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It seems like the generally recommended practice is to start with a prime and build some skill with something like a 35 or 50mm lens first before moving on.

If I'm primarily going to photograph my kids, often in light that isn't great, I'm thinking a 50mm prime would be the best thing to start out with. However, I don't have a lot of experience with photography, so that's just a guess based mostly on what I've read so far.

What's the best lens (prime vs zoom, focal length, etc) for a new photographer to start with?

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    We need to know what format camera you are using. – Eric Shain Dec 17 '18 at 15:27
  • I was planning on buying an A7III. – BogBody Dec 17 '18 at 19:03
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    "... it seems like the generally recommended practice is to start with a prime..." Not necessarily. There are two camps on this issues, as there are advantages and disadvantages to either starting with a single prime or zoom lenses. – Michael C Dec 17 '18 at 19:16
  • @PhilipKendall the question should be closed as it is almost entirely opinion based. Thus I flagged it, but provided a comment because I do not want to be un-helpful. – Engineero Dec 17 '18 at 19:33
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The lenses we mount can be classified as wide-angle, normal, or telephoto. Additionally they can be characterized as prime (fixed as to focal length), zoom (variable as to focal length), and micro (optimized for close-up work). A fledgling photographer would be best served by a zoom with a range that centers on “normal”. Now most camera “kits” (boxed sets with lens) are supplied with a “kit” lens. This will be a zoom with a limited focal length range that centers on “normal”. The “kit” lens is a “taster” that covers moderate wide-angle, normal, and a moderate telephoto. So my advice is, purchase a name brand, with a kit lens.

That being said, we fit lenses based on the task. A zoom lens is more versatile than a prime, as it provides flexibility as to its focal length. You should start with the kit lens. When you have some shutter time under your belt, you will have decided if you are going to like photography enough to stay with it. If true, now you can branch out, and buy specialty lenses that offer more zoom range or perhaps a macro.

What focal lengths are classified as wide-angle, normal, telephoto? To find out, dig into the specifications of your camera. Find out the dimensions of the format. A full frame camera sports an imaging chip that measures 24mm height by 36mm length. This rectangle has a corner to corner (diagonal) measure of about 45mm. For this format, a lens with a focal length of 45mm delivers a “normal” view. However, by tradition, we round this value up to 50mm. Wide-angle starts at about 70% of normal (50 x .7 = 35mm or shorter). Telephoto starts at 2X normal --- thus telephoto is 100mm or longer.

The popular compact format measures 16mm height by 24mm length (DX). The diagonal measure for this format is 30mm. Wide-angle is 20mm or shorter and telephoto is 60mm or longer.

Additionally, portrait photographers generally gravitate to a lens 2.5 times longer than normal. For the full frame (FX) that’s about 100mm. For the compact, that’s about 75mm. Some advice: Pick up a book or two on photography and study up on how we choose lens focal lengths for different tasks.

  • shouldn't it be macro and not micro lenses? never heard the term micro lenses for cameras just for microscopes or in optical metrology. – LuZel Dec 17 '18 at 15:26
  • Hi Luzel -- had a senior moment - micro = lens optimized to image at "unity" (life-size often stated as 1:1). Anyway, the message is to start the new hobby with a camera that comes as a kit with lens. – Alan Marcus Dec 17 '18 at 15:59
  • yes a kit lens is a good start and more gear comes over time. I was just confused of the nomenclature because i am used that everyone talks about a macro lens and never a micro lens when they talk about the lenses you are speaking of and I did not want to correct it because it could be possible that its the same or i am wrong – LuZel Dec 17 '18 at 16:03
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    @LuZel “Macro” is the usual term. “Micro” might have come from Nikon’s Micro-NIKKOR branding. – Lawrence Dec 17 '18 at 18:38
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There are lessons about perspective, field of view, narrow depth of field, framing, and composition that can best be learned by working with a prime lens and having to actively consider the best shooting position to get the shot you envision. The fixed focal length forces you to move to alter the framing of the subject, but that doesn't mean you have to or even should stop moving to alter your composition if you add a zoom lens into the mix.

There are other lessons about perspective, field of view, framing, and composition that can best be learned with a zoom lens. A zoom gives you the opportunity, for example, to explore how the same subject looks in relation to the same foreground/background when shot from different distances at different focal lengths using the same framing of the main subject. In such an exercise you are zooming with both your feet and your lens in opposite directions and comparing the results!

The advice you have been given is primarily a warning not to stand in one place and stop exploring shooting angles and perspectives if you were to have a zoom lens mounted on your camera. But just because you are using a zoom lens doesn't mean you can't still alter the composition of your photographs by using your feet!

Can you learn a lot as a beginner using only primes or only zooms? Absolutely. But you won't be as well rounded a photographer. Ultimately, I think to be a well rounded photographer you need to have the skill sets to use both prime lenses and zoom lenses in appropriate situations as well as the ability to assess when each is the better choice. Whether shooting with prime or zoom lenses, the key is to avoid becoming stuck in a rut (or in one spot) but rather to keep exploring new ways of seeing the world through your viewfinder.

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As always with gear questions, the answer is that it depends on your use cases. Obviously, you'll need different lenses to photograph insects up close than landscapes, or the stars.

So, first think about what you want to photograph, then ask, or better yet, look up existing questions about your specific requirement.

In the case of portraits in low available light (note that you also could add light wih a flash), an important consideration is the max. aperture of the lens (how "fast" your lens is). You need a fast lens with a pleasing focal length for portraits, and for this case, the 50mm f/1.8 is often recomended because it is a very cheap option, at least for canon and nikon cameras.

For your camera, take a look at the available lineup and see if there's a lens that would fit your requirements, for a good price (the last one not least because your desires may change with growing experience, so an expensive lens may not be the best option for a starter.)

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I would personally recommend going with a prime (teaches you to visualize your shot, and forces you to move around for your shots, which is a good thing to get in the habit of doing), and I started with a 35mm equivalent. 50mm would be good too, and I love my 50 now, but I think the 35 is maybe more versatile.

Note I said "equivalent". If you have a full-frame sensor, that means 35 or 50mm. If it's crop-sensor, the numbers change. If you aren't sure, this is probably a good place to look for help on that!

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