The Family Photographer: about lenses

Okay, so maybe I was a bit ambitious with the idea of a whole new blog and Flickr group for my Family Photographer idea, but there’s no reason I can’t start the posts here and migrate them to a new blog as time, energy and your interest permit.

Amy from the Muddy Boots blog asked me about lenses, and I thought that was as good a place as any to start.

My D40 came with an 18-55 mm “kit” lens, which is pretty standard on an entry-level dSLR. Last summer, after we’d had the camera for about a year, we invested in a a 55-200 mm telephoto lens, which is great for bringing far-away stuff closer, but also takes excellent portraits. This picture of Simon, for example, was taken with my telephoto:


It separates him from the background by giving that lovely bit of blur to the leaves behind him. The telephoto lens is bulky, though, and you need to be able to back up enough to get your subject framed properly. (Funny, looking at that picture of Simon now, I wish I’d gotten in a little closer and filled the frame more!)

Two months ago, we got our third lens, a 50 mm f1.8 fixed (or ‘prime’) lens. The f1.8 means that 1.8 is the largest aperture, and 1.8 is fairly large. What that means is that it lets in a lot of light, which means that you can shoot in a wider range of natural lighting conditions without having to use your flash. By contrast, the largest aperture on my 18-55mm lens is f3.5, and on the telephoto is f4.

When you spend a lot of time crawling around the house trying to snap a photo of the toddler who never sits still, you appreciate the convenience of a wider aperture! I don’t think I’ve taken a single picture using my flash since I got the 50mm lens in April, which is great because I hate the cold, flat pictures that the in-camera flash creates. And the larger aperture also means that I can get a much shallower depth of field (area that is in focus) so I can play with that creatively.

Yesterday, I wanted to take a picture of Lucas’s feet just after his bath, but I didn’t want to use the flash because I knew that the natural light from the window would make for some beautiful shadows that would help define the textures of his toes. Originally, I was shooting with the aperture at around f4 and he was so wriggly that every shot was coming out blurry. When I opened the aperture up to the maximum of f1.8 I got two things I wanted: a shorter shutter speed, which “froze” his motion and gave me a fairly crisp shot of his toes, and a lovely blur to the rest of his body, which also helped focus attention on his feet. I love love love how it turned out:

131:365 Baby toes

For something like a shooting a wedding, where the lighting is likely to be low and you don’t want to use a flash, I’d highly recommend a lens like the 50mm f1.8. The only drawback is that it won’t autofocus with the D40, which is a bit of a drag. (I’m beginning to think my eyesight isn’t as keen as it used to be, because I’m having a heck of a time getting my focus tack-sharp lately!) If you have a few more $$ to invest, you can get a 50mm f1.4 — that’s an even larger aperture! woot! — that will autofocus with the D40, but at almost twice the price.

I leave the 50mm lens on my camera all the time, and only change to the 18-55mm if I know I’ll want the autofocus capability, or will be going somewhere that I’ll want to take some wide-angle shots. I use the telephoto lens to bring stuff closer, like when we went to Parc Omega, and for nice close-ups and portraits. The 50mm is no slouch at portraits, though:

104:365 Lucas on the path

I think these three lenses will cover just about all of my needs for right now. The next item on my wish-list is a decent flash, but if I had to choose a next lens to get and price were no object, I’d probably get the 18-200 mm lens, which would combine my kit lens and telephoto into a single lens.

What do you think? For those of you with dSLRs, what lenses do you have, do you love, and do you covet?

Author: DaniGirl

Canadian. storyteller, photographer, mom to 3. Professional dilettante.

12 thoughts on “The Family Photographer: about lenses”

  1. My Nikon d70 came with a 18-70 mm lens and I’m fairly happy with it.

    re: lighting. Have you ever fudged with your ISO?

    I recently bought the Nikon 50mm 1.8 and haven’t had very much of a chance to play with it, but from what I’ve seen it does make a difference in low lighting conditions.

    My photo teacher recommends using longer lenses for portraiture.

    I also have a Nikon AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 55-200mm f/4-5.6VR. It’s kind of slow and loud, but it is fairly lightweight and works well for outdoor portraiture and getting that depth of field effect which can be so lovely.

    I have a whack of old manual focus lenses for the Nikon too. We bought the Nikon because it was backwards compatible. From time to time I like to use Mark’s old macro lens. It’s lack of AF is a pain in the butt, but with patience, I’ve had some fantastic results. (Like for the baking photos I did…)

    The photo class I’m taking right now has taught me a lot about lighting but also about what kind of photographer I am. I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot lately and feel like I’m really progressing.

    Can you do a review of lighting kits next? I’m looking for a deal on an umbrella with a stand and a strobe. 😉

  2. This is a great place to start. Reminds me I was going to re-evaluate my options, and now I’m certain I want a f1.8 or so for my Rebel. We’re very lazy and use a telephoto all the time on ours, but gads I want more light and less use fo flash. Too late for me to get baby toes like yours but there’ll still be moments with our cherubs I could record.
    Thanks for the reminder that there are options. I’ll be on this!

  3. When my (super-awesome!) husband bought my d80 for my birthday last year, he upgraded the “kit” lens to the 18-200mm, which is what I used for the first 6 months or so, until my photog friend convinced me that I couldn’t live without an f 1.8/50 mm. She was right! I love both the lenses, and have been really pleased with the results from each of them, but find that I’m using the 50mm more and more often – it’s smaller and lighter and easier to manage on a walk to the park or to stick the camera in my bag “just in case”. The 18-200 is fabulous for travelling (took most of my San Francisco photos with it!) and I love being able to be a little less conspicuous by zooming in on a scene rather than having to march right into it like I’d have to with the 50mm. Even my husband is getting the hang of it, and seems to like the lighting range flexibility of the 50mm, too!

    P.S. Re: flash – I have the SB-300 for the d80, and I love it!! Because I’ve always hated the ‘built-in’ flash on any camera, I tended to not take very many photos indoors or during the winter (true, bright natural lighting is hard to come by in Edmonton in the winter!) With my flash, I was able to get natural-looking photos all winter long, even in our dark basement!! I haven’t had the flash on in a couple of months, though, now that the days are longer and the sun is shining, but I like knowing that I have it if I need it.

  4. Oh boy, I really could chat about this stuff all day long!!

    Andrea, I usually leave my ISO at 200 but will tweak it upwards if I have to. It’s one of the things I forget that I can adjust!

    So, what kind of photographer are you? I’ve been looking for themes or styles to emerge from my 365, but haven’t been able to find anything yet.

    Kathleen, it’s never too late for toes! Kiddie toes are just as cute and chubby as baby toes. I really do love the 50mm, so if you need to tell your hubby that I said you need it, feel free!

    Mrs G, yes, that’s one of the other things I love about the 50mm — I call it my “stubby” lens because it’s so much more compact than the zoom lenses, and is just that much easier to cart around with me. I was just thinking that while the long, golden light of May has been kind to me, I really will have to invest in a decent flash for the last 1/3 of my 365 project and beyond. The problem with seeing the light is that it leads to coveting better light!!

    (ha, captcha = “shudders follower”. Does that mean that most of my readership is shuddering at yet another photography-related post? Uh oh, and it’s only going to get worse from here!)

  5. Dani, you and I have the same lenses. Except that I also have the 24-70 mm for my d700. And am coveting the 70-200mm for that one as well.

    When I was using my d50 every day, I mostly kept my 55-200mm lens on until I got my 50mm. And it was only after taking my old Minolta out for fun that I realized I had the same 50mm on it 90% of the time.

    Changing up your ISO and Aperture can really make a huge difference in catching what you want in a photo without flash. I bought my first off camera flash (sb600) two weeks ago before shooting a wedding, as I realized I didn’t know if the rooms I would be in had any windows. In the end I only used my 24-70mm (most Photographers use this at weddings) and bumped up the ISO in the Church instead of pulling out the flash. I used the flash only at the reception to fill in some light.

    And your eye sight is most likely fine, but when you shoot wide open to capture the light, movement gets caught a lot easier.

    Good post, now onto lighting 😉

  6. Great post, keep them coming!

    Like mrs g when my equally fabulous hubby bought me the Nikon D80 for my bday last year, her also got the 18-200 lens and the SB 600 flash. I’ve been happy with it all so far although I’m still clearly in the experimental phase.

    But now, you’ve got me totally intrigued by the 50mm/f1.8. SOunds like another perfect bday gift. THanks for teh info!

  7. Well okay you just made me totally jealous. But I will say that I learned a lot so thank you very much!

    It’s looking like I’ll be getting a D40 since it seems like the D90 might be a bit much for me (on many levels – price, expertise level, weight) so I’ll know who to talk to about lenses when i get one.

    I think you should get a macro lens. That is the one lens that I’m like DYING to have… now if you don’t take macros, then I guess you wouldn’t find it interesting but if you do or want to… think of the possibilities!

  8. I use the exact same kit as you, except on a D80. I absolutely love the nifty fifty but feel that the 55-200 was a mistake; I wish I had splurged for the 18-200 as I find it such a pain to constantly be switching lenses, especially when travelling. Next on my list would be the 18-200 or an SB-600 flash. Or a macro for my food photography. So much to collect!

    Your blog is wonderful, but as a childless 20-something I can’t really ‘participate’ in the mom blog side of stuff. So I am loving the photography series!

  9. I dream about a 18-200mm lens for my d40.


    With the 50mm, do you find that it’s fast enough that you can actually get your kiddos in focus without the auto? My 5 month old is wobbly and wiggly and my 2 year old DOES. NOT. SIT. STILL. I’m worried that even if I improve my MF technique, I’ll still end up with blurry hands/heads/feet/etc or the focus on the ears/nose/butt as they run away.

    Also, I just read this post yesterday about flipping your 50mm prime lens over (using a cheap adapter ring) and being able to use it as a macro lens! Genius and one more reason I need to buy a prime lens! Here’s the link:

    If anyone tries this, let us know how it turns out!

  10. Hey Hillary, welcome to the blog! *waves to Ari, Twinmom and Beach Mama too*

    Amy, I peeked at that link — really neat idea, but the idea of reverse-mounting my lens like that makes me nervous! I love having something new to try, though, and one commenter said he tried it just handholding the lens backwards against the body without the adapter ring — I might be willing to try that! (Although I just paid $40 to have my filthy sensor cleaned — I might wait a while to enjoy the dust-free photos for a bit, first!)

    When I put my 18-55 mm lens back on to shoot the Gloucester Fair, I realized how “soft” my focus can be with the 50 mm after looking at the auto-focused images, so yes, I would say that I have given up some sharpness in manually focusing. That maybe be more me than the camera, though. And there is a little green light that comes on in the viewfinder when the camera thinks its in focus, but I don’t find it terribly reliable. To compensate, when I’m chasing a moving subject I just take multiple shots, tweaking the focus a bit each time, to try and capture that perfect focus. Whomever said never work with kids or pets was onto something! At least flowers and buildings don’t try to get away!

  11. I have a Canon Rebel XT and I have just about the same lenses you do. I upgraded the 18-55 from the kit lens when I bought the camera (better quality than the kit lens), and my telephoto is 70-300; and I have a 50mm w f/1.4. Sadly I haven’t been taking many pix lately…you might inspire me to start up again.!

    Love the baby toes.

  12. Okay, now I have to go figure out what we have. My DH (aka BigDaddy) is the photographer in our house so he’s got all the toys. Since he got the D300, the D70 will be mine to play with. I know we have several lenses and my layman’s brain will say the 18-55 (cuz it came with the D70) and we have another longer one.

    This is going to be a great blog series for me to follow as I really want to learn how to take all these neat shots! Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *