If you’re starting out, or not sure what to do with the gear you have, I hope this reflection on lenses will help you make sense of where to go next. I spent a lot longer than I needed to figuring this out, and most of a week putting it into language I haven’t seen elsewhere on the internet.
May you make great work (and know how to make more)!
If you can, buy a camera without a zoom. Get it with a prime lens and use it as exclusively as possible for nine months or a year. Then try something else. Give them each enough time to kick your ass, and enough time to try something ill-advised. Find a YouTube reviewer you like, research to hell and back, and try before you buy.
I don’t want to assume anyone’s level of comfort yet, so here are a few terms I refer to regularly below:
One of my artist-heroes, Mark Hollis, put it this way:
“Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note—and don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it.”
After about nine months of basics, I felt restrained by my 18-55mm f/3.5–5.6 kit lens. I knew I wanted to shoot in bars and other low-light areas. After saving and researching—stay away from merchants’ reviews; find a few YouTubers you trust—I bought three lenses. Within a year I sold one. I shelved another a year after that.
Dozens of people tried to tell me the gear would not make me a better photographer, and I really believed I was listening to them. (In my defense, no one has described the problem the way I’ve worked hard here to describe it.) But I went ahead and ponied up a lot of money, to learn on very expensive lenses. I have an archive now of hundreds of bad pictures, with low noise and impressively blurred backgrounds, which I thought they were great at the time. I lost a lot of money when I resold the gear I don’t use.
I’ve learned the most about my lenses by using one exclusively for months, then trying something else. Nothing’s stopping you from buying more than one (except maybe your wallet), but you can only learn one at a time, so you may as well keep your money. Before you learn to shoot with two lenses, learn to shoot with one.
I knew I wanted to make beautiful pictures of performers. That’s a worthy goal, but a lens can only help you so much. A lens doesn’t teach you to recognize a story. A lens won’t teach you timing, or which mouth positions make a person look silly. A lens can only help you execute a vision; the more you practice, the more you’ll learn what you like, and from that, you’ll build your vision. For me, it’s taken three years of learning what I like to start seeing something at all.
That expensive gear did give me confidence. But if I could do it again, I’d learn to spot a great moment on the cheap, and save the cash for the gear I’d learn I really want.
A zoom probably came with your camera. Zooms are useful for certain situations, but if you really want to build out your vision, I really, really, really suggest you get a prime. You can buy a zoom later, if it suits your needs.
In general, primes are lighter, a little cheaper, and sharper than zooms. (In general.) And while I enjoy those qualities, I like primes more. They make you learn what that specific focal length does.
Here are the situations where I’ve noticed zooms are handy:
Some folks think zooms are useful for street and walking-around-shooting-whatever’s-interesting, but I prefer how primes make me work. I actually prefer primes even in all the situations above (but I shoot bands with two cameras).
Here are some general things to consider:
The sheer possibility tapped by learning the basics of technique (and your gear) can be overwhelming. It can be helpful to find other photographers whose work inspires you, and study what they’re doing. Some folks will tell you in their comments or hashtags what their settings were. Some who don’t will be happy to tell you if you message them privately.
Aaron Thompson shoots in-their-faces, super-wide (24mm) portraits of his kids with a very shallow depth of field (f/1.4). Alex Ogelton makes full-length portraits with backgrounds that melt away from his subjects, by standing far back with an 85mm (at f/1.4). Heather Perry includes a lot of backgrounds in her project “Kids in the Hood,” with very articulated framing. She uses a camera with a built-in, un-changeable 35mm prime lens, typically at f/4–f/8. (Her underwater work is also breathtaking, if you’ll pardon the pun.)
Imitating them, then taking what I like from the results, has helped me figure out better how I want to make pictures, and what gear I’ll need to do it.
What I bought it for: All-purpose.
What I learned to use it for: Studio portraits. With minimal distortion, and incredible sharpness even at f/1.4, this lens is really versatile in a living room studio. It’s tight enough I get only my subject and a little background (for headshots), and short enough I can frame them well in this small space. Plus, I can quickly open the aperture to go from from standard headshot to dreamy portrait. It’s heavy for a 50mm prime, but since I’m now working with it almost exclusively on a tripod, that’s no issue.
What it’s probably also good for: On-location portraits, art digitizing.
What I bought it for: Performers: poets/bands/speakers.
What I learned to use it for: Performers, on-location portraits, and abstract architecture. This lens’s combination of low weight, sharpness, medium-telephoto reach, and incredible sharpness at f/5.6 and bokeh at f/2 makes it perfect for three genres.
In low light, it’s amazing to frame a face or upper-body, from off-stage, and blur what’s usually an ugly background into oblivion. In a field or green area, blow out the background and make the subject stand sharp against a wall of colors—or back up and make an uncommonly soft transition from subject to background. In abstract architectural work (looking up), there’s nothing I’d rather use. It puts me close, and it’s not a pain to hoist.
What it’s probably also good for: Who knows?! Try everything!
What I bought it for: Storytelling. (A recent, informed purchase.)
What I learned to use it for: Storytelling and architecture. Anyone who’s used a 35mm for more than 20 minutes agrees, it’s an ideal storytelling lens. Just wide enough to place your subject in a story. Likewise, sometimes, 24mm is necessary to get in all the story I need, and it’s right there. This lens also makes a perfect balance between a zoom and a prime, since it can’t really zoom much at all. (Sigma markets it as the equivalent of three primes in one—a 24mm, a 28mm, and a 35mm.) To challenge myself lately, I’ve been using it to combine storytelling with architecture; to tell stories with buildings, or parts of buildings. And the fast f/2 aperture means I can always take it into low light.
What it’s also probably good for: Environmental portraits, Platon-style somewhat distorted portraits, and real estate.
I haven’t used this poor thing in months. Its resale value is so low now (with a Mark II just released) it’s worth more as a backup.
Read reviews, go to your local camera shop and try something on your camera, and see if it suits you. Don’t have a local camera shop? Try lensrentals.com. If you live in NYC, go upstairs at B&H Photo, and ask to try literally anything you’ve seen on the internet. If you live in Columbus, try MPEX.
I hope this saves you a few years of puttering, and a few thousand dollars none of us has to spare!