A lot of people wonder what to buy as their first Nikon lens. Most people new to digital photography and DSLRs don’t bother reading about cameras and lenses as much since there is too much information and too many recommendations. They end up purchasing a kit lens that they use for a year or two, only to realize that they want something better. Yes, kit lenses are a good deal but are they worth the purchase? While it makes sense for some people to buy kit lenses with cameras, I personally stay away from cheap entry-level zooms and prefer solid all-purpose prime lenses instead. Read on to find out more about my personal recommendations, aimed at someone who is just getting into photography.
When I bought my first DSLR, the Nikon D80, it came with a 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. Anything looked better compared to my Sony Cybershot point and shoot, so I was very happy for about 6 months. Then I started getting into photography more and more. I was reading books and spending a lot of time testing the camera in different conditions. I really loved the pictures in daylight out of 18-135mm when there was enough light, but low-light conditions kept on frustrating me and indoor photography without a flash was quite challenging. Any camera shake resulted in blurry photos which I wouldn’t even notice until seeing the picture on my computer monitor (the lens had no image stabilization / VR). I ended up selling the lens for a lot less and spent more money getting better gear, or so I thought. The new lens was better (18-200mm VR) due to image stabilization and I was quite happy for a while, but I started encountering other problems such as sub-par image quality at different focal lengths. And the f/3.5-5.6 minimum aperture was still a limiting factor just like on the 18-135mm lens. As I read and researched more, I wanted to be able to shoot in low light, have better background rendering capability or “bokeh” and sharper image quality, so I got a 50mm f/1.4 lens next. Truth be told, I ended up realizing that it was all me that failed to take good pictures, always relying on the capabilities of my camera and lens, rather than focusing on my skill as a photographer. But that little prime taught me a lot of things and made me a better photographer, because I could not rely on zooming in and out anymore – the lens forced me to move and think about composing images, rather than taking point and shoot snapshots.
I’m sure a lot of people go through a similar experiences, sometimes more or less painful. After doing an analysis of different lenses and testing them, I created my own list of lenses that should be first on the purchase list. Lenses that will force you to change the way you take pictures and hopefully make you a better photographer as a result. But always remember – cameras and lenses are only tools, it is the person behind the camera that matters!
I separated the list into two categories. One is for entry-level DSLRs with smaller APS-C / DX sensors (cropped sensors) and one for full-frame cameras that are getting more and more affordable lately.
For entry-level DSLRs like Nikon D3000/D3100/D3200/D5000/D5100/D5200/D5300 and more advanced DSLRs like D7000/D7100, along with older cameras with smaller APS-C sensors (DX):
- Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G DX – a great everyday lens with excellent sharpness, great low-light and subject isolation capabilities.
- Nikkor 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G DX VR – a great and versatile zoom lens for situations where you need to go wider or longer than 35mm. Excellent sharpness throughout the range and image stabilization (VR) for low-light situations.
For full-frame DLSRs like Nikon D600 and D610 (FX):
- Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G – consider this lens equivalent to the 35mm f/1.8G DX listed above, since it gives a similar angle of view when used on a full-frame camera. Excellent sharpness when compared to the more expensive Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G, as shown in my 50mm f/1.4G vs f/1.8G comparison article. And at just $220, you simply cannot beat the value! Check out my review of this lens for more information.
- Nikkor 24-120mm f/4G VR – a sharp, professional lens for photographing everything else. One of my favorite zoom lenses in Nikon’s line today. Versatile zoom range, image stabilization and nano coating deliver excellent results. For more details, check out my 24-120mm lens review.
I’m not taking into account special type of photography (such as macro or super telephoto) – the above lenses are good for most types of photography. I’m also not including rare / exotic lenses, because the article is targeted at beginners. If you just want to buy a couple of excellent lenses, the above would definitely satisfy most of your needs. If you can only afford one lens, I would start out with the 35mm f/1.8G for DX and 50mm f/1.8G for FX. If you have been shooting only with zoom lenses so far, give prime lenses a try – I promise that you will not regret and your pictures will have a completely different look and feel to them! Zoom lenses are great for some situations, but they often make us lazy and they cannot match the performance of prime lenses. The only exception is the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 lens (for DX cameras), which is the first zoom lens with a fast f/1.8 aperture. At a hefty price tag of $800 it is not for everyone though; plus, the 16-85mm has a more versatile zoom range than the 18-35mm lens. If you are shopping for a third party lens, a better candidate would be the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8, which has a better range and a fast aperture of f/2.8.
If you would like to read about our recommendations for Nikon prime lenses, check out Roman’s article on choosing the first prime lens. He covers plenty of prime lenses for different needs in that article.
P.S. This article was first published back in 2008. I have updated it with recent recommendations and re-posted it with today’s date, so do not be surprised to see comments from 2008 below!