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Do you have GAS? GAS is the acronym for Gear Acquisition Syndrome. It is the trap many photographers fall into, feeling the need to constantly upgrade or purchase more lenses and equipment. New equipment is always a lot of fun and often sparks some creativity at the outset, but it can get expensive and there is no reason to “break the bank.” Here’s how to save some of your hard earned money.
Rent Cameras & Lenses
There are many online rental centers for camera equipment and they feature a huge variety to choose from. You can rent for a day or for months. It does cost money to rent, but it lets you get to know the equipment and test it out. This way you can discover whether the lens or camera meets your expectations before you pay the full amount to buy it. Many local camera shops have rental centers or you can go with a national rental center, like Aperturent or BorrowLenses.
You can also rent directly from some of the manufacturers. When a new camera model comes out, manufacturers like Canon and Nikon, will sometimes offer 3-day trial rentals of the camera. They often call these “test drives” instead of rentals. If you decide to buy, the cost of the rental is deducted from the cost of the product.
Renting is also a great option when you have a photo shoot where you need a piece of equipment you might not ever use again. If you would rarely use a piece of gear, renting can be more cost effective than buying.
Borrow From a Friend
If you have friends that are photographers (either as hobbyists or as professionals), you might be able to test out a camera or lens they already bought before you buy it also. Join photography hobby groups and professional organizations, or photography sharing groups online or on social media, like Facebook. Once you get to know other group members or attend some events, they might agree to let you use a lens for a few days, or at least while you are at the event to test it out.
You may find the equipment doesn’t impress you as much as you thought it would, or that it’s not that much better than the lens or camera you already own. Either way, you can discover whether that piece of gear is the right fit for you.
Buying used gear can save you hundreds, if not thousands, over time. However, used gear comes with its drawbacks. It is used, so unless you know the seller there is a risk that the equipment will have undisclosed flaws, or worse, arrive broken when sent by shipment. There are no warranties with used gear from private sellers. Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and eBay all have used camera gear sales. We only buy used if we can personally examine and test the equipment face-to-face, but this also has inherent safety risks.
Our recommendation, when buying used, is to buy from a reputable used retailer, like KEH in Atlanta. Their equipment is inspected and rated for its level of wear and tear. You get a clear description of what you are purchasing and they offer a warranty. You can have more confidence in your purchase this way. Using this link will access their site where you can save up to 40% off regular priced used photography equipment. Other sites also offer used equipment for sale, so if you can’t find what you need at KEH, check around.
You can also purchase used gear in thrift shops where you can examine the item before you lay out the cash. Additionally, yard sales and estate sales are great places to pick up used lenses, camera bags, accessories, or even cameras. With the many adapters available in today's market you can also get inexpensive vintage lenses to add to your gear without breaking the bank.
Sell Older Gear
Perhaps you have a lens you rarely use, or you upgraded lenses and still have the old gear. Take an inventory of your gear and see if you are truly using it. There is a chance you will find gear that you have stopped using. If you have gear that is otherwise just collecting dust, consider selling it.
Most camera gear loses value over time, but really good quality lenses can keep their value a longer time. However, don’t wait too long. The longer those lenses or old cameras sit around the more money value you may lose.
You can sell your gear to resellers like KEH. They provide an easy look up tool where you can select the items you have to sell and get a preliminary estimate of your earnings without having to ship the equipment to them right off the bat.
Additionally, you can sell used gear on Craigslist, eBay, and other online sites, as well as on Facebook groups or other social media sites dedicated to photography. Personally, I prefer selling to a reputable company, versus meeting up with individuals that I don’t know or shipping items to people who have bought online.
If you are lucky, you can sell enough old gear to buy that new lens you’ve had your eye on.
Through various online photography groups you may find folks that would be willing to trade gear, either temporarily or permanently. For example, Facebook has multiple buy/sell/trade groups for photography equipment. Joining a local photography group that has monthly meet-ups is another place to possibly find a willing trading partner.
You can also trade in your gear for new gear with online sellers. Again, KEH is a reputable site where you can get a bonus towards your “new to you” purchase (10% if you buy immediately, or 5% if you opt for a KEH gift card). You can arrange your trade by phone or video chat.
Buy Third Party or Off-Brand Lenses
While Sony, Canon, and Nikon have lots of fantastic lenses, they are often expensive. Buying a third party or off-brand lens can provide significant savings.
One of my favorite lenses is the Tamron 18-400mm because of its great price and the large zoom range means I can carry one lens instead of two or three. Tamron, Sigma, and Tokina all make lenses for lower price points than the name brands and many of them are top quality lenses. Some Sigma lenses actually perform better than their name brand equivalents. A website like DXOMark that conducts testing of lenses is a great place to compare lenses to see which will have the better quality. You may find a non-name brand lens that could save you some dollars.
You can also buy non-name brand filters, tripods, batteries, accessories, and memory cards. Personally, we would not suggest third party batteries or memory cards although there are many available. Some cameras won’t function properly with non-name brand batteries and memory cards. And even more importantly, off-brand cards are more likely to corrupt, have failures, or create errors. Check your camera manual for recommended cards and stick to cards that match your camera (like Sony, Fuji, or Nikon cards) or other name brands like Lexar, PNY, or SanDisk.
Watch for Sales & Rebates
There are several times a year when you can expect sales. Typically, camera gear discounts are at their greatest at the end of summer, and after Christmas. However, you can find pre-summer and holiday deals, and sometimes there are discounts at other times of year. If you have social media, like Twitter or Facebook, follow the manufacturers that you usually purchase gear from and you will see their posts when they have sales items or rebates.
Some selling sites also feature alerts, so when certain products go on sale or a rebate is offered you will be notified, or they have pages dedicated to their current sale items (like this one). Rebates can sometimes save you a few hundred dollars. In addition, you can sign up for newsletters and marketing materials from sellers and manufacturers to make sure you don’t miss out.
Buy the Older Model
Over the course of a year, there are several conferences and events during which camera gear manufacturers will announce their new products. As soon as those models start to appear, or a little bit before, the older models they replace will start going on sale. One such conference is CP+ which is usually in late winter or early spring (Feb/Mar).
You don’t need the brand new, most shiny model. None of the improvements in the new model make your current camera or an older model obsolete. Any model of DSLR from the last 5-6 years is perfectly capable of excellent photography in the right hands (a new camera will not help if you don’t know the basics like composition and lighting). Therefore, if you need a new camera, last year’s model will be more than adequate and save you a bunch of money, too.
Don’t Overbuy & Upgrade Slowly
There are so many beginner photographers who suffer from GAS. They have their base camera and kit lens and feel the need to start purchasing other lenses.
Having a plethora of lenses can be a lot of fun and so can all those cool accessories, but they aren’t needed to get great photographs. You do not need all of that gear to get started and to learn photography. It is detrimental to your photography learning to think you need a specific camera body or lens to get a great shot. Think of it this way, if you had your hands on the most expensive camera ever made will your shots be any better if you don’t understand lighting or exposure? If you gave Ansel Adams a $100 point-and-shoot would he still take amazing images? 99% of good photography is the photographer, not the gear.
Having limited gear actually enhances your creativity. It will force you to move around, focus on composition and lighting, and help you learn. Don’t even think about buying new glass or a new camera body until you have stretched the capabilities of your current gear as far as it can go.
If you feel the need to buy an additional lens, start with a “nifty fifty” 50mm prime lens. After you truly get to know the pieces of equipment you have and have mastered those lenses, then consider adding more. The same rule applies to camera bodies. If you upgrade slowly over time you will save money. And as you upgrade, consider all of the previous ways to save we’ve already mentioned. Additionally, we would recommend adding a tripod for steady shooting, a flash for lighting, and upgrading lenses before we would recommend upgrading camera bodies.
Don’t Buy Bundles
When you buy a camera, purchase a camera body and a quality lens separately, or a camera lens combo (although the kit lenses are usually lower quality lenses they are definitely adequate for starting out). Do not buy the kits or bundles that come with a bazillion accessories like cleaning cloths, filter sets, and a cheap plastic tripod. They will claim that you are getting a great deal and loads of savings versus buying all of those items separately, but the selection of equipment in those kits is terrible, cheap quality. Most of them are also things you don’t need, but they “fill” the package to make it look like a good deal. Buy these pieces of equipment as you need them instead, and choose good quality items that you will only need to buy once.
When the time is right, there is nothing wrong with buying a fancy new camera body or a shiny new lens. New gear is always a lot of fun and can spark your creativity. But it isn’t the magic that will make you a great photographer. YOU make the photos. Spending money left and right without understanding the basics will only lead to disappointment because your images won’t get any better despite the potential debt you created.
So have a healthy relationship with your gear buying impulses and don’t let them guide your photographic journey.
Need More Help?
Need a handy reminder card to stop your impulse buying? Print the handout below.
Or when it is time to buy, do you need help figuring out what kind of camera to buy, which accessories are right for you, or what lens might be best for your photography needs? Sign up for one of our Try Before You Buy Classes or a month of coaching advice!
Click here for more lessons, cheat sheets, and helpful videos.
In discussion groups and photography groups you see questions about lenses from shoppers and the number one thing they want to know is if a lens is “sharp.” What many beginning photographers don’t understand is that lenses are not sharp at every aperture value and at every possible distance (especially with zoom lenses). Therefore the responses one gets on these forums will likely be very subjective and based upon that photographer’s experience and how they use that lens. If a person reports a lens is "not sharp" they may not be giving you accurate information. Every lens has a “sweet spot” and sharpness is often confused with depth of field. This article will help clear up that confusion and help you figure out what your lens' "sweet spot" is and how to find it.
First, some background information, no lens is ever perfectly sharp. Lenses are designed for maximum performance based on what manufacturers believe the main function of that lens will be. For example, if you purchase a zoom 70-200mm lens, the manufacturer might assume that the main use of that lens will be at the 200mm end of the range and they will maximize its performance for that focal length. A lens that is a macro lens will be maximized for close up shooting distances. Never purchase a lens and expect perfect sharpness at every distance, aperture, and zoom level. Know what you will be using the lens for and buy a lens designed for maximum performance for that purpose.
Another common point of confusion for beginning photographers is understanding the difference between sharpness and focus (or depth of field). Sharpness is related to resolution and depth of field is related to how much of the image is in focus from foreground to background. When you are first learning photography you will probably hear the advice that if you want more of your image in focus to use a narrow aperture (larger f/# like f/11 or even f/16). While generally this is true, greater depth of field (or focus) does not always mean more overall sharpness.
A quick side note: Using smaller apertures will increase depth of field, but the depth does not increase equally in front of and behind the subject. Instead when you stop down your lens, the increase in the depth of field behind your subject will be almost twice as much as in front. In other words if the overall depth of field increases to 20 total feet, about 1/3 (~7 ft) of this will be in front of the subject and the remaining 2/3rds (~13 ft) behind the subject. (If you need a refresher or introduction to depth of field and hyperfocal distance check out our previous blog posts).
I took three photos of a flowering tree using f/4, f/5.6, and f/22. The photo at f/4 has the most narrow depth of field and the photo taken at f/22 has the widest depth of field, while the f/5.6 (not shown) would be somewhere in between. While there is more in focus (greater depth of field) in the photo taken at f/22, it is probably not as sharp compared to the in-focus parts of the same picture taken at f/5.6.
We can examine the sharpness by "pixel peeping" and looking at only the areas that were in the zone of focus. We should find that the image is sharper at f/5.6 and less sharp at f/4 and f/22. The image taken at f/5.6 will appear “sharper” even though more of the area of the scene (depth of field) is in focus at f/22.
Now let's actually take a look at those images below. The series of shots was taken from the same location and only the aperture was changed. These are parts of the same photos shown above that demonstrated depth of field taken at f/4 and f/22 (plus the additional shot at f/5.6). Note that the original images were already cropped and then I further cropped in on just one flower that was inside the depth of field (in the area of focus). At this "pixel peeping" level we can compare the sharpness. Remember that when not cropped to show detail, each of these photos "looked" sharp and in focus in this area of the image. The focus and focus point were not changed in between shots so any differences you see are not because of a focusing issue. We can see that none of the images are perfectly sharp, but the one in the middle is the best. The issue/difference between these images occurs because of the internal workings of the lens. All those glass elements have to align and at different apertures the quality differs.
Lenses are “softer” at both extremes of aperture – wide open and mostly closed. The details in an image won’t be as crisp or “sharp” when shooting at the maximum apertures like f/1.4 (or in the case above with my lens at f/4), or at minimum apertures like f/22. Both extremes are equally deficient when it comes to sharpness. As a general rule the maximum sharpness, or “sweet spot” of a lens is 2 to 3 stops from the maximum aperture of that lens. So for example, if the maximum aperture of a lens is f/2, then the “sweet spot” would be between f/4 and f/5.6.
The lens used for the photos above has a maximum aperture of f/4. Therefore the "sweet spot" should be between f/5.6 and f/8. The image at f/5.6 gave good results, but with further testing, I believe this lens would probably be sharpest around f/6.7 or f/7.1 which is about one and 1/2 stops above the maximum.
Once you know the range of where the “sweet spot” should be, it is easy to conduct a test to find it with more precision. To conduct the test you will need to use Aperture Priority Mode. In Aperture Priority mode we can set and test the aperture and the camera will set the ISO and shutter speed.
If you are unsure of how to switch to Aperture Priority and how to change the aperture settings in that mode, you may need to consult your camera manual (we have most manufacturers’ links here). If your camera allows you to use one-half or one-third stops, make sure that is selected in your settings.
To perform a test to find the “sweet” spot of your lens, first find the maximum aperture of the lens and add one half or one full stop to that number to use as your starting point. If your lens has a maximum aperture of f/3.5 (most kit lenses), then start at f/4.8 or f/5. If your lens has a maximum aperture of f/2, then start at f/2.4 or f/2.8.
Go outside in good sunlight. Use a tripod or something to stabilize the camera and to keep it in position between shots. You will need to take photos of something that is about 10 feet away (like my sample images of the flowering tree) and make sure your focus point is on that object. You will not recompose or refocus in between shots (after getting your focus point you can change over to manual focus to make sure your focus point stays set).
Start by taking a photo with the aperture at your starting point (from above). Then turn the aperture dial 2 or 3 clicks narrower (bigger f/#) and take another photo. Then turn the dial a few more clicks and take another photo. Take test shots from your starting point up to about f/11.
By taking a test shot every 2-3 clicks you will be sampling a range of f/stops that include some half and third stops. The “sweet spot” may not be at a full stop like f/5.6. If your camera only has full f/stops, then take sample test shots at each full stop.
Now it is time to "pixel peep." Upload your photos and zoom in on each one. Examine the area of the photo that contains the object you focused on (that was about 10 feet away) and examine that same area in every photo. You should be able to tell which aperture gave you the sharpest image.
You can then repeat the test using the range of apertures in 1/2 and third stops around that aperture to further narrow it down. In my test above f/5.6 was the sharpest, but to really narrow it down I would test again starting at f/4.8 using every increment up to about f/7.1 (I already had an image at f/8 that was not as sharp so I know I can stop before that point).
Once you know the "sweet spot" make a note of that aperture for that lens. Repeat for different lenses. Each one will have a different “sweet spot” but typically the maximum sharpness will be about 2 stops above the maximum aperture, somewhere in the range of f/4 – f/10.
If your lens is a zoom lens the sharpness and “sweet spot” may not be identical throughout the zoom. For example, I have a Tamron 18-400mm and the maximum sharpness at 18mm may not be the same aperture setting when shooting at 400mm.
We could not ever hope to detail all the possible parameters for every lens in the marketplace in a short article like this, but we can offer a little general advice. If you are ever out and about and need a sharp image and you are not sure what the “sweet spot” of a particular lens is, then use Aperture Priority Mode and take a series of photos from f/4 through f/11 and you will have all your bases covered!
Another often overlooked way to help improve image quality and sharpness is to use a tripod and a shutter remote. These reduce camera shake.
So in summary, shooting with a wide open apertures may result in reduced sharpness in your images. Additionally the narrow depth of field can be difficult to work with. At very low apertures this depth can be less than an inch and can cause one part of a face, like the eyes, to be in focus and the nose out of focus.
When examining your images to trouble shoot a “non-sharp” image, consider both the depth of field (focus) and sharpness (resolution) as separate factors even though both are related to aperture. Decide if the lack of “sharpness” you see is due to missing your focus point while using a very narrow depth of field, or if it is an overall resolution issue due shooting at the extremes of the lens’ aperture range.
Knowing that your lens has a “sweet spot” and how to find it can help improve your images overall, but much about photography comes down to compromise. Just because your lens has a “sweet spot” doesn’t mean you should always use that aperture. When out in the field you may have to decide which is more important; maximum resolution (sharpness) or depth of field. It may be that you want the wider depth of field for a landscape shot and to get that you may have to sacrifice some level of sharpness. Also, remember, that to see the difference in sharpness you may have to “pixel peep.” The actual difference in sharpness between two images in normal print sizes may not even be that noticeable to the naked eye (even though they are there). “Pixel peeping” can become a dangerous obsession. Don’t let the search for optimal sharpness interfere with your creativity and the fun and joy that photography can provide.
What is focal length?
The focal length of a lens is measured in millimeters. A common misunderstanding is the belief that this lens measurement is the length of the lens from end to end or its overall dimensions. The focal length measurement actually begins at the optical center. A camera lens is made of many pieces of glass and combinations of elements, so as light enters the lens, it converges into “focus” at a point somewhere inside the lens among these elements. This point is the optical center. From the optical center this focused image is then sent to the camera sensor. Therefore to get the focal length, we take the measurement from the focal center to the camera sensor while the camera is focused at infinity (generally means that you are focused on something in the far away distance). Now when you are shopping for a lens and are comparing two different 50mm lenses, you will understand why one of them might be physically longer than the other.
This number or how it is calculated isn’t something you need to memorize or remember and knowing it isn’t going to make you a better photographer. What is important is to understand what focal length affects – which is your angle of view (how wide of a view or how much of your scene will be captured in an image) and magnification (how large subjects will appear). A shorter focal length, like 18mm, will capture a larger width or wider angle of view and subjects in the frame will appear smaller than they do viewing them with our eyes. Longer focal lengths, like 100mm, or even longer, like 400mm, have much more narrow angles of view. You will capture a much smaller width, but your subject will appear larger.
Angle of view is determined solely by the optics of the lens. It does not change if you place that lens on a different camera. On the other hand, field of view (which is often used interchangeably with angle of view even though they are not the same thing), is determined by the lens and the sensor of the camera. What type of camera you have – crop sensor or full-frame – will affect how much of a scene (field of view) ends up in your final image. A crop sensor camera will capture less of the subject or a smaller field of view.
So how does a crop factor work?
Let’s say I wanted to take a landscape photo with a full-frame Canon camera and a 50mm lens. It would look something like this:
If I took that same 50mm lens and put it on a crop sensor Canon camera, the resulting image would look more like this:
The sensor size is “cropped.” Since the senor is smaller, it is like trimming off a large border all around the image. Another way to think of it would be similar to using the cropping tool in a photo editing program where the image is cut, not shrunk. The crop factor is different for cameras from each manufacturer. A Canon EF-S camera has a crop factor of 1.6, while the Nikon DX models are a factor of 1.5.
Going back to my example, both images were taken with a 50mm lens. To figure out how much “loss” of field of view we would get on the Canon crop sensor, we would multiply the 50mm x 1.6 to get 80mm. Therefore, the amount of image we get on the crop sensor camera with the 50mm is equivalent to 80mm if it had been on the full-frame we started with instead.
Here is the same landscape again. This image was taken with the full-frame camera using a zoom lens set to 80mm. Notice how the field of view is basically the same as the 50mm on the crop sensor camera pictured above (and repeated here so you can see them side by side):
We can also work this equation in reverse. Let’s say I want to get the wider field of view of the full-frame camera, as we did with the 50mm, but by using my crop sensor camera instead. I would take 50mm and divide by 1.6 which would result in approximately 31mm. Therefore, if I put a 30mm on my crop sensor camera, it should “see” almost the same thing as the full-frame with the 50mm. You can witness this effect in the images below:
Should you learn how to do all these calculations?
No, there are apps and online charts that have these calculations already completed for you! Like this one: https://mmcalc.com/ which is also available as both iOS and Android apps.
So what is the take-away then for a beginning photographer?
First, know that if you have a crop sensor camera that you will not be able to get the same field of view as a full-frame unless you go down to smaller focal lengths (in effect, zooming out). Second, understand that the focal length, as it gets larger, has the inverse effect on your field of view which gets smaller and smaller and brings the subject closer (in effect, zooming in). Third, know the basic classifications of lens focal lengths and their main uses so that you will have a basic idea of what lenses to use for different shooting situations (and make adjustments as necessary if you are shooting with a crop sensor camera).
Lenses basically fall into five types of focal lengths; super wide-angle, wide-angle, standard, telephoto (zoom), and super telephoto. In each of the descriptions below I am speaking in terms of using a full-frame camera.
Ultra wide-angle lenses have a 24mm or less focal length which allows them to capture a very wide scene. They can be useful for home interiors (real estate photography). Below 24mm, and especially super-wide fish eye lenses, images can become distorted and present an exaggerated perspective that can be artistic and fun to play around with.
Photo by sippakorn yamkasikorn on Unsplash
Wide angle lenses have a focal length range from 24mm up to 35mm. These lenses are also good for confined spaces, such as home interiors, or capturing the whole table of guests at a family holiday or celebration. In addition, these lenses are good for large group photos, cityscapes, landscapes, and architectural photography. These lenses have large depth of field so both far away and near objects can have tack sharp focus and there will be visible distance between your subject and the background when taking portraits.
Photo by Khiem Tran on Pixabay
Standard lenses have a focal length range of between 35mm to 70mm. These lenses “see” the world in much the same range and way our own eyes see it. There is little distortion of the subject so they make flattering portrait lenses. The shallower depth of field allows the photographer to separate the subject from the background as well. These lens are excellent, not only for portraits, but for nature, “on the street” shots, and low light conditions (or when you do not want to use a flash or only want natural light). The 50mm lens is in the standard lens range, and is such a popular lens choice, that it has earned the nickname – The Nifty Fifty.
Photo by Alexei Chizhov on Pixabay
Telephoto lenses are focal lengths of 70mm up to 300mm. These lenses are very popular for wildlife/nature photographers because it allows shooting from a distance without encroaching on the subject (which might be skittish). These lenses bring the subject closer. A lens that is 70-135 is considered a short telephoto and one that is 135-300 is a medium telephoto. Telephoto lenses have a shallower depth of field so crisp focus on the subject is a must. In additional to wildlife, these lenses are also used for any activity or subject where distance is required or unavoidable, such as shooting from the sidelines during a sporting event.
Super telephoto lenses are much like telephoto lenses, except their focal lengths go beyond 300mm. They provide a telescope type magnification which brings the subject and the background closer. Objects behind your subject will look much closer than in a similarly framed shot using a smaller focal length lens.
These lenses are very heavy and can’t be used for handheld shooting. A sturdy tripod is needed to support these lenses. Some even include additional support brackets built into the lens. Any type of photography where you don’t want to fight through a crowd for a position or you are limited on how close you can get benefits from this type of lens: birding, wildlife, sports, astrophotography, moon photography (or any other small distant objects), air and boat shows, car races, and more.
Photo by smarko on Pixabay
Macro lenses are not a type of focal length. They are specialty lenses that come in various focal lengths. They are used for photography of small objects, flowers, products, and insects in amazing detail. Macro lenses create 1:1 or life size reproductions on the camera sensor. (If you have an interest in Macro photography, check out my Macro Photography class)
Your camera may have come with a “kit” lens. An 18-55mm is a common wide angle zoom lens. This lens give the photographer the whole range of lens focal lengths from 18mm – 55mm. An 18-135mm lens would give a photographer the range of focal lengths from wide angle all the way up through short telephoto.
Zoom lenses like these can be great lenses because you don’t have to change your lenses as often and they cover a wide variety of photographic situations. Prime lenses on the other hand have one fixed focal length, like a 50mm. Here is a series of images from a local garden showing the range you can achieve with a zoom lens. In this particular instance, the lens used was the Tamron 18-400mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD for Canon APS-C cameras.
What is the advantage of a zoom vs. a prime lens?
The main advantage, as demonstrated in the photos above, is versatility. With one zoom lens in your bag you reduce the weight of your gear and you can shoot everything from wide scenery shots to close ups, people, or details without changing lenses. Additionally, when shooting sports or other fast action, you can re-frame your subject without having to move closer or farther away. Finally, less lens changes means you save time and protect the camera sensor from dust and moisture exposure!
One disadvantage of a zoom lens is that they often have narrower maximum apertures than prime lenses and/or variable apertures which means less and less light makes its way to your image sensor as you zoom in. A prime lens can open up wider and let in more light, as well as achieve a shallower depth of field. Another disadvantage of a zoom lens is their size and weight. Zooms are usually larger and heavier than a prime; however, if one zoom can replace three or four primes in your bag you will still come out ahead with the zoom. Lastly, zooms are usually not as pristine when it comes to image quality, but that should not stop you from purchasing a zoom if it fits your needs.
So, now that you know a bit about focal length and which lenses are best for different photographic scenarios, you can buy gear that will serve your needs best!
If you’d like some suggestions for some “can’t go wrong with one of these” lenses, check out my recommended lenses chart or the shortened list below. These are affiliate links, so if you make a purchase, we make a small commission at no cost to you (full disclosures). Also be sure to check out my blog post Understanding Lens Abbreviations for help deciphering all those letters and numbers on the lens barrel. It will help you buy lenses with confidence!
Copy and paste these descriptions into an online seller site. I would recommend KEH for used and B&H Video for new - see my Buy Camera Gear page for links to these sellers and IMPORTANT advice before buying any gear. Some sellers are not authorized resellers, so buyer beware!
Prime, Nifty 50:
Canon EF 50mm f/1.4
Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.8G^
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
Sigma 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM Art
Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM
Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di LD Macro
Mega Telephoto Zoom:
Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR^ (available from used sellers like KEH - see my Buy Camera Gear page)
^Check compatibility for Nikon lenses here.
You are standing in the electronics department looking at the end of the camera lens you want to buy and it looks like alphabet soup or maybe a secret code…
EF, DX, AF-P, ED, IS, VR, USM
What do all those letters and numbers mean?
Over the years camera manufacturers have changed lens mounts and some newer models will not be compatible with older lenses and vice-versa. Nikon also makes some camera bodies that have built in focusing motors and some that do not. This article will cover general abbreviations and is not a guide to which lenses will actually work with your camera. Be sure to refer to each manufacturer's site for compatibility information before you purchase.
A short rule of thumb, except for the letters that indicate it is a crop sensor lens, generally speaking the more letters you see the better quality the lens. I am going to go through a few of the more common abbreviations and explain what they mean. After reading this, you will have a better understanding of those scrambled letters so you can buy camera glass with confidence!
Lens manufacturers build their DSLR and mirrorless camera lenses for basically two categories: crop sensor or full-frame. Full-frame lenses are considered more professional, have a better build quality, and are therefore more expensive. To make things confusing, each lens manufacturer uses a different set of letter codes to signify the “line” of lenses (pro vs. consumer) and the quality of the lens. In this article, I am only going to discuss the two most popular brands, Canon and Nikon. If you want a more complete list of abbreviations for Canon, Nikon, and third-party manufacturers like Tamron, Sigma, and Tokina, use the chart I created (link and download at the bottom of the article). Also at the bottom is a list of some recommended lenses in more common sizes. These are affiliate links, so I do make a small commission if you purchase a lens.
EF – lenses for EOS full-frame cameras
EF-S – lenses for crop sensor cameras (APS-C sensors); you can use EF lenses on a crop sensor camera, but you cannot use EF-S lenses on a full-frame camera body; EF-S lenses are less expensive and lighter in weight
L – “Luxury” lenses are the cream of the crop and have a red band of color around the barrel; usually a more rugged design and/or weather sealed
CN-E – specialty cinematography lenses; black and red like the “L” but manual focus only
EF-M – lenses for the M series mirrorless camera system; EF and EF-S lenses can also be used on EF-M camera mounts with an adapter; EF-M cannot be used on the larger full-frame mirrorless RF mount
RF – lenses for the full-frame mirrorless camera bodies; EF lenses can be used with an adapter
FX – lenses for full-frame cameras
DX – lenses for crop sensor camera bodies; DX lenses are less expensive and lighter in weight
Z – lenses specifically for the Z6 and Z7 camera systems; FX and DX lenses can be used with an adapter
S-line – lenses for mirrorless cameras; “S” means “Superior”; not to be confused with the older S mount lenses from the 1950s and 60s
Gold ring – if the lens has a gold ring around the barrel, that signifies a higher quality lens
For those who are considering buying lenses for their crop sensor camera, but eventually want to upgrade to a full-frame body, I would recommend saving up for the more expensive FX (Nikon) or EF (Canon) lenses. You can use them on your crop sensor camera body for now (with a crop factor) and later when you upgrade to your full-frame DSLR or mirrorless you can continue to use them at their maximum potential. This can save you from having to re-purchase lenses since the cheaper lenses (DX, EF-S) do not have the same quality as full-frame, and for Canon users cannot be used on the full-frame bodies. This is true of third party lenses made for Canon and Nikon as well.
Moving on to focal length, all lenses use the same methodology. Focal length is measured in millimeters (mm). This number is the distance between the camera’s sensor and the lens’ convergence point. The focal length tells us how much of our subject or scene will be captured (angle of view) and the magnification. Short focal lengths have wider angles of view and do not have much magnification, whereas, longer focal lengths have smaller angle of view and a higher level of magnification. Some lenses will have just one number, such as 50mm. This is a fixed focal length which is called a “prime” lens. Prime lenses provide higher image quality and are more compact and lightweight. Additionally, they often have better apertures for low-light.
When you see a range of numbers, such as 18-55mm, it means the focal length is variable, or has a “zoom.” A zoom lens allows you to switch between subjects and different shooting scenarios without changing lenses as often. For a more in-depth look at focal lengths and the differences between wide angle, standard, macro, and telephoto lenses, read my blog post “FocusEd on Focal Lengths.”
The next set of letters and numbers is typically the aperture or aperture range indicated by the letter “f” and then some numbers, such as f/2.8. This means the maximum aperture setting is 2.8, the iris is more open, and lets in more light. An aperture of f/22 would mean the iris is less open and would let in less light. Aperture numbers are harder to remember, they don't go in nice even increments of whole numbers like ISO 100, 200, etc. The reason these numbers appear to not follow a pattern is that they are ratios related to the focal length and the diameter of a circle. When we close down an iris we are making the circle that allows light in smaller and smaller. Think of it this way, it is similar to the iris of your eye. If you were in a dark room and there was only one small light bulb, your iris would open to its widest to let in more light. But if that same dark room had 22 light bulbs burning, your iris would become more narrow to let in less light. You can also think of f-stops as fractions. One fourth (1/4) is smaller than one half (1/2); therefore, f/4 is a smaller, narrower aperture than f/2. The full f-stops from wide to narrow are 1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, and 22 (some lenses have f/stops more narrow than f/22, but also typically suffer in image quality).
KoeppiK / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
If the camera lens you are considering for purchase is a prime lens, there will be just one f/. That is the maximum (widest) aperture the lens is capable of using. Lower numbers are better because they allow shallower depth of field and you can get those soft, blurry backgrounds behind your subject in your portraits. If a camera is a zoom, it usually has a range such as f/4-5.6 which means that at the smaller focal length you have f/4 and at the longest focal length you have f/5.6. The more you zoom, the narrower the aperture becomes. Whenever possible, choose a lens that has a low f/ and keeps that throughout the zoom instead of a range, such as a 24-70mm f/2.8. A few things to keep in mind, sometimes the f/ is not included and you will see 1:4-5.6 or 1:4-1:5.6 instead. Additionally, most lenses will shoot at their sharpest when at a medium aperture. So if your lens has a maximum aperture of f/2, your photographs will most likely have fewer aberrations and maximum sharpness at f/4 or even f/5.6.
Some lenses might also have Roman numerals I, II, III to indicated the generation of the lens. A lens with III is newer and probably has some upgrades compared to the same lens generation II. However, be aware that Tamron, and others, may also use similar markings for other purposes. Tamron lenses marked Di-II indicate a crop sensor lens and Di-III lenses are specifically for mirrorless.
Lenses may have markings for magnification such as 1:1. True macro is considered 1:1 where the lens allows the photographer to focus up close and get a life-sized reproduction on the image sensor. A lens with a 1:2 magnification will reproduce the subject at ½ life-size on the image sensor. Macro lenses will often say “macro” on the lens, but be cautious. The label “macro” is sometimes used on lenses that do not really produce a 1:1 ratio, so be sure to check the specifications of the lens if that is something you want.
Even with all of those letters and numbers explained, there may still be a mind boggling amount of remaining letters to decipher. Here are a few of the more common ones for Canon and Nikon. Again if you want a more complete list, use the chart I have created (at the bottom of the article).
IS – Image Stabilization; good for slower shutter speeds because internal mechanisms (gyros) help stabilize camera movement
USM – UltraSonic Motor; faster focus, but quiet
Micro USM - cheaper version of USM for kit and budget lenses and it is not as quiet
STM – Stepper Motor; fast focus, and the most quiet
SC or SCC – Spectra (or Super Spectra) Coating; coating on the lens to decrease reflections and flaring
SWC – SubWavelength Coating; coating to minimize ghosting and flaring; newer version of SC/SCC
DO – Diffractive Optics; lens will have a green ring on the barrel; fewer glass elements so the lens is lighter and smaller with improved optics
AF – Auto Focus; allows focusing from the camera; you may also see AF- followed by D, I, P, or S, which stand for Distance, Integrated Motor, Stepper Motor, and Silent Wave Motor respectively and are all improvements over AF alone (check compatibility carefully some consumer level camera bodies require AF-S lenses for full functionality)
SWM – Silent Wave Motor; very quiet, high speed auto focus
NIC or C (or SIC) – Nikon (or Super) Integrated Coating; to minimize ghosting and flaring
ED – Extra-low Dispersion Glass; used in high-end lenses to reduce aberrations
HRI – High Refractive Index; only used on the very best lenses to reduce aberrations
N – Nano Crystal Coating; labelled in gold; reduces flaring and ghosting
FL – Fluorite – superior lens glass and lighter weight
G – no conventional mechanical aperture ring; aperture set by the camera body
IF – Internal Focusing; focusing is accomplished with internal mechanisms
E – Electronic Aperture; aperture is controlled by electronic signals; not to be confused with the old 1970s E-mount (check compatibility carefully most older bodies and film cameras cannot use E lenses)
Micro – Macro
VR – Vibration Reduction; image stabilization to reduce camera shake
Okay, so let’s put your knowledge to the test by following along. You are considering the following lens:
Nikon AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8G
This lens will have Auto Focus with a Silent Wave Motor (AF-S). It is for a crop sensor camera (DX). It is a prime lens with a focal length of 35mm. The maximum opening of the aperture, or iris, is 1.8 so you can get some shallow depth of field with blurry backgrounds (f/1.8). You have no manual aperture ring (G) which makes this lens compatible with cameras that allow setting the aperture from the camera body.
Let’s try another one. You have two lenses to choose from:
Nikon AF-P DX 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G ED VR
Nikon AF-P 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E ED VR
The main differences are the first one is for a crop sensor camera (DX), has an aperture that lets in less light when zoomed (f/6.3), and no mechanical aperture ring (G). The second lens will be the better quality lens for a full-frame camera with a better f/ range and electronic aperture. The first lens costs approximately $400, while the second one costs approximately $550. (Note that some camera bodies are not compatible with AF-P and E type lenses).
Let’s try one final example and this one should be easy. You have two lenses to choose from:
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM
Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM
The one with the “L” for Luxury is the better lens. It has the f/1.4 aperture and the added image stabilization (IS). However, the prices might give you sticker shock - $350 vs. $1500. Whenever possible, it would be my recommendation to save up for better lenses, but sometimes the price is so much higher that the difference in quality might not be the most important determining factor. In this case the small difference in aperture would probably only be a factor for the most discerning of professionals and if you use a tripod and shutter release the added image stabilization may not add any benefits to your photography.
Buying a lens can be confusing, but by doing your research, checking the specs, and knowing a few key abbreviations, you’ll be able to buy camera glass with confidence!
Lens Abbreviations and Lens Recommendation Charts:
Feel free to print or download the lens abbreviation guide (PDF files below).
Below I have also included a link to some recommended lenses. You can always find more recommendations on our Buy Camera Gear page.
Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links. Please read the full version of my disclosures for more information. If you make a purchase through one of these links, we make a small commission (at no cost to you).