So you’ve got your new DSLR with kit lens and you’re loving it. But now you want to explore the some options for lens upgrades. Your kit zoom lens covers basic needs, but a “prime” lens will add a lot of capability to your camera. A prime lense is simply one that doesn’t zoom; it’s got a fixed focal length of just 50mm, 85mm, etc.
Why would you want a prime lens that only has one focal length? For starters, prime lenses generally have higher image quality than zoom lenses. They are optimized to do one thing and do it very well. Zoom lenses have to try to be good at many different focal lengths, so lots of compromises have to be made. The other reason you would want a prime lens over a zoom is because primes are usually much “faster” than zooms. That is, they have a much wider maximum aperture and can capture more light, which allows you to shoot at a higher shutter speed to get sharp photos in lower light.
Entry-level DSLR cameras these days are far more powerful than their predecessors a decade ago with far better 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.
Whether for Canon or Nikon (or Pentax or any other brand, for that matter), one of the first beginner dslr lenses almost anyone will recommend to a newer photographer is a 50mm prime. Canon has their 50mm f/1.8 STM and Nikon offers a similar 50mm f/1.8 G.
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 this in-depth 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.
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, and for Canon shooters, I’d go with the much wider 24mm f/2.8 EF-S. 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.beginner dslr
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, while Nikon offers a moderately more expensive 85mm f/1.8. Canon also has its venerable 100mm f/2 USM lens.
Beyond 85mm / 100mm starts to get expensive unless you want to look at some of the cheaper Chinese non-OEM options.
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 and 60mm f/2.8 EF-S. 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 for macro photography work. Another option is to simply use a set of extension rings to turn your existing lens into a macro lens.
To read more lens reviews for budget-minded photographers, check out TightCamera.com.