Decent budget lenses for shooting babies, beautiful scenery, (and maybe) blooms?
May 8, 2007 3:14 PM   Subscribe

Prospective DSLR user ISO decent budget lenses for shooting babies, beautiful scenery, (and maybe) blooms.

I plan on purchasing my first digital SLR—a Canon Rebel XT or XTi body—in the next couple weeks, and am going crazy deciding which lenses I need. I've looked at some previous threads here, Philip Greenspun's article on building a digital SLR system, and a few forum topics on and Like a poster in a previous thread, I often find conflicting info, and, being new to DSLRs, not exactly sure what I really need to get the good photos I want.

We're expecting our first baby in November, and I'll be shooting the heck out of her. Many shots will be in our home, so I need a good low light performer. We often shoot our cats with a Fujifilm FinePix E550 point-and-shoot, and obviously they're nearly always blurry.

We hike often and I want to take good landscape shots in Yosemite, for example. I love wildflowers and I shoot nearly every species I encounter while hiking. My retired Nikon CoolPix 4500 was excellent for that.

What lens would work for indoor baby shots, landscapes, and maybe running-around-in-the-city shots? These are a few I've come up with:

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II, ~$80
Pretty fast, damn cheap. Useful for landscapes? Macros possible? (Something about reversing rings being used?) Good enough quality for 8x10 prints? Would be able to get a macro lens with saved $$$.

Canon EF 35mm f/2, ~$230
Too wide-angle for indoor baby shots? (I've heard about having "no straight lines in your photos".) Fast enough for that indoor use? Macro possible at all? It's cheap enough that I might be able to get a second, cheap macro/telephoto lens soon.

Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM, ~$400
Again, too wide-angle for indoors? At the limit of my budget for a lens and would have to wait a while on a true macro. But should be nice and fast for indoor shots. Good landscapes?

Sigma 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM, ~$420
Pretty much same as above? Worth it for the extra half-stop? What other differences between it and the Canon 28/1.8?

I'm sorry for all the questions, but I'm new to all this. Thanks for your help.
posted by DakotaPaul to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (23 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, forgot to add one drawback I've heard about the 50mm f/1.8: "a little too telephoto".
posted by DakotaPaul at 3:15 PM on May 8, 2007

How about the Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8? Its not quite as fast or sharp as the Canon version, but its certainly an excellent lens for the money. You're going to have trouble counting on only a single one of those lenses you're already considering to do everything from landscape work to portraiture. If you can have only one lens, go with a zoom - I think you'll be happier in the end.

Regarding your comment on the 28mm - keep in mind the multiplier - your Rebel is going to turn that 28mm lens into a 45mm.
posted by blaneyphoto at 4:03 PM on May 8, 2007

One thing to consider with a DSLR like the XT or XTi is that there's a 1.6x crop factor, which effectively means that any lens is 1.6x longer. This means the 50mm is basically an 80mm, and a 35mm is 56mm.

So, I'd say the 50mm is probably too long for landscapes. You might find the 35mm too long for landscapes, too; I have a 24-70 and on the occasions I shoot landscapes I wish for wider. On the other hand, if your landscapes generally have uninteresting foregrounds (basically, if you have interesting sky/horizon objects), it might work better.

The 50mm f/1.8 should be a good lens for indoor shooting, though, as long you're not trying to take photos way up close.

One thing to consider is that, to a point, you can always crop an image from a wider lens after the fact, but you can't make a longer lens' shot any wider. You lose some of the ability to print at larger sizes with this method, but getting the photo is usually more important.

As far as macro goes, there are a few options besides a dedicated macro lens. You can get a set of extension tubes, reversing rings, or a "close-up lens" (which attaches to the filter threads of a normal lens) like the Canon 250D or 500D. (I've never used any of these options, so I can't recommend one method over another.)
posted by Godbert at 4:03 PM on May 8, 2007

I have the 50mm f/1.8 II. "Too telephoto" is generally correct - in the indoor situations where you most want to use it, you'll find your back up against the wall too often. It's also too narrow for landscape shots. I believe the minimum focus distance is 1.25 feet or so, which makes it great for shooting flowers while blurring out the background. It's so light and cheap there's basically no reason not to have it.

I don't have any of the other lenses, but I don't think that you'll find 28mm or 35mm to be too wide-angle for indoor shots (note the crop factor), especially if you find yourself wanting to take a group photo in any enclosed space. Since you can usually get arbitrarily close inside, it's probably not going to be hard to "manual zoom". With the faster lenses where you can get shoot indoors at lower ISO speeds, you can also just crop without losing too much quality.
posted by 0xFCAF at 4:06 PM on May 8, 2007

I have a 50mm f/1.8 prime on a Nikon dSLR (1.5x crop factor) and I think it is an awkward focal length.

I have heard good things and seen good results from the Sigma 30mm. Search on Flickr for photos of babies and see what sort of lenses people are using.

Lastly, I suggest getting an external Speedlite so you can use bounce flash instead of just wide apertures to get well lit indoor shots. That was one of the things I learned from taking baby photos of my brother a few years ago.

Congrats on the baby!
posted by roomwithaview at 4:13 PM on May 8, 2007

Echoing the sentiment that 50mm is a bit awkward. It's a great general-purpose focal length on 35mm, but the crop factor on a DSLR removes that benefit, leaving only its low cost and relatively fast speed.

Reversing a 50mm lens, though, can give pretty good results from my experience. All you'd need is a reversing ring of the appropriate size for a Canon mount ($15). You'll probably want an external remote-controlled flash, too, so you can change the lighting angle (using a flash is a must) and flash intensity. I use a Nikon D50 myself, and have found that using the on-camera flash works, but is actually too close and too bright for macro photos, even at the lowest intensity. I've been sometimes forced to use a 4x ND filter (which costs more than the reversing ring!) to get the correct exposure. YMMV. With a reversed 50mm, you can take macro photos of objects about the size of a nickel.
posted by neckro23 at 4:24 PM on May 8, 2007

Agreed, you'll want to go wide first. I haven't found one I'm happy with yet so I won't recommend one. For macro though I quite like my Canon EF-S 60mm f2.8. It's fast, crisp, and pretty darn light.

I hope you realize that "budget" and "DSLR" don't belong in the same paragraph. While I love my XT, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend a P&S to most people these days.
posted by chairface at 5:02 PM on May 8, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks to all for the heads-up on the crop factor. I definitely need to keep that in mind.

I have a 24-70 and on the occasions I shoot landscapes I wish for wider.

The Sigma Zoom Super Wide Angle AF 17-70mm f/2.8-4.5 DC Macro would get me a bit wider, and still be good for indoors, wouldn't it? I want to find some more macro examples with this one, but it looks promising. Any thoughts on this one?

I hope you realize that "budget" and "DSLR" don't belong in the same paragraph.

Yeah, I kinda meant budget as in "budget in the DSLR realm", e.g., the 50/1.8. Obviously if I wanted really budget, I'd just stick with the FinePix.

posted by DakotaPaul at 5:19 PM on May 8, 2007

DakotaPaul writes "I've heard about the 50mm f/1.8: 'a little too telephoto'."

50 definitely to long on a Rebel.

Also go wider than perfect because by November 08 baby DakotaPaul will be too twitchy for perfect composition and you'll want to be able to crop. I've got lots of my daughter shot at the 18 end of my 18-70.

In Nikon circles the Tokina 12-24 is well thought of and it's available in Canon format. And it's cheap as these things go, B&H has it for $500.
posted by Mitheral at 6:35 PM on May 8, 2007

Baby shots, flower macros, and landscapes are all very different applications and as such, I'd recommend a zoom if you wanted one lens for all three. The Sigma 17-70 mentioned by Dakota Paul would be very good for landscapes (nice focal range), pretty good for flower macros (relatively close focusing distance), and so-so for baby pictures (aperture maybe not fast enough).

I think the Canon 60mm EF-S macro would be stunning for flower macros and baby pics, but would be near useless for landscape pics.
posted by alidarbac at 7:07 PM on May 8, 2007

50 perfect on a 1.6x body, if you do portraiture, which you're going to. It works out similar to an 85mm lens, which DaShiv uses to much-praised effect at MeFi meetups. On a baby you can do tightly-framed shots of the face and head and lose all the distracting background nonsense.

Don't make it your only lens, but it's definitely a must-have.
posted by bonaldi at 7:13 PM on May 8, 2007

There is a pretty wide range of prices in the lenses you are considering. While I have not used the 50 mm 1.8, in my experience, there is a big difference in quality between Canon's less expensive and more expensive lenses. The kit lens, for instance, is really horrible. I've heard people say that the 1.8 feels like a plastic toy, and is not durable at all (taking it off trail for hikes may not be a great idea). Accordingly, if you are going for a fast prime, I would go for the really solid 50 mm 1.4. As some of the other posters have mentioned, 50 mm is awkward on the 1.6 crop bodies, but the clarity, color and contrast I have gotten in portraits taken with this lens are really off the charts--you just have to take a few more steps back from your subject than you would otherwise. You can pick it up used on Craigslist pretty cheap--I got one for $250. (One caveat: opened all the way to 1.4, the depth of field feels really shallow, so you may use it sparingly at that aperture.)

If you are willing to stretch to the higher priced end of the lenses you were considering, you can pick up either the 28-135 IS USM 3.5, or (for a few dollars more than that) the 17-40 F4L. I bought my 28-135 new ($450 or so), as I didn't want to have to worry about the image stabilization innards not working right. IS gets you, the conventional wisdom goes, two extra stops, so it is pretty usable indoors without a flash. I think the glass is sharp. You may not need the long end of the zoom, given your intended subjects, but it can be nice to have. The 17-40 F4L is really nice on the crop bodies--probably about 28 mm on a full frame/film camera. It's really great for landscapes and cityscapes, and I have found it to be good towards the long end for portraits (though at F4, I find it to be slow). I picked one up used for $500 off of Craigslist a little while ago. It has stayed on my camera mostly non-stop since then. In general, I find that I always want to go wide, and only rarely want to long.

Ultimately, I would go with the less expensive XT/350d (new or used), rather than the XTi/400d (I don't think you will notice the difference), and take the money you save to buy a more expensive lens.

Also, to echo an earlier poster's advice to look on flickr for baby photos, you should also try searching by lens (on flickr or pbase), and seeing what people are doing with the lenses you are considering, to make sure they will be good for the uses you've described. Pbase, for instance, had something like 85,000 photos taken with the 17-40 F4L, which I found helpful to review as I was considering my purchase.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:23 PM on May 8, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, Admiral, that 28-135 is looking pretty sweet. I looked at the customer images on amazon, and it looks like people are doing nice things with that lens. I'm going to check out flickr and other places for sample images. I think it'll be a good lens to get me started. Down the road I'll check out the 60mm macro and maybe that 17-40 F4L when funds permit.
posted by DakotaPaul at 9:04 PM on May 8, 2007

Response by poster: Oops, just realized the 28-135 is f3.5 and might be too slow for indoors with available light. *sigh* This is frustrating when you don't have gobs of money to spend.
posted by DakotaPaul at 9:50 PM on May 8, 2007

The 28-135 IS is a fantastic general lens. I loved mine until I replaced it with the (admittedly much more expensive) 24-105L f/4 IS.

I wholeheartedly recommend the 50mm/1.4 over the 1.8. While the 1.8 is certainly cheaper, and takes great pictures, if you use it a lot, you'll eventually want to step up to the 1.4. I think that color reproduction is significantly undervalued when rating lenses against each other. While you can blast everything out in Photoshop, it's much easier if the lens gets it right the first time, and even if you can make it look really good in Photoshop, there's no substitute for the vibrant color in an image from a higher quality lens. I've used a lot of lenses, and the ones that have great color reproduction really stand out - most particularly the 24-105L IS/4, all varieties of the 70-200L, and the 50mm/1.4. Add to that the other advantages of the 1.4 - it's got faster AF, it's quieter, it's better constructed, it's brighter in the viewfinder, and it's got full time manual focusing - and it's a no-brainer. If you won't use it very often, the 1.8 is a fine lens and there's no excuse not to have it. If you'll be shooting with it frequently, get the 1.4, hands down.

The 17-40L is also a fine lens, but I find that I don't use it as much having the extra bit on the wide end that the 24-105 gets me over the 28-135. But I also don't shoot landscapes very often. One thing to consider about purchasing better lenses is that they hold their value much better than cheaper ones, so if you decide you don't like it, you should be able to recoup more of your investment on higher-end glass. There's always someone trading up, but no one wants the crap at the bottom.
posted by Caviar at 10:02 PM on May 8, 2007

When you say "available light", what does that mean exactly? Do you have a window?
posted by Caviar at 10:03 PM on May 8, 2007

Response by poster: Yes, we get pretty good sunlight in the house throughout the day.
posted by DakotaPaul at 10:15 PM on May 8, 2007

Nthing nifty fifty.

When you say "available light", what does that mean exactly? Do you have a window?

Indoor pictures using lamplight, not flash. Better color, happier subjects.
posted by cowbellemoo at 10:19 PM on May 8, 2007

I find that even the f/4 lenses I have do fine at ISO 400 in moderate sunlight, and the IS helps. You have a tradeoff there - primes will tend to get you better low-light performance without flash, but they don't zoom. In a dark bar, you can't shoot with an f/4 without a flash. In a well-lit room with some sunlight, it's not as much of a problem. I tend to prefer primes, until they're not appropriate for what I'm shooting.

As it goes, I do find that many of my favorite pictures of my son have been taken with the 50mm prime.

Rather than get a superwide lens for your DSLR, you might consider getting a second small pocket camera (Elph or some such) that has a wide lens. You can use that for decent landscapes, and you can also have it with you for when the big camera isn't appropriate or you don't want to lug a whole bunch of gear.

Also, you'll want to get a good photo printer as well. I can't say enough good things about the Selphy line. They only print 4x6 (with some exceptions that are a bit of a pain to deal with), but that's mostly what you'll be giving out to family anyway. They're ultra portable, can print directly from the camera if you want, and the prints are indistinguishable from regular photos.
posted by Caviar at 10:32 PM on May 8, 2007

Dakota, going back to the 28-135, don't overlook the IS (image stabilization) feature--as I mentioned above, this adds about two stops of exposure to the lens, so I don't think of it strictly as 3.5-5.6, and it may still work for you for indoors.

Check out the sample images here, taken with the 28-135. It is a really handy all-around lens that will hold its value if you determine to sell it later as your needs and interests change.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 4:55 AM on May 9, 2007

Response by poster: the IS (image stabilization) feature--as I mentioned above, this adds about two stops of exposure to the lens, so I don't think of it strictly as 3.5-5.6, and it may still work for you for indoors.

Good point, one that I did not realize. I test it inside with the cats and if it's just not cutting it, maybe I'll get a 28/1.8 or 1.4 just before baby comes.
posted by DakotaPaul at 11:11 AM on May 9, 2007

If budget and low-light performance are your primary concerns, then I would steer you to fast primes.

I have both the Canon 50mm f1.4 and the Canon 28mm f1.8 lenses. They are both very good primes and I whole heartedly second the awesomeness of the 50mm f1.4 in low light. The 50mm f1.8 is a lot of bang for your buck, but the 50mm f1.4 takes it to a whole 'nother level in terms of image quality, bokeh, build, being USM, etc.

As for the 28mm, on a cropped sensor, the 28mm acts "normal" and more closely replicates the "focal length" of the human eye. I find this to be quite satisfying. Also, I'm fairly certain that no one makes a 28mm f1.4 for Canon cameras, so, realistically, your choice is between the Canon 28mm 1.8 and the Sigma f1.4.

As for the Sigma 30mm f1.4, keep in mind that it is a cropped-sensor-sized lens. If you decide to get "serious" about photography and upgrade to a full-frame camera, you will most likely replace it. Also, there have been reports of the Sigma30mm having focusing problems (back-focusing, IIRC) so be careful. I have friends who love their Sigma 30mms.

I second going to Flickr to look for example photographs that others have taken. Specifically, go to the Camera Finder, find the XT or XTi under Canon, and then search for photographs of the subjects you're interested in. Then look at people's EXIF data to get a better idea of what lenses you might be interested in.

A few things:

There's no substitute for going to the store and asking for an XTi with a 50mm lens, and trying the lens out to see exactly you'll see in the viewfinder. You can then see for yourself a lens' limits -- what exactly "too telephoto" constitutes, just how the minimum focusing distance works on a non-macro lens, etc.

If I were you I'd grow my lens collection slowly and conservatively. Get one lens, push it to its absolute limits, and if you really find yourself thinking "damn, I wish I could do X" then buy another lens. You can better judge gaps in your lens collection if you spend quality time with the lenses you do have. Many digital SLR owners seem to be constantly thinking the though of "if I just bought one more lens then my system would be perfect..." It's a sickness you'll soon find yourself sharing. Don't give in. Much.

Being new to dSLRs, I'd do some research on exactly what constitutes wide, normal, zoom, and telephoto (from your comments I'm guessing that this might help with the going crazy part). And there are numerous essays on the pros and cons of primes vs. zooms in terms of weight, speed, glass quality, flexibility, etc. and implications for all these.

And I'd pick up a copy of Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson, if only for his explanations of his techniques. Peterson does a great job of explaining how choosing things like shutter speed and aperture and metering are creative decisions, and how different combinations of each will produce the results you want.

I am, of course, speaking entirely from personal experience, and YMMV.
posted by kathryn at 12:05 PM on May 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have the Canon 50mm 1.8, the Canon 80-200mm 4.5-5.6, and just bought a Tokina AF 28-70mm f2.8-4.5.

I plan to sell my EF-S 18-55 shit kit lens.

Great thread!
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:41 PM on May 21, 2007

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