When it comes to “starting out” as a photographer, there’s plenty to learn about technique. Most amateurs will go out and buy a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera, which is a good first step. Once they have this camera, a lot of time can be spent tweaking settings to get the right pictures. From ISO to shutter speed to focal length (often known as “f-stop”), these settings will determine a photographer’s technique and are invaluable for increasing a photographer’s skill. As they begin to take more pictures with these settings, they can learn more about composition (like the “rule of thirds”) and improve their style even further. With the exception of the purchase of the camera, the amateur photographer can learn a lot for free just by playing around with the DSLR and taking lots of photographs.
And yet, there is a point where knowing how to compose a good picture and knowing what settings to use for said picture aren’t enough. One of the major advantages of DSLRs is the ability to swap out lenses. As any professional photographer will tell you, these lenses can suck up a lot of your disposable income. Consequently, many amateur photographers are hesitant to dive into the realm of lenses because it can be so expensive. What I’d like to show you is that there are really only four essential lenses that a photographer should have, and you’ll only really have to buy three of them.
1. The Kit Lens
When an amateur photographer makes the leap to DSLR cameras, most of the time this purchase comes with what is known as a “kit” lens. While not necessarily a spectacular lens by any means, it is versatile in its functions. Most kit lenses will have a range of 20mm to 100mm, which allows the new photographer enough flexibility to shoot wide shots (at 20 mm) or zoom shots (100 mm). This lens is usually small enough that it is comfortable to use in most situations. I usually use my kit lens when I’m walking around with no particular goal to my photography, as it allows me to take a lot of different pictures without having to swap lenses. 100mm isn’t necessarily that big of a “zoom,” which is why the kit lens’ range is somewhat limited. You can buy lenses that have a wider range than 20-100mm, but they can often be expensive and will likely have certain picture artifacts due to the wide range. This is partly why the next lens is important to own and is often the first lens an amateur photographer will purchase after buying a DSLR.
2. The Telephoto Lens
Depending on what kind of photography you want to do, you might find that the kit lens won’t get you close enough to take the picture you want. Whether you want to keep your distance to take pictures of wildlife or you need to focus on a specific detail of something far away, the telephoto lens is the best tool for the job. While there is a small bit of overlap with the higher end of the kit lens range, most telephoto lenses will leave off where the kit lens ends. Plenty of telephoto lenses will start around 100mm and go up to a range of 300mm. Of course, you can spend more money for the lens to go to into the higher ranges, like 500mm or more, but the majority of pictures can usually be taken within the 100-300mm range. It’s important to still have the flexibility of the telephoto lens’ range, especially if your subject moves. For advanced photographers, a “prime” lens that is permanently set at high values like 500mm can be somewhat cheaper, but at the cost of flexibility. While telephoto lenses will have a limit to how close you can be to your subject in order to focus on it, another advantage of a telephoto lens is being able to take “close up” shots. Of course, these limitations will usually push amateur photographers into their next lens purchase.
3. The Macro Lens
By this point, an amateur photographer has explored the world using the kit lens and found how the telephoto lens can bring far-away subjects much closer in order to fill the frame of the shot. But what about the pictures of the fine details of a flower, or of an insect trapped in a single drop of water? Enter the Macro lens. While the lenses up until now could zoom in and out, most macro lenses will be “prime” lenses, usually somewhere between 30mm and 40mm. This means that the “zoom” of the macro lens is solely dependent on how close the photographer can get to the subject. While there are tons of details that can be brought into focus with these lenses, the sacrifice is usually in the form of depth of field. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but does require a bit of a steady hand to ensure the subject remains in focus. Of course, with a narrow depth of field, this lens is also great for taking portraits, as the background will easily blur out and leave the person’s face in full focus. At this point, most photographers have all the tools they need to take whatever pictures they want. Whether it’s a far-away subject with a telephoto lens or a nearby subject with a macro lens, nothing is outside the photographer’s range. Of course, the artistic photographer might want to take that one extra step and purchase one final lens.
4. The Fish-eye Lens
Some different “effect” lenses are available for DSLRs, but one of the most common—and also easiest to use—is the wide-angle or “fish-eye” lens. Basically, while the kit lens provides a wide angle at 20mm, the fish-eye lens will be closer to 10mm, which provides a distortion to the scene that can be used to great artistic effect. With a wide-angle lens, the outer edges of the picture will be “warped,” while the center of the frame will look like it is very far away. Often, these fish-eye pictures can capture the entirety of a room, sometimes even accidentally including the photographer in the frame as well. Some of the best wide-angle shots take advantage of the lens’ ability to warp a scene and create a unique view of the world. The previous three lenses in this post are easy to use in the sense that a photographer can compose the shot they want before even bringing the viewfinder to their eye. Unfortunately, it does take a bit of practice to notice where a wide-angle lens would create a different perspective, as the warped view isn’t something we usually experience with our eyes.
In the end, I feel these four lenses provide the right amount of flexibility and number of options for a photographer. Almost any scenario they might encounter can be captured with these four lenses, and I know they’re mainly the only four lenses I keep in my camera bag. While buying the “top end” versions of these lenses might be more in the realm of the professional photographer, most of these lenses have lower-end models that can usually be obtained for a few hundred dollars online. They might make an excellent birthday or Christmas gift for the photographer in your life (just make sure you know what they have before you buy). For the thrift-savvy photographer, plenty of these lenses can be found on eBay or in pawn shops, usually priced to sell because they have very specific uses.
Just remember, you don’t have to buy all these lenses at once, but your photography will likely improve with each new purchase.