Buying your first lens is a great joy, but also a great responsibility.
Many cameras are immediately sold with a lens in the kit (such lenses are called “whale lenses”) — this is a good option to start your creative journey. But if you want to unleash the full potential of your camera and your own creativity, at some point you will have to consider buying one or two additional lenses. The new “glass” (as photographers call lenses) will help improve image quality or start shooting in a new genre.
How to choose the right model, given the variety of options available? In this guide, we will go over the main specifications to look out for before buying your first lens.
For beginners, the names of lenses are incomprehensible abracadabra. Fortunately, you can ignore most of the obscure letters and numbers, but a few of them are very important. They indicate the most important characteristics, which we will consider.
- Format — the size of the sensor for which the lens is designed.
- A mount is a lens mount that determines if a given lens will fit your camera.
- Focal length is a parameter that affects how wide or enlarged the image will be.
- Aperture — denoted by “F” or “f /” and determines how fast the lens will be and how much it can blur the background.
- Image stabilization — some models help stabilize the image to get rid of “shake” when shooting handheld.
Matrix and lens
The same lens on cameras with sensors of different sizes will show different pictures.
Today, the most popular cameras on the market are those with three main sensor sizes: 4:3, APS‑C and full-frame. The largest format is full frame, APS‑C is smaller, and 4:3 is even smaller.
When choosing a lens, it must be borne in mind that some glasses only work with cameras of a certain format. Quite often, camera manufacturers make the same mount for their APS‑C and full frame cameras.
At the same time, in most cases, full-frame lenses work fine on APS‑C cameras, but APS‑C lenses limit full-frame cameras to shooting in cropped (cropped) APS‑C mode.
You can find out for which format this lens is designed from the name. You will find the main designations in the table below.
Sometimes photographers start with cheaper APS‑C cameras but buy full-frame lenses that will be compatible with the full-frame camera they plan to purchase in the future. We advise you to use lenses that suit your needs today, not those that will better suit your dream camera.
Each camera manufacturer uses its own bayonet mount, which makes one brand’s lenses not suitable for another brand’s cameras: for example, Canon lenses will not fit a Nikon camera and vice versa.
However, there are exceptions for 4:3 cameras, which are jointly developed by Panasonic and Olympus, as well as for the L‑mount, which is compatible with full-frame cameras from Leica, Panasonic and Sigma.
Most companies today have focused on mirrorless cameras and lenses for them. However, many DSLR lenses work with mirrorless cameras from the same brand via an adapter. Mirrorless lenses do not work with SLR cameras.
|Canon EF‑S lenses are not compatible with the company’s full-frame SLR cameras, but APS‑C EF-mount lenses from other brands are.
|EF and EF‑S lenses work with EF‑M cameras via adapter
|Most EF lenses work with RF cameras via an EF/RF adapter
|4:3, Olympus, Panasonic
|Bayonet L, Leica, Panasonic, Sigma
|Full frame, APS‑C (TL)
|Cameras and lenses with TL mount (APS‑C) are made only by Leica
|Only modern AF‑S lenses support autofocus when used with Z mirrorless cameras
|Full frame, APS‑C (DX)
|Full frame (FA), APS‑C (DA)
|As with Nikon, there are K‑mount options, but most lenses work with the latest DSLRs.
|Full frame (FE), APS‑C (E)
|Other lens manufacturers use the E designation in the name for both APS‑C and full frame lenses, so it’s worth checking which format they cover.
A number of third party manufacturers, including Tamron, Tokina and Sigma, make lenses for cameras from other brands. Most options are available for DSLRs.
Sony allows third-party manufacturers to make lenses for its mirrorless E system, unlike Nikon and Canon — there are very few third-party options for their mirrorless Z and RF systems.
The first number in the name of a lens is its focal length. Combined with the size of the sensor, it determines the “angle of view” of your lens. The smaller the value in millimeters, the wider the viewing angle you get. Zoom lenses use two numbers that indicate the maximum and minimum focal lengths available for that model. For example, a typical kit zoom lens has a focal length of 24–70mm. Lenses with a fixed focal length (“fixes”), which do not know how to zoom, have only one number in the designation, for example 50mm.
In the image below, you can see how the picture changes depending on the focal length. At the same time, the smaller the matrix format, the narrower (cropped / cropped) viewing angle will be obtained. As a result, the focal lengths that you use with a camera of one format will be different from those that you need to use for the same purpose on a camera of another format.
|35mm (full frame)
|ultra wide angle
|24 mm and wider
|16 mm and wider
|12 mm and wider
|Long throw (telephoto)
|80 mm and longer
|55 mm and longer
|42 mm and longer
When talking about the focal length of a lens, a value often used is the 35mm (full frame) equivalent — the so-called equivalent focal length (EFF). For example, an 18–55mm kit lens for an APS‑C camera would have an EGF of 28–90mm.
This means that an 18–55mm lens on an APS‑C format camera covers the same angle of view as a 28–90mm lens on a full frame camera.
Zooms and fixes
At first glance, zoom lenses are an extremely convenient thing, and buying a prime lens may seem strange.
But fixes still have a number of advantages:
- smaller size and weight;
- more aperture;
- sharper picture.
This makes primes the preferred option for some applications, such as shooting in low light or for portraits with pronounced bokeh.
Aperture determines how much light a lens can capture, or, in other words, its aperture ratio. Aperture values are recorded in one of the formats: F4, f / 4 or 1: 4 — all this means the same thing.
The smaller the f/number, the larger the aperture and aperture of the lens. For example, an aperture of f/2.8 lets in twice as much light as f/4.
Popular aperture values that are one “stop” or “step” away: from left to right, each successive value lets in half as much light as the previous one.
A lens with a larger maximum aperture (smaller f/number) can shoot in lower light and take indoor photos without a flash. The aperture value affects the depth of field — the area of the photo in which the subject will be clear, not blurry. This is an important aspect for portrait and creative photography.
Longer lenses give a shallower depth of field for the same aperture value and when focusing at the same distance. To achieve the same shallow depth of field on APS‑C and 4:3 cameras as on full-frame cameras, you will needaboutbig diaphragm.
Lenses are designated by their maximum aperture. If the lens is labeled with an aperture range (e.g. f/3.5–5.6), these are the maximum apertures at the wide end and telephoto end, respectively. You can always lower the aperture size (close the aperture) if you need more subjects to be in focus.
Usually, the larger the lens aperture, the more expensive it is. For most situations, you’ll be fine with a maximum aperture around f/3.5. For portraits with pronounced bokeh, fixes from f / 1.8 are best suited. There are also super fast glasses with f/1.0 and even lower — they are a real rarity and are very expensive.
These recommendations are valid for full frame sensors. If you have a crop, you need to remember that the larger the matrix, the more light it captures. Accordingly, cameras with a smaller matrix need a faster lens. So you can take better pictures when shooting in poor lighting.
The image stabilization system allows you to get sharper shots when shooting handheld, minimizing the “shake” and judder in the frame.
Sometimes there is a built-in stabilization system in the camera itself (in the “carcass”), but many lenses are equipped with their own optical stabilization system. Such systems are especially effective with telephoto lenses, for which the built-in stabilization in the camera usually does not work effectively. Many cameras can combine the built-in system in the body and the optical system in the lens for even more effective correction.
Different manufacturers of stabilization systems are called differently. For them, different designations are used in the name of the lenses:
- Fujifilm and Panasonic — OIS;
- Nikon — VR
- Sony OSS;
A small summary
So, when choosing a lens, you need to pay attention to its format and mount — they must be compatible with your camera.
Next, you need to figure out the main characteristics that you need: focal length and aperture (maximum aperture). Decide whether you want zoom or prime, whether you need image stabilization — it is not so important if your camera itself is equipped with this function.
We will talk more about popular lens types and some additional features/features in our next article.
* when preparing the article, materials from the resource dpreview.com were used