Lenses: The Eternal Question # 2

The last post introduced the unsolvable question of picking the right lenses, suggested starting with what you have / a kit lens, and using the amazing capabilities computers give us to understand how we are using what we have.  You can’t tell what you would have used if you had it, of course, but it’s still a good starting point.  At least, it was for me.

Part 2: Understand The Basic Approaches

Having read a lot of online discussion before getting my initial D60 + 18-200 – and far more after jumping in – I came to believe that everyone comes at things from a particular perspective, and usually makes recommendations from that perspective as to what is “right”.  Of course, they’re all right – everyone is recommending what genuinely works for them, and your task is to figure out which recommender feels closest to you.

However, this discussion is often a little stacked; those serious enough to head online and give advice to others (myself included if you count this as such) are almost by definition more serious about photography, and this often weights the opinions that you’ll see in a particular direction.  Thus, if you’re a beginning non-photographer (that is, just moving beyond a compact/cameraphone but certain that your intent is better memories, not selling images or launching a new career), it may be helpful to understand how these approaches apply to you.

Note that these approaches are not mutually exclusive, but it’s typical to at least start with one or another.

The examples here are all Nikon specific, but I’m pretty sure anyone with knowledge could translate this directly into Canon or other terms pretty easily.

Approach 1: One Lens to Rule Them All

Just because you can change lenses with a DSLR, does not mean that you have to.  The benefits of near-instant response time when you press the shutter button, fast auto-focus, better image quality especially in low light, and others apply as much regardless of whether you have one lens or twenty.  Indeed, anyone with a DSLR wishes that there was the one universal lens that did everything they need, but alas, no such thing (yet).

Occasionally, you’ll see the philosophy that a single fixed (i.e. can’t zoom) wide angle lens is all you need.  In fact, anyone coming from a cameraphone as their main equipment will likely be quite familiar with this idea, and indeed by adjusting your perspective it’s possible to achieve quite a range of results despite a fixed focal length.  An example of this is the attractive, retro-styled Fujifulm X100, pictured below (the image is Fuji’s, and links to their X100 site). I can’t bring myself to pay even close to the astronomical $1,200 asking price – even though I like the concept, and like the controls (which I just realized are almost exactly what I asked for in the M/A/S/P post):

More often, proponents of the one-lens approach recommend a zoom that covers a decent range from the wide end through to at least a mild telephoto.  It’s much more typical to find yourself wanting something wider than it is to lack reach when dealing with one-lens situations (especially on anything less than a full-frame camera, which an all-in-one shooter is almost certainly going to be using). S0 18mm (on crop sensors) is usually the minimum you see here.  Nikon makes a whole boatload of lenses for this purpose; the more popular current ones are:

  • 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 DX VR – $100 kit lens that adds very little to the cost of the camera.  It’s wide enough, but it’s reach on the long end is pretty limiting, which is why it’s designed to be paired with something like the 55-200mm or 55-300mm telephoto zooms.
  • 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 DX VR – $200 kit lens that just about doubles the reach of the entry level kit lens, giving you a very usable range.  I recommended this as a good starting point to figure out what you really use.
  • 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 DX VR – $800 “superzoom” that covers an absolutely enormous range, but comes with a hefty price tag to match.  This is the only lens in this category that I’ve personally owned.
  • 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6 DX VR – $700 lens that gets 2mm wider at the expense of some reach – but that is respected as having the best image quality in this class.
  • 24-120mm f/4 VR – $1200 full-frame lens that gives similar coverage to the 16-85mm on an FX camera; there’s also a smaller, cheaper, variable aperture version.  Neither version seems to be too popular with users.
  • 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 VR – $1050 full-frame lens that’s equivalent to the 18-200mm but for full frame.  Again, only viable on a full-frame camera (28mm is not nearly wide enough on DX), where it’s unlikely that this will be your only lens.

I only mention Nikon offerings above, but many 3rd-parties like Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, and others have decent offerings as well, usually for much less money than Nikon (kit lenses aside).

The major appeal of this category is that it’s convenient (no changing lenses around and missing things while doing so), relatively light (vs. carrying multiple lenses), and inexpensive.  What you give up for this is wider apertures – almost all of the above are zooms that hit f/5.6 on the long end – and in most cases, some image quality. Bokeh (background blurring) in particular tends not to be great on almost any lens in this category.  And while the range of focal lengths is good, you don’t get that wide, or that long.

I started in this category, before growing out of it.  Per my last post, I think it’s a great place to start as you learn your way around and figure out what you really need.  In my case, I tried and loved the increased sharpness of primes, which was my first step out of this camp.  Also, in the D60 era, going anywhere above ISO 800 noticeably reduced image quality, so I tended to try and stick to ISO 400 or below, and this meant the lack of wider apertures hurt quite a bit.

I think my personal error was not starting with this category – it was definitely the right category for me at the time – it was that I should have gone with a $200 kit lens instead of spending four times as much on the 18-200. The 18-200 is supremely convenient and I still take it when I need a one-lens solution, but with the difference in price I could have been experimenting with primes and different lighting options instead.  Or having some really nice meals.

Still, there’s many pictures of the family – including nearly the entire first year of Olivia’s life – that the 18-200 captured for me, and despite having acquired quite a bit more gear it’s still a definite candidate when I’m getting on a plane and don’t want to bring multiple lenses along.  Here’s a rather poor picture of my actual lens – highlighting how what a pro photographer knows is still vastly different from what I know:

Telltale non-photographer signs above (besides the lack of overall quality):

  • Using a blue polka-dot baby blanket to reflect some light back from my one and only external flash, which you can clearly see in the front element reflection.  Sorry, it’s all I had!
  • An F75 film SLR standing in as an “arm model”, like the owner of an anonymous arm used in a Rolex commercial who is there just because they need something – anything – to attach the watch to.  I’ve only got one DSLR body!
  • Black background with the plastic tripod visible.  I have nothing resembling a studio (and don’t need one, as that’s not where my kids play); the above was taken in my kitchen!

Approach 2: A Set Of Primes

Don’t worry, this one isn’t a math question about prime numbers.  Prime lenses are just another way of referring to lenses that operate at just a single focal length (like the Fuji X100 above) and don’t zoom.  If you want the subject smaller, you step back; if you want the subject larger, you step forward.  Of course, stepping backwards isn’t possible in an enclosed room, and stepping forward when you’re shooting the Grand Canyon can certainly bring you closer to its rock formations in a hurry, but probably not in a manner that you’d like.  Plus if you’re shooting landscapes, you’ll need a fairly impractical number of steps to adjust your perspective, but hey, if you’ve never climbed Everest, go for it!

How many primes you need depends on what you shoot and how many of those aforementioned steps you’re willing to take. Nikon seems to think that the answer is “as many as you can carry”, and thus you see 14mm, 16mm, 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 60mm, 85mm, 105mm, 135mm, 180mm, and 200mm+ primes available, with the 24, 35, 50, 85, 105, and 200 being quite current.  There’s many others in between if you look, like the Nikkor 58mm f/1.2 Noct, which seems to fetch almost $4,000 used.  200mm+ primes  are usually rather expensive (thousands of dollars), and bulky enough that only pros with specific needs venture there.

Primes typically give you the best image quality – and historically, a much lower per-lens weight – at the focal length they cover.  They are also typically quite fast; few primes are “slower” than f/2.8, and the fastest are f/1.4.  A shot that’s ISO 200 @ f/1.4 would be ISO 3200 at f/5.6 – the difference is deceptive, because light absorbed is proportional to the square of the aperture.  However, the fixed focal length means you better be prepared to switch lenses!

With that as context, a few comments on going this route as a non-photographer, based on my own personal experience:

  • I started with a very standard 50mm prime; I got the 50mm f/1.4D ($350), but the 50mm f/1.8D ($130) works just about as well.  On a crop camera, this is actually pretty long – it’s useful for portraits but you’re not going to get a group shot with a 50mm lens.
  • I received the 85mm f/1.8D around the same time, and found that this was essentially as long as I wanted/needed to go on DX.  I used to joke that if I’m shooting my kids @ 200mm, then I’m too far away from them!  The 85/1.8 is a great lens and also only about $350-400.
  • A prime lens that no Nikon shooter with a DX camera should be without is the 35mm f/1.8 DX.  It doesn’t work on full frame, but it is a very useful focal length on a crop sensor, and produces great results for its low price (now $280 new) and size.  I pretty much stopped using the 50mm f/1.4D after this came out; the 35 + 85 combination was just a better match for most things.
  • Sadly, the wide end is a real problem if you’re using any DX (i.e. consumer) camera.  The widest prime you can economically find is probably the 24mm f/2.8D, and that’s not wide enough on DX.  Thus while I liked primes a lot, I got the 10-24mm DX ultrawide zoom to cover the wide end. Thom Hogan frequently calls for Nikon to wake up on this one, and I hope that they listen to him and do.
  • If you think primes sound interesting, buy a D90 or above.  In fact, with the recently released D5100 having the same sensor and image quality as the D7000, and pretty much every modern zoom having AF-S and working just great on the D5100, one of few major reason to get something better is if you want to use older primes that require a focus motor.  The 50/1.8, 50/1.4D, and 85/1.8 all still require that the camera has a built-in focus motor; otherwise, you’ll be manually focusing them.

Nikon has modernized some of their primes recently, but for some reason they seem to think that only people made of money are interested in them (though an upcoming 50/1.8 AF-S addresses this at least a little).  Their 3 most recently updated primes – the 24/1.4, 35/1.4, and 85/1.4 – all cost $1700 or more, each.  That makes this set containing all three a “bargain” at just 4,900 Euros (photo origin unknown, I found it on Nikon Rumors but Nikon is likely the original source):

So, get a camera with a focus motor and get some older, cheaper primes. Unless you ARE actually made of money.

Approach 3: The Holy Trinity

On a crop sensor, covering the entire range of meaningful focal lengths requires 10-12mm on the wide end, and 200-300mm on the long end.  This offers everything you’d need from an ultra-wide perspective through to shooting faraway things (like a bank account that allows you to retire, after buying all this stuff).  No all-in-one solution does that, and on crop sensors, no set of primes does that either – and long primes cost a veritable fortune (the 300/2.8 is $6,600).

When I started looking beyond the 18-200, there was a full frame set of three high-end zooms – dubbed “the holy trinity” – that covered a wide range while providing image quality comparable – and in some cases superior – to equivalent primes.  Pulling this 0ff was something of an engineering marvel, as prior to this zooms had generally been considered a convenience that was going to cost you in terms of image quality.  Not anymore!  The only compromise was a maximum aperture of f/2.8, but that’s pretty reasonable for most subjects.  There were three members of this “holy trinity”:

  • 14-24mm f/2.8G AF-S
  • 24-70mm f/2.8G AF-S
  • 70-200mm f/2.8G AF-S VR

Even used, each of the above goes for about $1,500, and they’re considered pro zooms.  But they’re a benchmark for what you can get without compromise.  And they’re expensive particularly because they are full frame lenses. Still, you can come up with much more economical combinations with the same philosophy – an ultra-wide zoom, a mid-range zoom, and a long-zoom.  Here’s what I’ve tried or considered in this range:

  • 10-24 DX + 24-70 + 70-300 VR.  This combination costs a little over half of what the above would cost, and compromises with variable aperture zooms on the wide and long ends, but actually covers a much wider 10-300 range (compared to 14-200 above).  This is the combination I own and use, but I can’t recommend it for everyone due to the size & cost of the 24-70.
  • 10-24 DX + 18-55 VR + 70-300 VR.  Swapping out the expensive pro 24-70 for a kit lens like the 18-55 takes this same approach but chops the price and size of the combination down enormously, which still retaining the 10-300 range.  You could also use the 55-300 DX VR zoom instead of the bigger full-frame 70-300 VR, but opinions of the latter are much better than of the former.
  • 10-24 DX + 35/1.8 + 55-200 VR.  Even better than the above is breaking the rules a little and using the 35/1.8 prime to cover the middle of the range.  I’d definitely do  this over the above, but it does make the 55-200 (or 55-300) options more appealing to get a bit better mid-range coverage.

In the latter two combinations, the 10-24 DX contributes the largest part of the cost.  There are alternatives here, like the Tamron 10-24 (much cheaper, though reportedly lower image quality) or others – and you may not really need ultra-wide coverage below 18mm.

Of course, nothing says you need to go with three zoom lenses.  Notable two-lens combinations are:

  • The classic 18-55 DX + 55-200 DX pair that provides great coverage, at half the price of an 18-200mm with a little less convenience.
  • The 16-85 DX + 70-300 VR pair is something I think would work really well for a lot of people; it’s about three times as expensive at $1200, but both of those lenses are considered to be top notch from an image quality perspective.  The 16-300mm range is very decent unless you really want ultra-wide coverage.

Approach 4: DX Now, Full Frame Later

Should I favor (or exclusively purchase) full frame lenses over DX counterparts that only work on crop sensors?  This question comes up because almost every non-photographer is going to have a crop camera (anything below the D700 on Nikon, or the 5D on Canon), but will nonetheless wonder if they might upgrade someday – especially if full frame camera prices drop far enough.

In most cases, the answer to this question is: no, you won’t.  Why?

  • Crop sensors today are really good.  When the D3 (Nikon’s first full frame camera) showed up, you’d be hard pressed to go beyond ISO 800 on a crop sensor.  Today, you can do ISO 3200 with the same approximate image quality on a crop camera.  Resolution (short of the $8,000 D3X) isn’t notable different between crop and full frame sensors, nor are other parameters like dynamic range.  Do you really need to get to ISO 6,400 or ISO 12,800?
  • Full frame won’t be mass market, and will thus continue to be expensive.  If Nikon (or Canon) thinks they can get you for $2,000 a lens for full frame lenses (and they do), you can bet they’re not planning for a $1,000 full frame camera.
  • You’ll still wind up with some DX gear that will inhibit switching in the interim.

Despite this reasoning, I still think I’ll go FX someday, and thus I now favor full-frame lenses.  This is because:

  • I’m too foolish to follow my own advice.
  • When I’m old, I think I’d rather have nice pictures to look at (with the 0.5MP eyes I will have), than memories of a nice car or a bigger house, so I’m prepared to spend proportionally more on this, mitigating the cost issue somewhat.
  • I already have a decent collection of full frame lenses, and tend to like primes which are mostly designed for full frame anyways.
  • I found the images from the D700 I used for a while to be really nice, notably better than my D7000 even with everything else held constant.  I don’t know if full frame is a requisite ingredient to achieve this, but despite a 2-3 year technology gap it’s still the best camera I’ve used – and I’m really wondering what it’s replacement is going to do.

Once again, I think the above are all factors that are sort of unique to me, and not true of most non-photographers.  Buying for DX is significantly cheaper, and if you go used, it’s not expensive to make the switch if you were wrong!

Approach 5: I Want It All

If you bumble around without a strategy for what approach works best for you, you may wind up staggering around through each of the above, picking up a little gear along each step of the way.  That’s exactly what happened to me:

  • I started with the 18-200 all-in-one mentality;
  • Then I warmed to prime lenses, using the 50/1.4 overwhelmingly, followed by the 35/1.8 + 85/1.8 combination;
  • I discovered the DX wide prime hole, and plugged it with the 10-24;
  • Around this point in time, my daughter started running – sometimes towards me – and I doubt even a pro could change lenses faster than she runs.  I got the 24-70 which quickly became the most popular lens in my collection.  Now running kids was slightly better handled – a shot seconds before this was at a very different focal length:

  • With the above, I got a D700 (which wasn’t ultimately intended for me), which made clear that full frame was a distinctly attractive possibility to me despite all the drawbacks.
  • With the 24-70 as my new favorite, coverage on the long end became more important as I was no longer bringing the 18-200 out; but 70mm maximum is short on the long side.  Hence the 80-200/2.8 and 70-300 VR (both of which I have to thank my stepfather for).

At least I can credibly claim that I understand the different approaches to putting a set of lenses together, having tried pretty much all options!  That said, this was certainly not the most economic route to get to the set of lenses I most actively use today.

Perhaps I do this to convince myself I’m not a fool for accumulating all this stuff, but a real benefit of having gone through the above is that I now have a choice – every time I head out and bring the camera, I can choose what makes the most sense for that outing. Sometimes, just the 35/1.8 is nice and small, and good enough for the situation.  Often, I just bring the 24-70. On a one-day, no-checked-bags trip to New Orleans, it was still the 18-200. Today at the park, it was the 10-24, 35, and 105. Earlier in the weekend, the zoo called for something like the 70-300, which was helpful in getting this shot that I sort of like – he (or she) seems to be wondering what lenses he needs too:

It’s definitely a luxury to have the choices I do – good thing I’m not into cars or boats or something else costly!


  • Ruth Berlien

    Hi Mark,
    I found your blog via a link you posted on dpreview, which I just joined (lurked for 5 yrs in the P&S forums) but last year decided to upgrade to DSLR. Being highly analytical, I scoured every resource I could find and by October was so confused I was unable to make a decision (spreadsheets, graphs etc). Recently I posted on dpreview re: lenses and got very good advice but as usual, I had to keep looking. Your blog has made the most sense to me of the thousands websites/articles I have read, you write in a way that I understand (being a non-photographer) and you hit the nail on head for every one of my questions in these blogs. Thank you! Today, I am finally ordering my camera and a few lenses. Before I read your blog, searching more dpreview posts, I actually started over thinking d7000 instead of d90. I’ve decided on the d90 with the 18-105 kit VR kit lens, 70-300 VR (I will want that little extra zoom) and the 35 f/1.8 prime. I love macro, I can see that as the next lense addition.
    Kind Regards, Ruth

    • Mark

      Hi Ruth, I’m glad that you found something useful here; I mostly wrote the things here for people I know directly but the D90 vs. D7000 thread was just too similar :). I’m sure you’ll be happy with the D90 + 18-105 + 70-300 VR + 35/1.8, there are few situations you’ll need more in I think!

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