Digital SLR lens buying guide

About The Author

CNET Editor

Lexy spent her formative years taking a lot of photos and dreaming in technicolour. Nothing much has changed now she's covering all things photography related for CNET.

CNET Australia's lens buying guide is a comprehensive look at what lens to buy when you are thinking of moving beyond the kit lens that came with your digital SLR.

If there is some terminology in this guide that is unfamiliar to you, make sure to read our Learning Centre for full explanations. Each brand will have a dedicated lens range for its digital SLRs, and don't forget in some instances you may be able to use older lenses on a new camera.

As a general rule for beginners, you need to buy the same brand lens as your digital SLR. So, if you own a Canon camera, you'll need to buy a Canon lens or a lens that is marked as being compatible with the Canon mount. Third-party manufacturers such as Tamron, Sigma and Tokina, will make lenses compatible for all the major camera brands.

Note that this isn't a comprehensive guide to every lens that's available for every brand of digital SLR, but it will hopefully give some general information that is useful for making an informed choice based on your style of photography.

Kit lens

(Credit: Canon)

Most digital SLRs will come in a kit with one or two lenses to get you started. These lenses will usually cover the most common focal lengths that photographers will need. Usually, kit lenses will be in the focal length region of 18-55mm and 55-200mm.

A kit lens is a zoom lens, offering flexibility because of the range of focal lengths available within the one unit. In general, the body is made of plastic and is not as optically refined as a dedicated lens in its respective area (such as wide angle, standard or telephoto).

Use for: everyday photography

Wide angle

(Credit: Nikon)

Any lens with a focal length less than 35mm is classified as a wide angle. This means it has a wide field of view, allowing you to fit more of your subject in the frame.

Ultra or super wide-angle lenses are characterised by their focal length being less than 24mm. Note that some wide-angle lenses tend to distort straight lines, a characteristic known as barrel distortion. Usually, wide-angle lenses afford the photographer a greater degree of depth of field compared to standard or telephoto lenses.

Use for: landscapes, street photography, group shots

Prime or fixed focal length

(Credit: Nikon)

Prime lenses have just one focal length (that's right, no zoom). This means that they are generally very sharp and can open up to wide apertures, perfect for portrait photography and achieving that blurred background look. Prime lenses are lightweight compared to zoom lenses, and can be considerably cheaper; as an example, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 can be bought for AU$150 whereas a 55-250mm will be closer to AU$400 outright.

As a trade-off for all this goodness, they usually don't have image stabilisation built into the lens body. Prime lenses can be any focal length, but the more common ones available are in the standard focal length range; anywhere between 35mm and 80mm. The happy medium is a 50mm lens which lets the camera capture a scene roughly equivalent to how the human eye sees it.

Use for: low-light photography without a tripod, portraiture, street photography

Telephoto

(Credit: Sony)

A telephoto is the ultimate lens choice for photographers who want to shoot from a distance, getting in close to their subjects. These are generally large, bulky lenses, and depending on the level of magnification and maximum aperture, will be classed as semi- or professional lenses. As a rule, the wider the maximum aperture (eg, f/2.8) the more expensive the lens.

Telephoto lenses can come in prime lens variants or zoom variants. Telephoto lenses have a smaller field of view than wide-angle and standard lenses. They also have a tendency to "flatten" the image plane, and afford the photographer less depth of field.

Use for: shooting subjects from a distance, wildlife, sports photography

Macro

For those wanting to get into macro photography, or taking close-up images of plants, animals or objects, a macro lens is a must-buy investment. True macro lenses have only one focal length and some can focus to 1:1, or life size.

Use for: close-up, macro photography

Special interest

Want to experiment with some fish-eye lenses? Perhaps some tilt-shift photography is more your thing? There are lenses available that will cater to pretty much every whim that a photographer may have. These lenses do tend to break the bank a tad more than standard lenses, and will have limited applications beyond their intended use, so buyer beware.


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FroiM posted a comment   

Good Day Lexy,

i am planning to buy CANON 550D next month, is it advisable to buy the one with 18-135 lens kit? cause you know price is too close with 18-55 kit and huge difference with both, or should i just buy the body, then buy other lenses?

i'm a beginner but i also want to buy something that i can use for later if i ever get good at this. I say i'm more of a zoom person rather than a wide-view one.

it's price in USD would be $1,166, do continue with this deal? if not, what camera would best suit that budget and also give me a better starting grounds?

thanks in advance Lexy! :D

best regards,
Bones

 

Lexy Savvides posted a reply   
Australia

Hi Bones,

If the price is similar, then there's no harm in getting the 18-135mm to start with, especially if you are a fan of zoom rather than wide-angle shots.

Once you have got a bit more proficient with your camera, you'll want to be moving beyond the kit lens - whichever one you end up choosing, the 18-55mm or 18-135mm. Later on for the track you might want to invest in a more serious telephoto lens of a higher quality than the kit lenses!

 

saha posted a comment   
Australia

Hi, I was wondering which option is good as kit lens (18-55 55-200 mm lens) or 18-105 mm lens only. Do i really need to go to 200 mm?

 

Lexy Savvides posted a reply   
Australia

That is really up to you. For most situations the 18-105mm lens will be more than adequate unless you are seriously wanting to zoom in close from a distance to your subject. It's also easier to carry around just one lens (in the case of the 18-105mm) rather than two (with the twin lens 18-55mm and 55-200mm)!

But if you really want to go to 200mm and only want one lens, there's also the 18-200mm to consider. It's usually much more expensive though!

 

saha posted a reply   
Australia

Thanks Lexy:)

 

Hanalei posted a comment   
United States

cheap!!!

 

Hanalei posted a comment   
United States

I am buying the Nikon D7000 body only. I am a relative beginner but I want to have some room to develop. Its a stretch for me financially to buy this camera so I was thinking of balancing the dent by buying a relatively cheep lens. I don't want to skimp too much on picture quality. Most of my research leads me to this lens (Nikkor 35mm 1.8.) for general purpose needs. I live in Hawaii, so I will be mainly photographing, landscapes, trees, calling for wide angle. Any other ideas for relatively cheep start up lens. I like the fact that it is light weight and from what others tell me versatile. Third party is fine, will lug heavier, image quality first priority.

How does this compare to the Nikkor 18-65mm?

Any other ideas on options?


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