Your Second Lens

If you’ve got (or Santa is bringing you a camera) a camera that takes interchangeable lenses what should your second lens be?

As so much in photography, it depends. However I recommend a fast lens over a long lens.

So let’s define some terms.

The lens you got with your DSLR is called a kit lens. It’s called a kit lens because it is the lens that most often gets bundled with the camera body and sold as a kit.

The kit lens tends to be a slow lens (not a bad lens just a slow lens) with a fairly short zoom range. This is not a bad thing.

Back in the old days (1960s) zoom lenses were not popular because they tended to be very slow and very soft.

Okay let’s start with the word soft. Soft in the old days meant the picture quality deteriorated at the edges of the image to the point you can see a very noticeable softness or out of focus look on every image. Pros didn’t use zoom lenses.

Over time zooms got faster (we’re coming to that term next) and sharper. Now thanks to computer manufacturing techniques just about every lens is at least rated good to very good and some of the more expensive pro lenses are excellent and as good as prime lenses. (A prime lens is a lens that comes in one size only and doesn’t zoom. Prime lenses are supposed to be sharper and are certainly faster.)

Okay so what’s a slow lens?

A slow lens is one which doesn’t allow in as much light to hit the sensor at its widest aperture as a fast lens which allows more light to enter at its largest aperture . (Aperture refers to the blades inside a lens that open and close as you adjust the aperture control which varys the amount of light.)

So wouldn’t you want to buy just fast lenses? Fast lenses are bigger (they have a larger aperture) and heavier and way more expensive.

I’ve got a 17 to 55mm (wide zoom to modest portrait) with an aperture of f/2.8 which is considered fast and it costs well over $1,000. A kit lens that goes from 18 to 55mm (essentially the same range) but has a variable aperture is way cheaper.

(Manufacturers can make zoom lenses much more affordable when the vary the aperture as it moves through its zoom range. While this affects the exposure, the change is virtually unnoticeable and of no consequence to amateur photographers.)

Not only does the kit lens have a variable aperture but as I said the aperture doesn’t open up as much as a fast lens. Fast prime lenses can be as fast a f/1.2 (which is really fast and really expensive) or f/1.4 or a more reasonable f/1.8. The faster the lens the less light is needed to get a sharp image in dimly lit places (like churches). Remember exposure is the combination of shutter speed and aperture plus ISO (which is the speed of the sensor and we’ll talk about this later.) so if you’re letting in more light because you’re using a faster lens then you can shoot at a higher shutter speed and thus still get images that are sharp and not blurry due to the camera shake or movement in your hands even in low light situations.

(In general you need to be shooting at 1/60 of a second or higher when possible to avoid camera shake with a kit lens. The longer the lens, the higher the basic shutter speed so a 200mm telephoto lens requires a shutter speed of at least 1/200 of a second to avoid blur.)

You can get kit lenses that range from 18 to 55mm or 18 to 105mm or even 18 to 300mm. Each of these lenses gets progressively heavier and more expense but are equally slow when compared to a fast pro-level lens. What they have is more “reach” as a zoom lens.

A standard wedding photographer’s zoom lens for full-frame cameras is a 70-210mm (portrait to telephoto) f/2.8 and costs around $2,500!

(Sensors come in many sizes from fingernail tiny to full-frame 35mm. Most amateur DSLRs come in what’s called DX-format which is smaller than a full-frame sensor but way bigger than the sensor you’d find in a point and shoot or even one of the new mirror-less cameras that are so popular right now. And BTW work great. I’ve got a whole set of Olympus micro four-third bodies and lenses and for vacations and casual shooting they’re fabulous.)

The 70-210mm lens is essential for shooting in churches without using a flash (thanks to being a fast lens) and where the photographer needs to shoot at a variety of distances from the camera without changing lenses.

So what’s your next lens?

Well you’ve already got a slow zoom lens and while a longer lens may look attractive check what it is you’re shooting more often.

Are you shooting your kid’s outdoor sporting events? Then a 70 to 300mm f/4 – 5.6 zoom can be had for as little as $350 or so due to being a slow zoom. A 70-300mm lens with vibration reduction technology will cost more and is worth the price if you can afford it.

But if you’re like most people with a new camera you’re more likely to be shooting indoors at the Christmas dinner or at your child’s school play or while on vacation walking through museums. Here’s where a fast lens is invaluable. One of the fastest lenses is actually one of the least expensive especially if you’re shooting with a Canon or Nikon camera.

The 50mm f/1.8 lens sells for around $150 and while it’s a plastic lens it’s a very good sharp and inexpensive plastic lens. I own one. Most photographer do for the stated reasons.

A 50mm lens on a DX format camera has an effective focal length of around 75mm which is perfect for portraits and indoor shooting with or especially without flash. A wider 30mm f/1.4 (more expensive and the one I’m thinking of is made by third-party manufacturer Sigma and I wish I owned) or f/1.8 is available for around $300 and does the same thing as the 50 but is wider. I’ve also got an 85mm f/1.8 so I’ve got all three lengths with each having the same maximum aperture suitable for shooting indoors with or without flash indoors and out.

After the 50? Well there are macro lenses that allow for extreme closeup work and really wide zooms that take in the whole room at once and really really long telephotos that you can take on safari.

I’ve got more lenses than brains and I love them all :) ….especially the very fast prime lenses :)

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