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  • Writer's pictureGary Holpin

A beginner's guide to choosing a new lens

Why buy a new lens?

If you're lucky enough to have an interchangeable lens camera (i.e. not a compact or bridge camera which generally have fixed lenses) then the chances are that at some point you will find yourself considering buying a new lens.

Cheaper interchangeable lens cameras generally come with a 'kit' lens, that is usually of moderate quality (at best) and usually span a 24-70mm focal length. This covers a wide variety of uses, from moderate wide angle (24mm, for landscapes) through to moderate telephoto (70mm, for portraits).

I generally advise my students to only spend money on equipment where there is something that you want to achieve that your current equipment doesn't allow you to do. Translating this into lenses, there are a number of reasons why you might consider buying a new lens:

1. Your current lens(es) don't cover the right focal length, e.g. you need to shoot wider for expansive landscapes, or more telephoto for wildlife or sports shooting. 

2. The quality of the lens is affecting the final image quality. Although it's not always easy to know whether image problems such as sharpness are caused by the lens, the camera body or the user, as a general rule, good / more expensive lenses result in better image quality than poor / cheaper lenses.

3. You need better low light performance. Better lenses often provide a wider maximum aperture, which lets more light in for shooting in low light. It can also provide better background blur for portraits (since larger apertures produce shallower depths of fields and therefore greater blurring). 

4. You need a lens for a specific type of photography. E.g. dedicated macro lenses are better suited to macro as they are designed to have a short minimum focal distance (so you can get close to bugs or flowers and still focus!) 

A Sony 2-70 f2.8GM lens

What to consider when buying a new lens

Having looked at some of the reasons why you might be thinking of buying a new lens, we'll now look in detail at some of the things to think about before you buy.

1. Budget

This is probably the biggest decision you will have - how much to spend! Only you can know what you can afford, but I would always suggest going with the best lenses you can afford, and this usually translates into the most expensive! Before you start, decide the maximum you can afford and try and stick to it.

When I was starting out, I didn't buy the best (even though I could probably have afforded them), and as a result I ended up replacing them for better quality lenses within only a year or two, which cost more overall. 

I have now had top of the range lenses for the last five years or so, and have only replaced a lens when it was broken. I have upgraded the camera body several times over the same period. Good quality lenses will last you for years, so it's always the best way to go if you can afford it.    

2. What will you use it for?

It's important to understand what photography you plan to do, in order to decide where best to invest your money in lenses. Only you can decide this, but some points to think about include:

- If you mainly do macro, then invest in a specialist macro lens

- If you mainly do landscapes, then having wider focal length lenses should be your priority (24mm or wider)

- If you mainly do wildlife or sports than having a telephoto lens (70-200mm or more) will be important

- If you mainly take photos of people, then a lens which covers focal lengths around 50-100mm should suit you well

- If you want to do low light photography, including night sky photography then having a lens with a large maximum aperture (f2.8 or bigger) will be a priority, but note that this starts to significantly increase the price!

As an example, I have the following lenses in my kit bag:

Sony FE 24-70mm f2.8 GM:The lens that stays on my camera most of the time and is used for everything from landscapes to portraits. The large maximum aperture allows me to use it in low light situations. As a GM lens it's the best quality I could get.

Sigma 14-24mm f2.8: An ultra-wide lens for landscapes and building interiors. As I use it less, I saved money by going for the Sigma over the much more expensive Sony equivalent.

Sony FE 70-200mm f2.8 GM: This telephoto lens is used for picking out details in landscapes, and for some portrait work at the 70-100mm range. 

Sony FE 24mm f1.4 GM: This prime (single focal length) lens has a very large maximum aperture and was purchased specifically for night sky photography as the large aperture lets in more light which allows me to keep the ISO lower.

I also have a specific macro lens, as well as a 200-600mm ultra zoom which is generally only used for photos of the moon, but could equally work well for wildlife photography.

3. Make

One key decision to make is whether you plan to stay with your camera manufacturer long term, since once you have invested potentially lots of money in lenses, switching camera manufacturer can become an expensive job if it means you also have to change all your lenses too. The same applies if you change to a camera from the same manufacturer but with a different mount type, e.g. from Canon EF to Canon EF-M (see the next section on mount compatibility for an explanation). So, if you're thinking that you might change camera in the near future, do this before you decide to upgrade or add to your lens selection!

This does not mean however that you have to buy lenses from the same manufacturer as your camera, since there are a number of third party lens manufacturers who make lenses for a range of camera brands, and mount types. E.g. for Canon cameras, Sigma, Tamron and Tokina all make lenses for Canon cameras (and for other makes too), often at significantly lower cost than lenses from your camera manufacturer. Although quality can be variable, and there can occasionally be compatibility issues (where some functions may not work), this is a good way of improving or adding to your lenses at a lower cost. E.g. the ultrawide lens I use on my Sony camera is a Sigma and it's a brilliant lens, and around half the price of the Sony equivalent. See this blog on details of what I have in my kit bag.   

4. Mount compatibility

Each camera has a specific type of mount which accepts only certain types of lens, so one of the first things to understand when searching for a lens is what mount type your camera has. It isn't as straight forward as a Canon camera needing Canon lenses, since Canon cameras (and therefore lenses) have FOUR different mount types,  RF, RF-S, EF, EF-S and EF-M (and other camera brands will be similar). Consult your camera manual to understand what mount type you have (the markings on your existing lens should also tell you - see this blog for an explanation of lens markings)

It is possible to use lenses with a different mount type using a mount adapter that fits between your camera body and the lens, but be aware that this may cause a loss of functionality in the lens (e.g. autofocus may no longer work) so make sure you do your research before going down this route.

5. Quality

As with most hobbies, photography can get expensive very quickly; whilst the cheapest standard quality lens on the Sony website starts at just £159, the cheapest top quality G-Master lens is £1,300 (for the 24-70mm G-Master lens) and goes up to a whopping £12,000 for their 600mm ultra telephoto zoom G Master lens! The more expensive lenses are generally better quality, but may also have some downsides in terms of also generally being heavier than their cheaper counterparts (as they often achieve better quality through more glass!). 

One way of getting good quality lenses on a budget is to go for prime lenses rather than zoom lenses. Prime lenses have a single focal length (e.g. 50mm) rather than a range of focal lengths (e.g 24-70mm). Primes are easier and cheaper to manufacture (and also a lot smaller and lighter!) which often means that you can get a better quality lens for your money. However, there is an obvious drawback in that without zoom functionality you will have to physically move more to get the composition that you want, and also will need more lenses to give you a workable spread of focal lengths.

When deciding on a lens, there are a number of brilliant online resources to help you to understand the quality of the lens that you're thinking of buying. Sites I would suggest looking at include dpreviewwhatdigitalcamera, and Opticallimits

6. Where to buy

There are obviously a wide range of places to buy lenses, so here are a few thoughts about the main options with some pros and cons:

Physical shops: Although there aren't as many around as there used to be, buying from a physical shop is a great option if you want to see and even try the lens before buying. The shop workers may also be very helpful in discussing your needs and recommending lenses. This is however likely to be the most expensive option, although some shops may offer cheaper used lenses.

Online (new): There are a range of UK based online stores where you can source new lenses (some of which also have physical stores) such as Jessops, Clifton Cameras and Wilkinson Cameras. These will generally offer cheaper prices and the lenses will be UK stock with full manufacturers warranty.

Online (used): There are also a number of UK based websites which sell (and buy) good quality used lenses (and cameras) such as Wex and MPB. These are good and trusted sites which sell used lenses  cheaper than you can buy them new. You can also pick up reasonable deals from sites like Facebook and Ebay but you need to be much more wary for potential scams and poor quality products. 

Online (grey market). There are other UK sites such as E-infinity which appear to have much cheaper prices than other UK sites. The reason for this is that they often provide so called 'grey imports'. They are legitimate products but not imported by legitimate means through the manufacturer. This means that they are often cheaper but will likely not be covered by a manufacturers warranty (although the site usually provides some level of warranty). I have used this site for many years without any issues.  

Whatever route you take, make sure you check you are buying from a legitimate source and check reviews on sites such as

Final words

Buying lenses can be a major investment, and there are lots of considerations to think about. My final words would be to advise you to take your time, and think hard about what you want a lens for, before you spend your money, since buying the wrong lens can be expensive. Finally, but the best lenses that you can afford, as good glass can last many years. 

Want to jump-start your learning?

Don't forget that if you want some direct help with your photography, I offer a range of 1-2-1 photography courses for Devon based folks. If you're not nearby then I also  offer residential weekends for beginners or intermediate photographers.

A student learning photography on a Devon beach, with Devon Photographer Gary Holpin Photography

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