Plugged In: Upgrade lenses for photographers on gift lists

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Although the cameras we suggested last week typically ship with a basic “kit” zoom lens, kit lenses often have some practical and optical limitations, especially when the light is dim. This week, we’ll suggest some affordable interchangeable lenses that supplement or could replace a basic kit lens.

Keep these considerations in mind:

  • Are there any types of photos that you could accomplish more easily or more effectively with a different lens? If so, then first consider lenses designed for such photos.
  • Lenses with very wide, f/1.4 apertures are more expensive yet often optically inferior to comparable lenses with a smaller, f/1.7 or f/1.8 maximum aperture.
  • A normal magnification, wide-aperture prime lens is generally the least expensive, most versatile first purchase for beginning and intermediate users.
  • Bear in mind equivalent magnifications. APS-C digital SLR and mirrorless cameras have a 1.5 equivalent magnification factor, which means that a 35-mm lens used with an APS-C sensor camera acts like a normal-view, 50-mm lens on a traditional 35-mm film camera. Micro Four-Thirds cameras have a 2x equivalent magnification. So, a 25-mm lens on an M 4/3 camera is the equivalent of a 50-mm lens.
  • Image stabilization is exceptionally useful, but only cameras made by Olympus and Pentax always include image-stabilization hardware built into the camera body. When using Pentax or Olympus cameras, any mounted lens will be stabilized. If you’re using any other brand of camera, it’s advisable to buy a lens that includes optical stabilization.
  • Single magnification “prime” lenses tend to be sharper, brighter and less expensive than comparable zoom lenses. Supertelephoto lenses with a very wide magnification range tend to be less sharp than standard zoom lenses. Personally, I prefer to use prime lenses whenever convenient.
  • The lens mount of both camera and lens must match. For example, you can’t use Nikon lenses on a Canon camera body. We’ve used prices posted at Bhphotovideo.com and Amazon.com, including only models with autofocus and auto-exposure. We sought the best balance between cost and high image quality. That eliminated many of the least-expensive lenses. Although some brands remain on sale, you may get a better deal after Christmas. We’ll start with lenses designed for Canon, Nikon and Pentax cameras.
  • Fast prime lenses: These are compact, very sharp and work well in low light. They’re the best deals of all for sheer image quality and low-light versatility at a low price. We suggest Canon’s 24-mm f/1.8 ($129), 40-mm f/2.8 ($149), and 50-mm f/1.8 ($99 to $110) lenses, Pentax’s 35-mm f/2.4 ($117) and 50-mm f/1.8m ($91) models, and Nikon’s 35-mm f/1.8 G ($197) and 50-mm f/1.8 G ($216) prime lenses. They’re unstabilized, except Pentax. Pentax’s excellent Limited Series APS-C prime lenses remain on sale at BHphotovideo.
  • Upgrading standard zoom lenses: Sigma’s 17- to 70-mm f/4 zoom ($400) is a good upgrade from basic Canon, Pentax and Nikon kit lenses. Nikon retails their excellent 18-to 105-mm upgrade zoom for about $400. Sigma’s lens is a better buy for Canon cameras. All are image-stabilized. Tamron’s unstabilized 17- to 50-mm f/2.8 zoom (about $400 to $450 on sale) is a very sharp, brighter upgrade for Pentax users.
  • Telephoto zoom lenses: Avoid unstabilized telephoto zooms except with internally stabilized Pentax cameras. We suggest Canon 55- to 250-mm ($300), Nikon 55- to 200-mm VR zoom ($350), and the newest HD Pentax 55- to 300-mm ($255) telephoto zooms. Tamron’s stabilized 70- to 300-mm VC-model stabilized telephoto zoom (about $450) is a sharp, higher-grade choice for Canon and Nikon users who want higher magnifications.
  • Superzoom lenses: The many similar superzoom lenses are good all-in-one and travel lenses. Sigma’s newest 18- to 200-mm and 18- to 300-mm “Contemporary Series” superzooms are among the best in this price range. Tamron’s lower-cost superzooms and Sigma’s other superzooms are older models that, while often a good buy, are less perfected optically.
  • Macro lenses: These are close-focusing prime lenses that work well as very sharp short-telephoto lenses. All currently sell for less than our $500 cap. Tamron’s 90-mm and Sigma’s 70-mm models for Canon, Nikon, Sony Alpha and Pentax mounts are bulky but excellent. Pentax’s 100-mm macro is very sharp and well built with a weather-resistant metal body. Nikon’s 40-mm G and Canon’s 60-mm macro lenses are less expensive than the higher-end Pentax, Sigma and Tamron models, but also good.
  • Sony A5100 and A6000: The best affordable lenses for Sony’s E-mount APS-C mirrorless cameras are made by Sigma — the 19-mm, wide-angle, 30-mm normal, and 60-mm short telephoto/portrait models. Each costs about $200 to $210, with f/2.8 maximum apertures. Zeiss’s 32-mm Touit ($499) is a higher-end alternative. None are stabilized on E-mount cameras, a drawback.
  • Micro Four-Thirds: Olympus and Panasonic M4/3 mirrorless camera users have a wide choice among high-quality, affordable lenses. Olympus’ 12- to 50-mm zoom ($350) is the least-expensive upgrade to the kit lens. Luckily, most Olympus and Panasonic kit lenses are sharper than average. All M4/3 lenses are inherently stabilized when mounted on Olympus cameras, but not with most Panasonic cameras.
  • Among fast prime lenses, we suggest Panasonic’s 14-mm f/2.5 and 20-mm f/1.7 models, both about $270. We also recommend Panasonic’s 30-mm f/2.8 macro and 42.5-mm f/1.7 prime lenses, and their compact 35- to 100-mm f/4-5.6 compact telephoto zoom. All three are very sharp, stabilized and retailing in the $350 to $400 range when not on sale.
  • Sigma sells M 4/3 versions of its 19-mm, 30-mm and 60-mm f/2.8 prime lenses for about $200 to $210. The 19-mm Sigma is OK, the 30-mm Sigma is very good, while the 60-mm model is exceptionally good. Olympus’ 25-mm f/1.8, 45-mm f/1.8 lenses (each about $299) and 60-mm f/2.8 macro lens (about $400) are excellent and recommended.
  • Olympus’ 40- to 150-mm f/4-5.6 telephoto ($99 on sale) can be good if you get a properly assembled copy. Olympus’ 75- to 300-mm II supertelephoto (about $450) is sharp and versatile when used carefully. Olympus’ new 14- to 150-mm Mark II zoom is sharper and less expensive than Panasonic’s older 14- to 140-mm model, but stabilized only when used with Olympus cameras.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

1 Comment

Filed under photography, Plugged in

One response to “Plugged In: Upgrade lenses for photographers on gift lists

  1. jack

    sometimes when you purchase your body and another “non kit” lens
    you receive a discount on the lens.. my 70-300 Nikon lens was two
    hundred less at 396 when purchased with the d7000.
    true about the 35 1.8 lens being not so sharp.. I prefer
    using the 70- when capturing, even with the weight ..even in the studio..
    though distance is required.

    have fun and be careful like a cat……..

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