Your Guide to Sharper Images: Choosing the Lens That's Best for You

sharper photos

I remember when I started shopping for my first lens. At that point, I had a Nikon D60 (this was nearly 8 years ago now!) with the 18-55mm kit lens, which came with the camera. I had been told that I could achieve better (i.e. - sharper) results with a faster, and more expensive, lens. This made sense to me on some level, but I had no idea why a lens would be considered "fast" and what that even meant, why some lenses were larger and heavier than others, why some were way, way more expensive, and what in the world was the difference between all of the focal lengths and manufacturer abbreviations? 

In this post, I want to demystify some of the most standard attributes of lenses, because choosing the correct lens for your needs will absolutely help you achieve sharper images.

Please Note: While I do believe that lenses are worth the investment, they are also not a substitute for good technique. It does not matter if you are using a $5K or a $80 lens - if you are shaking the camera, using the incorrect ISO, and generally making some basic mistakes, your images will still not be sharp. This post is meant to help you choose a great lens, which should be a supplement to proper technique, not a substitute.

THE KIT LENS

When you purchased your camera, it may have come with a standard "kit lens" if you didn't opt for the body only + upgraded lens option.
 
Kit lenses are not exactly known for their high quality, though I feel like they sometimes get way too much negative attention. Essentially, they are meant to get people using their cameras right away, because they are economical, easy to use, and fairly lightweight in most cases. They are easy to manage, and they do their job! However, if you are looking to take the next step, and to create sharper images, you'll want to upgrade to a new lens.

Canon 18-55mm Standard Kit Lens
Canon 18-55mm Standard Kit Lens

 

Kit lenses are, however, built on machine assembly lines and see very few human hands along the way, whereas higher quality lenses have components that have been crafted and inspected by skilled technicians.

Overall, the components of kit lenses, including the glass itself, are made out of lower quality materials than professional grade lenses. On some kit lenses, you cannot achieve an f/stop wider than f/3.5, making them less appealing to photographers who enjoy soft, blurred backgrounds.

ZOOMS & PRIMES

When lens shopping, you will see the words "prime" (or "fixed") and "zoom" quite frequently. Here is the difference:

Zoom Lenses - If you have the kit lens that came with your camera, it is going to be a zoom lens. These lenses cover a range of focal lengths, for example, 12-24mm, 18-55mm, 55-200mm, etc. They allow you to zoom in close to your subject, or zoom out to include more of the scene in your frame.

Prime (often referred to as "fixed") Lenses - Prime lenses have one focal length, and do not allow you to zoom in or out. Common focal lengths on prime lenses are 28mm (considered wide angle), 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm, to name just a few.

Which is Better - Zoom or Prime? 

In the past, prime lenses were generally considered higher quality, sharper, and were typically geared towards professional photographers. Today, there are some extremely well-built and sharp zoom lenses on the market, so I do not think the "primes are better than zooms" argument really holds up as well as it did in the past. Whether you purchase a zoom or a prime should have everything to do with your style of photography, and little to do with one being "better" than the other. 

nikon 85mm f/1.4
Nikon 85mm f/1.4 - an example of a prime (and also fast) lens

Which is Best for You?

Prime lenses are popular among portrait photographers, as they are typically fast lenses which allow you to open up to a wide aperture (such as f/1.4 on the Nikon lens above) to create razor thin depth of field.

Zoom lenses are popular in sports, nature, children/family and wedding photography. The zoom capability gives you more flexibility in fast moving situations where you would not have time to change lenses.

FOCAL LENGTH

In its most basic terms, focal length is the distance from the optical center of the lens to the camera's sensor. Focal length is not the length of the actual lens! I'm not sure how that rumor got started, but it is not accurate. I'll say it again: focal length = the distance from the optical center of the lens to the camera's sensor.

Focal length is also affected by whether you are shooting with a full frame or crop sensor, but that is an entirely separate post all its own. For now, let's look at the absolute basics of focal length.

With a shorter focal length, more of the scene will appear in your frame. Short focal lengths such as 10mm, 18mm, 28mm and 35mm are considered wide-angle.

On the other hand, a longer, telephoto focal length will create a tighter crop within your frame. 85mm and above is considered telephoto. 50mm is considered a medium telephoto.

Below is a representation of how four common focal lengths would affect the same set up. Keep in mind that the crops below are not exact, but they are close enough to give you an idea of how focal lengths vary:

sharper images

 

Which Focal Length is Best for You?

As you can see, with a focal length of 105mm, you do not need to move in close to your subject as the lens brings the frame in for you.

With a focal length of 35mm, more of the scene appears in the frame.

Keep in mind that, with angles wider than 35mm (such as 24mm) moving in close to your subject will create distortions - you cannot create close ups with a wide angle lens without a fisheye distortion effect occurring, so keep that in mind if you are a portrait photographer who loves close-ups - a 200mm telephoto or 105mm macro lens would suit you better than a wide angle lens for closeups.

VIBRATION REDUCTION & IMAGE STABILIZER LENSES

Manufacturers such as Canon and Nikon offer lenses with built-in sensors and microcomputers to help analyze and then correct movement caused by camera shake. These features can help you tremendously when shooting handheld. They are denoted by VR (Vibration-Reduction) on Nikon/Nikkor lenses, and IS (Image Stabilizer) on Canon lenses.

canon 16-35
Canon 16-35mm IS (Image Stabilizer) Lens

 

 

nikon 16-35mmNikon 16-35mm VR (Vibration Reduction) Lens

Both IS and VR lenses will help you achieve a sharper image if you find yourself shooting handheld regularly. These technologies are often found on the zooms and longer prime lenses, as these lenses are heavier, and typically more prone to camera shake. 

PRICING

As you will quickly learn, lens prices range anywhere from under $100, to several thousand dollars. The price of a lens is generally based on a few factors:

  • Speed - faster lenses tend to be more expensive
  • Zoom or Prime - Zoom lenses are usually a bit more expensive than primes
  • Brand - some brands are just more pricey than others
  • Materials - the amount of high quality materials used to assemble the lens also affects the price

THIRD PARTY LENSES

There are a number of lenses on the market which are compatible with Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony cameras. Often, these lenses can be very high quality, and are, generally speaking, priced lower than their Nikon/Canon counterparts. Sigma, Tamron, Tokina and Rokinon, just to name a few, make a wide selection of lenses for first-party cameras.

LENSES TO CONSIDER

If you are anything like I was when I was purchasing my first lens, you'd probably like a few lens options to get you started in your search. Below is a list of lenses that I have personally used, and also lenses that are very popular among the photographers that I know.

Canon Lenses

Primes:
EF 50mm f/1.8 STM - $125
EF 50mm f/1.4 USM - $350

EF 85mm f/1.2 USM - $2000
EF 85mm f/1.8 USM - $370

EF 200mm f /2.8L II USM - $750

Zooms:
EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM - $1100

EF 24-70mm f/2.8 II USM - $1900

Note - STM and USM are different types of motors in Canon lenses for autofocusing. STM tends to be smoother and quieter without any jerkiness, whereas USM lenses are a bit louder, but focus more quickly.

Nikon Lenses

Primes:
AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G ED - $596 (this was the first lens I purchased to upgrade from my kit lens!)

AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G - $220
AF-S Nikkor 50mm f1.4G - $430

AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G - $450
AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G - $1696

AF-S Nikkor 200mm f/2G ED VR II - $5900

Zooms:
AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm f/4G ED VR - $1150

AF-S Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8G ED - $1750

Note - ED is Nikon's abbreviation for Extra-Low Dispersion glass which is high quality lens glass.

G lenses are meant to be used with cameras that allow you to set the aperture on the camera's body. 

TO SUM IT UP

As I said earlier, having a great lens shouldn't be a substitute for using your camera properly, but upgrading from your kit lens will absolutely help you achieve sharper images. 

Be sure to consider your type of photography when purchasing a lens. Are you a portrait photographer who needs a lens that will allow you to open up to a wide aperture such as f/1.2 to f/2.8? Or, do you need a wide angle to take in as much of the scene as possible (I'm looking at you, landscape photographers)? Or, maybe you dabble in all types of photography, so you may benefit from a zoom lens that covers a range of focal lengths. 

Do you have any questions about what we have discussed here? Or, do you have a great lens that you want to recommend to us? We love hearing from you! Please visit us in our private Pretty Photoshop Actions Facebook group!

 

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