Picking the Right 35mm SLR
Picking the Right Lens(es)
Dan Knight - June 2002, updated
It's at this point that you want to visit your local photo shop (a real camera store staffed with camera geeks and gurus, if you have one in your area) and talk about your needs. Explain that some guy on the Web said picking the right lens is the best first step in picking a 35mm SLR.
Tell them if you plan on shooting sports (and if so, which ones), flowers, landscapes, wild animals, portraits, snapshots, architecture, etc. Based on this they will have a good idea what lens or lenses you should consider.
Have them show you some of the lenses. Most of the 35mm SLRs on display will probably have 28-80mm zoom lenses attached. These are decent snapshot lenses, but they tend to be designed to sell for a low price, not to provide the best image quality or the most flexibility. Think about not buying that lens until you've looked at the other options and decided whether 28-80 is right for you.
Brand Name or Independent Lenses
The day of the really bad third-party lens seems to be behind us. Thanks to computer design and modern production techniques, sharp lenses are the norm. And that's just as true of camera brand lenses as it is for many of the independent lens makers.
In the old days (the 1970s), we had a kind of hierarchy of quality. Leica was at the top, with Nikon, Canon, and Minolta not far behind. Pentax, Olympus, Konica, and most of the others also made excellent lenses. At the top of the independent lenses was Vivitar's breakthrough Series I line (most which couldn't hold a candle to today's optics). Then came the better known fixed lenses (such a Vivitar and Soligor), and then came the zooms, which were considered a real optical compromise in the old days.
Today you'll generally find that Leica, Nikon, Canon, Minolta, Pentax, and the other camera makers make mostly excellent lenses. Some of the lower cost lenses, such as the everyday 28-80 zoom, tend to offer slightly less quality, which is one reason I recommend looking at alternatives.
Among the independents, I put Tamron at the top. Tamron has been making quality optics for decades, created the first wide-angle-to-tele zoom (a relatively monstrous 38-100 in the 1970s), and has been making innovative lenses ever since. Unless you plan on making positively huge prints (16 x 20 and larger), a Tamron will generally offer comparable quality to the camera brand lens. (The first lens I bought for my current SLR was a Tamron 28-200 zoom.)
However, keep in mind that just as Nikon makes less costly lenses, so does Tamron. The lower the price, generally the greater the number of compromises to get the price down.
Subjectively, I suspect Sigma holds second place. Not only that, but they make some very interesting lenses, including a 15-30mm ultra-wide zoom. Sigma lenses tend to be a bit less costly than Tamrons, and in many cases Sigma makes a lens that Tamron doesn't and vice versa. Quality will vary throughout the Sigma line, though. If you want their better lenses, you'll pay the long dollar.
Phoenix is an up-and-comer. Many lenses bearing the Vivitar label are made by Phoenix. The Phoenix, Vivitar, Quantaray, Tokina, and other brands of lenses offer decent optical quality, but I don't tend to recommend them to photographers who plan on making a lot of big enlargements. (I had a Vivitar Series I 19-35mm zoom which has produced some excellent 11 x 14 prints with photos taken using a tripod and a median f-stop.)
If you're serious about photography, consider lens construction an important factor. I've had lenses that get loose over time and seen some really shoddy workmanship on obscure brands of zoom lenses that customers sometimes hoped to trade in. Get a lens that the manufacturer backs up for several years, not 90 days or 12 months.
That sums it up for brands. Keep in mind that anyone can produce a gem - and anyone can produce a clinker. Ask the folks at the camera store what their experience is with the different lenses.
Don't worry about things like the number of lens elements, type of glass used, or presence of aspheric elements. These can be indicators of a good lens, but too many lens elements can also be a sign of lazy design. That said, you'll generally find lenses with ED or LD glass, aspheric elements, and/or apochromatic design to be sharper than the rest. Just don't let the buzzwords scare you.
Another thing to seriously consider is whether you might need some special lens that's only available or only affordable from one camera maker. That's how I ended up choosing Nikon when I decided to buy an autofocus camera, as I'll explain.
If you're doing architectural photography, it might make sense to buy a PC (perspective control) lens. Different camera makers offer different focal length PC lenses with different features. To the best of my knowledge, all PC lenses can shift, which helps you keep the camera level, but only Canon PC lenses offer tilts, which can help you square the image and control the plane of sharpness when you need to tilt the camera.
Sometimes you don't want the ultimately sharp lens. This can be especially helpful in portraiture. Again, several camera makers offer soft focus lenses, which come in different focal lengths. Some are softer than others, and at least one manufacturer makes a variable soft focus lens, which lets you control how sharp or soft the focus is.
Macro lenses will let you create images on the film itself that may be as big as the thing you photographed. When you enlarge the negative or project the slide, you end up with a picture many times larger than what you shot. Regular macro lenses usually focus to half lifesize on the film; a few go all the way to lifesize. Macro zooms tend to offer less magnification than that. Macros and macro zooms come in a variety of focal lengths.
Other Unique Lenses
Minolta makes the only autofocus mirror lens and used to make one or two wide-angle lenses with variable fields of curvature. Pentax makes a zoom fisheye lens. Nikon and Canon are producing some vibration reduction lenses. And I'm sure there are others that escape me at the moment.
My first camera system included a 50mm f/1.8 normal lens and a 105mm f/2.8 short tele. The camera had reliability problems, so I traded it when it came back from warranty repair and bought a brand new Minolta SR-T 101 back in 1973 or so. It came with a 50/1.7 (shorthand for a 50mm f/1.7) lens. I soon discovered a 100/2.0 lens in the camera shop's used case and brought that puppy home for just $45. I fell in love with fast short-telephoto lenses.
Many years later, long after I'd sold that system and spent a few years using an Olympus OM-1, I was back shooting Minoltas. We got a beautiful used 85/1.7 at work; I snapped it up for about $85. That became my normal lens, the one I left on my camera; I rarely used the 50 after buying the 85.
When I decided it was time to go autofocus, I knew I wanted an 85mm f/1.8. Because Minolta switched lens mounts when they invented the autofocus Maxxum, it was time to look at Minolta, Canon, Nikon, and Pentax. All of them had 85/1.4 lenses for about $800-1,000, but only Nikon had an 85/1.8, and it sold for a whole lot less than any 85/1.4.
In my case, it was that specific focal length and lens speed that pushed me to Nikon. Then it became a matter of choosing the right camera. That's one reason I recommend you look at your lens needs first and then choose a camera brand.
Next: 35mm SLR Features.
Picking the Right Camera Series Index
- Film or Digital?
- Picking the Right Digital Camera
- Megapixels Come First
- Picking a Type of Digicam
- Lenses on Digital Cameras
- The Imager and Digital Zoom
- Digital Image Quality
- Finally, Picking a Digicam
- Picking the Right 35mm SLR
- Introduction to Lenses
- Picking the Right Lens(es)
- 35mm SLR Features
- Picking a Brand and Model
- Pros and Cons of Built-in Flash
- Putting Your System Together
- Picking the Right Viewfinder Camera
is the author of Digigraphica and used 35mm SLRs from the early 1970s through about 2004, when he went 100% digital. He was a yearbook/school photographer from 1972 through 1980 and has worked at the Camera-Stereo Centre in St. Catharines, Ontario, and Marks Photo and Arden's Photo in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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