If you find your camera's 'kit' lens -- the lens that was included in the box -- isn't cutting the mustard, try to work out what you're not happy about. Is it not focusing fast enough, or is it struggling to focus on close-up subjects? Do you need a wider zoom range, or can you choose a lens that's designed purely for ultra-wide landscape photos or telephoto paparazzi-style bird-watching?
Gizmodo’s Guide to Better Photography is brought to you by the Sony Mirrorless Alpha Range. Photography has evolved, and Sony mirrorless cameras have made the DSLR obsolete. Find out which Mirrorless camera is right for you.
What Kinds Of Lenses Are There?
Most cameras are sold with a very basic wide-angle lens, something like a 18-55mm zoom for an APS-C digital SLR, or a 28-70mm zoom for a full-frame camera. This is the lens that you're most likely to have if you just bought a single-lens camera kit, although if you bought a twin lens kit you might also have an entry-level telephoto zoom -- like a 50-300mm or 70-210mm. You might also have bought a camera with a prime lens, one that does not have any zoom capability but that is smaller and lighter and lets in more light.
Beyond the basic prime lens versus zoom lens distinction, there are a few special-purpose designators that DSLR lenses can carry. Macro lenses are designed to focus ridiculously close to their front element, and can often clearly define an object within a couple of centimetres' distance. If you want to snap flowers or insects, a macro lens is for you. Macro lenses also generally have a flat plane of focus, so the corners of your photo won't be any less sharp than the centre -- and can show amazingly high levels of detail across the frame. Constant aperture zoom lenses are able to let in the same amount of light when fully zoomed in as when they're fully zoomed out -- a deceptively minor-sounding issue that cheaper lenses generally don't offer. Having a constant aperture lens saves you complicated guesswork - "oops, I've zoomed in, now I have to halve my shutter speed or bump up the ISO" - while you're shooting.
Tilt/shift lenses are special-purpose designs that let you manually adjust the orientation of glass elements within the lens, compensating for (or exaggerating) both vertical tilt and lateral shift. Although they're ostensibly meant to be used for architecture work, where applying a tilt can flatten the lens's plane of focus and straighten distorted lines when pointing upwards at a building, they're equally fun to use in the opposite fashion -- heavily distorting and compressing a lens's plane of focus, letting you capture otherworldly, heavily blurred out-of-focus areas in your photos. They're pricy, though. Image stabilisation, equally well known as vibration reduction or optical stabilisation, works a series of gyroscopic motors in a lens to compensate for any accidental camera shake. When you're hand-holding a heavy lens, your arm's natural shakiness, or even the fatigue of holding one position for an extended period of time, can lead to fuzzy photos or Cloverfield-grade shaky cam footage.
How To Pick A New Lens For Your Camera
To pick a new lens, you have to first work out what you're missing out on when shooting with your new camera. Do you find you're cutting off the edges of objects or landscapes when you try to take properly wide-angle photographs? Then you probably need a wider lens, like an ultra-wide-angle zoom or wide-angle prime lens. Do you find you're not able to get close up enough on distant objects? A longer telephoto zoom, or even a tele-converter, will help you out there. Are your photos turning out especially grainy, or blurry, or dark, when you're shooting in the darkest possible lighting conditions? Then you might need a high quality bright prime or constant-aperture zoom lens, a lens with inbuilt image stabilisation, or a combination of the two.
To start out with, it's easiest to find the range of lenses on offer by finding your camera manufacturer's website and looking through the lens selection on offer. Your particular camera will be part of a specific lens family, defined by the mount that connects your interchangeable-lens camera to the lens itself. Some manufacturers have a couple of mounts, though -- Sony has its A-mount for digital SLRs and E-mount for mirrorless cameras, Nikon has the long-running F mount for SLRs and CX for mirrorless, Canon has EF and EF-M, where newer mirrorless-only manufacturer Samsung has NX.
From that point, you're necessarily a little more limited in your lens choice. Beyond your camera manufacturer's supported lenses for any particular design -- whether that's a zoom or a prime, with any particular features you might need -- you might also find appropriate lenses from third party manufacturers like Sigma, Tamron, Samyang and the like. It doesn't hurt to do a quick Google search for "wide angle zoom lens for camera X" or any similar search term and see what comes up, or to browse an online store like B&H Photo that has some filters that you can set to your specific needs, before trying out a lens in a retail store to see what it really feels like and how it works and whether it's right for you.
Using Your New Lens To Boost Your Photo Skills
Once you have your new lens -- whatever type and brand and designation it may be -- the only way to make it change your photography for the better, and to improve your skills, is to get out there and actually use it. If it's a macro lens, for example, then you're really going to want to spoil yourself with interesting textures and pretty flowers and pieces of technology. If it's a high quality image stabilised superzoom lens, pack a backpack and go for a day of bird-watching out in the wetlands. If it's a super wide-angle, go and find yourself a nice landscape and shoot it at sunset, sunrise, midday -- whatever it takes to build up your experience of how that particular lens operates and the kind of results that you can get from it.
It's taking those different kinds of photos, and of getting to know a new lens and how it operates, that will grow your photography skills more generally. Learning the limits of your kit lens gives you the skill of framing a particular photo within that lens's limitations, and working with the limitations of the light a kit lens can capture is a test in itself. Trying a new lens, with the broadened capabilities that it offers, will show you the kind of things that your camera is really capable of. Switching between two lenses on the fly, as you move around and find different and interesting subjects to photograph, will really tax your skills if you're starting out and will force you to adapt and try new things that you usually wouldn't.
Trying out a prime lens can be a really jarring, and therefore a really good way to grow your skills. Not being able to zoom means you're forced to zoom with your feet, walking around and standing on your tip-toes and ducking down to get the photo that you want. If you look through the lens and see a photo that you want to get, and you have to alter your position to get it, then you're learning unconsciously about framing and composition and the placing and planing of objects within a photograph. This is just one example of what you'll learn when you try a new lens -- and the experience is the same, and every bit as educational, each time you try it.