There was an article on Reddit this week encouraging folks to list this early photography blunders. A common one was the “cover every mm” mistakes – where you try to get zoom lens that cover the entire range of focal length possibilities. I know this mistake fairly well, I made it myself.
I started SLR photography in 2008 when, anticipating a Europe trip, I decided to dump my point-and-shoot camera for a Nikon D80. As with any important purchase, I researched the topic to death and often came upon Ken Rockwell’s site.
Here’s the thing. Ken Rockwell is a master of SEO. He will show up on pretty much any photo-related Google search. I think he has some excellent starting advice if you are interested in getting the best vacation and family photos out of your camera. However, I think that his reviews are rather subjective and lack the more thorough and systematic reviews that you would find on PhotoZone (a site, I sadly discovered after my camera purchase) and I do not think his is advice is geared towards someone pursuing photography as a fine art or career.
The $600 Mistake
Being new to SLR photography, I fell into thinking I would need to cover the full range of focal lengths, and I didn’t care for carrying around the kit 18-55mm and 70-300mm lenses that were often sold with cameras. So I started looking at the 18-200mm lens, which today retails for $950. I assumed with such a hefty price-tag, this lens would be an upper tiered zoom lens and at the time folks (such as Rockwell) were raving about how it had replaced their need for all but exotic lenses.
The truth is, the lens is soft, distorted and never took a shot better than my little point-and-shoot. As soon as I got home from my trip, I bought a prime normal lens and rarely ever put the 18-200mm on my camera again.
This learning experience was not all bad. I did get one thing out of the 18-200mm: I learned that I do not need to cover all the focal lengths. Indeed, I really only need three different prime lenses to cover my shooting needs.
You see, when I got back from Europe I looked through my photos and discovered an interesting pattern. I shot all my landscapes at 18-24mm, I shot everything indoors or medium-ranged at 50mm, and I shot all my telephoto shots at 200mm. Three distinct groups. I really did not need the ranges of 25-49mm and 51-199mm at all.
Today, I’m moving all of my lenses over to three lenses: Nikkor 35mm DX f/2.8 (or Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 when I get an FX body), Nikkor Micro 200mm f/4, and the Nikkor 12-24mm f/2.8. Three lenses at a much higher cost and covering a much smaller range of focal lengths, but worth it because they will take better shots than the 18-200mm ever did.
There’s Still Some Use for a Super Zoom
So my advice to new photographers? I would recommend that you buy prime lenses or if it must be zoom – keep the range of the zoom relatively small. As for the 18-200mm beast? It does serve a purpose. I would suggest renting it for a week. Take it on vacation or somewhere that you will likely make a lot of shots. When you get back graph out your most common focal lengths. A pattern will arise showing what you really need to cover.