PetaPixel

Your Kit Lens is An Excellent Lens

FUJI5435

As the saying goes, quality lenses are a lot more important than good bodies when it comes to investing in camera gear. They last longer, retain their value more, and have more utility overall than, say, buying the latest DSLR that will become obsolete in 3 to 5 years. But if you are into photography for the first time, you’ll likely buy an entry level camera that comes bundled with an inferior, even crappy, kit lens. Or is it?

Do you really need quality gear to take good pictures? Spend thousands of dollars on red/golden rings lenses?

It is no surprise that people often hold camera manufacturer’s kit lens in low regard. They used to be plagued with issues like lack of sharpness, aberrations, chromatic fringing not to mention a gimmicky build quality with slow, noisy autofocus. However, these times have long gone and the kit lens has long evolved ever since then.

Nowadays, modern kit lenses have mostly addressed these numerous issues and have made them strong choices for the beginner (but also advanced) photographer.

Where the kit lens excels

First of all, the sharpness and resolution of all modern kit lenses are nothing short of excellent. Even on large 24MP APS-C sensors, these small lenses will outresolve the image sensors despite what some critics may say.

No, it can’t compare with a L lens, but for a piece of glass that costs merely $150-200, it performs admirably well.

Most of the kit lenses today also include aspherical elements to reduce aberrations, and nearly all of them come integrated with vibration reduction, allowing anyone to shoot at 1/20, even 1/10th of a second with steady hands in dark light.

What might surprise a lot of you is that kit lenses might be actually sharper than dedicated ultra-wide lenses, since they don’t have a retrofocus design. Here’s a comparison if you don’t believe me.

Also, the wide-angle focal range included with kit lenses is hugely useful. A 18-55mm lens should really be only used at its widest angle, 18mm. This focal length is more than wide enough for most uses, including landscape photography. Unless you are always shooting landscapes, there really isn’t any reason to consider something else for the job.

In fact, since excellent sharpness is one of the key factors of the modern kit lens, just about any kind of work that isn’t reliant on bokeh and depth of field can be done handsomely with it — things like architecture or even street photography. And yes, it can be used as a short telephoto in a pinch, but with a slow minimum aperture and (the lack of) bokeh it really isn’t a viable solution. More on that later.

Boats at Blue Hour. Taken with a 18-55mm kit lens.

Boats at Blue Hour. Taken with a 18-55mm kit lens.

Another thing worth considering is that the minimal focusing distance of these lenses are amazing. They can’t do 1:1 macro, but 25 centimeters minimal focusing distance (i.e. your lens can focus from infinity to 25 centimeters in front of your sensor) is better than 75% of the lenses out there in the market and will allow any beginner to at least experiment with macro photography.

Adding extesnion tubes/close-up filters will allow you magnify even more, while using a reversing ring can allow you to do 1:1 macro at nearly no cost!

And finally, people often ignore weight when buying lenses. While the features of a pro lens are certainly better than those of a kit lens, you’ll pay for that not only in price, but also in weight. Heavy lenses are not only bulky, but they also make all but the heaviest pro DSLRs unbalanced and heavily front-weighted, which makes the camera awkward to operate.

Packing less and less heavier means walking and seeing, and enjoying photography more, and a lens that weights a mere 200g is basically nothing.

Where the kit lens falls short

The kit lens today has long evolved from the cheap placeholders from the past, but even though its improvements are impressive, the kit lens still has some flaws.

To start off, build quality obviously isn’t the best. The whole lens is made out of plastic (no, metal mirrorless lenses are not really considered “kit” lenses in my opinion) except for the glass and the electronics.

Even the mount is made out of plastic, and although it is (almost) never going to fall apart, you probably have already thought about it before. The whole plastic feels wobbly and looks cheap, but heck, for $150 it’s pretty decent. And it isn’t totally bad either, since plastic and cheaper parts means a lighter lens.

Also, the aperture of these lenses are only half-decent. A maximal aperture of f/3.5-5.6 is not that bad, but it is still below standard for most good zooms and a whole level below fast primes. If you are shooting landscapes or architecture, this shouldn’t matter at all.

But as I’ve mentioned earlier, don’t expect to shoot portraits or get silky smooth bokeh with a 18-55mm lens, it simply won’t happen. Investing in an inexpensive 50mm f/1.8 lens is probably one of the best photography investments you can make for portraits (and photography in general).

Note : Some people may criticize the limited focal length of the kit lens, but I really think that it is one of its core strengths. 18-200mm walkarounds might be convenient, but not only are their image quality often worse than kit lenses, but they are bulky and encourage bad photo habits (precisely because they are just so convenient!).

Another example of how well a kit lens can perform with the right technique. Lake Morraine, Alberta, Canada.

Another example of how well a kit lens can perform with the right technique. Lake Morraine, Alberta, Canada.

The bottom line

Kit lenses are, despite their shortcomings, excellent lenses with amazing capabilities if used well. If you think that you’ve outgrown this lens (I haven’t yet myself and still use it on occasions!), don’t buy another zoom yet. Instead, consider investing in prime lenses. 50mm, 85mm, 35mm, or pretty much any focal length.

Seriously, with a prime and a standard zoom, you’re all set for 95% of the potential photographic tasks out there. The rest is up to you.

Remember: it’s the photographer who makes the picture, not the camera!


About the author: Wei Xi Luo is a photographer based in Montreal, Quebec. He is the blogger behind Photograph IO. This article originally appeared here.


 
  • Jason Yuen

    Just for my 2 cents, I went to Banff for the July 1 Canada Day weekend and also went to Moraine Lake. Here is a photo I took. Feel free to compare this with the one above.

    Sony A7
    Leica 21mm Elmarit F2.8 ASPH.

  • Alex Tardif

    Ohhhh 21mm Elmarit! Excellent shot!

  • M_A

    Why are critical posts removed? This article is wrong in so many aspects, it simply does not live up to this site’s standard.

  • Sebastián Cristóbal Henríquez

    a word of detail lost between a 18-55mm to 50mm nikon

  • Zamfirescu Vladimir-Alexandru

    At some point, good enough just won’t cut it. QED.

  • Pickle

    Oh boy! Another “It’s not the gear, it’s the photographer” post!

  • pgb0517

    Seems like a pretty decent analysis to me. Most people just put their photos on Facebook anyway.

  • whoopn

    This one looks MUCH better.
    If you want to go shoot things with a kit lens Wei then go ahead. For those who really want the best photos we’ll invest in good lenses. Is the kit lens ok? Yeah its ok and that’s about where comparisons should stop.

    Now if you’re new to photography, learn the camera and the skills first then get some better equipment.

    My 2 cents is to never invest in DX lenses if you can avoid it. So if you start into photography and its not your thing then sell the kit you bought or keep it and you’re good. But if you go for bigger, better, faster, then just buy the pro stuff. I wasted so much money buying DX (non full frame) only to turn around and have to re-buy all of my lenses for FX. Learn from my mistake.

  • David Vaughn

    lol How can this one look much better? Both are small compressed web images.

  • whoopn

    I never stated WHY, just that it does. A lot of it likely due to editing not being quite so extreme on the image Jason posted

  • Tony

    Are you kidding me? Some $100-200 dollars kit lens vs L glass? There is no comparison. What is this guy smoking?

  • Poki

    For me, it’s also about the feeling while using a lens. A wobbly plasticky thing is simply not as inspiring to use as, say, a Zeiss lens. And yes, the quality difference is pretty significant, at least that has been my experience.

  • Jake

    Obviously, the camera, processing, and conditions were different for both your and the author’s shots, not to mention the other difference, which is that you’re comparing a top-end Leica against a $150 kit lens. The kit lens is “excellent,” according to the article, but I don’t think anyone would argue that it supersedes a pro-level lens.

  • Jake

    “No, it can’t compare with a L lens…”
    You can read, right? Or are you smoking something too?

  • ReinoldFZ .

    I don’t know, the photograph with the boats seems to have so much vignetting. When you use first simple or kit lenses you don’t notice that; once you use a quality lens (even in compact cameras) you start to notice that some lenses have better reproduction, don’t flare so much, need less editing, etcetera. I am not professional so it could be a bias, but I don’t think so, I can notice the difference even in smaller sizes between a Zeiss lens and a cheap lens that rely more in software corrections.

  • cacamilisseacht

    Mmmm Zeiss glass, sweet bokeh on the 85mm f1.4, while it may not give a beginner great pics, new gear certainly does provide enough inspiration for a while

  • Zos Xavius

    Ken Rockwell, is that you?

  • Jason Yuen

    That is true. The article doesn’t say it’s comparable to higher end equipment. It comes down to each person’s definition of excellence. I wouldn’t call myself a pro photographer or an especially good one, but to me, it does illustrate that better equipment does lead to better photos and it matters as much as the photographer.

  • Jason Yuen

    Yes, I like to process the images so that they resemble more closely to what my eyes see. All I did to that photo is boost the shadows a bit, pull back the highlights, and increase a bit of saturation. You can especially see the difference on the left mountain. The dynamic range is boosted to resemble more like what I saw in person.

  • Kynikos

    He didn’t beg for money, so I’m thinking it’s not.

  • Bewar3them00n

    So we get articles about investing in good quality primes, ditch the kit lens, followed by your kit lens is ok… I await the book, ” your kit lens is ok, so are you”

  • Jonathan Maniago

    “18-200mm walkarounds might be convenient, but not only are their image
    quality often worse than kit lenses, but they are bulky and encourage
    bad photo habits (precisely because they are just so convenient!).”

    Bad photo habits? Blame your equipment!

  • name

    actually, if you saw the kit lens video on digital rev, they compared it to a 24-105 f4 L at f8. I was pretty surprised too by the outcome

  • Jim Johnson

    It’s almost like there are different opinions on this.

  • Jim Johnson

    Convenience of a zoom lens leads a lot of people to bad habits. I teach at a state university, and for the introductory course, zooms are forbidden.

  • Jim Johnson

    Like it or not, kit lenses today are sharper with less color aberration than most “pro” lenses were a decade ago. Modern engineering and manufacturing techniques have made higher quality optical elements far cheaper than before, and we are reaping the rewards.

    As the article states, there are drawbacks, and you should always get the highest quality lens you can afford, but for 99% of shooters and photos (which will probably be shrunk down even to print), there is negligible difference in the final image quality between the kit and the “pro” lens.

    I see a lot of people who are trying desperately to justify their expensive purchases (or are desperate to see themselves as special/pro). I just don’t understand the defensiveness.

  • Zos Xavius

    great :)

  • Zos Xavius

    LOL. truth

  • Guest

    Wow – you really see the sky like that? Can I have some of what you’re taking?

  • http://www.digipixelpop.com Digi•Pixel•Pop

    It’s amazing how blue the sky will look at altitude in an area with low pollution.

  • http://www.digipixelpop.com Digi•Pixel•Pop

    At f/8, most lenses are equal.

  • http://www.digipixelpop.com Digi•Pixel•Pop

    There are advantages to high-spec lenses. Sharpness it probably the easiest quality for a casual photographer to see in a lens, but it’s generally one of the least important. Between f/5.6-f/8 most lenses are equal in sharpness, so if you need a sharper image, just stop down to that. With a “pro” lens, you’re generally paying for a larger aperture, more consistent performance from larger to smaller apertures, flare resistance, less curvature of field, less distortion, less aberrations and less focus shift. A lot of these things are not necessarily important or as noticeable to an amateur, but to a professional they may be, especially distortion. Pro lenses are generally better corrected optically and have better lens coatings, which is why they are more expensive.

    Some of the sharpest images I’ve taken with the Nikon D700 were from the 18-55mm (pre-VR) kit lens which came, I think, with the D40. Between 22mm and 55mm it would cover FX and I was using it in an “emergency” situation when my 24-70mm f/2.8G wasn’t available to me. Other than sharpness, it’s not a spectacular lens, but it’s perfectly fine for most casual photography, or even professional in a pinch.

  • StronglyNeutral

    Not a particularly well articulated piece, in my opinion. First off, I don’t like that the author is the one who makes the statement, “But if you are into photography for the first time, you’ll likely buy an entry level camera that comes with an inferior, even crappy, kit lens.” Then, surprise, he attempts to dispel this notion. I guess if I don’t believe his initial statement already, I’ve no need to read on. I sold cameras and I am well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the kit lenses. I always made sure to explain this to my customers. I guess I just think it would make more sense for the author to cite the places where this idea of the crappy kit lens is coming from, rather than just stating it himself. Years and years ago, I recall the kit lens being an issue. But lately I have seen plenty of praise for the capabilities for these starter lenses.

    Lastly, statements where the author writes describes (to entry level photographers mind you) that the kit lens performs ‘admirably’ and the build is ‘pretty decent’…for a $150-200 lens. OK well, what does that mean to an entry-level photographer?

  • Rolling stone

    well

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  • Jim Johnson

    Yep, there are advantages, but I stand by my opinion that 99% of photos don’t use those advantages. Buy the best lens you can, don’t skimp, but don’t break the bank either. And you should buy your gear according to your needs. If a kit lens does everything you want, stick with it.

  • http://www.digipixelpop.com Digi•Pixel•Pop

    I don’t think it’s fair to say that 99% of photos don’t use those advantages, but it may be more accurate to say that 99% of amateurs won’t see the advantages or be able to leverage them early on.

  • libbydbone

    as Thelma
    explained I cannot believe that a stay at home mom can make $7420 in four weeks
    on the internet . more info here C­a­s­h­f­i­g­.­C­O­M­

  • Tyler

    The lighting is also vastly different and probably the main decider. The elmarit shot is diffuse and low across the mountains.. probably 5-6pm while the kit shot is almost shot around noon.

    No matter how good your glass, bad lighting will ruin your shot

  • Jason Yuen

    The shot I took was actually almost exactly at noon. The image is pointed south south west.

  • ikea

    Nice shot, but I’m not sure what the point of this post is other than attention seeking. Sorry to be rude but a near identical picture (except for FOV) could have been taken with an entry level camera and kit lens. Does this scene demand the strengths of your gear like low light performance or faster aperture? Probably not. The reason this picture is “better” than the picture in the article is because of the editing. It has hardly anything to do with the gear you used. Maybe it’s microscopically sharper but that certainly won’t show up in a 600×361 jpg.

  • kassim

    Yeah right.

  • hereiam2005

    Its the shadow – the shadow length of the mountains in both picture is the same. So the time is about the same. (assuming of course its the same time of the year, which probably is not, due to a large different in the amount of snow).

  • hereiam2005

    And most people shoot landscape at f8 or smaller apertures.

  • Dhaval Motghare

    I don’t necessarily agree with this article. The best thing I did was to get rid of my crappy kit lens. I don’t know about other manufacturers but Nikon’s 18-55mm kit lens is really crappy. I generally recommend people to drop the kit lens and either go for a 50mm or 35mm Nikkor lens. Plenty of first time SLR users don’t understand why there pictures are still awful even after buying a SLR, yes I know it is mostly because of lack of understanding and shooting discipline but the kit lens is also to blame. Its a Catch 22 situation, the kit lens is really bad in the hands of in-experienced photographer and well the kit lenses are only used by in-experienced photographers. So ya I think manufacturers should bundle a good lens even if it increases the price of the camera.

  • Tony

    Jake, you’re correct. I read it too fast, I guess… And no, I wasn’t smoking anything :-) …

  • Rick

    Jim Johnson, are you stuck in 1985? You can learn about composition using a zoom lens.

  • Jim Johnson

    Composition is the exact reason we don’t allow zooms. We encourage students to choose the final look of the image before they begin to shoot. Choosing a focal length beforehand forces students to slow down and plan. Zooms are great, but it is too easy to start shooting, zooming in and out without planning what you are going to get. Most new photographers also use a zoom to frame their image without regard to how different focal lengths affect the way space and distance look in camera.

    It’s not about what can be done, but what should be done. For people who don’t grasp the subtleties of photographic composition yet, using a zoom creates lazy habits.

  • Bewar3them00n

    beautiful ( photo’s!!) I won’t ask what you use etc… I’m loving the colours and pop in these shots, great stuff

  • eraofd

    The problem with gear junkie photographers or so-called photographers is they have this habit in putting down other photographers for using “cheap” equipment. Photography is art! It is not some bragging fest to see who has a better equipment. That is so immature! Who gives a heck that you spent so much money on pro-equipment. By the way, a good photographer makes a good picture not a lens and not a camera! A lens and a camera are just TOOLS, but it seems SOME people have a hard time understanding that.