Let me preface this post by pointing to the title. I would love for this to be a discussion. By no means is one person the end all be all authority on this subject. If you have input on this I want to hear about it. But don’t just throw out a specific lens. Tell me why it is an essential lens to you. Yes, I will do a Canon discussion as well.
Ok, so what are we talking about? Camera lenses. Which ones are essential, classic, iconic, must haves and why. The ones you should have in your camera bag, the ones you can dream of, and a few to start off with. Some lenses might overlap specific types of photography and some will stand on their own. I hope to touch on a few different industries. I have compiled this list of lenses through 15 years of experience, research, and insight from other photographers. Again, that doesn't mean this is the final word on what is the next lens you should buy. Just advice based on experiences I have had through my photography career.
Prime lenses are basically lenses that don’t zoom. They have fewer moving elements. In many photographers eyes that makes their image quality better than any zoom lens. Prime lenses are also among the "fastest" lenses around. A fast lens is a lens with a large aperture opening. The smaller the f-stop number is, the larger the aperture opening. That will be important info to keep in mind while reading the rest of this article.
This is the go to wide-angle lens for generations. If you love shooting landscapes this is a fantastic lens for you.
Portraits The photography rule is don’t shoot portraits with a wide-angle lens. But once you understand the rules and have mastered them…you can break them. Use the 24mm for environmental portraits, and for large group portraits. While it may not be your go to lens for every portrait opportunity, there are some interesting uses for it.
Landscapes Absolutely. If you are shooting wide sweeping landscapes without any distortion at the edges of the photo then this is the lens you want in your bag.
Sports If you want up close in your face sport photos, then this isn’t the lens you want.
Weddings You might break this lens out at a wedding for a couple of shots per night. Like I mentioned above, this lens is great for large group shots. It is also great for wide-angles of the ceremony and people on the dance floor during the reception. You can pull off some very interesting perspective photos with the 24mm.
Fits on full frame camera bodies Yes sir. That’s where it performs best.
Fits on APS-C Definitely. A cropped sensor will make it an equivalent of a 36mm lens. That does change a few things we talked about earlier.
Is it fast? - Yes, it is fast. See above for what being a "fast" lens means.
There is a ton of debate between the 35mm and the next lens on the list, the 50mm. The debate centers on which is the better every day, all around most popular lens. Proponents of the 35 argue that the lens the view has is more natural to what the human eye sees. What can not be questioned is the quality of this lens for the price. It is a great lens to have on your camera at all times. The only question is if you prefer what a 35mm looks like through the lens vs what a 50mm looks like.
Portraits Great for full-length portraits and environmental portraits. Not close up portraits as the lens can start to distort the face a little.
Landscapes While not as wide as the 24mm (Thanks Captain Obvious), the 35 can produce stunning landscape photos.
Sports We still are not in the up close and personal action area of lenses.
Weddings You will find that wedding photographers choose either the 35mm or the 50mm to have in their bag for weddings.
Fits on full frame - Yuppers
Fits on APS-C Indeed it does. It makes the lens an equivalent of a 52mm. So if you are shooting on a cropped sensor (ie Nikon D3200,D3300 or D7100) the 35mm basically becomes a 50mm.
Is it fast? It is very fast. You will be able to shoot in lower light situations better than the majority of lenses.
Price? - $387
This is the lens that must be in your bag. It has been the go to lens for photographers since 35mm film cameras became the norm. This is possibly the most versatile (and most inexpensive) lens out there. There is a reason why they call it the "Nifty Fifty". It has a beautiful bokeh which makes it perfect for portraits. It is extremely fast (just a hair slower than the upgraded 50mm 1.4). The same argument that the 35mm lens folks make about how the eye sees…the same could be said about the 50mm. Possibly the best feature of this lens is the price. Coming in under $200 makes this the most inexpensive lens on the list.
Portraits This is a fantastic lens for portraits. Two thumbs up.
Landscapes For wide sweeping landscapes…not it’s strong suit.
Sports Sports portraits…yes. Field encompassing photos…yes. Up close action…no.
Weddings Must have. Perfect for low light situations ala dark bridal rooms and reception halls.
Fits on full frame You betcha
Fits on APS-C Yes. The lens becomes the equivalent of a 75mm lens.
Is it fast? The 50mm 1.8 is super fast. The 50mm 1.4 is extremely fast
Price? This is the best part. Only $132 (Super inexpensive by photography standards)
You want to shoot portraits? You found the lens. This lens is perfectly suited for half-length, three-quarters and tight head shot portraits. It is also a great lens for weddings when you want to start distancing yourself from your subjects.
Portraits Yes, yes, aaaand yes.
Landscapes Not it’s strength, but for nature photos it can be nice.
Sports If you are on the field…sure.
Fits on full frame You know it
Fits on APS-C It does. It makes it an equivalent 127mm lens.
Is it fast? Yes. Max aperture is 1.8 makes it very fast and gives it a beautiful bokeh.
Price? - $447
This lens does double duty. It is also a beautiful portrait lens, but it also doubles as an amazing macro lens. The focus is super quick on this beauty. It could quickly become the favorite lens in your bag.
Portraits Perfect for individual portraits. Especially when you want to give your subject a little distance between you.
Landscapes If you count macro photos as landscapes then put a check mark next to this one. With 1:1 macro ability you can make the tiniest things look larger than life.
Sports A super quick auto focus makes this lens a decent choice for some sport pics where you can get close to the action.
Weddings Having a lens in your bag where you can take beautiful portraits and equaling stunning close up photos make this lens a winner.
Fits on full frame Yes
Fits on APS-C It does. The lens equivalent of 157mm
Is it fast? - It is very fast when you are taking portraits. The max aperture is 2.8. For close up photos you will want to close the aperture a bit to control your depth of field.
Price? - $847
You want to talk about a lens that is drool worthy. The 135mm f2. This is possibly the most beautiful portrait lens out there. Its strong suit is definitely geared toward making things look pretty. It comes with defocus control. Think of it as the ability to have artistic control over the depth of field in your photos.
Portraits That is the wheelhouse of this lens. If you love taking photos of your family or if you have (or are starting) a portrait biz…seriously consider this lens.
Landscapes As with the 105mm…not so much a great lens for landscape photography as it is a nature photography lens.
Sports I would not use this lens for shooting sports. It has a slower AF than other lenses out there to shoot sports with.
Weddings This definitely has a place in a camera bag for wedding photogs. Maybe not as a primary lens, but definitely a lens for shooting portraits and candids. A photographer can get noticed from the photos this lens can produce.
Fits on full frame That is where it is at home.
Fits on APS-C It does. Makes the equivalent of a 202mm
Is it fast? Yes, it is a fast lens. You will be able to shoot in lower light situations. Where it isn’t that fast is the auto focus. This lens produces beautiful results, but it does make you work a little for it.
Price? - $1,392
Nikon has 38 different zoom lenses. 21 of those are made for Full Frame camera bodies and 17 are made for APS-C or cropped frame camera bodies. I have listed two lenses that are great for both. Of course, you can always use lenses made for full frame bodies on the APS-C bodies, but not vice versa.
This first recommendation is a lens specifically for APS-C bodies. If you are rocking a Nikon D3200,D3300 or D7100; that means you. While this isn’t a specifically "fast" lens, it is a great all around lens to have on your camera body. Perfect for those who like to travel and don’t want to worry about packing several lenses. The equivalent on this lens gives you so much room to work with. You are essentially zooming to 300mm with this lens. Pretty crazy.
Portraits - Yes
Landscapes - Yes
Sports While not as fast as other lenses. This could be a great intro lens for shooting sports.
Weddings You won’t be able to shoot in the lower light situations without some help of flash, but it does give you a lot of flexibility with the zoom. Great intro lens for a beginning wedding photographer.
Fits on full frame Not recommended. It is made for APS-C camera bodies (Nikon D3200,D3300 or D7100).
Fits on APS-C Yes, that is what it is made to fit.
Is it fast? - It’s not as fast as the other lenses we have featured. Being a f3.5-5.6 means that at 18mm it is at its fastest (f3.5). As you zoom your aperture will automatically stop down to f5.6. This is part of the reason why this lens is just under $600 and the 70-200 f2.8 is $2200.
Price? - $597
This is my second recommendation for APS-C bodies. This is a fast lens that covers you need for the wide to short zoom range. This is a nice lens to have as an event photographer. You don’t have to constantly zoom with your feet (like you have to with prime lenses).
Portraits Probably not suited for taking portraits with. Not to say you can’t do it, but several of the other lenses on this list work better than this one.
Landscapes Yes. Working as a 24-80mm lens, this has great potential as a versatile landscape lens.
Sports It’s a little too short for shooting sporting events. Note to self, I will have to do an entire post on just lenses to use for sports.
Weddings Fantastic short zoom for weddings. It’s like having the 24-70 lens on a full frame body.
Fits on full frame It does, but it is made to shoot on a APS-C (cropped sensor) body.
Fits on APS-C The lens was made to fit on this type of body.
Is it fast? - At a fixed f2.8 it is definitely a fast lens.
Price? - $1,500
If you have a full frame DSLR…this lens. Words don’t really do this lens justice. It’s just beautiful. Perfectly wide-angle to perfectly telephoto. If you have the means to purchase this lens, I highly recommend it. I was channeling Ferris there for a second.
Portraits A fantastic all around lens for portraits. Make sure you are staying more on the 70mm side for portraits though.
Landscapes Absolutely. There isn’t too much to consider here. This is possibly the most versatile lens available.
Sports See my comment above. Yes.
Weddings This is getting repetitive. Yes.
Fits on full frame Yes, yes it does.
Fits on APS-C equivalent to 36-105.
Is it fast? - Yes
Price? - $1,747
This lens is the workhorse of many portrait, wedding and sports photographers. The 70-200 gives you the ability of hanging back in a crowd and still filling the frame with a couple on the dance floor, or a child quietly playing across the room. This is also the lens that you can start getting those up close sports photos you have been wanting to do.
Portraits Yes sir! Great for on location photo shoots. Used for both posed and candid portraits.
Landscapes Being a zoom telephoto, there are a surprising number of uses for this lens in landscape photography. There is a whole Flickr group dedicated to this topic.
Sports Absolutely. This is such a versatile lens to have on the sidelines.
Weddings Like I have said. This lens is the workhorse lens for a great percentage of wedding photographers. So, the answer is yes.
Fits on full frame It does.
Fits on APS-C It does. Makes the lens equivalent to 105-300mm.
Is it fast? Yes, that is what makes this lens such a workhorse for wedding, portrait, and sports photographers.
Price? - $2,197
There you have it. Now, I would love to hear what you think. Let me know what essential DSLR lens or lenses you have in your bag. Or the next one you are planning to buy. I would also love to hear the reasoning why it is essential to your photography. Talk to you soon!