10 things to look for when upgrading your standard lens

Standard lenses that come with new cameras are great when you’re getting started, but soon you may yearn for something a little more capable.

Your camera’s manufacturer will typically have a suitable alternative, although they may not necessarily be the best (or cheapest) option when you consider the raft of other capable lenses from third-party manufacturers.

So what should you look for in a standard-lens replacement? Here are ten tips.

1. Constant aperture

As kit lenses are designed for general use, manufacturers don’t particularly require them to excel in any one area.

Their maximum aperture at each end of the lens, for example, will generally be around f/3.5 at the wide end and f/5.6 at the telephoto end, which is fine for general use but not so great when you want to achieve a particularly shallow depth of field (or when trying to achieve a fast shutter speed in poor light).

For this reason, a lens with a ‘fixed’ or ‘constant’ aperture – that is, one that offers the same maximum aperture at both end of the focal range – should be on your shortlist.

Not only will this allow you to zoom freely without needing to worry about this changing, but such lenses typically offer a relatively wide aperture anyway, usually around f/2.8.

This is particularly useful at the telephoto end of the optic as zoom lenses usually offer more narrow apertures here, and it should also allow you to achieve better background blur when isolating subjects.

To find out whether it offers a fixed aperture, check the title; zoom lenses with constant maximum aperture will simply have one aperture after the focal lengths, such as 24-70mm f/2.8, instead of two, such as 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6.

2. Image stabilisation

Even though the majority of kit lenses now boast some form of image stabilisation – at least those designed for cameras without the technology built into their bodies – it’s still possible to find suitable upgrade options that lack the feature.

They are typically cheaper because of this, but it can make a considerable difference to flexibility when shooting.

If your camera doesn’t offer image stabilisation, check any lens you consider does. Looking at the manufacturers website should also detail the extent to which such a system can be relied upon, with the maximum compensatory effect stated in exposure values (EV) or ‘stops’.

These vary from around three stops to five, so compare different models to see what you could achieve.

3. Weather sealing

If your camera was designed with some form of weather resistance, it’s a good idea to use a lens with a similar degree of protection. Manufacturers will usually state the degree to which it is protected in their marketing so make sure to check this to avoid using it in conditions that cause adverse effects.

4. AF motor

Some AF motors focus quickly and quietly while others can be noisy and prevent you from working discreetly. Lenses with some kind of ultrasonic motor are designed specifically to be swift and quiet, so seek these out.

Manufacturers use different names for these, such as Ultrasonic Motor, Silent Wave Motor and SuperSonic wave Motor, but a quick glance at the spec sheet should make their presence obvious.

If you capture a lot of video and plan on using autofocus, you would be wise to consider a lens designed with this in mind – otherwise, you risk capturing its operational sounds while recording.

Some manufacturers, for example, employ stepper motors in some of their lenses, and these promise silent autofocus when shooting video.

5. Internal focus

Many kit-lens replacements offer an internal (or ‘inner’) focus system, and this can be useful depending on the lens and your style of photography.

Unlike with more conventional lenses, where the lens barrel moves in and out as you focus, the length of the barrel with these optics is the same while focusing at all times.

Given how this prevents the lens from running into any subjects in front of it this is usually stated as an advantage with macro photography, although it’s also useful with more standard lenses if shooting through a fence or railings.

It also helps to keep the centre of gravity roughly in the same place, which is useful in heavier, wide-aperture optics.

6. Version

Popular lenses, such as those offering a focal range of around 24-70mm, occasionally get replaced as technology moves on, so it’s worth checking to see which version of an optic you’re buying if there is more than one.

The giveaway is ‘II’ or ‘III’ in the title, which shows it to be a second- or third-generation optic respectively. These will typically be more advanced than the models they replace, but their asking price will reflect this.

7. Size and weight

If you opt for a lens with a longer-than-standard focal range you may find it a little longer than what you’re used to holding.

Similarly, a lens with a constant maximum aperture may be heaver than expected, and the two can have an impact on how you carry it around and how it fits into your bag.

Always try to handle any lens you’re considering, and, better still, see if you can mount it with your specific camera body as this will give you the best idea of the size and weight of the combination.

8. Optical construction

A lens with many extra-low dispersion elements or special coatings may be able to control chromatic aberration to a greater extent than a more standard lens.

Similarly, one with a number of aspherical elements may not only help with distortion and spherical aberration, but it may also allow for a lighter and more compact design.

Have a look to see what steps a manufacturer has taken here, particularly if you plan on using the wideangle end of your lens where lateral chromatic aberration and distortion can be an issue.

9. Manual focus override

Sometimes you want to be able to use a lens’s autofocus system before fine-tuning focus manually, such as when your subject slightly moves, and many lenses now offer this kind of manual-focus override. If you find yourself dong this often, check the features to see whether this is possible.

10. Diaphragm blades

Like circular bokeh? As a general rule, the more diaphragm blades within a lens the easier it can deliver this effect, although also check to see if a manufacturer makes any claims as to how rounded these blades are are as this helps too.