Guide to Choosing Your First Photo Lenses

guide to choosing your first lenses

When buying your first kit many users simply go with whatever they think is the most versatile. When you’re new to photography you really have no idea what your niche or style will be so it’s hard to pick lenses because so many are specialized or only useful for one thing. You don’t want to waste your money by picking equipment you’ll never need, but you want to make sure that you’re not getting ripped off either. Picking a lens set is fairly personal and even famous photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson simply stuck with a single lens for almost their entire career.

Most people want their lenses to feel comfortable, to be able to flow through their work knowing the ins, outs, quirks, and functional limits of their equipment. Lens technology at it’s core remains constant – glass that is moved into and out of focus, and as long as you’re buying quality glass it will last forever. Many photographers are still using manual lenses that are 40 years old because the glass is that good and camera bodies now have the technology (e.g vibration control) that previously was only available in-lens.

guide to choosing your first lenses

Do you understand the difference between primes and zoom lenses?

My first two lenses were a 24-70mm, and a 70-300mm. These were great, they gave me enough of a focal length to play with to figure out what I wanted to learn on subject-wise. I then bought two more lenses – a 50mm and an 18-55mm. At first I never used the 50mm, I was still doing mostly macros and landscapes so it wasn’t very helpful. I then figured out the 18-55mm just wasn’t comparable in quality (despite being a better brand) than my 24-70mm.

Choosing a lens set can be mostly trial and error. That 50mm is now my go-to lens because I have changed from flower macro work to portraits and products. My lens set has grown with me and it’s not uncommon for you to have three or four or more as you grow in skill.

What do You Need?

Every photographer shoots differently. Your lens set needs to reflect your needs so we’re going to start by identifying them. While you might want the biggest and most expensive lenses, especially as a beginner, you’re wasting your money adding them to a lens set that will likely change quickly within your first few years as a photographer.

Compatibility

Common sense says that if you buy a lens that isn’t made for your camera you’re wasting your money. While there are adapter rings out there for some of the older models unless you want to spend time researching and possibly missing out on features of the lens then it’s probably easier to just buy something compatible.

Focal Length

Different situations require different focal lengths. What your subject is will make a huge difference on what type of lens you need. For example, most people wouldn’t need an 8mm fish eye or 14mm super wide angle lens unless they’re looking to do landscape work, while a portrait photographer would most likely want a 50mm there’s also the question of whether you want a zoom lens or a fixed lens.

guide to choosing your first lenses

Quality

Cheap doesn’t mean good, and expensive doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get better lenses. Some old lenses have great glass and can be picked up for a fraction of the cost of the newest versions. However, quality may mean extra features like weather sealing, metal casing, smoother focusing, and better quality glass or coatings.

Quality can also relate to the images produced. Good glass = good images, and especially when buying third party lenses the lack of coatings can lead to chromatic abberation and images that just aren’t as sharp as the more expensive brand versions.

Read our guide to taking sharp photos.

guide to choosing your first lenses

Price

While it goes without saying you need compatibility with whatever body you have, many third party brands like Tamron and Sigma provide just as good quality at lower costs. What your budget is doesn’t matter so much as getting the right items since you can always trade up later.

Autofocus

All lenses have internal elements that move, if you’re buying a manual lens that means you have the ability to adjust these to get a sharp image. For beginners and autofocus lens is one less thing to think about as the lens can take the guess out of focusing.

Aperture

Just like focal length, an adjustable aperture allows for low light photography and shallow depth of field. While most lenses have an adjustable aperture some cheaper versions and lens set kit lenses don’t bother with it. This is also something as a beginner that might be skipped if money is the most important part.

Learn basic photography composition with the Rule of Thirds

guide to choosing your first lenses

Focal Length Coverage

While zoom lenses will cover huge focal ranges, they’re also generally pricier, bigger, and heavier. What you use your camera for as a subject will determine the average focal length you use. For example, portrait photographers will rarely use a 300mm telephoto lens because it’s just not necessary when most portraits are up close, plus depending on the sensor in your camera the focal length may not even be what is written on the lens casing itself.

Learn your basic composition tips!

guide to choosing your first lenses

There are photographers who feel an intense need to cover every focal length possible, and if that’s you and you want that versatility there’s nothing wrong with it. There’s also people who don’t mind overlapping focal lengths a bit and a wide range of lenses do overlap (especially if you’ve got different brands).

Missing out on a few focal lengths, or having a small gap isn’t going to make a big difference. Simply moving a few feet will fix that.

Suggestions:

For someone who wants a huge range of coverage:

  • 14-24mm
  • 24-70mm
  • 70-200/300mm
  • 200-400mm

These lens set is more than enough to cover every situation. These are all zoom lenses and will add up both in weight and price.

For someone who doesn’t mind overlap a 16-35mm, 24-120mm, and 70-200mm is a suitable lens kit.

guide to choosing your first lenses

Preference

Many photographers have a kit preference, even if it goes against the status quo. For example, I personally find most cheaper Nikkor lenses have a bluish cast and that Sigma offers cheaper and more crisp images on the lower end. If I had to choose between the lens set 18-55mm that many beginner bodies come with or an older 24-70mm Sigma I would take the Sigma because personally I don’t like those lower end Nikkors.

Some photographers also prefer to use a specific type of lens. For example, a wide angle lens isn’t necessary for landscape photography though it does often give better perspective. Some photographers simply don’t like them, and rather than just buying a lens set with a cheap wide angle which may have lots of distortion they would prefer to wait until they can afford quality glass to get a good one.

Preference is also about priorities. If your priority is getting the hang of focusing and using your camera then the lens set that comes with most beginner bodies is suitable enough, the real question is when you want to move on.

guide to choosing your first lenses

My Suggestion:

Rent. There are many good companies out there where you can rent every lens imaginable for short and long periods. This is the perfect way of figuring out your lens set without having to buy and return equipment you don’t like. This may end up costing more in the long term but it will broaden your options until you can narrow don what you actually want to own.

guide to choosing your first lenses

Building Your Lens Set Over Time

A lens set is expensive. Photographers often spend thousands on a single lens so it’s no wonder people often prefer to build things up over time. It’s quite likely you’ll outgrow your first lens set or buy something you just don’t like. After owning some lenses for a while you may find you rarely use them. I’m guilty of this on my wide angles. I started out as a landscape photographer so I bought fish eyes and wide angles and a 300mm telephoto. As I’ve grown, I rarely, if ever use the 14mm wide angle and even rarer use the 8mm fish eye.

The best part about lenses is that they’re often an investment. You won’t get all your money back but you can get some of it back, and that simply goes towards a different lens that will work.

There is nothing wrong with switching out your entire lens set, and there’s nothing wrong with continuing to use the same lens you started with. My Sigma 28-70mm is one of those. I’ve had it since I got my first DSLR, and I’ve even got flash units that come from my first camera back in 1981. If it’s working for you then there’s no need to buy new unless you want a technology upgrade.

Conclusion

A lens set isn’t easy to figure out, especially when you’re not experienced enough to know what you’re going to need. Your first lens set isn’t likely to be the one you stay with, and even if it takes two or three buys to get lenses you’ll eventually figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. Even if you’re a bit off you can always fix it in post production.

My suggestion for beginners is to use the kit lens that comes with the camera first. This lens set is usually poor quality, but it has the basics so you can get the hang of it. Once you’ve mastered that, you’ll start to figure out what is most frustrating about your lens set and can purchase accordingly.

Cheers,

Phil Ebiner

ps. the links to any camera equipment above may be affiliate links – which means at no extra cost to you, I can make some extra money to keep this site going. Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy this photography guide?

Read more of our most popular photo guides and tutorials.

Learning how to expose properly:

Camera basics:

Photography composition:

2018-01-09T15:58:14+00:00
  • Richard Lowe

    The following links do not work:
    1-Learn how to use your autofocus modes.
    2-Don’t forget your lens filters!
    I could not find any substitute guides or tutorials with the same subjects.

    • Thanks for this catch Richard! Forgot to update those links – as they are for future articles and will be out soon!

  • Mike Patterson

    Thank you for your many avenues of support. I’m a newby at photography and your courses have helped cover many subjects. I’m a commercial pilot and use drones under part 107 and have applied your courses to aerial photography PIX and Video.. Thanks! WonderDrones, Mike Patterson