On a Budget: Lenses

My current lens lineup (left to right): Nikon 135 2.8, Tokina 11-16 2.8, Nikon 35 1.8 DX, Nikon 180 2.8, Nikon 105 2.5, Nikon 75-300 4.5-5.6, Nikon 60 2.8 Micro (Nikon 18-70 not pictured because it took the picture!)

If you’re into photography, chances are you know how expensive it can get to purchase gear. In the spirit of sharing, I thought I’d throw together a handful of posts that could help the budget-conscious photographer get some great gear.

Lenses are one of the high-budget items, often costing more than camera bodies themselves. It’s also definitely not a place where you want to skimp on quality. A high-quality lens on a basic DSLR body is going to give you much better results than a so-so lens on even the most advanced body.

As a case study in budget (but quality) lenses, take a look at my current lineup of lenses below. Two were hand-me-downs and the rest were all bought used.

Nikon 18-70mm 3.5-4.5 AF-S DX……….hand-me-down (~$140 used)

Nikon 75-300mm 4.5-5.6 AF…………….hand-me-down (~$125 used)

Nikon 60mm 2.8 AF Micro………………..$270

Tokina 11-16mm 2.8 AT-X Pro DX II…….$400

Nikon 35mm 1.8 AF-S DX………………….$125

Nikon 105mm 2.5 AI………………………..$179

Nikon 135mm 2.8 AI………………………..$119

Nikon 180mm 2.8 AIS ED………………….$299

Grand Total…………………………………..$1392 ($1657 if I had paid for the two lenses handed down)

Assuming I had bought the two hand-me-downs, the grand total comes to less than $1700. And for the beginner and intermediate (you could even argue for advanced) photographer, there are more lenses here than you would ever need for most work. I happen to love the older AI and AIS lenses, and I do a lot of portrait work, so I have picked up several of those. I also wanted a dedicated macro lens, hence the reason for the 60mm. Otherwise, you could just buy a much cheaper (and faster!) 50mm f/1.8.

So for less than $1400 I have decent selection of lenses for pretty much any job. Granted, if I go for a 35mm digital sensor in my next camera, I’ll need to look into some options for the wider than 60mm range of my collection. Regardless, my current collection has cost me less money than it would be to purchase a new high-end zoom lens. Keep in mind the following:

  1. I have never bought a brand new lens.
  2. None of my lenses have vibration reduction.
  3. Only three of my lenses have the fancy “silent” auto-focusing systems. Out of the other eight, three are manual focus, and two are screw-drive autofocus.
  4. Five of eight lenses are primes, as opposed to zooms.

Armed with that knowledge, how does one proceed? Let’s look at each one in turn.

First, buy used. It’s not as scary as it might seem, and believe me, I was scared of it for a while. Advertising makes you feel like you need the latest, greatest gear, but you don’t. And if you are scared of buying from a sketchy character, you can get used gear from numerous reputable retailers. All of my dealings have been favorable, with most lenses arriving to me in even better condition than the retailer claimed. Look for retailers with return policies in case you’re squeamish.

Second, most people don’t need vibration reduction. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have. I use Nikon’s 70-200 2.8 VR at work from time to time and it’s a beauty, but man is that sucker heavy and obnoxious! The VR can give you some latitude with handheld shake, but proper long-lens technique can get you close without VR.

Third, there are only certain types of photography where you need autofocus. If you’re not shooting those types of photography, get comfy with manual focus. It will save you a bundle on lenses! If you’re scared of manual focus, it’s okay, I was too. There’s a bit of a learning curve, but I actually prefer it in most situations. Also, if your camera body has a built-in autofocus drive motor, you can look for older autofocus lenses that use the screw-type drive systems.

Fourth, and finally, check out prime lenses because they are such a joy to work with. Many photographers feel that primes help them to “see” better, and I agree. In addition, they are frequently more compact, more durable, and optically superior to their zoom lens counterparts. There are exceptions to the above, but I find myself going to primes for most of my work.

I thought I’d leave you with a fun little comparison. I’ve taken three of my favorite lenses from the above list and compared them to their most closely related current production lenses. Let’s take a look at the results:

Quite possibly my favorite lens ever: the Nikon 105mm f/2.5 AI

1. Nikon 105mm 2.5 AI ($179 used) versus Nikon 105mm 1.4E AF-S ED ($2199 new). I’ve had the 105 2.5 for less than a year and it’s quickly become my favorite lens. It’s a moderate telephoto when on my DX sensor camera (~160mm equivalent), but it’s so small and easy to pack around. The build quality is incredible and the optical quality is stunning. I love it for street work, portraits, and intimate landscapes. It even works well for moderate macro work when paired with a set of extension tubes. Compare it to Nikon’s heinously-priced brand new 105 1.4. Jeeeeeeez. 10x more expensive. TEN TIMES. If you really need the extra stop and 2/3 of light, sure go for it. But the bokeh is sure to be soooo amazing. Please. No bokeh is worth that price for me. Seriously.

A handy little macro lens: the Nikon 60mm f/2.8D Micro AF


2. Nikon 60mm 2.8 Micro AF ($279 used) versus Nikon 60mm 2.8D Micro AF ($519 new). These lenses are practically the same. Look up the D function if you’re curious, but it’s not a deal breaker for anyone I know. The only real difference here is that one is used and one is new. My 60 2.8 arrived in pristine condition—I was really impressed that it had been taken care of so well. I don’t do a lot of macro work, but I wanted to have a general purpose lens that could take care of macro when I needed it. On a DX camera, this works great for certain portraiture and I even like it as a walk-around lens. It’s a little tight for certain street applications, but it’s so versatile that I’m willing to make that compromise. Plus, I’m considering a 35mm sensor in my next camera, so it’ll be a nice normal lens when paired with that sensor size.

My go-to lens for real estate interiors and dramatic landscapes: the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8

3. Tokina 11-16mm 2.8 AT-X Pro DX II ($400 used*) versus Nikon 10-24mm 3.5-4.5G ED ($899 new). Okay, so you can still buy the Tokina 11-16 2.8 new (about $450), but I wanted to compare this to the most closely related Nikon version. Why? Because brand recognition is another thing to consider when you’re on a budget. Nikon and Canon lenses are going to be more expensive than Tokina, Tamron, Sigma, etc. It’s worth looking into the third-party lens manufacturers. Do your research and you can often find lenses that are just as good (or better) than the big guys’ lenses. In this case, the Tokina 11-16 has a really good reputation, and it’s one of my favorites for good reason. It’s fast throughout the zoom range and the color reproduction is beautiful. It also feels like it’s built very well, and I love the autofocus-manual focus ring. Regarding features, you get more zoom range out of the Nikon 10-24, but lose some of the max aperture. There’s also that little thing we’ve been talking about called price.

Add ’em all up and you get $860 for my top three vs. $3620 for the comparable new lenses. Again, think about the features you actually need and will use regularly in a lens. Hit me up in the comments with any questions and Happy Lens Shopping!

Bonus How it Was Shot:

Behind-the-scenes photo

I knew I wanted something simple for the shot of all of my lenses, so I decided to go with a black background and black reflective surface. Unfortunately the black granite tile I picked up at Lowe’s has specks in it which are kind of annoying. I’ll be on the lookout for something different for sure.

My initial lighting idea was to have a mysterious overhead source and nothing else, but I realized that I wasn’t getting any detail in the front elements of the two lenses facing the camera, so I added a white board in front to reflect some of the overhead light. That did very little, which is why I added the speedlight down in front. It was powered fairly low as to just provide a bit of fill. I’d prefer a softbox but I don’t have one yet, hence the less elegant solution.

The last touch was a yellow separating light from behind. I figured that most of my lenses are from Nikon, so why not a little Nikon yellow and black theme? Sorry Tokina. I still love you.


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