If you’re new to photography and you’re starting to add gear to your kit, one of the things you might be wondering is which lenses to invest in first. There are an endless amount of options on the market, and each one promises to do something special and unique. But, do you really need to buy lens after lens in order to create beautiful photography?
Well, actually, no. There are three lenses that most professional photographers agree are the perfect foundation to anybody’s photography setup, and starting with these will keep your kit small and your budget low, without compromising on image quality and diversity. There are a couple of things to bear in mind when shopping for new glass:
Know yours focal lengths
If you’re new to photography, focal length might be a bit of a mystery to you. Focal length is always measured in millimeters and there might be a range or just a single focal length, depending on the lens (our three essential lenses are all variable). Variable focal length lenses are otherwise known as zoom lenses, as they allow you to do exactly that.
It’s not all about the zoom though: different focal lengths can create interesting or in some cases unwanted visual effects, so it’s important to use the right lens for the right job. We’ll go into this detail for each of the lens types on our list.
Check your lens compatibility
It’s also important to note that most camera systems have adapters available for them, so even if you shoot on Canon you can still buy and use a Nikon lens, and vice versa. There are also plenty of ‘third party’ manufacturers that offer different mounts for different cameras, so don’t assume that you’re stuck to just one manufacturer.
Be sure to double check whether you’ll lose features if you do decide to use an adapter though, as some of them will inhibit things like auto-focus. Read on to discover our three ‘can’t-live-without’ lenses.
General purpose lens
This is your ‘workhorse’ lens, and is the one that every photographer needs in their arsenal. Something in the 24-70 mm range is perfect for ‘every day’ use, and it’s probably the lens that will sit on your camera the most: especially when you’re out and about and you’re not certain what you’ll be shooting.
With this particular focal range you’ll be able to shoot fairly wide, but you’ll still have the option to zoom in if you want to capture more detail for subjects in the distance. That’s why it’s a great multipurpose lens: it gives you the opportunity to try out different framing and composition without having to switch your lenses over every time you want to shoot something new. Try it out with studio photography, portraits, events, landscapes, and anything else you want to shoot.
Kit lenses are usually this focal length for this very reason, but for quality and sharpness you’re going to need something faster than a standard kit lens. An aperture of f/2.8 is ideal for this lens, as you’ll have much more control over how much light hits your sensor, and you can achieve beautiful depth of field which can add a gorgeous cinematic feel to your photos in your digital frames.
If you’ve got a big budget, Nikon’s AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR is a fantastic option that will deliver great image quality with minimal distortion. We love that this lens has four stops of vibration reduction (VR) image stabilization, which will allow you to shoot at slower shutter speeds without necessarily needing a tripod.
If you have less to spend, or you prefer to shoot with Canon-built lenses, their EF 24mm f/2.8L II USM is around half the price and equally as fast. Autofocus is super speedy and accurate and the entire lens is weather-sealed, so if you shoot events or spend a lot of time outdoors, Canon has you covered.
Sigma also offer a great lens for lower budgets, with their 24-70mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM model. It’s available with Nikon, Canon or Sigma mounts to suit what you’re shooting on, and the build quality is impressive for glass at the lower end of the budget range.
Wide angle lenses have a focal length of around 14-24 mm, tend to be much shorter than a standard lens, and will be wider to have more of a peripheral vision. As you might have guessed from the name, wide angle lenses are perfect for any photography scenario where you have a large area to get in frame.
This could be anything from a large building or rolling landscape, to a festival crowd or group shot at a wedding.
You can also be creative with a wide lens and get close up to a smaller object to create the illusion of size or depth; just remember that this type of lens only has the ability to focus up to a certain point, so don’t lose sharpness in your image in the quest for creativity.
Again, an aperture of around f/2.8 is ideal for getting lots of light through your lens.
Sigma’s Art range is again a favorite of ours, and their 12-24mm f/4 DG HSM is spectacular. The constant f/4 aperture isn’t as fast as we’d ideally like, but that’s more than made up for by its incredible maximum viewing angle and minimal barrel distortion and color fringing.
Tokina’s AT-X 16-28mm f/2.8 PRO FX lens is superb for its price point, and is intuitive and easy to handle. This model focuses faster and more quietly than lenses from Tokina’s back catalogue, and the one-touch focus clutch makes it super simple to switch between auto-focus and manual-focus.
If you prefer to shoot with Nikon, their AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G ED lens is their top offering: and with good reason. It’s a bulky lens and is on the expensive side, but the wide aperture and superior sharpness and contrast more than justify the price.
Medium telephoto lens
With an average focal length of 70-200 mm, a telephoto lens is perfect for any scenario where you can’t get physically close to your subject. This might be at a concert or sports event, or when shooting landscapes with animals in the distance.
Long-distance isn’t a telephoto lens’s only use: they can also be used for portrait photography.
Focal length is significant when shooting portrait as distortion is possible if you get it wrong. At 70mm your subject’s features will start to flatten, because the distance between them seems less at this length. This can be very flattering because features will look smaller and more delicate, but if you venture any closer to 100mm you’re going to get a weird pancake effect, so take care to avoid that.
There are plenty of other tricks up your telephoto’s sleeve, including the ability to decrease the distance between subjects and creating that pancake effect that we recommend you avoid in portraiture, so it’s important to give yourself time to play with this lens type when you invest in one.
For this lens go for the biggest aperture possible, as you’ll need that extra light in your sensor to allow for faster shutter speeds when shooting fast moving subjects (this will be a common scenario for most telephoto lens users).
We love Sony’s expensive but perfectly formed FE 270-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS. Part of their premium G Master range, it’s got the incredible image stabilization that you’d expect from this range, as well as rapid auto-focus and a circular 11-blade aperture which allows for cinematic defocused effects.
Tamron's SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 is great value considering the quality that it offers. Available in both Canon and Nikon mounts, this model has a shortened minimum object distance (MOD) which gives you greater flexibility. Color is fantastic all the way up to the edge of your images, and you can create beautiful bokeh effects.
If you’re loyal to Nikon and are looking for a bargain, you can’t go wrong with the AT-X 70-200mm f/4 FX VCM-S. The aperture isn’t as wide as some of the more expensive models on the market, but excellent image stabilization and fast auto-focus give you plenty of bang for your buck.
When you’re starting out in the world of photography it can be overwhelming to choose the right glass for you. But, by sticking to these three focal lengths you’ll have all your bases covered for all of your general photography needs. Happy shooting!
What are your essential three lenses? Let us know in the comments.