If you’ve been photographing with a DSLR or mirrorless camera for a little while, you’ve probably gotten to that point where your kit lens just isn’t enough.
Which means that it’s time for a kit lens upgrade.
But what should you look for in a second lens? How do you choose the perfect kit lens upgrade for your needs?
That’s what this article is all about. I’m going to break down the key features in a second lens–so that you’re able to make a choice quickly and efficiently.
Let’s dive right in.
Kit Lens Upgrade: What to Consider When Choosing a Second Lens
When it comes to choosing a second lens, there are a few key factors you’re going to need to consider.
While not all of the sections below will apply to your particular style of shooting, most of them will.
So read on to find out about the most important factors in choosing a kit lens upgrade:
First and foremost, you’re going to need to think about your lens budget in advance.
Second lenses can cost anywhere from around $100 to $1000 USD (and there are plenty of lenses that cost more than this, though I don’t recommend you choose them as a kit lens upgrade option).
There are plenty of great options at the $100-$300 price point, though this will be more limited in terms of features, and there will be a tradeoff in terms of flexibility and optical quality.
You see, a lot of the budget options will give you good optical quality, but with a fixed focal length–or poorer optical quality, but with greater zoom flexibility.
If you want both of these characteristics (flexibility and optical quality), you’re going to need to pay more.
Of course, there’s always the option of getting a lower-priced lens now, and planning to get a more expensive lens once you have a bit more experience (as a third lens). This often makes sense, especially if you’re not sure what areas of photography you want to pursue.
The biggest limitation of any lens is its focal length.
So once you’ve determined your budget, the focal length is the first characteristic you should think about.
Wide-angle lenses (from 10mm to 45mm or so) are good for capturing landscapes, wider street scenes, environmental-type portraits (that show the subject plus the broader scene), and real-estate photos.
So if any of these subjects interest you, it might make sense to choose a lens at the wider end.
Standard focal length lenses (50mm) are good for general street photography, walkaround photography, and portrait photography. If you’re not sure what focal length to get, or you’re not sure what areas of photography you’d be most interested in, then a standard focal length lens is a very safe option. Even though I only mentioned a few genres that use 50mm lenses, you can really find a use for them in most types of photography, the only exceptions being the more specialized areas, such as bird photography, where a longer lens is a must-have.
Standard telephoto lenses (60mm to 200mm) are good for getting close to your subject, but not too close. They’re most commonly used in sports photography, event photography, and tighter landscape photography–because they’ll help you isolate your subjects without too much trouble. Note that the longer the lens, the heavier your equipment is going to get, so you should be prepared to carry some weight if you’re going to go with, say, a 70-200mm zoom.
Long and super-telephoto lenses (250mm to 800mm) are much more specialized lenses, built for wildlife photographers, bird photographers, and other specialized types of photography. These lenses cost a lot, especially if you want good quality. I don’t recommend super-telephoto lenses as a kit lens upgrade unless you’re extremely serious about either of the photography genres I’ve mentioned above. These lenses are extremely heavy, very unwieldy, and aren’t at all good for casual walkaround photography.
Note that there are also some lenses that span several of the focal length ranges I mentioned above. For instance, a great walkaround focal length is 24-105mm, because this gives you wide-angle options, standard, portrait-style options, and slightly tighter options. You do have to watch out for quality issues with such a long zoom, but you can find some great options if you’re willing to pay for them.
Prime vs Zoom
Once you’ve thought about the focal lengths you want, it’s time to look at the fundamental division between lenses:
Prime lenses offer a fixed focal length; for instance, a 50mm lens, an 85mm lens, and a 24mm lens are all primes.
Zoom lenses offer a range of focal lengths, such as the 24-105mm zoom I mentioned above.
The main difference between primes and zooms is flexibility: Primes only give you a single focal length, and are therefore a bit more difficult to work with, especially in situations where you can only stand in one place but would like to zoom in or out.
Whereas zooms allow you to smoothly shift from one focal length to the next without much work.
That said, zooms tend to be optically inferior to primes, all else being equal. So if you’re looking to spend, say, $300, you can probably get better optics from a prime lens than you can get from a zoom.
So you should ask yourself:
Is it more important that I have flexibility? Or am I willing to forego flexibility for optical quality? The answer should depend on what you like to shoot; zooms are better for landscape photography, travel photography, and walkaround photography, because these are genres where you’ll often want to zoom in and out. The answer should also depend on your budget, because you can get optically impressive zooms–just not for the same prices as you can find good primes.
If you like to shoot anything that moves, then autofocus speed is going to be of great importance.
Because some lenses lock onto their subject immediately.
Whereas other lenses hunt for critical seconds, which will cause you to miss most of your shots, plus they’ll cause a lot of frustration.
Now, autofocus speed isn’t particularly important if you like to shoot still lifes, architecture, or landscape photography.
But it is a big deal if you want to shoot pretty much anything else. Wildlife photographers and bird photographers require good autofocus; street photographers like good autofocus, too; sports photographers won’t get hired if they can’t capture spur-of-the-moment shots.
So you’ll want to pay careful attention to the different lens options, making sure only to pick one that focuses quickly and accurately.
Build Quality and Handling
In general, it’s better to get well-built lenses.
This is especially true if you’re going to be subjecting the lens to a lot of difficult conditions. For instance, wildlife and bird photographers need weather-sealed lenses, because they’ll often be dealing with rain, snow, sand, and more.
Unfortunately, there are two tradeoffs that come with well-built, weather-sealed lenses:
Price is one of them.
But so is weight, where better-built lenses tend to be heavier than their plasticky counterparts.
If weight is very important to you, then you may want to strike a comprise between weight and build quality. But know that a poorly-built lens can’t handle the same rigors as a well-built lens, so when you invest in a well-built lens, you’re also investing in a lens that will last longer.
Maximum Aperture and Image Stabilization
A lens’s maximum aperture is the widest aperture that it can use.
The maximum aperture is always listed as part of the lens’s name. For instance, a 50mm f/1.8 lens has a maximum aperture of f/1.8. And an 85mm f/1.4 lens has a maximum aperture of f/1.4.
The aperture refers to the size of the diaphragm inside your lens, and the diaphragm opens to let in light. So lenses with wider maximum apertures can let in more light.
This matters because photographers who often shoot in low light conditions will want to let in as much light as possible in order to get a bright exposure.
And if you can’t widen the aperture, you’re going to fail to capture good shots.
So for indoor sports photography and event photography, a maximum aperture of f/2.8 is a good idea, where f/1.8, f/1.4, or even f/1.2 is better.
(Note that these are also good apertures for night photography–night street photography and astrophotography, for instance, is often carried out with this aperture size.)
Image stabilization can somewhat compensate for a too-narrow maximum aperture, because it allows you to reduce your shutter speed to let in more light instead. But while image stabilization will prevent camera shake, it won’t do anything about motion blur…
…which is why a wide maximum aperture is important for those who shoot moving subjects in poorly lit conditions.
Here’s the final thing to think about when choosing a kit lens upgrade:
In other words:
How can you get the sharpest lens, with the least amount of distortion and chromatic aberration, for the lowest price?
Optics is often what defines lenses; they’re discussed in terms of their sharpness parameters. And this is for good reason: If your lens is soft, then you’re going to get photos that just don’t look professional (especially when printed).
That’s why I recommend you get the sharpest lens you can afford, up to a point. No, you don’t need to use an ultra-sharp lens when a merely very-sharp lens costs far less. But you definitely don’t want to grab a soft lens, even if it’s cheap; you’ll soon wish that you had spent a bit more on a sharper option.
As I mentioned above, prime lenses tend to be very sharp. But zoom lenses can give you sharp photos, too, especially if you use proper technique and spend enough to ensure reasonably good optics.
Best Second Lens Options in 2020
Now let’s take a look at some specific recommendations for best kit lens upgrades:
1. A 50mm Prime
A 50mm prime lens is the classic kit lens upgrade.
It manages to do include everything a beginner might need, incorporating an ultra-useful focal length (50mm lets you shoot street photos, portraits, tighter landscapes, travel, and more) with a wide maximum aperture (many 50mm prime lenses are f/1.8 lenses), with surprisingly good optics, plus an amazing price.
You can take a 50mm lens pretty much anywhere, and you can use it in pretty much any situation. The main drawback to a 50mm lens is its lack of flexibility; it is a 50mm prime, after all, and not a zoom. But given how convenient the 50mm focal length is, and given the price and optical quality, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better deal.
2. A Telephoto Zoom
For someone who’s more interested in shooting tighter photos, such as headshots, event images, and sports photos, a good telephoto zoom may be more your speed. You’ll want to have a slightly bigger budget than a 50mm lens will require, but for someone who needs the reach, a telephoto zoom can be worth it.
When it comes to telephoto zooms, I recommend you pick one with a maximum aperture of f/4, because the f/2.8 lenses cost an arm and a leg.
Pretty much all of the options out there are optically decent, but one of my favorites is the Canon 70-200mm f/4, which comes at a budget price and features excellent sharpness.
3. A Wide Zoom
Finally, if you’re inclined toward landscapes or interior photos, then a wide-angle lens is a good place to start. You can find some good wide-angle options in the 24-105mm range, which will give you a combination of wide-angle capabilities and reach. Plus, it’ll double as a great walkaround or street photography lens.
Kit Lens Upgrade: Next Steps
Now that you’re familiar with the criteria that goes into picking a second lens, you’re ready to make a purchase.
Just make sure to think about the best lenses for your needs–and you’ll do just fine!
If you’re looking to upgrade your kit lens, I recommend grabbing either a telephoto zoom (such as a 70-200mm f/4 lens), a standard prime (such as a 50mm f/1.8 lens), or a wide-angle zoom (such as a 24-105mm lens). A telephoto zoom is good for those who know they need reach, such as sports photographers or event photographers, while a standard prime is best for those who want an all-purpose lens. Finally, a wide-angle zoom will give you a nice foundation for interior and landscape photography.
If you’re looking for a second lens, you’ll want to think about the price, the focal length (do you want a wide-angle lens or a telephoto lens?), whether the lens is a zoom or a prime, the optical quality (is the lens sufficiently sharp?), the maximum aperture (can you use the lens in low light?), then lens’s autofocus capabilities (can it focus quickly and accurately?), as well as the build quality. All of these factors go into picking the best possible kit lens upgrade. And while you’ll be hard-pressed to find a lens that satisfies every one of these criteria in exactly the ways that you’d like it to, you’ll want to maximize as many as possible.
If you’re looking to get a second lens and you like to do portrait photography, you should focus on focal length and maximum aperture. Ask yourself: Do I want to capture headshots? Full-body shots? Environmental shots? If you’re a headshot-type person, then I’d recommend going with a longer lens, such as a 70-200mm telephoto zoom. If you’re looking to photograph full-body shots, then a 50mm lens should do the trick, though a 35mm prime is a good option, too. And if you’re looking to photograph environmental-style portraits, then a wider zoom is a good idea, such as a 24-105mm lens.
If you’re interested in landscape photography, a great second lens option should have a wider end–at least 24mm, though 16mm or 17mm would be nice, especially if you want to capture sweeping vistas. You could go for a true wide-angle lens, such as a 10-20mm or a 16-35mm option, or you could stick to slightly longer lenses, such as a 24-70mm or a 24-105mm lens.
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.
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