I've done surveys on "lens kittery" at various points in my career as a writer about photography. The first one, done for the old Camera & Darkroom magazine, has proven surprisingly robust. We surveyed hundreds of photographers in the early '90s when most photographers used film SLRs. I sought out photojournalists and gave extra weight to their opinions, in that they were essentially the ultimate generalists, who needed to be ready for anything. The result of that survey was that a generalist photographer needed three or four lenses:
- An all-purpose prime, meaning a "normal" (~50mm) or "moderate wide-angle" (~35mm);
- A true wide-angle, meaning a 24mm or 20mm (less often, if the above lens was a 50mm, a 28mm);
- A moderate tele "portrait" lens (75mm to 105mm);
This readily corresponds to the arsenals that were typically chosen by users of the three main kinds of cameras that didn't accept zooms: 35mm rangefinders (mainly Leicas); 2 1/4 square SLRs (mainly Hasselblads in the U.S.); and view cameras (VCs)—although users of any of the three might forgo either the third choice or the second and third choices for cost reasons.
For our standard 35mm SLR kit, to those three might be added:
- A true tele (usually 180mm or 200mm).
At the time, I thought it made sense to replace the tele with a tele zoom, since when you're at a distance is when you're least likely to be able to control your standpoint (i.e., you're in the bleachers or press box, behind a barricade, etc.) and would most need to be able to zoom with the lens. In the day, 70–210mm or 80–200mm lenses were very popular bread-and-butter zooms, so it seemed to me that a three-prime kit with a tele zoom made sense. I have no evidence that this was ever widely popular. Even then, photographers tended not to mix primes and zooms, but to prefer one or the other.
By the mid-'90s, another option had taken hold: replacement of the main normal lens with a "normal zoom." For a long time the best of these were 2X 35–70mms, although of course variations were rampant. By the late '90s if not earlier, with the advent of good wide-angle zooms, a not-uncommon variation was the all-zoom kit, with normal, wide, and tele zooms or some combination thereof.
Back at the time of our first surveys, there were also several specialist properties of lenses that might be required by many generalist photographers:
- Speed (i.e., a wide maximum aperture).
- "Macro" (close-focusing) capability.
- Perspective control
- Small size for easy portability
- Zooming ability
"Fisheye" perspective and ultra-telephoto reach (with catadioptric or mirror lenses among the less-well-heeled) were the natural extremes made possible by SLR viewing, seldom used by Leica, Hasselblad, or VC photographers. Back in the '80s and '90s I would have said that extreme telephoto lenses were a passion of a certain subset of photographers, but that turned out not to be true—people just liked extreme telephotos for status reasons. The bigger and longer your most extreme tele was, the bigger your wallet and the bigger and longer your [body part deleted]. As soon as digital's reduced sensor sizes made telephoto reach more routinely available, interest in extreme teles among hobbyists tailed off markedly. (Some people—team sports photographers, birders, etc.—still actually needed them for their work, of course, and we're not talking about those people.)
We've already dicussed zooming capability, but one more point under that heading bears mentioning: we're now entering the age of "zoom by crop" (ZBC, although I just made that up). This never worked terribly well with film because quality was so closely tied to degree of enlargement. But with enough pixels to start with, an effective "zoom" is possible just by using a section of the image. This is the reason for the plethora of pixels in the Nokia 808 PureView smartphone's camera, and I find I do it frequently with the 36-MP Nikon D800.
As for the four other specialist properties, the controls in Lens Corrections>Manual in ACR, or the equivalent in other image editors, have all but made Perspective-Control (PC) lenses obsolete; you only have to make sure that your files have enough pixels and enough "air" (air = extra space to work with around the edges of the main part of the image) and you're good to go. To a lesser but still marked extent, the high ISO capability of digital cameras have made high speed lenses unnecessary. Wide-aperture lenses are still popular, but for a completely different reason: they enable shallow depth-of-field (d.o.f.), lately popular as the "bokeh craze." (My own feeling is that shallow d.o.f. is mainly popular for the same reason long telephotos used to be: fast lenses and large sensors are expensive, so if you can shoot with really shallow d.o.f. it signifies that you have a big wallet.)
Small lens size continues to be a contentious issue, but there's no question that people continue to value it, as seen in the popularity of so-called "pancake" primes as well as by the undercurrent of complaint about the relative sizes of lenses on APS-C mirrorless cameras. For most camera type, zooming ability is a tradeoff with small size; for a given sensor size or film size, a zoom will typically be as large as the largest lens it replaces, as heavy as the heaviest, and as slow as the slowest.
Of the four specialist properties of lenses besides zooming, the most important still is "macro" or close-focusing. I have always credited the late Herbert Keppler of Popular Photography magazine for raising the community's consciousness on this issue; he made it an issue both in POP's once influential lens tests and in his own discussions of lenses. As a result, lens buyers, and therefore lens makers, started paying attention to this spec, and now we're not often limited by lenses with poor close-focusing abilities. Having at least one lens that will do true macro (1:1, meaning the object image on the sensor is as large as the actual object in real life) is, however, still a valuable asset for many photographers, even generalists. Dedicated, specialist macro photographers might have more than one true macro lenses; for others, 1:2 is often seen as enough.
For me personally, the only time this is ever an issue is with a short-tele portrait lenses, where the once de facto standard one-meter or 3-feet minimum focusing distance will sometimes prove frustrating. I prefer a short tele that will focus to ~2 ft.
I'd have to research this to nail it more exactly, but my memory is that "kit zooms" began to replace the medium-speed standard 50mm lenses that entry-level cameras came bundled with sometime in the years surrounding 1990. Following this, film point-and-shoots reached the apex of their popularity, and those, also, tended to have non-interchangeable zooms.
As time went on, one consequence of this was that peoples' first cameras more and more often had zooms; being able to zoom was part of everyone's formative photographic experience, and the opposite—using a lens that only offered one focal length—seemed like an odd self-imposed restriction. Like, say, shifting gears in a car using a stick protruding from the transmission in coordination with a foot-operated clutch pedal, instead of one of those nice automatics that does everything for you so you don't have to worry about it. This isn't a prime-vs.-zoom post—I've covered that subject before. The point I want to make here is simply that the advent of the "zoom norm" simply meant that camera users in general tended to become more and more ignorant of the meaning of focal lengths and angles of view. The camera came with a lens; it was "wide" at one end and "tele" at the other; and there you had it.
Of course, this was worsened by the great proliferation in "format" sizes. In 1982, when I built my first darkroom under the basement stairs, film formats were reasonably neatly divided, for the most part, into small-medium-large, even though there were many subtleties that could admit a greater range of discussion/obsession. And almost everybody used "small" (35mm)—even if they used something else too. No matter how encompassing you want to be in your discussion of film formats, however, there can be no argument that things are a lot more complicated now when it comes to the size of the rectangle that records the lens image. (One of the niftiest things that came with the NEX-6 is a tiny card with a sensor chart on it, at actual size. What a nice idea!)
Further complicating the issue is the wide range of zoom lens types. Long gone are the days when zooms divided up neatly into discrete categories. Now you can buy amateur zooms, professional zooms, ranges as short as 2X and as great as 12X or more, wide zooms, tele zooms, all-purpose zooms...even, in some lens lines, several different models of zooms that all essentially do the same thing. It can't help but be confusing.
I'm sure most TOP readers are pretty well versed in the topic, and most photo enthusiasts are probably at least anchored with a basic idea of what does what. But most smartphone photographers, for example, probably have no idea what "focal length" they're using and, probably, very hazy ideas about angles of view. My suspicion is that lots of "incoming" newish photographers are also pretty hazy on the concepts. How do you learn what "50mm-e" really is if a 50mm-e angle of view is just one point on the zoom range between close and far?
I'm personally still firmly in the normal / short tele / wide prime camp. Old habits, etc. For the NEX-6, I sunk the most money into the normal lens I'll use 80% of the time, the 24mm ƒ/1.8 E Sonnar; I'm sure I'll end up with a 16mm WA and probably some sort of 60mm portrait lens too, if I can find one (jury's still out on the upcoming Sigma. It's fairly likely I'll dislike it). I'm fastidious about lens choice but at the same time, my basic principles are pretty plain and clear.
I don't even know how most new camera buyers go about choosing a lens complement for their cameras, though. It's quite possible they leave it to a default (use the kit zoom that comes with the camera), or up to others (use whatever the camera store counterman tells you to use), or to online research (but then, how do you make sense of quality ratings when you're not really personally familiar with focal lengths and f-numbers?).
I know what I'd advise: the same thing I do—single-focal-length lenses in a basic three-lens array. But I realize that's like telling everyone to buy a stick shift: impractical advice, given mass taste and most peoples' training.
One thing seems certain: consumer camera buyers will continue to do things backwards, picking cameras and letting their lenses be an afterthought. It should really be done the other way around, of course: pick what lens you want to use, and then find a camera for it to go on. But that takes experience, which is just what newer photographers lack.
It's been that way since long before digital came along, and it's uinlikely to ever change.
For further reading: A semi-satirical post from long ago, "Uses and Applications of 35mm Lenses." I'd forgotten about this. Thanks to Steve S, Bernard, and others for reminding me of it.
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Gaspar Heurtley: "I only use primes, I got used to use my feet to zoom in and out. I have a few lenses lying around, but I take 99% of my pictures with a 35mm. Funny how I learned to 'see' in that focal length, or rather those focal lengths, whether I'm using film or my APS-C sensor DSLR."
Tim F: "Although I like the concept of primes, it turns out I'm pretty much a 'zoom guy'. I have a 17–40mm, 28–75mm, and 70–200mm and between them I never need to use any other lens. And 90% of the time, my 28–75mm is on the camera. Does that make me boring?"
Mike replies: No. Nothing about lens choice can make you boring. It's important to remember that the only person my lens choices have to please is me, and the only person your lens choices have to please is you.
Hugh: "Bokeh matters to some of us. I'm part of a thriving Pentax 67 group on Facebook—about 500 members— nearly all using the 105mm ƒ/2.4 standard lens for its character wide open."
Mike replies: Good choice. A lovely lens.
Ed Buziak: "I own a 'KISS' kit—24mm, 55mm, and 135mm, old, solid, manual Nikkors—but only ever seem to go out with the beat-up 24mm mounted on my panel-peeling, preview-button-jammed D300. Despite the almost obligatory image cropping to 4:3 format—to eliminate the awful corners on my 24mm—and the necessary 34/17 "CA" correction needed in Adobe Lightroom, I have licensed more stock images on Alamy with this one lens over the past three years than any other I have ever owned."
Ken Ford: "'I'm sure I'll end up with...some sort of 60mm portrait lens too, if I can find one (jury's still out on the upcoming Sigma. It's fairly likely I'll dislike it).' Mike, why is that? Just being a pessimist or something deeper? I'm hoping IQ will be comparable to the Sigma 30 I have and enjoy. However, I think it's wise to take a wait-and-see attitude with Sigma glass—but they have been impressing me lately."
Mike replies: Well, it's important not to a)
drink wine by the label (i.e., lenses by the brand name), and b) not to
pre-judge lens models based on nothing but guesses. So maybe I shouldn't
have said that. I'll try to keep an open mind.
But there are two things that make me wary: Sigma seems to me lately to be in the sharpness-is-everything camp—along with the larger part of the online community, which approves—whereas I like lenses that are less clinical and have more character. A distinction that is getting mighty thin lately, generally. And portrait lenses especially seem to be way too sharp for portraits—those medium tele designs are easy to optimize, and most of them are just ruthless. I used the Pentax 55mm for a time, and it's a technically superb lens, but just relentless hard-sharp. It's not the best for what I'd want to use it for. So that's not a knock against Sigma, just a general observation about the current trends in short tele lenses.
If anybody were to make the kind of lens I thought was magic, the measurebators would tear it to shreds and it would be infamous in no time—not to mention shunned and left to rot on the shelves.
We have little choice in such matters, which is too bad. Hey, at least with the NEX-6 I can use an old-fashioned lens with an adapter.