Choosing Lenses

(Not shown: Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8)
(Not shown: Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8)

Andrew here. I originally wrote this as an email to a friend who just got his first full frame DSLR and was looking for advice on lenses. In his case, he got a Nikon so this is tailored to Nikon lenses, but the same principles apply across brands. If you use a Canon or Sony or something else, there is almost certainly an equivalent in each of these categories. A little research will help you choose the right one.

Choosing a lens is a very personal decision. It can be driven by preferred subject, budget, or priorities (are you a sharpness fanatic? a featherweight fan? a versatility virtuoso?), so one person’s plan may make no sense for the next guy to follow. If you are a studio portrait shooter through and through, there’s no reason to go through all the steps below. But if you’re a generalist, or still learning, experimenting, and finding your way, then this is a very good way to go.

This is my approach and it has served me well, but I encourage you to add your voice in the comments since your experience is going to be different than mine. What have you learned from buying the lenses you have owned? What would you tell someone just starting out?

So… you just got your first serious DSLR and you want to make the most of it. How do you decide what lenses to get?

First, a philosophy: Your lens is more important than the body. A great lens on a decent body is usually better than a mediocre lens on a high end body. Also, lens technology changes more slowly than body technology, so they retain their value a lot longer. That means that your major investment should be in lenses (or “glass,” if you prefer).

What you should get, and in what order, depends on what you’re doing. If you’re like me, this is what your lens stable will probably look like before long. Personally, I’d work in this order, especially if you aren’t starting out with a firm preference for subject/style:

1) Get one superzoom for flexibility. This won’t be the best lens for anything, but sometimes you just want something that is good enough at a lot, especially if you’re in a place where changing lenses often isn’t practical. Early on, it also gives you a sense for your shooting style and lets you experiment with a wide variety of subjects. For FX, you want the 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6. It’s fine. It’s not amazing, fast, or weather sealed, but it serves its purpose — versatility — and it does it well enough.

2) Get one high quality specialized lens for whatever it is you like most. If it’s macro, get the 105mm f/2.8 macro (that was me). If it’s astrophotography, go for something really wide and really wide aperture like the 14-24mm f/2.8 or 20mm f/1.8. If it’s ducks, the 200-400mm f/4 with 2x Teleconverter. If it’s portraits, 70-200mm f/2.8 or 85mm f/1.2 depending on your style. If you’re a generalist, it’s now time to get the 24-70mm f/2.8. You’ll use this one a lot for stuff you’re really excited about, so this is a place to buy the best-in-class for whatever you’re most motivated to shoot.

3) Get one small fast prime. This is small, light, inexpensive, and very wide aperture. You use it when you want minimal size/weight/bulk. You might use it when shooting inside or in low light. The 50mm f/1.8 is the budget option, but choose something that makes sense for your subjects. If there were a 24mm f/1.8 that was small and affordable, I’d have one. This isn’t a big investment, lens-wise. If you’re like me, you rarely use it, but it’s handy sometimes.

4) Time to get into pro glass if you haven’t already in #2 (you should have). Nikon has the “holy trinity” of lenses that cover the focal lengths from 14mm-200mm in three sections – 14-24mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm. They are all professional quality optics (best in class), constant f/2.8 aperture, weather sealed, and solidly made. They’re also very expensive. If you don’t have the 24-70mm by now, that’s where I’d start. Whether you go wide or long from there depends on what you already have and what your interests are.

5) If you make it this far, you’re probably getting into specialized things. That might be tilt-shift lenses for landscape or architecture, fisheye for different points of view, bazooka lenses for wildlife. By the time you get here, you’re not looking for my input anymore. You’re fully invested and you know what you want.

There are many factors in choosing a good lens, but hopefully this will narrow down a wide field and give you some structure. Don’t limit yourself to what I have here. I came to this by a ton of research and experimentation, but there are many options out there. If something intrigues you, do your homework on it and see for yourself if it’s the right tool for you.

First impressions: Lowepro Photo Hatchback 22L AW Camera Backpack

Sarah here.

After years of awkwardly stuffing my camera into random bags, I decided it was finally time to get a proper bag. A 20% off REI coupon gave me extra incentive to pull the trigger last weekend and pick up the Lowepro Hatchback 22L in slate gray. I’ve only had it a week, but I filled it up with my basic gear and marched around the neighborhood this morning to take pictures of the pretty pink flowering trees. Here are my first impressions (and a quick attempt at product photography).


I almost got the smaller 16L version, but the 22L isn’t *that* much bigger and seems to hold a lot more stuff. I’m glad I went with the larger one.

There are two slim pockets at the front of the bag, which might hold a tablet or maybe a very slim laptop (don’t hold me to that, though). So far, I’m using one of them for a Rogue FlashBender.

I couldn’t get a good picture of the top hatch area, but it’s got a good amount of open space, plus a zippered pocket toward the back and two small elastic pockets in the front, which are the perfect size for two speedlights. I use the zippered pocket for all my normal small flash accoutrements, such as a pack of colored gels, a grid, remotes, etc. The hatch area isn’t padded and is more exposed to potential theft, but therein lies the compromise of a smallish, convenient pack.

The black lump on the side is a little Eagle Creek pack that I attached to the pack strap to serve as an SD card/battery/cleaning kit holder. I love the Hatchback so far, but it doesn’t have many little pockets for organizing, and I wanted a way to get to the small essentials quickly and without taking the pack off.


The camera compartment is nicely padded and opens on the inside of the pack, so a thief isn’t going to shimmy open the zipper and walk off with your gear while you’re wearing it.


The padded part is removable, and the section dividers are velcro’d and can be moved around to whatever configuration works for you. It’s a nice size for me and my gear… mostly. My D7100 with normal walking-around lens (Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8) fits comfortably, and I can arrange another 3-4 smallish lenses around it. However, if I want to bring the Tamron 70-200mm F/2.8 with me, it would have to go in the less-protected top hatch. It *might* fit in the camera compartment with some creative rearranging, but not much else is going to fit in there with it.

If you use a very large DSLR, battery grip, or a lot of large lenses, this is probably not the bag for you.


The flap even has a little SD card pocket.


There’s a raincover in the bottom of the pack which fits nice and snugly over the pack… unlike some of our other hiking packs, where the raincover is forever sliding off or catching the wind and trying to be a kite. I think this one will actually keep everything nice and dry, and it’s easy to get to.

–Looks like a normal backpack, not like a camera bag (other than the Lowepro logo)
–Camera compartment opens on the inside of the bag, making it much harder for a thief to get to
–Nice size for moderate walking-around equipment
–Comfortable for smaller-framed people
–Lightweight (before stuffing with gear, anyway)

–Not so good for very large DSLRs and lenses
–No intentional tripod attachment (some people said they put smaller tripods in the top hatch or in one of the waterbottle pockets, and I usually just stick a leg through the backpack strap and let it hang)
–Top handle seems potentially flimsy
–Few organizing pockets

Overall, I’m very happy with the bag so far, and I’m looking forward to taking it along on some adventures.

He and She

Sarah here.

As you may have gathered from my last post, I’ve spent a lot of time in Lightroom lately. This weekend, I realized I was getting rusty on the shooting and Photoshop side of things, so I did a quick & dirty macro shoot just to shake the cobwebs off.

Two lessons:

1. Light intentionally: This was window light, which was fine, but it was fiddly as the sun peeked in and out of the clouds.  Also, the catchlights don’t match (though maybe it’s cool that they’re sort of symmetrical).  Next time I’ll set up a speedlight to get more consistency.

2. Get a headrest: My models were standing, and it’s impossible to stand without some sway. Macro lenses have such an incredibly narrow depth of field, and the frame was so tight on the eye, that even a teeeeeeeeny bit of movement meant that the point of focus was in front of or behind the eye, and/or the eye wasn’t fully in the frame.  I probably can’t eliminate that movement, but there should be ways to minimize it.

I didn’t have a concept in mind for the final image, but this eventually came together while doodling, and I like the colors (sampled from each eye). I think it could be a cool idea for an engagement photoshoot… next time I have a couple together, I want to give this another go.


Sarah here.

This will be a familiar problem for anyone who’s done much photography (especially event photography), and I can’t promise that I have any brilliant advice, but I’m juuuuuuust starting to feel like I’m getting a handle on it: what to do when you’re drowning in images from a particular event/vacation/photoshoot.

I have photo batches from past events that I’ve barely touched because I was so overwhelmed by the sheer number of images. Since my favorite part is Photoshop, and Photoshop work can take… well… a while, the number of hours it would take to properly edit everything is beyond daunting.

So, scrap that.

Besides photography, I dance, and I drag Andrew along to our shows. While it’s certainly not his favorite type of photography, he often photographs our performances. We’ve reached an arrangement: he shoots, then hands over the RAW files for me to edit (while he goes back to taking pictures of waterfalls and bugs and the aurora borealis). For one recent show, that was 436 pictures, which is actually pretty few compared to other events (there’s one show I’ve yet to tackle where we took 1591 images between us… I still need to go through those).

Here’s the process I came up with:

1) Chunk it: I’m too indecisive to look over aaaaaaaaall the hundreds of images at once and pick out the best ones. But if I broke it up into smaller chunks, it wasn’t so scary. Andrew did this with his Iceland pictures: one day at a time, or if a day was particularly full of activities, one event at a time. The dance show had 12 performances. For each dance, I made a Lightroom collection so I was ONLY looking at those pictures. It was very calming to only see ~30 pictures at a time instead of 400+.

2) Lightroom first!: Since I started working with Photoshop, my time spent in Lightroom has dropped, but I’m starting to really appreciate it as a triage and quick edit tool. I didn’t let myself even open Photoshop until I’d gone through everything in Lightroom, selected the best pictures, and did a quick Lightroom edit to all of them. That way I could get the pictures out to the other performers promptly, then take my time and enjoy the pieces I want to play with.

3) Presets: This was a chance to play with all the neglected Lightroom presets I’ve collected. Presets are a fast way to get 90% (or more) to a cool looking image, and you can tweak them to taste for the finishing touches. Sometimes I used the same preset on a batch of images with similar lighting and mood, and sometimes I played with different looks. Fun and easy. They also gave me some ideas for what I might want to do in Photoshop later.

The fairy picture in this post is one of those quick Lightroom edits with a preset. And now I can pull this one into Photoshop and play, guilt-free. I’ve got a few ideas, so you’ll probably see her again…