Need some inspiration? Try one of these lenses, available for less than $1,000, £700 or AU$1,400 for a change of pace.
Until you shoot with something other than the standard 18-55mm kit lens, you never realize how boring and restrictive it feels. Here are some recommended lenses to help get you out of that kit lens rut. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of lens recommendations, nor are these necessarily best-in-class; they're simply lenses I've shot with that I like, and that didn't disappoint me on photo quality. It's also just a start, and I'll update as lenses pop onto my radar.
Latest update: Added Tamron 45mm f1.8 and Lensbaby Velvet 56. Originally published December 2013.
Recommended for: This fast, wide-angle, full-frame lens delivers nice, sharp images on a full-frame camera, and on a Nikon APS-C camera it offers a 30mm-equivalent angle of view that's great for photographing group and landscapes.
Recommended for: This fast lens' 90mm-equivalent focal length makes a great portrait lens, and because it's compact -- especially on one of the smaller interchangeable-lens cameras -- it's really unobtrusive for more-distant street photography. It seems positively cheap given how nice it is.
Recommended for: With the 35mm-equivalent angle of view of 24mm, this is a great, fast lens for wide-angle street photography. It's fast and quiet for video, and has Olympus' focus cuff, which lets you quickly switch between manual and autofocus.
Recommended for: A fast lens with lovely bokeh, this 150mm-equivalent focal length model works really well for portraits or wildlife and when you're indoors but can't get close, such as for school plays.
Recommended for: Although at the top of the price range, this fast lens (24-80mm equivalent) is weather-resistant, well constructed, and has a programmable function button and Olympus' quick manual focus cuff, plus it delivers sharp photos and simply feels really nice to use. It can focus as close as under 8 inches, which makes it really flexible as well.
Common prices: $900, £720 (doesn't seem widely available, though), AU$800
Recommended for: A good, fast general-purpose lens that delivers an equivalent focal length of 24-75mm on Sony dSLRs. And since there are no E-Mount fast zooms, you can use this on one of the interchangeable-lens models with an adapter.
Common prices: $750, £450, AU$700 (prices vary widely in all regions)
Recommended for: I'm not big on f4 lenses, mostly because they tend not to match up with my needs, but this new optically stabilized full-frame Sigma lens is a reasonably priced alternative for folks who shoot in brighter conditions or are OK with higher ISO sensitivities. It's available for Canon EF, Nikon FX, Sony A, or Sigma mounts, and is quite sharp. Neither Nikon nor Sony offers a 24-105mm f4, and Canon's can be expensive; that said, though the Canon has a list price of $1,149, I've seen it offered for less than $800 in some places. At that price, it's a good deal.
Recommended for: A great fast, full-frame lens available for Canon EF, Nikon FX, Pentax K, Sony A, and Sigma mounts, this model stands out not just for delivering excellent sharpness and build quality, but for being a lot more affordable than models from Canon and Nikon. Plus, I love it as a portrait lens on an APS-C camera.
Recommended for: A nice length for street shooting or as a slightly wider-angle portrait lens on a full-frame camera or just something a little bit different on APS-C -- where its angle of view is about the same as 68mm (Nikon) or 72mm (Canon) -- this is the only general-purpose 45mm lens available. And it's got optical image stabilization, which makes it an especially good option for Canon and Nikon owners.
Recommended for: Like the Tamron 45mm, the manual-focus Lensbaby Velvet 56 is a non-traditional focal-length, with a slightly narrower angle of view than the usual 50mm portrait lens. Its twist is stronger and quirkier-looking out-of-focus areas compared to most lenses for when you're looking for something just a little different.
Multi mount: Lensbaby Composer Pro with Edge 80 Optic
Recommended for: When you want to fool around but don't necessarily want it too lo-fi, Lensbaby's mount and optic systems are fun and creative without breaking the bank. I like the Composer Pro mount best, as it provides the most consistent controls and feel, and the 80mm optic is long enough that you can really see the effects. The Composer Pro comes in Canon EF and Nikon FX mounts.
Recommended for: Available for a host of mounts -- Canon EF, Nikon F, Micro Four Thirds, Sony A and E, Pentax K and even Samsung NX -- the company's new fish-eye lens (5.8mm f3.5) is a fun, intentionally artifact-filled lens for creating fish-eye photos. It can focus right on top of your subject and stops down as low as f22. Like all Lensbaby lenses it's manual-focus-only, and one caveat is that it's kind of hard to focus at small apertures because the viewfinder gets dim on many non full-frame cameras, but beyond 3 feet you're at infinity focus anyway. If you want something fish-eye a lot cheaper, Photojojo's fisheye adapter runs between $50 and $85 depending upon the configuration you buy, but I think the results from the Lensbaby are more interesting. (The first slide of this gallery was shot with it.)
Common prices: $300, £200, not available as a kit in Australia, but if you buy overseas it converts to AU$420
Multi mount: Lensbaby Composer Pro with Sweet 50 Optic
Recommended for: You can use the Sweet 50 as both a straight 50mm lens and a special-effects lens; tilting it produces an atypical blur everywhere but the area of focus. Though it's not as fast as the f1.8 and f1.4 lenses offered by both camera manufacturers and third-party lens companies like Sigma and Tamron, and it's not as cheap as the cheapest lenses you can get (usually f1.8), but it's not significantly more expensive, plus it does double duty as an effects lens. It's available for Canon EF, Nikon F, Micro Four Thirds and Four Thirds, Sony A and E, Pentax K and even Samsung NX mounts. An alternative/adjunct to this is the Composer Pro II with Edge 50 Optic (can be bought separately). The newer mount is better built with a better feel, and the Edge optic provides a slice of focus -- like a tilt-shift lens or miniature effect -- rather than a circle ($425, £340; I can't find the Edge 50 optic online in Australia, but if you buy it overseas the US price converts to $585.).