Every nature photographer has dreamed about his or her next camera gear purchase. The quest to purchase your next camera lens always begins with eagerness. However, it can quickly become overwhelming as you dive into the details. Whether you buy a new or used camera lens, it is important to spend your hard-earned money on one which complements your current gear. Additionally, it needs to meet your present needs and set you up for future growth. Here are six tips to help you choose your next camera lens.
1. Know Your Camera Lens Needs, Not Your Wants
You may want that beautiful, professional grade lens, but do you need it? Is it worth the expense and the additional weight? Are your current accessories, such as your filters, compatible or will you need new ones? Don’t buy a lens because you think you should own it. Buy a lens because you really need what it offers. Ask yourself “what do I need that my current lens doesn’t offer?”. More than likely, the answer will fall into two categories, focal length and/or speed (aperture).
Need for Focal Length
The camera lens’ focal length helps determine suitability for different situations. Traditionally, you will want a wide-angle lens for traditional nature scenes or night photography. On the other hand, you will lean towards telephoto lenses for birds and wildlife photography. The majority of nature photographers carry lenses to cover (at a minimum) a range of 16mm to 200mm.
If you are starting your nature photography journey, finding lenses in that range is a good first step. One option is to start with a lens to give you versatility, such as a 24-105mm, 18-200mm, or 24-120mm lens. The focal length range may vary depending on your camera brand, but all have good workhorse lenses for this option. If you are just diving into the photography world, this type of lens is a great way to learn without having to invest a lot of money up front. It gives you enough versatility with the focal length range for most situations.
The second option is to start to build your nature photography arsenal of lenses. For example, today’s traditional camera lenses are the 16-35mm, 24-70mm, and the 70-200mm lens. It’s rare to find a professional nature photographer who doesn’t own them or something in similar ranges. Therefore, it’s a good trio to start your research.
Need for Speed (Aperture)
In terms of camera lenses, the term “speed” relates to the aperture and how much light the lens allows to enter and hit the camera’s sensor. More light enables faster shutter speeds and lower ISO values. Fast lenses generally have an aperture of f/2.8 or larger (indicated by the smaller f-number).
The majority of kit lenses have a variable aperture between f/3.5 and f/5.6. These apertures are fine and very useful in bright conditions. However, they can be limiting in certain situations. In low light conditions, you may experience motion blur from a longer shutter speed. For example, when shooting a sunset nature scene, you may find motion blur in foreground flowers. Alternatively, you will find your images have a lot of noise because you have to shoot at high ISOs to compensate. This is when a faster lens would come in handy.
Additionally, aperture directly impacts the image’s depth of field. A faster lens or lower f-number is the key to that dreamy, out-of-focus background, also known as bokeh.
For beginners, my economic recommendation to master creativity through aperture and understand your personal need for speed is with a 50mm f/2.8 prime lens. No, this isn’t a traditional camera lens. It is a relatively cheap, learning lens, especially if purchased used. The advantages of prime lenses are image quality and wider apertures. It allows you to shoot in low light conditions without raising the ISO too high. Moreover, it enables super soft backgrounds. It allows you to grow creatively without having to shell out a lot of money on an expensive zoom lens with a wide aperture. Moreover, it will help you truly understand the trade-offs in terms of the images you can produce with f/2.8 versus f/5.6. This knowledge will be critical for when you purchase your next camera lens. For example, for the traditional 24mm-70mm landscape lens, do you need to spend extra money for the f/2.8 version or will the f/4.0 be sufficient?
2. Learn the Difference Between APS-C (Crop) and Full-Frame Lenses
Most major manufacturers offer both full-frame and APS-C formats for camera bodies as well as lenses. Be careful when mixing and matching between the two types. Full-frame camera sensors are the standard 35mm format. APS-C stands for Advanced Photos System – Classic, where the camera’s sensor is considerably smaller than the 35mm standard. Think of a full-frame sensor being a large rectangle where this rectangle is the frame of what your camera sees. An APS-C sensor only sees a smaller rectangle within that bigger, full-frame rectangle. The sensor is cropping the standard full-frame image, hence why the APS-C camera sensor is called the “crop sensor.”
In general, full-frame sensors have better image quality, particularly when comparing high ISO performance. The advantage of APS-C lenses, like APS-C cameras, is that they are normally smaller, lighter, and less expensive. Conversely, full-frame bodies and lenses are normally larger, heavier, and more expensive.
If you want to keep things straightforward and simple, considering the purchase of your next camera lens and match it to your camera body type. This eliminates a lot of the confusion. This means selecting an APS-C camera lens to pair with an APS-C camera body and a full-frame lens with a full-frame body.
If your goal is to eventually move to a full-frame camera body, then you have a decision to make. Lenses typically outlast camera bodies. With this in mind, you may want to consider purchasing full frame lenses to use with your APS-C body. In addition, it may be a disadvantage to invest more money into APS-C lenses since they may not be compatible with your future full-frame camera body, assuming you remain with the same brand camera. Since camera’s APS-C sensor is smaller, when used with a full-frame lens, the camera is only seeing only a portion of the lens’ image. In other words, you can put a full-frame lens on a APS-C body, but you are only able to take a “cropped” photo. It will look like you zoomed in simply by pairing the APS-C body with a full-frame lens.
3. Brand Name or Third Party Lenses
All the major manufacturers like Canon, Nikon, and Sony make their own lenses. If money is no option, then stick with your respective brand (which means you probably won’t be reading this post anyway). For the rest of us who are budget-minded, sometimes a third-party lens can deliver the same quality at a fraction of the cost. Three of the major third-party brands include Tamron, Sigma, and Tokina. All are well-established and offer a variety of lenses and accessories. Additionally, most third-party brands go the extra mile to make their lenses stand out from the competition. This may result in more variety in the focal lengths or better construction and quality.
4. Image Stabilization
Image Stabilization is a motor inside the lens which moves the elements in a way to compensate for movement created by camera shake. It goes by many names. Nikon calls this VR (vibration reduction). Canon calls it IS (image stabilization). Tamron has VC (vibration compensation) and Sigma refers to it as OS (optical stabilization). Sony and Pentax build it into their camera bodies and not their lenses. Whatever you call it, lenses with image stabilization cost more than their non-stabilized counterparts. The benefit in having image stabilization is that you can effectively use a longer shutter speed when shooting without a tripod. So you will having slightly sharper images when shooting handheld which in turn makes the lens more effective in low-light situations. However, if you always shoot with a tripod, perhaps you are willing to make the trade-off to save a little money in this area.
5. Lens Diameter & Filters
Photography filters are really the only lens accessory which I find essential for nature photography. When I really started getting into nature photography, I had no idea how much I would end up investing in filters in the long run. Even if you are a filter minimalist, the costs add up quickly. Therefore, it is worth considering if a new lens would fit with your current filter setup before purchasing your next camera lens. For instance, there are some ultra-wide lenses which require a non-standard filter setup. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t buy a lens because it is a different diameter or you need to purchase additional filter supplies. We all have lenses of different diameters in our camera bags. I would use this recommendation more to help if you are stuck deciding between two lenses.
6. Try Before You Buy
Online research is no substitution for testing equipment before you purchase your next camera lens. If you want to get the most out of the gear, you need to love it. If your find a lens bulky or too heavy, then you are not going to use it. Renting a lens is the a cost-effective way to test out gear and make an informed decision. If you are between two lenses, renting both to do your own hands-on comparison will help break the tie. If you are brave enough to tally up the total amount spent on all your gear, a weekend lens rental is just a drop in the bucket and worth the satisfaction of knowing that you made the right choice for your situation.