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On Selecting The Ultimate DSLR Lens

I am asked repeatedly, “If you had to choose one lens…”, “Which was your first lens…”, or, “If you had to sacrifice one lens from your kit…”, which are all indirect ways of asking, “I don’t know what I’m doing yet, toss me a bone here, where do I start?”

Time to spill the beans. The cosmic answer is just around the corner.

First consider what you want to shoot with your camera. If you’re not shopping at a bargain outlet, then the shop staff may ask you this, be ready! If you quickly answer, “everything”, then any kit lens will suffice. Nikon kit lens are superb. If you have a more specific subject you want to chase after, like cats under moonlight or musicians at rock concerts, then that’s a better starting point. Deciding on a lens purchase comes from an event or experience that puts you in a challenging situation. It is during that situation that you realize what it is you need, and then it’s a matter of either just going out and buying it, or saving up for it if it’s a huge, expensive lens.


When it comes to lenses, it is well worth it to buy the absolute best, or seek the most unique, limited edition model, even if it takes some time to get it. If I can’t find something particular, I will buy it second-hand after scrutinizing dozens of copies in second-hand shops. Then I pay the money to Nikon to overhaul it, regrease it and shine up all the glass. If I had no financial means to do this, I would shoot with the kit lens until I had enough saved to buy one excellent lens. Clue!

I joined Flickr years ago, which I rank up there as one of the best things I have ever done, and started posting. It was after I stumbled onto Jon Yongfook’s magnificent HDR photos of Hong Kong that I made my decision to make my first lens purchase a wide angle. I recall sending him a short message asking him the same question I’m now getting asked, something along the lines of, “What lens would you recommend to get this same effect?” He kindly replied suggesting I try out a wide angle lens. I went over to Yodobashi Camera, tried every wide angle in the shop, and settled on the Sigma 10-20 which I absolutely loved. So for a long time after, I was shooting with only my kit lens and the Sigma 10-20.

These two lenses, the Sigma and the Nikon kit lens, fit my lifestyle very well, and served the purposes I needed them for. I learned on these two lenses, and after meeting many different photographers over the years, and asking lots of questions, did I slowly build my kit of primes around these two. I also learned how to ask better questions. The experiences I had traveling, meeting people, and constantly shooting, guided my selection of lens purchases. Obvious stuff, right?


Know your subject. Ask better questions.

It’s absurd to ask me to choose one lens, or ritually sacrifice one lens from my kit. What was my first lens? My first lens was the kit lens, just like your first lens! The other questions are just beating around the bush. If I lived in a bizarre parallel reality where I was forced at gunpoint to glue a single lens to my camera body and permanently shoot with only that lens, what would it be? The answer to this will get you no where. The real question should be something like, “I have a limited budget, I want to shoot portraits, I like your portraits, what would you suggest?”, or, “You shoot handheld in low light, how are you getting these shots?” To which I have fun, unusual and zen-like answers for! It took me time as well to figure out what I wanted out of my camera, and how to ask the right questions to get the right answers. Ultimately you will know exactly what lens you need after spending lots of time getting to fully know your camera and finding the subject you enjoy shooting the most. The culmination of answers you receive by asking lots of good questions to other photographers along the way will tie it all together.

All said, you’d have to severe my hands before you get me to let go of my 50mm and my 85mm. They are my babies.