No, I can’t tell you which one it is, or will be – for you. But I can tell you what mine is, and how you can get there.
Most people who buy system cameras where you can actually change lenses buy some kind of DSLR, normally with what is called a “kit lens”. And according to the statistics, most people never change it (tho some invest a bit more and get some kind of “super zoom” (which they never change), or – like me, a “double zoom kit”. Both options give you a bit more reach, and thus they’re also quite popular). And the future of the consumer DSLR will be mirrorless, with less parts (which can break), lower costs (to produce at least), and fewer problems (like focusing and exposure).
But let’s get back to lenses. So how do you find out what you probably need, or rather want?
Well the first thing you should probably ask yourself is why you’ve got a camera, or why you’re planning to get one. Is it because you like the technical side, and playing with gadgets? Is it to just document your life, and that of your friends and/or family? You just want to hide behind a camera, or use it as an excuse to get closer to people? Holiday photos, safaris, portraits? Or macros, flowers?
The typical quick answer to this is: “Everything”. Well yes. But what is it really for?
For me, I’m an amateur, and by far the most photos I take are those of my family (which I can’t all show here, because some members of my family wouldn’t like it). My favourite photographic subjects are humans and animals, the occasional land- or cityscape, and something you could call product shots, or still lifes. So what does that translate to when thinking of lenses?
Experiment. Set your kit lens to the widest possible angle (shortest focal length), and keep it there, for at least a week. Now go and shoot everything you can. The next week, set the same lens to somewhere in the middle, to a more “normal” angle of view, and again, leave it like this for a week and shoot everything including your favourite subjects. The week after, repeat with the longest possible setting. Take lots of photos with each setting, of every subject you like to take pictures of, and then look at them.
What was the most difficult setting? With which setting did you get the highest number of “keepers”? Did you wish for even wider or longer, or could you be just happy with something in the middle? How did it all work outside, and how inside, with more difficult and dim light? Did you have to use flash inside most of the time, and would rather try without? Could you actually fill the frame, even with smaller subjects?
Well for me, it was more or less easy. When I was younger, I had a film SLR with what was considered the typical trio of lenses: a 28mm, a 50mm, and a 135mm. I loved the 135mm one, but inside it often was too long and gave me lots of “head shots”, or even crops of those. So I always wished for something a bit more moderate, like a 85mm or a 100 or 105mm. These focal lengths are great for photos of a single person, so the first and most important lens I’ve got after buying my double kit zoom DSLR was – no, not what I wanted. What I wanted was a macro lens, or for the Four Thirds system I bought, the macro lens. The one everyone wanted, because with a maximum aperture of f/2 it doubled as a relatively “fast” portrait lens as well.
Since I couldn’t afford it in the beginning, I got the closest possible substitute (sans the macro capability): an old and used OM Zuiko 50mm/1.8, plus an adapter to mount it to my DSLR. Now I had an angle of view like the one of a 100mm lens on an older film SLR. Life was good.
Of course, I still bought that 50mm/2 macro lens later, and life was even better. For me that is the most important focal length because it covers most of my subjects: people, macros and close-ups, product shots and still life.
Yes, you can also do it with a normal focal length, like here:
Eight muffins. Olympus E-PL5 camera with Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25mm/1.4 lens at f/6.3. Studio strobe (flash) with beauty dish, and a reflector.
So while I could do this with what would have been my 50mm lens on the film camera, doing it with a longer lens is a lot easier if you concentrate on just your subject and want to exclude as much background as possible. And because Mitchie lately photographed some small flowers for Zuleikha, I gave her my macro lens which has that 100mm-like angle of view on our cameras:
Mitchie’s camera and my macro lens. Olympus E-PL5 camera with Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25mm/1.4 lens at f/6.3. Studio strobe (flash) with beauty dish, and a reflector.
I wouldn’t take that 50mm macro or our 45mm/1.8 primes as my “normal” focal length for outdoors, but Mitchie loves her 45mm, while I have the 25mm lens mounted most of the time. I also have a 14mm lens, so for the Micro Four Thirds camera, I’m pretty much back with a classical trio, equivalent to 28mm, 50mm, and 90mm (plus this 100mm-like macro you see above).
We still have our kit zooms, both the normal 14-42mm (which equals 28-84mm on film), and a 40-150mm (double that for film again). But we both rarely use them. These single focal length lenses are simply better and sharper. They spoil you as soon as you get one.
So my most important lens – apart from the normal one which I have mounted most of the time – is a 100mm macro (on film or on DSLRs with a sensor in film size), a 70mm macro (on APS-C sized cameras if I had one, that would include today’s most sold DSLRs and even some mirrorless cameras), or a 50mm macro (on Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds cameras).
YMMV as they say – your mileage may vary. But for me, the 100mm-equivalent macro lenses are the lens to get as a second one (additional to your kit zoom or normal prime). I hope that helped with finding out what your most important lens could possibly be.
Thanks for reading.