So you’ve got your shiny-new DSLR with kit lens and you’re loving it. But now you want to explore the dark side of prime lens upgrades. From fast general-use primes to specialty macro lenses, there are many options to upgrade your beginner DSLR kit lens. Which one is right as a first step?
Entry-level DSLR cameras these days are far more powerful than their predecessors a decade ago: they have much larger sensors and superior image processors onboard, but their primary weakness is often the kit lens that come with them. While these lenses are by no means terrible, they often make many compromises in both build quality and optical performance in order to reach a price point for the entry-level market. In other words, your entry-level camera is almost certainly higher quality than your entry-level lens.
Assumptions about Beginner DSLR Cameras
For this article, I will assume that your so-called beginner DSLR camera has an APS-C sized sensor (also called “crop sensor”). I will also assume that you have a small to moderate budget of less than $500 USD.
Autofocus Prime Lenses for Beginner DSLR
Whether for Canon or Nikon (or Pentax or any other brand, for that matter), one of the first lenses almost anyone will recommend to a newer photographer is a 50mm prime. Canon has their 50mm f/1.8 STM ($125) and Nikon offers a similar 50mm f/1.8 G ($215).
And, of course, both brands also offer much higher-end options at the 50mm focal length. But these entry-level lenses are significantly better in terms of optical quality than the typical 18-50mm kit zoom lens. Check out my article on which Canon 50mm lens to buy.
Another option in the “normal” field of view focal length (on full frame) is the Tamron 45mm f/1.8. It’s a hefty, robust lens with a relatively fast maximum aperture and built-in image stabilization gyros, and it retails for $399. I did a full review of the Tamron 45mm here.
A Wider View
However, 50mm on a crop sensor is going to give an angle of view that’s slightly telephoto, making it less than ideal for landscapes, street photography, or any situation in which you want to have a wider view (photos of groups of people, for example).
So for Nikon shooters, I’d recommend the 35mm f/1.8 G ($195) (my review is here); and for Canon shooters, I’d go with the much wider 24mm f/2.8 EF-S ($150) (my review is here). These lenses will give you a much more “normal” angle of view (closer to what the human eye sees) than a 50mm lens. The full-frame equivalent on the Nikon 35mm would be ~ 52mm, while the 24mm Canon would be ~38mm.
Another good option for Canon cameras is the 40mm f/2.8 STM, which will work on both crop and full-frame bodies. This will give an equivalent field of view of about 65mm on a crop body, making it a nice short telephoto.
If you plan to shoot a lot of portraits, wildlife, or just find yourself needing more reach than the typical kit lens can provide, you’ve got a lot from which to choose in prime lenses. Canon makes a relatively affordable 85mm f/1.8 USM ($369), while Nikon offers a moderately more expensive 85mm f/1.8 ($475). Canon also has its venerable 100mm f/2 USM lens, which just barely meets our budget requirement at $499.
Beyond 85mm / 100mm starts to get expensive unless you want to look at some of the cheaper Chinese non-OEM options, which I will detail below.
If you want to shoot macro photography on a budget, there are some dedicated lower-priced prime macro lenses available. Canon offers two options in a budget price range: 35mm f/2.8 EF-S IS STM ($350) and 60mm f/2.8 EF-S ($400). The 35mm version has image stabilization and has the new stepper motor technology, making it also useful as a general photography lens. The 60mm has a much longer focal length, but is older and lacks stabilization or STM technology (can’t do continuous AF during live view). The 60mm’s shortcomings are not really problems for macro photography, but they do make it less useful in other contexts than the 35mm macro lens.
Nikon offers their 40mm f/2.8 G Close-Up lens ($275) for macro photography work.
Another option is to simply use a set of extension rings to turn your existing lens into a macro lens. Here’s my review of a few different inexpensive extension ring sets available.
If you want something a bit outside the box, you might try out the Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 VC (my review is here). It’s just a hair wider than 50mm, it’s pretty fast in terms of maximum aperture, and it sports image stabilization (which is unheard of in the “normal” focal length of 40-60mm). It goes for $399 new, but can be found used for as low as $250-ish. It is available in Nikon F, Canon EF, and Sony A mounts. Here’s a link to used Tamron 45mm lenses on eBay.
The Cheap Stuff
There are even cheaper autofocus prime lenses available that can really maximize a small budget. Chinese manufacturer Yongnuo has cloned several of Canon’s lenses and even has a few options for Nikon bodies as well.
On the wider end, Yonguo makes for Canon bodies a 35mm f/2 ($90) and 50mm f/1.8 ($50). Keep in mind, however, that both of these lenses are clones of last-generation Canon technology (more than 20 years old). Autofocus speed and accuracy is just okay with these. And while the 50mm is very sharp in the center, the 35mm has proven to be somewhat soft. On the other hand, build quality is as good or better than the price point, and if you have only a small budget they are decent options. You could get both for less than the cost of most of the other single lenses listed here.
On the telephoto side, Yonguon makes two options for Canon bodies (but sadly nothing for Nikon): an 85mm f/1.8 ($175) and a 100mm f/2 ($160). Both lenses, like their wide-angle cousins, are clones of older Canon lenses. And both also seem to have lackluster reviews from photographers. I would avoid these unless your budget is exceptionally tight. AF is loud and not very accurate and both lenses have issues with chromatic aberration (green and purple fringing).
Manual Focus Lenses for Beginner DSLR
If you are willing to give up autofocus capability, there are some nice lenses to be had for both Canon and Nikon bodies.
Perhaps the most popular is the Opteka 85mm f/1.8 ($100) (my review is here), which offers exceptional image quality and a very sturdy, all-metal build. It’s quite a lens, even at twice the price. It is also available in Nikon mount.
Another excellent lens is the Oshiro 35mm f/2 ($170) (my review is here), which seems like it came right out of a time machine. The way it is built is reminiscent of 1970s lens manufacturing, with heavy, all-metal construction and barrel markings that are etched in and back-filled with paint. The truly impressive build quality is matched by the image quality and overall sharpness. It is also available in Nikon mount.
For your super-wide needs, there are several manual focus lenses in Nikon and Canon mounts, including this excellent Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 ($270).
There are so many choices to consider when wanting to add a prime lens to your beginner DSLR camera body. The good news is that many of those options are relatively affordable, while still offering very good image quality and functional features, such as macro capabilities and image stabilization.