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What Lens Should I Buy Next?

Canon's Insanely Extensive Lineup of Lenses

Here's a common question I get in my inbox: "What lens should I buy next?"

It's something we've probably all wondered at some point in our photographic lives (myself included), so I thought I'd write up a short article here detailing my answer. But before I go into my thoughts on this query, I can't help but point out the peculiarity of it.

This question puts the cart before the horse. It asks what lens to buy next before asking "do I need to buy a new lens?" There's an assumption that you must need some new, different lens...of some sort...probably. It's almost making the statement that there is always another lens to buy. But remember that these are lenses, not shoes. They are advanced, complex, expensive instruments that will last you a long time. They are more of an investment than a purchase. So, before you ask what lens you should buy next, ask yourself if you need to buy another lens.

But how do you know if you need to buy another lens? After all, you haven't tried each one...

Well, my answer to the question in question (read that again, it makes sense) is the same answer I give everybody: "Your shooting will reveal to you what new equipment you need." What I mean by that is that as you shoot, you will quickly find out what lens you need based on what barriers you hit with your current equipment.

For instance:

  • If you find yourself always wishing you could zoom in closer because you can't get close enough to the action, then you need a longer zoom (read my recommendations here).
  • If you find yourself always moving backwards trying to pull in more of the scene, then you should consider a wide-angle lens (read my recommendations here).
  • If you find yourself always wishing you could focus on subjects closer to the lens, then you need a macro.
  • If you find yourself always wishing you could get blurrier backgrounds, then you need a lens with a wider maximum aperture...but that's assuming you already know how to use the aperture like the back of your hand and that you truly are getting the most out of your current lens.

So really, only look at buying new equipment if you're unable to achieve the pictures you want with the lenses you currently have. But let me qualify that statement in a big, BIG way: you have to be certain that you aren't able to achieve the pictures you want because of the lenses, and not because of your shoddy technique or lack of knowledge. Because if you're not fully trained in your current equipment and you don't know shutter speed, aperture and ISO like the back of your hand, then how can you be sure that you just aren't getting the full use out of your current equipment? You have to completely rule out user error, user incompetence, and user-desire-to-just-buy-a-new-toy-because-it's-fun-and-I-hope-that-will-make-my-pictures-look-how-I-want.

This is why amateur photographers get GAS - that's "Gear Acquisition Syndrome." I had a bad case of it for years. But new gear won't make your pictures better. Better technique will.

Just as an example, I've had a lot of people say to me that the kit lens that came with their camera is poor quality and their pictures are soft as a result - and they are certain of this fact. In all my 1500+ hours of teaching and helping students troubleshoot photos that are blurry, lack clarity and appear "soft", the lens has never been the issue. Never. Not once. It's been camera shake, too slow of a shutter speed, poor aperture selection, poor tripod technique, poor light, dirty filters and/or dirty lenses. But it's never been the lens quality.

Now I'm not going to say that certain lenses won't result in better pictures, but in order for a lens to result in better pictures, you must know how to use it to its fullest potential. Just like a 16-year-old brand new driver won't drive any better in a $200,000 Ferrari than in a $2000 Tercel, an amateur photographer won't get any better pictures with a $2500 lens than a $150 lens.

So don't be a 16-year-old in a Ferrari and don't get GAS. Buy equipment when you truly need it, not because you want it.

Choosing a Telephoto Zoom Lens

Along with a good mid-range zoom lens and a wide-angle zoom, a telephoto zoom will round out your collection of lenses quite nicely. A telephoto lens will zoom in further and magnify the subject more than a typical mid-range kit lens. This makes them great for "reaching" those far away subjects like wildlife, sports and even detail shots on landscapes.


This is 200mm on a full-frame camera (equiv. to 125mm on a small-frame)

When selecting a telephoto zoom lens, you'll have to consider a few things (in addition to budget). First, the higher the focal length number, the more "zoomed in" the lens can go. Meaning, a 70-200mm lens won't reach as far as a 100-400mm lens. So if you need to reach as far as possible, go for the higher focal length number.

You'll also want to look at the lens' maximum aperture. The maximum aperture is the widest the aperture can open on the lens. A wider maximum aperture will let in more light and, thus, allow the camera to use faster shutter speeds. So if you think you'll need fast shutter speeds when using the lens, you might want to consider getting the lens with a wider maximum aperture. The lens' widest maximum aperture is always indicated in the title. For instance, the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens can open all the way to a maximum aperture of f/2.8. Whereas the Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS can only open to an aperture of f/4. To learn more about how to understand lens nomenclature, check out this post.

Here are the telephoto zoom lenses I recommend:


Canon 55-250mmCANON

Entry-Level
Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS (buy - $255)

A great starter lens for those looking to get a little more reach out of their Canon DSLR. It's a mere $255, which shouldn't break the bank for most people, and it zooms pretty far out to 250mm. Although this isn't as far as the next lens, which reaches to 300mm, 250mm ain't half bad for a lens under $260. At this low of a price, though, the autofocus motor isn't as fast or as quiet as the more expensive lenses. But at least it has image stabilizer, which is a very nice perk on long lenses like these.

Canon 70-300mmMid-Level
Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM (buy - $549)

This lens has a few benefits over the 55-250mm discussed above. First, it reaches 20% further out to 300mm. When photographing wildlife or sports, that extra 50mm turns out to be quite a bit. The build quality of this lens is a little bit better over the 55-250, too. Sure, it's no magnesium-alloy tank like the professional series lenses, but it will feel a little more robust than the 55-250mm. Most importantly, this lens features Canon's Ultrasonic Motor (USM) auto focus system. That means this thing will focus much, much faster and much more quietly than the 55-250.

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L ISHigh-End Option 1
Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS (buy - $1,349)
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II (buy - $2,499) 

For your first high-end option, I'd recommend the Canon 70-200mm. At 200mm this lens really doesn't reach that far. Truthfully, it just isn't enough zoom for most wildlife photography. But for sports and portraits...it's phenomenal. That being said, Canon offers both a 70-200mm with a maximum aperture of f/4 and one with a maximum aperture of f/2.8. Both varieties come with or without image stabilizer, too (get it with stabilizer included - no doubt about it). As part of Canon's L-series professional line of lenses, both feature Canon's top-of-the-line optics, construction, weather-sealing and ultra-fast USM auto focus motors.

But now the real question: do I get the f/4 or f/2.8 version? Here's my short, no-nonsense recommendation: If you want to shoot portraits or sports and you won't have to hike long distances with this lens, get the f/2.8. The 2.8 max aperture will let in 1 stop more light than the f/4, which may be the difference between a shutter speed that's just fast enough or one that's just a little bit too slow for sports. And as for portraits, the ultra-blurry background at f/2.8 will make you drool. But if you're planning to use this more for photographing detail shots in landscapes or if weight will be an issue for you, go with the f/4. It's over a pound-and-a-half lighter than the 2.8 and it's only 1 stop loss of light, which is usually no big deal when shooting still subjects. Oh, and it's over $1,000 cheaper.

Canon 100-400mm High-End Option 2
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS (buy - $1,699)

If wildlife is your thing, then I'd recommend the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L. It reaches over twice as far as the 70-200mm and features the same pro-level build, optics, weather-sealing and image stabilization. At 3.04 lbs, it's no lightweight, so be prepared. But hey, the 70-200mm f/2.8 discussed above still has a quarter of a pound over this baby. The extra reach here will be worth the loss of light (which is actually quite a bit). And with today's modern cameras going up to 6-digits on the ISO in some cases, the lack of light won't be much of an issue.

 

NIKON

Nikon 55-300mmEntry-Level
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR (buy - $397)

Much like the Canon 55-250mm discussed at the top of this post, this Nikon 55-300mm is a great starter lens if you're looking to zoom in a little further for sports, wildlife, portraits or kids. It has Vibration Reduction (which is Nikon's brand of image stabilizer) and has a decent auto focus motor. Truth be told, though, this thing feels pretty chintzy in your hand. The focus rings always feel loose to me. I really think this lens should run more around $275 than $397, but again, good for starting out. It'll last you a couple years or less, then you can graduate up to a more rugged lens.

Nikon 70-300mmMid-Level
Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED (buy - $587)

This is a great mid-level telephoto that works perfect for those photographers looking to shoot the occasional kid's baseball game or the local air show. Like all lenses in this mid-level price range, it won't let in a ton of light, which may become an issue when photographing in dim environments, but the price and weight are just right for the casual shooter. The build quality is slightly better than the 55-300 above, but the zoom and focus rings still feel loose to me. It also has Vibration Reduction to help combat camera shake.

Nikon 70-200mmHigh-End Option 1
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II (buy - $2,397)

For close-range sports, portraits and scenic details, the Nikon 70-200mm is a superb choice. Its max aperture of f/2.8 will let in a boatload of light, allowing you to use faster shutter speeds and/or lower ISOs - perfect for capturing action. The build quality is leaps and bounds above the mid-level lens discussed previously. Rugged construction and weather sealing ensure this lens will go to hell and back with you, and never miss a shot. The optics, of course, are top-notch and the Vibration Reduction will be a godsend when handholding this puppy. It's pricey, but you won't need to replace it for years and years.

Nikon 80-400mm

High-End Option 2
Nikon AF VR Zoom-NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED (buy - $1,679)

If you need more reach than the 70-200mm can give you, the Nikon 80-400mm may be your best bet. It's rugged, tough and sharp - all good things when it comes to photographing wildlife. And with double the reach over the 200mm, you won't find yourself wishing for "more lens" as often. Don't get me wrong, though, you'll still want "more lens." Wildlife always leaves you wishing you could reach further. The loss of light with the smaller max aperture may be an issue when photographing in dim environments, but with ISO performance the way it is on newer cameras, it won't be a problem most of the time. Be prepared to carry the weight of this beast, though.

Photography Tips: Understanding DSLR Lenses

Skill Level: Beginner

If you've ever shopped around for a lens, you know that the titles of lenses can get pretty lengthy and confusing. With all the different abbreviations, numbers and labels, the name of a lens can look more like a complex algebraic equation than a product title. So that's why I've decided to put together this blog post to help bring some clarity to the convoluted science of naming a lens.

Here are 2 examples of what a lens title might look like:

I mean really...it's a little ridiculous how complicated those titles are. I'm sure they make perfect sense to the marketing geniuses who came up with all these fancy titles, but to the average person, it's practically a bunch of meaningless letters and numbers. So let's break the names down and look at each part of it individually.

1. Lens Focal Length Range

Starting with the core of the lens title, we have the lens focal length range. The lens focal length is always measured in millimeters and it basically indicates how "zoomed in" the lens can go. Higher focal length numbers (e.g. 300mm) mean the lens will zoom in further, whereas lower focal length numbers (e.g. 20mm) mean the lens will have a wider view. For instance:

On the left: 28mm. On the right: 70mm (full-frame camera).

If the lens has a range of focal lengths, like 55-200mm, then the lens can zoom from 55mm all the way out to 200mm. Lenses that don't zoom are called "prime lenses" and they will be indicated with just a single focal length number - like the Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM.

2. Maximum Aperture

After the focal length range, the title will have an aperture number or a range of aperture numbers. This indicates the lens' maximum aperture. In other words, it tells you what the widest available aperture is for that lens. For instance, on the Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM, the widest aperture you can use is f/1.4 (remember that the smaller the f-number, the wider the aperture).

But then what's the smallest aperture you can use? Well, you'll have to dig a little deeper into the lens specifications to find that out. The minimum aperture for a lens (that is, the smallest opening) is never indicated in the title. Only the maximum aperture is. That's because the majority of customers don't care what the smallest aperture is. Most people want lenses that let in more light, not less. Only us landscape photographers care about the smallest aperture a lens can use.

Alright, now it gets a little tricky, so stay with me...

Some lenses have a range of apertures indicated after the focal length, like the Nikon AF VR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED lens. In this case the maximum aperture for the lens is listed as "f/4.5-5.6". When you have a range of apertures like this, that means the available maximum aperture will vary depending on how zoomed-in you are. The first aperture in the range indicates the maximum aperture for the short end of the zoom range. The second aperture in the range indicates the maximum aperture for the long end of the zoom range. This is called a "variable maximum aperture."

So in this example, the maximum aperture of the lens when you're set at 80mm will be f/4.5. But when you zoom the lens into 400mm, the maximum aperture decreases a bit to f/5.6. Having a variable maximum aperture like this allows the manufacturer to make the lens more compact and less expensive.

If your lens has a zoom range, but only 1 aperture listed, that means the lens' maximum aperture will be the same throughout the entire zoom range. For instance, on the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, the lens can open all the way up to f/2.8, regardless of whether the lens is at 70mm or 200mm.

3. Features and Other Fancy Marketing Terms

All the other letters and abbreviations in the title of a lens will indicate features, quality and other marketing terms. For instance, if the maximum aperture has an "L" after it on a Canon lens - like the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II - then the lens is classified in its professional line of lenses. That means it'll most likely be weather sealed, the glass will be better quality, the image quality will be top-notch and the overall build will be more rugged.

There are a ton of different labels indicating all sorts of features and specs. Nikon especially has a very convoluted, over-complicated set of designations. Since there are so many, I won't bother defining all of them here, but I will address some of the most common ones. For a complete list of Nikon lens labels, check out this great article at DPanswers.com. For Canon's, here's a good article over at BobAtkins.com.

CANON

  • EF - "Electronic Focus" - This is the designation for all lenses fitting modern EOS bodies
  • EF-S - Same as "EF" except the lens is specifically designed for and will only fit APS-C format DSLRs like the 60D, 7D and Rebel series cameras (in other words, it won't fit full-frame cameras like the 5D or 1Dx)
  • USM - "Ultrasonic Motor" - This is what Canon calls their ultra-fast and ultra-quiet auto focus motor. USM lenses focus quickly, quietly and will typically have full-time manual override
  • IS - "Image Stabilization" - These lenses have built-in optical image stabilizer to help combat camera shake
  • L - This will come after the maximum aperture and it designates Canon's line of professional-grade lenses
  • DO - "Diffractive Optics" - This is a technology Canon uses in a few of its lenses that allows them to make telephoto lenses much more compact
  • Macro - A true macro lens will allow you to focus closer than a non-macro lens - good for photographing close-ups

NIKON

  • Nikkor - This is just Nikon's brand name for their DSLR lenses
  • AF - "Auto Focus" - If the lens has "AF" only (not "AF-S"), then the lens auto-focuses using the AF motor built-in to the camera. In other words, the lens itself has no AF motor. It relies on the camera body to drive the focus. Some Nikon cameras don't have a focus motor in the body, so they can't auto focus with these lenses.
  • AF-I - These lenses autofocus using an internal (that's what the "I" is for) AF motor built in to the lens instead of into the camera body as described above
  • AF-S  - The "S" indicates that it utilizes Nikon's current "Silent Wave" motor to auto focus. This type of AF motor is quieter and typically faster than the older AF-I motor
  • VR - "Vibration Reduction" - These lenses have built-in optical image stabilizer to help combat camera shake
  • D or G - It's kind of complicated. Check out this explanation at DPanswers.com
  • DX - This indicates that the lens is designed for and will only fit Nikon's DX "digital format" DSLR cameras
  • FX - This indicates that the lens will work on full-frame Nikon DSLRs as well as digital format DSLRs
  • ED - "Extra-Low Dispersion" - Indicates that the lens utilizes some special glass to help reduce chromatic aberration
  • IF - "Internal Focus"  - This means that the lens focuses by moving elements inside the lens barrel instead of moving the front element. As a result, the front of the lens won't extend out or rotate when focusing.
  • Micro - Nikon's indication for a macro lens