FAQ: Which Starter Lens?

I've had a lot more questions recently on lens choices, so I'm assuming that many of you got brand spanking new DSLR"s for christmas and are already finding out that the lens that came with your camera just isn't helping you get the images that you longed for.  So, this post is all about starter lenses, aimed at those of you who are just starting out with a new DSLR, and wondering what to get next.

First of all, let's look at the kit lens. Although the focal length of these lenses are very good, usually in the 18-55mm range,  these will usually have a variable aperture of around F3.5- F5.6. This aperture numbers don't really let in a whole lot of light, and as such are not very good for shooting indoors or  creating a lot of background blur.

What you need is a lens that is capable of letting in more light. More light in is good, as this allows you to lower your ISO and reduce the amount of noise (grain) in your images, and also use faster shutter speeds to reduce the risk of motion blur.  This allows you so much more flexibility, especially for shooting indoors without resorting to pop up flash, which can be unflattering.  What you are looking for is either a prime lens with a low aperture number (around F1.8) or a zoom that has a fixed aperture (meaning you can use the same aperture throughout the focal range) - you will be looking for F2.8 on a zoom.

So, based on the above, here are some options for you to upgrade your kit lens to something that will let in a little more light and give you some more control for shooting in manual.   I have deliberately kept these at entry level price points. You will probably upgrade from these, so if you wish to go straight ahead and buy the next step up from these lenses, then please do so! However, I find that when you are just starting out,  you might want to get an entry level lens, practice and see what you like about it and what you don't. When you then make an investment in your next lens, you will have a much better idea about what you want.

The 50mm F1.8 is probably everyone's universal upgrade lens due to it's rather great optics for a very low price. For around a $100 you get a really wide aperture that will help you get that lovely blurred background that help make your subjects pop off the background.  You can also use a larger aperture inside to help you get those faster shutter speeds for those pesky kids that don't sit still, and use as low as ISO rating as you can.  The focal length on a cropped body is also fantastic for portraits and using outdoor. It can work very well indoors too, but sometimes you need to back up a little bit more than you'd like. This is a prime lens, which means it doesn't zoom in or out - you have to use your feet. I love my primes, so although it may sound awkward to have to keep moving yourself, I really don't find it so and I urge you to give it a try before you knock it!

Canon Users: 

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Camera Lens

Nikon Users: 
If you shoot Nikon, it's the same concept but's a teeny tiny bit more complicated.  The starter lens for Nikon does not have an auto-focus motor built in, so this particular lens will not focus automatically on some models of cameras, such as the D3000 or the D5100.  You can check whether this will work  on your camera body by using the widget at Amazon (just click on the links below to get to it).  If it doesn't work on your camera, you can go for the more expensive 50mm (the G version shown below) which will give you superior optics for a little bit more money.

Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF Nikkor Lens for Nikon Digital SLR Cameras

Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S NIKKOR FX Lens for Nikon Digital SLR Cameras

Some sample pictures from the Canon 50mm F1.8 so you can sharpness and lens quality -

A downside of the 50mm F1.8 is that the focal length can be a little long on a cropped body for indoor shots. It's doable, but you sometimes have to back up a fair bit if you want to include a lot in the frame. Which is why if you prefer indoor lifestyle over portrait style shots, a 35mm focal length might suit you a better.   Again, you want a lovely low aperture for the reasons noted above.

These are also primes, so no zooming.  If you shoot Canon, these are a good bit more expensive, but the Nikon is not too bad at around $200.



If you prefer a zoom over a prime, then there are some lower prices options out there that are a good compromise between getting flexibility and sharpness from a zoom, without going into the high end models. The Tamrons have had quite a lot of good reviews, and this is in fact the only zoom I own (but admittedly rarely use as I love my primes!)  The Tamron 28-75mm F2.8 gives you a 2.8 aperture throughout the range, and a good focal range for using using indoors and for portraits too.  This model works on full frame, and many cropped camera bodies.

Another Tamron alternative is the 17-50mm F2.8, which only works on crop sensor bodies but is also a great focal range, and again you can use F2.8 throughout. Note, this isn't as low as your primes above, so you lose a little bit of flexibility by not being able to let in more light via your aperture, but you gain in being able to use different focal lengths in one lens. It's always a compromise somewhere in photography!

The price of these lenses is around $500.00.


Tamron AF 28-75mm f/2.8 SP XR Di LD Zoom lens for Canon Digital SLR Cameras 

Tamron AF 17-50mm F/2.8 XR Di-II LD SP  Zoom Lens for Canon DSLR Cameras


Tamron AF 28-75mm f/2.8 SP XR Di LD Zoom lens with Built-In AF Motor for Nikon

Tamron SP AF 17-50mm F/2.8 XR Di-II LD SP Zoom Lens with Built In Motor for Nikon

Some sample pictures from the Tamron 28-75mm:

Not sure what suits you best? Then take your kit lens and tape it down at 50mm. Don't move from that focal length all week (nope, not at all!) and see first of all what you think of not being able to zoom, and secondly what you think of the focal length.  Now try it at 35mm. Same thing, don't move from that focal length for a few days.  See which suited you better. If you really, really didn't like not having a zoom even after you've given it a couple of weeks, spend your cash on a zoom instead, but remember that you will lose a little bit of flexibility with letting in more light via your aperture.

You will note that there are a LOT more lenses available even in just these focal lengths! It's tough to recommend lenses, as there are many different factors involved including budget, camera model, what you shoot, where you shoot, whether you prefer primes or zooms, whether you like using third party lenses or not,  and so on and so on, so please use these as a jumping off point to get your own perfect lens. Also, whatever you do, check the lens before you buy to make sure that they are compatible with your particular camera model. It's very important to do this as not every lens works with every camera body - some are meant for cropped frame cameras only, and some camera bodies will only take certain lenses. Amazon now has a little widget where you can put in these details and it lets you know if everything is compatible - use this before you do anything else!

Lastly, please note that I have assumed you have a cropped camera body (most entry to mid range DSLR's are) when discussing how the focal lengths will work on your camera.

I'll be following this post up shortly with a second post on lenses, this time looking at some options you might want to look either as an additional lens or upgrading from the lenses noted above. If you would prefer to invest in a better lens straight off and skip the starter lens, this might be a better post for you.

If a lot of this post made no sense to you, then may I recommend these posts for a bit of background reading!

Focal Lengths Explained 

What do the lens numbers mean? 

Zooms Vs Primes 

If you do upgrade from your kit lens - enjoy! You will notice a big difference!


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