This article is the final part of 3 in which I’ve covered what you need to consider when buying a new lens for your camera. (In case you missed them, Part 1 & Part 2 can be found by following the links.)
Today I talk about how to use your budget effectively, so as to get the best value for money when choosing your new lens.
First, some assumptions:
- You are an amateur, not a professional
- You can’t spend without limit on your hobby
- You care about image quality
If any one of these doesn’t apply to you, then this guide is probably not going to help much. However, if these all describe you, then you may glean some useful information.
Price wise, don’t expect this to cover £1000+ lenses. I’m assuming that’s too much money for a hobby, and in fact will try to keep my recommendations within the £500 mark.
From this point on we’ll have a look at the different lens types I covered in Part 1, looking at what you need from the lens, and how to get the best value. For each lens type I’ll use specific examples from the Nikon DSLR system (as that’s what I’m most familiar with), but the general points will be valid for all systems.
Wide Angle Lenses
Wide Angle (WA) lenses are optically complex. They can have quite a lot of distortion, which makes straight lines appear bendy. They require a large front element to cover the wide viewpoint. They don’t usually have Image Stabilization because; WA lenses are easier to hand-hold than long focal lengths, and WA lenses are often used on tripods for serious landscape and architectural work.
- Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 £660
- Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 £370
- Tamron 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 £350
- Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 £535
First thing to note is that the Nikon lens is comfortably the most expensive. That’s a common theme: You will pay a premium to use on-brand lenses. For that premium, you get to avoid any compatibility issues and you can be confident that you’re getting a decent lens.
The Sigma and Tamron offerings are very similarly priced. Neither performs as well as the Nikon lens optically, but both are decent. At just over half the price of the on-brand alternative, they are better value.
The wild card in this comparison is the Tokina lens. This is in some ways better than the Nikon lens (for instance it has a wider maximum aperture). However it has a much smaller zoom range. That smaller zoom range means that it has less distortion than any of the other lenses, at the cost of flexibility. Price wise it falls in between the Nikon and Sigma/Tamron levels, closer to the Nikon.
So which one to get?
If it’s a lens you’re going to use a lot, the Tokina 11-16mm is the one to buy.
For more occasional users, look at the cheaper Sigma and Tamron options.
(Remember there are similar options for all DSLR brands, Compact System Camera users will have to wait a little for extensive 3rd party support.)
Things aren’t as optically complicated at the long end of the zoom range. The key differential here is resolution at the long end of the zoom range, as pricier lenses improve performance in this area.
What we do need to consider is: How much zoom do we need?
My short answer is 300mm (450mm eq.) for Consumer DSLRs.
A 300mm lens will give you enough reach for most applications. Those interested in little flying things will want more, but the cost of extending zoom range gets prohibitive for most. I think if you go for a 200mm maximum focal length you’ll find yourself wanting a bit more reach.
The second point is whether to have that increased zoom range as a superzoom lens like an 18-300mm, or as an additional lens to your kit like a 70-300mm. Superzoom lenses are very compromised in terms of image quality due to having to cover such a wide range. As I’m assuming that image quality is important, the first piece of advice is to leave superzooms on the shelf.
With that in mind, here’s the example choices (All have Image Stabilization):
- Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 £410
- Nikon 55-300mm f4.5-5.6 £265
- Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 £300
- Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6 £300
Looking at the Nikon lenses, we have the most expensive choice, and the cheapest. The reason why the 55-300mm is the cheapest is that it lacks resolution at the 300mm end of the zoom. The reason why you want the long zoom is for the far end of the zoom (if you don’t need 300mm then consider the 70-200mm range lenses), so I’ll discount the 55-300mm now.
That leaves us with the Sigma and Tamron lenses. Here we begin to see why researching the actual lenses you’re considering very carefully matters. The Tamron is significantly better at the end of the zoom range than the Sigma. Following the same logic as before, we can ignore the Sigma.
And then there were two…
Nikon 70-300mm or Tamron 70-300mm?
The consensus on this pair is that the Tamron is the better lens at the longer end of the zoom, and the Nikon’s equal at the wider end. I’d save the £100 and get the Tamron I think.
Large Aperture Lenses
These are lenses you’re buying to get improved low-light performance and/or more background blur. The good news is that if we stick to 35mm or 50mm options, they’re also relatively cheap. For consumer DSLR users, the 35mm will be the best all round option. Unfortunately there’s less options at this focal length, so let’s see what we can buy.
- Nikon 35mm f/1.8 £150
- Sigma 30mm f/1.4 £325
The low price point of the Nikon probably tells us why there aren’t many 3rd party options here. To get sales from Nikon, they’d have to make a cheaper option than the on-brand lens (which is a tough ask).
What you could do is to get the Sigma f/1.4, which would get you more light (and shorter shutter speeds) than the Nikon, but not as good image quality.
The Nikon at less than half the price is the better bet.
Like with the telephoto lenses, longer is generally better. However longer focal lengths generally mean the use of a tripod, and prices begin creeping up. For those not wanting to specialize in close-up photography, something in the 70-90mm range for a Consumer DSLR is a good compromise. These lengths also work well for portraits which make these dual purpose lenses if you so desire.
- Nikon 85mm f/3.5 VR £450
- Sigma 70mm f/2.8 £450
- Tamron 90mm f/2.8 £350
That VR designation by the Nikon indicates that it has Image Stabilization, the only one of these lenses that does so.
All 3 lenses perform very well optically so it’s pretty much a case of £100 for Image Stabilization. I think it’s probably worth it, especially if you are going to use it for portraits too. If you want to save your pennies, you won’t be disappointed by the Tamron.
While you may not be a Nikon user, hopefully the general points will have been of help to everyone. You do still need to read reviews to work out what lens is best for you, however.
Some rules of thumb:
- The shorter the zoom range, the better the image quality
- On-brand has less compatibility issues than 3rd party
- Image Stabilization is always welcome
- Don’t buy something too big and heavy to carry
What I do want people to note is that the average price of the lenses I’ve recommended is £360. If you get any of the lenses recommended, you’ll be able to take very high quality photos.
You don’t need a £1,300 Nikon f/1.4G to take great portraits; you can do it with a £450 lens.
You don’t need a £4,000 Nikon 300mm f/2.8 to get wildlife shots. (You certainly won’t want to carry one around on a day out.)
etc. etc. etc.
Don’t spend more than you’re comfortable with for your hobby. Modern cheaper lenses are still pretty darn good.
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