We're gonna zoom zoom zooma zoom. Or maybe macro, I dunno.
December 9, 2011 8:34 AM   Subscribe

My wife has a Canon DSL (Canon-EOS Digital Rebel XTi) with only the stock lens that came with it. I'd like to get her a new lens but I know very little about DSLRs. Can you help?

I not-so-subtly asked her what sort of photos she likes to take. Her response:

"I like close ups of plants and small critters as well as telephoto of distant things. Haven't done much with action shots."

I assume "close up" and "telephoto of distant things" are two different lenses. They don't combine macro and zoom, do they?

She's just an amateur photographer, likes to take shots of plants in her garden or birds on the feeder. With a decent zoom I'm sure she'd take some shots of birds down at the local Audubon center.

Let's say my budget is $500 or so. Can you suggest a specific lens (compatible with that specific camera) or two in that range? Reasons why you'd choose that one would be helpful.

Again, the camera model is a Canon-EOS Digital Rebel XTi.
posted by bondcliff to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The Canon 100mm 2.8 macro, full stop. It's in the right price range, very well regarded. She can use it both for macro applications and telephoto applications. It's great as a portrait lens (though on an XTi, it will "feel" like 170mm or so, so she's going to have to baaaaaaack up).
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:39 AM on December 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: And here's a gallery of images shot with that lens; hit refresh for a new random selection.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:41 AM on December 9, 2011

For a telephoto, this is well regarded.
posted by Good Brain at 8:46 AM on December 9, 2011

I don't shoot with a Canon, so I don't have a specific recommendation (the dpreview Canon forum would be a much better place to ask this, if it hasn't already been asked a thousand times there).

But my advice is to buy one of 2 things:

1) A nice long, fast prime lens like the one Admiral Haddock recommended. "Prime" means it only works at a single distance (as opposed to zoom lenses, which, well, zoom).

2) A nice, faster (like f2.8 or lower) zoom lens to be a replacement for the lens that came with her camera. Kit lenses are famous for being fairly low quality, so a good replacement -- even in the same focal lengths as her current lens -- would be a major step up.

You might also go to a camera shop near where you live and talk to the people there.
posted by coolguymichael at 9:07 AM on December 9, 2011

So to expand a little bit on the suggestions above: Admiral Haddock suggests a prime lens. Primes tend to be sharp (because they don't have to try to make the light converge at the same place at a bunch of different lengths), "fast" (let in a lot of light, that "F2.8" is a ratio of the opening of the lens to the length of the lens, and is actually slow for a prime, fast for a zoom). 170mm (equivalent to that length if you were using 35mm film) actually doesn't feel that "long" when you're trying to do birding, but is reasonable.

Goodbrain's suggestion is for one of Canon's "L" series zooms. Canon has a few gems in their consumer zoom line, but their higher end zooms tend to be sharp. As you can tell from the "F4" number, it lets in less light than the prime mentioned above, but if you need a variety of different lens lengths it gets you into the low end of birding territory if she's taking pictures of birds on the feeder in the back yard.

The problem with "telephotos of distant things" is that long lenses are expensive, and you'll also need to buy a good tripod. Serious birding folks will spend three to six thousand dollars on a lens, and then getting good bird pictures is an exercise in lots and lots of patience.

I have a bunch of different Canon lenses, including some nice L series glass, but based on what you've described I think the 100/2.8 Macro will let her get pictures that other people aren't seeing, dramatically expand her range, and will be a lens she'll never grow out of.

The 70-200/4 is a great sports/general purpose knock-about lens (I have the 70-200/2.8), but it isn't a "whoah, this is a view of the world I haven't seen" lens. If she were into action shots, or street photography, I'd go with this one, but the 100mm macro will open up her photography to different views.
posted by straw at 9:17 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with everything straw says (particularly where straw is agreeing with me!)--and I'd add, too, that while the 70-200 f4 is a fine lens, its minimum focusing distance is almost 4'--and has a magnification of .21x. The 100 f2.8 has a minimum focusing distance of 1', and is a true 1:1 macro--life size! Macro lenses are built differently to allow that close focusing; the 70-200 would not let her shoot little creatures up close (though she could theoretically go across the room and shoot them at 200mm, but that's a bit goofy).

Calumet by the Cambridgeside Galleria should have these lenses in stock, if you want to check them out in person. I also happen to have a 70-200 f4 in great shape that I don't use anymore (I upgraded to the 70-200 2.8 IS); MeMail me if you're interested (I'm in Boston, too, obviously).

They say that people who shoot macro are the happiest photographers.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:30 AM on December 9, 2011

Everyone should have the 50mm. 1.4, 1.8, doesn't matter. Just get one of them.

I also love my Tamron 12-24. You can get really wide angles on stuff.

For most of the sports stuff I did for the school paper I used either a 28-200 or 75-300. Neither was amazing, but they got the job done.
posted by theichibun at 9:32 AM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I got a lot of mileage out of the 28-135 IS - very useful zoom range with good quality optics. I still get good use out of the cheap fast 50mm f/1.8 - it's not really a macro lens but it can get in close enough and it's a great introduction to fast glass.
posted by ChuqD at 9:38 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Canon 100mm 2.8 USM (already mentioned) or Tokina 100mm 2.8 (very similar).
You get the best of both world - a great macro and tele lens. With an APS-C camera you get an effective focal length of 160mm - not bad for "distant things". Another benefit (some may say disadvantage) is the lack of zoom capability - prime lenses force you to think about positioning, framing and composition much more than zoom lenses, which some say will turn you into a less "lazy" - and better - photographer. After I got my first prime lens I tend to agree.
50mm prime lenses (like the Canon 50mm 1.4 or 1.8) are great, but only if you're into portrait photography. If she's into that you may want the Canon 60mm 2.8 Macro lens, which again is dual purpose - a great macro and portrait lens.
posted by Nightwind at 10:02 AM on December 9, 2011

I know it's not exactly what you asked for, but I have to add to the calls for one of the 50mm prime lenses (either the 50mm f/1.8 for ~$100 or, if you want to splurge, the 50mm f/1.4 for ~$380). Getting the 50mm f/1.8 IN ADDITION to one of the other lenses suggested here might make an excellent gift. The ability to shoot in lower light without a flash (which you get with one of the low-f-ratio lenses) is one of the biggest advantages of a DSLR over a point-and-shoot camera, as far as I'm concerned.
posted by Betelgeuse at 11:10 AM on December 9, 2011

For $500, you're not going to get a high quality or professional lens. I don't even think there are any L lens that even go for that range, unless you are really really lucky with a pre-owned purchase.

I would recommend ANY beginner photographer to stick with the 50mm 1.8 f/1.8. Any zoom lens for under $500 will most likely be plastic. With the 50mm, you can get sharp, pro photographs and you are not limited by f-stop (the aperture).
The 50mm is great because at 1.8, the lens is "wide open," which means she can focus on an object and have the background blurry to focus. Perfect for focusing on critters, flowers, objects, etc. Conversely, of course she can set it for landscape at like f/8 or more if she chooses. If she gets a low-end plastic zoom lens, her f-stop is going to be limited at 4 or more. It's just a limiter.

Most photographers stick to the classic 50mm for a while, and any good photographer always carries one in his/her bag of tricks.
posted by xtine at 11:13 AM on December 9, 2011

There aren't many decent Canon lenses in the sub-$500 range, but the 100mm Macro is definitely one to pick up. Its a great combo of price and performance. Keep in mind though, that the autofocus is SLOW on that lens - although for shooting macros manual focus is the way to go anyway.
posted by blaneyphoto at 11:13 AM on December 9, 2011

The first lens every budding photographer should buy after their camera's kit lens is the 50mm. For sure.
posted by mhoye at 12:41 PM on December 9, 2011

I hate with a burning passion the 50mm prime everyone up above loves. I never, ever use it. It sits in the box of camera gear we don't use. We even got the good one. I'd rather save the money and put it toward a good lens that does what I want it to do, instead of "practicing zooming with my feet."

Your wife has two divergent tastes, and I sympathize since those are the two that I have. I'm also not a professional, have no interest in becoming one, and only take photos for my own amusement.

My 70/200 2.8 IS is called the monster because the thing weighs a ton and you can't go anywhere without drawing attention. It is a royal pain in the butt. I wouldn't bring it anywhere without my husband to carry it and to watch out for badguys while I'm busy. Definitely google some of the implications of traveling with this if you ever plan to leave the country with it. On the other hand, it's worth its weight for taking pictures of animals and candid shots of people. I can't use it indoors since I can't get far enough away, so with this lens she'd still have to swap down to her kit lens. You have to get it with IS or you have to travel with a tripod and that limits what you can get. Some of my best photos - especially of birds - have come out of this lens. It gets me shots that most people can't get. But I am an average sized female with average sized female arm strength and am ambivalent about how much I love this one. I am shocked by the price and do not think we spent as much as Amazon is requesting when we got ours.

My other favorite lens for the tasks your wife mentions is called magic because everything that comes out of it is gorgeous. It was bought for taking pictures of bugs and flowers and little things in the back yard and as a pleasant surprise it takes beautiful portraits. I love this one so much. It's the one that lives on my camera body as the default grab out of the bag lens. It definitely takes a little getting used to but it is worth it to take the time. If I were forced to travel with only one lens, it would be this one. This one won't take good pictures of wild birds.

One thing that's a little annoying about IS lenses is that animals hear the noise of the focusing. With touchy animals, that makes them notice THE BIG EYE that's staring at them and they leave. But, on the other hand, it gets you some interesting looks from the predatory insects.

I would strongly recommend hoods or at least a haze filter for whatever lens you get. In the one case, it's so far away from your nose, you'll absentmindedly walk into a tree and in the other case, you'll keep leaning closer and closer to that interesting lichen until you scratch it on the rock.

Beware: Even if you only buy a new lens every other year, it doesn't take long until you have a silly amount of lenses and other random gear.
posted by arabelladragon at 12:47 PM on December 9, 2011

All that and I mung a link. Try this for magic
posted by arabelladragon at 12:48 PM on December 9, 2011

Get a 50mm f/1.8. (It will be like an 80mm lens, which means mild-telephoto, but great for portraits.) It will allow her to do low-light photo without flash. It will cost you less than $100. It will be super sharp. You can easily use it with some $20 Kenko extension tubes (there's no optics in these things, so anyone who says "they degrade image quality" is a moron) and do true macro (1:1 and better) work. That leaves you with ~$400 to spend still.
posted by Brian Puccio at 1:03 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

- I can't use it indoors since I can't get far enough away, so with this lens she'd still have to swap down to her kit lens.
- You have to get it with IS or you have to travel with a tripod and that limits what you can get.
- I am shocked by the price and do not think we spent as much as Amazon is requesting when we got ours.

posted by arabelladragon at 3:47 PM on December 9 [+] [!]

- The minimum focussing distance on the lens is only about 4 feet, why can't you use it indoors?
- IS or you must use a tripod? This totally depends on the person. Plenty of people can hand-hold this lens at 200mm and get tack sharp shots. Even the 300 f/2.8 is hand-holdable.
- You might be looking at Amazon's listing for the new version of this lens, the "II" - its significantly more expensive, but worth it. (Also, its on sale right now at B&H for only $1900)
posted by blaneyphoto at 1:26 PM on December 9, 2011

Response by poster: This is very helpful, folks, although much of it is a bit technical for me. Tonight I'll check to see what sort of lens she has already. I want whatever I get to be a big step rather than a small step.

To be clear, portraits and indoor stuff isn't really a priority. Close-ups of flowers is. She's also very amateurish, so I don't want to go too overboard.
posted by bondcliff at 1:38 PM on December 9, 2011

I'm gonna go sideways with this one, and recommend that you don't get a macro lens right off the bat. A lot of beginning photographers are attracted to macro via the close focus on their kit lenses, but using an actual macro lens to take pics can be considerably more challenging - it really is a different type of picture taking.

What I would recommend, is a nice zoom lens like that 70-200, or - despite all the more expensive zoom suggestions - a decent "kit" zoom lens like a sigma 70-300mm or Tamron 50-200 or something like that, and in addition both of the Raynox diopters (150, and the more powerful 250). If memory serves, you can get a pack with both diopters for about a hundred bucks.

These are essentially magnifying glasses that you can attach to the end of almost any lens in your kit, and they take pretty, excellent, macro photos.

Indeed, if you went down this route, you could - with some judicious shopping - probably get her:

  • Decent "kit" telephoto zoom

  • Raynox diopters, and

  • The Canon 50mm which is indeed a well-priced and most useful lens.

  • for under your 500 hundred budget. It's tempting, in discussions of camera gear, as with stereo gear and a few other things, for people to want - and recommend - the best of the best, but sometimes the difference between the best and the capable is not worth several hundred dollars to the casual photographer. That's a decision you will have to decide yourself, but please don't buy into the mentality that you need an expensive chunk of glass on the end of your camera to take great picks. It may help, but it's definitely not required.
    posted by smoke at 1:51 PM on December 9, 2011

    I have an XTi. It came with a 75-300mm zoom lens and the standard kit lens. The only purchase I have made is the 50mm/f1.8 prime lens. It's cheap ($100), it's a nice lens for an amateur, and I have been really happy with the photos. You might wish to pair something like that with a lens hood and a decent bounce flash, because the combo of the lens + flash are a great starting point to better photos - whether it's for fill light outdoors or better indoor shots.
    posted by caution live frogs at 6:14 PM on December 9, 2011

    Response by poster: Her current lens says "EFS 18 - 55mm", if that matters in what I should get her next.

    Also, she's not new to photography. For years she used a completely manual film SLR with several lenses. So she knows some stuff, but she's not too serious about it. She doesn't use Photoshop or do any post-processing, just likes to take pretty pictures.
    posted by bondcliff at 6:56 PM on December 9, 2011

    Canon 100 2.8 Macro is far and away the best option. The people saying you can't buy quality glass for under $500 are being silly - the only thing the 100mm 2.8 Macro lacks is weather sealing, industrial-strength build quality, and a fancy red ring. It's an excellent lens optically.

    A decent telephoto zoom isn't a bad idea. For a butt cheap option, I'd pick up a used, out-of-print Canon 70-210 3.5-4.5. For about a hundred bucks, you'll get a telephoto zoom with significantly better optics than the current, more expensive Canon 75-300!

    It is generally a good idea to have a "normal" lens - that is, a lens with approximately the same field of view as the human eye. 50mm lenses are normal on 35mm film and full-frame DSLR bodies, but they're portrait (long) lenses on crop sensor bodies, like the Rebel XTi.

    What this means is that a 50mm lens is not really a "must have" for a crop sensor DSLR. In the future, you'd be better off nabbing something in the 28mm-35mm range, as those will be "normal" on a crop sensor DSLR. Unfortunately, there's no lens in this range that has the price-to-performance ratio of the 50mm 1.8. The Sigma 30 1.4, Canon 35 2, and Canon 28 2.8 are the inexpensive options here - they're all fine, none are silver bullets. For some reason, I always liked the look of the Sigma 30 1.4's photos.

    So, yeah. If I had to pick one lens, it'd be the 100 2.8 Macro.
    posted by Sticherbeast at 7:53 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

    Oh, also, the kit lens that came with the XTi is pretty blah. The 18-55 is not a good lens at all. The 18-55 IS, which was a later version, is actually pretty good for what it is, but even better than that, without breaking the bank, would be something like the Tamron 17-50.
    posted by Sticherbeast at 9:13 PM on December 9, 2011

    Well, my choice is the EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS for a bit less than $600. Great all around lens and a blatant copy of Nikon's wildly successful VR 18-200.
    posted by bz at 10:28 PM on December 9, 2011

    I should have put a link for the 18-200. Get the lens hood too (EW78D). I'd suggest a UV filter and a circular polarizer but any decent ones will break your budget so, maybe later.
    posted by bz at 8:40 AM on December 10, 2011

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