Brad Templeton's Photography
What lenses for my digital SLR (Canon)

What lenses for my digital SLR (Canon)

Unbiased advice (really) though I do get some bucks if you use the store links.

Many people eager for a high end digital camera buy a digital SLR body and then ask the question of what lens to put on it. Often they seek a wide-range zoom to duplicate what they could do with a point and shoot digital camera. Some have shot SLRs and film before, some P&S film, most P&S digital. A few are new to photography and wealthy enough to start high end.

(New: Because people have asked for even more advice, I have prepared an article on what digital camera you should buy. If, after reading that, you think a DSLR + lenses is the right choice, you can come back here.) I also have a draft version of this article meant for Nikon shooters in development.

The typical camera choice in this area is similar to the Canon EOS 50D/7D or the new Digital Rebels or the Nikon D100 and cousins. These cameras use 35mm lenses but have a sensor that is under half the area, about 22mm wide. As such they sometimes say they have a "focal length multiplier" of 1.6 or so, meaning that a 50mm lens has the field of view of an 80mm lens on a full-frame 35mm camera. (There are also full-frame cameras like the 5D, for those, the lens choice question is effectively identical to that for film bodies.)

When you take a picture, the lens does most of the work. In fact, in the days of film, the camera body made almost no difference in the quality of your picture. It didn't matter if you had a $2000 EOS-1 or a $250 Rebel-G. Both would take the same picture on the same 10 cent piece of film if they had the same lens.

As such, it was expected to spend a fair bit more on your lenses than on your camera body.

The digital body is a more important. The quality of the sensor is important. But the lens is still the most important item (after the photographer and the lighting) for a good image. All these cameras, even the full-frame 11 megapixel 1Ds, have sensors that are around 7 to 8 microns in size. That's small enough to need a good sharp lens to get the full benefit. And the sensors are getting smaller.

I've bought camera gear from Amazon and been satisfied. I get affiliate money if you buy via this box, but my opinions are not influenced by it. Feel free to bypass the box if you prefer.

Now don't get me wrong. These cameras are the finest out there. Their large sensors have lower noise, which is probably the most important thing. They have more useful resolution than the point and shoot cameras. So you could, if you are wealthy and don't mind a big heavy camera, get an digital SLR with just one lens and get good benefit from it.

But the real biggest boon of these cameras is that you can change lenses, and thus you are really wasting a lot of what the camera can do if you buy only one lens for it, especially a cheap, highly compromised wide-range zoom.

So the answer to the question of "What lens should I buy?" is in fact not to buy just one lens. If you want to "start" with one lens, you are ignoring the price rules of consumer electronics: that electronic equipment depreciates very fast. Like it or not, a year from now, your new camera is going to be worth only 50-60% of what you paid today. If you buy just one lens to "start" you're wasting a lot of the value of your camera while that value depreciates.

You would be better off to buy a high end point-and-shoot digital, in most cases, and then sell it when you are ready to get a digital SLR with more than one lens. It will be smaller and lighter, and might even take better photos much of the time. And while you will lose money on it, it won't be nearly as much as you lose on your new 50D/7D/5D.

Why is changing lenses so useful?

Lens design is hard. In particular, zoom design is hard. The more range you try to put in a zoom lens, the more compromises you must make. You lose quality in order to get range. Or you spend a lot more money, but even with that, expensive zooms won't approach the quality of non-zoom ("prime") lenses costing a fair bit less.

Zooms have lots of lens elements, all of which scatter light internally, reducing the sharpness and contrast of your picture. Zooms tend to be "slower" (ie. need a longer exposure) with all the negative issues that entails. Shorter range zooms have fewer compromises than long-range ones. "Super zooms" (more than 4x range) tend to be so compromised that serious photographers don't buy them, no matter how convenient they are, except when they must travel very light. Trust me, if we could get a decent lens like this we would buy it. Canon's 28-300mm/L IS, at about $2,400 is one of the very few to get decent reviews, but it's quite heavy.

Avoid that 18-55mm "kit lens" that often comes with many of these cameras, or get rid of it if you bought it. There's little point to putting a $50 zoom in front of an $800 or fancier camera.

I think you'll be best buying short-range zooms and most of all you want some prime (non-zoom) lenses. If you can change lenses, you can put the right lens on the camera for the job, with less compromise. (Of course, you are going to pay more money, and carry around a bigger, heavier lens bag. Trust me, you'll feel the weight. And it will take you time to change lenses, which is also compromise, but I refer here to less compromise on image quality.)

Now people still love zooms. The 70-200mm range zooms costing $700 to $1200 are very well made. And you can't beat their convenience. And each time you change lenses you risk dust. But to get a good zoom expect to pay for it, and then it will be worth it.

If you don't want to change lenses, P&S cameras have many major advantages. They are much, much smaller and lighter. They use tiny sensors with short lenses designed for them. They never get dust on the sensor because they are sealed. The good ones (Canon G series for example) have fast lenses. However they don't do shallow depth of field very well, or low-light, and their pictures will be noisier. (Grain-like speckles in your photos.)

Why do I want fast lenses?

Fast lenses are lenses of large aperture (width), or low f-stop. (F stop is the ratio between the width of the lens you are using and the focal length.) Fast lenses are big and heavy, but you need them. Fast lenses let you do shallow depth of field. That means you can focus on a person and leave the background, and also foreground, blurry. A large fraction of good photography uses this trick to define the composition of a shot. Small digital P&S can't do this very well, even though their lenses are sometimes quite fast, because shorter lenses don't have as narrow a depth of field.

Fast lenses can be stopped down to be like slow lenses, and get more depth of field when you want it. However, usually a stopped down big fast lens is sharper than a wide-open smaller, slower lens. Most lens problems occur at the edges of a lens, and if you stop down, you cover the edges.

Fast lenses are also, well, fast. They need less exposure time or can shoot in lower light. They're great, but they cost money and are big and heavy. But most shooters won't work with less.

Why might I not need fast lenses?

While there is no substitue for the short depth of field which only comes from a fast lens, two new features will help you get by with less light. One is image-stabilization, which lets you shoot 2 or 3 stops longer while handheld. (People are still blurry when they move, however, which you will not get with a fast lens doing the work.) Secondly, the newest generation cameras, especially the 5D Mark II and 7D are able to shoot all the way to 3200 ISO with minimal noise -- it's quite remarkable. So you may decide to save some money and weight and get an f/4 instead of an f/2.8.

Canon L series

Canon "L" series lenses are generally agreed to be the best out there. They are expensive, however. Some 3rd party lenses are also quite good for 50-70% of the money. Get the Canon if you have the bucks, but if value is important, consider Sigma and Tokina's high-end lines. (They make good lenses, the problem is their quality control is poor. So be ready to exchange a lens if you get one of the duds. If this is not for you, buy the Canon.)

Comparing lenses

Two great sites will help you compare your lenses. The first is PhotoZone's lens performance survey. Large numbers of people have given their opinion on quality of various lenses. Compare your choices with some of the others, then search for prices at B&H photo or on eBay. They also have the Lens Test Guide which is based on external sources. Combining all this info, with what's below, gives the most complete picture.

The other site is PhotoDo. This site has done actual lab tests on the performance of various lenses. The tests are useful, but be careful, as they measure only one particular factor about a lens, and their weighting may not be what you want to use.

In particular, if you have a camera with a small sensor like the 50D, you might be happy to save money on a lens which is terrible at the corners. Perhaps it gets distorted there, or has bad vignetting. On the 50D and similar cameras, you don't use that part of the lens, so you might save a lot of money by getting a lens that is only good in the middle. Note that you won't be able to use that lens later on a film body or a full frame body like the 5D. It's hard to predict -- some people feel full frame bodies will never be cheap -- but if they do become cheap your lens won't have as long a life for you.

Canon 50mm prime lens

Every Canon owner should buy the Canon 50mm prime lens or one of its fancier cousins. The f/1.8 version can be had for around $90. It is one of the sharpest lenses out there. The f/1.4 is more expensive but even better (and more solidly made.) At this price there is no excuse not to have this lens, even though you probably already have a zoom that has 50mm in the range. It is small and light, and the best buy out there. In particular, when you buy it, you will see what a simple prime lens can do. If after you buy it, you don't see what I'm talking about, then return it and ignore the rest of this page!

This will be your portrait lens on the 50D/7D/Rebel. It's called a "normal" lens in the 35mm market, which is good because normal lenses are the easiest to make, and that's why this lens is such a bargain. Try shooting some portraits with it from f/2 to f/3.5. Do some landscapes at f/8. See how much more contrast and detail than any big zoom you get. This will start to convince you why you want to change lenses.

Even if you want only one starter long-range zoom lens, get this one also. Even though your zoom lens has 50mm in its range, still get this lens. You spent a lot on your camera, and it deserves this. If you're more serious or more well-heeled, get the f/1.4 version.

Tele-zoom

Next, look at the Canon 70-200mm "L" series lenses. These will cost you money. I recommend the f/4L which is a lot cheaper and lighter. It is not as fast as the f/2.8L of course, but you will carry it more. You will find you use the f/2.8 stopped down most of the time anyway as the DoF (depth of field) is quite shallow at f/2.8. However, there is no denying that if you want the very best, get the f/2.8. That will work in lower light and you can even put a 2x tele-extender on it.

You may also want to consider the "IS" versions of these lenses which have an image stabilizer, which lets you shoot handheld for longer exposures in moderate to low light. Long focal lengths need that -- you can't handhold at all at 200m except in the daytime.


Get one of these. The price will say ouch at first, but you will not regret it. This is the lens your Canon DSLR was made for. And use the lens hood when shooting. The quality coatings and design of this lens combined with the hood means less light bouncing around and diffusing inside the lens, and that means sharper, better contrast photos.

Wide Angle

A good bargain in the wide angle is the Sigma 20mm f/1.8. This would be a super-wide angle on a regular camera but your small sensor camera needs a 20mm range lens. This lens is not super great at f/1.8, and may distort a bit in the edges, but will be very good on your 22mm camera. Many feel that it's better at f/2.8 (stopped down a bit) than the Canon f/2.8 lens is wide open.

You can also get a very good 24mm lens from Canon or Sigma. The Canon 24mm is considered superb. However, its field of view will only be moderately wide, especially on 7d/50d/Rebel.

If you have big money to spend, look at shorter lenses, like one of the 14mm lenses. However, these are expensive and rarely satisfy full frame users. They will be good on your 22mm sensor.

You can also look at a zoom, such as the sigma 17-35mm. Canon's 16-35L is a nice, if large lens, but my own experience with it suggested it was not worth the price difference. Recommendations are also given on the 10D style cameras for Sigma's 15-30, which is aimed right at this market.

I should note that a number of people report Sigma's build quality as sometimes good, but sometimes not. Be prepared to test your lens and return it if it's not good. If this approach is not for you, pay a bit extra for the Canon. I've had some good Sigmas and some bad, so I am leaning away from them more these days.

For the "x0D" and Rebel, give some consideration to the Canon 10-22mm EF-S lens. This works on the more recent Canons. However, for wide angle work there may be no substitute for the 10mm focal length. I have this lens, and it gets me shots I could not get other ways, but it is pricey for a non-L lens, and is not as sharp as that range of lenses, or the wide-angle primes.

Wildlife

B&H Photo - Video - Pro Audio
If you want a camera specialty store, B&H is probably the best.
If you're shooting wildlife, you will have to pay a lot. The cheapest alternative to a lovely long lens would be the 70-200f/2.8 and the 2x teleconverter. Not the best, but pretty decent and better than nothing for such shots. Truth is, 2x teleconverters exact a serious price in image quality and speed. You may even prefer to use a 1.4x and crop.

For serious wildlife work you will want something like the 100-400mm L zoom, or the longer primes which cost way more than your camera. If you are starting out and not rich, consider renting them from a camera rental house for your wildlife shooting trip. That's what I do. There are several good camera rental houses on the web.

Travel Lens

Even though you should be convinced by this article to get multiple lenses, you can't bring them all on non-shooting road trips. The simplest answer here is to also have a point and shoot camera for such purposes, since it's even smaller. However, you may also look for a travel lens. (You can do this and still take the very small and light 50mm f/1.8 and 24mm f/2.8 along with you on any trip, to get the very best shots.)

Some like the 24-85mm Canon lens. It has a good range and is small enough, though only average in quality. Others like the 28-135mm IS lens, which I have not shot with. It is not considered super high quality but the IS function (combined with the ISO 800 in your camera) will get shots few other lenses can while walking around.

I am now using the high end 24-105mm f/4 L IS lens that is sold bundled with the 5D, and costs around $1,100. This lens has about as varied a range as you want to tolerate, and is a solidly built "L" lens. At f/4 it is not as fast as you would like (considering how heavy it is) but it has an image stabilizer to make up for that. But good and expensive as it is, it's still not as sharp as the 50mm f/1.8 that costs 1/10th the price.

You may also consider a normal-zone zoom, like a 28-70mm. There are good ones in the high-end product of Canon, Sigma and Tokina. Get the f/2.8 here. This may suffice as your travel lens. While you would not normally want to use a teleconverter on a lens this short -- and some may not even work -- they are very portable for travel. (The 1.4x is even more portable.)

Lens Trading

Turns out eBay is a pretty efficient market for 35mm lenses, especially the major brands. No matter what you have, you can probably sell it for a decent price, and buy the lenses you want at a decent price, while taking a remakably small cost hit for the exchanging.

In other words, don't worry about what lenses, or even what system you currently have. Or trying to adapt lenses for an older system to your new camera. If you do that, you will not get autofocus, you will not get the digital signals that tell the camera what lens is on it etc.

What's in my kit today?

I shoot with the 5D/II, a full-frame camera. All the time I carry:

But I also sometimes carry some other lenses:

Where to Buy

I've done my buying from a variety of stores such as Amazon and B&H Photo in New York. (I once also used Henry's in Toronto when the Canadian dollar made the prices there better.) Amazon, as you know, is probably the best-run pure-web store, with nice things like free shipping, but you should expect to do everything via the web. If you use the links on this page I get some cash, but feel free to go your own route too. You can usually find the best prices on camera gear with shopping engines like Froogle. However, there are some real scam operators out there which will often show up with the lowest price. If you find a new company you are not familiar with, be sure to put its name into search engines to find customer comments. Many of the big online stores that you may already trust sell camera gear -- go with them if you like them, especially when you know what you want. If you need to talk to a sales rep, go to a dedicated store with the right mix of discount prices and good reputation -- B&H is the winner there.


Another camera store I have had good service from is B&H photo