FAQ: LENSES

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Choosing the right glass isn't always easy. I receive a lot of emails from new photographers asking "What lens should I buy?"

Shopping for a lens can be daunting, let alone choosing one. There are so many options. Zooms, primes, apertures - the terminology alone can be confusing. Add in focal lengths and crop-factors and we're lost on an island with John Locke chasing creepy black smoke! Am-I-right?

As a new photographer, you desperately want to make the "right" choice. Photography can easily become an expensive hobby. When it comes to investing in the "right" lens, I wish there was a one-size-fits-all answer. I'm hoping this blog post will help narrow down the choices and make shopping for new glass a little easier.

There are a myriad of lenses to choose, each serving a different purpose for different photographers. There are three things to consider: your main subject, your camera, and of course, your budget.

Each lens is decorated with a variety of letters and numbers. To prevent this blog from being too long and boring, I am going to focus on two key attributes: Focal Length and Aperture. I have included links at the bottom of this post which explain all of the markings for both Canon and Nikon (Sony) lenses.

FOCAL LENGTH

I realize new photographers don't always know what their main subject (landscapes, people, etc.) will be. Understanding focal length should help narrow down the options. Are you interested in landscape photography, wildlife or portraits?

Focal length refers to the field of view, or rather how close a subject appears. Focal length is indicated in millimeters.

Something like: EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS DO USM


Lenses are grouped into the following categories based on focal length:

Ultra-wide zoom (11-24mm, 16-35mm)
Standard zoom (24-70mm, 24-105mm)
Telephoto zoom (70-200mm)
Wide-angle (24mm)
Standard and Medium telephoto (50mm, 85mm)
Telephoto (300mm)
Super Telephoto (600mm)
Macro (100mm)

Wide Angle lenses are often selected by landscape photographers. Telephoto and Super Telephoto are primarily used by sport and wildlife photographers. As a wedding and portrait photographer, my lens collection includes both wide angle, standard and telephoto lenses. 

PRIME + ZOOM LENSES

From the list above, you will notice, some of the examples have more than one focal length (24-70 mm). These are called zoom lenses. Prime lenses have a fixed focal length (50 mm), while zoom lenses allow the photographer to zoom from one focal length to another without changing lenses.

Many portrait photographers choose prime lenses. They offer large apertures (f/1.4; f/1.2) which is useful in low light situations and isolates their subject using a very shallow depth of field. Blurry background (Bokeh) anyone? Yes please! Prime lenses require the photographer to be mobile at all times - your legs are the zoom. 

Personally, I prefer zoom lenses. My wedding photography style is part unobtrusive and story-telling. Zooms allow me to capture spontaneous moments from a distance. Who wants a photographer running across the room to catch the father of the bride giving his daughter a quiet kiss on the cheek?

Canon 24-105 mm f/4 L IS USM

It all comes down to personal preference. Zoom lenses tend to be more expensive, but you are getting the convenience of more than one focal length. Large apertures are also available in high-end zoom lenses.

PORTRAIT LENSES - THE OVER 50 CLUB

Any lens with a focal length greater than 50 mm is considered a portrait lens. 

If you've done your research on what lenses portrait photographers use, you've undoubtedly seen a few of the same lenses popping up.

The 50 mm (f/1.4; f/1.8) is a common favourite. It has a reputation for producing very sharp images and dope bokeh at an affordable price. It's focal length is wide enough for group portraits and long enough for a single portrait. It is a prime, so you will have to walk right up to your subject in order to fill the frame.

The main goal of a portrait photographer is to draw attention to the main subject. A lens longer than 80 mm will compress the scene - backgrounds will look closer and bring people closer together. The 85 mm is favourite among portrait photographers. Almost every professional portrait and wedding photographer I know shoots with the 70-200 mm  - even prime users.

The Canon 70-200 mm (f/2.8) IS L is my go-to-lens for portraits. I LOVE this baby!

Canon 70-200 mm f/2.8 L IS USM

Wide angles have their place in portrait photography too. Any lens wider than a 50 mm is a wide-angle, which is useful when taking group portraits or when trying to include an entire room.

Canon 24-105 mm f/4 L IS USM

The 24-70 mm (f/2.8) and 24-105 mm (f/4) gives you the versatility of a wide-angle and zoom. Both of these are great lenses. I wish the 24-70 mm had IS. Image Stabilization (marked as IS on Canon and VR on Nikon lenses) allows the photographer to use shutter speeds two stops slower than without it. For me, the additional cost involved for a lens with IS is well worth it. My Canon 24-105 f4 L IS USM is my workhorse and go-to-lens when I travel and want to pack light. The majority of photos taken on my recent trip to Negril, Jamaica were taken with this lens. The rest were taken with my father's Fuji x100 and fixed wide-angle lens - love!

Canon 24-105 mm f/4 L IS USM
Canon 24-105 mm f/4 L IS USM
Canon 24-105 mm f/4 L IS USM

CROP FACTOR - FOCAL LENGTH ISN'T ALWAYS WHAT IT SEEMS

Not all DSLR cameras have the same size sensor. A camera body with a sensor that resembles 35 mm film is called a full-frame camera and will be in the top of the line category of camera bodies. Full frame sensors will produce better quality images and perform better in low light situations resulting in less noise at higher ISO settings. Other cameras feature sensors that are smaller than 35 mm. This is referred to as a crop-sensor. Small sensors are cheaper to manufacturer. This explains why some cameras are more expensive than others.

So, why is this important?

Besides quality and price, the biggest difference between a full-frame sensor and a crop-sensor is field of view. If you took the exact same photo using a 24 mm lens on both a full frame camera and a camera with a crop-factor, the photo taken with the full frame camera will include a wider field of view. Why? The 24 mm lens on a camera with a 1.5 crop-factor is actually producing an image that resembles an image taken with a 38 mm lens.

Before you consider trading in your current crop-sensor camera for that of a full-frame. Relax. There is absolutely no reason to think you need to invest in a full-frame camera body. Especially at the beginner level. You just need to be aware of the crop-factor when selecting lenses. If you want a 24mm wide-angle lens, look for a 16 mm to account for the crop-factor.

Wildlife photographers often choose super telephoto lenses to make their subject appear closer. They also favour cameras with a crop-sensor. A 400 mm lens on a camera with a 1.5 crop-factor becomes a 600 mm, effectively further magnifying their subject. Hmmm.

As a professional wedding and portrait photographer, quality is of the utmost importance (especially when most clients choose to enlarge their images to 24x36 and larger), so I shoot with the full-frame Canon 5D Mark II + Canon 5D Mark III.

APERTURE

The second marking you will see on zoom lenses is aperture range.

Something like: EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS DO USM

The lens above has a maximum aperture of f/4.5 at 70mm and f/5.6 at 300mm. SO, when the lens is zoomed out to 300 mm, the maximum aperture is f/5.6. What if you wanted/needed f/4.5 for the desired depth of field?

Like camera bodies, lenses also range in price. Professional photographers pay the big price tag for lenses with fixed apertures, such as lenses from the Canon "L" series. The fixed aperture allows the photographer to use the maximum aperture throughout the whole zoom range.

Canon 70-200 mm f/2.8 L IS USM. Photo taken with f/2.8 at 200mm

Besides featuring a consistent aperture, high-end lenses are designed for ultimate durability and precision. Hence, the steep price tag.

Features of Canon "L" and Nikon high-end lenses can also be found in respectable third-party lenses, such as Sigma and Tamron at relatively lower prices. I know many professional photographers who use Sigma lenses.

CONCLUSION

People are often intimidated into thinking they need to own multiple lenses or top-of-the-line lenses to be or become a better photographer. For the first five years of my business, I shot all of my weddings and sessions using one lens. Yip! The Canon 28-135 mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens - great lens and affordable for beginners :)

Funny story: My father is also a photographer. When I first started shooting weddings, I would take my father's equipment with me as a back-up. Little did I know at the time, but what I was calling my "back-up" gear was a top-of-the-line camera and "L" lenses. As my business developed, I started to invest in "L" lenses myself.

Canon 70-200 mm f/2.8 L USM

As a beginner, your focus should be on learning the basics of exposure, metering and working in low-light situations. There is no magic lens. Lenses are just a tool you use to create the look you want. Many new photographers buy top-of-the-line lenses, only to end up disappointed with the results.

Don't buy a lens to "be" a photographer. Buy because you "are" a photographer!

You have to decide if you "need" or "want" a certain camera or lens. If you are a full-time photographer - using lenses on a regular basis - then your investment would be worthwhile. If you're breaking out your camera once-in-a-while, then be careful not to over-spend. If the only lens you own is the kit lens that came with your camera, then own it! You can produce adequate photos with one lens, even the kit lens you have! Practice. Learn. Find the sweet spot - every lens has one. If you have the funds to invest, take your time and choose wisely. Ultimately, you have to buy what you can afford. 

I hope this post helps at least one person. If you have questions about photography, feel free to send me an email or Facebook message. I'm always happy to help.

Happy Shooting,
~Emma~

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RESOURCES:

Canon - http://canonlenses.ca/anatomy

Nikon - http://www.digitalcameraworld.com/2012/04/02/do-or-di-your-lens-markings-explained

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