We investigate various kit options for owners of interchangeable-lens cameras.

Selecting an appropriate suite of lenses is a perennial quandary for many photographers, both experienced professionals and those buying into their first ILC systems. Budgets are often limited so choices must be made.

While it might be nice to have a set of fast prime lenses to cover all situations from macro through to sports and wildlife photography, for most of us that’s totally impractical. In this feature we’ll consider the options available and how to match what you can afford with what will meet your requirements.

We’ll start by looking at the relative advantages and disadvantages of prime and zoom lenses.

Primes vs zooms

Photographers who need fast lenses – either for differential focusing or working in dimply lit conditions – may prefer prime lenses. There are plenty of options to choose from and, often, several maximum aperture choices at the more popular focal lengths.

It’s also easier to match a focal length to a particular application, such as an 85 to 105mm (35mm equivalent) range for portraiture, a 16-24mm range for landscapes and architecture or longer lenses with focal lengths of 200mm or greater for sports and wildlife. A general-purpose kit could consist of three lenses with 35mm equivalent focal lengths of, say, 14mm or 20mm, 50mm and either 105mm or 135mm.

Fast prime lenses are ideal for shooting close-ups where you need to de-focus potentially distracting backgrounds. This image was captured with the Canon RF 85mm f/2 Macro IS STM lens at f/5 with a 1/500 second shutter speed.

Problems can arise when it comes to choosing the maximum aperture for each lens since the faster the lens the larger and heavier it will be and the more costly. So compromises involve deciding whether you actually need the maximum lens speed balanced against whether you can afford the price and if you’re able to carry the lens in the course of the shoot.

Zooms are often seen as the ‘compromise’ choice since they’re always slower than the fastest primes at equivalent focal lengths. A three-lens trio consisting of wide-angle, mid-range and telephoto zooms is one of the most popular kit choices for both serious amateurs and professional photographers.

All-in-one zooms with 35mm equivalent focal length ranges of 24-240mm are particularly popular with amateur photographers and travellers. Although usually slower than zooms with shorter ranges, the differences aren’t so significant when most shots will be taken with bright lighting and the cameras they’re used on have in-body image stabilisation (IBIS).

While faster lenses are often recommended for low light shooting, they’re not essential if the photographer’s shooting technique is up-to-scratch and for distant subjects. This image was captured with a stabilised 24-105mm f/4 zoom lens at 58mm using a 1/20 second exposure at f/11.

The benefits of IBIS

Sensor-shift in-body image stabilisation is becoming increasingly common in today’s cameras, with most offering at least four f-stops of shake correction. The system uses gyroscopes in the sensor mount to detect the degree and direction of movement plus an actuator to shift the sensor to keep the image plane stable. The result is a steady image in the viewfinder and recorded image file.

This diagram shows the Olympus-developed 5-axis stabilisation system in OM cameras, with the directions of shake correction indicated by arrows.

Most modern IBIS systems provide 5-axis stabilisation with corrections for up/down, left/right, forward pitch and horizontal and vertical rotations (yaw and roll) as shown in the diagram in this box.  Some systems can also correct the camera roll rotation caused by sharply pressing the shutter button.

An increasing number of cameras offer Dual IS, which combines the stabilisation effects of the camera’s IBIS with optical stabilisation in the lens.  Although specific to stabilised lenses from the same brand as the camera, this technology can yield a gain of eight f-stops in the latest cameras.

The benefits of IBIS are important when choosing lenses as they enable slower lenses to be used hand-held in low-light situations. They also support innovative functions like hand-held high-resolution modes, which combine a burst of frames recorded in rapid succession to produce an image with at least double the sensor’s resolution.

Overlap, adjoin or space?

When choosing a set of zooms you need to think about whether their focal lengths should overlap or adjoin. The advantage of having overlapping zooms is it reduces situations where you might miss a shot while changing lenses – although it doesn’t completely prevent them. For example, if you’re using a 24-70mm lens and an interesting bird lands a little way away from you, you may not have time to switch to a 70-200mm (or longer) lens.

Having adjoining focal lengths at least means you’re covered from the shortest to the longest focal length in the set. Combining 24-70mm plus a 70-200mm gives you magnification range of roughly 8.35 times. This is a very popular two-lens combination.

A 24-70mm zoom plus a 70-200mm zoom provides a popular twin-lens kit that covers many different subject types with a continuous focal length range from moderate wide angle to moderate telephoto.

Alternatively, making up a three-lens kit with a 12-24mm ultra-wide-angle zoom, a 24-105mm standard zoom and a 100-400mm telephoto zoom would cover almost any type of subject you might want to shoot. The exception, of course is for extreme close-ups, where dedicated macro lenses are preferable – although some telephoto lenses can focus close to 1:1 magnification.

The third option is to leave a space (or two) in your focal lengths. This is virtually inevitable if you decide to base your kit on prime lenses.

Leaving gaps between focal lengths can be handy when you need to restrict your kit to only two lenses but want to shoot both landscapes and wildlife. In this case the choice will probably be a wide angle zoom plus a telephoto (or super-telephoto) zoom.

Sure, you’ll miss out on the mid-range focal lengths, which can be good for street photography and general snapshots. But how many times do you actually use that range of focal lengths in the situations you’ll encounter?

There might be a few shots you miss out on – but you could always try moving in closer if the wide lens is fitted or stepping back a bit with the tele lens. It’s all a matter of creative problem solving.

Weighty problems

A heavy kit will weigh you down and may be more restrictive in what you can shoot than a not-quite perfect set of lenses. When selecting lenses for any situation – be it a personal creative project or a major trip – weight must be one of your primary factors: how much are you prepared/able to carry for extended periods of time?

This brings us to the issue of lens speed: how much speed can be sacrificed to allow you to travel comfortably? Many photographers look down on ‘slower’ lenses. While it might look good on paper to choose the fastest lenses in each focal length or zoom range, rational analysis will show the burdens they will apply.

Let’s look at two three-lens kits for Sony’s ‘full frame’ cameras – each covering the fastest wide, medium and telephoto lenses in prime and zoom, with the maximum focal length restricted to 400mm.

Three fast prime lenses:

Lens Weight RRP
FE 14mm f/1.8 GM 890 g $2,049
FE 50mm f/1.2 GM 1300 g $2,989
FE 400mm f/2.8 GM 10,000 g $19,499

You could reduce the overall weight of this kit by 9.17 kg and its cost by $18,650 by swapping to the Sony FE 135mm lens. Choosing the Tamron 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3 Di III RXD, Sony 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 or Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG DN OS | Contemporary telephoto zoom lenses would achieve similar savings.

Three overlapping zoom lenses

Lens Weight RRP
Vario-Tessar T* FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS 820 g $1,799
FE 24-105mm f/4 G OSS 663 g $1,999
FE 100-400mm f/2.8 f/4.5-5.6 GM 2190 g $4,199

By opting for the three zooms you’ve saved roughly 8.6 kg in weight and $16,540. Makes you think, doesn’t it? If you wanted a greater reach, the Tamron 150-500mm f/5-6.7 Di III VC VXD lens weighs 1,725 grams and has an RRP of $2099.

Of course if you really wanted to save both money and weight you would go for the FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS zoom lens, which is one-and-a-third stops slower than the 24-105mm f/4 lens and two-and-a-third stops slower than the 400mm prime lens. It’s also substantially lighter, weighing 920 grams, as well as cheaper at $1399.  Which lens would you take on a bushwalk or an active overseas trip?

Lenses for lighter cameras

While the options listed above cater for cameras with 36 x 24mm sensors, there are plenty of photographers who appreciate the light weight and compact sizes provided by cropped-sensor cameras – with either APS-C or Micro Four Thirds sensors. Larger sensors provide more scope for cropping and use of high ISO sensitivities, but they can come at a price from a practical point of view.

Cropped-sensor cameras and lenses are smaller, lighter and easier to carry – and the latest models are every bit as capable when it comes to image and video performance. You can make beautiful A2-sized prints from cropped-sensor images – as long as your shooting technique is up to scratch and you shoot raw files and edit them capably. How many of us need prints larger than that?

We’ve added suggestions for three-lens kits based on primes and zooms using Fujifilm and Olympus/OM System as our basis to provide a brief guide to some of the choices you might make.

Similar three-lens kits for Fujifilm’s X-mount cameras are shown in the tables below.

Three fast prime lenses

Lens 35mm equivalent Weight RRP
14mm f/2.8 ‘R 21mm 235 g $1,291
33mm f/1.4 R WR 50mm 360 g $1,198
200mm f/2 OIS WR 300mm 2,265 g $8,495

Three overlapping zoom lenses

Lens 35mm equivalent Weight RRP
8-16mm f/2.8 R LM WR 12-24mm 805 g $2,864
16-55mm f/2.8 R LM WR 24-84mm 655 g $1,598
55-200mm f3.5-f4.8 R LM OIS 83-300mm 580 g $887

Similar three-lens kits for a M4/3 camera could be as follows:

Three fast prime lenses:

Lens 35mm equivalent Weight RRP
8mm f/1.8 ‘Fisheye’ 16mm 315 g $2,049
25mm f/1.2 PRO 50mm 410 g $1,899
300mm f/4 IS PRO 600mm 1,270 g $3,999

Three overlapping zoom lenses

Lens 35mm equivalent Weight RRP
7-14mm f/2.8 PRO 14-28mm 534 g $2,108
12-45mm f/4 PRO 24-90mm 254 g $1,059
40-150mm f/4 PRO 80-300mm 382 g $1499

As with the ‘full frame’ mirrorless lens reviews, most of these lenses can be found in the M4/3 lens reviews and APS-C mirrorless lens reviews sections of the Photo Review website. You could save more than a thousand dollars and 92 grams in weight by swapping the 40-150mm f/4 PRO lens for the M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm F4.0-5.6 R lens, which has a variable aperture. But the message remains the same: smaller cameras use smaller, cheaper lenses without compromising imaging performance.

Summing up

Some photographers become fixated on the need to have a particular lens, based on either a review they’ve read or a recommendation from a friend or acquaintance. Maybe the lens is on sale and they suffer from fear of missing out (FOMO).

When choosing lenses the most important factor to consider is your own personal comfort. If your lens kit is comfortable to carry and doesn’t weigh you down you’ll be able to go out and shoot creatively for as long as you want. Not carrying a heavy bag means you won’t develop back problems that will prevent you from going anywhere to take photos.

Article by Margaret Brown (see Margaret’s photography pocket guides)

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