The 3 DSLR Lenses You Need (and 2 More You'll Crave)

This goes out to people who bought or want an entry-level DSLR, and wonder what's the deal with interchangeable lenses. You really gonna buy that extra glass? It's a beginner's guide to growing as a photographer, preferably without going broke.

It doesn't matter what brand of camera you bought—if it's an entry-level DSLR, it was offered to you with an 18-55mm kit lens. I hope you took them up on that offer because no matter what you bought, that kit lens comes cheap, and is well worth it. Yes, of the five lenses covered here, that kit lens is numero uno.

KIT LENS
Like most bundle pricing, it's cheaper than buying the camera body and lens separately, and most experts agree that an 18-55mm is actually the perfect lens for most immediate photographic needs, with both a decent wide angle plus the ability to zoom in on far away objects. In fact, if you take a look at the four shots below—all taken by me with kit lenses on basic DSLRs—you can see a foreshadowing of the four other lenses in this briefing—telephoto, wide-angle, portrait and macro:

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But if you read Gizmodo enough, you know that we've made the case that lenses, and not the cameras themselves, account most for great pictures. Photography is an optics game first and foremost, and there's a point at which that kit lens can't achieve shots that your heart and soul tell you are achievable. There's nothing wrong with your camera—seriously, there's nothing wrong with it. You just need to get some more lenses.

In order to run this story I called some experts at Canon, Nikon and Sigma, which makes discounted lenses for most DSLRs. I could have called experts at [insert your favorite non-Canon or Nikon camera brand here] but early on, the advice was consistent and clear: Anyone who is really taking an interest in their camera should invest in a telephoto zoom next, followed by a fast "normal" lens, which you might call a portrait lens.

LENS LABELING
In the interest of speed, I can't talk about lens anatomy, but there are some key attributes you need to know to read all lens retail listings: focal length and aperture.

In most cases, the lens categories here differ by the focal length, that is, how close a subject appears, indicated in millimeters. The human-eye equivalent is between 30mm and 50mm. A telephoto lens, which gets up close to things that are far away, can be as long as 500mm. A wide-angle lens, which makes close-up objects appear farther away, can be 10mm—still less if you want the bulbous fisheye look. A "zoom" lens simply means that it has a variable focal length—for instance, your kit lens, which can hit any length from 18mm to 55mm.

The 3 DSLR Lenses You Need (and 2 More You'll Crave)

Because entry-level cameras have smaller (APS-C) sensors than professional APS) full-frame 35mm cameras, everybody makes two sets of lenses. Typically all lenses work on beginner cameras, but beginner lenses don't work on pro cameras. If you stick with beginner lenses (denoted Nikon DX, Canon EF-S, Sony DT, Pentax DA, Sigma DC and Tamron Di II), you won't have to stress, but if you want to buy a pro lens, or have some lying around, bear in mind that you need to multiply the focal length by 1.5 or so to get the equivalent focal length for your camera. A 50mm pro lens is really a 75mm lens on your beginner's model. Why am I telling you this? Because there are new and used pro-level lenses out there for really good prices.

The 3 DSLR Lenses You Need (and 2 More You'll Crave)

In one case below, what sets the lens apart is its large aperture. The aperture is the hole that lets in the light, and it's measured by the f-stop. A wider aperture means more light comes in, and you have a better chance of getting nice shots indoors, in dimmer settings. A narrower aperture lets in less light. The trade-off is that a wide aperture can't focus on as many things that are at different distances—it is said to have a "shallow depth of field." Your main subject is clear, but the background is blurry—artistic in many cases, annoying in some. When you narrow the aperture, you can crisply resolve more elements, but only if there's enough light. The wide aperture of a "fast" lens can always be narrowed, but there's no way for a "slow" lens with a narrower aperture to bring in more light.

As if that wasn't tricky, check this out: The f-stop is a fraction, and the number you refer to is on the bottom, so if it's low (f/1.4), the aperture is wide, and if it's high (f/6.0), the aperture is narrow. Got it? Zoom lenses at beginner prices tend to have variable f-stops, apertures that get narrower, and in need of more light, as you zoom in.

TELEPHOTO ZOOM
Lenses in many ways are about reach, about bringing faraway subjects closer to your camera's sensor. "The low-end customer, who may take out their DSLR only occasionally, says, 'I want to shoot a picture of the moon, or animals at the zoo, or kids playing soccer,'" says Dave Metz, a lens specialist at Sigma. Even when that kit lens is cranked to the max, it's only giving you a 55mm focal length, which is why most DSLR makers have a very well-priced 55-200mm lens waiting at the ready. Prices range from $120 to $250, and it's usually the easiest purchase to make.

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Credits: Lindsay Silverman - Nikon; me with Nikon; Robert O'Toole - Sigma; Stephen Lang - Sigma

Another telephoto zoom lens you'll see is the 18-200mm, which can cost anywhere from $350 to $600. That's a hefty premium to pay just so you don't have to schlep around two lenses, and generally speaking, the broader the focal length range, the more corners are being cut in performance. That lens is a pass.

If you are feeling particularly far out, both Metz and Nikon's camera marketing guru Steve Heiner suggest a 70-300mm lens. Sigma's model sells for under $200, Nikon's most recent model, with built-in image stabilizing, is just over $500, and there are 70-300mm lenses for everyone else ranging from $130 to $850, all with variable f-stops of either f/4.0-5.6 or f/4.5-5.6. Better yet, these lenses are spec'd for pro-grade full-frame cameras, so they're exceptionally zoomy on your beginner's camera, more like 105-450mm. Hey, don't think about it too much, just enjoy it.

NORMAL (AKA PORTRAIT)
As much traction as you'll get from a zoom lens, it doesn't really teach you much, except maybe how to compose without cropping. I personally learned a hell of a lot more about photography when I started playing with f/1.8 50mm lenses. This is called a "normal" lens because, says Heiner, "It was all you could get on a camera in the '50s and '60s." In fact, he jokes that even though younger people are snapping up this relatively cheap lens ($100 to $150), he and his ilk "couldn't wait to get away from it" when zoom lenses started hitting the market.

What does it do? As a "fast" lens, it can shoot really well in low light. Keep the aperture wide, get up in your subject's grill, and start clicking. You'll see parts of their face sharply resolved while other parts are softly blurred. Tighten the aperture a tad, and your subject's whole head is clear while the backdrop is soft and peaceful, even if it's a Manhattan street corner at rush hour. What doesn't it do? It doesn't zoom, and because it's usually rated for pro cameras, it's about the equivalent of 75mm on an entry-level DSLR—which is roughly the preferred focal length for portrait shooting—so you often have to step back to get a decent shot.

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Credits: Me with Canon; Joe DiMaggio - Sigma; Joe DiMaggio - Sigma; Lindsay Silverman - Nikon

Alternatives to the cheap f/1.8 lens are an even faster one, f/1.4 ($300 to $500), or a 30mm or 35mm that gives entry-level cameras more of a "normal"—what your eye can see—perspective.

At this point, in addition to the original cost of your camera, you've spent less than $500, and you've added immeasurable functionality and artistic wiggle room. You can stop here, and you won't be judged. But, if you like, I can tell you about two more lenses that might rock your casbah.

ULTRA-WIDE ANGLE ZOOM
That kit lens brings you down to 18mm, which is enough for you to stand in a corner of a room and shoot pretty much anything going on in that room. But what if you're not in the corner? The same twist of fate that makes pro-level telephoto lenses even more zoomy on your entry-level DSLR makes wide angles trickier—or at least more expensive—to attain.

Why is this? Film is flat, so light can come in at any angle, and the film will mostly record it. But camera sensor pixels are concave, and don't do well with light coming in from the side. Think of the pixels as little water glasses, says Sigma's Dave Metz. "You can fill them up with water by pouring it in from above, but try shooting it in from the side with a garden hose, and it's going to go all over the place." A telephoto by definition is pulling in light from directly in front of it, whereas a wide angle by definition is bringing in light from the sides, too. Hence the trouble, and the added expense.

But if you have the means, it's the consensus of my experts that you should pick yourself up an ultra-wide-angle zoom lens (10-24mm, 10-22mm or 10-20mm). Just be very careful that it's one built specifically for entry-level DSLRs, with the arcane designations I mentioned in the "Lens Labeling" section. Discounted on Amazon, Nikon's is selling for $809 while Canon's is around $730. Tamron and Sigma make them for Canon and Nikon for just under $500.

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Credits: Stephen Lang - Sigma; David FitzSimmons - Sigma; Carol Polich - Sigma; Joe DiMaggio - Sigma

And the aesthetic pay off? As Metz tells it, "I am sure you've seen a beautiful mountain scene; in the foreground there's beautiful little flowers. Because they're so close, they appear out of perspective. You effectively enlarge the flowers." It's also, as he points out, the best way to make sure that all the uncles and aunts are included in the family portrait you take at the Christmas dinner table.

MACRO
The final stop on our survey of lens-topia is the macro—or big hairy bug—lens. "When I try to show people about macro photography, they say 'What is that?'" says Lisette Ranga, a Canon camera marketing specialist, "but when they look through the viewfinder, and see how close you can get, they get it." While I don't understand why people like taking pictures of bugs and flowers so much, I am a victim of the chronic urge to do so. Though some are 50mm or thereabouts, many macros are telephoto lenses. The ideal, it seems, is to shoot stuff up close that you wouldn't even want to get near—he who snaps the most snakes and scorpions wins.

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Credits: Canon 60mm Macro sample; Canon 60mm Macro sample; David FitzSimmons - Sigma; Lindsay Silverman - Nikon

So what do you look for? Typically, macro lenses have a fixed aperture of f/2.8 (sometimes f/2.5). Sigma has five lenses, ranging from 50mm ($300) to 180mm ($900), all fixed, plus a few zooms such as the one I personally want to try out, the 24-70mm ($570, compared to well over $1,000 for the equivalent Canon or Nikon). What's cool is that when you're not photographing scorpions (or stamps or coins or documents), you can use these for portraits and other "normal" shooting, but with such sharp resolve that some even recommend a bit of digital softening.

So you see, adding those final two lenses more than doubles your investment, and for a diminished payoff. That's what you would buy next, but for most of you, it's not what you should be buying.

IMAGE STABILIZATION, LENS MOUNTS AND YOUR DADDY'S LENS COLLECTION
Though some readers probably gave up on this story a long time ago, I have made every attempt to keep it clear and moving. In doing so, I skipped over lots of hot topics, including image stabilization and lens compatibility.

Canon and Nikon currently promote the hell out of image stabilizing lenses, in large part because their cameras do not have in-camera image stabilization like Sony, Pentax and Olympus. While image stabilization does tend to matter, its location doesn't seem to matter as much. The consensus on the internet is that it's a drag to have to buy IS in lenses over and over, and from what I've seen, there is a clear added cost when buying lenses a la carte. Nevertheless, there's a premium for buying Nikon and Canon because they are consistently the best reviewed and the biggest sellers, so there's no right or wrong. It's just something to look for when buying lenses, and to discuss with your favorite camera nerds.

The main reason Canon and Nikon don't have IS in their cameras is that the camera technologies pre-date the digital revolution, and it was harder to do with film. The flipside is this: Older film-based lenses from Canon and Nikon work on newer Canon and Nikon digital cameras. For Canon, it's the EF standard, which dates back to 1987. If the lens says EF on it, it will work. If it says EF-S, it was specifically made for entry-level DSLRs, and won't work on pricier pro models. If you put an EF lens on a camera that typically takes EF-S lenses, remember to multiply by 1.6 to figure out the real focal length.

For Nikon, it's a tad weirder: Any F-mount lens dating back to 1959 will fit on the thing, but only the lenses labeled AF-S will definitely work with D40/D60/D90/D3000/D5000 class of entry-level DSLRs. If the lens doesn't say "DX" on it, multiply the focal length by 1.5 to see what it really is. If your dad hands you a bag of Nikon lenses, accept them graciously, and try them all out, but be ready for weird results, or at the very least, a sudden lack of autofocus and auto metering.

LENS QUALITY
I want to leave you with one final bone of contention—the quality of the lenses. I recognize that I have made many suggestions that seem like go-out-and-buy-'em recommendations. I do think that shopping for new lenses on a tight budget is a good way to expand as a photographer, but this is not a "buyer's guide."

Many photography enthusiasts believe buying a cheap lens to attach to your camera would be like buying a used prophylactic to... well, I'll spare you the imagery. But the point is, there is surely a reason why third-party ultra-wide-angle zoom lenses cost half as much as big name versions, just as there is surely a reason why Canon's 50mm f/1.4 costs nearly four times as much as its 50mm f/1.8. There are real differences in lenses, and I'm happy to invite you to discuss them below.