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For someone who is starting out in the world of photography, is a two-lens starter kit a good option? Does having a series of lens options, from the beginning, help develop a sense of which lens to pick? Would a one-lens kit be better to develop capabilities without being overwhelmed with lenses that one may not know how to use?

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Your own taste and interests are going to lead you to your "final" lenses (No such thing exists, but at least you will eventually be at a state where you know what are your specific fields of interest, and will buy great glass accordingly). But, as you are starting, I suggest you explore in the next few years... buy and sell lenses according to the course you take, book you read and (most importantly) experience you gather. In the meantime, as a beginner (I was there about 5 years ago), there is some opinions/experiences I can share:

  • The kit lens is a good starting point. If you close down a bit, it can be tack sharp, and the macro level can be decent (compared, for example, to a long prime). I separated from it quite quickly to go on a "cheap primes" trip... but looking at my early kit lenses pictures, they were not that bad.
  • "Cheap" (read: not fast, like f4-5.6) tele zooms (ex: a 55-250mm) are good only outside, where there is a MASSIVE amount of light. So take one only if you want to start taking pictures of kids sports of make you first steps in bird photography. Image Quality and bokeh can be decent for these applications only.
  • Primes are generally a good choice to start in photography, because you will take picture that are distinct from most telephones, and can explore what is going to be your specifics fields : Portrait, Macro, Landscape, Bird Photo, Astro photo, etc. There are prime lenses for every budget, and every need.
  • Trying a lense before buying is a thing
  • Renting is a thing
  • AND buying used, especially for beginners/amateurs, is DEFINITELY a thing

If I had to start all over again, I would get only two lenses after the kit lens:

  • A Normalish-Tele, fast (50 or 85 equivalent). This will give you bokeh, magnificient personal portraits and will work you focus.
  • A 35mm-ish (a little wider than normal) equivalent, this will make you work on story telling, compostion, while being a adequate portrait, landscape and all-around (ex: vacation) lens.

If you are shooting Canon, that would be:

  • A new 50 f1.8 stm EF (they are so cheap, even new), a used 85mm f1.8 or 100mm f2 (not macro). The latter is my personal favorite, but honestly, the 50mm is a better first-time choice.
  • A 24mm f2.8 (if APS-C sized sensor), or 40mm 2.8 (if full frame). Sadly the Canon 35mm for full frame are REALLY expensive, so the EF-S 24 and 40 EF pancake lenses are better choices... also, they are the only two pancake lenses from Canon... super sharp, cheap, relatively fast and super light/small in a bag.

For Fuji, I would go for the 23mm (35 equiv) and/or 35mm (about 50 equiv).

I don't know enough about other manufacturers to comment on them.

If you are on a Canon APS-C, consider these next:

  • Bird/Sports : A used, IS tele zoom, like a 70-300... just to see if you like it
  • Indoors sports, landscape : 10-18mm. It's a fun, sharp, relatively cheap lens, but only for APS-C.
  • Astro : A off-brand, wide and fast manual focus lens (ex: 14mm f2.8 or a 24mm)

Pricier (ex: Canon "L") lenses are great, but only worth it if you know what you love.

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    I'll second the recommendation for the 24mm EF-S f/2.8. Dirty cheap, fast focus, and lets you dip your toes into lower light conditions. – Fábio Dias Feb 13 at 16:11
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    The 10-18mm from Canon was a good and cheap lens to start off on wide angles for me. On APS-C, unless for portrait work, I favor the (also dirt cheap ~$100) 24mm + 40mm pancake combo over 24mm + 50mm. Always depends on use case though, but as a general start I think primes are the way to go. With a superzoom (e.g. 18-200) you often find yourself relying too much on the zoom, never truly learning about how actually moving with your feet instead can change the image result drastically. – confetti Feb 13 at 17:14
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    I like how you ended up with the two lens recommendation that basically matches Michael Johnston's classic Letter to George – mattdm Feb 13 at 21:00
  • @mattdm I did not know this article ! Spot on ! IT feels even more special to me since I recently tried fuji (X100F for about six months), sold it back, to return to my full frame 6D + 50mm, 40mm and 100mm... – GhislainCote Feb 14 at 0:58
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The best lens to start with is something that covers "normal". You don't specify whether you are considering crop-sensor or full-frame. For crop sensor, "normal" is 28-35mm, while for full-frame, it's 40-55mm.

Recommendations:

  • Resist the temptation to sacrifice image quality or fast apertures for increased focal-length range in zooms.

  • If you don't want to try random lenses during the next several decades while searching for the "perfect" lens, consider 24-70/2.8 + 70-200/2.8. It would also be reasonable to consider 24-105/4 or 24-120/4, depending on the system you're using.

  • If you're a bokeh junkie, you'll probably switch to primes eventually. Consider starting with 35/2 and 50/1.8.

  • Avoid zoom lenses that dip into the 18-24mm range at the wide end. It's not easy to compose "good" wide-angle photos. Since people tend to compose with zoom, it's difficult to avoid using the 18-24mm range on zooms that allow it.

Options to consider:

  • Prime lenses. Consider starting with a "nifty fifty". It may be combined with a wider lens, such as 28mm or 35mm, along with a narrower one, such as 85mm or the 105mm.

    • Pros: Good image quality. Fast apertures.
    • Cons: May have to switch lenses often, depending on your style.
  • Kit lens, usually 18-55/3.5-5.6 (crop sensor). Some systems offer faster apertures, 18-55/2.8-4.

    • Pros: Covers basic focal lengths. Inexpensive. Reasonable image quality.
    • Cons: Slow aperture.
  • Walkabout zoom, includes 18-135/3.5-5.6, 24-105/4, 24-120/4. (Beware the 24-120/3.5-5.6 lenses, at least one of the variants is known for lacking sharpness.)

    • Pros: Covers fairly wide range of focal lengths. Not too expensive. Reasonably good image quality.
    • Cons: Slow aperture.
  • Superzoom, usually 18-200/3.5-6.3 and beyond. One of my favorites was a 28-300/3.5-6.3.

    • Pros: Covers every focal length you might ever need. Not too expensive.
    • Cons: Usually poor image quality compared with other options. Slow aperture.
  • Fast, constant-aperture zooms. Common options include 28-70/2.8 and 70-200/2.8.

    • Pros: Covers basic focal lengths. Usually good image quality. Faster aperture than other zoom options.
    • Cons: Usually heavier and more expensive than other options.
  • Mix and match. Use different lenses to cover different focal lengths depending on your preferences.

    • Pros: You decide what works best for you.
    • Cons: Lots of trial and error. Risk being overcome with GAS. Trying lots of lenses can be expensive.

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