Using Cheap Lenses

October 24, 2012 Photography  No comments

A lot of people feel that you need expensive lenses to get great photos.  In a way, you do…but if you know your way around your DSLR, you can get by with using the cheaper lenses until you can afford to purchase something more expensive.

I just wanted to show you some examples of cheap cameras and more expensive cameras using the cheap lenses and the results you can get with them.

This first photo is of the bridge in Moore Haven, Florida that goes over the Caloosahatchee River.

Bridge - Moore Haven, FL

This was taken in June 2008 with the Canon Digital Rebel (or also known as the 300D, you can see one HERE), one of the first affordable DSLR’s Canon came out with in the 90’s.  I also used the Canon 18-55mm kit lens (you can read an article about it HERE).  I set it up on a tripod (a cheap, yet very sturdy, simple Sunpak brand tripod), used a remote shutter release (it’s like having an extra shutter release on a little remote, attached to your camera via a wire so you don’t shake the camera when you trigger the shutter, a similar one can be seen HERE), set the camera up for a 30 second exposure and used these settings:

Exposure: 30 sec

Aperture: f/22

Focal Length: 18mm

ISO: 100

The fstop of 22 allowed me to have everything in focus and the 30 second exposure got me that nice silky water you see.  Having it on the tripod and doing the 30 second exposure got me one star in the sky (it was still early, around 8pm so not many stars were out), it also allowed me to have an ISO of 100 which gave me less noise with this older camera during the long exposure.  18mm is the widest that lens would go, so it allowed me to get a lot of things into the scene.  That lens does create ‘rainbows’ around any kind of ‘ball of light’…such as the sun, street lights, etc.  This effect can be cool, or also distracting.  It’s just one thing I have to consider when I’m using that lens…if I want a nice sunset or sunrise image without the ‘rainbows’ around the sun, I need to make sure that I shoot the colors in the sky before the sun actually rises or after the sun sets.

Here’s an image with the Canon XTi (another older, cheaper canon DSLR, you can see one HERE) and the 18-55mm kit lens of a sunset, after the sun had actually set.  With this shot I didn’t get the rainbow rings around the sun since it was gone already.  This is Paine’s Creek on Cape Cod.

Paine's Creek, Cape Cod

The settings for this image were:

Exposure: 1/60

Aperture f/5

Focal Length: 21mm

ISO: 100

Having it on the tripod, with the low ISO and 1/60th exposure gave me less noise, a sharp image and sharp water.  I like the sharpness of the water in this shot (as opposed to the silky water with the slower shutter speed in the bridge image) because it gave off a great reflection of the colors of the sunset.

Something else that’s fairly easy to do is turn your cheaper lenses into macro lenses.  I used the kit lens, added a cheap screw on macro filter (made by Bower that I picked up on ebay) and was able to get this nice, simple close up image of a hoverfly using the Canon Digital Rebel.  You can see some similar macro filters HERE.

Hover Fly - Myakka State Park

If you’re looking for a screw on filter, the main thing is to make sure that the size of the filter (the mm size) will fit whatever size your lens is. Your lens will say right on it what mm it is.  For example, the kit lens I have is 58mm, so I had to get a macro filter that was the same size.  Take off your lens cap, look directly at your lens and there should be a number on there telling you the size.

We took a roadtrip out to the southwest in 2009.  I did rent a Sigma 10-20mm lens because I knew I’d need the wide angle.  I also brought with me my zoom for wildlife (100-400mm f4/5.6 USM IS L), as well as my 50mm 1.8 and the ol’ trusty 18-55mm kit lens.  We wanted to go to Upper Antelope Canyon.  One of THE places you have to visit if you’re in Arizona.  It’s a gorgeous canyon that was carved out by years and years of flash floods.  There’s ‘holes’ in the ceiling that let the sunlight stream in for amazing effects.  I brought the Sigma 10-20mm and the kit lens, as well as my tripod.  What did I end up using?  The kit lens!  The Sigma wide angle was just too wide. I even abandoned my tripod for the image I’m going to post below.  It gets crowded in there with all of the tours (you have to see Upper Antelope with a tour since it’s on Native American lands).

Here’s my absolute favorite image from that visit:


This was shot with my Canon 50D. The settings were-

Hand held, no tripod

Exposure: 1/60

Aperture: f4

ISO: 400

Yes, I hand held that shot…I didn’t use the tripod.  What I did was get down on the ground and balanced my camera on my knee, held my breath and took the shot.  What your ‘tour guide’ will do is grab a hand full of sand and throw it into the beam of light and quickly hide behind the wall you see in the image on the left.  This way you get that beautiful effect in the light beam.

Here’s an image taken behind the light beam, to show you how many people end up in there with you:

Upper Antelope Canyon

It can get crowded but the guides do a fantastic job of keeping all their groups in check.

From that same trip I created this image… using the Canon 50D and the Sigma 10-20mm I rented (you can see the lens and where I rented it from HERE).  I ended up hand holding my camera a lot on this trip, leaving my tripod behind quite a bit.  I did a three image/exposure HDR of the sunset at Dead Horse Point in Moab, Utah.  Again, steady hands (bracing yourself on something) and holding your breath can get you great results if you don’t have a tripod, forgot to bring it with you, or can’t afford to buy the one you really want yet.

Sunset At Dead Horse Point

You may not always get the results you want going the ‘cheaper’ route…but with practice you can come fairly close!

Here’s an image from that trip using the tripod, the 50D, and the Sigma wide angle of Calf Creek Falls in Utah.

Calf Creek Falls

The settings for this image were:

Exposure: 0.8 (very slow!)

Aperture: f9

ISO: 100

The slow shutter speed, and the camera being on a tripod, got me that silky water look which I wanted.

Here’s an iphone shot of my camera set up to shoot Calf Creek you can see someone was in the way so I had to wait for them to move.

Calf creek falls

And…how I shot it…sitting on the ground. I was exhausted from the hike to get there!


(that’s an even CHEAPER tripod than the Sunpak one I have, I brought that since it was extremely lightweight for the hike).

Another lens I had for awhile was the ultra cheapo Sigma 70-300mm (I believe this is the same lens HERE).  This was touted as a zoom and a lens that could be used for macro.  I’m not even sure why I had bought it…I think it had come in a package deal on ebay with another lens that I DID want.  Now, this lens was horrible for any kind of wildlife photography but it actually performed fairly well as a macro lens.  This shot below was taken with that lens and the Canon XTi.

Lubber Munchin' On Dollarweed

The settings for this image were:

Exposure: 1/400

Aperture: f9

ISO: 200

Not every single image I shot with that lens as a ‘macro’ came out, but with practice and shooting in manual mode (where I had absolute control over every setting), I was able to get decent results.

I now own the Canon 7D as well, but when I go out to shoot I’ll usually put my 100-400mm L lens on the 7D, and keep the 18-55mm kit lens on the 50D for landscapes (or I’ll pop on my 100mm f2.8 macro on the 50D).

I have better lenses and cameras now…but I wanted to let you know that no matter what kind of gear you have, you can still get beautiful photos if you know your way around the basics of DSLR’s and how they work.  When you get a DSLR, no matter what kind it is, and no matter what kind of lenses you have…if you can learn the basics of how they work, you will be able to get excellent images.

I’ll leave you with a recent shot from this weekend using the Canon 50D and the Canon 18-55mm kit lens of the sunrise:


This was hand held and the settings were: Exposure: 1/640 Aperture: f8 ISO: 200 Exposure Bias: -1/3 EV

Happy Shooting!

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