The temptation is always there and I will readily admit to falling victim to the siren call of new equipment. It's shiny. It's unknown. It has to be better because it's new. Growing older, I've also learned to be more discerning with my buying dollars.
If I can hold off on buying a new lens, that might mean a couple extra nights on the road in a decent hotel or a few more ads to run to drum up business. Chances are you are like me and don't have an endless supply of money to draw from and it's then that it becomes important to take a analytical look, rather than an emotional one, at your impulse to purchase a new lens in order to improve.
By no means am I saying you should avoid making a purchase. And I am not saying you must always take a logical view when making a purchase. What I hope to do in this article is lay out some questions and checkpoints you can ask yourself before jumping on the upgrade train to a new camera lens.
What Can't Your Lens Do Now?
The first question stems from what I tell most people starting out in photography, eager to get the right gear before even really handling a camera. It deals with the fact that you need to shoot for a while before you realize the limits of your current gear. With that experience comes the realization of where your current lens(es) fall short.
Copyright Kevin Dooley
Perhaps you are not getting the depth of field you wish or would like better bokeh and thus aperture sizes are important to you. Maybe the autofocus is just not fast enough to follow your kids while on the soccer field. Another reason might be lackluster image stabilization or that the image just isn't as sharp as you would like (make sure to check this on a home computer and ask others' opinions as it may just be your eyes).
Be honest with yourself and take a look to see if these limits are reasons or excuses to get a new lens. Either way is fine with me, I'm just here to make sure you're being honest about why you need the upgrade.
What Do You Shoot?
Copyright Louise Docker
After you have had the chance to shoot for a while with the lens you initially purchased, take a look at what you are shooting. You might find the macro world of bugs, flowers and details is of great interest to you and it might be time to upgrade to a dedicated macro lens or at least one with better macro performance. It could be you have taken a liking to action sports or birding and there will be need to think of acquiring a prime telephoto lens.
This is the second question I ask when a new photographer asks me what they should buy. “What do you want to take pictures of?" You might have had an idea when you bought your camera but that idea might have shifted. Go with the flow and also think about what you might want to shoot in the future. And that goes hand in hand with my next suggestion.
Rent Before You Buy
Renting, online or in a store, is the best way to know if your looming purchase will be worthwhile. Even better is an operation that will allow you to purchase the lens you rent if you find you have fallen in love with it. This helps remove the minor angst of taking back the rental and waiting for the purchased lens to arrive, which to some can seem like weeks but actually only take a day. I have known this imagined feeling and it seems real to those waiting for a lens to arrive.
Don't be afraid to rent a couple of lenses in the likely range you might be interested in. For instance, if you are going to drop big money on a 400mm prime before heading to Africa for a once in a lifetime safari, will a f/5.6 work or do you really need the f/4? The price difference can often mean only spending a week on the trail instead of 10 days.
Renting them both for a three day dedicated trial, side by side, will help remove this question or at least the doubt it poses. One might be unexpectedly easier to handle or the autofocus might be slightly faster on another, both important issues when shooting wildlife on the road.
Search Flickr For Your Lens. What Are Others Shooting?
Copyright Rudolph Schuba
Another way to see if the lens you want to buy is suited to the shooting you wish to accomplish is to look around at how others are shooting with that lens. Flickr is a great place to do some research in this regard because you can find a particular lens while searching. If no one is using that 400mm lens to take photos of bugs, you might want to consider another option.
The opposite approach can be used as well. Search for your subject, let's say Blue Morpho butterflies. Now take an informal survey of the best shots and which lens was used, if the information is posted. The same can be done with Google's Image search (images on Google+ most often have the EXIF information posted, which is where you will find the lens employed in the shoot). If you see a particular lens, or range of lenses, used while shooting your favorite subject, it might be worth investigating that option.
Ask For Advice
Copyright Doo Ho Kim
Lastly, look toward an expert for advice. Chances are they will ask you the first two questions on this list, so be prepared. Here I am thinking of the clerks at a well respected camera store, one staffed by photography loving geeks. Geeks (used as a term of endearment) are great because they have deep knowledge and aren't just interested in what will net them the largest commission if you purchase it. Better yet, go to a commission-less store.
Ask people you find on the internet (you can ask me, for instance) that know and are into photography, especially if they have been shooting for a while.
Unlike a camera store clerk, they might not have the breadth of knowledge, but they will have the experience to tell them what works and what doesn't. It can be hit or miss though, so have patience and cast your net wide. Many pros won't have time to respond to individual requests, but you might get lucky. We all love talking about our craft, just ask one of our significant others.
While I am certainly not telling you to not make an emotional purchase when it comes to a lens, I hope the advice in this article has helped ensure you don't regret a rash decision to drop $1000 or more on new equipment you later find less than suited to your photography needs.
Buying a new lens can sometimes be daunting but, with a few questions, you can cut through the ambiguity and find the lens that works best for you.