Trying to decide which lens to buy? The options are overwhelming! Clients and friends frequently ask me what lenses I use and recommend. I wanted to do a quick post about which lenses are my favorites as there are literally hundreds of available options. Many people think if they buy a pro camera, their photos are automatically going to be amazing. Unfortunately you can have a great camera… but pair it with a crappy lens and your photos will be lacking. Many high end cameras ship with cheap, high aperture “starter” lenses. Not knowing any better, many of you purchase a great camera but then can’t figure out why your photos don’t look quite as good as you wanted. Usually the culprit is a cheap “kit” lens! Switching to a higher quality, low aperture lens could make all the difference for you.
Lenses are of utmost importance for your final image. Quality lenses are sharper, the colors are more precise, proportions and edges are more perfect, I personally prefer low aperture lenses. Low aperture lenses are capable of producing beautiful blurry backgrounds (also known as bokeh).
So how do you achieve sharp, crisp images with beautiful colors and gorgeous bokeh / blurry backgrounds? To capture a soft, lovely bokeh in the background of your photos you need a low aperture lens. The lower the aperture of the lens, the blurrier and softer the background of your photo will be. I personally have loved that look for as long as I can remember.
(Don’t know what aperture is? Check out my article on understanding apertures HERE).
Here I’ll outline some of my favorite lenses for crispness, versatility, and bokeh. I have used all of these lenses for years in my professional career and cannot recommend them enough!
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First Camera Lens
So, where to begin?? If I were starting all over again and had to choose one lens, I would pick one that was versatile. A lens that could zoom in and zoom out, a lens that would work well in a variety of common situations. One of my favorite lenses that fits this bill and is fairly affordable is a 28-75 mm Tamron lens .
This lens is FANTASTIC for a pretty, blurred background and is super versatile because it can zoom in and out. I have used the HECK out of these lenses over the years. It’s a little bit of an investment, but worth every penny. Similar Canon lenses go for 3-4x the cost of the Tamron version. This is a professional grade lens at a value price. See it HERE. It ranges in cost from $399-$499 depending on which brand (Canon/Nikon/etc). Folks, for the money you can’t beat this lens. And it’s relatively obscure- most people do not know about this lens! It is a great lens to photograph your kids around the house and of the best lenses for traveling. You can use it for portraits (at 70mm), or everyday uses with the zoom functions. Honestly, I don’t see much difference at all between it and more expensive Canon/Nikon lenses in the quality of the image for everyday use. I wish after buying the much more expensive Canon version of this lens I could say I see a huge improvement, but truth be told I don’t.
If you do have a larger budget and would like to kick the quality up a few notches, I highly recommend the newer version of the Tamron SP 28-70 2.8 with Image Stabilization. It’s a beautiful, sharp, quality lens but does come with a much higher price tag. Find it here in Canon or Nikon versions! I love this lens and you will love the results after using it!
Special Use Lenses
Next, depending on your interests and uses I would either recommend an artistic portrait lens (for beautiful portraits of people), or a zoom lens for sporting events (think kid’s soccer games, faraway wildlife photos, or faraway photos while traveling).
Beginner Sports Photography Lens
If taking pictures of your kiddos at daytime sporting events or faraway nature photos are important to you, this affordable 70-300 is one of my favorite starter lenses 🙂 Have you ever tried to photograph your kiddo out on the soccer field, or running to second base at his baseball game? Have your tried to get a close up photo of that elusive bird in the tree or deer out in the field? Most lenses just can’t cut it. You take the photo, and your kiddo or subject is so far away that you can barely make them out. And then you’re lucky if they’re actually in focus. THIS lens gets you in CLOSE and has great sharpness in daylight hours!! It’s a great zoom lens to get up close sports photos (soccer baseball, etc) in the daytime, or to get daytime wildlife photos from far away. It’s not an overly expensive or fancy lens. You can spend a LOT more money (Sports Illustrated photographers use lenses that are 20k-50k EACH) to get a perfect sports photo. This lens is a GREAT deal, and will get you a very favorable result for your money.
If you have a larger budget, and would like the same type of lens only a few steps up, the Tamron 70-200mm 2.8 is an incredible lens. Much more expensive, but sharper, better colors and vibration reduction for a crisp image. It is available in both Canon and Nikon versions, be sure to select which brand you need. This lens produces BEAUTIFUL images.
Portrait Photography Lenses
If taking beautiful portraits of your kiddos or subject is important to you, I’d purchase the 85mm 1.8 Canon or the 85mm 1.8 Nikon. This is a BEAUTIFUL portrait lens for a great price. If you’re trying to do a gorgeous portrait of a baby, child, or adult (let’s say standing still in a field or in a studio) THIS is your lens! This lens will produce a very crisp, sharp image with a lovely bokeh and delicate blurred background. Many pro photographers I know (including myself!) use this lens rigorously at portrait sessions and weddings.
As always, if you are looking to kick it up a notch and want top of the line (but still with great value when compared to similar models), I highly recommend Sigma Art lenses. These lenses are incredible, but do come with a higher price tag. Grab the Sigma 85mm 1.8 and you will be floored – it has the best colors, sharpness and bokeh. Check it out here, but be sure to select the correct brand before hitting purchase.
A quick side note about focal lengths and deciding which length is best for portraits. You can get decent pictures with shorter focal lengths (28-75mm) BUT the 85mm length becomes especially important when photographing people. In the ranges of 85mm-200mm, the lens compresses the image so that someone’s facial characteristics are proportional. You know how sometimes you look in a mirror too close, and it distorts your face?? (Like your nose looks huge, or your chin is gigantic)?? That is because you are too close, and your proportions are distorted. By using a longer mm lens, like an 85mm, 100mm, or above, this guarantees that distortion won’t happen. So why not go all out and use a 300mm all the time? Because unfortunately, the longer the lens the more chance there is that you will have blurry images. Any teeny tiny shake in a long lens while shooting in lower light conditions could potentially make your image blurry. Plus if you’re shooting at 300mm, you have to be half a mile away from your subject (I’m exaggerating a little) which makes talking to them while shooting super awkward. Yelling “HEYYYYYYYY!!!! CAN YOU TURN YOUR HEAD TO THE LEFT A LITTLE??? WHAT? WHAT DID YOU SAY? HUH? I CAN’T HEARRRRR YOU!!!” over and over again is never fun at a shoot. LOL. This is why lenses that are 85-100 mm are considered gold for portraits! The lens is long enough to prevent most distortion but short enough that you can still easily communicate with your subject while shooting.
I hope this article helps you select the next great lens for your camera bag. Leave me a comment and let me know what questions you have, or leave a comment with photos you’ve taken using these lenses! Happy shooting!
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Krista Lee is a Nashville, TN based portrait and wedding photographer. See her work and professional site at www.kristaleephotography.com