Guidelines for Choosing Better Camera Lenses

With good camera gear getting insanely expensive, consumers cannot afford to make mistakes choosing the best lens format. Professional DSLR camera bodies costing $5,000 are not uncommon and pro lenses can cost double that and more. Hobbyist photographers seeking to capture sharper images with less distortion often think they need to replace camera bodies to get better pictures when performance actually suffers due to poor lenses. Many entry and mid-level camera bodies are sold with “kit” lenses. That is, whereas pro DSLRs are usually sold as the body only, others are often sold as kits with one or more lenses included. To keep prices down, camera manufacturers usually include telephoto lenses that are mediocre performers at best.

Lens Components

Camera body makers usually manufacture lenses too. There are also manufacturers of lenses that do not make camera bodies. When looking at the available lens array for any camera model, there is a wide margin in cost among manufacturer and other lenses. Similar focal length lenses are sold according to class (hobbyist, pro) for widely varying prices by the same manufacturer. The price differences are mainly due to components used in manufacturing. Better lenses use more real glass rather than plastic lens elements. Real glass can increase sharpness and reduce distortion. Hobbyists often find that their old camera bodies take on new life when new quality glass is mounted to them.

Choosing the Right Lens for the Job

A bird watcher or sports photographer likely needs lenses with long focal lengths to pull subjects in closer. There are fixed telephoto lenses that are available, but variable focal length (zoom) lenses are much more popular. However, a lot of sharpness is lost at the maximum reach of these lenses. Also, many cheaper zooms are not fast lenses. That means they have smaller maximum aperture sizes (the hole that light goes through). The smaller the available maximum aperture at the farthest zoom means less light getting to the sensor. Less light means longer shutter times, and higher ISO settings need to be used to capture images. This usually translates into grainy and blurry photos. Wide apertures at the farthest reach of zoom lenses make for better pictures.

Lenses that do not have an extreme visual reach are used for landscapes, portraiture and general photography. The ability to blur backgrounds with a nice bokeh (the visual appeal of the background that is out of focus) is a hallmark of good portrait lenses. Cheaper lenses have fewer aperture blades that result in unappealing bokeh. Also, even though many portrait shooting styles include soft focus, this is usually done in post-editing now. Photographers generally want to shoot the sharpest pictures they can and add any blurring or other effects in post. It is easy to soften a digital portrait image, but it is impossible to add crisp sharpness that a cheap lens cannot capture.

Lenses Made by Manufacturers other than the Camera Maker

Cost is the major consideration for choosing a lens manufacturer that did not make the camera body. Obscure lens types may be another reason. Canon and Nikon are two huge names in the DSLR and lens making industry. Each makes full product lines of lenses to go with their own branded camera bodies. However, there are lens manufacturers such as Tamron, Sigma and Tokina that make lenses to fit Canon, Nikon and other camera bodies. Each aftermarket lens is available in lens mount configurations to fit different camera brands.

The brand terminology other lens manufacturers use to describe autofocus, electronic image stabilization and other features will be different than the terms brand camera manufacturers use, but they equal the same thing in meaning. Sorting through specs and choosing the right lens to match the camera and its sensor size (APS-C, APS-H, full-frame, four thirds format and others) requires a lot of reading, but it can result in a hobbyist photographer being able to increase image capturing capability from the mundane to meteoric without needing a loan for new gear.

Rent First, Buy Later

No photographer, whether pro or amateur, should ever run into a camera store and just buy a lens. Renting lenses and putting them through their paces is the smart thing to do. This prevents wasting hard-earned money on glass that does not live up to its marketing hype. Looking at the specs, reading customer reviews and checking out image samples are necessary precursors to narrowing down which lenses to rent that will be considered for purchase. For those who only need a high-end lens a few times a year, renting is still the best option. Spending $150 or so to rent a lens for a few days a year versus $10,000 to own one makes good financial sense whether one is a hobbyist or professional photographer. Renting top quality glass can also reveal the full capability of a camera body a photographer is considering replacing or upgrading from.

Photographers who have good technique and a solid grasp of the technical aspects of photography who are still dissatisfied with image results should look first to trying new lenses rather than replacing camera bodies. In most hobbyist photographer complaints with image results, it is technique, an inappropriate lens for the conditions, or just asking too much from mediocre lenses. Upgrading lenses takes fundamental knowledge of how lenses work but can end up producing extraordinary image results.