I’m pretty sure that this is a valid question in the minds of many photographers, both professional and amateurs alike. So what IS the best lens for the DSLR? Is there such a thing as a “best lens” in the first place?
I’ve had many people ask me this question before in the past. And quite frankly, I don’t even know if there really IS such a thing as a “best lens”. I do know that there are cheap lenses, there are expensive lenses, and then there are super-expensive lenses. But are they the best?… Well, it really depends on who you ask.
Are Expensive Lenses Better Than Cheaper Lenses?
No, not really… Historically speaking, the humble 50mm lens was the de-facto lens that everybody started out with (I am referring to the 35mm standard film frame size here). Regardless of brands, it has the simplest optical formula, and is generally the fastest lens (largest maximum aperture) commercially available. The 50mm was called the “standard lens” as the angle of view was essentially similar to what the normal human eye sees. And most importantly, it was also the cheapest lens you could buy. This is the lens that gives you the biggest bang for your buck.
And because of all these attributes, the humble 50mm lens either came bundled together with the camera body when you bought it, or at least was the default lens that one would buy together with their first camera body. Henceforth, the standard lens became the only type of lens that literary every photographer has in their arsenal, and also the lens that many budding photographer tries very hard to grow out of.
My Lens Is Longer Than Yours!
As one becomes more accustomed with his or her photographic skill, he or she will then want to add on a second lens. And the most popular second lens is usually a telephoto lens. Wanting to reach out further, and not to mention compare the physical length of their optics with their peers, telephoto is the way to go.
Of course, the longer the lens is, when compared to the standard 50mm lens, the more expensive it is. Therefore, 50mm is cheaper than 85mm, which is cheaper than 105mm, which is cheaper than 200mm, and so on. The reason is that the longer the focal length is, the more complex the optical formula will be, and generally uses more glass material to make bigger individual elements, to make up the components of a longer focal length lens.
So What?… My Lens Is Fatter Than Yours!
While the price goes higher the longer your focal length is when compared to the standard 50mm, the reverse is also true. The shorter it is, when compared to the standard lens, the more expensive it is also. Therefore, 50mm is cheaper than 35mm, which is cheaper than 28mm, which is cheaper than 24mm, which is cheaper than 21mm, and so on.
While the difference in actual focal length (measured in mm) seem less pronounced than for telephoto lenses, wide-angle lenses’ effects are more pronounced, even at relatively short focal length difference from the one that it was compared against. What that means that a 24mm lens covers a whole lot more than a 28mm, although the difference between the two examples are only a mere 4mm apart.
The Lens To End All Other Lenses… Sort Of…
Enter the zoom-lens – The lens that gives you the flexibility of covering many focal length without having the need to carry many different lenses. Zoom lenses are variable focal length lenses, which commonly covers from moderate wide-angle to short telephoto. And this is now quickly becoming the new “standard” lens, replacing the humble 50mm lens.
But just as the cost of the lens increases exponentially as it goes further away from the human eye equivalent of 50mm in either direction, the cost of zoom lenses also increases exponentially as it covers a longer “zoom range” into a single lens. The nature of incorporating variable focal lengths within a single zoom lenses makes the optical design the most complex, and the most expensive it is to manufacture.
In order to bring the cost down to a reasonable level, compromises are usually introduce into the “entry-level” zoom lenses, in that they relatively slower lenses (smaller maximum aperture), and are usually of variable maximum speed. Many manufacturers are bundling these as “kit-lenses” to most entry level cameras, freeing the new photographers from cracking their heads, deciding what first lens to purchase together with the camera body.
Of course there also are professional zoom lenses too, which minimises the compromise made to the entry-level zoom lenses. However, be prepared to pay an arm and a leg to purchase these “pro” zoom lenses.
Back To The Question – Are More Expensive Lenses Better?
Again, not really… The longer it is, the more expensive it is. The shorter it is, the more expensive it is too. Throw in a zoom capability, and it gets even more expensive. But what is the whole reason for lenses to get more expensive when compared against our standard 50mm lens yardstick? Well, is mainly because the further away it is from the simple optical design of the 50mm lens, the more complex the optical design will be, and the more optical glass material will be used in its manufacture. So in all reality, the higher the production cost is, the higher the retail price will be.
The more complex a lens is, when compared to the humble 50mm lens, the more expensive it will be. But only because the design and manufacturing cost is also higher for those more complex lenses.
And it also doesn’t necessarily mean that the more complex lenses will project a higher quality optical resolution onto the digital sensor or film back either. Only that it is more complex to manufacture, and more difficult to design so that “reasonable” quality optical resolution can be projected onto the digital sensor or film back.
You’re Not Answering The Question – Are They Better Than The Cheaper Lenses?
Well, if by “better”, you mean the actual image quality being projected onto the digital sensor or film back, then no, they are not better. Equal to probably, but definitely not better.
The fact is that the simple optical design of the humble 50mm is pretty straight forward, and relatively easy to produce. This means that the production cost of the 50mm lens is as cheap as you can go, and yet still product exceptionally good image reproduction. Therefore, if by “better” you mean the cost per optical quality obtained, then yes, the 50mm is indeed the best lens you can get for your money.
The Best Lens For The DSLR
All things considered, the humble 50mm standard lens is indeed considered the best lens for the modern day DSLR. It is the best bang for your buck, and produces one of the best image reproduction quality of any lenses, regardless the cost.
For those of you who complain about how you can’t “zoom in” distance objects, or how you’ve backed up to the wall, and still can’t fit everybody into the frame, stay tuned. I shall be addressing this issue in another article in the near future.
In the mean time, all hail the 50mm standard lens, the king of lenses for the modern day DSLR.