Updated: Jun 23, 2021
Would you like to try photography as a hobby but baulk at the idea of spending so much money on ‘gear’? Have you started with a kit lens but would like to spread your wings? Do you look at the price of camera lenses and decide to stick with your phone camera? These are some of the questions I asked myself, and obstacles I encountered, when starting photography. It can be an expensive hobby, with even ‘ordinary’ lenses costing hundreds of euro. For anyone starting out in photography it’s a big commitment. What if you don’t make it as a photographer? What if you don’t enjoy it, having spent all that money?
I did a lot of research into cameras before making a decision on my first camera when starting back to photography after a break of many years. Previously I owned an SLR camera (pre-digital) so I wanted a DSLR, an interchangeable lens camera that would give me that ‘real camera’ feel. In the end I opted for a Nikon D3400. It doesn’t have cutting edge features or technology so if that’s what you want this is not the camera for you. If you want a camera that is relatively light, has a good battery life, is fairly comfortable to hold and produces good quality images for a relatively low cost, then this camera is worth checking out. The D3400 has recently been replaced by Nikon D3500, which has more shots per battery charge than the D3400, and this has resulted in even better offers on the D3400. I wrote an earlier blog to describe my decision-making process.
Check it out here
What lenses do I need?
While camera bodies, particularly entry level, can be obtained relatively cheaply, it is the lenses which can quickly rack up the cost. Most cameras come bundled with a kit lens. My Nikon came with 18-55 mm lens. Kit lenses are designed to give you some versatility and, since they don’t add a huge cost to the price of the camera, they let you get a feel for what the camera can do. Many people continue to use their kit lens for a long time, but I found that it tends to be a “jack of all trades, master of none” type lens and I found that I outgrew it quickly and wanted to discover what other lenses could do. Firstly, I must point out that where lenses are concerned, I am not an expert and have just mentioned the lenses that I find useful. There are many sites that provide expert reviews of lenses, and user reviews are often helpful. The second point I will make is that it does depend on what you like to photograph. Landscape lenses will differ from lenses for close-up work; certain other lenses might be considered best for street photography. Even when shooting the same subject, different lenses will give different results. For example, a wide-angle lens has a shorter focal length and will give a wider field of view whereas a telephoto lens has a longer focal length and will offer a narrower field of view. This variation in lenses is one of the welcome advancements in the newer smartphone cameras and is a setup I would like to replicate in my camera lens selection.
The iPhone 11 Pro now offers ultra wide angle, wide angle and telephoto lenses. It's hard to match these exactly with a camera.
There are hundreds of lenses on the market catering for the differing needs of photographers. Some of these lenses are expensive and are not necessary to have as beginners. I imagine that if you were to ask one hundred photography enthusiasts to pick their three favourite lenses you would get one hundred different answers. I have ended up with three lenses which I find are sufficient for my needs now. All three are inexpensive lenses but produce good quality images and are good beginner lenses. I hear it said repeatedly that expensive gear will not make a great photographer, so until I improve my photography skills, I will content myself with my current lens range.
My Nikon lenses
Sigma 17-50 mm
The focal length of this lens might not seem all that different to the kit lens but there is a world of difference in the image quality. This is what I consider to be a versatile, ‘walkabout’ lens. It is a solid, well-built lens that won’t break the bank. It is good for landscape photography and, in my opinion, is a good replacement for the kit lens. Image quality is great and, although it is slightly heavier than I thought it would be, it is extremely comfortable to hold. It feels like a ‘real’ lens. This lens is fully compatible with my Nikon D3400.
I used this lens on a recent trip to the coast
It is quite a versatile lens
Nikon 70-300 mm telephoto lens
This is a reasonably priced zoom lens which allows you to capture distant subjects and scenes. Image quality is not bad considering its price, it is lightweight and easy to handle and I have found myself using it on many occasions, particularly when conditions don’t allow me to zoom with my feet. Image quality does deteriorate the further you zoom, but this is the case with most inexpensive zoom lenses and is something I can live with.
The zoom lens is useful when we can't get close to our subject
Nikon 50 mm prime lens
This lens has a fixed focal length (no zoom). With an aperture of f1.8 or f2 it is good for portraits as it allows you to produce a nice blurry background or ‘bokeh’.
(I wrote a beginner blog on using aperture priority mode to produce bokeh. Check it out here )
This lens is lightweight and produces a sharp image. Because the lens does not zoom you must move closer to your subject, or zoom with your feet, which can actually be an advantage when learning photography. The 50 mm prime lens is often considered to be the one lens that every photographer should own. (It is said that Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the greatest street photographers of all time, frequently used the 50 mm as his lens of choice). It is not expensive and because it is so popular it can be picked up second hand relatively easily. If I’m honest, this is the lens that stays on my Nikon camera and gets the most use for everyday photography.
The 50 mm lens allows you to get close to your subject and achieve a blurry background. I bought some close-up filters for this lens, which allowed me to experiment with close up photography without the expense of a macro lens
My second camera choice
While the Nikon is itself a lightweight camera, its range of lenses do add weight, yet they are necessary in order to have the right lens for the right shot. I began to realise that I would like a camera that could be slipped into a bag for ease of use when travelling. Again, I did a lot of research before buying this camera.
I was taking a trip to Italy and wanted something lightweight, but which could take good pictures, particularly in low light. I looked at a range of ‘point and shoot’ options but to get the features that I wanted, such as viewfinder and good image quality, I had to look at the upper end of the market and realised that most of these cameras would soon be surpassed by advancements in smartphone cameras. I reckoned that going for a mirrorless camera might be a better option if I wanted to ‘future proof’ my camera kit, since these cameras can take a range of lenses. My final choice was the Olympus E-M10 Mark 11. Being a mirrorless camera, both the camera and lenses are lighter than the DSLR. This camera has a few other advantages over the Nikon such as a touchscreen and image stabilization, which reduces blurring due to camera shake. On the downside, though, it only captures 320 shots before the battery runs out, compared to 1200 shots from the Nikon, so carrying a replacement battery is highly recommended. The camera has a sort of retro look, which I like. Check it out here
My Olympus lenses
I bought my Olympus camera on a deal including two kit lenses, which received good user reviews. These are a 40-150 mm zoom and a 14-42 mm, both of which I enjoy using and which have delivered some good quality images. I am happy to continue using these lenses until I become more familiar with the camera. Below are some recent images from the camera.
Olympus E-M10 Mark 11 40-150 mm lens
I took this with the Olympus 14-42 mm kit lens. A few minutes later the cloud had dispersed and the mountain was clear again. Irish weather!
Photography can be an expensive hobby, but it doesn't have to be. An entry level DSLR, or even a decent mirrorless camera, and kit lens costs much less than most mobile phones and allows for a lot more creative possibilities. When adding to your lens collection, check out second hand lenses in local or online camera shops. I bought my 50 mm lens from a reputable camera shop and it was almost new for nearly half the price. My Olympus camera was part of a deal in last year's summer sale, also from a reputable online camera dealer. In my opinion, photography is a wonderful hobby and you really can get started on a budget. Why not give it a go!
For another opinion on the best beginner lenses check out: