“Ah, this new Sony a1!.. Oh, this new Nikon Z7!.. What beau­ti­ful pho­tos, what a sharp pic­ture and amaz­ing col­ors! But where to get two hun­dred thou­sand for a new cam­era?..” The answer is sim­ple — nowhere, because you don’t need a new cam­era. You need a new lens!

Pho­to: cio.com

It’s all about the lens

Many aspir­ing pho­tog­ra­phers sud­den­ly find that their shots are miss­ing some­thing in terms of image qual­i­ty. And it’s tempt­ing to think that buy­ing the lat­est full-frame mir­ror­less would be the key to unleash­ing that poten­tial. But the real­i­ty is usu­al­ly quite dif­fer­ent. If you want to take your shots from ‘pass’ to ‘wow’, there are two things you need to focus on right now: com­po­si­tion and bet­ter optics.

In this arti­cle, we’ll dis­cuss the part of the cam­era that light pass­es through, the lens. A qual­i­ty (which does­n’t always mean “expen­sive”) lens is a sure way to instant­ly improve image qual­i­ty. And not a new cam­era at all (we talked about when you should upgrade the cam­era in the last arti­cle).

Many vin­tage lens­es will give a great pic­ture on new cam­eras. True, you will have to for­get about aut­o­fo­cus. Pho­to: pixabay.com

In the days of film pho­tog­ra­phy, the “matrix” was the film itself, so the lens, not the cam­era, was pri­mar­i­ly respon­si­ble for image qual­i­ty. Despite the fact that the style of the pic­ture and the fea­tures of dif­fer­ent types of film dif­fered, it was the lens that was the main fac­tor in image qual­i­ty in its, so to speak, phys­i­cal aspect. Of course, the con­tri­bu­tion of the pho­tog­ra­ph­er him­self was also extreme­ly impor­tant: tech­nique and com­po­si­tion played an impor­tant role. Of course, the tech­nolo­gies that were used in the cam­era itself (aut­o­fo­cus, motors, elec­tron­ic expo­sure meter­ing, etc.) also influ­enced the image. But in the end, noth­ing could replace the lens as the most impor­tant phys­i­cal com­po­nent of pic­ture qual­i­ty. How­ev­er, the dig­i­tal era has come: we have a new vari­able that affects image qual­i­ty — the matrix. All of a sud­den, pho­tog­ra­phers of all skill lev­els and back­grounds began to pre­fer it over the lens.

This atten­tion to the sen­sor is jus­ti­fied if you are an expe­ri­enced pho­tog­ra­ph­er with a col­lec­tion of pre­mi­um lens­es that are com­pat­i­ble with dig­i­tal cam­eras. For every­one else, it does­n’t make sense. Even if you have the most advanced cam­era and use it with a cheap kit lens, you won’t get the per­fect pic­ture.

The kit lens is the one that comes with the cam­era, usu­al­ly 18–55mm and/or 55–200mm. While these “glass­es” can take great pic­tures, there’s no doubt that there are bet­ter lens­es out there.

The Canon EF‑S 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6 is one of the most pop­u­lar whale lens­es of its time, with a mil­lion beau­ti­ful shots. Pho­to: jano gepi­ga / lightstalking.com

Todd Vorenkamp, ​​who teach­es pho­tog­ra­phy at Dako­ta Col­lege Bot­ti­no, says that many of the stu­dents in his class take great pic­tures with old cam­eras and it’s the qual­i­ty of the lens that makes the biggest dif­fer­ence in their pho­tographs. A stu­dent shoot­ing with an old cam­era with a pre­mi­um lens takes bet­ter qual­i­ty pho­tos than a stu­dent with the same qual­i­fi­ca­tions using a new cam­era and a stan­dard kit lens.

There­fore, if you are still shoot­ing with a kit lens and you are not sat­is­fied with the pic­ture qual­i­ty, upgrade the lens first.

What to update

A pre­mi­um lens won’t auto­mat­i­cal­ly make you a pho­to­ge­nius, but it will instant­ly improve the image qual­i­ty of your shots. And no oth­er acces­so­ry can do this (and we would put a tri­pod in sec­ond place on the shop­ping list). The dif­fer­ence will be espe­cial­ly notice­able if you have pre­vi­ous­ly shot with an entry-lev­el kit lens.

There are two main types of advanced lens­es:

  • Pro­fes­sion­al zoom lens, usu­al­ly with a max­i­mum aper­ture (f/2.8 or faster), such as 24–70mm f/2.8 or 70–200mm f/2.8.
  • Almost any prime is a lens with a fixed focal length.

Does this mean you have to pay a lot of mon­ey to get a “pro­fes­sion­al” lens for your aging dig­i­tal cam­era? Not nec­es­sary. First rec­om­men­da­tion: get a rel­a­tive­ly inex­pen­sive fifty-fifty (a 50mm lens) or, if you’re shoot­ing with a crop sen­sor cam­era, choose a 50mm-equiv­a­lent focal length lens.

Not sure which lens to buy next after the whale one? Take a “fifty kopeck”! Pho­to cred­it: sonyimages.com

This, per­haps, will simul­ta­ne­ous­ly become the most prof­itable optics in terms of price-qual­i­ty ratio and the fastest way to improve pic­ture qual­i­ty. It is quite pos­si­ble to find a good “fifty dol­lars” up to ten thou­sand rubles.

Zooms and primes — other lens options

In addi­tion to the “fifty dol­lars” there are oth­er lens­es that will not cost you too much.

Do a lit­tle research: look at the meta­da­ta of your pho­tos (you can do this in any pho­to edi­tor) that you like the most. What focal lengths do you most often use with your kit zoom lens? Are you shoot­ing wide or long focal length? How wide? How long? After answer­ing these ques­tions, you will most like­ly be able to find a rel­a­tive­ly inex­pen­sive prime lens with a focal length around the focal length that you pre­fer (often uncon­scious­ly).

- For por­traits There is a whole fam­i­ly of 85mm f/1.8 lens­es that are very sim­i­lar to their 50mm f/1.8 cousins, capa­ble of pro­duc­ing fan­tas­tic image qual­i­ty at an afford­able price.

- For street pho­tog­ra­phy and every­day shots, choose between 35 and 50mm at f/2.

- If you zoom fanat­ic and not impressed with the idea of ​​con­stant­ly run­ning up to the right dis­tance with your fix, the next step after the whale “glass” will be a uni­ver­sal zoom with a max­i­mum aper­ture of about f / 4: 24–120mm f / 4 or 24–105mm f / 4 (or their equiv­a­lents for crop cam­eras).

Do you want a ver­sa­tile option? Get 24–120mm f/4. Pho­to: wikiwand.com

At f/4, you can find real­ly beau­ti­ful tele­pho­to lens­es around 200mm and 300mm, again show­ing excep­tion­al opti­cal qual­i­ty at a rea­son­able price.


Well-known wis­dom: “There are nev­er too many lens­es!” But why you may need sev­er­al cam­eras at once is a big ques­tion. Pho­to: nymag.com

So, if you want to instant­ly improve the image qual­i­ty of your pho­tos, the first thing to change is the lens. Before that, did you shoot with a kit (com­plete) lens or with some cheap zoom? Then you will be amazed how much bet­ter your image will change — sharp­er, more beau­ti­ful bokeh, etc.

Of course, mod­ern kit lens­es are very func­tion­al and reli­able, and you can also take fan­tas­tic pic­tures with them. How­ev­er, if you are tru­ly pas­sion­ate about pho­tog­ra­phy and want to improve your shots or, for exam­ple, spe­cial­ize in a cer­tain genre, buy­ing a good prime lens or a qual­i­ty zoom can be the solu­tion that will take you as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er to a whole new lev­el.

* In prepar­ing the arti­cle, mate­ri­als from the resource bhphotovideo.com (author Todd Vorenkamp) were used