The Must Have Lens For Anyone Starting Out as a Professional Photographer

The Must Have Lens For Anyone Starting Out as a Professional Photographer

So you upgraded to a DSLR to take your photography to the next level and you now feel a strong urge to step into the big bad world of professional photography. You have the kit lenses, but you know they won’t cut it. Let me introduce you to the must-have kit lens of professional photographers.

Your Direction in Photography

When I transitioned from a hobby photographer to a part-time professional, I started off with model portfolio shoots and event photography. Then came weddings, portraits, editorial and commercial shoots and so on. A fair few of you will start off your professional photography career in a similar fashion. Or at least cover some aspects of the above-mentioned path.

When I was feeling that strong urge to make the jump to professional photography, I was given some great advice by a senior photographer: your next purchase needs to be a fixed aperture lens, preferably f/2.8 or lower. Upon further exploration of that advice, I fixed my gaze on a Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8. I saved up for it, bought it and can confidently say that it was the best return on investment I’ve had from a single piece of photography gear ever!

Hey Versatility, Meet Your Photography Twin

I call this my bread and butter lens. That’s because it may not be a specialist lens or rated top-notch at any of the focal lengths or have the creamiest bokeh, but you can use it to shoot events, weddings, portraits, editorials, products, travel, landscapes and so much more at a comfortably high quality. So versatile!

Reliability, Are You Sure Your Nickname Isn’t 24-70mm f/2.8?

Whatever the situation, whatever the lighting, this lens will deliver. Over the years, as I became better at photography, I relied more and more on primes and other specialized lenses. But if there is one lens I always carry, it’s the good old 24-70mm f/2.8. For example, in low light conditions, certain primes like the 50mm f/1.2 might struggle with auto-focus and when shooting an event or a wedding that can be a risky affair. I’ve found my 24-70mm f/2.8 to be much quicker in this regard.

Arguments Against Purchasing the 24-70mm f/2.8

“It is not as versatile as 24-105mm f/4”

One could argue for the 24-105mm f/4 as an alternative but I’ve found that extra stop between f/2.8 and f/4 to be a lifesaver many times. When I started shooting weddings, I came to understand why f/2.8 felt a whole lot more magical than f/4. For one, in low light situations that one stop of light made a huge difference if I wanted to maintain a reasonably low ISO and could not use external light (e.g in a low lit church during the ceremony). Secondly, I found f/2.8 to be a sweet spot between blurring the background to bring focus to my subject and not blurring my background so much that it loses context (e.g. shooting dynamic groups during events). Yes, at times I did wish that my lens also had a focal length of 105mm but it was always an easy compromise given its advantages over f/4.

“It makes you lazy as a photographer”

This probably has some truth in it. It’s a classic zoom lens and you can get comfortable with it. But if truth be completely told in context, when you’re starting out as a professional photographer, you are learning so many new things about your craft that it can be overwhelming at times. You can run out of poses for your client to do or your lighting may not be working with a particular scenario and on and on. You can allow yourself a crumb of comfort in the form of this lens as long as you keep developing your skills as a photographer. Moreover, I’m sure, further down your career, when you have the cash, you won’t mind honing your skills on your brand new bokehlicious 85mm f/1.2!

Pricing

The best part about this lens is that because it is so popular among professional photographers, pretty much every lens manufacturer has had a go making this lens. So you have a variety of prices (with some variation in quality) available to you. I won’t get into what is the “best” 24-70mm f/2.8 option out there but if you have one of the unenviable kit lenses that came with your starter DSLR, like the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, you will be better off with any of these options below. However, I do recommend hiring some of these out to try before you settle on a favorite.

The Best Starter

Tamron - from $1,199

I have found it to be slightly slower on the auto-focus compared to its peers along with a yellow-er skin tone. But overall, a great starter lens.

For the Experimenters

Sigma - from $1299

This one is about 200g heavier compared to it’s Tamron and Canon cousins but I’ve been impressed with its overall image quality.

The Thoroughbreds

Canon / Nikkon / Sony - from $1599

These are the steam engines of the business: quick, easy, rugged and either one would be a great investment for the long term.

On a side note, these lenses hold their monetary value quite well. So if you wanted to sell these a few years down the line, you’d still get a decent return on your original purchase.

Is there another lens you’re considering purchasing as your first on your way to becoming a professional photographer? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.

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76 Comments

I'm an APS-C photographer, so maybe my question is moot, but why not the Sigma 17-70 2.8 - 4.0?
Is it just that this one is a straight 2.8?

Nesh Soni's picture

Hi Marcus, I was also on APS-C when I first made the transition (with my Canon 400D). The Sigma 17-70 2.8-4 will give you some extra room when it comes to really wide shots and from what I can tell, it’s cheaper as well. Yay to both of those! On the other hand, you would miss out on the depth of field you’d get at the 70mm end at 2.8 along with that extra stop of light. Moreover, I would also compare the overall quality for both. In fact, if price is an issue, see if you can get a second hand 24-70 f/2.8 from a reliable source.

The amount of bokeh one would miss out on with f/2.8 vs f/4.0 at 70‪mm is insignificant. What is more important is the low-light work, not the bokeh.

Good point. With the high ISO capability of today's cameras, "fast" lenses aren't valuable because of the shutter speeds they permit you to shoot at. That was the case back in the olden days, but is no longer relevant. Today, wide apertures are valuable because of the shallow depth of field they facilitate and because they permit more light for increased autofocusing performance.

Charles Burgess's picture

I have to disagree that "fast lenses aren't valuable...or relevant" The ISO capability of today's cameras still invoke noise issues and the "olden days" fundamentals where the lower ISO you can work with results in the best images. It still is all about how much light you can actually utilize, instead of compensating/compromising with higher ISO.The lenses from those "olden days" are still relevant and still work their magic on today's camera bodies.

Imagine a writer using pen and ink and deciding to use less ink than required, and cannot finish writing his essay. This analogy likens photographic "light" to the ink the writer uses. Higher ISO can be likened to writing using just dots - like in pointillism in drawing - requiring the reader to connect the dots to read the composition: the gaps between the ink dots is the noise that high ISO can render into the image.

Anyone who has read the triad by Ansel Adams, The Negative, The Camera, and The Print, has the fundamental understanding that the Negative (today the camera's sensor/raw image file) has to record all of the image information you want and need. This requires all the light you can muster - thus the primary reason for fast glass. Photography is after all "lighting with light".

Nathan Chilton's picture

I consider a 24-70mm far more useful on APS-C anyway (for people photography).

Michael Kuszla's picture

I've leave my Nikon 17-55mm F2.8, to stick with the Sigma 18-35mm F1.8. It's not as versatile, but, even when I travel, I needed to go forward, to be more creative.
To be honnest, if I had a 18mm f1.8 on Nikon APS-C, I would choose it.

So for now? What's in my bag when I'm traveling? (well, even everyday, I just use this three lenses...)
Sigma 18-35mm f1.8
Nikkor 50mm f1.4 (FF)
Nikon 85mm f1.4 (FF)

The choice of prime 85mm for traveling seems to be obvious, but on APS-C, the frame become a ~120mm. And even if this is a particular lens, I can shoot, portrait, landscape, lifestyle, shoot details and many more.

Finally the must have is the lens that suits you. Not the sharpest or the widest range.
To find you lens, I suggest to take a look to your photo library, and to check the number of photographies per lens.
For me, for the last 12 years, I mostly use 28mm, 50mm, 85mm (from zooms and prime lenses). 28mm FF stay my to-go lens. But my uses are not the same as yours.

Nesh Soni's picture

That's a great suggestion however, there are also people out there how only own kit lenses and don't quite know what their chosen niche in photography is going to be two years from now. For them, going with something like a 24-70mm f/2.8 can be a good starting point.

Michael Kuszla's picture

Anything starts with a 24-70mm :)

No, this is not at all the case. I think your statement is too narrow-minded. I shoot wildlife and sports action. Those genres do not "start with a 24-70". In fact, a 24-70 is pretty much useless for everything I shoot.

Charles Burgess's picture

Soni did preface his observations with "... I started off with model portfolio shoots and event photography. Then came weddings, portraits, editorial and commercial shoots and so on. A fair few of you will start off your professional photography career in a similar fashion. Or at least cover some aspects of the above-mentioned path." Among the vast majority of photographers, most had a similar path in their development as a photographer. In the paragraph following the above quote, Soni wrote "...fixed aperture lens...", which is the entire point of the article. His selection of the 24-70mm-f/2.8 was based upon the photography that he was doing at the time, and still does. You issue with the 24-70 is only about the focal length, which is mostly determined by how close you can be in relation to the subject. A f/2.8 fixed aperture lens with the focal length you need in wildlife and sports action photography is still a valid point, as it will hold the aperture setting no matter how much you zoom in or out.

He's right and wrong. I must have lens. The Tamron 24-70 2.8 G2 is not a starter lens. It is better than the latest Nikon lens and less than half the price. The autofocus is fast and its vibration control is the best on the market. Far better tthan Nikon or Sigma. It is also has a good build quality and after one year of use, I'm happy with it, inlcuding the colour of the subjects I shoot. I wouldn't spend the money that Nikon charges. Other reviewers on FStoppers have said pretty much the same thing about Tamron's G2 series of lenses.

Nesh Soni's picture

I would also not spend the money that Nikon charges, but then again I shoot Canon ;)

Mike Stern's picture

Gosh. That first sentence, “So you upgraded to a DSLR to take your photography to the next level and you now...”
Is this article 9 years old? Who upgrades to DSLR today?

Andy Day's picture

Canon still sells tens of thousands of Rebels every year, so I guess quite a few!

Daniel Sandvik's picture

I would upgrade from my DSLR to a DSLR.

Brian Albers's picture

‘Who upgrades to DSLR today?’

People who have been using their phone their whole lives, but want to make the jump to a dslr system with all the interchangeable lenses and the bigger sensors…

Nesh Soni's picture

Hahaha, Mike, love the drama in your assessment! If you haven't already, you should give writing a go.

I think I need to add context here for all those replying to the thread.

«So you upgraded to a DSLR….»
Past-tense. It has already happened.

«…You have the kit lenses….»
Which means that this is not a plan to purchase. You already got, and have been using the kit lenses.

«…but you know they won’t cut it.»
Using them long enough to know that you need better.

«…to take your photography to the next level …feel a strong urge to step into …professional photography.»
You decided you are good enough or knowledgeable enough to go pro.

This is NOT someone coming from a iPhone or Huawei to a pro-level camera. This is someone who has a pro-level camera, wanting pro-level lenses. No one goes from shooting with a phone to, “Hey, I want to go pro!” They go from shooting with a phone to, “Hey, I want a real camera to be better at my hobby.”

Which still begs the question, “what did they upgrade from, to a pro-level DSLR?” Not a phone. It must have been another DSLR, or MILC. (But why go from a MILC to a DSLR)?

It is a good question. I think the author must have meant, “So you upgraded your DSLR,…” or perhaps, “So you upgraded to a DSLR to take your photography to the next level and you now feel a strong urge to upgrade again to step into….” Either of those would have been a better starter sentence.

Charles Burgess's picture

Good points to ponder. My take on Mike Stern's comment was it is satire/humor of the type that makes the reader think deeper...which you did quite well and can be the basis of some really thoughtful discussion.

In my case, I upgraded to a DSLR from a SLR (within the same brand so that I can use all the old glass). I still use a TLR 6x6 too. Yep, I started with analog film. Now, even though I am using digital tools, my creative thought process is still an analog workflow.

Why the SLR format? I could never get my head/heart around not having the visual isolation provided by the SLR viewfinder or the older style view camera (Adams et. al.) with its hood. Even when shooting tethered, my monitor is shrouded on the top and sides to allow me to only see the framing of the shot. Additionally, I love the audible aesthetics of the D/SLR mirror fluttering...which provides me with ton's of visual/audible enjoyment as a photographer. That is mostly why I probably will never go with MILC (notice that I said "probably").

Good point. I also upgraded from an SLR to a DSLR, also kept brand for lenses, …but I was already pro before the upgrade, with pro glass.

Regarding analog workflow, I keep insisting to others that the shift from emulsion to silicon film was not a great paradigm shift in photography. Things may be easier to do with a computer instead of a darkroom, but all the old principles still apply.

Your feedback was very insightful. Thanks.

Today, people still upgrade from their cell phone cameras to DSLRs. I know two people locally who bought DSLRs for the first time within past year. I also know two other people in my regional photography club who upgraded from bridge cameras to DSLRs within the past year and a half. Those are the people who upgrade to DSLRs.

Paul Lindqvist's picture

Kind of pointless as it depends on so many factors, it's not like a specific lens is a "must" to become professional. It all depends on what and how you shoot.

The first rule is always if you do not know what kind of lens you need, you simply don't need one. What you need is more experience and knowledge, when you have that you won't have to ask.

To get this experience and knowledge using what you have and loan/rent glass is a perfect option, or if you have the budget buy and sell.

Nesh Soni's picture

Paul, I see where you're coming from. I agree that you need more experience and knowledge before you jump to become a pro. I just feel that kit lenses are limited in what they can offer in terms of education. Beyond a certain point, as long as you can afford it, you're better off taking a leap of faith and invest in good quality glass to take your photography knowledge further. And I feel that the 24-70mm f/2.8 is great in that regard as well.

William Howell's picture

I think if you’re just starting out, an 18-200mm is good. I liked mine, but once you get to use an lens like the 24-70mm f/2.8, you can really see what lens can do.

When exactly was it that 2.8 was a “lifesaver” compared to f4? I mean if your life was saved because your wedding clients were happy with the shots where you could use iso 800 instead of 1600 say, 5, 7, 8 years ago then they will still be happy if you use a 24-105 f4 now because camera sensors have gotten so much better in low light that even 3200 is as good as 800 8 years ago. I’ve found that 24-105 is these days a better choice in a 1 camera lens set up. Much better reach. As far as bokeh is concerned, the 105 end of 24-105 at f4 has less DOF and more apparent “bokeh” because of the compression than 70 2.8. Yes, you have to step further back but then again if you’re in a tight space and you have more than 1 person in the shot (usually the case at a wedding) then f4 will more often than not be the “lifesaver”, not 2.8.If you really want that fashionable wide angle bokehlicious look then 2.8 won’t do it anyway, you need a 24mm 1.4 for that. If you have the money, 24-105 on one body and and a 50 or 85 1.8 on the other is best. The 24-105 is lighter than the great hulking 24-70 and 50 or 85 1.8 on the other weighs nothing. If you can’t afford it then the 24-105 is, these days, a great choice.

Its a lifesaver for some because the f2.8 lets in more light for the autofocus to work a little better. I have the 24-70 and have used the 24-105. Glad I got the f2.8 for the zoom but after getting the 50/1.4 and 35/1.4 f2.8 and especially F four are slooooow....

Oli Aponte's picture

I'm pretty sure that the fstop range or current setting doesnt have any sort of effect on focusing in low light. Lenses are wide open everytime you look inside the viewfinder of a DSLR

ITS SIMPLY PHYSICS: MORE LIGHT FOR THE AF SENSOR TO WORK WITH AT F2.8. TRY SHOOTING WITH A F5.6 LENS WIDE OPEN AND LET US KNOW HOW WELL IT PERFORMS IN LOW LIGHT OR SUBOPTIMAL CONDITIONS.

Charles Burgess's picture

Yin Ze, your comment about F2.8 vs a 5.6 in low light conditions (we need to quote candle power to be precise) is a very good description of what I've experienced, one of the main reasons I change lenses during a shoot. Attach a lens filter always reduces how much light enters a lens, thus making the 5.6 even slower, even to the point that AF does not function as well.

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