Choosing a DSLR Lens

As you probably know, one of the primary advantages of getting a DSLR camera is the capability to choose and change lenses at will. While choice is great, an overwhelming dose of it can leave you confused. I wish this post was as easy to write and recommend as the the previous one about selecting a camera. Choosing a DSLR lens is a much more involved and nuanced decision. The picture above is only a small collection of the lenses offered by Canon. Before I explain the details about how to choose a lens, let me make a few quick recommendations for the impatient audience.

Unless you are buying the 5D or 1D camera series, your camera will accept both EF and EF-S lenses. EF lenses are standard 35 mm lenses that work with all Canon cameras including film cameras. EF-S lenses were developed specifically for DSLRs with 1.6x FOVCF such as the Rebel series cameras. If you are looking for a versatile, general purpose and affordable lens, go with the Canon 18-55 mm IS EF-S kit lens. The best way to get this lens is with the camera itself as in the Canon T2i kit option.  The latest version of this ever popular kit lens has image stabilization built-in making this a great value. It is true that this is not the best lens to show off the capabilities of your DSLR camera. The build quality of this lens leaves a lot to be desired. As lens apertures go, this is a “slow” lens. Despite these shortcomings I would still recommend this lens for beginners. For a cheap lens it exhibits minimal lens artifacts. You will eventually outgrow this lens but there is plenty to learn even with this underestimated lens.

If you are going to buy only one other lens in addition to your kit lens, I would seriously recommend buying the Canon 50 mm 1.8 EF lens. This inexpensive lens offers serious professional level image quality and large aperture that is very hard to find even in expensive zoom lenses. As we step in to the details of photography, this is a fantastic lens to follow along, experiment and learn. The build quality of this lens leaves a lot to be desired. It has a noisy and slow auto focus mechanism. The manual focus ring is so small that it is almost unusable. There are no focus distance markings on the lens body. So why buy this lens? It is the cheapest, most practical prime lens in the Canon lens family, offers crystal sharp images, sports a large f1.8 aperture and extremely light weight. Did I mention that it is cheap? Don’t over think this one. Just buy it. You can thank me later.

If you are willing to spend a bit more money, have no plans of upgrading to a full-frame camera and want much better image and build quality, I would recommend the Canon EF-S 17-85 mm lens. This lens offers excellent image quality and much better build quality compared with the lenses shown above. This is a great every day walk around lens. I seriously considered buying this lens when I bought my Rebel XT but decided not to because I planned to eventually upgrade to a full frame camera. You cannot use this lens with a full frame camera such as the Canon 5D. The Canon 5D camera was not available or even announced at that time. The only full frame camera available at that time was the professional 1 series camera but I was pretty sure that Canon would eventually announce an affordable full frame camera which it eventually did. You probably do not know if you want to upgrade to a full frame camera yet. I have not given enough information here for you to make that decision. Consequently you might want to hold off on that decision until you read the post about the benefits and downside of using full frame cameras.

Let’s say you are willing to spend more money, want a great lens to go with your starter camera today but also want the option of upgrading to a full frame camera later. If this is the case then you should stay away from EF-S lenses and start looking at EF lenses. When it comes to EF lenses Canon has two family of lenses: The regular lenses intended for the cost conscious customers and the L-series lenses intended for professionals and “prosumers”. In a welcome twist there are a few L-series lenses that cost nearly the same as some high end consumer grade lenses. A very popular L-series lens option for the Rebel, xxD and the new 7D camera is the Canon 17-40 mm f4L lens. Why is this lens popular? Apart from the exceptional image quality of L-series lenses, they are also known for their build quality. Once you have used a L lens, ordinary lenses start feeling toys compared to them. This causes a shopping disorder known as L-itis whereby once you have bought a single L lens you will never settle for anything less. A lens that costs almost the same as your camera might be a rude shock but consider this: I sold my first Rebel XT camera for about 60% of its price. My current Canon 5D is only worth less than half its value today because of the arrival of 5D Mark II but the L-series lenses I invested have only gone up in price. So consider buying good lenses as a lifetime investment. A word of caution: All that build quality and high grade lens components in this lens also makes it relatively heavy compared to the above lenses. The way you handle your camera will need to change to accommodate the additional weight.

Before I close out this post, there is one other lens I would like to recommend: the Canon EF 70-200 mm f4L lens. This is a relatively expensive lens generally speaking but it is also the cheapest L-series lens representing the best value for your money. This is a telephoto zoom lens. You might have heard people say that telephoto zoom lenses are primarily used for shooting birds and distant wild life. Although they make excellent subjects for telephoto zoom lenses that is not the only purpose of such a lens. The 70-200 mm range is an extremely useful and versatile range. I primarily use it for portrait photography. Surprised? Most beginners are because they have these misconstrued ideas about telephoto zoom lenses. In an upcoming post I will explain why this makes an excellent portrait lens and some samples to show you what I mean. Since this is a EF lens, it will work on all Canon cameras. Of all the lenses I have used so far, this is my favorite lens. The sharpness, contrast and color saturation it yields are spectacular.

In my next post I will explain the concepts of lens angle, focal length and aperture. Apart from providing the rationale for the lens selections above, it should also help lay the groundwork for relating these concepts to real world photography.