What a lens can teach you: A beginner's guide
Keywords: slr, prime, fixed, carl_zeiss_tessar, bokeh, nikkor, nikon, sigma, beginner
Looking for a lens
Deciding on the right "glass" from a variety of lenses is often a tough nut to crack.
The beginners among us face this dilemma as we scan the marketplaces for that special lens that will serve multiple functions. We seek a lens that will take satisfying images, while also serving as a companion, helper, paintbrush and most of all, a teacher. Often that search is mindful of a fairly limited budget. Surely nobody wants to buy a lens only to sell it for half a price on eBay half a year later.
I presume you have spent your hard earned money to buy a wisely chosen DSLR, a camera bag, lots of memory cards and some accessories. For the old foxes among Nikonians an obvious question arises: "Which new lens will cure my NAS?" They search for an ultra dispersion glass treatment with a super coating and a little bit of vibration reduction in a weather-sealed casing. A beginner is mostly unsure about making the right decision.
Who hasn't delved into an online lens catalogue, surfer websites for reviews, seeking the best price, asked other experienced Nikonians in forums for advice and in the end was still a little bit unsure about the right decision? Most articles mention the basic lens categories in a nutshell (wide, basic, tele), then a little bit about zoom and fixed focus lenses, the DX and full frame lenses and finally about the characteristics and usage. Then you also have the special lenses for macro and perspective control.
If you would like to know more about various kinds of lenses, I suggest you look for Nikonians articles in the Lens Reviews Category, you will find these offer valuable information and insights gained from experience. I will not retell that information, because many good articles were written by other more experienced Nikonians (such as this one by J. Ramón Palacios).
My goal is different. Let me tell you a story first.
To hold a SLR camera in my hands, that was an awesome feeling and I remember it as it was yesterday. A friend of mine lent it to me with a roll of film and said I can now shoot whatever I want. It was a true joy to see the world in a pentaprism viewfinder, focusing on whatever I chose to and changing the angle of view from wide 28mm to a moderate telephoto 80mm. And there were this shiny numbers in the bottom of the viewfinder and they changed with the outdoor light. I was really excited how this small machine could accomplish so many things and after shooting the whole 36 frames on my roll of film I brought it to the photo center.
I couldn't afford to pay very much for the developing at that time, but despite this I decided to print it on matte paper in 5"x4" (10x13cm). Imagine my reaction when I picked up my pictures. They were a catastrophe and it was clearly not the camera's fault. Of course I was very disappointed at that time and I tried and tried with other cameras to achieve better results. I have tried some other digital cameras from other manufacturers as well, and then some digital SLRs, I have rented various equipment from my friends, then bought some new. At last I have even worked in a photo store behind the desk.
I sold cameras to customers and answered their curious questions. As a benefit, I could rent some equipment from the store at that time, which was very convenient. I really liked some of my pictures and people were quite satisfied. Their response to my pictures was mostly positive, but I felt it was not enough. I wanted to shoot great pictures that would look nearly as good as in the magazines or from favorite photographers of mine, but I didn't know exactly how to accomplish that. Even if I understood the theory and knew the technical parameters, I somehow felt the nicest images often slipped through my fingers. I didn't know at this moment that my photographic journey was just beginning and the widening of my knowledge would actually come from my search for perfection.
I have to thank my grandfather for his old camera. He didn't use it anymore and he decided to give it to me as a gift. It was a film camera called Werra, a piece of solid steel and German technology. In an emergency also it was probably usable as a self-defense weapon. The lens was a Carl Zeiss Tessar 50mm 1:2.8, an excellent piece of glass when stepped down and with a nice bokeh. It was a rangefinder camera, so there was a parallax between what was displayed in the viewfinder and what the lens captured. It was this camera that made me think about composition and the field of view. Every time a great moment was in front of me, a simple click on the shutter button was simply impossible; I had to think about the parallax first. Then I started slowly to rethink my own habits of setting a composition and how to handle the light.
I didn’t stick with the camera for long, I have changed it for an SLR, but the 50mm lens had taught me so much, I have used it for the next year. Yeap, only one 50mm lens the whole year. The fixed focus 50mm was of course limiting now and then. Sometimes I had to go closer or further to capture an object, then recompose and try to get everything right. It was a tough lens to use when learning the rule of thirds, the main object, and exposure. All these split second decisions had to be made while not losing the original intent of the image and of course the right split second to activate the shutter. That lens became a teacher and now I can share some of my results.
A sharp lens is a blessing and the image from a fixed focus lens is crisper then a zoom lens can ever deliver, even when the manufacturers try very hard to catch up.
Therefore I encourage the beginners to start with a 50mm lens instead of a kit lens or to use it as a subsidiary lens as much as possible. The positive effect of doing so will come quite rapidly. You will be limited by one field of view, but you will have more time to think about the perspective and you will imagine what you could do if you had another type of lens. You will definitely spend more time with composing your image and this will have a positive effect on you as a photographer. You may also miss some moments, but it is inevitable - it is an essential part of learning.
A normal prime
I suggest you try one of these lenses on your photographic journey. They are called normal lenses because they have a field of view that looks natural through the viewfinder. Usually the focal length is 50mm on 35mm film or a full frame sensor, but you may find a 40 or a 55mm lens to be also considered as normal. A normal lens is also a prime or fixed lens that means it has a fixed focal length as opposed to a zoom lens.
Nikon offers two main choices for full-frame cameras at this time, the Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.8G and the Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.4G. Both are about the same size and weight, though the 50mm 1:1.4 does weigh a little more because of more glass elements inside, it has a rounded 9-blade diaphragm, a really fast autofocus and one step faster aperture.
The more blades in a diaphragm, the more pleasant the bokeh. Users of a DX camera, be aware of the fact that a smaller sensor will change a 50mm lens to a 75mm, therefore you should look for a wider lens, a good choice is a 35mm lens available in both 1:1.4 and 1:1.8 version.
For the cameras with smaller sensors a 35mm lens is the prime lens. Mathematically correct it is a 33mm (33 x 1.5 ≅ 50), but Nikon doesn't offer a lens with this focal length (FYI: Sigma does a decent 30mm 1:1.4 DC lens). I recommend the AF-S Nikkor 35mm 1:1.8 G DX for a beginner, because it's cheap, very sharp and fast. You may experience that the optical performance of a prime lens is way better then of a zoom because it captures only a single field of view. A normal prime lens has nearly always a much faster aperture; most of them have an aperture from 1.2 to 2.8 whereas the zoom lenses begin mostly at 2.8 or even at 3.5. A fast aperture lets more light in, it is very useful in low light conditions and you can benefit from the possibility of a shallow depth of field by staying with a low ISO setting for noise-free images. Also you don't have to use a strobe flash frequently, because it can handle complicated indoor light situations. A shallow depth of field gives you the possibility to understand the basic composition rules, and play with that depth of field to get the desired objects into focus.
(Although Nikonians founder Bo Stahlbrandt pointed out, that a larger camera might give you a free pass to take pictures together with professional photographers on special events. Well, I have to try that on the next occasion, thanks for the tip, Bo.)
The good news is a normal prime lens isn’t that expensive, some of them are relatively cheap because of a simpler construction. The AF-S Nikkor 35mm 1:1.8 G DX or the AF-S Nikkor 50mm 1:1.8 G are a bargain.
I say give it a try
If you would like to go a step further in the 50mm-prime-lens journey, you may want to obtain an older manual Nikkor lens that works on the new digital cameras. Many of these lenses have an outstanding image quality, but you will have to focus manually all the time. A challenge indeed. Because of the universal F-mount you can use a wide range of older Nikkor lenses, but before buying a used lens, it is wise to inform yourself about some technical peculiarities. For a full compatibility list see the article Nikon SLR Camera and Lens Compatibility.
I am glad I had the opportunity to be bound to one manual prime lens during my early years in photography. The knowledge based on experience of limiting oneself with one fixed lens is a good learning method. It will teach you how to perceive the world around you as a photographer. After some time you will surely notice your pictures improve over the period and that you are consciously thinking about your pictures. I don't say you have to stick with one fix lens for a whole life or for a year, this wouldn't serve a purpose. There are lots of arguments for a zoom lens, just to mention the flexibility and the price vs. field-of-view ratio. If you are a beginner and unsure about your main photographing interest, a normal prime lens can help you to find out where you it lies. It can teach valuable lessons and give you “the photographer’s eye.”
I am shooting today with digital cameras and use lenses of various types and focal lengths, but the Werra has a special place in the shelf among other cameras. From time to time we go for a walk together just to remember the old days and I gratefully look back to the moment in time it was given to me. It still teaches me a lot. Thank You, grandpa.
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Originally written on April 7, 2014
Last updated on January 26, 2021
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Anthony Alston (aa69) on January 17, 2015
Many thanks Jan, A good article well written, and one I will remember and refer to this practice every so often.
Jan Stimel (photocyan) on June 20, 2014
Hi Suman, thank you and good light!
User on June 10, 2014
I just picked up the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX Lens, and it is a wicked sharp lens despite being a newbie to a DSLR .
User on April 21, 2014
Suman Das (sumankdas) on April 21, 2014
Dear Jan, I have only one lens, the 35mm f1.8 DX on a D7000. This fast lens works really well in low light, I hardly ever use flash. Although the D7000 is a bigger body than the D3200, the camera does not look very big with this 35mm lens on. Travelling is great too, lightweight and good for most occasions. Many thanks for your article, enjoyed reading it. Suman
Tom Myrick (tmyrick) on April 20, 2014
Actually I don't think this is just for beginners. This has given me the idea to start carrying around just my old 35 F2 on my old Nikon D70S for a while with nothing else and see what happens. Sometimes it's good to uncomplicate things and get back to basics.
Harry Chen (charry3892) on April 17, 2014
Hi Jan, WOW nice article to read (3 pages) and add more knowledge for me. I'm new beginner with DLSR Nikon D7100(3 months)and a few days ago got/bought old lens 50mm Nikkor-S Auto 1:1.4 f=50mm and tried once to shot stars and came out was not sharp enough. I used manual mode, 8 sec and infinity on lens a bit better image than others setting. I don't know if the lens that I got compatible to my D7100 because I don't how to read the chart of lens compatibility. After read your article, I'll try more often to gain my ability and hopefully work well. Thanks for wonderful share.
Jan Stimel (photocyan) on April 16, 2014
Hi Mervyn, I never had the opportunity to use the Meyer Domitar lens on my camera, I think it is a lens of a very simple construction. I understand it is a terrible quality? Maybe I should have been more specific in the article - "most of the time" would be a more appropriate formulation, because some exceptions to the rule apparently exist. It's safe to stick with Nikkor lenses :)
Robert K. Howe (GatorBoy) on April 16, 2014
Great article! I am new to the Nikon community & just bought a 50mm 1.8 Nikon prime lens because people told me that it is a great macro & landscape lens.
Jan Stimel (photocyan) on April 16, 2014
Thank you, George.
Jan Stimel (photocyan) on April 16, 2014
Veronika :) :)
User on April 14, 2014
I'm not sure that I agree that the image a fixed focus lens is always sharper than a zoom can ever deliver. Did you ever try the Meyer Domiplan 50mm f2.8??!!
George Chapman (Icemann) on April 13, 2014
Very good article and very helpful thanks
User on April 7, 2014
Thank you, Jan, I will remember this next time I will be thinking about purchasing a lens :)
John R Bertotti (John Bertotti) on April 7, 2014
In my meager kit I will not be without my dx35mm. Love that lens. I have found that because I have to move round more I also find more to shoot, different angles, different subjects I wouldn't have noticed with a tele or such. Your points are something every beginner should be aware of.