For Nikon UsersLet me preface this post by pointing to the title. I would love for this to be a discussion. By no means is one person the end all be all authority on this subject. If you have input on this I want to hear about it. But don’t just throw out a specific lens. Tell me why it is an essential lens to you. Yes, I will do a Canon discussion as well. Ok, so what are we talking about? Camera lenses. Which ones are essential, classic, iconic, must haves and why. The ones you should have in your camera bag, the ones you can dream of, and a few to start off with. Some lenses might overlap specific types of photography and some will stand on their own. I hope to touch on a few different industries. I have compiled this list of lenses through 15 years of experience, research, and insight from other photographers. Again, that doesn't mean this is the final word on what is the next lens you should buy. Just advice based on experiences I have had through my photography career.
Prime lenses are basically lenses that don’t zoom. They have fewer moving elements. In many photographers eyes that makes their image quality better than any zoom lens. Prime lenses are also among the “fastest” lenses around. A fast lens is a lens with a large aperture opening. The smaller the f-stop number is, the larger the aperture opening. That will be important info to keep in mind while reading the rest of this article.
24mm 2.8This is the go to wide-angle lens for generations. If you love shooting landscapes this is a fantastic lens for you. Portraits – The photography rule is don’t shoot portraits with a wide-angle lens. But once you understand the rules and have mastered them…you can break them. Use the 24mm for environmental portraits, and for large group portraits. While it may not be your go to lens for every portrait opportunity, there are some interesting uses for it. Landscapes – Absolutely. If you are shooting wide sweeping landscapes without any distortion at the edges of the photo then this is the lens you want in your bag. Sports – If you want up close in your face sport photos, then this isn’t the lens you want. Weddings – You might break this lens out at a wedding for a couple of shots per night. Like I mentioned above, this lens is great for large group shots. It is also great for wide-angles of the ceremony and people on the dance floor during the reception. You can pull off some very interesting perspective photos with the 24mm. Fits on full frame camera bodies – Yes sir. That’s where it performs best. Fits on APS-C – Definitely. A cropped sensor will make it an equivalent of a 36mm lens. That does change a few things we talked about earlier. Is it fast? - Yes, it is fast. See above for what being a "fast" lens means. Price? – Auto Focus - $392 - Manual Focus - $208
35mm f2There is a ton of debate between the 35mm and the next lens on the list, the 50mm. The debate centers on which is the better every day, all around most popular lens. Proponents of the 35 argue that the lens the view has is more natural to what the human eye sees. What can not be questioned is the quality of this lens for the price. It is a great lens to have on your camera at all times. The only question is if you prefer what a 35mm looks like through the lens vs what a 50mm looks like. Portraits – Great for full-length portraits and environmental portraits. Not close up portraits as the lens can start to distort the face a little. Landscapes – While not as wide as the 24mm (Thanks Captain Obvious), the 35 can produce stunning landscape photos. Sports – We still are not in the up close and personal action area of lenses. Weddings – You will find that wedding photographers choose either the 35mm or the 50mm to have in their bag for weddings. Fits on full frame - Yuppers Fits on APS-C – Indeed it does. It makes the lens an equivalent of a 52mm. So if you are shooting on a cropped sensor (ie Nikon D3200,D3300 or D7100) the 35mm basically becomes a 50mm. Is it fast? It is very fast. You will be able to shoot in lower light situations better than the majority of lenses. Price? - $387
50mm 1.8This is the lens that must be in your bag. It has been the go to lens for photographers since 35mm film cameras became the norm. This is possibly the most versatile (and most inexpensive) lens out there. There is a reason why they call it the “Nifty Fifty”. It has a beautiful bokeh which makes it perfect for portraits. It is extremely fast (just a hair slower than the upgraded 50mm 1.4). The same argument that the 35mm lens folks make about how the eye sees…the same could be said about the 50mm. Possibly the best feature of this lens is the price. Coming in under $200 makes this the most inexpensive lens on the list. Portraits – This is a fantastic lens for portraits. Two thumbs up. Landscapes – For wide sweeping landscapes…not it’s strong suit. Sports – Sports portraits…yes. Field encompassing photos…yes. Up close action…no. Weddings – Must have. Perfect for low light situations ala dark bridal rooms and reception halls. Fits on full frame – You betcha Fits on APS-C – Yes. The lens becomes the equivalent of a 75mm lens. Is it fast? – The 50mm 1.8 is super fast. The 50mm 1.4 is extremely fast Price? – This is the best part. Only $132 (Super inexpensive by photography standards)
85mm 1.8You want to shoot portraits? You found the lens. This lens is perfectly suited for half-length, three-quarters and tight head shot portraits. It is also a great lens for weddings when you want to start distancing yourself from your subjects. Portraits – Yes, yes, aaaand yes. Landscapes – Not it’s strength, but for nature photos it can be nice. Sports – If you are on the field…sure. Weddings – Yes. Fits on full frame – You know it Fits on APS-C – It does. It makes it an equivalent 127mm lens. Is it fast? – Yes. Max aperture is 1.8 makes it very fast and gives it a beautiful bokeh. Price? - $447
105mm 2.8 microThis lens does double duty. It is also a beautiful portrait lens, but it also doubles as an amazing macro lens. The focus is super quick on this beauty. It could quickly become the favorite lens in your bag. Portraits – Perfect for individual portraits. Especially when you want to give your subject a little distance between you. Landscapes – If you count macro photos as landscapes then put a check mark next to this one. With 1:1 macro ability you can make the tiniest things look larger than life. Sports – A super quick auto focus makes this lens a decent choice for some sport pics where you can get close to the action. Weddings – Having a lens in your bag where you can take beautiful portraits and equaling stunning close up photos make this lens a winner. Fits on full frame – Yes Fits on APS-C – It does. The lens equivalent of 157mm Is it fast? - It is very fast when you are taking portraits. The max aperture is 2.8. For close up photos you will want to close the aperture a bit to control your depth of field. Price? - $847
135 f2You want to talk about a lens that is drool worthy. The 135mm f2. This is possibly the most beautiful portrait lens out there. Its strong suit is definitely geared toward making things look pretty. It comes with defocus control. Think of it as the ability to have artistic control over the depth of field in your photos. Portraits – That is the wheelhouse of this lens. If you love taking photos of your family or if you have (or are starting) a portrait biz…seriously consider this lens. Landscapes – As with the 105mm…not so much a great lens for landscape photography as it is a nature photography lens. Sports – I would not use this lens for shooting sports. It has a slower AF than other lenses out there to shoot sports with. Weddings – This definitely has a place in a camera bag for wedding photogs. Maybe not as a primary lens, but definitely a lens for shooting portraits and candids. A photographer can get noticed from the photos this lens can produce. Fits on full frame – That is where it is at home. Fits on APS-C – It does. Makes the equivalent of a 202mm Is it fast? – Yes, it is a fast lens. You will be able to shoot in lower light situations. Where it isn’t that fast is the auto focus. This lens produces beautiful results, but it does make you work a little for it. Price? - $1,392
Nikon has 38 different zoom lenses. 21 of those are made for Full Frame camera bodies and 17 are made for APS-C or cropped frame camera bodies. I have listed two lenses that are great for both. Of course, you can always use lenses made for full frame bodies on the APS-C bodies, but not vice versa.