Monday, April 9, 2012

How to Choose Lenses - PART 1

Investing in a DSLR system (and, in our case, Nikon), means investing into a whole array of lenses, flashes, and secondary equipment. For many, the options are overwhelming. In fact, for many the options become so overwhelming that they end up obtaining lenses (and other equipment) they simply do not need.

But what kind of lenses does one need? Well, there is obviously no simple answer to that. Each photographer has different expectations, different subjects, and different wallet.

In an ideal world, there would be one camera and one lens: a small compact-sized camera with all the speed, usability, and image quality of a pro DSLR; its only lens, would be a 10mm-300mm zoom lens with a constant f/1.4 aperture, VR, and zero distortion. Needless to say, it would be tack sharp and otherwise perfect.

But this is not an ideal world. And that's why we have different lenses for different jobs.

First of all, you need to know what kind of photos you're mostly taking. Yes, we all take "all kinds", but we do have our preferences. Divide your priorities into primary and secondary. Mine are portraits and landscapes respectively. If you can't think of any priorities (or if you insist in "I take all kinds of photos"), then you simply need a super-zoom. Get a Nikkor 18-200 VR (the first generation will do) and you're all set.

As for the rest, after clarifying your priorities, you need to consider one big decision: zoom or prime? Yes, yes..Many people will tell you "both; they are for different purposes". But in my personal experience, this is the first decision one should make and mostly stick with. Zooms nowadays are very good, they're handy, they're relatively small. But they will never become primes, in quality or speed. Let's face it. In addition, not having a zoom means you have to become more creative and thoughtful about your compositions - and, perhaps more importantly, about your anticipating some subjects and kinds of photos.

Let me use an example to clarify this latter part, which is more important than what most people realize. You think: "I'll take the camera, I'll go to the forest to take photos". If you have a 16-85 zoom lens with you, you tend to seek for all kinds of shots, from really wide angle to tele. You might wanna try some macros, too. You see an interesting-looking rock. Wide angle? Tele? How about close-up? Chances are, you'll end up taking 30 different photos, mostly uninteresting ones. But try leaving the house with only a Sigma 10-20mm. You can't take photos of far-away objects; You can't take proper macros. But you tend to see the world in ultra-wide terms. And this helps you, along the way, to make better decisions about stuff you can be interested in.

Let's get back to the issue: Zoom or Prime? In a nutshell:

+ versatile: you won't miss a shot (but read above)
+ pack lightly : no need to carry many lenses with you*
+ acceptable image quality (but read below)

- Image quality not as great as a prime, in most directly comparable cases
- Even a fast zoom is limited to f/2.8. That can be 2 full stops slower than a prime
- If you compare one zoom with one prime, the prime is usually lighter and smaller (in directly comparable cases; we're not talking about a 18-55 and a 300mm f/2.8 here)

* I've come to realize, that if packing lightly is really important to you, forget DSLRs altogether. Go for mirrorless. When I want to travel lightly, I prefer an Olympus Pen and a Panasonic 14mm f/2.5 pancake

+ Superb image quality

+ Fast
+ Can be small and light

- Obviously, not a zoom; these are definitely not "one-for-all" lenses
- they can be expensive (but not necessarily, if you know what to look for)
- because you need more than one, you need to do some correct decisions about focal length (so, read on!)

I have to admit, I'm a great fan of primes. I've owned and used plenty of zooms, and they have served me well, but I'm happy to give up their versatility (which, like we've seen, can be a boomerang) for all the benefits of a prime.

After you decide, zoom or prime, then it's all about priorities - and kinds of photography. We'll talk more about that in the second part

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