Where (your) dSLR (is a happy dSLR) [The entry kit dSLR Part 6]

Prime advice

I want to reiterate that advice I gave four years ago (updated):

When you buy your first dSLR, buy a cheap, fast prime (50mm f/1.8 or whatever prime lens is cheapest). For around a hundred dollars, it’ll make your camera have value in a way that the lens that comes with the kit, never will. Why?

  • It’s the highest quality lens for the cheapest price.
  • You will be able to take a shot in lower light conditions without flash. Specifically: about two and a half stops faster than the kit lens, and about five stops faster than your pocket digital. Remember each stop halves exposure time!
  • Larger aperture also exaggerates the out of focus effects associated with a “film look”.
  • You will intuit how to use your feet to zoom, what composition means, and what at least one focal length “looks like” on your camera.
  • It’s a dSLR not a bridge camera, if you don’t want to change out the lens, buy a different camera.

If your family has an infant or small child, these lenses are absolutely essential. They photograph them so well.

What are these fast-cheap-wide primes?

entry DSLR brand Lens Cost
Pentax eBay a used Pentax K-mount prime (between 40 and 55mm) less than $100
Sony Sony 50mm f/1.8 SAM DT $124
Olympus Zuiko Digital 25mm 1:2.8 $250
Canon Canon EF 50mm F1.8 II $110
Nikon Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX $190

To get a cheap Pentax, you have to hit the used market. There are a lot of them and they’re 100% compatible, but since their cameras are selling so well, the costs may have been driven up. Also remember some lenses were made before there was autofocus, so they’re manual. Still, Pentax has made a lot of cool lenses like pancake primes and such. Celebrate that variety.

The Sony one is a little more expensive because Sony has a smaller market than CaNikon. You can probably get old Minolta Maxxum lenses (which are the same as Sony alpha) for cheaper though.

Olympus lenses are expensive, as I’ve mentioned before, and the “cheap” one listed doesn’t have a wide aperture. The reason why is because it’s a pancake lens. It’s designed be very small, and on Olympus’s small bodies it works especially well. It might be better to skip the idea of a cheap prime altogether, however, wait until you do more photography, and get a macro lens later—where Olympus suddenly becomes cheaper relative to the competition). Normally a possibility is buying an old Olympus OM lens, but then you need an adapter which will run $150 right there :-(

The Canon is the best deal of the lot—$110 is a no-brainer. It used to be $90, so you might be able to pick up a 50mm F1.8 at that price on eBay, especially as people upgrade to the F1.4(baby)L or F1.2L.

The Nikon is expensive because there is no 50mm f/1.8 currently that auto-focuses on these smaller bodies. Nikon removed the autofocusing motor in a cost-saving, space-saving measure. They did introduce the 35mm f/1.8 APS-C specific model though and it’s price is pretty good. At this price, you could go either way. What we’d really want is a 50mm f/1.8G AF-S at $110, and more people than just me agree with that sentiment.

Why not buy a fast-cheap prime instead of a kit lens (if you have the option)?

The reason why is utility. While the prime will give you far more “keepers” at the same price and make you a better photographer overall, you still want to have something versatile around in a pinch. My big fear is you don’t use your dSLR at all and it sits in your closet. And the kit lens guards (a little) against that possibility.

You are a hypocrite! Why didn’t you buy a fast-cheap prime?

Instead I bought a fast-expensive prime: the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G

Nikon D5000 w/AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G
Nikon D5000 w/AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G
South of Market, San Francisco, California

Olympus E-P2, M.ZUIKO Digital ED 14-42mm 1:3.5-5.6
1/6sec @ ƒ5.2, iso 800, 36mm (72mm)

The Nikon D5000 with the 50mm f/1.4G AF-S lens.

I’m still keeping my 50mm f/1.8D so I can lend out the 50/1.4G. The former is such a good, cheap lens, that I avoided an upgrade for six years—in some ways buying the D5000 gave me the excuse I needed ;-). Also this way, as a D3 owner, I avoid buying a APS-C specific lens ;-)

I could have purchased the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX instead. I like the 77mm filter threads on it, but when the prices and performance are this close, I’ll personally opt for the manufacturer’s lens. Plus, the extra bulk will be an issue on the D5000.

Both those lenses are over $400 (as are similar lenses from other manufacturers), so the extra ⅔ stop (over the f/1.8 model) really doesn’t make it a very compelling purchase for most people.

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