The Smart Way to Buy Lenses for Your DSLR

May 07, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

So you have a DSLR.  You’re in the big leagues now.  Lots of new toys, tools and photographic options.  And lots of chances to spend your money.   Of all the photographic purchases you’ll make over the course of your life time, lenses are by far the greatest, and often most foolish expenses you will make.  So here are a few tips to stack the odds on your side.

The Truth About Spending Your Hard Earned Cash
for Photography Equipment.

Plan Ahead

Buying lenses is like looking into the future.  Think long term, not immediate need.  Here’s the real truth about spending for photographic equipment.  Cameras come and cameras go.  I guarantee you that getting the latest camera with the most advanced features is a fleeting high followed by a hard reality when a newer, better, and sometimes cheaper option soon follows.  Lenses, on the other hand, rarely change.  Improvements are often decades apart, and frankly they aren’t that big a deal.  So your cameras will change every few years as you need the latest features, but your lenses will stay with you for a lifetime.  Getting it right has a long term payback.

The Best Approach to Buying Your Lenses.

The best way to approach the process of buying lenses is to look at the big picture.  Determine what you reasonably expect to do with your photography over the next ten years, and setup a plan to buy the best lenses for meeting your goals.  Here are a couple of examples:

  • You hope to become a professional photographer, shoot weddings, portraits, sporting events etc.  This is where getting the BEST lenses will pay off both in your ability to get the shots you want, and achieving the high quality necessary for images you want to print large or cropped significantly.  Good lenses also remove unsightly aberrations that detract from the high quality you aim to produce.  So you need to buy fast lenses to shoot in dimly lit reception halls.  You need lenses that are protected from rain, or dust with good seals.  And you need them to last for a very long time.  To obtain these qualities lenses require specially shaped glass, coatings to reduce glare, tight tolerances to protect the inside from the environment, and materials that will last.  This means more money.  There is no way around it.  You can’t get the performance of a Porsche at the price of a Chevy. 

  • You like taking photos, but don’t plan on becoming professional.  You want good results without breaking into the kid’s college fund.  Your needs are far less demanding than the professional.  Don’t waste your money for the features that you will never really need.  If you shoot in a dark church on that trip to Rome, steady the camera on a bench or against a pillar.  Increase the ISO.  You have other options to get a good exposure rather than spending $2000 for a fast lens.  As for aberrations, they normally can be corrected on the computer.  And frankly, your family and friends won’t even notice them unless you make very, very large prints.  Get the less expensive lenses and just remember to protect them and your camera from the elements, such as rain, or the wind blowing dust around, or at the beach where the sand and salt in the air can force its way inside.  A large plastic bag can do the job nicely. 

  • So right about now you’re thinking…”O.K. smart guy, How can I take a picture with my camera and lens in bag?”   Well here’s my insider tip as veteran professional photographer with over half a century of experience.  Just trace the lens front onto the bottom of the bag, cut your circle out being sure to cut a bit inside the line, match up your lens with the hole, and attach a UV filter to the end to hold the bag in place.  Keep the bag zipped up and adjust the controls from the outside.  Voila!

Why Not To Rely on a Kit Lens

Buying the Right Lens

Most consumer model DSLR cameras come with a kit lens.  It isn’t always the best option to start with.  These lenses are usually in the middle of the zoom range, giving you the least amount of options.  The better approach is to buy the body and first lens separately.  You may pay a few dollars more, but you will have a single lens that will meet your needs for years. 

Buy a Long Range Zoom for Your First Lens

Buy a zoom lens with a long range.  You want to get a wide angle to moderate telephoto into one lens.  A lens in the range of 28 – 135 mm is a good choice.  On a smaller sensor camera, typical to consumer models this will get you the ability to shoot small groups indoors as well as isolate the Lincoln Memorial from the steps of the Capital. 

Buy a Ultra-Wide Zoom for Your Second Lens

Your next lens should probably be a ultra-wide angle zoom in the 10-24 mm range.  This will add the ability to get everyone in at the Thanksgiving table shot.  That’s it, unless you want to try some unusual shots like bugs up close, where a macro lens is needed.

If you want to head toward the professional side of photography, you need to spend lots more for each lens except for your first, the long range zoom lens with a wide angle.  There are expensive models of these, but they are not worth the money.  Buy the cheaper version as your first lens.  The ability to do it all in one lens has significant drawbacks for the professional.  Even though the large camera companies are producing wide zoom range lenses in the professional price range, you are better off from an optics standpoint with getting shorter range zooms.  The quality of the images will be far better. 

What are The “Perfect Three Lenses”

Professionals who shoot weddings, landscapes, and portraits almost always get the following lenses  which are known in the biz as the “perfect three”. 

  1. A fast mid-range zoom such as a 24-70mm, f2.8 best for most routine shots. 
  2. A medium telephoto like a 70-200mm, f2.8 for portraits and landscapes. 
  3. An ultra-wide zoom like a 16-35mm, f2.8 great for your getting-it-all-in wedding, or landscapes.

    Hint: If portraits are a large part of a professionals business, the addition of a super-fast prime (non-zoom) portrait lens like a 85mm, f1.2 or f1.8 provides great background control, and contrast.

Lenses:  Newer Does Not Mean Better

When to Buy a Lens

Don’t get all your lenses at once.  It’s too expensive a hit at one time.  Marriages have been lost by making this mistake.  Buy good lenses as you need them, not as you want them.  As new models are produced, older versions may reduce in price.  And as I mentioned earlier, the new models don’t usually add much.  Camera manufactures have been “updating” long-standing models with newer versions to force higher prices out of the newer customers.  Professionals know better and are not often willing to spend $1000 more for virtually the same lens.  When a 24-70mm was recently replaced with a newer model, the price of the older lens jumped by $800 simply due to demand from knowing professionals.

What You Must Know About Manufacturer’s Warranties

Buying Your Lens: New verses Used

New lenses come in two varieties.  American distributed and foreign distributed.  They are both the same lens, with the same manufacturer’s warranty.  But the American distributer won’t service foreign acquired lenses.  So if you get one, consider that you may need to ship a damaged or misaligned lens to Japan for repair.  Usually the small savings at purchase time isn’t worth the risk of high shipping costs if something goes wrong. 

The Most Important Things to Ask for When Buying Used Lenses

Used lenses can be a great bargain or headache.  So shop wisely.  Buy used lenses from large, respected dealers only.  Insist on at least a 90 day warranty.  Ask if they cleaned the lens and had its alignment and optics checked.  If you see a great bargain on eBay, be careful.  The last owner may have loved his equipment just as you do and a wonderful savings for a well cared for lens will be your reward.  However, he might be dumping the lens that the toddler dropped down the stairs.  You won’t know ahead of time.  Ask for a 30 day trial period.  Use eBay’s escrow option, or PayPal to insure that you can return the lens for a full refund.  When it arrives, take it to a professional who can bench test it.  Or take a series of shots of a yardstick or tape measure to check that its focus is correct.  Hold it to your ear as you turn the zoom and focus adjustments slowly to listen for sand or erratic spots.  It should be silk smooth and silent.  If it has autofocus, check that it is spot on.  Try autofocus and then manual focus of the same object about 10 feet away.  They should agree.   If there is image stabilization built into the lens, hold it while standing on one foot.  The view through the lens should be steady, even though you aren’t.

How to Care for Your New Lens

Once you have you new lens, keep it clean.  A UV filter will protect the front from dust and damage.  A soft brush will wipe away dust before it gets inside through the focus and zoom controls.  Keep it in a nice padded camera bag when not in use.  And protect it from side bumps as you carry it on your camera.  If you treat your lenses well, they will give you great results for a lifetime of photography.


You May Find These Related Posts Interesting:

How to Prevent Condensation and Keep Your Expensive Lenses Safe

How to Buy the Right DSLR Camera


No comments posted.
Read About Carl's Travels

I've completed a few photo tours of our great country and lived to write about it.   To read about my misadventures along the way, please visit my blog Travels into Wild America. 

A word of warning.  You may want to be near a box of tissues and a bathroom.  Tears of laughter are frequently reported.



1 = Basic   2 = Intermediate
3 = Advanced 
D = Requires DSLR
QT = Quick Tips