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

What lenses for my digital SLR (Nikon)

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.

This article is for people who already have a Nikon digital SLR body. It began life as an article written for Canon users, but the advice has been changed and made right for Nikon by friends who shoot and love Nikons.

DX vs FX

There are a few types of Nikon DSLRs. The most common type for consumers are the entry level and mid-level "DX" sensor cameras which have a sensor chip of about half the area (and 1/1.5 the width) of the 35mm film squares SLR cameras were designed for long ago. At the low end you might have a D3000, and at the middle end the D90 or D300 series.

The "FX" sensor is the full size of 35mm film. There you will find semi-pro cameras like the D700, and the bigger pro cameras. If you own one of the bigger pro cameras, like the D3X or D3S, you probably know most of what's in this article already.

The DX sensor is sometimes said to have a "focal length multiplier" of 1.5, but it's more accurate to call it a "crop" or "field of view reduction" of 1.5. For while a 50mm lens on an DX camera has the same field of view of a 75mm lens on an FX, it is still a 50mm lens (without the corners) in every other way.

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 or $200 body. 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, but today 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's skill and the light) for a good image. All these cameras, even the full-frame ones, 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.

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 a digital SLR with just one lens and get good benefit from it. Even the cheaper consumer and kit lenses will outperform many P&S cameras, but they won't outperform by enough to justify the extra cost, size and weight.

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 D90 or D700.

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. The few to get decent reviews cost thousands of dollars and are fairly heavy.

You generally want to avoid the "kit lens" that often comes with many of these cameras, or sell it if you bought it. There's little point to putting a $250 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 70/80-200mm 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 huge 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 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. Take a look at photographs you have admired from top photographers, and I will bet a large fraction of them use this 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 substitute 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 are able to shoot all the way to 3200 ISO with minimal noise -- it's quite remarkable. Indeed, sometimes the depth of field wide open is so shallow this is your only choice. So you may decide to save some money and weight and get an f/4 instead of an f/2.8.

Top Nikkor lenses

The high end Nikkor lenses are widely agreed to be very fine glass. They are expensive, however. Some 3rd party lenses are also quite good for 50-70% of the money. Get the Nikkor 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 Nikkor.)

A word on Nikon Autofocus (AI vs. AF)

Nikon has two main autofocus systems. The older system has a motor in the camera which is able to spin the focus ring inside the lens. Lenses which do this are of the G or D type. The newer system, known as "AI" has a motor inside the lens. Lenses are designated AF-S and AF-I.

The bad news is that the entry level cameras, namely the D40, D60, D3000, D3100 and D5000 do not have this motor in the camera, so they can't autofocus on those lenses. While you can use such a lens with manual focus, I don't recommend getting the AF-D or AF-G type lenses with the lower end cameras. The D90, D300s and above have the motor.

Nikon's lenses from before 1979 should not be used on digital bodies, some of them can actually break things.

Comparing lenses

Two great sites will help you compare your lenses. The first is PhotoZone which has reviews and a great 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 Amazon, B&H photo or on eBay. 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 an "DX" sensor, 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 DX 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 probably will want to sell that lens if up grade to a DX sensor. that you won't be able to use that lens later on a film body or a full frame body like the D700. It's hard to predict -- some people feel full frame bodies will never be cheap. Because so many people have DX cameras, it's common for lens reviews to say how good the lens is on a DX camera

In fact, there are lenses made now that really only work on DX cameras and are wasted on FX ones. (The newer FX cameras will use them but take a cropped photo like you had a DX camera.)

Nikkor 50mm prime lens

Every Nikon owner should buy a 50mm prime lens or one of its fancier cousins. The f/1.8 version can be had for around $100, even though you will find it to be one of the sharper lenses out there. Unfortunately its focus motor will not work on the D3000/D5000.

The premium f/1.4 is more expensive but even better (and more solidly made.) It also has the AF motor. 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 DX format cameras. 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 (or need the focus motor) get the f/1.4 version.

If you have a DX camera, consider instead the 35mm f/1.8 DX lens. This is a "normal" lens for a DX camera and costs under $200. It only works on DX cameras.

While I don't want to start any camera wars, since both Nikon and Canon make excellent equipment, but this is one area where Canon shooters have an advantage. The Canon 50mm f/1.8 is only $90 and is super-sharp. But I would hardly call that enough reason to switch if you like Nikon.



Here comes the hard part. You really want a quality 70-200 or 80-200mm zoom. The problem is a good one may cost as much as your DX camera, if not more. You may not have bargained for that when you bought the camera, but people with SLR experience have always known this.

This will get you all sorts of great shots from a distance, shots people with most P&S can't get. Candids where they don't notice you because you are far away. Action shots at sports. Even a bit of wildlife though that often requires something longer. But you need that 200mm length, and here a modest-range zoom can be made at good quality, so you can get those wider lengths. 70mm is wide enough that if you step back a bit you can do most of what you do with a normal lens.

If you need to go on a wildlife shooting trip or do special sports shoots, you might consider some of the many lens rental houses. They ship Fedex and can get you something good for a week or two for $100 to $200.

In the lower budget range, the clear choice is the 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 ED VR G (under $600). This lens is actually long enough for some wildlife work, and has VR in order to compensate for being much slower than the f/2.8 lenses. (Do not confuse this with the $150 70-300 lens.)

In the medium budget range ($1,100) you will want to look at the very highly rated 80-200mm f/2.8 ED. It does not have VR but is a fine, if heavy, piece of glass. It does not do autofocus with teleconverters, and will not autofocus on the low end DX cameras due to the focus motor. This is one of Nikon's most popular lenses.

Higher budget buyers should look at the $2,100 Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II lens. It's fast but heavy, has VR and will generate fantastic shots.

The Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 APO EX is considered very good and cheaper.

These lenses are big and heavy, and you will feel them in your bag. You may want to consider the slower Nikkor 70-210 f/4 (decently rated) or the top rated 70-180mm f/4.5-5.6 ED Micro) because you may find that the weight is a big deal and that f/2.8 has such a shallow depth of field you rarely use it. Today, VR (vibration reduction) and fast ISOs are easily making up for the extra stop of speed, so f/2.8 may not be worth the weight. (However, to use 2x tele-converters, which some people like but many people don't, you need the f/2.8, and to really use them the expensive f/2.8.)

You will need to think about the VR versions of these lenses. VR compensates for shake when you are handholding, or shooting from a car. Many feel it opens up a a whole new world of handheld telephoto photography, particularly indoors -- but it's still quite expensive in DSLR lenses.

But do get one of these. The price will say ouch at first, but you will not regret it. This is the lens your Nikon 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.

Your mid-range zoom

I'm not going to write a lot about the mid-range zooms because most people already have one. The main thing I have to say is if you have one of the very cheap ones, sell it on eBay and get a better one.

Try to use your 35mm or 50mm prime lens as much as you can. In fact, it may surprise you to see what happens if you just walk around with that lens on your camera and no ability to zoom. You will find yourself walking to change the field of view instead of zooming. You will also find that it's better to to shoot with the quality lens and crop rather than put on a modestly longer zoom. Except for very distant scenes, you can treat your 50m like a 35mm-70mm zoom.

For a DX camera, I will suggest the somewhat expensive 17- AF-S 17-55mm f/2.8G IF-ED DX lens at $1400, because it will also provide some reasonable wide-angle ability. Don't worry if there's a gap between the 55m of your regular zoom and the 70mm short end of your telephoto zoom.

For FX camera users that lens does not even work, but a 28-70mm f/2.8 is the most popular choice. The ???? is highly regarded.

Wide Angle

Wide angle lenses are hard to make for DSLR cameras, much harder than they are to make for cameras without a mirror. So good ones cost a lot. What you should buy depends on your budget, DX vs FX, your goals, and how wide the ordinary zoom that you own is.

It's a very rare wide angle zoom that isn't noticeably less sharp than other zooms (and of course less sharp than fixed focal lenses.) If you want wide angle shots that are crisp and contrasty you are going to have to spend major money. However, if you are ready to spend $1,700, reviews agree that the AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G ED Nikkor lens is really that good. If this is in your budget, it's the one to get.

(For DX cameras, there is a $900 12-24mm DX zoom which ranks decently, but not nearly as highly as the full frame lens.)

If not, you will have to settle for something not as good. You will also find distortions in all wide-angle lenses. Today, that's a problem that can be fixed by some relatively inexpensive software packages.

Still, you need to have a wide angle for many indoor photos (particularly of groups) and certain types of landscapes and broad-scene images.

Because good wide angle lenses are so expensive I am going to propose some interesting alternatives. The first is the distortion removal tools, which include "Remove Lens Distortion" in Photoshop, tools based on the free lensfun libraries, and various commercial products. (These tools will also correct vignetting and light fall-off, which can be quite strong on wide angle. Most of the Nikon cameras also have a "vignetting correction" setting you can apply to do this in-camera.)

The second interesting option is stitching software. If you are shooting a wide scene with nothing close to you in the foreground, you can quickly shoot a mosaic of shots and capture as wide an angle as you like, all the way to 360 degrees. To really do this well requires a tripod and panoramic mount, especially if there is anything in the foreground, but otherwise the software today can just grab your handheld shots and create a very high resolution wide angle -- better quality than what you could get from any wide angle lens. This may not work with changing light or moving objects or people, but today I find myself often doing this rather than bothering to get out an extra wide lens. (I still have the wide angle lenses though, because sometimes they are the only think that will get the shot.)

Software can fix distortion and vignetting, but it can't do what a really good lens does for sharpness, depth of field and contrast.

First, what mid-range zoom do you have?

If you have a mid-range zoom that goes fairly wide, like 24mm to 28mm (at least on an FX camera) consider getting a prime lens for your quality wide angle work. In the lower end the Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 (available as AF or AI-S) is well regarded and sharp for around $500. The 20mm f/2.8 lens is a bit wider. It's available in a "D" model (needs focus motor in camera) and an AI-S model, under $600.

DX Cameras

Because the DX cameras have a much narrower field of view than FX cameras, you will feel the call of a wide angle more strongly, but it's hard to recommend spending the big dollars needed for a quality wide zoom that you will only use the center of. It might have been better to spend the money getting an FX camera instead.

I thus recommend that you purchase one of the wide angles designed for DX cameras. In particular the AF-S 17-55mm f/2.8G IF-ED DX lens at $1400 is probably your best choice, combining a decent wide angle and a normal zoom range on the DX camera.

You may want to look into Sigma, as their 28mm f/1.8 EX is reasonably good and cheaper. You can also look at a zoom, such as the sigma 17-35mm.

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 Nikkor. I've had some good Sigmas and some bad, so I am leaning away from them more these days.


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 ?????. It has a good range and is small enough, though only average in quality. Others like the ???? lens

Your normal zoom (28-70 range) may be a suitable travel lens. You may also find some medium zooms which will work with a teleconverter. While I would never recommend this for normal shooting, it's a portable way to have a long lens if you suddenly need it.

A very popular lens, though not cheap about $660, is the DX 18-200mm VR lens designed only for DX lenses. This is a "super-zoom" and as such will not shoot as well as smaller zooms in its price range and certainly not as well as primes, but that being said, it is pretty good, and if you can only bring one lens, this may be the one to bring.

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 remarkably 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 ???. My bag almost always carries these:

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.

This is a draft article for review. Key lens recommondations that are desired from reviewers:

  1. Medium priced wide angle lens choices (FX and DX)
  2. Mid-range zoom suggestions (FX and DX)
  3. Travel/walk-around lens recommendations, if not covered by mid-range
  4. List of "what's in your kit"