8 best lenses for your new Canon DSLR
posted Wednesday, November 4, 2015 at 6:55 PM EST
Congratulations on your new Canon DSLR! This new camera will enable you to take gorgeous photos for years to come.
Many folks purchasing a new camera pay little heed to lenses, treating them as an afterthought. But with the right lineup of lenses, you'll be able to capture wide-open landscapes, gorgeous close-ups of flowers, crisp portraits of your kids and long-distance shots of wildlife.
While that kit lens may be pretty good, a small investment in additional lenses can dramatically boost the creative flexibility of your camera -- and the quality of your photos.
Ready to take your photography to the next level? Then read on!
Who is this article for?
For this article, we're assuming you're a beginning photographer so we'll try to keep things simple. We're also mainly focused on Canon DSLRs with so-called APS-C sensors, which are typically sold for less than $1,000 dollars. Some examples include Canon's Rebel line of cameras, such as the T5i and T6s (marketed as the EOS 700D and 760D in Europe and as the Kiss X7i and EOS 8000D in Japan), as well as higher end models like the 70D and 7D Mark II.
If you've sprung for a Canon camera with a 'full-frame' sensor, some of these lenses won't be suitable for you (look for EF-mount options, rather than EF-S). Common Canon full-frame cameras are the 5D Mark III (and its predecessor the 5D Mark II) and the 6D. We'll be publishing a follow-up article with full-frame selections, but feel free to ask for advice in the comments in the meantime!
What focal length do I want?
We've organized lenses by 'focal length.' Roughly stated, this is the amount of the scene that a lens captures: Wide-angle lenses capture more of a scene; telephoto lenses capture less of a scene, meaning they magnify subjects farther away.
Not sure which focal length you should purchase? You probably bought your DSLR with a kit lens, which typically range from moderate wide-angle to short telephoto focal lengths. Think back to the photography you've done so far and buy a lens that corresponds to your shooting. If you've found yourself wishing you could see more of a scene, consider a wide-angle lens; if you frequently wish you could zoom in to faraway birds, wildlife, or your kids on a sports field, go for a telephoto lens!
We've also included a few niche lenses designed for more specific shooting scenarios, including 'portrait' and 'macro' lenses, which we'll explain as we come to them.
Your camera probably came with a zoom lens, which means its focal length can be adjusted. You might assume that all lenses have this capability, but that's not the case. Lenses that don't zoom are called 'prime' lenses and prime lenses are the absolute best value you can find.
All things equal, prime lenses are typically cheaper, smaller, sharper and faster (let in more light) than their zoom lens cousins. Every new photographer should consider buying at least one prime lens.
Wide-angle lenses capture more of the scene, which makes them ideal for so-called 'landscape' photography. Imagine a huge mountain vista, the wide open African Serengeti or a massive waterfall: A wide-angle lens is a good choice for all these shooting scenarios.
Wide-angle lenses are also good choices when shooting indoors, particularly if you want to capture all of an indoor scene like a 200 year-old cathedral in Europe.
Finally, wide-angle lenses are great for emphasizing a foreground subject: Shoot wide and get in close, and your subject will dominate the frame.
If you have $800 to spend, there is literally no better wide zoom than Sigma's 18-35mm. As we noted in our review, it provides "shockingly sharp images."
The f/1.8 constant aperture means it lets in a lot of light at all focal lengths, so the lens is a great choice for shooting indoors and at night when there isn't as much light to work with.
Need more convincing? We called it "...by a wide margin the best constant-aperture/wide-aperture ... zoom lens we've ever tested."
Good for: Anyone looking for a massive upgrade in image quality, sharpness and distortion over their kit lens; Photographers who shoot mostly between 18mm and 35mm.
Not as good for: Folks on a tight budget; Someone mainly interested in shooting wider than 18mm; Videographers who might want an option that allows stabilized video.
Purchase: Sigma 18-35mm lens from B&H
Canon's EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM is a fantastic choice if you only have $300 and wish you could shoot wider than 18mm. In our review, we called this lens 'small, lightweight, very affordable and ... quite the solid performer.'
Canon's Image Stabilization (IS) technology helps correct for camera shake, which helps reduce blur in photos even with longer shutter speeds, and also lets you shoot smoother video with less of the jostling that you'd normally see from hand-held video. And thanks to the Stepping Motor (STM) technology in the lens, focusing is smooth and quiet -- important for videography.
The lens's one weakness is that it doesn't let in as much light as other options (the higher the f/ value, the less light a lens lets in), meaning it might not be the best lens in low-light situations.
Good for: Video shooters (image stabilization and silent focusing); Folks looking for light weight, affordability and good image quality; New photographers who feel constrained by the 18mm limit of their kit lens.
Not as good for: Folks who are primarily shooting indoors or at night (where there's not as much light).
Purchase: Canon EF-S 10-18mm lens from B&H
As we mentioned earlier, prime lenses are the best value around. Canon's EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM enjoys an additional benefit: It features a 'pancake' type design. This means its profile is far smaller than other lenses: Only an inch long in the case of this lens! That makes it a fantastic choice for travelers looking to save weight and space.
The f/2.8 aperture lets in a good amount of light, so it's also suitable for night and indoor shooting. Image quality is also quite good, particularly for the price of $150. If you find yourself shooting in the 40mm range instead, you can consider this lens's cousin, the EF 40mm f/2.8.
Good for: Anyone looking to travel light; Folks who shoot documentary-type photos of everyday life on busy streets; Photographers on a budget.
Not as good for: Photographers that want a zoom and don't need the compact size.
Purchase: Canon EF-S 24mm lens from B&H
Lenses that fall between wide-angle and telephoto are known as 'standard' or 'normal' lenses, because the pictures they take tend to match the way scenes look to our eyes. This range is the workhorse for most photographers, providing a natural perspective for lots of shooting scenarios.
Since you probably purchased your camera with a 'standard' zoom lens we'll focus on one prime lens option in the standard range.
Sigma's 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM 'Art' corresponds almost exactly to the 'normal' focal length for APS-C DSLRs. This is a great 'walking around' lens, good for capturing undistorted views of your subjects and striking a good balance between wide-angle and telephoto.
As a member of Sigma's family of 'Art' lenses, it has excellent image quality and is solidly built. We called the 30mm Art "... a fantastic APS-C fast prime lens...," praising its "great image quality with nice, sharp images, low vignetting and only slight barrel distortion."
You really can't do better for $450 in the 30-35mm range than this lens.
Good for: Photographers looking for fantastic image quality in this focal length; Low-light shooters.
Not as good for: Photographers on a tight budget; New photographers who don't generally shoot at this focal length.
Purchase: Sigma 30mm f/1.4 'Art' lens from B&H
Ever wonder why that professional photo taken at your friend's wedding is more flattering than your latest selfie? Among other reasons, the pro probably used a slightly telephoto 'portrait' lens, rather than the wide-angle focal length used for your selfie.
Why don't you want a wide-angle portrait? Remember this pointer: The wider the lens, the bigger your nose! For this reason, a lens between about 50mm and 85mm (for APS-C cameras) will give you the most flattering results.
If you plan to take flattering photos of people, a portrait prime lens should be at the top of your list!
Often affectionately referred to as a 'Nifty Fifty' or 'Thrifty Fifty', this lens is known for its cheap price and great image quality. These features make it the perfect starter lens for any DSLR newcomer looking for the best performance/price ratio out there. The f/1.8 aperture provides beautifully shallow depth of field (blurring the background) and makes it a perfect lens for portrait, flower, and food photography.
The downside is it's a bit soft wide open (at its maximum aperture), but fortunately it becomes quite sharp when stopped down a little (at narrower apertures that let in less light). For $125 this is a great buy.
Good for: Any photographer who plans to take even the occasional portrait photo.
Not as good for: Those expecting tack sharp photos at f/1.8, or superb build quality at this price.
Read More: Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 review
Purchase: Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens from B&H
Canon's EF 85mm f/1.8 USM is one of the oldest lenses in this roundup, but it's also one of our favorites: It was one of our writers' first portrait lenses, introducing him to the world of wedding photography at an affordable price.
Its f/1.8 aperture means you'll get nice, shallow depth-of-field, though its corners aren't exactly tack-sharp wide open (this isn't as big a deal for portrait lenses, since you'll usually blur the background to isolate your portrait subject). As we said in our review "The Canon 85mm f/1.8 is an excellent buy, probably even a best buy" at $370. You can't beat this lens for its price.
Good for: Portrait photographers with more than $150 to spend.
Not as good for: Folks expecting tack-sharp corners at f/1.8.
Read More: Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 review
Purchase: Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 lens from B&H
'Macro' photography is essentially 'close-up' photography. Think of photos of insects, the petals of a flower or the eyes of your favorite pet.
So what makes a lens 'macro?' The most intuitive feature is the 'minimum focus distance,' which is the closest an object can be to the camera and still be in focus... any closer and things get blurry. (The technical definition of a macro lens is that the maximum magnification factor is at least 1.0x (or a reproduction ratio of 1:1), meaning that the lens can render the subject at least life size on the sensor surface.)
Macro lenses can be used for other types of photography, but are generally larger, heavier and more expensive than a similar lens not optimized for macro photography.
There are a range of different macro focal lengths, but something around 100mm is a great starting point. Telephoto enough to get great insect shots (you don't want to get close enough to scare away the butterfly!) but not so telephoto as to complicate framing or be too expensive.
Our top pick in a 100mm macro is Canon's EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM. It might not be the newest 100mm macro lens in Canon's lineup, but it does offer the best price/performance ratio for new photographer looking to learn macro photography.
The higher-end 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS offers image stabilization, but also commands a $400 premium and there are some great third-party options in the $550 price-range, but none offer a significantly better bang-for-the-buck.
Good for: Anyone looking to get into macro photography.
Not as good for: If you have an extra $400 lying around, the IS version can be an asset for handheld macro shots.
Read More: Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 review
Purchase: Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 lens from B&H
Telephoto lenses are an essential choice if wildlife photography is on your radar. But telephoto lenses aren't just for taking photos of wildebeest!
A telephoto lens not only makes faraway objects appear closer, but also makes objects appear closer together. One great example of this is the image to the right from our interview with landscape photographer Don Smith. By using a telephoto lens, Don was able to make the moon appear as if it's just behind the pine tree in the foreground.
And it goes without saying, but telephoto lenses are a must for photographing most sports.
The trusty 70-200mm is one of the most common zoom lenses for any photographer. It's a rare photojournalist, sports, wedding or wildlife photography that doesn't own a 70-200mm zoom.
At $600, Canon's EF 70–200mm f/4L USM is the least expensive 70-200mm zoom Canon offers, but don't be fooled by the price: This is a phenomenal lens! Built like a tank, its great optical quality means you'll turn out gorgeous shots for decades to come. You aren't going to find a better 70-200mm zoom for under $1000. Just buy this lens. You'll be glad you did!
There aren't any options we'd recommend cheaper than $650. But if you have more money, there are two better alternatives: The image stabilized version of the same f/4 lens for around $1,150 and the much heavier f/2.8 lens (without IS) for $1,250.
Good for: All new sports, wildlife or landscape photographers. The list of photographers who shouldn't consider this lens is short!
Not as good for: It's hard to think of a new photographer with any interest in wildlife, sports or everyday photography who shouldn't buy this lens. While photographers on a budget might find $600 tough to justify, there just aren't 70-200mm options for less money (and this is a great lens).
Read More: Canon EF 70–200mm f/4L review
Purchase: Canon EF 70–200mm f/4L lens from B&H
We've sifted through dozens of lenses to distill this list and hope it was helpful to you!
Want a concise summary?
With $150, go for the Canon 24mm f/2.8 if you plan to do more traveling and everyday (wide-angle) shooting, or the Canon 50mm f/1.8 if you plan to shoot portraits.
With $300, go for the Canon 85mm if you're planning to do more portrait shooting, the Canon 10-18mm if you're more interested in wide angle photography or the Canon 100mm Macro if close-up shots of frogs are in your future.
With $600, go for the Canon 70-200mm if you're into sports or wildlife photography. Another good combination would be to pair the Canon 10-18mm with the Canon 85mm portrait for two lenses that would really complement your kit lens. Another good choice is the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 and the Canon 50mm f/1.8 for a fantastic pair of primes, one standard and one portrait.
With $1,000, seriously consider the Sigma 18-35mm. It's the most expensive lens in this lineup, but it's truly beautiful. With the extra $200, consider the Canon 50mm or add $100 to your budget to pick up the Canon 10-18. Another potent combination would be to extend your kit lens on the wide-angle and telephoto end: The Canon 10-18mm and 70-200mm would open up huge possibilities for your shooting.
Are you still lost? Want more advice for your own photography needs? Leave your questions in the comment section below!
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Curious about the best lenses for other brands?
See our picks for Nikon and Olympus below:
• 11 best lenses for your new Nikon DSLR •
• The best Olympus lenses for pretty much everything •