Another common question that many photographers ask is which lens to buy next. The fact that the camera has an option to change lenses makes people feel that more lenses are required. The internet generation calls this disease as ‘GAS’ or ‘Gear Acquisition Syndrome’. Everyone suffers from it one time or the other. However there are times when there is a genuine need to buy a new lens.
First thing to understand is if it is the GAS or a genuine need. One simple suggestion is to buy your next lens when you yourself know what is required over and above your existing lens. It maybe longer focal length or a wider angle, maybe closer focusing distance or a faster lens. It can be any genuine need that you might have started feeling lately while photographing. Keep on using your existing lens to its full extent and then you yourself will know what you need in your next lens. If it is a real need, buy the lens that you want to. If you know that you are missing something and it is not just consumerism hitting you, but you are still not clear in your mind, then this small article just might help.
When the film cameras ruled the lands, lenses were considered an investment. The images passed through the lens and then captured on film. Each frame of the film was like a new sensor and none of the electronics directly interacted with film. The top of line camera models had improvements in frames per second, metering modes, vertical hand grips and various other innovations to help the photographers (and sometimes to even confuse the photographers) but none of them actually contributed to image captured. Photographers used to change cameras but the same lenses were used. An old used camera depreciated in value but old lenses sometimes fetched more money that what they were initially bought for. The lenses were really an investment then.
The times changed and the digital cameras stepped in. Now the sensors and the electronics supporting sensor, play a major role. Old digital cameras had high noise even at medium ISOs. The latest cameras can be used at insanely high ISOs without serious effects of noise. (More on noise – Noise – Add or Remove) Every year new models are announced. So are the lenses still an investment? Yes, they still are. I have changed four digital bodies over the last few years but the lenses I use, have passed from one camera body to the other. Lenses are still an investment, sadly though photographers are also forced to spend a large chunk of money on the camera body.
(Micro Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 AI-s – one of my favorite lenses.)
This is my short guide which can help you make up your mind and buy your lenses in a rational manner.
Start with the basics
I always suggest starting with a standard prime lens. More about it – Prime Lens or Zoom Lens? Prime lenses improve the visualization and overall photography by forcing the photographer to see things in the way camera sees. Most camera sold today come with a kit lens which is zoom. Do not be sad if you have a zoom lens that came with the camera. They are also very good lenses but if you have a zoom, go ahead and buy a nifty-fifty or a 35mm prime lens. Use this lens exclusively for few months.
Next, revisit your old kit lens. Does it seem wonderful with what it can do? Do not buy another lens for at least an year. Use it to its maximum. Most of the photographers I have met use their kit lenses at both the extremes of the focal length most of the time. This is a terrible habit. Most zooms perform their worst at these focal lengths. I suggest stopping a few millimeters short at either end. For example if you have a 18-55mm kit lens, use it between 20-50 mm focal length range.
What is it that you need more?
After using the lens for a few months, photographers understand what is the limiting factor usually when it comes to their existing lenses. Those who have an inclination for close focusing tend to opt for macro where as bird/wildlife photographers start looking at telephotos. This is the stage where ‘investment’ makes sense. If possible, borrow a lens from a friend and use it for some days to understand the focal length and its challenges. Once comfortable, buy the best lens that you can afford. Remember lenses are not changed every year though you might change your camera bodies frequently. Used lenses are also a good option provided they are checked carefully. Some pointers on buying used lenses – Buying a used lens
Which lenses to buy?
Buy lenses that can serve multiple purposes. A Nikkor 105 DC lens can do portraits but it is not a macro lens. A micro Nikkor 105 on the other hand can do macro as well as portraits. The creamy bokeh of the DC lens can be had with the micro lens too, with just a little bit of effort while clicking.
It is not necessary to have continuous coverage of focal lengths. This is a common misconception. If you have a 18-55mm lens, there’s no need to compulsorily buy a 55-200 or similar lens. You can combine it with a 105mm macro or maybe a Nikkor 70-300 or even a Nikkor 200-500. It all depends on the style of photography and what subjects interest you.
For prime uses, one unwritten rule used to be to buy focal lengths in approximately doubling values. A user with an existing 50mm lens was told to buy at least a 105mm lens and then 200mm lens. Going wide, the same user was instructed to buy a 24 or a 28mm lens. I also used this method earlier to plan my purchases but now I have realized that I mostly use 25mm, 105mm and 135mm lenses. My camera bag has either 25mm with 105mm or 25mm with 135mm most of the times. Sometimes I ditch everything and use a standard 50mm lens. I have a 200mm lens lying with me which I have almost never used. It was bought following the above rule but later I realized that I did not use that focal length much.
When to buy?
When you start to really feel the need for a new lens and when you are also clear in your mind as to what you are looking for. No internet forums, no websites like this one and no discussions with other photographers. You yourself have to realize the need and you yourself have to define this need. When it happens, it is time to buy a new lens.
One lens a year is a safe method for the initial three years, if you happen to click lots and lots of photographs. That’s three lenses now. Usually this is more than enough for any serious hobbyist. After this take a pause. Let few years pass by and upgrade your lens with your next camera body purchase.
Never purchase a lens just because you saw it with your colleague or maybe you could have captured a specific shot which you could not because of the absence of a lens. Buy a lens only and only if the need for the lens starts to show up repeatedly.
As the Oracle (from the film Matrix) would say – A photographer will know when it is time to buy the new lens. Are you truly ready to move to this new lens?
Always remember – buy a lens only if it is going to be used. There’s no use of buying a good lens and keeping it packed.
(Bear – Nikon D200 with Sigma 150-500mm, f/8, 1/1250 sec, ISO 400. A lens which I rarely use because of its size. These are the kind of purchases I advice people to avoid. If you are into birds or wildlife, go for a long tele without a second thought. )