Sunday, Oct 28, 2012 4:00 PM UTC

Best camera lenses for your buck

Brand new Canon but you're not sure what to shoot with? We've got you covered

canonlenses2

This article originally appeared on The Wirecutter.

If I’d just bought a Canon DSLR, the first thing I’d do is pick up a trio of lenses to go with it. I’d start with the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II, then add a Canon 70-200mm f/4L. Then I’d either grab the Canon 40mm EF f/2.8 pancake lens, the Tamron 10-24mm wide angle or the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, depending on what I wanted to shoot.

The Wirecutter

First, congratulations on buying a Canon DSLR — regardless of whether you picked up an old Rebel XSi on the cheap or have a shiny new 60D, you’re going to have an incredible time with your new machine. But how do you go about choosing the best lenses? Which ones are good value? Should you stick with Canon, or look at other brands, too? This guide will point you in the right direction for filling your camera bag with excellent glass that’s supremely affordable.

We’re focusing on lenses that work well with a crop sensor Canon camera. There are many lenses out there designed for full frame, but if you’ve just bought your first SLR and it’s a Canon, then I’m willing to bet you have an APS-C sensor inside it. If so, you’ll want lenses that are going to play nicely with that camera. If you have a full frame, you’re probably far enough into this game that you can do the necessary legwork yourself.

Without further ado, then, here’s the glass that you should go and buy.

The Prime:

The first lens you’ll want to grab is affordable, small and takes incredible images in low light. You can choose between two prime lenses: the 50mm f/1.8 (a steal at just $100) or the 50mm f/1.4 (which costs a fair bit more at $360). Have you ever seen a picture where the background is really out of focus, making the subject really pop? That’s called “bokeh,” and the effect is obtained by using a large aperture. The prime lens is just about the cheapest way to achieve that. These two lenses also do an absolutely incredible job of taking photos in low light, which means you’ll be able to get great images of people at dusk, or indoors.

The f/1.4 is undoubtedly a better lens, but if you’re just starting out and aren’t sure what you want out of a lens, the f/1.8 version is supremely affordable and worth getting as you feel your way around. Here’s what Popular Photography’s Stan Horaczek told me about the f/1.8:

“I think the 50 F/1.8 is also a great starting lens, but not for the normal reasons. First, it’s $100 and you can get it for less. And what it will do is give you an idea of whether you want to go wider, longer or stay with a 50 until you can afford the big boy F/1.2. If you hate it, you throw it on craigslist and take a $20 loss. If you like it, you keep it and eventually move up. If you’re just starting, it’s a great lens to experiment with.”

He does mention that it’s fragile, and  tricky to focus manually — but for $100, it can find its way into just about any camera bag. As Roger Cicala of LensRentals.com said, “the 50mm f/1.8 is so cheap, though, it’s almost a no brainer.”

However, if you can afford the higher price, the f/1.4 is considered a great lens. CameraLabs compared the two: ”Canon’s EF 50mm f1.4 USM is another ideal portrait lens for cropped bodies and a step up from the f1.8 model. The higher price gets you a brighter aperture, which at f1.4 can gather 16 times more light than the EF-S 18-55mm kit lens when zoomed-in. You also get USM focusing which is quicker and quieter than the f1.8 model, not to mention easier manual focusing and superior build quality. If you can afford it, it’s worth spending the extra.”

LensPlay’s editors are also fans of the faster, more expensive version: “It’s 2/3 stop faster then the EF 50/1.8 II, it has faster focusing, full-time manual focus, better build, a metal lens mount, a distance scale and better optics.” However, given the price difference, for someone just starting out, I think the f/1.8 is a better deal. It’s a great way to learn your way around the focal length, it’s dirt cheap and is sharp, fast and light.

The Zoom:

The next piece you’ll want to add to your camera bag is probably a zoom lens of some sort — most likely the the Canon 70-200mm f/4L. Whether it’s grabbing an image of your kid out on the sports field or getting a great shot of the Statue of Liberty while on a boat tour, sometimes you just need a bit more zoom. If you’re used to shooting with a point-and-shoot, you may have been spoiled with a 20x zoom or something similar. While SLR lenses don’t tend to run that long, they make up for it in quality.

Cicala, the founder of LensRentals.com, told me that for most people he recommends picking the manufacturer’s 70-300mm lens, as they’re “they’re good image quality and useful range for a good price.” However, Canon users may want to opt for the 70-200mm instead, as you can get some incredible lenses for a frankly fantastic price. They’re not the cheapest lenses around, but they represent some of the best value.

Canon’s high quality line of lenses are identified by the L designation, and usually are a pleasant off-white color. They’re known for superior image quality and sharpness — and they retain their value extremely well. For the zoom, I’d recommend the Canon 70-200mm f/4L, which goes for around $675, or, if you have a bit more scratch, the 70-200mm f/4 L IS, which goes for $1,200. The latter is twice as  expensive because it has image stabilization built in, which is certainly a nice addition for a long zoom.

So, why do we suggest the 70-200 L lenses over the much more affordable 70-300? For one, the maximum aperture of the L lenses stays at f/4 across the entire zoom range — which means you get more light in when fully zoomed, which means faster exposures. But mostly, it’s about image quality: The L lenses are all excellent, and will last you through hell and high water.

Dave Etchells of Imaging Resource highly recommends both lenses, saying “both versions of this lens are really excellent; it’s one of our favorite tele zooms, regardless of manufacturer. It’s bigger than a lens designed just for an APS-C image circle would be but it’s not ungainly, especially the non-IS version.” PopPhoto’s Stan Horaczek, on the other hand, leans towards the cheaper, non-IS version, saying “It’s an F/4 and doesn’t have IS, but it’s a good lens and it’s a focal range that you’ll be familiar with forever if you keep shooting DSLRs. That 70-200 range isn’t going anywhere. And … it’s an L lens so you won’t lose that much when you want to turn it around and move up.”

The ever contentious Ken Rockwell even agreed, and called the lens “ideal…for daytime sports,” and that it “retains the super-fast focusing and excellent image quality you do need.” The crew at Photozone praised it for “combining exceptional build quality with an excellent and very even optical performance throughout the range.” The opinion seems to be unanimous about the optical quality of this lens, although both of the preceding reviewers mentioned that some of the units were of lower quality than others. So try and make sure you’ve got a good one.

Both the 50mm and 70-200mm are must haves, but for your third lens you have some choices. These following three lenses are all really great, and each is a fantastic value. Pick whichever one sounds like something you’d like to try — or just go all out, and get the lot.

The Pancake:

The Canon 40mm EF f/2.8 may seem like a funny lens — after making such a big deal with the 50mm having an f/1.8 maximum aperture, why would you go with something so much slower? The trick with the 40mm is that it’s absolutely tiny. It’s less than an inch thick, and weighs less than 5 ounces — plus it’s just $200. It’s so small that you can just slap it on your camera, and wander around a neighborhood without worrying about the extra weight dragging you down. The lens isn’t going to get in the way, it’s not going to thwack into door frames when you’re not paying attention. Hell, you could just keep the lens in your pocket to have something extra to shoot with you whenever you want.

As Cicala put it: “It’s so small it’s literally pocketable, very, very sharp and amazingly priced for such a good lens. It’s not as wide an aperture as I would like, but it’s wide enough for most purposes.”  Horaczek also recommended it for new buyers who snapped up a Canon Rebel T4i, saying, “I think it’s worth the step up to the 40mm F/2.8 pancake. Especially if you buy the T4i, because it’s an STM (stepper motor) lens and can take full advantage of the new hybrid AF system.”

It’s not without its faults. The new focusing system doesn’t work perfectly except on the new T4i, and it reportedly loses sharpness at smaller apertures. Jaron Schneider of FStoppers commented that the sharpness was consistent and “could be downright beautiful. At certain apertures, though, the other side of ‘could be’ rears its ugly head. I was shocked at how bad the images looked when I shot at anything past f/9. This lens has a very steep falloff in sharpness between f/9 and f/10. It is a little worse on the edges, but that same consistency that I was initially impressed with has carried through when the quality of the image worsened. By the time I got to f/16, I was seeing crummy, blurry, muddy crap. F/18 through f/22 are nigh unusable.”

Schneider’s criticism was not universally embraced, however. Other reviewers disagreed.

The lens is still very new on the scene, and some kinks are still being worked out: There were reports of autofocus problems, which Canon fixed via firmware update. Generally speaking, reviewers have been happy with the lens, as it’s a great combination of low price with good optics. As Bryan Carnathan of The-Digital-Picture put it: “I’m finding very little to not like about this tiny, inexpensive lens. It is not hard to justify this purchase. Keep a pancake in your pocket — even for use as a backup lens.”

The Wide Angle:

One thing you’ll notice about the lenses we’ve recommended so far is just how narrow their field of view is. It’s pretty astonishing just how much of a scene we naturally take in with our own vision, and shooting through a 40mm or longer lens definitely cuts out much of that.

That’s why a wide angle lens is definitely worth looking into, especially the Tamron 10-24mm. If you’re shooting indoors at close quarters — like at a party or in a small room, a wide angle will get everything in the shot. If you’re at all into architectural or landscape photography, a wide angle is an absolute must for getting the feel of a large object. (Also, if you’re feeling a little underhanded, you can use a wide angle to make rooms look bigger when you’re listing your apartment on craigslist.)

Wide angle is one of the few areas where I’ve seen anyone recommend a third-party lens, which LensRentals’ Cicala did. He thinks any of the major third-party lenses are pretty good options. “The Sigma 10-20 f/3.5, Tokina 11-16, and Tamron 10-24 are all good, reliable and less expensive [than Canon's].” Overall, though, he recommends Tamron, thanks to the company’s excellent repair program, which includes a guaranteed three-day turnaround.

The Tamron 10-24mm will set you back just $500 — the equivalent lens from Canon is $750. The Tamron is not quite as good optically as the Canon, and it shoots better if you don’t have it at the maximum aperture, but it does an excellent job for the price. As Andy Westlake said when he reviewed the lens for DPReview in 2009: “Overall, this is a wide-angle zoom which will give good results when used with a little care (i.e. not shot wide open), and which has much to like about it in terms of operation and results. With the broad zoom range and reasonable price, it’s worthy of a place on the shortlist for anyone looking to buy an ultra-wide DX zoom.”

With a widest aperture of 10mm (that’s the equivalent of 16mm in 35mm parlance), you’ll be able to grab a huge amount of a scene in a single image — but be careful not to get overwhelmed by the distortion.

The Macro:

The last lens I’m going to touch on is macro. Macro photography is an awful lot of fun; there’s nothing quite like getting really, really, disturbingly close to an insect to make you enjoy the art of photography. Canon makes a very affordable macro lens, the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM, which goes for just $550. For almost double that, you can get an L version of the lens with image stabilization, but we’re trying to keep this guide on the affordable side.

The 100mm lens is fantastic for macro photography. Photozone said that, “optically the lens resides on a very high level with little to nothing to be desired.” Andrew Alexander’s review in SLRGear called it superb. “If you’re looking for a maximally sharp, high-quality lens in this focal length range, this is about as good as it gets. If you’re into macro photography this is a superb tool, with the added benefit of a comfortable working range, thanks to its 100mm focal length.”

As good as it is for macro, the 100mm is actually very versatile. The-Digital-Picture’s Bryan Carnathan said: “If you are looking for a great macro lens, the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro Lens is a very good choice. It offers excellent optical performance and middle-of-the-road focal length, working distance and size/weight. Price makes this lens a great value. The 100mm focal length along with great bokeh (foreground/background blur quality) makes this a great portrait lens as well.”

But it has uses beyond macro and portrait photography. One Amazon reviewer used it for macro, short telephoto, astrophotography and daylight terrestrial photography. That’s a lot of different uses for one piece of glass. It might take a while to get used to shooting at a fairly long fixed focal length, but you can do a lot with it.

There you have it, folks. Five lenses, each costing you somewhere between $100 and $700 (with a few pricier alternatives, if you’re willing to drop the cash.) Everyone should grab the super-affordable Canon 50mm f/1.8, and a nice long zoom like the Canon 70-200mm f/4L. After that, pick up the 40mm EF f/2.8 pancake lens for walking around, the Tamron 10-24mm wide angle, or the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 macro lens for super-closeups. Any three would make a killer combination on a budget, and will put you on the road to some really interesting photography.