Lens advice for first time SLR buyer

Started Mar 17, 2012 | Discussions
jijnasa
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Lens advice for first time SLR buyer
Mar 17, 2012

I'm getting ready to buy my first SLR. I'm more or less decided on a Canon T3i, mostly since it seems to be accessible to a beginner and yet feature rich enough that it would encourage growth. So now the question is what to do about lenses. There are two possibilities I'm going back and forth on at the moment:

1) Get the relatively expensive EF-S 15-85mm as a long term investment, but have it be my only lens for a while. Based on the reviews I'm seeing it's an unusually high quality lens for its versatility, and probably won't be going obsolete for quite a while.

2) Get two slightly less expensive lenses, probably the EF-S 60mm macro (which is also useful for portraits apparently) and either the EF-S 18-135 or 17-85 for general purpose. I'd be more likely to wind up replacing one or both of these lenses, but I'd get a little more overall variety in the kinds of shooting I'd be able to do in the meanwhile.

I will mostly use the camera while travelling in outdoor urban settings (although I definitely do a bit of indoor and nature also, where I'll occasionally fiddle with macro mode). I'm replacing a Canon SX20IS, and most of my shots are toward the wider end of its zoom range (35mm equivalent: 28mm-560mm). I'm not worried about large prints, and for the most part they'll just be viewed on screen.

Anyhow, I'm looking forward to hearing some opinions about what you might prefer and if it's not too much trouble a bit of an explanation as to your rationale. Thanks in advance!

Canon EOS 600D (EOS Rebel T3i / EOS Kiss X5)
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wallybarthman
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Re: Lens advice for first time SLR buyer
In reply to jijnasa, Mar 17, 2012

Interesting dilemma.

The 15-85 is fantastic and is regarded by many as the closest to an "L" lens that you can get in the EF-S line. But it's not particularly fast (4-5.6) and 85mm isn't really that much of reach (even on a 1.6x camera). But it's versatile and sharp and you can always crop. Plus, 15mm is pretty wide.

Two things to consider:

1) A flash. The best investment I made is a flash with a tilt and rotate head. This has made my indoor photography a million times better and has made my 24-105 f/4L very usable indoors.

2) Fast prime. I own the 35 f/2 and the 50 f/1.4. The 35 f/2 is very affordable, functions like a normal lens, and is fast.

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gdanmitchell
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Re: Lens advice for first time SLR buyer
In reply to jijnasa, Mar 17, 2012

I've thought about and written about this question quite a bit, and I recently had to deal with in again when my wife (who has not been a serious photographer) decided that she wanted to give DSLR photography a try.

You'll get all kinds of advice about this. Some will tell you to get a single prime. (I think that his a horrible idea these days, but I'll omit the explanation for now.) Others will tell you to "invest" in a good lens now rather than getting something less expensive. The existence of "kits" including two or more lens can also encourage you to buy multiple lenses right at the beginning.

Here is a fundamental issue. Knowledge about lenses and, especially, about your own particular orientation to photography and what that implies about your lens needs... only comes after you have done some amount of photography. In other words, experience affects your lens choices - and you don't have that experience yet.

To my way of thinking, this argues strongly against spending a lot of money on lenses initially and for starting with something relatively simple, functional, and inexpensive... and making a lot of photographs in order to acquire that experience that will help you make smart choices later about other lens options.

We are very fortunate today in that you can get a wonderful entry-level camera like the t3i (though my wife decided, wisely I think, that the t2i actually made more sense) at a very reasonable price and end up with a camera that is capable of producing excellent photographic results. We are also fortunate that first-time DSLR buyers can get a fine, functional lens like the EFS 18-55mm IS kit lens for only about $150 above the price of the camera alone.

I almost always recommend that first-time DSLR shooters start with this lens and only this lens. Its image quality is actually quite good, the image stabilization feature is likely to be useful, the focal length range goes from decently wide to portrait-length long. By shooting this lens at first you will get much more utility than we had back in the prime-only days, you'll have fun shooting with a versatile lens, you'll be able to produce fine image quality, and you'll learn a ton about how these things work and about your own photographic needs. Based on this you may - or may not - eventually decide to acquire other lenses. And if you do, you'll be much better equipped to determine what lens features are right for your specific and individual approach to photography.

Also, you do not need separate prime lenses at this point. You can get them later should you decide - based on your experience with the zoom - that you actually need them. You also do not need an external flash unit at this point - the built-in flash will be fine for you at this point and, again, by using it you'll figure out whether or not you feel that you need anything else later on.

Dan

jijnasa wrote:

I'm getting ready to buy my first SLR. I'm more or less decided on a Canon T3i, mostly since it seems to be accessible to a beginner and yet feature rich enough that it would encourage growth. So now the question is what to do about lenses. There are two possibilities I'm going back and forth on at the moment:

1) Get the relatively expensive EF-S 15-85mm as a long term investment, but have it be my only lens for a while. Based on the reviews I'm seeing it's an unusually high quality lens for its versatility, and probably won't be going obsolete for quite a while.

2) Get two slightly less expensive lenses, probably the EF-S 60mm macro (which is also useful for portraits apparently) and either the EF-S 18-135 or 17-85 for general purpose. I'd be more likely to wind up replacing one or both of these lenses, but I'd get a little more overall variety in the kinds of shooting I'd be able to do in the meanwhile.

I will mostly use the camera while travelling in outdoor urban settings (although I definitely do a bit of indoor and nature also, where I'll occasionally fiddle with macro mode). I'm replacing a Canon SX20IS, and most of my shots are toward the wider end of its zoom range (35mm equivalent: 28mm-560mm). I'm not worried about large prints, and for the most part they'll just be viewed on screen.

Anyhow, I'm looking forward to hearing some opinions about what you might prefer and if it's not too much trouble a bit of an explanation as to your rationale. Thanks in advance!

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Kitacanon
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Re: Lens advice for first time SLR buyer
In reply to gdanmitchell, Mar 17, 2012

gdanmitchell wrote:

I've thought about and written about this question quite a bit, and I recently had to deal with in again when my wife (who has not been a serious photographer) decided that she wanted to give DSLR photography a try.

Here is a fundamental issue. Knowledge about lenses and, especially, about your own particular orientation to photography and what that implies about your lens needs... only comes after you have done some amount of photography. In other words, experience affects your lens choices - and you don't have that experience yet.

To my way of thinking, this argues strongly against spending a lot of money on lenses initially and for starting with something relatively simple, functional, and inexpensive... and making a lot of photographs in order to acquire that experience that will help you make smart choices later about other lens options.

We are also fortunate that first-time DSLR buyers can get a fine, functional lens like the EFS 18-55mm IS kit lens for only about $150 above the price of the camera alone.

I almost always recommend that first-time DSLR shooters start with this lens and only this lens. Its image quality is actually quite good, the image stabilization feature is likely to be useful, the focal length range goes from decently wide to portrait-length long. By shooting this lens at first you will get much more utility than we had back in the prime-only days, you'll have fun shooting with a versatile lens, you'll be able to produce fine image quality, and you'll learn a ton about how these things work and about your own photographic needs. Based on this you may - or may not - eventually decide to acquire other lenses. And if you do, you'll be much better equipped to determine what lens features are right for your specific and individual approach to photography.

Also, you do not need separate prime lenses at this point. You also do not need an external flash unit at this point - the built-in flash will be fine for you at this point and, again, by using it you'll figure out whether or not you feel that you need anything else later on.

Dan

words of wisdon, all
well said gdan....

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Poxywallow
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Re: Lens advice for first time SLR buyer
In reply to gdanmitchell, Mar 17, 2012

I really can't agree with this more! I started with a t2i and a 28-300mm Tamron, and while the lens is far, far from perfect, it gave me good (not great) quality photographs that are much better than I could get for a point and shoot. The flexibility of the focal length also let me see what areas I use most and where I need to expand my lens capabilities.

I learned so much about cameras, lenses, and photography by just going around with this lens and shooting thousands of pictures. When I first got my camera I wanted a 24-105mm F/4 L as my dream lens. Now I know better, and now know that I want a 70-200mm. These lenses are very expensive, especially for someone who has photography as a hobby and not as a profession. I think the time I spent with my 28-300 was integral to my understanding of my camera and my appreciation for lens differences.

gdanmitchell wrote:

I've thought about and written about this question quite a bit, and I recently had to deal with in again when my wife (who has not been a serious photographer) decided that she wanted to give DSLR photography a try.

You'll get all kinds of advice about this. Some will tell you to get a single prime. (I think that his a horrible idea these days, but I'll omit the explanation for now.) Others will tell you to "invest" in a good lens now rather than getting something less expensive. The existence of "kits" including two or more lens can also encourage you to buy multiple lenses right at the beginning.

Here is a fundamental issue. Knowledge about lenses and, especially, about your own particular orientation to photography and what that implies about your lens needs... only comes after you have done some amount of photography. In other words, experience affects your lens choices - and you don't have that experience yet.

To my way of thinking, this argues strongly against spending a lot of money on lenses initially and for starting with something relatively simple, functional, and inexpensive... and making a lot of photographs in order to acquire that experience that will help you make smart choices later about other lens options.

We are very fortunate today in that you can get a wonderful entry-level camera like the t3i (though my wife decided, wisely I think, that the t2i actually made more sense) at a very reasonable price and end up with a camera that is capable of producing excellent photographic results. We are also fortunate that first-time DSLR buyers can get a fine, functional lens like the EFS 18-55mm IS kit lens for only about $150 above the price of the camera alone.

I almost always recommend that first-time DSLR shooters start with this lens and only this lens. Its image quality is actually quite good, the image stabilization feature is likely to be useful, the focal length range goes from decently wide to portrait-length long. By shooting this lens at first you will get much more utility than we had back in the prime-only days, you'll have fun shooting with a versatile lens, you'll be able to produce fine image quality, and you'll learn a ton about how these things work and about your own photographic needs. Based on this you may - or may not - eventually decide to acquire other lenses. And if you do, you'll be much better equipped to determine what lens features are right for your specific and individual approach to photography.

Also, you do not need separate prime lenses at this point. You can get them later should you decide - based on your experience with the zoom - that you actually need them. You also do not need an external flash unit at this point - the built-in flash will be fine for you at this point and, again, by using it you'll figure out whether or not you feel that you need anything else later on.

Dan

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jijnasa
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Re: Lens advice for first time SLR buyer
In reply to jijnasa, Mar 18, 2012

Great advice so far! I probably should have mentioned that I am living in India for about 8 months (my work beings me here somewhat frequently) and so I definitely do want something in the walkabout category, especially if it is going to be my only lens.

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kidcharles
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Re: Lens advice for first time SLR buyer
In reply to jijnasa, Mar 18, 2012

Don't overlook the good old 50mm 1.8, it's an extremely affordable way to get fast prime capability. It makes a good complement to a walk-around zoom.

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filmluvr
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Re: Lens advice for first time SLR buyer
In reply to jijnasa, Mar 18, 2012

For walkaround in India, I would want the 15-85mm. That's always been a very popular range for travel and street use (28-135mm or 35-135mm equivalent with 35mm film). I would also want the inexpensive, lightweight 50mm f/1.8 in my kit at all times. It's the only way to shoot low-light subjects indoors. Finally, given what you've said about printing and viewing, I'm wondering why you want a 18Mp body. You could save quite a bit if you consider 12Mp instead, and that would fund more or better lenses. If you haven't already, you might want to look at a 12Mp image at a local photo store and enlarge it to 50% in Canon's DPP software. I think you'll find there's more than enough resolution for what you want to do. In my case, doing that on a landscape-oriented image produces an image about 28" wide and 18" high. Even at 100% - which severely tests the resolution of every part of the system, including lenses - there's no lack of resolution in terms of Mp.

jijnasa wrote:

I'm getting ready to buy my first SLR. I'm more or less decided on a Canon T3i, mostly since it seems to be accessible to a beginner and yet feature rich enough that it would encourage growth. So now the question is what to do about lenses. There are two possibilities I'm going back and forth on at the moment:

1) Get the relatively expensive EF-S 15-85mm as a long term investment, but have it be my only lens for a while. Based on the reviews I'm seeing it's an unusually high quality lens for its versatility, and probably won't be going obsolete for quite a while.

2) Get two slightly less expensive lenses, probably the EF-S 60mm macro (which is also useful for portraits apparently) and either the EF-S 18-135 or 17-85 for general purpose. I'd be more likely to wind up replacing one or both of these lenses, but I'd get a little more overall variety in the kinds of shooting I'd be able to do in the meanwhile.

I will mostly use the camera while travelling in outdoor urban settings (although I definitely do a bit of indoor and nature also, where I'll occasionally fiddle with macro mode). I'm replacing a Canon SX20IS, and most of my shots are toward the wider end of its zoom range (35mm equivalent: 28mm-560mm). I'm not worried about large prints, and for the most part they'll just be viewed on screen.

Anyhow, I'm looking forward to hearing some opinions about what you might prefer and if it's not too much trouble a bit of an explanation as to your rationale. Thanks in advance!

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jijnasa
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Re: Lens advice for first time SLR buyer
In reply to jijnasa, Mar 18, 2012

Funny, I'm still back and forth about the walkabout but at this point this thread has convinced me that I need the 50mm f/1.8.

Here's a related question. I had been planning to get Canon's least expensive flash on top of my other gear. Given the low light performance of the 50mm f/1.8, might it be reasonable for me to ditch the flash in favor of the lens?

With the conditions I typically use my current camera in, there are rare moments where I wish I could do a ceiling bounce, but more often than note I'm able to make do with no flash at all and still get pretty decent pics (although it might take a couple of tries to get one where my hands are steady enough).

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kidcharles
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Re: Lens advice for first time SLR buyer
In reply to jijnasa, Mar 18, 2012

jijnasa wrote:

Funny, I'm still back and forth about the walkabout but at this point this thread has convinced me that I need the 50mm f/1.8.

Here's a related question. I had been planning to get Canon's least expensive flash on top of my other gear. Given the low light performance of the 50mm f/1.8, might it be reasonable for me to ditch the flash in favor of the lens?

With the conditions I typically use my current camera in, there are rare moments where I wish I could do a ceiling bounce, but more often than note I'm able to make do with no flash at all and still get pretty decent pics (although it might take a couple of tries to get one where my hands are steady enough).

Having the ability to use the natural light in low light settings is very nice, but sometimes you just need flash. Also, using fill flash to supplement natural light can be useful even in broad daylight. I guess you are thinking about the 270EX II? I use the 430EX II which is much larger but much more flexible in terms of positioning the flash head (it is more often than not pointing in some seemingly random angle to get a nice bounce light).

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kidcharles
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Re: Lens advice for first time SLR buyer
In reply to filmluvr, Mar 18, 2012

filmluvr wrote:

Finally, given what you've said about printing and viewing, I'm wondering why you want a 18Mp body. You could save quite a bit if you consider 12Mp instead, and that would fund more or better lenses. If you haven't already, you might want to look at a 12Mp image at a local photo store and enlarge it to 50% in Canon's DPP software. I think you'll find there's more than enough resolution for what you want to do. In my case, doing that on a landscape-oriented image produces an image about 28" wide and 18" high. Even at 100% - which severely tests the resolution of every part of the system, including lenses - there's no lack of resolution in terms of Mp.

I have to disagree with this. The price differential between the T3 (12 Mp) and the T3i (18 Mp) is only $125. In addition to the better sensor, the T3i has a swivel viewfinder, somewhat higher frames per second, and the capability of 1080p video. All of those advantages are well worth that fairly minor price premium. That 18 Mp sensor is the same APS-C sized sensor featured in the 7D. Those extra pixels are very useful for cropping, which I do all of the time for bird photography. I would only recommend the T3 to someone who is really on a tight budget and counting pennies.

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ChuckMiller
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Re: Lens advice for first time SLR buyer
In reply to jijnasa, Mar 18, 2012

Not to hijack this thread but to extent it ...

Lots of experienced advise always comes up in these questions. The general consensus is usually "don't buy too many lenses until you figure out what you need for what you like to do". Completely understandable.

Here is my question. In general, where do you think most enthusiasts and hobbyists end up? Maybe a couple of zooms and a couple of primes to cover everything? By everything I mean ... it's nice outside today lets go shoot wildlife (closeup bugs and distance stuff), lets take pictures of the party around the pool tonight. A wide variety of situations and conditions. I know every shooter is different but I have to believe there can be majority of some sort.

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sleibson
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Re: Lens advice for first time SLR buyer
In reply to jijnasa, Mar 18, 2012

I can tell you that I used the 17-85 on my 20D for six years as almost the only lens I put on the camera. It performed well for what I needed, which is mostly smaller prints and a lot of Web and live-presentation work. It is a great walkabout lens although it's large and heavy compared to a prime. The newer 15-85 was not available then. There is a significant design flaw in one of the 17-85's internal cables which causes it to fail and the repair requires a total teardown of the lens. So I'd say the replacement 15-85 lens is also an excellent bet for a walkabout lens, one that you can use almost without need of another lens. (See below for more.)

I also have the 60mm EFS Macro. It is an excellent, very sharp lens by all accounts, good for macro work and portraits, and you would not go wrong in purchasing it. I doubt you'd ever sell it.

The 50mm 1.8 is also an excellent, very cheap lens. It's sharp and fast. I spent an extra $50 or so to buy a used one with a metal camera mount (the Mk I version), but the optics are supposedly unchanged in the Mk II, which has an all-plastic mount. I've been using the optics of this lens since 1972, I think, with the Canon Ftb SLR I bought and its wonderful FD 50mm 1.8 lens. Back then, the lens was 100% metal (except the optics, of course) and autofocus was nothing but science fiction back then.

If you find the 85mm maximum focal length of the above lenses is a problem, I suggest considering the Canon 55-250 lens, which is considered pretty sharp (although slow) for how inexpensive it is. I bought mine unused from Craigslist for less than $150. Lots of people get these lenses in 2-lens kits and can't wait to get rid of them because they are planning on buying L lenses.

If you're an L lens sort of photographer, then please just ignore this reply

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jijnasa
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Re: Lens advice for first time SLR buyer
In reply to jijnasa, Mar 18, 2012

Okay, I'm feeling a bit more solid at this point. I think I'm going to go with the T3i, the 15-85, and the 50 f1.8. I'm going to hold off on the flash for now partly to open up my budget for the 50mm and partly because I'm starting to see how the 270 might just be inadequate and I don't have the budget for a better one. Maybe I'll get the 320 flash later on down the road. It might make more sense from a learner's perspective anyway for me to deal with natural lighting while learning the basics of the camera before throwing on a flash anyway.

Thanks for the advice, all!

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CameraCarl
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Re: Lens advice for first time SLR buyer
In reply to jijnasa, Mar 18, 2012

Having started my photography hobby decades ago when it seems that every camera came with a 50mm lens, I can remember that I couldn't wait to replace the 50mm lens with a moderately wide to moderate tele photo zoom lens. I have never been back. For my shooting styles, I just don't need a 50mm lens. That range is covered with my 17-40 and my 24-105. When I might need an f/1.8 lens, for example for interior photos when traveling, 50mm is never wide enough. So unless you can specifically state an urgent need for a 50mm f/1.8 lens, you may want to wait to get the 50.

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sleibson
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Re: Lens advice for first time SLR buyer
In reply to jijnasa, Mar 18, 2012

I think it's wise to wait on the flash. Learning to shoot good natural-light images can take a while by itself. You're right that the 50mm 1.8 lens will somewhat offset the need for flash. Besides, there's a pop-up flash on the camera with auto exposure. Not much range, but Canon's pop-up dSLR flashes are pretty OK within a 10-foot range. You just can't go off camera. For off-camera flash work, be sure to go and suck the pith out of the Strobist site, when you're ready.

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yellodog
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Re: Lens advice for first time SLR buyer
In reply to jijnasa, Mar 18, 2012

Seeing as how you are temporarily in India which presumably is a trip of a life time for you I would advise against the kit lens idea of "apprenticeship", You will be losing valuable shots. et as good glass as you can afford and your conscience will allow.

You second choice sounds more alround to me, there will be lots of beautiful plants and weird insects you will enjoy snapping.

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jijnasa
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Re: Lens advice for first time SLR buyer
In reply to CameraCarl, Mar 18, 2012

One of the main reasons I'm switching to SLR is because I want to experiment with shallow depth of field, and this discussion has made me understand that I can't do that very well without a fast prime lens. Furthermore, I've spent enough time researching the issues to realize that prime lenses have their advocates and their detractors, and the only way to find out which camp I'm in is to get some experience with one. At just over $100 the 50 f1.8 has good image quality and is very affordable. I gather that 50mm is less than ideal on a cropped body, but there is nothing else even remotely in this price range. Point me in the direction of a ~$100 shorter lens with good IQ and I'll gladly go for that one instead, but otherwise as far as I can see this is the most reasonable way to experiment.

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gdanmitchell
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Re: Lens advice for first time SLR buyer
In reply to kidcharles, Mar 18, 2012

As a first lens, please do overlook the 50mm prime lens. It is cheap, it works well, but it is completely unnecessary at this point in a photographer's journey, and it can always be acquired later at the same low price if the photographer's interest happens to evolve in that direction.

If you are certain you need a larger focal length range, consider another non-L type lens such as the 18-135 or the 15-85, and work with a single lens. I doubt that you'll really want to contend with an external flash at this point.

Dan

kidcharles wrote:

Don't overlook the good old 50mm 1.8, it's an extremely affordable way to get fast prime capability. It makes a good complement to a walk-around zoom.

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gdanmitchell
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Re: Lens advice for first time SLR buyer
In reply to ChuckMiller, Mar 18, 2012

ChuckMiller wrote:

Here is my question. In general, where do you think most enthusiasts and hobbyists end up? Maybe a couple of zooms and a couple of primes to cover everything? By everything I mean ... it's nice outside today lets go shoot wildlife (closeup bugs and distance stuff), lets take pictures of the party around the pool tonight. A wide variety of situations and conditions. I know every shooter is different but I have to believe there can be majority of some sort.

My strong hunch, based on observing a lot of people who acquire these cameras in the wild is that...

... the vast majority never feel the need to purchase an additional lens beyond the initial kit lens. It works well for what they have in mind. As odd as it may sound to some here, they end up being uninterested in swapping lenses. They are fine with the built-in flash.

(If I had a dollar for every story I've heard from someone who believed the advice to "buy the 50mm f1.8" as your first lens or in addition to the kit zoom and then ended up never using the prime, I could afford a bunch of interesting gear...

A smaller percentage bridge from a first "rebel" style DSLR to a more serious interest in photography. At that point they become experienced and knowledgable enough to make smarter choices about which other lenses (and, in some cases, bodies) might be ideal for their evolving interest. However, there is no typical or common set of lenses they end up with, witness all the different advice you'll see from such folks in forums like this one.

Of these, those who end up at what you might call the "enthusiast" or "hobbyist" level ( and who acquire gear to use and not because acquiring gear makes them feel Really Cool and Just Like Real Photographers) probably end up with 2 or possibly 3 zoom lenses in most cases.

Dan

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