Verbally Flimzy

Ramblings, Observations and Misconceptions

Canon DSLR Lens Recommendation

Posted on July 28, 2012

A good friend and budding photographer, recently asked me what lenses I recommend she buy to go with her new Canon T4i Digital SLR camera. Wow, I didn’t even know the T4i was out yet. I’m the happy owner of the previous generation, T3i.

If you are reading this, and don’t own a Canon camera, fear not. The advice in this article is still applicable to you. I just cannot recommend any specific lenses, because I haven’t used any non-Canon lenses. But you can search your favorite online camera retailer for a lens that will fit your camera, after applying the advice in this article.

I have been looking and looking, but the more I do, the more confusing it becomes for me to pick the right stuff. You sort of know what kind of shots I enjoy taking, so I was wondering if could help me pick the right stuff, please. Nothing crazy expensive, just something that could help me getting nice pictures of buildings, cities and maybe portraits too.

Well, my friend, which lens to get is a tricky question. And it depends a lot on your goals as a photographer. If your goal is to truly learn the art of photography, I would suggest getting a single prime 35mm lens for now. “Prime” means it has no zoom–it’s always stuck at the same focal length. This is a good first lens for someone wanting to learn the art of photography, because it forces you to think much more about every shot you take. It forces you to zoom with your feet, by moving closer to or father from your subject. It’s very easy, especially for a novice, to stand wherever they are, facing a pretty subject, then just adjust their zoom until the subject fits in their field of view. This is a really good way to take a lot of bad, uninspired photographs.

Using a non-zoom lens also forces you to think about angles in a new way. You may see a beautiful tall building, and with a zoom lens, zoom all the way out so the building easily fits in your field of view. With a fixed lens, you may be forced to walk right up next to the building, and take a photo looking up to the top from an angle. You’ll end up with more creative shots that way. Consider the two photographs of the Empire State Building on the right to see an example of how limitations of a zoom lens (and the lack of budget to rent a helicopter) can add to the creativity of a photograph.

The 35mm prime lens I own, and am quite happy with, is the Canon EF 35mm f/2 lens. It’s not the first lens I bought, but it is easily the lens I use the most, even though I own several other prime and zoom lenses.

My first “real” lens (not counting the throw-away quality kit lens that came with my first DSLR) was a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8, which is also an excellent choice if you’re interested in portraits. But for general around-town shooting, or anything indoors (parties, etc), I recommend a 35mm on a crop-sensor camera (don’t worry if you don’t know what crop-sensor means). I have since switched to the higher-quality Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 lens, when my first 50mm broke in half. If you can afford it, I recommend splurging on the higher-quality lens. It’s build quality is definitely worth it, but it also has better optics, and is better in low-light situations. But if you’re on a budget, the cheaper one is also an excellent lens.

When deciding between a 35mm or 50mm prime lens, let me offer these thoughts:

  • If you will be mostly taking posed pictures of people, and outdoors, or in a very large indoor area, get a 50mm prime lens. This is a great lens for portraits, but it is difficult to use in an enclosed space, such as the average home.
  • If you will be mostly taking pictures of small animals, insects, or sporting events, consider a prime 70mm or 100mm lens. This will allow you to take photographs of objects farther away. But it will severely limit your ability for any other type of photography, so this is probably not a good first lens, unless you know without a doubt you only care about distant objects. You can forget taking pictures of birthday parties with this lens
  • For anything else, get a prime lens in the 30mm-35mm range. This will be wide enough to take pictures even in enclosed areas, such as a living room, so you won’t feel crippled by your camera when taking pictures at parties or family gatherings, but you can still use it to take good artistic shots of buildings, flowers, and casual portraits of your friends.

Eventually, you will want to add at least one more lens to your collection. But it is much harder to give good advice on which second lens you ought to buy until you’ve been using a good prime lens for a few months. The reason is that it is a very personal choice, and depends a lot on what types of photographs you enjoy taking, and your artistic style. Every lens (and for that matter, every other photography accessory) you buy should be bought to fill a felt need. Put another way: If you don’t know you need it, you don’t need it.

Let me offer a few example scenarios:

  1. Imagine you’ve been using a 35mm prime lens for a few months, and you’ve been taking all sorts of pictures of everything you love. Buildings, flowers, people, and bunny rabbits. You find that you are reasonably happy with the pictures you take of buildings, flowers, and people, but you can never get good pictures of rabbits, because they either appear too small, or when you get closer to take a good picture, you scare them away. This is sign you need a longer focal length lens (meaning it will make images appear closer). You need the ability to “zoom in” on a rabbit from a long distance, so that you won’t frighten the rabbit when trying to take a photograph.
  2. You’ve been using your 35mm prime lens for a few months, but you’re noticing that you can never get far enough away from some tall buildings to get the photo you really want. This would be a sign that you need a wider-angle lens. Perhaps something in the 10mm-20mm range.
  3. You’re finding that your biggest pain point when taking photographs is that you can’t get good pictures when you’re indoors, because it’s too dark, and the flash makes everyone look flat and boring. It may be time to buy an off-camera flash.

So in a nutshell, I suggest starting with a single, prime lens, to force you to develop your artistic style, and learn to think more creatively. Then, after a few months, or several thousand photos, whichever comes later, evaluate your photography, and decide what is your biggest weakness, and buy a new lens to help fill that gap.

Below are links to three lenses I have used, and can recommend. For a more in-depth look at Canon lenses, I highly recommend the Digital Picture Canon Lens Reviews. They review practically every lens Canon has made, and have good articles for new and expert photographers alike, to help you select a lens that is right for you.

Filed under: camera camera-lens photogaphy Photography recommendation review