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Lenses for photography (not your eyeglasses or contacts) can last a long time. It’s worth investing in good-quality lenses, but you can definitely overpay for your needs.
That’s why we wanted to share this list of 10 secrets of lenses for photography. It’s to give new photographers the benefit of my years of experience and mistakes.
How to Choose Your Lenses for Photography
I’ll be the first one to admit that I’ve given in to lens lust before. Lens lust is the habit of believing those other folks who tell you how wonderful a lens is and why you MUST have it. It’s also the belief that owning suck a lens is like having a magical unicorn that will transform your crappy compositions into art that compares with the masters.
Good glass definitely helps your photography, but it doesn’t fix your photos for you.
10 Lessons Every Photographer Should Know About Lenses
Overr the years, I purchased more lenses than I needed. Some were from Nikon and others from 3rd party vendors. There are great quality lenses and there are those that are good enough for a fraction of the cost of “great” lenses for photography.
The idea behind these 10 lessons is to help you decide what’s most important to you when you’re buying a lens, and avoid the hype that flows freely within the photography community.
1: Lenses will last longer than your camera body
I have lenses that predate some of my camera bodies. The simple truth is that camera manufacturers update their cameras faster than they upgrade their lenses and lens mounts.
In my case, I use Nikon full-frame camera bodies. The lenses I use can work on old film cameras from Nikon and their current DSLR. With the FTZ adapter, you can even use them on Nikon mirrorless cameras.
Camera bodies come and go, but lenses last for decades. Unless you switch brands, and then your lenses won’t do you any good.
2: The only reason to buy prime lenses these days is for shallow depth of field
There was a time when prime lenses were sharper than zoom lenses. I don’t believe that’s true today. the manufacturing ability of lens makers is far superior with new technology and lens coatings.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t buy a prime lens, but consider why you’re getting it. One advantage is a much more shallow depth of field due to wider apertures that are possible with prime lenses.
Is that bokeh worth the price for a fixed focal length lens? Only you can decide.
3: A great lens is more important than a great camera body
In a previous episode, I said that it’s hard to buy a bad camera body these days. Digital camera sensors are far superior to those just a decade ago. They have dynamic range and low-light capability.
However, the features on the camera just keep improving. At the time I’m writing this article, the Nikon Z9 flagship camera just launched. It has an impressive array of features that help photographers perform tasks and capture fast-moving things.
In a few years, some other Nikon cameras will be the new flagship and people will upgrade. However, their compatible lenses will still work. Also, a lot of people don’t need the flagship camera. They may buy something less expensive that works just fine for their needs.
It’s their lenses that absorb the light and transfer the image to the sensor. Better glass means better quality photos.
4: You can save money on your lenses if you buy slow glass
When I refer to slow glass, I’m talking about lenses that don’t have a super-wide aperture opening. You can spend several hundred dollars for a 50mm f/1.4 lens, or about one hundred dollars for a 50mm f/1.8 lens.
Yes, there are some other quality factors between these two lenses. The build on the cheaper lens is less able to stand up to abuse. Is that a consideration for you?
The same thing is true of zoom lenses. You can spend a couple thousand on a 70-200mm lens with f/2.8 aperture, or under a thousand for a variable aperture lens that doesn’t allow as much light and isn’t built with weatherproof sealing.
If you take photos on your kitchen table, which makes more sense for you?
5: Convenience, Quality, or Price – Pick any two
Many things in photography are a compromise. If you’re familiar with the exposure triangle of aperture, ISO, and Shutter Speed, you realize that you can get a correct exposure in multiple ways. However, the creative exposure that you want means you have to prioritize one of those variables.
Choosing a lens is another exercise in compromise. If you want all the fancy features and high-quality build, then you don’t get the best price.
If you want a low price, you may have to give up convenient features like Image Stabilization or build quality.
Pick what works best for you, but be prepared to give some ground on at least one of these points.
6: All lenses have a sweet spot
All lenses for photography have a sweet spot. That happens at some aperture setting, very likely in the middle of the range. That’s where the lens is sharpest, has the least vignetting and best color quality.
You can experiment with your lenses to find this spot. Keep in mind that there may be times when something others may consider a fault is actually important to you. So your sweet spot may differ from someone else’s idea of a sweet spot.
7: Aperture blades matter
The photo above shows an aperture on a lens. The blades make a difference to the results of defocused highlights. In other words, it has an effect upon the bokeh balls in your shots.
Less expensive lenses have fewer blades, perhaps about 6. The ends of those blades are often squared off. The result is something like an octagon shape for the bokeh highlights.
More expensive lenses have more blades, like 8 or 9. They also have rounder finishing on the end of their aperture blades. That creates a rounder highlight, which some people think is more desirable.
They spend hundreds or thousands more than lenses with fewer, square blades.
Neither is right or wrong. It’s just a matter of what you value – your money or your highlights in photos.
8: A Fisheye is fun!
A fisheye lens isn’t your typical useful lens. It’s something you use for whimsy or fun. You can see an example above of a 16mm Nikon fisheye lens.
This kind of lens for photography isn’t meant for correct results. Notice how the buildings bend and curve inward, and how the road also seems to bend where it should go straight.
Another benefit of a fisheye is that it lets you see things no other lens will provide. Go take a photo of a cow’s nose with a fisheye to see what I mean.
It’s a story-telling lens for photography when your story is just a bit bent out of shape.
9: Lens distortion can work for you or against you
Lenses don’t always give a view of your subject that matches what your eyes see, and that’s a good thing. Differences in field of view, compression and distortion are what allows us to choose the story we want to tell.
You can see the diference in how focal length affects your view of a scene in this article on DSLR Lens Compression and Focal Length.
On a tree-lined road, the apparent distance between trees may look far apart of almost next to each other.
Bear in mind that whatever is closes to the lens seems larger. That can be wonderful, or when using a wide-angle lens, can make your subject look freakish.
10: Some 3rd party lenses are just as good as your camera brand, and much less expensive
The good news is that some 3rd party vendors make outstanding lenses for a fraction of the cost of the camera manufacturer’s lenses. I had a Tokina 12-24mm lens that was comparable to the Nikon 12-24mm lens on a crop body camera. It was much less expensive and I love that lens.
However, not everything is equal. Nikon puts a lot of emphasis on their silent motors in lenses for auto-focus. Apparently, Sigma does not. I used one that sounded like a coffee-grinder every time I had to use autofocus.
Sigma was less expensive, but the experience of using that lens put me off the brand.
Let’s Wrap it Up
I hope these 10 secrets help you save time and money so you get the right gear for your needs. The best lenses for photography aren’t always the most expensive. The idea of what’s best for your photography depends upon your subject, lighting, environment and budget.
Blow your budget on one great lens and you may not have tools you need for other situations.
Also, don’t overlook refurbished lenses. They’re just as good as the originals and you can save money. They aren’t always available, but keep your eye out when you’re in the market for a new lens.