Building a Lens Kit

Once you’ve decided which camera to buy, your next problem is to decide what lenses you will need. There’s no single “best set” of lenses for everyone since the choice depends on your budget and your needs.

Lenses are classified by their field of view. A wideangle lens has a wide field of view, while a telephoto lens has a narrow field of view. Field of view depends not only on focal length, but also on the format size. This means that a lens of a given focal length (say 35mm) might we classified as a wideangle lens when used on a full frame camera, but a normal lens when used on an APS-C crop format camera.

The table below splits lenses into 6 categories based on their horizontal angle of view. The classifications are slightly arbitrary but nevertheless useful.

  Horizontal Angle of View (degrees) Focal Length
(full frame)
Focal Length
(APS-C 1.6x)
Specific
Applications
Ultra Wide 97° 16mm 10mm Extreme DOF
Landscapes
Interiors
84° 20mm 12.5mm
Wide 74° 24mm 15mm Landscapes
Travel
Group Portraits
65° 28mm 17.5mm
54° 35mm 22mm
Normal 40° 50mm 31mm Travel
General Purpose
Short Telephoto 24° 85mm 53mm Travel
Portraits
20° 100mm 62.5mm
15° 135mm 84mm
Telephoto 10° 200mm 125mm Sports
Wildlife
Zoo
6.8° 300mm 187.5mm
Long Telephoto 5.2° 400mm 250mm Sports
Wildlife
500mm 312.5mm
3.3° 600mm 375mm

With regards to the applications, these are just general common uses. You can pretty much use any lens in any application, i.e. you can shoot landscapes with a 400mm lens or wildlife with a 35mm lens, it’s just that you probably won’t be doing either very often.

In the following article I’ll probably mention Canon lenses more than lenses from other manufacturers simply because I use Canon equipment and so I’m more familiar with their products. This should not be taken as an indication that Canon lenses are “best”. Most other lens manufacturers will have similar lenses in their lineup and this article is about selecting lenses based on focal length and aperture so it is applicable no matter what brand of camera you own.

Primes and Zooms

Prime lenses have a fixed focal length, while zoom lenses have a variable focal length. Each has it’s own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of Prime Lenses

  • Usually faster than zooms. The fastest current primes are f/1.2, but almost all are f/2.8 and faster. In most camera systems, the fastest zooms available are f/2.8 (though Olympus have an f/2 zoom for their “four-thirds” format cameras). Fast lenses are not only useful in low light, but can also be used to throw a background out of focus by shooting at the maximum aperture and minimizing depth of field.
  • Low distortion. Since they can be optimized for a single focal length, geometric aberrations can be more easily minimized.
  • Usually smaller than zooms, at least smaller than fast high quality zooms
  • Primes are usually higher in optical quality than zooms in the same price range. So, for example, an canon_50/1.8_STM

    prime lens will typically be significantly sharper then a typical low cost 28-90mm zoom at its 50mm setting. However expensive zooms such a canon_70-200/2.8L may often come close to the quality of individual primes – but at a cost of over $1000.

Advantages of Zooms Lenses

  • Versatility. It’s much easier and faster to change focal length with a zoom lens then it is to remove a prime lens and replace it with a prime lens of a different focal length.
  • Along with versatility, not having to change lenses means that there is less change of dust getting into the camera and landing on the sensor.
  • Cost. Although a high quality, fast zoom may be expensive, it’s still probably cheaper than a selection of prime lenses which cover the same range.
  • Size – Although a prime may be smaller than a high quality zoom covering the same focal length, the zoom is probably smaller (and lighter) than a set of primes which cover the range of the zoom.

Most photographers chose zooms except when they need an ultra fast lens. While the fastest zooms are f/2.8, primes can be as fast as f/1.2 and many are f/1.4 or f/2. The lower distortion of primes can be an advantage for architectural photography where you need straight lines to be straight, though in today’s digital world, distortion can often be corrected in Photoshop.

Fast vs. Slow

The maximum aperture of most lenses falls somewhere in the range between f/1.2 and f/5.6, though there are a few 3rd party zooms which have a maximum aperture of f/6.3 at the long end of their range.

Fast lenses are larger, heavier and more expensive then their slower counterparts, so that a canon_400/5.6 is 10" long and weighs 2.8 lbs, while a canon_400/2.8L_II is 13.5" long and weighs 8.5 lbs. In this case both lenses are very sharp, so the extra two stops of lens speed cost you around $8750 and mean you have to carry around and extra 7.7 lbs in weight.

At the other end of the lens range, consider the price difference beteeen a canon_50/1.2, a canon_50/1.4 and a canon_50/1.8_STM. When stopped down to maybe f/4 or f/5.6 there won’t be a whole lot of difference in optical performance. There may be some, but the f/1.2 lens won’t be 14x sharper, even though it costs 14x as much. The main advantage of the f/1.2 lens is that it can be used at f/1.2. Pretty much the same goes for the f/1.4. Now in this particular case, the f/1.2 lens is better built and has Canon’s ring USM focusing system, the f/1.4 uses a mico USM motor and the f/1.8 is all plastic (including the mount) and uses a regular (AFD) focusing motor.

Should you buy a fast lens or a slow lens? I’d say that a fast lens only makes real sense if you intend to shoot it wide open. If you’re going to be shooting at f/8, you’ll be paying a lot more for capabilities you never use. The fast lens might be a little sharper even stopped down, but the difference may not be enough to justify the additional cost.
So if you intend to shoot landscape with a 24mm lens, you’ll probably be shooting stopped down to around f/8 in order to get good depth of field, so you might be just as well off with the canon_24/2.8 as with the more expensive canon_24/1.4. On the other hand, if you’re doing a lot of work shooting in confined dark places, like night clubs, you might want to chose the 24/1.4L over the 24/2.8 because it’s a full two stops faster.

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What range do you need to cover?

The average photographer taking holiday and family pictures is likely to mostly use lenses which fall into the wide to short telephoto range. This accounts for the popularity of lenses such as the canon_28-135is for full frame cameras or the canon_17-85 for APS-C crop sensor cameras. Both lenses cover most of the range that most photographers use and so could be the only lens that some photographers need.

Somewhat more adventurous photographers might chose a two lens set consisting of a wide to normal zoom and a normal to telephoto zoom. Typical “lens kits” offered with crop sensor DSLRs include an 18-55 and 55-250 zoom (both Canon and Nikon offer such lenses). The advantage of such a two lens kit over a single 18-250mm zoom (if one is available) is higher optical quality. The wider the zoom range the more difficult it becomes to maintain optical performance across the whole focal length range. The disadvantage of the two lens solution is, of course, that you have to switch lenses as you cross the 55mm focal length.It’s a trade off of convenience vs. quality.

9004956

The problem with most kit lenses and wide range zooms is that they are slow, and so even though most cover 50mm, it’s not a bad idea to also have a 50/1.8 or similar lens for when you need something fast. In most camera systems such normal prime lenses are fairly inexpensive at around $80-$120.

Some photographers feel the need to have every focal length available. If they had a 17-55 and a 70-200 lens, they’d worry about the gap between 55 and 70mm. In fact they probably wouldn’t miss it. Often taking a step forward or back can give almost the same effect as zooming in this range, or you could take the shot at 55mm and crop it slightly to give the same field of view as a 60mm lens. While large gaps present a problem, small gaps rarely do. Don’t forget that before zooms photographers often got by with a 35mm, 50mm and 90mm lens. Many Leica rangefinder owners still do!

9004799

Landscape and interior photographers might want to add an ultrawide lens to their kit. Ultrawides can be rather tricky to use well, but they can give a unique look. It wouldn’t be the first lens I’d recommend to a beginner but for the photographer who finds that a standard “wide to short tele” zoom won’t go wide enough, an ultrawide can open up some new possibilities.

Those interested in sports and wildlife photography will feel the need for a longer telephoto then you’d normally get with a “wide to short tele” zoom. There are a few pretty good 70-300mm lenses available at reasonable cost and 300mm (especially on a crop sensor camera) is often enough for casual sports and wildlife shooting.

9004879

Serious wildlife and sports photographers will probably end up getting a long telephoto prime, usually 400/2.8, 500/4 or 600/4, but be warned that such lenses are large, heavy and can cost up to around $7000, so you have to be pretty serious (and/or wealthy) to go that route. In the realm of the “slightly more affordable”, Canon have a canon_100-400 zoom and a canon_300/4 and canon_400/5.6 prime all of which can be found for under about $1500.

There are some long telephoto zooms from 3rd party lens makers, such as the Sigma 50-500 and the Tamron 200-500 zooms. While they are capable of decent image quality, they’re not as good at the long end as prime lenses from Canon, Nikon etc., though they are smaller, lighter and often a lot cheaper.

Macro Lenses

Whether or not you need a macro lens depends on what type of macro work you do and how often you shoot macro. A dedicated macro lens would be worthwhile if you do a lot of macro work and often need to shoot flat subjects at wide aperture (e.g. documenting a stamp collection). Macro lenses tend to be better corrected than regular lenses when used wide open and they tend to have a flatter field.

The alternative is to use a high quality closeup lens or extension tube on a regular lens. If you’re shooting stopped down in order to get depth of field and you’re shooting a 3-dimensional subject rather than flat artwork, then this approach may be you excellent results and save you the cost of a macro lens and the inconvenience of having yet another lens to carry!

Good (enough), better or best?

One thing you can’t complain about is the number of choices most lens makers offer. For example, if you are a Canon user and you want a lens to cover the short telephoto to telephoto range, Canon currently offer you the following choices with prices ranging from $150 to $2500: 9010033

  • canon_55-250is_STM
  • canon_28-300
  • canon_75-300_III
  • canon_70-300/4is
  • canon_70-300/4.5is
  • canon_70-300/4-5.6L_is
  • canon_70-200/4L
  • canon_70-200/4Lis
  • canon_70-200/2.8L
  • canon_70-200/2.8Lis_II
  • canon_100-400
  • canon_100-400_is_II

So which one do you pick? Well, price is certainly a factor. The EF 75-300/4-5.6 can be found for around $150, while the EF 70-200/2.8L IS is over ten times as expensive at $1500 or more and the EF 28-300/3.5-5.6L IS is priced at close to $2450.

Some people will assume that the more expensive lens must be “the best” and so chose the EF 70-200/2.8L IS II (if they can afford it), but would that be the “best” choice for everyone? Probably not. If you are only shooting for web use or small prints, pretty much any of these lenses will give good results. If you are intending to make poster sized prints and you want the highest image quality, then you’re going to have to buy one of the more expensive lenses. Cost isn’t the only issue of course. By choosing a cheaper, lighter, smaller lens you will not only save money, but the lens will be easier to carry and probably attract less attention when in use. But which cheaper and/or smaller and/or lighter lens?

If you still want the best optical quality you can give up on the image stabilization and get the EF 70-200/2.8L. If you will normally be using a tripod and/or
shooting in good light, you may not need IS. If you can survive with f4 rather than f2.8 (as most users probably can), then you can go for the f4 version of the lens (again with or without IS depending on your intended usage). 9009577

If you want to use the lens for sports and/or wildlife, 300mm may be more useful than 200mm (though you can add a TC to the 70-200 zooms). In that case you have four lenses to pick from! The 70-300 DO (diffractive optics) lens is small but rather expensive. The diffractive optics have some undesirable characteristics under some circumstances, so I probably would pick that lens unless the smallest possible size was of primary importance. The EF 70-300 IS is a very good lens, maybe not quite as well built nor as fast focusing as the 70-200L lenses, but you get an extended zoom range and image stabilization and the price is reasonable. For better build quality there’s the EF 70-300/4-5.6L IS, but the price is double that of the non “L” version. The least expensive lens is the non-stabilized 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III. I think IS is something you’d want in a 300mm lens but if low cost is required at least there’s one 300mm lens that may fit your bedget.

Finally, if you have a crop sensor DSLR the 55-250 IS STM is small, lighter and relatively inexpensive, the IS works well and the optical quality isn’t bad, so it would be my pick for an APS-C crop sensor Canon DSLR if cost is an issue. It has an STM motor, which will give smoother focus shifts when used for video in Live View mode. Otherwise, I’d still go for the 70-300 IS USM as a price/performance winner.

Expandability

One factor to keep in mind when choosing lenses is future expandability. The lens you buy today may fill today’s needs, but what about tomorrow. For example, if you have a crop sensor DSLR you can use lenses designed for that format (Canon crop sensor lenses are designated EF-S, Nikon crop sensor lenses are designated DX). However if you later upgrade to a full frame DSLR, these lenses will be incompatible. Of course you can always sell the lens, but that’s additional trouble. Some crop sensor DLSR owners who have a definite intention of moving to full frame avoid buying lenses that are incompatible with their future intended purchase.

Manufacturer or 3rd Party?

The third party lens makers (e.g. Tamron, Tokina, Sigma) make some pretty good lenses and they often sell for a lower price than those make my the camera makers themselves (Nikon, Canon, Sony, Pentax etc.). I think that in general you get what you pay for, but 3rd party lenses can perform very well and sometimes lenses are available from 3rd party manufacturers which aren’t available at all from the camera makers. Examples would include:

  • sigma_150-600_OS_HSM_S
  • sigma_150-600_OS_HSM_C
  • tamron_150-600_5-6.3
  • sigma_50-500_OS_HSM
  • sigma_120-300os

In general, unless there’s a really good reason, I prefer to stick with the manufacturer’s lenses. Compatibility is then never an issue and if there’s a problem, the camera maker will be able to deal with it. If you have some sort of problem with a 3rd party lens (say the AF is a little off), the camera manufacturer probably won’t be able to help and if the issue is with communication between the lens and body, the 3rd party lens maker won’t make adjustments to the body. Each may point to the other as the source of the problem. If the lens and camera are made by the same manufacturer, there’s no question about who has the responsibility to fix performance issues.

Cost can be a good reason to go with a 3rd party lens and I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from considering such a lens from the major 3rd party lens makers (Tamron, Tokina and Sigma). Image quality can in some cases be as good as a camera manufacturer’s lens – possibly even better in some cases.

What do I have?

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What’s in my bag? Well, I have both a full frame and crop sensor Canon DSLR. My (ultra) wideangle zoom for the crop sensor camera is an EF-S 10-22. It doesn’t work on the full frame camera, but that’s OK. I have an EF 24-105 which works as a wide to short tele zoom on the full frame camera and which takes over from the 10-22 on my crop sensor body (so I’m only missing 23mm!). For the telephoto range I use an Tamron 70-300/4-5.6 VC USD. This lens works on both the crop sensor and full frame DSLRs. An alternative would be a Canon EF 70-200 zoom (with or without Image Stabilization), but I like the smaller size and longer reach of the 70-300 (as well as the moderate cost).

In the long telephoto range I use both 300mm and 500mm prime lenses. The 300 with a 1.4x TC gives me 420mm and the 500 with a 1.4x TC gives me 700mm, so with two lenses and a 1.4x TC I can cover 300, 420, 500 and 700mm. On my crop sensor camera these focal lengths give me the same field of view (“reach”) as I’d get on the full frame camera using 480, 772, 800 and 1120mm lenses. 9004913

I also usually carry a 50/1.8 just in case I need a fast lens. On the crop sensor body it makes a very good short telephoto portrait lens, while on the full frame body it’s a useful general purpose normal lens.

Since the 300mm and 500mm lenses are rather large and heavy, my bag usually has the canon_10-22, the canon_24-105, the tamron_70-300-vc_canon and a 50/1.8 such as the canon_50/1.8_STM in it along with a full frame and crop sensor camera. By choosing the right lens to go with the right body, I’m pretty well equipped for landscape, travel, portrait, sports and wildlife work. If I’m going to a location specifically to shoot wildlife, I’ll also take along the 300mm and/or the 500mm lenses or a sigma_150-600_OS_HSM_C.

More

Original text ©2009 Bob Atkins. Photos © Bob Atkins.

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    • Mr. Bob, Many thanks for an excellent article. This is very helpful.Can I also have your views on CANON EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM for wildlife and bird photography in this regard.
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    • Thank you, Bob for an excellent article. I am first of all a new subscriber to photo.net and a beginner with a Canon EOS 500D Rebel T1i with a EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS and a 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS. Someone told my husband (who gave me the camera as a gift) that I should purchase a 'doubler' to place on the end of the 18-55mm to make close-ups of flowers and wildlife better quality. What is a 'doubler' and do you agree with this piece of advice?
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    • if i can add one other point to consider when it comes to the price of lens's.. if you buy a cheap (say $200) lens as opposed to the higher priced/quality lens with equivalent focal length. Ask yourself, is it worth insuring this cheaper lens after paying the excess in the event of theft etc? Also in the event you had to sell your equipment.. a more expensive lens will retain more resale value (i think).
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    • Are any of the lenses in your table most suited recommend for macro photography? For taking pictures of bugs, plants, jewlery and other small things? Thank you!

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    • Thanks for the article, really great and useful.

       

      regards,

      pri

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    • Very well presented and very usefull to keep for future referenses.

      Thank you

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    • I am campaining the normal to short telephoto in the 70-135mm range as  ideal for landscape work.

       I consider the 50mm to be a moderate wideangle .  

      Wide and ultra wideangles are best for closer  scenes in my opinion or for the extreme near-far effect. 

       An ideal lens for moderate distance landscape and general work would be the 210mm in the 4x5in format which translates into a 63mm in 35mm format.

      But of course, all rules must be broken. 

       

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