This time I talk about a novice’s question, “What lens should I buy next?” This is one question that’s always frustrated me on the answering side of the discussion for a number of reasons. In this podcast I’m going to try and pass along some thoughts and tips to help you shape this question into a better one that’s more productive for you and the people you’re asking.
As a serious photographer — the distinction I draw between serious photographers and professional photographers is a topic for another time — I get asked from time to time the question, “What lens should I get next?” In this podcast, I want to take a bit of time to talk about the question. My hope, isn’t so much that people will stop asking it, but that they can be better equipped to ask a slightly modified version of that can be much more beneficial for them.
I want to start this discussion with a bit of a discussion about the problem with the simple open ended question, “What lens should I buy next?” The trouble really comes down to the simple fact that photography doesn’t have a single defined direction for progression. The lens you use influences, and is more importantly, is heavily influenced by your artistic vision, your eye.
What you enjoy shooting, the kinds of conditions that you generally work under, and your own unique view of the world are the things that should be driving your gear decisions.
One way to approach the question is to consider what areas you find yourself must frustrated by your equipment. Do you always feel like you can’t get a tight enough composition? Do you always feel you can’t get a wide enough composition? These are probably the easiest situations to identify and rectify. But again, if you’re asking the question, you want to provide this information as well.
But what about when the situation ins’t so obvious or clear cut? Maybe you know you’re not satisfied with something, but you’re not sure what exactly is the problem or why you’re not satisfied. Again, this is another great time to ask for help, but try to articulate what’s bothering you. Maybe you can’t put your finger on it, but I’m sure you can find examples of similar kinds of content you find satisfying that you could point at as a reference.
One other potential problem area is when you’re trying to grow into a new genera of photography. For example, you’re tried out street photography and you really enjoyed it and want to do more and get better at it. Again, this is a great place where established photographers can provide insight into the kinds of lenses you might want to use. But remember, the entire discussion will be more productive if you can start the conversation with an idea of what you want to shoot and what kinds of images you find you like.
With all that said, it’s also important to remember that as people we’re also subject to a lot of biases and whims. That’s not to say you should reject them and always do the rational thing. At the same time, it’s also probably not a great idea to drop $5000 on a lens you’ll use 2 or 3 times a year at most unless you’ve already covered the rest of your bases.
One way to add some objectivity is to have some hard statistics about the images you’ve already shot. Digital cameras have been a god send in this department since the store all kinds of information as metadata when you take a picture. The trick is compiling this information into something useful.
If you’re a Lightroom user, I can point in a few directions. Unfortunately, if you use some other software, I can’t really help with advice here. The simplest way of figuring things out is to bring up the library filter bar, click on the metadata selection, and choose focal length as the heading for one of the lists. This will tell you the number of images taken at that focal length in currently selected folder or folders — or your whole catalog if you select a top level folder or the catalog as your active group.
In addition to doing it the manual way there are some Lightroom plugins, for example Jeffery’s Data Plot Lightroom plugin that will generate nice tables and graphs for your.
Again, I do want to reiterate the point of not letting hard data completely rule here. Just because most of your Lightroom images are shot at say 18 mm, doesn’t mean that if you had a 300 mm lens you wouldn’t use that a whole lot more. Use whatever hard data you have to inform the rest of your thoughts, not to drive them alone.
One final thought, before I wrap this up. Another thing to be aware of is that your interests at the time, especially just after a successful shoot, can dramatically skew your perceptions of what you think you need to address.
I know, for example, that in my up coming trip to the American southwest, I’m going to have excellent opportunities to do some astrophotography, including potentially even some Milky Way shots. I also know, that the best way to shoot these kinds of images is with very fast primes, like a 24 mm f/1.4, no the moderately slow zoom’s I own (like a 16–35 mm f/4 or a 24–70 mm f/2.8). I also know that if I get anything remotely decent from this trip, I’m going to want a 24 mm f/1.4 really badly to do some more astro work. I also know, that it would be a lens I hardly ever use; definitely not worth spending $1700 on for the rare astro shots.
So to wrap this up.
Before you ask about what lens you should buy next, spend a little time introspectively thinking about your own work and your own frustrations. You may not be able to answer the question yourself, but it goes a long way to making the discussion far more productive for all involved if you can provide some information about your tastes, your interests, and even some options you thought might be interesting.