Why Your Kit Lens Isn’t as Bad as You Think It Is

One of the things that I try getting across to my students is that despite all of its amazing capabilities, the camera is just a box. Yes, it is programmed with a seemingly limitless number of exposure combinations, but when all is said and done it’s just a box. It has no artistic intent. We have to speak its language, telling it what we see, in hopes that the image in our head matches the image in the box. It is a box with a cylindrical window on the world. It’s the quality of that window that is often the subject of raging debate. Nikon or Canon? OEM or third party? Everyone has an opinion. Interestingly enough, the one thing that many– if not most– agree upon is that kit lenses should be avoided like the plague.

I completely disagree. I say go dig that kit lens out of wherever you’ve hidden it and put it to work. For those of you who’ve somehow been convinced that your photography can’t possibly be of adequate quality until you drop money you don’t have on a lens you can’t afford, I say that nothing could be farther from the truth.

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I’d be willing to bet that the overwhelming majority of us purchased our first DSLR, not with a dreamy f/1.4 or stunning L-Series glass, but with a kit lens. For me, it was a Canon 17-85mm f/4-5.6 when I bought a 20D ten years ago. When I switched to Nikon four years later, somebody tossed an 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5 into the deal when I bought their 50mm f/1.4, and I was actually glad to have it. Most photographers will tell you that they quickly outgrew lenses like these, but I think it’s more accurate to say that needs expand. You didn’t ditch your 24-70mm when you got a 70-200mm– there is room in your workflow and your style for both. If anything, both remain essential pieces of gear. While even I wouldn’t go so far as to qualify a kit lens as “essential” (unless it’s the only glass you have), I do think the much-maligned kit lens holds an important place in photography.

The Pros

It’s a pretty basic premise– camera manufacturers know that most first-time camera buyers are not professionals, and may even be a little unclear about what they need in a first lens. For that reason, most kit lenses are of a pretty useful focal length. While both Nikon and Canon have an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 that’s been pretty popular over the years, many of the newer kit lenses have longer focal lengths, giving first-time buyers a good introduction to both wide-angle and short zoom photography. The wide angle works well for landscapes and travel photography, while the longer end produces portraits with nice background compression and the least distortion.

As we know, a widest possible aperture of f/3.5 may not be best in low-light situations, but in recent years, many Canon kit lenses have been equipped with Canon’s Image Stabilization. This can make a kit lens a bit more useful in those darker situations by allowing for better hand-held images at slower shutter speeds. Don’t forget, though, that the f/3.5 is only going to be available at the widest possible angle. The moment you start zooming out, you’re on your way to f/5.6.

One of the best things a kit lens can do for you is help you learn how to be a better photographer. By knowing the limitations of your gear, and learning what your lenses (and cameras) can and can’t do, your ability to problem-solve on the spot will skyrocket. Shooting in Manual mode becomes second nature, and the quality of your photos goes up exponentially.

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Knowing what your gear can and can’t handle is an important step to successful portraits with a kit lens.

Sounds Good, But How Do I Do That?

Somebody once told me that the best approach to using a kit lens is to think of it as two primes. If I look at my 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5 as an 18mm f/3.5 and a 70mm f/4.5, I can more accurately gauge what each is capable of. Zooming all the way out and taking portraits with all available camera settings will show me what can and can’t be achieved under a particular set of lighting conditions. The same applies at the wider end for landscapes and other wide-angle subjects. Once you know what your two “primes” can do, you’re in a better position to figure out the subtleties of the variable apertures along the rest of the zoom range.

The Cons

I can sit here repeating, “It’s about the photographer, not the gear” until I’m blue in the face and my fingertips are calloused from typing. And as much as I truly believe that, I do have to agree– on some points– with the kit lens detractors. That useful focal length I was talking about before? It’s more than likely that the wide angle may not be wide enough (particularly on a crop sensor camera), and that the zoom may not get you far enough. This is a valid argument, but only to a point. We all add lenses to our arsenal over time because we need a different focal length than what we currently have at our disposal. So, saying that kit lenses should be avoided because of their limited focal length only gets you so far.

For me, the most legitimate beef with kit lenses is the variable aperture. I’m generally not a fan of variable aperture lenses. If I’m shooting wide open at f/2.8, I want to know that I have the ability to do that at both the 24mm and 70mm ends of the lens. Consistent aperture lenses are more expensive, however, which is why we’re likely to never see a 2.8 kit lens.

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There is also no denying that even blindfolded, you can pretty easily tell the difference between a kit lens and an upgrade. The weight alone, along with the quality of the build, are usually obvious giveaways. To a certain extent, the old line about getting what you pay for certainly applies. A vastly less expensive lens is not going to be sealed against dust, water, etc., nearly as well as its “professional grade” counterpart. As a side-note, I will often use an old kit lens when I’m out hiking, simply because it won’t weigh me down like some of my other lenses.

Focal length, aperture, and build quality, though, apply to the challenges you face before pressing the shutter button. The biggest and loudest complaints about kit lenses are their frequently slow autofocus and questionable sharpness. Slower autofocus is a physical limitation that I’m not going to deny. As far as sharpness goes, however, I’m going to take the unpopular view and say that if you’re not getting clear images from a kit lens, you’re not trying hard enough. At some point it really is about the photographer and not the gear.

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This panorama of the Badlands was taken with a Nikon 18-70mm kit lens and is composed of eight separate vertical exposures stitched together in Photoshop. The print is a tack-sharp 25″ x 7″

Don’t Let the GAS Get You Down

In an earlier article about GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) I talked about avoiding the pitfalls of buying expensive lenses and other gear that you don’t need and/or can’t afford. Lenses are definitely at the top of the list when it comes to those shiny photographic trinkets with a massive lust factor.  I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, saying that you should be content and satisfied with your kit lens. What I am saying, though, is that professional-quality, high-end, award-winning results are possible with a kit lens, so don’t let anyone shame you into thinking otherwise. Buy a better lens when you’re ready for it– not when somebody else tells you you need it.

Examples

My first thought was to include a collection of images taken with both professional and kit lenses, then quiz you to pick which photos came from which lenses. I opted instead to post only photos taken with either my Nikon or Canon kit lenses. Both of these lenses have yielded sharp, high-quality images– many of which are still in my portfolio today.

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Even sharp, close-up nature photography is within the reach of your kit lens.

Professional photographers need durable equipment. Our gear is often pushed to its limits through constant use, travel, location shooting, weather fluctuations, and stupid accidents. Obviously, better lenses are more likely to withstand all of these abuses abuses over time. You’ll do better to spend more money once than to spend less and replace two or three times.

The fact remains, however, your kit lens is sitting in the back of your closet. Take it out once in a while, dust it off, and make some magic with it.

All images are Copyright Guyer Photography, all rights reserved. Photo credit on Badlands panorama: Martin E. Guyer.

 

  • digitaljohn

    I completely agree. I do feel that kit lenses are picked very carefully, and thus are a very good match for the camera. Comparing all my lenses, the Canon 24-105mm on a 5D Mk2 has the greatest sharpness.

  • Guest

    Too many photographers are obsessed with equipment and not the art of photography, they know nothing about film (not that they have to use it) and for some reason are obsessive about the number of pixels and sharpness, which of course is needed and good but not needed in all circumstances. I truly believe you will always be a mediocre photography no matter how expensive or extensive your equipment is if you have no real artistic inclination. I have seen beautiful work done with cheap equipment but because the person understands light, which is the most important thing in photography, and really understand the camera, the shots were great!

  • Paula

    Too many photographers are obsessed with equipment and not the art of photography, they know nothing about film (not that they have to use it) and for some reason are obsessive about the number of pixels and sharpness, which of course is needed and good but not needed in all circumstances. I truly believe you will always be a mediocre photographer no matter how expensive or extensive your equipment is if you have no real artistic inclination. I have seen beautiful work done with cheap equipment but because the person understands light, which is the most important thing in photography, and really knows the camera they are using, the shots were great!

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Thanks, Paula. I think the key is to find some acceptable middle ground. There’s nothing wrong with lusting after gear. Being a professional requires a certain standard. But what aggravates me more than the people trying to convince others that they couldn’t possibly get high-quality results with a lowly kit lens, are the people who believe them.

  • Jim Johnson

    It is so good to see this here. Yes, you should always try to use the highest quality that you can afford, but when is good good enough. My newest kit lens is better than the expensive glass I owned 10 years ago. Variable aperture (and a smaller maximum aperture) is the only problem I have with kit lenses.

    I always tell my students to keep and use their kit lens, and then buy fast primes, which are always value for money. That is enough to keep you going for the first few years.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Kit lenses have definitely improved over the years, Jim. Unfortunately, I doubt they are ever going to improve to the point of constant apertures.

      • Jim Johnson

        Yeah, I doubt it too. So much of my work is done at f8-16. When I want a shot with a wide open lens, I usually want the characteristics of a good prime, as well. The aperture is definitely the weak point on a kit lens, but it doesn’t bother me so much in my work.

  • GS_790

    I’ve seen enough friends by expensive lenses, only to be disappointed that the new pictures were not a complete revelation, that I’m reasonably comfortable telling those that ask: the lens makes no difference.
    I know, I know, I know. This isn’t technically true. What I’ve come to learn over time is that if you cannot specifically identify the limitations of your gear, what extra capabilities you need, and if the solution is cost effective, then you are not ready to go replacing or upgrading what you already have.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      I have a student who came to class last week, telling me that she couldn’t complete the assignment because there was something wrong with her camera. I asked her what the problem was. “It won’t focus,” was her answer. After a quick glance at her settings, I realized she was trying to shoot at a very wide aperture and a VERY slow shutter speed. Obviously, nothing was wrong with her camera– just as nothing is technically “wrong” with a lower quality lens. Upgrading is awesome– if it fills an actual need, not a perceived one.

  • http://500px.com/NishantC Nishant C

    Only issue I had with my kit lens on D5100 was that Autofocus was at times just not great enough. I am a hobbyist and I realized that as time passed I stopped carrying round the camera even though I had some primes at hand. So I decided that it’s better to find a camera I will take with me than have a camera and arsenal of lenses that I will avoid carrying. Hence I have moved onto a M43 system with just a kit lens in bag.

    When I made the decision to sell off my DSLR I was instructed by friends to not do that since M43 and other MILC are apparently not good enough. Many of these people don’t even understand the basics of photography (I don’t either btw) but do always swear by FF or DSLR. And those who are actually good at it have too made up their minds about what is good and what is not, sadly.

    Having now experienced first hand, what everyone keeps saying to be true (that best camera is the one you have), I hope that I can once again rekindle my love for photography that once was when I used to use my mobile’s cam instead.

  • Jim the Photographer

    I agree with you assessment about kit lenses. Last summer I was in Maine and I had my 18-55 on my camera. I was walking around the rocks at the Nubble Lighthouse and took some fantastic photographs. My kit lens was light weight and didn’t weigh me down like the 24-70 f/2.8 I bought (and use for portrait work). If you know what you’re doing, the kit lens produces for you!

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Thanks for weighing in, Jim.

  • BuckCash

    Good job. I’ve been pointing out for years that kit lenses CAN do a great job. I’ve got some of my best photos using kit lenses.

    What I’ve found is that, in many cases, the “poor performance” attributed to kit lenses is, very often, really more attributable to lack of knowledge and experience in the new photographers who are holding them. They run out and get more expensive glass after reading the BS about kit lenses on the internet, thinking that will give them better results when, in fact, what they need more it to simply become better photographers first.

    It was good to see someone else saying that kit lenses aren’t the “junk” too often claimed on the internet.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      It’s the results that matter, Buck. Thanks for commenting.

  • RobotX

    You guys are over generalizing Kit Lens. Of course it’s useful!
    My first DSLR Kit Lens is 24-105mm f4.0L IS
    (I believe that’s the default bundled in 5DMkII/III/6D)

    It’s a damn good Kit lens and the color reproduction for that lens is really good compared to my other lenses that’s not L.
    While my first FILM SLR Nikon Kit lens is Nikkor Zoom Lens 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6G. The picture is fuzzy to the point that it is noticeable at 5″x7″ prints (looks acceptable at 4×6), even my cellphone took better details than that (not dynamic range obviously since the sensor is Fuji Velvia in the SLR :P)

  • http://wilcfry.com/ Wil Fry

    My kit lens (18-55mm f/3.5-5.6) certainly wasn’t as bad as people said it was (“rubbish”, “worthless”, etc.) It took decent images. But I wouldn’t buy another one, if that’s what you mean.

    As you indicated, they’re meant more for the folk who don’t know exactly what they want out of a camera/lens yet. I didn’t either at the time, so the lens served me well.

    Eventually, yeah, 18mm wasn’t wide enough sometimes, and 55mm wasn’t long enough from day one. It also didn’t take long before I bought an f/1.8 lens.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Thanks, Wil.. That’s a good point– I don’t think anyone sets out to buy a replacement kit lens. But if they already have one, they shouldn’t be shamed into not using it.

  • Deborah P.

    I’ve actually taken some great shots with my 18-55 lens on my D3200. I dont know if the VR is the difference or not, but I’m having fun with it.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      That’s awesome, Deborah. Fun is what it’s all about.

  • Robert Miler

    I loved the kit lens that came with my Rebel G so much I kept using it until last year. that’s almost 20 years. that thing has soul.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      That sounds like an old friend, Robert. Nice.

  • jrconner

    Back in the days of film, I used to go backpacking in the mountains with a Nikon SLR, 24mm, 105mm, and 55mm micro lenses. When digital SLRs became affordable to the masses, I carried a D50 with an 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6 kit lens, the equivalent in field of view to a 28–82mm full frame lens. For close-ups, I sometimes hauled along my 55mm f/2.8 Ais Micro Nikkor, but usually I packed a 1-2-4 kit of diopter lenses that screwed on the front. Now my hiking camera is the Nikon Coolpix P310, which covers the same angle of view range with a fast f/1.8–4.9 lens and image stabilization.

    At first, I was wary of the kit lens, expecting I was exchanging contrast and sharpness for convenience in framing. But the 18–55mm surprised me. It seemed flimsy, and still does, but it was pretty sharp, especially in the center, and once I learned how far to stop it down, it produced excellent images, especially if I used a tripod and IR remote release.

    Moreover, it doesn’t cost a bundle to replace, making it a good choice for situations in which a camera might be damaged (a color run, a riot, a rock along a trail).

    So, I agree with Mr. Guyer. What a kit lens lacks in snob appeal it makes up for in image quality. Discarding it is a mistake.

  • Chris Fridley

    I wish this article was written a year ago when I made the switch to Micro 4/3rds. I believed all the hype regarding kit lenses and I listened to the “experts” cause they had so much more experience than I did. And yes…I bought more glass. Didn’t help much..I felt better and more confident with a more expensive lens, but the results were not stunning or earth shaking…so I studied my new camera like a test subject and found out that it was me who was messing things up…not the cheap, rattling, plastic feeling kit lens. That cheap kit lens gets used almost daily with excellent results because I figured out its limitations and work around it. So Jeff, I agree with your informative article…just wish you would have wrote it earlier.

  • xspook

    Jeff, Great article….I have been a photo hobbyist for the past 8 years and due to some rough economic times I needed to sell off some of my “A” list gear. Gone is my 5D mark III and all of my nice “L” glass. When all was said and done I was “stuck” with my backup 70D and kit EFs 18-135mm is STM and a “nifty” 40mm STM. I found that I was still able to take great photos. Good photography is more then a nice lens, camera, computer and software. It is about looking at a scene, seeing something that others don’t see and then using the tools you have to capture your vision. Do I miss my nice equipment….Yes! I would be lying if I said no, however, I have the pride of knowing that my skills as a photographer can overcome my lack of “A” list gear. I also love it when I get the “stink eye” from other photographers at events and then see and compare their work with mine….Mike from TizzyLish Photography

  • Peter

    Well, I’d say this much: equipment doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to use it or handle it. But if you do have the skills and ability and can compose, then good equipment will make a huge difference. I can shoot the same frame at night after sunset with my 200/2 on a D4 or a 55-200/4-5.6 on a D3300, but there’s a very clear difference in the two resulting photos. Most people are not limited by equipment, but at certain points in one’s growth, you are limited by the equipment.

    • Peter

      And for those who disagree, try shooting these photos with a DX/EF-S body and a 55-200/4-5.6 zoom. Save me the RAW file with the EXIF data. =P

      • Frank Nazario

        I can send you the info if you want but these where shot with a kit lens…

        • Peter

          Of your 4 photos, only the last one is any bit close to sharpness as mine. And mine took 30 NR, slight color temp change only in LR (otherwise, pretty much SOOC). Upload your last file with the RAW intact please. Kit lenses don’t shoot that sharp.

          In the same light conditions as I was in, not in better lit situations.

    • Frank Nazario

      if you are implying tonal qualities and hues and definitions… specially with the new D3300 that you mention above… it is almost imperceptible once both images go through post processing and NO real world difference if you print it.

  • Frank Nazario

    this was taken with a kit lens…18-55mm that came bundled with my Nikon D3200 … so yeah… other than light gathering the 18-55 is an AMAZING value for any photographer… and yes I pay my bills with this camera… I have other lenses but this one is beautiful for tight places. The photo below was using the ambient light which had this blueish hue and that was it.

  • Frank Nazario

    Here is another example of an 18-55mm lens setup.