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How to Choose Your SECOND Lens!
What’s the next lens you should get for your digital SLR?
It depends on which one you’ve already got—and your picture-taking priorities.
by Jason Schneider
Without question, the single greatest advantages of digital SLRs (DSLRs) are their ability to change lenses instantly, and to see exactly what your picture will look like in a bright, eye-level, optical viewfinder. These signature features provide unparalleled optical and framing flexibility, allowing you to pick the precise type of lens that best suits your subject and shooting style—from ultra-wide angles to super-telephotos and everything in between. Indeed, lens interchangeability, along with instant responsiveness and “what you see is what you get” through-the-lens viewing are the key features that have made the DSLR the hot ticket for everyone from serious photographers and pros to sophisticated amateurs seeking a better picture experience. However, if you expect to get the most out of your DSLR, you have to choose the right lenses, and picking your second lens is perhaps the most crucial decision of all. The aim of this article is to help you make that decision wisely and well.
Your first lens sets the stage
By far the most popular first lens bought with a DSLR is a short zoom lens (sometimes called a “standard” zoom) such as the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lenses offered by Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax and others as standard with their DSLR starter outfits and kits. The 18-55mm, which is equivalent to a 28-85mm lens on a 35mm film camera, provides wide-angle to medium telephoto coverage and a 3:1 tele-to-wide zoom ratio. Compact, lightweight, and inexpensive, the 18-55mm is a great starter lens for general photography that lets you enter the wonderful world of DSLR photography without breaking the bank. Some camera makers offer somewhat longer-range 18-70mm or 18-105mm zooms as “kit” lenses with mid-level DSLRs, an option that increases your telephoto reach for a relatively modest additional cost.
Alternative “first lens” choices
Many first-time DSLR purchasers now pick a longer-range wide-to-telephoto mega-zoom as their first lens. The classic Tamron 18-200mm XR Di II f/3.5-6.3 (28-300mm equivalent on consumer DSLRs) is a popular choice, in lieu of the usual short zoom that “comes with the kit” because it’s compact, lightweight, and affordable. An increasing number experienced DSLR shooters are going whole hog and opting for the Tamron 18-270mm Di II VC PZD, the ultimate mega-zoom (15X, 27-419mm equivalent) with built-in second generation Vibration Compensation (VC) and advanced piezoelectric (PZD) autofocus motor as a “universal lens” when acquiring a first or second DSLR body. No, even an 11X or 15X zoom can’t do absolutely everything, but these compact, lightweight, super-flexible lenses are fantastic choices for hiking a nature trail, shooting memorable travel, vacation, and family pictures, taking dynamic sports shots. Or breathtaking close-ups in the near-macro range—in short, any time you want a compact, one-lens, do-everything outfit to cover as many picture-taking opportunities as possible.
Lenses in the 18-200mm and 18-270mm class are also a great choice for folks who want to get all the other advantages of using a DSLR without having to change lenses!
Another fascinating first lens for photographers who want to shoot natural looking non-flash pictures in low light is a fast, short zoom like the Tamron SP 17-50mm f/2.8 XR Di II VC. This lens, roughly equal to a 27-80mm on a 35mm film SLR, offers the superior light-gathering ability of a wide f/2.8 aperture at all focal lengths—great for street photography and indoor “available light” shooting. Shooting at wide apertures like f/2.8 also lets you capture stunning pictorial effects by using their limited depth of field to throw the background pleasantly out of focus while making the main subject “pop.” None of these alternative first lenses is as inexpensive as a normal zoom, but in the long run they may help you build an efficient DSLR lens arsenal more efficiently and at the lowest possible cost.
The wide, wide zoom: Great for small spaces and wide vistas
Do you take lots of pictures indoors—interior views, kids having fun in the family room, and groups of friends and relatives gathered around the holiday table? If so, an ultra-wide-to-wide-angle zoom like the Tamron SP 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 Di-II LD Aspherical IF — the widest, longest lens in its class that provides an impressive 35mm-equivalent focal-length range of 15.5-37.2mm — is the perfect second lens for you. This lens makes it easy to get everyone in your extended family into the picture, shoot in tight spaces, and capture all the action from an intimate perspective. It's also a superb choice for shooting expansive landscape pictures and scenic vistas, and for giving a more spacious look to everything from car interiors to small rooms. That’s why an ultra-wide zoom is considered the essential lens for taking real estate pictures of your house for posting on the Internet, and a great choice for travelers who want to bring back memorable photos of historical landmarks.
The super telephoto: It’s for the birds…and wildlife and sports
If you like to take pictures of birds and other small, skittish woodland critters, or you’re into shooting big league baseball from the bleachers or NFL or college football from the 50-yard line, there’s nothing quite like a really long telephoto zoom lens such as the Tamron SP 200-500mm f/5-6.3 Di. On a consumer DSLR, a 200-500mm is the equivalent of a whopping 310-775mm lens, a range that’ll let you capture intimate shots of birds in a nest or close-ups of that great catch in the outfield, and that’s why it makes a great second lens for these applications. This big gun is most effective on a tripod or monopod, but it’s also easy to handhold, and its aperture is fast enough to let you shoot at high shutter speeds to stop action and minimize the effects of camera shake. This is especially true with the latest crop of DSLRs that deliver superb image quality at ISO 1600, 3200, and even 6400. If your DSLR has a built-in anti-shake system, your handheld shooting range with the 200-500mm is even greater.
More telephoto choices: The short of long
If you don’t really need the spectacular reach of a hefty 200-500mm and you want a smaller, lighter lens that’s easier to handhold, you should definitely consider a shorter telephoto zoom like the recently introduced Tamron SP 70-300mm Di VC USD as your second lens. It’s the 35mm equivalent of a 108-465mm lens on consumer (APS-C-format) DSLRs and it’s also a full stop faster than a 200-500mm, which means you can shoot at higher shutter speeds in low light. And it gets down to 1:4 at the 300mm setting, so you can get dramatic close-ups of everything from nature subjects like insects to small, detailed collectibles. The new 70-300mm also provides enough reach for sports and wildlife. It’s relatively light in weight (27 ounces), and it covers both APS-C and full-frame formats making it popular with everyone from soccer moms to pros. The 70-300mm’s ability to shoot close-ups from a greater distance (that is, its greater working distance) is also a real plus in all kinds of close-up photography, including nature shooting.
The new ultra-compact Tamron 18-270mm Di-II VC PZD is another spectacular choice for the long-range shooter, delivering a maximum equivalent focal length of 419mm along with tri-axial Vibration Compensation on Nikon and Canon DSLRs (it’s also available without VC for Sony DSLRs that have in-body image stabilization). Another big plus: It gets down to 19.3 inches in macro mode, and, considering its breathtaking specs it’s amazingly light at 15.9 ounces.
Telephoto macros: Super for close-ups and portraits
If you specialize in taking extreme close-ups or shooting portraits, you should seriously consider choosing a macro telephoto as your second lens. When it comes to taking pro quality close-ups of flowers, coins, or nature subjects, nothing beats a single-focal-length (non-zoom) macro lens such as the acclaimed medium-tele Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro, its long tele-macro companion, the Tamron SP 180mm f/3.5 Di Macro, or the remarkable new super-speed Tamron SP 60mm f/2.0 DI II LD Macro. All three of these extraordinary lenses get down to 1:1 (life-size on the sensor) for extreme close-ups, and each one provides the superb imaging performance that only a single-focal-length lens specifically calculated for macro photography can deliver. They also have wide apertures (f/2.8, f/3.5, and f/2.0 respectively) that let you focus and view with greater precision, a significant plus when shooting in the extreme close-up range and in low-light situations.
Macros for portraits? Yes, here’s why!
Having a long-focal-length 60mm (93mm equivalent on a consumer DSLR), 90mm or 180mm macro lens is really like having two lenses in one because both also make superb portrait lenses, and their wide maximum apertures allow you to use shallow depth of field (also called selective focus) to make your subjects really stand out against the soft background. This time-honored technique has been used by many of the great portrait photographers past and present. Employing it with a 60mm, 90mm or 180mm lens is especially effective because it allows you to shoot portraits from a great enough distance to get a pleasing perspective that flatters your subjects and de-emphasizes defects such as prominent noses and ears. Many pro photographers know that a lens like the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Macro is considered a “portrait tele” because of its focal length, but a significant number of today’s top portrait photographers are now using longer lenses like the Tamron 180mm f/3.5 Macro to achieve the even more dramatic portraits like those seen in leading magazines and portrait studios. The new Tamron 60mm f/2.o Di II LD Macro gives consumer (APS-C-format) DSLR shooters the same dynamic portrait possibilities as top pros that shoot with high-end full-frame-DSLRs by virtue of its incredible f/2.0 aperture, the fastest of any lens in its class, and the amazingly shallow depth of field it provides when shooting at its widest aperture.
A happy medium: A fast semi-wide to moderate telephoto
Are you the type of shooter who shoots in the medium range and wants a great compact, lightweight general-purpose lens with a wide enough aperture for very bright viewing and effective low light shooting? A fast, semi-wide-to-moderate telephoto lens like the Tamron SP 28-75mm f/2.8 XR Di may be just the ticket as your second lens. Its coverage on a consumer DSLR is equal to a 44-116mm lens on the full-frame format, a very useful range for reportage, street shooting, and general events coverage. That’s why the 28-75mm is popular with “weekend warriors” who supplement their income shooting weddings and other events where the action is fast and the lighting isn’t always predictable. Its zoom ratio may not sound too impressive but its performance is—which is why you’ll find this “sleeper” in many pros’ bags. It also covers full-frame cameras, a plus for pros and advanced amateurs.
Obviously, there are so many subjective factors in choosing lenses for your DSLR and there are really as many answers to the question “What second lens should I buy?” as there are photographic styles and working methods. The main thing to bear in mind when buying your second lens is to pick the one that works best with your first lens to extend your photographic range in a direction that includes the type of pictures you shoot most often. And remember—this is not a test, so there are no wrong answers. If you’re like most photographers, there will come a time when even your first and second lens won’t be able to do everything you want to achieve, and you’ll think about acquiring a third and fourth lens. Hopefully we’ve provided enough good solid info here to let you do that, too. Good shooting!