Friends and clients occasionally ask me questions about gear. I’m no expert, but my knowledge has increased considerably since my days as a Kodak rep, when I sold hundreds of point-and-shoots during in-store demos with the industry’s first little printers that shot out photos. The most common question I field comes from folks who have entry-level DSLRs and are looking for the best starter lens. Often, their question is posed like this: “Which zoom lens do you recommend for a beginner?”
I won’t be fooled with a leading question. Most people investing in a lens do want flexibility, but if you really want to learn the fundamentals and create the kind of photos your DSLR was meant to take, then pick up a fast prime lens. “What the heck is that?!” you ask.
FAST means a lens with nice, big aperture. Like the iris of an eye, the aperture adjusts to let in varying amounts of light. Most kit lenses are rather inflexible in this area. The one bundled with my first Canon Digital Rebel had an aperture range of 4 – 5.6. Boring! The faster the lens, the lower number of the aperture. An f/2.8 is nice, but an f-stop of 1.8 is fabulous! In fact, an f/1.8 will collect more than twice as much light as a camera set at f/4. What this means is you can get away with faster shutter speeds (to reduce the risk of motion blur, or kids-who-don’t-sit-still blur) and maintain lower ISOs (since higher ISOs introduce grainy artifacts, or “noise”). You also gain the flexibility of shooting indoors without a harsh on-board flash.
PRIME refers to a lens with a fixed focal length. You can’t just twirl the dial to move toward and away from your subject; you have to move your body. (And after the holiday excess, I’ll take all the bonus steps I can get!) My prime lineup currently includes 35mm, 50mm, 85mm and 135mm. There are zooms that might cover this entire range, but they won’t capture your subject with the clarity and depth of field that a prime lens affords.
To the left is a pic of my daughter I snapped in April 2008. I titled it “When It Clicked” because this was my first portrait with the “nifty fifty.” With an aperture of 1.8 (wide open), the backdrop (um, driveway) falls away and makes my cutie stand out. My composition isn’t perfect, the focus is decent (the eyes have it), but that’s when it came together for me. That said…
I recommend a 50mm prime as the best starter lens for anyone looking to take their DSLR photos to the next level. As a Canon shooter, I was able to purchase my Canon 50 f/1.8 II for under a hundred bucks. Just do it. Turn your little camera dial away from that green box (auto settings) and become adventurous! Start in aperture-priority mode (usually “Av”) and experiment with life wide open. Set your aperture to 2.8 or 1.8 for portraits that will make your subject pop off the background. Then work on nailing your focus. For fabulous landscapes, try f/11, f/16 or f/22 to make everything from the foreground to the far-away subject sharp.
It’s a little different for Nikon shooters (not the concept, but the investment). There is an entry-level option, the 50 f/1.8D, which works on some bodies like the D80, but it does not focus automatically on older models like the D40 or D60. You can learn to focus manually — a useful skill in its own right — or you can upgrade to a pricier prime that will focus electronically on your camera body. Consider the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G AF-S. You’ll double your light-collecting power by going from 1.8 to 1.4 (and from plastic to nice, hefty glass), but it’ll cost you almost four times as much.
There are also some decent lenses for both Canon and Nikon that are manufactured by other companies. I read that a Sigma 50mm is a good option for those seeking auto-focus on some older Nikon bodies. And my first zoom lens purchase (outside of the less-than-stellar 18-55 Canon kit lens) was a Tamron 17-50 f/2.8, which offered a decent compromise between affordable sharpness and flexibility. That said, it only works on crop-sensor cameras, which is most of the entry-level DSLRs. Oh boy, that’s a discussion for another day.
Hope you found my ramblings a little helpful. It’s tough to be succinct on the whys and hows, but a nifty fifty is a great way to spend a hundred bucks and make your images look like a million. Pick up a 50mm prime for the best starter lens. Happy snapping!