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.