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I've been doing research to purchase a DSLR. I think I have a handle on how to evaluate a body, feature-wise, but I'm finding it difficult to understand lenses.

Since buying a body locks you into a particular lens manufacturer's system, my next step is to decide what manufacturer makes the best lenses: "best" meaning good general-purpose lenses, with a good selection of other lenses.

I'm not asking who makes the best lenses. I am asking: What do I need to learn so that I can look at lenses from various manufacturers intelligently?

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Keep in mind that "best" is a highly subjective term. Even in your own mind, what you may consider "best" after reading the answers provided here, and what you may consider "best" after spending some time using various lenses and evaluating them yourself, are likely to be two very different things. Your concept of best will change as your knowledge and skill with photography changes. –  jrista Apr 27 '11 at 7:18
    
As an example to the above..."best" in regards to 35mm DSLR cameras likely falls under something akin to the Canon L-series of lenses (or much of Nikon glass). However, most 35mm lenses, despite their superb quality, are usually a bit lacking when compared to, say, digital MF or film Large Format lenses, which tend to be of considerable build and optical quality. –  jrista Apr 27 '11 at 7:20
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From a practical point of view, this question and its answers may be helpful: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/9355/… –  mattdm Apr 27 '11 at 12:18
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@mattdm - Wow, that's extremely helpful. Thanks! –  neilfein May 2 '11 at 17:50

1 Answer 1

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Few things that makes a lens stand out are:

  1. Aperture
  2. Sharpness
  3. Focal length
  4. Build quality
  5. Other features: (IS/VR, FTM, Distance Meter etc)

Aperture Some lens have fixed aperture throughout the entire focal length and some have variable. Most lenses with fixed focal lengths are generally better and considered top notch. Some lenses have fast aperture (ie. f/2.8) but the sharpness you get on that aperture is close to unusable, so make sure your lens has descent sharpness on entire focal length using the widest aperture. The wider the aperture is, more light can enter the lens and this gives you the ability to do better in low light conditions.

Sharpness Most lenses produce softest image on the fastest aperture, and sharpness generally increases when aperture is stopped down a stop or two. Top quality lenses doesn't compromise image sharpness even when using the widest aperture.

Focal length: This is something you'll need to decide. There are zoom lenses and fixed/prime lenses. Primes have better sharpness in general. You can go as wide as 8mm and as long as 1200mm (of-course not in the same lens) these days. General purpose lens are considered to have 15-24mm on the wide-end and 70-135 on the tele-end. Super zooms (ie. lenses having 5X+ zoom) generally do not produce high quality images, unless you want an all-in-one solution, do not go for a super zoom.

Build quality Good lenses have metal mounts, weights more and some are weather proof. Pro series lenses have better build quality than non-pro lenses.

Other features: Stabilization: Its called different names for different manufacturers but more or less works the same. It helps you to take hand-held picture of non-moving subjects better and is a nice to have feature. Please note that, this feature often add a huge money on the lens and drains more power from your battery. Also IS doesn't keep your subject from moving, it can not freeze motion. FTM: this gives you the ability to fine-tune focus without having to switch to MF. Distance Meter: Gives you subject-to-camera distance. Non Rotating Front Element: This means the front element does not rotate when you change focus. This gives you ability to use CPL filters better. Perfocal: These lenses do not change focus when zoomed in out out.

Actually there are a lot more, but I believe once you start, you'll learn them all. I highly recommend www.the-digital-picture.com for lens reviews. They provide ISO chart crops to compare sharpness between two selected lenses at different focal length and aperture. This feature is quite useful to check what the lens is capable of.

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add size and weight. Depending on your physical condition and/or where you're going to be using it, that 400mm f/2.8 may be too much of a good thing. It's a great lens, best optics money can buy, but it weighs a ton and the flight attendants aren't going to be happy with you bringing it on board because it takes up so much space in the overhead bins. –  jwenting Apr 27 '11 at 7:40
    
True! I prefer lighter lenses (50mm is your friend) when I know I will be walking a long way and shooting a lot of things! But It depends on peoples choice as well, I've seen fellow photographers dragging a suitcase full of gears for miles! –  fahad.hasan Apr 27 '11 at 9:28
    
Been there, done that. Currently packing for a 2 week trip, and trying to shave weight from my kit. But I don't fancy leaving behind the big weight items, my 70-200 f/2.8 for example, as I have no viable alternatives for them... –  jwenting Apr 27 '11 at 10:40
    
Okay, I need a large aperture range for night shooting, then; other than that, will concentrate on lenses with good sharpness in their reviews. I'll be looking for a good general-purpose lens, hopefully better than the starter lenses that come with bodies. (I think I'm going with Canon, not certain yet.) This answer will be of help when looking for lenses; thanks! –  neilfein May 2 '11 at 18:02
    
Our plan is to buy a Canon EOS 600D/Rebel T3i and live with the kit lens if we can stretch the budget enough, otherwise get a Canon EOS 1100D/Rebel T3 and maybe upgrade the lens. The T3i has a slightly larger sensor and a higher resolution, but they seem similar otherwise. (That the T3i got a higher rating on dpreview.com seems significant.) –  neilfein May 24 '11 at 20:03

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