If you ever visit a photography forum or any group in Flickr there are hundreds of questions from beginning photogs about what lens they should get. It is really hard to choose a lens when you only have a certain amount of money to spend. Not very many people can go out and buy all the lenses and gear they want, so they have to choose from a whole line of lenses. It is hard not to go online and toss the question around to random people to get some opinions on which lens you should buy when you have no idea. I have decided to write a post to hopefully make it easier when you want to either buy your first lens or add to your existing lens collection. I shoot with Canon products so I will be using Canon products as examples in this post, I am not implying that Canon is better than any other brand. Most other camera companies will have the same type of lenses, including Nikon. Please read the following and let me know if this helps with your purchase decision or leave a comment if you have further questions.
Photo credit to: http://www.flickr.com/photos/crsan/5011052457/sizes/l/in/photostream/.
The first question you should ask yourself is what type of photography you want to do. This is by far the most important question to answer before investing your money in some new glass (another term used for lenses).
If you want to do sports photography you are going to need some faster lenses – meaning that the lens has a large maximum aperture such as a f2.8, especially if you are going to want to shoot events indoors or at night under the lights. The reasoning behind this is that you want to keep the shutter speed high so that you can freeze action. The only way to do this is to raise the ISO and open up the lens’s aperture. A lens with a longer focal length would also be helpful for some extra reach when you need it. A good lens for this would be an EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM. You can get the one with or without image stabilization (more on this later).
If you want to do something like wedding photography then just like with sports you will need fast lenses. You will need fast lenses so that you will be able to keep a fast enough shutter speed when the lights are low by using the maximum aperture available. Most people that shoot events like weddings prefer zoom lenses because of the flexibility that they provide with different focal lengths. I will explain zoom vs. prime lenses later in this post. Two lenses that would be very useful with weddings would be the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM and EF 24-20mm f/2.8L USM. These focal lengths will cover almost everything you need.
A wide aperture lens would also be very useful for portrait photography so that you can get a beautiful out of focus background. All the lenses I have suggested so far would work but you can also take a look at some prime lenses. They have wider apertures to get that wonderfully shallow depth of field. Prime lenses are also usually sharper than zoom lenses. A good lens for portraits would include any of the following: EF 50mm f/1.8II, EF 85mm f1.8 USM or EF 135mm f/2L USM (currently on my wish list). There are many versions of the 50mm and 85 mm to choose from based on how much you are willing to spend.
If you want to shoot landscapes the aperture is not as important because you will usually be using a smaller aperture to get more depth of field, meaning more of the picture will be in focus. By using a smaller aperture such as f/8 the photo will also be sharper. I won’t explain this now but most lenses are sharpest in the middle of the aperture range, so like f/5.6 to f/9. You will also be using lenses that have a wider focal length so you can get more of the scene in the picture. This isn’t to say that you can’t use lenses with longer focal lengths (which can compress a landscape and make it look great). I use my EF 70-200mm f/4 is USM all the time for landscape pictures. A good lens for landscapes would be something like the EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens. You may need something wider like the EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM if you are not using a full frame camera.
I have covered numerous types of photography here but not all. If you have other questions you need answer please drop me a comment.
After finding out what lenses you may want you will have to figure out how much money you want to spend. It is easy to spend thousands of dollars on lenses. The good thing about buying quality lenses is that you can use them for many years, unlike camera bodies that you will most likely be replacing every 3 years or so. Lens technology isn’t so rapid that yours will be outdated any time soon. The more expensive lenses, particularly the L lenses actually keep their value better than the cheaper lenses, which is also something to think about before you buy. More on L lenses later in this post. A lot of people ask if they should buy a new body or new lens. You should always buy good lenses before you buy a better camera body. Good glass will make more of an improvement in your photography then a new camera will. Also if you ever decide to move up to a full frame camera you will need nicer lenses anyway to be able to take advantage of the higher resolution that they provide.
A lot of camera bodies come with what they call kit lenses which are bundled with the bodies in one price. You usually don’t want to get the kit lenses, even though they look like a good deal in the bundle. You would be much better off buying some prime lenses or an L zoom. Some camera bodies do come with a good lens though, such as the 5D Mark II being bundled with the EF 24-105 f/4L IS USM lens.
I would recommend getting a lens with image stabilization. Even though this won’t help stop motion it will help you capture images handheld at slower shutter speeds. This is very helpful for subjects that don’t move. The longer the lens the more useful image stabilization is as well. When you don’t have IS you have to rely on fast shutter speeds to avoid blur in your picture. When you get up to longer focal lengths, such as 200mm, every little movement by you translates into more shake in the picture. A good rule of thumb (not an exact science but good) without IS is to double the shutter speed according to the focal length you are using. For example if you were using a 50mm lens you would want a shutter speed of 100 to avoid motion blur. With IS you can use much slower shutter speeds and still get sharp pictures. Sometimes I get away with holding my EF 70-200mm f/4 IS USM lens at long focal lengths using very slow shutter speeds like 1/20s because of the image stabilization.
A prime lens has a fixed focal length that you cannot change and a zoom lens has many focal lengths built into one lens. Many people like prime lenses because they are sharper and have higher maximum apertures, meaning they let more light in. You can also get some nice prime lenses for cheaper than you can get one really good zoom lens. Zoom lenses are closing the gap quickly on sharpness though and for many people an aperture of 2.8 is good enough. A lot of people like prime lenses because it makes them move around to find a better composition instead of just standing in one spot and zooming. With prim lenses you have to zoom with your feet, meaning you have to walk toward or away from your subject to change the composition. If you want to see if a prime lens is right for you then just leave your zoom lens at one focal length for a day and see if you enjoy staying at one focal length. The only reason to get zoom lenses over prime is that they offer more flexibility, especially for shooting events because you don’t have to change lenses as often and can get more of a variety of pictures quickly. Personally I prefer to have both for different situations.
If you are just beginning in photography and don’t know if you will fall in love with it then you will probably be fine buying a lens without an L in the name and a nice red ring around the barrel. If you want the best and know you will keep taking photographs then you should just spring for the L lenses to begin with to save yourself money in the long run. L stands for “luxury” in the canon lineup. They are sharper and the colors rendered in each photo is better. They also have a constant aperture throughout the zoom range unlike a lens like the EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS. At 55mm this lens has an aperture of 4 and at 250mm it has an aperture of 5.6, which really limits your ability to shoot with it in low light. L lenses are also built with USM, which stands for ultra sonic motor which provides fast and accurate auto focus. Once you use your first L lens you will never go back for this reason alone. It just feels smooth when it is focusing. The last reason to by an L lens is that they are better built then the regular lenses in the lineup. They usually have better seals to keep out weather and are encased with metal barrels. L lenses usually keep their price after you buy them so they are a better investment in the long run if you love photography and have the funds to buy them.
There are some lenses that can almost match the optical quality of an L lens that do not have that designation. You can try them out to see if they work for you. A zoom lens that comes to mind is the EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM, which has great optics but is not very well built. This lens is still pricey but it may be worth it to you. Many of the prime lenses will have great optical quality as well without paying more for the L build quality.
EF-S lenses were introduced when camera makers started making consumer priced cameras for the masses that were not full frame. EF-S camera bodies have a smaller mirror box – meaning the sensor is smaller than the standard 35mm frame size of a film camera which is the same as a full frame digital camera. I don’t want to get too far into camera bodies in this post but I will explain a little bit to understand the lens. EF-S cameras usually have a crop factor of 1.6X, which results in your lenses not really being at the focal length that is marked on them. For instance, a 50mm focal length on a full frame camera would be about 80mm on an EF-S camera. For a visual on this take a look at this page: http://philipbloom.net/2010/08/20/which-lenses-to-buy/.
EF-S lenses have a shorter back focus distance which means the back part of the lens gets closer to the image sensor since the mirror is smaller (http://photonotes.org/articles/beginner-faq/lenses.html). EF-S lenses are cheaper to build then the EF lenses because of this. If you want to get a full frame camera now or in the future you will have to buy the EF lenses.
I know I have not covered every facet of what goes into buying a lens but hopefully this helps answer some commonly asked questions that most photographers have. Ultimately you will probably end up trying numerous lenses before you come to own a set of lenses that you really love. Like I said before, please leave a comment if you have any other questions that you think I may be able to answer.
Sometimes I get unmotivated to take pictures. There are many reasons that this can happen. It can be anything from being burnt out, thinking that there is nothing to take pictures of, or just not feeling satisfied with your work and putting the camera down. One thing that sometimes happens to me is that I start looking at other photographer’s work and think that mine is not good enough. This happens to most photographer but you shouldn’t get down on your work. There are too many things to take pictures of in a new way and so much time to learn how to become better. I wanted to talk about how to stay motivated to take pictures and keep learning to become a better photographer.
We all get burnt out at times. Sometimes all you may need is a little break from taking pictures. Don’t totally forget about taking pictures though or you will end up leaving your camera in the closet for a year. Other times you may have your camera but don’t feel the desire to take a picture. Sometimes you just need to enjoy everyday life without taking pictures of the moment. I bring my camera with me almost everywhere but there are times that I stop and just enjoy the moment without having to record it. I am not saying never take pictures, I just want to state the fact that you should enjoy taking pictures and if you want to pull your eye away from the viewfinder for a little while it is okay.
There are times when you feel like there is nothing to take a picture of and you have no inspiration. Don’t wait for the inspiration to strike you, just go take pictures and work through the times when your work isn’t at the high level that you expect it to be. I think this is the biggest thing to think about. Artists don’t wait for inspiration to create great work. They keep working until they create something that is great. There is always something to photograph. You can start any kind of photo project to get you started and keep working at it.
Learning in photography never ends. You can go out and learn how to do flash photography, which has endless things to learn. Or you can learn to take pictures at night with slow shutter speed photography. It can even be taking pictures of something that you are not used to taking pictures of, like doing landscape photography if you are used to taking pictures of people. By doing this you will broaden your creativity and it will reflect on how you take pictures. Who knows, you may even find a branch of photography that you like even more than what you are currently doing.
I think this is one of the most important. You need to be confident that you can or are creating good photographs. If you start browsing other photographer’s work and think that your work is horrible don’t worry about it. Everyone feels this way about their photographs at some point. Just keep practicing and learning and believe in the fact that you can become better. You can even go through your older work and try to find the reason why your favorite pictures are your favorites and what you dislike about the ones that haven’t made your favorite list. Everyone has their weaknesses, you just have to find them and try to overcome them.
Try getting a new lens or camera if you feel like your photography has hit a wall. It’s not that you absolutely need this gear to be a good photographer but it can help you stay interested or broaden the areas where you can successfully take photographs. I have just recently bought a Canon 5D Mark II and it has opened a world of low light photography (due to being able to use high ISO) that I have never experienced before. The pictures out of the camera look so much different than they do with my cropped frame camera which has made me view my pictures differently. Don’t fall into the trap of needing to acquire new things to drive your photography passion though. The newness of something can ware off really fast if you let it. Appreciate what you have and make sure you use it.
There is a lot of argument on blogs about whether you should use zoom lenses or prime lenses. I am not going to feed this argument but I think that by using a prime lens it can help you be more creative. You have to work harder to get your subject in the frame in a pleasing way by using your feet to zoom. You will also be able to predict how an image will look with that prime lens without actually having to look in the viewfinder so it will be easier to find more interesting subjects.
By starting this blog it has me thinking of new photographs that I can take to share and explain. I am also motivated to take more pictures so that I can share them on my blog. By sharing what I know it also helps me to better understand the subjects that I am writing about. To teach something you really have to know it. Starting a blog is like starting a new project to accelerate your photography.
The biggest thing photographers gripe about is not having enough time to take photos. If you’re passionate enough about something you will make time for it. Even if you only take pictures for 15 minutes a day, in the long run it will help you grow as a photographer. Just take out your camera and take pictures, even if it is just at home around the house. If you mark down all the time you waste during the day, like watching tv, staring at Facebook, or just browsing the internet, it will really show you how much time you let slip away. Make sure you are using your time efficiently because none of us really have that much time to live and enjoy life.
If you shoot outdoors then you definitely want to take this advice. Just by being out during the golden hour, which is an hour at sunrise and an hour at sunset, it opens the door to many more photo opportunities. The light is soft and warm and not harsh like it is during most of the day. Your pictures will look a lot more interesting when they are taken during these times, which in turn will make you want to go out and take more photographs. I take most of my pictures during the winter because the days are shorter and it is easier to get out at these time because they are at more reasonable hours. During the summer the days are long so the sun rises early and sets fairly late, which are the times that I am not out and about. I think it is definitely worth getting up early or staying out later to catch this time of day though.
Travel to a new place, it can be either really far away or just to a new city. By doing this you will see the place with fresh eyes and will be able to come up with more photographs than if you were just shooting in your regular areas.
There are many more ways to stay motivated in photography than this but I believe this is a good start. I think the main reason people get unmotivated is because they are not doing everything they can to stay creative. For this I would recommend Steven Pressfield’s book: The War of Art. In this book he talks about overcoming resistance and fighting to not become mediocre, but to become what we are called to do. Don’t be afraid to work past the fear and don’t be afraid to succeed.
We all see the world differently and we should try to use the camera to show how we see it. The more you take pictures the better you will be at using your camera to convey what you want out of a scene. You will also be able to better see what lighting conditions will make a great photo. In photography it is all about the light. Not every photo you take will be great but even the best photographers have to take lots of pictures to even get a few keepers. Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson said that “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” Just get out and shoot everyday and it will pay off.
If you can’t think of anything to take pictures of look at great photographers’ work online and replicate it for learning purposes. After a while you will eventually be able to forge your on photographic style. I am still working on my own style and don’t think this process ever ends for photographers. I think this is a great way to learn off camera flash. You can usually tell what type of diffuser someone used by looking at the shape of the reflected light (either in the subject’s eyes or off of the object in the picture). An example is the picture below. When you use an umbrella to reflect the flash, the highlight in the subjects eyes will be round.
Whenever I am driving around or just out without my camera I always look around to see what could make a great picture. By doing this you help develop your photographic eye. There are also times when you will see an interesting location that you want to come back to later with your camera.
It can be anything like a 365 project where you take and post one picture a day or a 52 week project if you can’t handle everyday. Or you can do a 100 strangers project where you take portraits of strangers so that you can get out of your shell and experience something new in your photography. If you aren’t up for these then you can make almost anything into a project. Some of my ongoing projects are pictures of fire hydrants and a photo project of the county where I work. You can do a project of your daily life for a specified amount of time, like a year, and pick the best ones to make a book out of.
When you organize your work you will find that there are pictures that you have overlooked in the past that you like now. These photos can become an inspiration for you to shoot more of that subject or start a new project building off of what you already have. By organizing your work it will be easier to find and build your long-term portfolio. I have just recently bought Lightroom 3 and hope to get my photos better organized.
Post your work online or show it to others in print form to get some feedback on it. Flickr is a great place to do this. You can find other photographer’s great work to inspire you or join groups to get feedback on your work. Many of the groups constantly have conversations going on that can answer many of your burning questions.
If you don’t want to join an online community try to join a local photo club or shoot with friends. If you know someone who has a good artistic eye you can have them give you some constructive criticism of your work so you can get another point of view to improve your work.
A lot of people are worried about not having enough equipment or the right camera to take good pictures with but this shouldn’t stop you. Use whatever you have and learn to work with what you have and find solutions for not having a lot of fancy equipment. You may not have a DSLR but your iphone or point and shoot can take good pictures, you just have to develop your eye to see good pictures. You may not have a professional off camera flash but you can always use natural light and reflectors to create good light. Some day you may be able to acquire more equipment that can make your life easier, but don’t let it stop you from shooting today.