What lenses should you buy for your Nikon digital SLR?


Jump to my Nikon Guides page
If Nikon has one advantage over many of the other vendors of digital SLRs (other than making great, affordable cameras), it's the mind-bending assortment of high-quality lenses available to enhance the capabilities of cameras like the Nikon D300. You can use thousands of current and older lenses introduced by Nikon and third-party vendors since 1959 (although lenses made before 1977 may need an inexpensive modification.) These can give you a wider view, bring distant subjects closer, let you focus closer, shoot under lower light conditions, or provide a more detailed, sharper image for critical work. Other than the sensor itself, the lens you choose for your dSLR is the most important component in determining image quality and perspective of your images.
   You can click on a link below to see my lens recommendations for specific Nikon digital SLRs.  But, when choosing your first lens, consider these factors:
  • Cost. You might have stretched your budget a bit to purchase your Nikon D300, so you might want to keep the cost of your first lens fairly low. Fortunately, there are excellent lenses available that will add from $100 to $300 to the price of your camera if purchased at the same time.
  • Zoom range. If you have only one lens, youíll want a fairly long zoom range to provide as much flexibility as possible. Fortunately, the two most popular basic lenses for the D300 have 3X to 5X zoom ranges, extending from moderate wide-angle/normal out to medium telephoto. Either are fine for everyday shooting, portraits, and some types of sports.
  • Adequate maximum aperture. Youíll want an f/stop of at least f/3.5 to f/4 for shooting under fairly low light conditions. The thing to watch for is the maximum aperture when the lens is zoomed to its telephoto end. You may end up with no better than an f/5.6 maximum aperture. Thatís not great, but you can often live with it, particularly with a lens having vibration reduction (VR) capabilities, because you can often shoot at lower shutter speeds to compensate for the limited maximum aperture.
  • Image quality. Your starter lens should have good image quality, because thatís one of the primary factors that will be used to judge your photos. Even at a low price, several of the different lenses that can be packaged with the D300 kit include extra-low dispersion glass and aspherical elements that minimize distortion and chromatic aberration; they are sharp enough for most applications. If you read the user evaluations in the online photography forums, you know that owners of the kit lenses have been very pleased with its image quality.
  • Size matters. A good walking-around lens is compact in size and light in weight.

  • Fast/close focusing. Your first lens should have a speedy autofocus system (which is where the Silent Wave motor found in all but the bargain basement lenses is an advantage). Close focusing (to 12 inches or closer) will let you use your basic lens for some types of macro photography.
    NEW!  My real-world evaluation (not review) of the most valuable Nikon lenses I've used:
    Specific lens and accessory recommendations for your camera:

    What lenses can do for you:

     
  • Wider perspective. Your 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 or 16-85mm f/4-5.6 lens has served you well for moderate wide-angle shots. Now you find your back is up against a wall and you canít take a step backwards to take in more subject matter. Perhaps youíre standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, and you want to take in as much of the breathtaking view as you can. You might find yourself just behind the baseline at a high school basketball game and want an interesting shot with a little perspective distortion tossed in the mix. Thereís a lens out there that will provide you with what you need, such as the 12-24mm zoom I recommend on my Buying Guide page.
  • Bring objects closer. A long lens brings distant subjects closer to you, offers better control over depth-of-field, and avoids the perspective distortion that wide-angle lenses provide. They compress the apparent distance between objects in your frame. Donít forget that the Nikon DX crop factor narrows the field of view of all these lenses, so your 70-300mm lens looks more like a 105mm-450mm zoom through the viewfinder. 
  • Bring your camera closer. Macro lenses allow you to focus to within an inch or two of your subject. Nikonís best close-up lenses are all fixed focal length optics in the 60mm to 200mm range But youíll find good macro zooms available from Sigma and others. They donít tend to focus quite as close, but they provide a bit of flexibility when you want to vary your subject distance (say, to avoid spooking a skittish creature).
  • Look sharp. Many lenses are prized for their sharpness and overall image quality. While your run-of-the-mill lens is likely to be plenty sharp for most applications, the very best optics are even better over their entire field of view (which means no fuzzy corners), are sharper at a wider range of focal lengths (in the case of zooms), and have better correction for various types of distortion.
  • More speed. Your Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 telephoto zoom lens might have the perfect focal length and sharpness for sports photography, but the maximum aperture wonít cut it for night baseball or football games, or, even, any sports shooting in daylight if the weather is cloudy or you need to use some ungodly fast shutter speed, such as 1/4,000th second. You might be happier to gain a full f/stop with a AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4D IF-ED for a little more than $1000, or even the pricier Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-E mated to a 1.4x teleconverter (giving you a 98-280mm f/4 lens.) If money is no object, you can spring for Nikonís superfast 400mm f/2.8 and 600mm f/4 (both with vibration reduction and priced in the $6,500-and-up stratosphere). Or, maybe you just need the speed and can benefit from an f/1.8 or f/1.4 prime lens. Theyíre all available in Nikon mounts (thereís even an 85mm f/1.4 and 50mm f/1.4 for the real speed demons). With any of these lenses you can continue photographing under the dimmest of lighting conditions without the need for a tripod or flash.
  •  Special features. Accessory lenses give you special features, such as tilt/shift capabilities to correct for perspective distortion in architectural shots. Youíll also find macro lenses, including the new AF-S Micro-Nikkor 60mm f/2.8G ED. Fisheye lenses like the AF DX Fisheye-Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8G ED, and all VR (vibration reduction) lenses also count as special-feature optics. 
  • Click a link above to see my recommendations for your camera.