbis and Alamy all need high resolution, high quality images with a minimum file size of 48-50MB. Files this big need to be clean and clear right up to the edges.
The reputation of any image library is entirely dependent on the quality of work they accept and showcase, and subsequently, any work that is not up to scratch will be refused.
Rejection of your hard work hurts so again, give yourself a head start with the best quality you can afford.
Types of Lenses
By far the highest quality producing lenses around, the prime lens is a fixed lens of any focal length from 6mm to 2000mm. The most popular primes are;
- 50mm for general, everyday shots and the occasional portrait.
- 85mm/135mm short telephoto. Perfect for portrait photography.
- 200mm, 400mm, 500mm and 600mm long telephoto. Mainly sports and nature photography.
So what makes them better?
There are two main factors to take into account when judging the quality or sharpness of an image, resolution and contrast.
A zoom lens naturally has more elements of glass than a prime thus making it more prone to the internal light scattering and bouncing from these elements before reaching your camera’s sensor. This can have a direct effect on the contrast within the final image.
It may also cause a slight degradation of “Pizzazz” and clarity in your pictures even from the more expensive and professional zooms. Most quality prime lenses simply give better contrast resulting in a cleaner and crisper image.
Whether or not this minor difference is important to most photographers is a matter of personal taste. In my opinion, if you have the time and ability as well as a decent prime lens, use it where you can.
Pros and Cons of a Prime Lens – Pros
- Clarity and quality of the final image.
- Weight Most primes are lighter due to having less glass elements.
- Closer focussing distance in most cases.
- Using primes narrows down your choice of shot making you think more about the light, mood and overall composition.
Pros and Cons of a Prime Lens – Cons
- Can be expensive for the highest quality prime lens.
- You may need many primes to cover the range of a good zoom lens.
You will see many professional photographers using zoom lenses for one reason alone, convenience! Popular zoom lenses are;
- 16-35mm. Wide zoom. Good for interior/architecture and landscape.
- 24-70mm or 35-135. Medium zoom. Good for weddings, portraits, some sports and general “walk around” photography.
- 70-200, 100-400, 50-500. Long zoom. Good for sports and wildlife or even candid or portrait photography at weddings etc.
Sports, press and wedding photographers may all use a decent zoom lens as the nature of their profession means quick, on the spot thinking and just moments to get the shot. A quality zoom is invaluable for quick composition in such situations.
For any subject you photograph that doesn’t give you time or the ability to move about and compose the shot carefully, a good quality zoom lens will do the job producing perfectly acceptable and sometimes extremely high quality images.
Take landscape photography and a situation where you want to isolate a certain feature of the scene but are unable to get any closer (and of course you can’t afford or dont have a quality 200mm or 400mm prime lens), a zoom will suffice.
Also, nature photography where a fixed telephoto lens may get you too close or not close enough, and you are unable to move from the confinements of your transport, hide or viewing area. A zoom again is invaluable.
Pros and Cons of a Zoom Lens – Pros
- Convenience of quick and varied composition.
- Cost, as one lens will cover the range of a few primes.
- Excellent build quality, image quality and weatherproofing from the high end zooms.
- Less weight, as you only need one lens to carry for certain jobs or subjects.
Pros and Cons of a Zoom Lens – Cons
- Quality can suffer with more elements especially at the edges of the frame or the extreme ends of each focal length, i.e. the 16mm and 35mm setting on a “not so hot” 16-35mm zoom. Try and stay within these boundaries.
- Laziness Rather than taking your time to move about and evaluate a shot carefully, it is sometimes all too easy to zoom in and out a bit and settle for that.
- Weight again. A quality zoom lens can weigh 2 or 3 times as much as its fixed telephoto counterpart due to the number of extra glass elements.
- The one touch zooms (with just one ring for focussing and zooming, “push-pull” and twist) can sometimes move or slide out of position when the camera is tilted up or downwards. Try to buy a “2-touch” zoom lens if you can, i.e. one with separate focussing and zooming rings.
- The aperture size changes as you change focal length with many zooms. For example, you may see the lens specs as this;
This means that the maximum aperture at 70mm is F3.5 and the maximum at 200mm is F5.6.
This is something to remember when using these lenses as your shutter speed will change as you zoom in or out to compensate for the change in aperture.
The more expensive zooms have a fixed aperture throughout the range so as you zoom in and out, the aperture will not fluctuate.
This gives you more peace of mind knowing that the aperture you set is the one you use after composing the shot.
There may be other pros and cons for each that I haven’t mentioned, but these are the more obvious. My personal (and expensive) recommendation if you are serious about photography, is to slowly start to build an arsenal of quality lenses including the following;
- Zooms 16-35mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm
- Primes 15mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 135mm
- Converters 1.4x and 2x
Over time, if you end up with these quality lenses or near equivalents in your kit, you pretty much have any scenario covered unless you become a serious nature or sports photographer in which case a £5,000, 600mm prime lens is in order!
As I have said before, concentrate on building up your lens collection rather than falling for all the camera upgrades that hit the market.
16mm Lens Photographs – By using a 16mm wide angle lens, I am able to point the camera downwards to include a lot of foreground interest whilst keeping the entire background not only in the frame, but in focus too. Always remember to include foreground interest otherwise shots taken with wide-angle lenses can appear a little “featureless”.
Telephoto Lens Photographs – Using a telephoto lens allows you to focus on a single aspect of any scene you may come across. Learn to look at landscapes differently by picking out different points of interest with a telephoto lens.
Zoom Lens Photographs – If you are unable to physically move to and from any subject, a zoom lens can be extremely handy. These shots were taken from my car window which I seem to do quite a lot with my zoom lenses.