Let me start by congratulating you. Why? You may ask. The fact that you are here looking for some information on how to decide on a second lens proves that you have finally outgrown the kit lens that came along with your camera. You have come to the conclusion that there is no way you can continue to grow as a photographer with just the kit lens. You are looking to take your photography to the next level – you are looking to invest in a new lens.
The big question is which lens to buy? There are so many choices. So many decisions to make – brand, focal length, prime / zoom, weight, price and so on. These parameters can make the decision making process a long and tedious one. It often becomes an intimidating experience even for an enthusiast. Thankfully, it does not have to be that complicated.
The most important question to ask is the focal length that is the best for your style of shooting. If you have been shooting for some time you would probably have developed a unique style of your own by now. You may not have realized it but you do.
That includes the use of certain focal lengths, aperture, shutter speed, composition and of course post-processing techniques. Post-processing techniques are beyond the scope of this article. We shall discuss composition in another article. Shutter speed is something that’s not lens dependent. So, we shall talk only about aperture and focal length in this article.
Invariably focal length is the first point that is considered when deciding the second lens. Why? Because focal length controls the field of view. If you own a kit lens it would probably be something like the 18-55mm that ships with most APS-C cameras or something like the 24-85mm which accompanies full-frame cameras.
The best way to determine which focal length you are shooting at is from the metadata of your photos. If you have Lightroom this is very easy to do. Simply open a collection. Go to Metadata on the Library Filters and you get four boxes at the top. Click on Camera Info from the drop down at the right corner. What you get is a list of images with all the focal lengths that you had shot them at. You will be able to figure out which are your favorite focal lengths.
When upgrading to a new lens, it is always a good idea to find out whether the focal length of the lens you intend to buy is going to be suitable for you. This is especially relevant when you know that the older lens is a bit soft and you need a really sharp lens in the same focal length range to produce better imagery.
All lenses can stop down to f/16, where everything in the frame will be acceptably sharp. Ok, may be not everything, but almost everything. The question is whether the lens is sharp enough when wide open. Wider apertures allow you to make those mushy out of focus backgrounds that are so beautiful to look at. They are ideal for portrait shoots as you can make the subject stand out from the background. Subject to background distance is also a factor here but lens aperture do play an important role.
Prime lenses like the 85mm, the 105mm and the 135mm are great for such purposes – a reason why portrait photographers love these lenses. Prime lenses have always had an edge in this regard, reason why most photographers prefer at least one prime in the focal length range that they generally shoot. But these days zoom lenses have caught up. Thus, a 24-70mm f/2.8 VR makes wonderful decision as a second lens.
Features vs price
There are some lucky photographers who came to this world with a silver spoon in their mouth. These people don’t have the word ‘limitation’ in their dictionary; certainly not in respect to money. Unfortunately, the general photography populace is not that lucky. For them it is always a question of settling between price and features. Things like VR, a couple of millimetres of additional field of view or a better build quality often comes with a caveat – the price tag. Thus, people settle for something like the wide-angle 16-35mm f/4 rather than the ultra-wide angle 14-24mm f/2.8.
However, there are ways to overcome shortcomings in the gear department, at least some of the times. You can always go a couple of steps back or front to adjust the angle of view and make great images even with your second choice lens. Ingenuity is as important (if not more) as deep pockets. Deep pockets just makes you achieve things a lot easier.
Rent before you decide to buy a second lens
The unfortunate thing is there are not too many good lens renting options where I live. I have to bring them in from out of town. The best option for me is to make arrangements with friends in order to loan a lens and test it out. There are many good options for short term rental in North America, you may try CameraLends or a similar rental service. But as a general guideline, renting is a great way to check out whether the lens is going to suit your style of photography, before you decide to buy it as your second lens. Take it out for a spin and check the results to see if they are satisfactory. When renting always ensure to collect it the day before you plan to shoot and keep it at least for a couple of days so that you can analyse the results of the first day and try to correct any issues on the following day.
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