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!


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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Previous comments
Nesh Soni's picture

It is unlikely that every portrait photographer starting out as a pro will always have access to a big studio space/outdoor space where the 85mm can truly shine. Sometimes they might have to shoot in tight spaces and there the 85mm will be rendered useless beyond a few headshots. Also, with someone starting out, they may not have the experience to say that I can make my favorite lens work by doing X. So for those people, having a good generalist lens will help them as they start out.

Pedro Pulido's picture

understand your point of view. however, my opinion is that you should start with a prime, even if a cheap 50 1.8. It limits your options and makes you move more instead of using the zoom, thus pushing you to understand composition much better.
a well seasoned photographer can get the best out of a 24-70. a rookie will have so many options he will be lost and just spray pictures all over. a prime helps focus on a specific focal lengh and that brings challenge, creativity and purpose up.

Anyway, these are simply different opinions. None of us is more right or wrong than the other one.

Charles Burgess's picture

Most entry level pro's today shoot mostly in "available light". The reason being is that most of them are self taught and jump into the professional arena quickly after they begin to create some good images. I started serious photography in 1972, and did not turn pro until 1979. Today, many beginners will try turning pro within 6 months of getting their first camera. At that phase of a photographer's journey, their preference of genre is largely unknown. This is precisely why your recommendation for a 24-70mm f/2.8 fixed aperture lens is solid advice, as it extends them into the next phase of their development and is of sufficient focal length to tackle most subjects that are commonly available .It is a good beginning into the arena of fixed aperture lens purchases.

Henry Schneider's picture

I've been debating about buying a Canon 24-70 for my video production company ( this definitely has sold me on the fact that I should!!

John Nicholson's picture

That is my go to lens for 90% of my shooting.

yassine leyass's picture

The 24-70mm non VR is better.

chris bryant's picture

If you don't know what your "must have" lenses are before starting out in Pro photography, then perhaps you shouldn't be starting out in Pro photography.

Nesh Soni's picture

Chris, that's a bit harsh! I think it is fine to not know what your "must have" lens is or is going to be. Heck, you may think you know and it might change in a few years!

…And after a few years, one can buy the next, “must have,” lens. I think it may be time to go pro when one realises what one likes to shoot, or better yet, what one is good at shooting. If one has not figured at least one of those two things out, one is not ready to go pro.

Going pro is for those who are good at something. There were only four things that kept me from the NBA; ♪ dunking, three pointers, ♩ foul shots, and dribbling ♬. Aside from that, I was ready! Love playing me some hoops, but the love of the game is not enough to go pro. I have to be good at it. (I was great at the sky hook. That, and the fade-away. I had to be. Everyone else towered over me. It was the only way to shoot without being blocked).

Once one has figured out what one is good at, then one can figure out, and buy, the best lens.

*P.s., hope you caught the notes of sarcasm in there.

Pedro Pulido's picture

one writes in a very original way... one must be from Narnia, G.O.Thrones or L.O.F.Rings maybe?

one has earned my respect because one's opinion actually makes sense.

going pro means making it your profession. That means you earn money from it, so you better be good at it and know what you're doing.

So in this sense, both Karim and Chris's opinions make sense.

I would say the 24-70 is the most versatile lens in the market by far. It is very useful, no doubt.

But there is no RIGHT lens to start as pro. To each their own.

Anyway, strong post, brings some different opinions to the public and creates a healthy discussion

One thing to consider if you're buying aftermarket is the direction of the focus and zoom rings. Canon users may wish to consider that the Sigma Art focuses and zooms in their direction, while Nikon users may wish to consider that the Tamron G2 focuses and zooms in THEIR direction.

The writer calls the 24-70 MUST HAVE lens for a professional. I shoot professionally, but a 24-70mm is practically useless for my which is exclusively wildlife.

I do use a 24-105 in my wildlife work, but very rarely, ever, use it at anything below 40mm, and I never shoot it wide open - when I am shooting at these focal lengths, I am trying to get as much DOF as possible.

So for your professional work, if you never want to shoot wider than 40mm and you never want to shoot below f8 in the 40mm to 100mm range, what good would a 24-70 f2.8 lens be?

The lens he calls MUST HAVE is a lens that I find UTTERLY USELESS. At least it is for what I shoot and the way I shoot it. I think that before people make blanket statements, they need to consider that other photographer's needs are different from theirs, and word their statements accordingly. If he had said it was a must have for professional portrait and event photographers, then it would be a much more accurate and reasonable statement. But, because he didn't qualify the statement, there are instances in which it is wrong, and a good writer will ensure that nothing he/she writes will ever be wrong.

SHIBU GEORGE's picture

IMO, there is no "must have" lens for professionals, it depends on what you do professionally. If you do model shoots then you need a longer lens, for wild life you are talking about big money heavy long lenses, for real estate you need a wider lens........... I agree, 24-70 f/2.8 is a good all around lens for many things.

Kirk Darling's picture

I had one for a short time, then sold it. Not long enough for most of my portrait photography when I don't want exaggerated perspective, not wide enough when I want to exaggerate perspective. I really, really need that extra 30mm on my mid-range zoom more than I need the extra stop--now that higher ISOs have gotten so good.

Can you at least use photos that aren't heavily edited?

The black-and-white one of the couple in the seats at the theater is impossible to shoot without editing.