Like a lot of you, my lens history reads like a drunk walking around at night. In retrospect I could have had quite a bit more discipline in how, when and why I purchased my lenses. No regrets, I’ve loved them all, but now with more experience under my belt and a good host of clients, I think I better understand the ultimate use of glass and what order probably best suits most photographers, and why. Allow me to take a stab at ordering up your lenses for you so that you maximize your kit in the most efficient way.
I think it goes without saying that this is simply my opinion, based on my own experience. Glass is a highly-personal choice and can be deeply swayed by who is asking what of you, and is not necessarily something that is meant to be purchased scientifically. As was my own case, following my instincts and my heart toward specific lenses was actually part of my process for falling in love with the medium. At the same time, I wish I’d had this list so, at the very least, I could have broken with it more purposefully. Let this simply be “a rational list” of lenses in the order that most people would likely find themselves in need of when taking up photography. Then do whatever the hell you please.
I did 200 photoshoots in 2019. The accompanying images are pulled randomly from over the year to give you examples of how I use these very lenses in different scenarios.
Most every professional I know, from wedding photographers to lifestyle shooters use this lens. It’s undoubtedly the “workhorse” lens of choice for anyone who shoots for a living. To use a baseball analogy, this covers the whole strike zone; from wide enough for group shots and architectural interiors to close enough for portraits and product shots.
This is easily the recommend for first lens as it’s all-purpose and professional at the same time. Can’t go wrong with this. And, as you come to realize after a few hundred shoots, the one lens that can get just about everything is a far better choice than switching primes, mid-flow. Spoiler alert, it’s not actually the camera or lens that is going to make or break you as a photographer, it’s nailing a variety of looks quickly and efficiently. Nothing makes that more possible than your vanilla 24–70mm.
To sweeten the pot, most manufacturers know that this lens is your workhorse lens and they tend to make with that in mind, so it also tends to be one of your more reliable and well-constructed lenses, for fast-focusing and sharp images every time.
A lot of people will seek out a second lens with an artsier feel to it, like an 85mm or 50mm with a wider aperture, like f/1.4. I get that, as it adds a beauty look to your bag that you can’t get with the f/2.8 of your 24–70mm. And there’s a lot of pressure to embrace prime lenses in the field of photography. Primes are the purists’ choice and are technically better quality lenses. However, here’s a little secret: you’ll get nearly-as-good (and very professional) out-of-focus rendering with the 70–200mm and a whole lot more options along with it. There’s a reason you see this lens on nearly all professional portrait photographers, including the late Peter Lindbergh. It’s among the best portrait lenses you can get, but it’s also far more versatile than an 85mm prime.
With the 70–200mm, you also can shoot a lot of sporting events and put yourself closer to the action, which can be critical in all kinds of shooting, from photojournalism to wildlife to your kid’s soccer game. This is a solid #2.
A Wide Angle
With those first two lenses, you are covered in nearly any situation. For the next lens, again, I’m going to go against conventional advice here and still lay off the coveted 50mm or 85mm prime in favor of a focal length that most people avoid and even fewer truly know how to wield — the wide angle. I’m talking anywhere from 14mm — 21mm. I like this range because any wider and the distortion is too great for most situations. But the reasons to have a wide angle are far greater than most realize.
Wide angle covers larger groups, specialty shots (like team huddles and overhead shots you might see of skateboarders, for example), establishing-style shots of interiors, as well as epic landscape and urban photography. It also just looks different. It’s an interesting angle that most people never get and a crucial tool for anyone who needs a full range of looks in any given situation. I perhaps use it less than my 85mm, but when I do use it, it has no peer for its uniqueness look at the world.
There’s a lot of wide angle lenses to choose from: 14–24mm (which, if you’ve got the first two, would give you the “holy trinity” of zooms) or 14mm up to 21mm primes are all great to have. Don’t stress over wider apertures on your wide angle — these lenses are not meant for shallow depth of field to begin with and most of your wide angle situations will be in good light. An f/4 is fine here, if that helps make the lens more affordable.
This is a very specific lens and a bit of a game-changer for most budding photographers. As far as artistic rendering and intimacy, it has no peer. After establishing a well-rounded, professional kit, as you have now with the above three, the thing to look for is a specialty lens you can make beautiful art with, and you can’t find much better than this one. In my experience, the 85mm, f/1.4 is going to yield the best, most artistic out-of-focus rendering as well as very flattering portrait and detail, whether you’re shooting pets, portraits or your kids opening presents.
Can you get that shot with the 70–200mm? Absolutely. But when you want that unique, artful look to your portrait, the 85mm with a super wide aperture is a special combination, and much more portable than the big zoom.
This is a great lens to do some hunting and experimenting with. It’s also a nice one to maybe think about using a manual focus on. The lens is such an excellent artistic tool that most people will prioritize this above the previously mentioned lenses. And, honestly, I can’t blame them. The Zeiss 85mm, f/1.4 is probably my favorite lens in my bag, despite it not being my most-used.
35mm or 50mm Prime
Now I think it’s appropriate to get an all-purpose prime lens. There will be times when just bringing one camera and one lens will be all you either want or can do — like on a vacation or to a dinner party. Or maybe even just a walk around type shoot, or hike, where you want to keep it light and easy. This is the territory of either the 28mm, 35mm or 50mm. The difference is subtle, but real, to me on these, with the 35mm being a standard editorial/documentary look that can also double as very nice landscape lens, and the 50mm being better for people and portraits. The 28mm is your standard cell phone lens, which is why I don’t think you need to buy one. But as for 35mm or 50mm, photographers have been debating this for many decades. I believe your choice should be based on the type of shot you enjoy taking most. Those of you who love landscape, architecture and a more documentary/journalistic/editorial feel, go with the 35mm. For those who shoot mostly people, go with 50mm.
From here on out, you’re on your own. If you own all of the above then your next lens will probably already be on your list as a specialty piece of glass to accommodate some specific kind of shoot — a tilt/shift perhaps, macro, looooong telephoto, fisheye or an art lens with a special look to it. Let your artistic nature be your guide here and choose according to the kinds of images you want to be associated with your style and your offering as a photographer.
Camera lenses are both expensive as well as the all-important key to expressing your vision. With the right set, you’re an artist with all the right brushes to create whatever you imagine. As a mentor of mine once told me, if you’re thinking about buying a lens, then you’ve probably already bought it. So think carefully! It’s well-known in the photography world that we throw much of our life’s savings toward the tools of our trade — but that said, few other purchases in any other walk of life are worth every penny, like a great lens is.