Everyone always asks, “What lens should I get?” And I wish it was a simple (or cheaper) answer. There is no one perfect lens. What lens you buy will greatly be affected by what you shoot and how much you want to spend. But alas, here is my long winded rambling; the ultimate lens post full of insights behind each lens owned and operated here at the Rusty Lens.
When people are getting into photography and they are looking for that first purchase beyond their kit lens(es), I always recommend the 50mm 1.8. It’s available for both Nikon and Canon mounts and it is roughly $100. To the best of my knowledge it is the cheapest prime lens out there, with a wonderful focal length that works for both cropped sensor cameras and full frame alike. It is faster than kit lenses, and shoots wider apertures giving creamier backgrounds and performs better with less lighting during indoor shots. It is the cheapest and most versatile starting point for discovering what you may like.
If you’re moving beyond that first stop, you have three ways you can go: Longer. Shorter. Or Both (zoom). And this is where your personal journey starts; when you are looking for a new lens, think of what you shoot; or what you would shoot differently if you had the lens. Maybe that will help you on your hunt to find what you will like best.
Below I share what I love about each and every one of my lenses: what prompted the decision to purchase it; how I feel about the focal length; the pros and cons; the approximate price point.
20mm 2.8 | Nikon | $560
Purpose: I needed a landscape lens. I have used it on family photos and it has a neat, not quite fish-eye effect, but it’s definitely not a conventional portrait lens. It really captures the scene and since I use it primarily for nature/landscape photos I never feel inhibited by the 2.8; I typically shoot with much larger (closed down) apertures.
Pros: Small, solid, lightweight, fast, sharp, decent price
Cons: It is not an extremely versatile lens so I tend to use it for landscape photos or “fun” portrait shots only.
24mm 1.8 | Sigma | $550
Purpose: I really got into indoor lifestyle photography. The 35mm 1.4 lens is what I used most of the time and I wanted something a little wider for more creative shooting. It is similar to the 20mm in the sense that it does not produce the most conventional portrait photos, but it has a neat effect and allows more storytelling to occur inside the frame. I was hesitant on the focal length so I decided to dip my toes in the water with the Sigma 1.8 version. It was 1/4 the price of the name brand version. So far, I am quite happy with it. I do find it a tiny bit slow and soft, but not so much that it keeps me from using it. What surprised me about this lens is how much I can really capture with it. I challenged myself to walk around and shoot and I was able to take several of the above photos just moments from each other. I often leave it on my camera in the living room because I know I can capture “real life” with this lens. That said, it is similar to the 35mm. The only times I would say that they could not stand in for each other is when you need more room, or you would like more of a creative angle/distortion. I love how your style can change. 10 years ago I would never have used this lens. I had a size complex and thought the longer the better and I only added these wider angle lenses in the last year. I love this lens so much that I am hovering around the rumors of the Sigma 24mm 1.4 art lens. I so hope that is true. While I find this lens very fun, it would be even better if it were a tad faster, sharper, and a little more robust. It is a very plastic-y feeling lens. But, that makes it lightweight as well.
Pros: Small, lightweight, has a macro feature, fun focal length for landscape and wide angle portrait shots
Cons: It is a tad soft compared to my other high performance lenses, and it is noticeably slower. Note: This does not stop me from grabbing it, but it is something to consider. And a warning, it’s a wide enough angle you may expose clutter in a room and find the need to clean more or shoot from other angles.
35mm 1.4 | Sigma Art | $900
Purpose: Storytelling. I bought this lens because I wanted something I could use indoors, in low light, and that would share more details about our lives. I cannot sing enough praises about this lens. It is on my camera ~70% of the time. (I should clarify that currently I am on hiatus from client work and am primarily shooting indoor documentary images of my family.) This length is great for any indoor work. It is great on a full frame or cropped sensor. It can be used for indoor, outdoor, full body/half body portraits, and while I use it for shots of my children’s faces, I would say that when you get closer in you will start to see some distortion– and that’s OK, I personally like it. This lens is great when you’re somewhere beautiful and you want to include more surroundings in the frame. I chose to purchase the Sigma Art version and I do not regret it. I paid 1/2 the price of the Nikon model and I feel I got just as good quality, if not even better. I really really really like the Sigma Art lens line. Bottom line: If I had to go a full week without changing my lens, this would be my choice. It really is that versatile.
Side note: If you are on a cropped sensor, Sigma has a 30mm 1.4 DX Art lens. I owned it for years and found it to be tack sharp and super fast, however, it became obsolete when I upgraded to a full frame camera. It runs $500 and the adjusted focal length makes it 45mm equivalent, which is nearly what you see with your natural eye. Nikon has since released a few DX lenses in this range that were not available at the time of my purchase, however, I still highly recommend this lens.
Pros: Solid, sharp, fast, great with low light, perfect indoor lens
Cons: If I were to be picky I would say, it’s not really small or light, and there is some distortion. You can use it for a portrait lens, however, a longer focal length might be more flattering for close ups. If you do use it for close ups, you could be closer to your subject than one of you are comfortable with.
50mm 1.4 | Nikon | $420
Purpose: The long story would be that I originally had the 50mm 1.8. Nearly all photographers start with this lens, but it feels slower and less “professional” when you start adding high quality lenses. At least that is what I told myself. So I stopped using it. But everyone sings praises about their “nifty 50” and how great a focal length it is. So, I bought into the hype and upgraded to the 50 1.4 version. Annnnd I still don’t use it. That said. It is a great lens; it is the most versatile of the prime lenses, and there is NOTHING wrong with it. For me, with my style, I feel it is the more boring of my lenses. If I want to back out, I prefer the look of the 35mm. If I want a portrait, I tend to prefer the longer focal length. But it is a great “all around” lens. Recently I took it to Alaska and left my 35mm behind to challenge my viewpoint on it. There were a few times I found myself having to back up a few extra steps; but it was still a great low light lens for indoors, it captured baby details, around the house life, as well as some landscape portraits. Also, the extra length the 50mm has over the 35mm allows you to be a little less intrusive if you are documenting, sometimes the extra distance helps you go undetected. Arguably one of the best things about this lens is that it’s small and lightweight and you can throw it on your camera and carry it everywhere. I can’t say your camera will be light, but you can throw it in a bag or purse and have it at the ready for just about all situations. It is a great “grab and go” setup.
Pros: Solid, light weight, fast, sharp, versatile focal length, good for indoor or outdoor portraits, good for single person or families.
Cons: It is not as creamy of a lens compared to long focal lengths making it less appealing for my choice in portraits, but that is being very picky.
85mm 1.4 | Nikon | G version: $1600 (I have the D version)
Purpose: Portraits baby! I bought this sucker years and years ago. I wanted the dreamy bokeh. This was my long reigning champion lens for many many years. I will always love this lens. It is not getting as much use these days, but not to worry, I will always cycle back through to this one. It is fast, sharp, and creamy. Did I say creamy? Such a dreamy lens. I upgraded it from the 85mm 1.8. This is one where I did see a notable difference in sharpness and focusing speed. That said, the 85mm 1.8 is still a fantastic lens for anyone with a smaller budget, it is still faster, sharper, and creamier than the 50mm 1.4. And even though it’s a dense little lens, it’s not that large and takes up less room in my bag making it a great grab for packing light. Almost every client session from 2013 and back used this lens. It is a great compromise between the 35mm and 135mm lengths, sometimes the 35mm is too wide and sometimes the 135mm is too long. The 85mm– at least on a full frame camera– is just a great all around portrait lens. (On a cropped sensor this lens is 127mm, which makes for a long lens, it might be helpful to do the conversions and read the focal length information accordingly, because the disadvantages are there. That extra length means you’ll need more room and you will be further from your subject. Not long enough so that you are yelling, but long enough that you may want/need a spotter for smaller children.)
Pros: Solid, fast, sharp, amazing bokeh, size
Cons: Pricey, a little too long for most indoor applications and even some outdoor ones.
105mm 2.8 Macro | Nikon | $900
Purpose: I bought this lens for macro shots and it took me 10 years before I actually started shooting macro. But I did tinker around and shot close to things and used it as a portrait lens a time or two. In fact, I just shot a casual wedding where I thought I had brought my 85mm and didn’t! I brought the 135mm and didn’t have room so I used this instead. I loved all the shots, despite being restricted to f/2.8. It was a great challenge and now I won’t hesitate to use it as a double hitter when I’m trying to pack lighter in my camera bag. This lens is much more versatile than I could have expected. It’s nice and creamy, it’s got some length to it, it allows you to be away from your subjects enough, but not too far, the macro capabilities are stellar, and it’s a fast, sharp lens! It’s a great lens for details, whether it’s the macro baby shots, the wedding rings, flowers, or every day. I love bringing it to the zoo, especially the aquariums because I can get right up to the glass and not worry about focusing distances.
Pros: Fast, sharp, Macro- capable, good for portraits
Cons: It’s a larger lens and it has some weight to it, and it can be a little too long to use for some portrait situations.
135mm 2.0 DC | Nikon | $1300
Purpose: First, let’s take a moment to truly announce this bad boy *cue music, light streaming down from the sky* This lens makes my heart flutter. It is amazing. It is dubbed “the King of Bokeh” for Nikon lenses. It does not disappoint. I would, however, point out that 135mm is a long focal length (200mm on a cropped sensor). You need room for this lens. If you want full body shots, you will need more room. But, it has definitely been my go to for the teen subjects. I bought this lens because I wanted to add something different to my arsenal. This is not a “need” lens, it is a “want” lens for me. I like the distance it gives me from my subjects. I love the effect that distance has on the bokeh. I just really like this lens from a creative perspective, but that said, I got this lens as a Christmas present from my dear husband. I couldn’t decide between the 35mm and this lens, so he bought them both. Good man. Unlike the 35mm which I could very easily argue as essential in my current workflow, this is my for fun lens. It is however, my number one pick when it comes to outdoor portraits and you would have to pry it out of my cold dead hands now that I have it. But I would argue that you could be happy with the 85mm or 105mm just the same. Basically, you won’t notice the difference until you have it. Then you’ll never be the same. My biggest disclaimer is that this is mostly a portrait lens, it is not very versatile, although I am positive if you issued a challenge you could get a lot of creativity out of this lens. You can always check out Flickr and type in any lens and it will bring up images taken. That is partially what sold me on this lens, because at the time I thought my 85mm could not be beat. A lot of people ask about the distance. To get whole body shots I am often about 8-10 meters away, and yes, on windy days I do possibly raise my voice, but I never feel like I am yelling. I wouldn’t say this is a must have tool in the arsenal for client work, I do feel that everything you ask of this lens the 85mm could do. But I bought my 85mm 1.4 in 2005 and I really wanted something to break me out of a rut and have some fun. I bring this lens every chance I get because I am always in love with the results.
Pros: Fast, sharp, great for senior photos or outdoor portraits, great for animals and some wildlife.
Cons: It’s pricey, heavy, and long. There have been times I have been unable to use this lens, even in outdoor settings. If you have small children, you may need to have someone to “spot” them as it means you will be a little distanced. Less versatile.
28-70mm 2.8 | Nikon | 24-70: $1900
Purpose: (Disclaimer — This lens has been updated to a 24-70mm. I own the older model.) I bought this lens as an all around lens while I was still new(er) to photography. I wanted a zoom so I could be in two places at once, but I also wanted to shoot wide with my aperture and be able to use it in lower lighting, indoors, and still achieve a portrait feel. That is asking a lot! It’s a zoom (giving you flexibility) and the fixed 2.8 aperture means that it is still great for lower lighting situations and indoors. The flexibility comes with a price; it is an incredibly expensive lens. The quality is wonderful and if you like a zoom lens, this is a really really great lens to have. It’s great for small children or families. It good for indoors, although a prime that shoots wider apertures will still be better. I bought this lens because it is highly practical; it covers a lot of applications. But. It. is. not. a prime. I like it, a lot actually. But I don’t love it. It doesn’t make my heart go pitter patter, however, it is an incredible work horse and when I’m shooting families, it is a wonderful go to. For shooting individuals, I tend to shoot wide open, so that f/2.8 annoys me a tiny bit, but with families that issue goes away. And I will be the first to say that it all comes down to preference. I know many photographers that will grab this lens first. I like it. I would never sell it. It’s just not always a first pick, but when I am trying to pack light for work trips it ends up in my bag. I hate the “pick ONE lens” game because I shoot everything. Obviously I would not grab the 35mm or this lens for wildlife, (except for that one time the moose stuck its head in my window, but really, who saw THAT coming?). If I had to pick two lenses that could cover ANY ground I would say the 28-70mm and 70-200mm would cover any and all needs I could have. They are large and heavy, but they do it all, and they do it all at f/2.8. I was really nervous on my last trip to Alaska because I wanted to pack light and only brought the 28-70mm and 50mm lenses. I shot all the sessions with this lens and two of my repeat clients said that these were their favorite sessions to date. I feel like this lens makes me faster. I highly recommend this lens for active subjects. I used it less once my children hit the age where the death glare became effective and they posed more cooperatively. Tip: Once the death glare becomes ineffective and they take to making awful faces, sticking out their tongues, etc. Shoot anyways. Blow that baby up and put it on the wall. Suddenly, they become cooperative again.
Also, I will note this is a lens where you should check out off brands. I have several friends with the Tamron version and I can see no visible difference. For such an expensive lens it could be worth it to save a penny or two.
Pros: Fast, sharp, Zoom capabilities, arguably the best lens for active children, very practical
Cons: Price! It’s a beast, both large and heavy. Sometimes f/2.8 is just not enough.
70-200mm 2.8 | Nikon | VR II: $2400 (I have the older version)
Purpose: (Disclaimer — This lens has been updated to a VR II, I own the VR I model.) I needed a longer lens for sports and wildlife. I love going to the zoo and my kids play soccer. It’s amazing! It’s a fixed f/2.8 aperture lens so no matter if you are at 70mm or 200mm you can open up to f/2.8 giving you a great portrait feel. There is nothing bad to say about the quality, speed, or creaminess of this lens. I use this in conjunction with my 2x teleconverter and it works wonderfully. This is another lens I don’t grab first, but is a strong workhorse in my arsenal. It is a lens that has specific applications for me and while they aren’t my every day items, I would never give up this lens. This lens is great when you have a lot of distance to cover, but you can’t get up close. I used it this summer at a water park where I was 15m away. I use this at all sporting events. I use this at every zoo or animal park. I use this lens when I travel and hope to see wildlife. It is a beast. It is 9-10in long depending if you have nikon or canon. I do find that for wildlife it is often still too short, but the price point of the 200-400mm is not something I am considering at this time. When National Geographic comes knocking on my door, I will run out and get it.
Pros: Fast, sharp, versatile, great with children, sports, and wildlife. Great for weddings where you want to be everywhere at once.
Cons: Price, size, and weight are definitely considerations. Also, there is a fairly large minimum focusing distance so it is not very practical in small spaces, but hello, it’s a long zoom, you already knew that. Also, 200mm is not THAT long, so while it is great for the zoo it is still a little lacking for birds and animals in the wild where you need a little more distance to keep safe, i.e. moose or bears.
50-500mm 4.5-5.6 | Sigma | $1500
Purpose: (Otherwise known as the BFL in this house.) I bought this lens for a birding trip to Cordova, Alaska. Sandpipers are small birds and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get super close so I needed a zoom to get me where I needed to go. This is my go-to bird lens. I use it when I am shooting the herons in my backyard and I use it when I know I’m going to see wildlife. I do not bring it unless I plan on using it. It’s huge. It’s heavy. It’s a great lens, and I’m very happy to own it, but despite the zoom range, this is a very specific lens. I find that it performs best on a tripod making it even more cumbersome to work with, but it is a very effective lens. I can handhold with it, however, I find I need much higher speeds when doing so. And though the range seems so practical, it is not the lens I would grab when shooting from 50-200mm, however, when it’s already on, I found it to work just fine for some portrait shots, making it a little more versatile when it is on the camera. It is not as fast or as sharp as the 70-200mm 2.8, but is fairly comparable to the 70-200 with the 2x teleconverter.
Pros: Long focal length range, most excellent for wildlife and birds.
Cons: Price, it is an awfully expensive lens for something you may only use a time or two! Size and weight, this lens is a beast.
(Above images were shot with the 70-200 2.8 + 2x teleconverter)
2x teleconverter | Nikon | $460
Purpose: This doubles the length of your lens at a cost of two stops. I love my 70-200mm, it’s fast and sharp and not nearly as large or heavy as my 50-500mm, but sometimes it just doesn’t get it done. I found this as a great alternative. It turns my 70-200mm 2.8 into a 140-400mm f/5.6 If you already own the 70-200, it’s a great alternative to purchasing another zoom lens. I have read that it does take from some of the photo quality, but I have not noticed in my own personal work, however, take that with a grain of salt. I bring this with me to the zoo in leu of the BFL, but one could also argue that you could just crop in camera. Take your pick.
Pros: It’s small and lightweight so it’s easy to throw in the bag just in case. It’s a great add on zoom.
Cons: It won’t work on some lenses and it has been said that it could degrade photo quality.
Note: These are just my thoughts and experiences. Everyone’s stories are different and choosing your gear is a personal decision; what works for one may not work for another. I bought my first SLR camera in 2002. I have been collecting lenses for quite some time. I have had a lot of trial and error. If I were just starting today I would likely not have all these lenses, however, I started with one, and then added in an order that made sense and fit my photography needs best at their respective times. As my children hit different ages, as my client work changed, as I updated my camera bodies, and as I grew as a photographer I have had to adjust my equipment accordingly. There is no perfect lens. I can come up with a great all around camera bag set up, but even then, each one of these lenses has a purpose so I cannot cover ALL my basis without the whole set. And I have a bag that carries them all. And let me tell you that, my friends, is not enjoyable to carry. I usually leave it in the trunk of the car and run back there and change out what I need when I have to do that.
*All prices are quoted from Amazon.com, they could fluctuate, and you can always find different sales from different sites.