So your kit lens is rubbish, you know this for a certainty because numerous photo blogs and camera test sites have told you so. It’s been confirmed repeatedly by a wide array of couch based photo experts on all the forums of great repute and finally the first shots you have taken with it seem to be less than fully impressive. Besides that, there was this nice guy in the camera shop told you that you’d really need a better more expensive lens if you were going to get even half serious about your photography.
Don’t worry most kit lenses are not brilliant when measured or assessed in any empirical way, but realistically your kit lens was almost a freebie so what have you got to moan about. In any case, without meaning to insult anyone, most kit lenses are capable of better results than most photographers are capable of delivering.
Now I have seen a few articles on the web regarding “using your kit lens and getting more out of it” but most seem pretty token at best. Some articles seem to be fluff pieces and others downright condescending, surely we can do better?
I had a thought “how about I do a serious article that might really give new and maybe even some semi experienced photographers something solid to chew on, something that will really help and maybe even inspire you to make the most of that almost free kit lens before you go out and buy something bigger, badder, heavier and more expensive.
Some may think this article is misplaced, after all, almost every photographic website will have articles telling you that you simply must replace that “hound doggy” of a lens with something better, the inference being that you cannot possibly get great results until you do so, if that’s you then it’s probably best you stop reading this now.
There will be lots of words, like about 15,500 of them, lots of pics to show you just what you can do and hopefully a little photographic wisdom along the way. Don’t try to digest this all at once come back a few times and play with your camera and lens in between, that’s why it has been broken into three parts.
So in the words of a past Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, I want you to feel “comfortable and relaxed” about your kit lens.
Where is the Kit Lens Love?
To be honest many sites (not this one, of course) and magazines don’t really want you to get too excited about your kit lens, they want you to come back to read about the good stuff and maybe even click on one of those links to buy something tasty from one of the advertisers. Well in the interests of a vibrant photography market there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, tis business and we need people like you buying new gear to help keep the wheels turning.
So sure it’s a good idea to buy a new lens if the current one is limiting you, and I have bought quite a few but being brutally honest you’ll likely gain far more by really coming to grips with what your current kit lens can do first. The whole world of consumerism is built upon the premise that any shortfall or problem of performance can be resolved by throwing more money at it…..your money of course, and there is always someone just waiting to scratch your itch and make you switch.
Truthfully, honestly and with hand on heart I can tell you, skill, technique and artistic application will drive you much further down the creative road than a new lens, I promise, unless of course you are already a long way down the road.
Think about this, the overwhelming majority of world famous images from the start of photography right up until a few years ago were taken with lenses much less capable than almost any kit lenses found on new camera, so don’t sweat it!
In the words of a great song maybe we should “Love the One We’re With” before we start looking at those advertisements.
But Where Is The Bokeh?
Yes it’s true that your kit lens will not give you that beautiful shallow DOF and that 3B look, “Bokeliciuos Background Blur” you hear so many Photographers waxing about on web forums.
Realistically that 3B look has limited applicability and in any case the lenses that will really sing like an opera supremo for such applications are generally very expensive primes, not zooms.
Look, I would love to occasionally get the look of the Ziess Otus but at $4500.00 Aus, it ain’t going to suddenly appear in my camera cupboard and if I actually need that look commercially, I’ll hire one and charge it out to the client accordingly, but if you as an amateur want to have some “Bokelicious Fun” there’s plenty of companies who will happily hire you one of those Bokeh Monsters for the weekend.
There are so many better things you could spend your dollars on if you are in still in the early stages of your photographic journey, like a good workshop, an on-line course or travel to some nice location to use what you currently have. In a more practical sense a really good tripod or flash will open up far more possibilities for you than a marginally better lens.
Back to that kit lens…..
Kit Lenses, I’ve Had a Few
I have had many kit lenses, of those, my Sony E series 18-55mm has proved to be a fine example of the breed and in fact until recently was my most used lens out of the 50 or so lenses I own.
A Canon 18-55mm I owned for several years produced images that looked a little like they were shot through the bottom of a dirty beer glass. I think my Sony “A” series SAM 18-55 actually was the beer bottle that originally contained the beer in the bottom of the Canon’s glass, but nonetheless even these less than perfect optical specimens redeemed themselves with plenty of good shots. Funnily enough when I open old RAW files shot using those optical nasties I can usually massage them into something quite acceptable with a modern RAW convertor application.
I even have 3 Minolta 35-70 f4s from film era, (a common film era kit lens), two were really good and one was stellar, that is until I dropped it on a cement floor and misaligned its little innards. It still works fine but is soft on one side at the wide end in its now “post flight state”.
A warning to all photographers, be very careful of extreme gravity spots, they do seem to pop up a lot when lenses are not attached to cameras and near hard surfaces, they also seem to suck in parallel proportion with the cost of said lens.
Probably the best kitty I own is a tiny, humble, silver thingy called the “14-42mm Panasonic G II” (not the pancake version which is also very nice), seriously, no cheap as chips kit lens has any right to be as good as this lens and from all accounts the 12-32mm Panasonic pancake is also superb.
Not All Are Perfect…But..
The main issues with kit lenses in my experience is “sample variability”, which goes a long way towards explaining why user experiences reported on forums are so…..well, variable, and perhaps why one test site will call a lens a filthy sow’s ear and another deem it to be a silk purse.
Of course kit lenses are generally slow of aperture, often slower to focus and slow to sell on eBay, but they’re not without their virtues either and we will get to that later.
Build quality is generally pretty average, lots of low grade plastic, sometimes even in the lens bayonet and the glass itself and in many ways things have got worse over the years. There’s a world of difference construction wise between say a Minolta or Nikon 35-70 of 20 years ago and a new 18-55 kitty of today, a single turn of the focus ring will lay bare the rough approach of most new kit lenses in comparison to their genetic forebears.
Speaking of the Nikon 35-70, the one I have has consistently proven itself to be a brilliant performer on my NEX 5n and M4/3 bodies, in fact it is probably one of the best lenses I have ever put on that little NEX including fixed focal length jobbies, you can read all about it here.
Note there have been an enormous array of Nikon 35-70s so don’t take this as an automatic recommendation many are quite poor.
So Are Modern Kitties All rubbish…. Are There No Redeeming Factors?
Actually there are quite a few redeeming aspects, the modern kit lens whilst no paragon of constructional perfection or optical excellence can be a very useful device indeed.
I must say up front I have found from playing with hundreds of kittys belonging to thousands of past students cameras, some brands and models are much better than others. The best in terms of optical consistency seem to be the Nikons, no doubt about that at all from my experience, in fact some have been bloody impressive in terms of the rendered files. The worst, no, no, no, that would be telling, besides my flameproof suit is at the dry cleaners today.
In constructional terms the M4/3 versions all seem pretty solid and the Fuji “X” series are very very nicely done and as mentioned, the new “light as air” (70g)12 -32mm kit lens attached to the Panasonic GM1 is a bit of an optical revelation.
What Can We Fix?
The really great news is most kit lens deficiencies are easily resolved in “post”, the bad news, some are just ugly to the core, or is that the iris, anyhow let’s consider the issues that can be easily sorted at shooting or in post shot.
Chromatic aberration is that ugly colour fringing you have probably seen around the edges and corners of many photos, modern lenses are probably not a lot better at optically solving the problems but there’s no doubt that modern software, either in camera, or on your computer is well capable of mitigating the majority of the problems.
Chromatic Aberration can be generally sorted either by the in-camera processing or within the editing phase and it makes one of the biggest differences in the look of your photos.
CA negatively effects both colour and clarity and I personally find high levels of CA visually disturbing, I almost need to have a stiff drink when I see a bad example. CA can be aperture dependent and with zooms is always focal length dependent.
Generally CA is corrected “in camera” when shooting in JPEG format with only the worst cases from the worst offenders visible in final image. However, Raw files will normally show CA in all its awful, colour fringing, puke inducing glory. In my experience RAW convertors often do a better job of eliminating the CA than the in-camera processed jpeg option offers, the trade-off with in-camera correction is often poorer edge and corner detail.
Two Types of CA
It’s worth noting that there are two types of CA, longitudinal and lateral.
Longitudinal CA is usually magenta-green and is normally only obvious at wide apertures using fast lenses. Basically you get differing coloured fringes around the details dependent upon whether you are looking at an area in front or behind the point of focus, it also occurs across the entire image frame. This type of CA is hard to fix and I don’t believe most cameras even attempt to, but I may be wrong. Thankfully extreme versions of Longitudinal CA are reasonably rare and especially rare with slow aperture kit lenses.
The good news, if your kit lens is prone to producing images with obvious Longitudinal CA, you can prevent the worst of it by stopping the aperture down to something like f5.6 or smaller. Generally I find that modern lenses are far less likely to display longitudinal CA, in the main designers seem to have found ways to optically reduce the effect.
The other CA, lateral, is where we get coloured fringes around medium to high contrast details, the strength of which increases as you move away from the center of the image, hence the term lateral. There’s never any Lateral CA fringing in the middle of the frame.
No, Lateral CA is not necessarily that purple fringing that many people notice, it can be red/cyan, blue/yellow or of course purple.
It seems most people think the pure purple fringing seen in a lot of high contrast photos is CA but it’s often something else altogether, “sensor blooming” and is normally somewhat controllable by avoiding over-exposure. Note however, real CA can also be purple too but it’s most likely in my experience to be magenta/green or Red/Cyan. The telling factor in getting to the true nature of your problem, should you try to fix it using the CA tools and it resolutely remains purple regardless of how you tweak things, it’s not regular lateral CA.
My experience is that some applications are much better at dealing with Lateral CA than others, I won’t make any software recommendations as apps are always in a state of flux but don’t give up, if your current application can’t “kill the fringe” try something else.
This is that issue where the edges and corners of your frame look darker than the middle, again most times your camera will sort this out as part of the in-camera processing for your jpeg’s.
Unless truly woeful, vignetting is easily sorted even for RAW files, but very high levels can leave your edges and corners a bit noisy once the vignetting has been fully eliminated. Actually I often add vignetting in “post production” so a little vignetting could be a creative benefit anyway.
The worst cases of LVD ( lens vignetting disease) seem to occur at the wider end of the focal range, with most kit lenses displaying significant vignetting between 18-24mm for APSC cameras and 14-18mm for M4/3 cameras.
You may not actually see any vignetting if you only ever shoot in JPEG mode.
Generally a little vignetting is actually quite tolerable for most image styles and unless you are shooting landscapes with lots of blue sky in them you probably won’t be overly bothered by it. I turn the auto vignetting correction “off” in my cameras menu for much of my work.
Geometric distortions are generally easy to sort and again unless really bad you won’t notice the issue. Bear this in mind though, the more you have to correct the distortion the less final image area you’ll end up with, and you’ll probably get an accompanying loss of corner/edge clarity once the problem is corrected.
As you’d expect these days most cameras correct the worst of the distortion internally when shooting in JPEG format, so again you may never have noticed it anyway.
Many kit lenses actually shoot a bit wider than their stated focal length to allow for the necessary cropping that occurs via the “in-camera editing” to get things squared away. The Sony 16-50 is a classic case in point, I think prior to processing it’s probably more like 14.5 mm at the wide end.
From an optical point of view distortion is very difficult to eradicate via lens design and usually involves adding more complex elements to the lens, making it both heavier and far more expensive. Since it’s relatively easy to fix distortion in post, (provided it’s not an extreme version of the problem) the justification for buying well corrected but very expensive alternative lenses is somewhat diminished for most needs.
There are two primary types of distortion, Barrel and Pincushion. Almost without exception wide angle lenses tend towards barrel distortion, which bloats the image outwards and telephotos tend towards pincushion distortion, which pinches the image inwards.
The Killer Tips
By default the distortion correction is enabled on almost all cameras when you receive them, if you need a little extra angle of view, temporarily turning it off might just be enough, so long as you can accept the distortion. Even better if you shoot RAW you can disable the default distortion correction in your Raw Convertor application to get that little but extra diagonal coverage in the pic.
Another tip to take to the bank, if you’re shooting at focal lengths that will need distortion correction, just step back a bit and give yourself some extra wiggle room for the editing phase.
And yet another, I have consistently found that most kit lenses have much sharper corners than you might be seeing, the in-camera auto lens distortion usually seriously messes with the corner and even edge clarity. So here’s the takeaway, normally the distortion is only really obvious if you are shooting objects with straight lines in them, for example architecture so turn it off the auto distortion correction to get a little better edge and corner resolution most of the time.
Even many fixed wide angle lenses have considerable distortion so buying an alternative lens may not solve the problem altogether.
Normally for zooms there will be a point where there is almost no distortion and with most APSC kit lenses this will be somewhere in the 26-35mm range. The ideal focal length for easier panorama stitching will be the one that has neither type of distortion.
The Dastardly Distortion
There is one complex type of distortion known as moustache distortion, in this case the middle part of the frame edge barrels outwards whilst the area about half way between the middle and far outer corners pinches in and then bloats out again in the corners. Normally such messy distortion only occurs with focal lengths at the very wide end of the focal length range. Moustache distortion unless dealt with “in-camera” generally defies the best efforts of most Raw converters and editing programs, though there are some specialised panorama applications that can correct it.
Again in my experience unless you are doing a lot of serious architectural work this distortion is not likely to cause you any grief.
The final optical issue of concern is field curvature, I’m not even going to start to deal with that in this article, it deserves it’s own post so we will save that and you can read about that here.
Moving Onto The Mechanics Of Your Kit Lens
Kit lens issues related to mechanical construction may prove very difficult to resolve, in short these include lens de-centering ( which really grates on my pixels), poor or unpredictable focus due to sloppy lens fit inside the lens barrel, poor cross frame clarity due to misaligned mounting faces and perhaps a few other mechanical oddities, like misshapen apertures.
All of the above will conspire to place the focus in very unpredictable places that are always challenging to deal with and often impossible to fix in post production. Most of these mechanical problems are due to sample variation, so if you get a dud, see if you can get it swapped out for a good one.
Anyway let’s take a look at what can go wrong mechanically, then if these problems happen to be present with your lens you know what to do, get it replaced under warranty.
In practice all the lens elements of the lens should be perfectly aligned both longitudinally and laterally and in a well made lens they are. In other words when the absolute centre of each of the lens elements are aligned perfectly and each element is perfectly parallel with all the others the lens will perform as designed, that’s called kit lens optical nirvana.
If one or more of the elements are misaligned in any way you will get uneven clarity across the frame, with perhaps one side sharper than the other, you may also get random soft spots, blurry opposite corners with a sharp centre, flare spots or perhaps in extreme cases just mush all over the place.
Good quality lenses are usually constructed in such a way that the centering of the elements is adjustable in manufacture, but cheap kit lens are just simply fixed in their construction. Simply put, high quality lenses can normally be realigned, kit lenses cannot.
I suspect that more often than not de-centering issues are caused by the lens being dropped, which gives you a hint as to why I won’t buy a second hand lens with a dented or chipped filter thread ring.
The good news is that kit lenses are not designed to be de-centered from the outset, if everything is put together correctly then it should work fine. The bad news, if your kit lens is badly de-centered, it’s not going to be economical to fix it, so unless covered by warranty just buy another copy.
And the other good news, another copy will probably cost very little anyway, as there are a huge number of “up graders” selling their cast off kitties on eBay for next to nothing. Hell it might be worth your while to buy a couple, keep the best one and sell the other….or perhaps keep one in case you accidentally sacrifice the other one to gravity.
Just a little more on gravity, there are many well known high gravity spots, these include Canyon edges, the tops of buildings, any area where concrete covers the ground, I also have it on good authority that the sides of cruise liners and other boats are subject to especially high gravitational fields right along the edge railings.
Now kit lenses being light tend to often survive gravitational anomalies quite well, sometimes they just bounce and the lighter they are the less likely they will suffer from major damage, on the other hand heavy fast zooms seem to have so much inertia that a drop of a meter or so can cause massive internal and external damage.
It’s unlikely you will jag a kit lens that is absolutely a paragon of optical alignment, so be reasonable, you can’t expect perfection at this price point, but don’t accept a lens that has serious issues either.
Now moving on to more insidious mechanical nasties
I have actually used lenses where once you cranked the barrel out for close focus or telephoto settings the front of the lens got all lazy and drooped. The inevitable result of such slack misbehaviour is poor focus across the top or bottom of the image (dependent upon where you have focused).
This effect usually gets worse as the lens ages and becomes sloppier in the barrel, such lenses are a total annoyance but you can often even things up by applying just a little upward pressure on the front of the lens.
Nonetheless a lazy lens is just frustrating to use and probably should be replaced with better or newer example or perhaps you could discipline yourself and not focus too close or zoom too far out.
Or here’s a thought, turn that recalcitrant cow of lens into a fixed focal length one by gluing the zoom to a fixed optimal setting, (making sure you have it correctly aligned of course) which is likely somewhere usually in the mid range.
(for some reason when my wife proofed the above four paragraphs she got the giggles, I’ve no idea what that is about)
Not So Smooth
Most modern kit lens do not have smooth well made metal helicoids inside to give that tight but buttery smooth focus action of old, instead they use clever plastics which work OK when new but eventually develop slop and make precise manual focus difficult or impossible.
Naturally the problem can’t be fixed but a lens will usually need a heck of a lot of use before it gets to this point. Sadly, a good number of lens samples seem to come out of the factory in a rather loose state so it is something you should check before you take your new baby home.
Some kit lenses also have plastic mounting flanges, again these can wear in very high use samples leading to slop and misalignment at the mounting faces. I must say that mount slop is very rare as a lens would need a lot of un-mounting and re-mounting to wear that much, it’s just a little thing to consider with second hand kitties. ( it’s unlikely the plastic mount will cause on problems on M4/3 lenses as they’re almost all amazingly light to start with)
To Infinity and Back
You can occasionally get a lens that refuses to focus to infinity, this is a manufacturing defect for sure but if you are not aware of what is going you will likely think the lens is just not sharp. The fix, get it swapped out or buy a new one, old school kittys like the 35-70 Minoltas and Nikons can probably be sorted via quick adjustment by a camera tech person.
Generally you’re more likely to find a kit lens that actually focuses beyond infinity, in fact, sometimes this foible is designed in. Post infinity focus is hardly a challenge when shooting in Auto focus, but be aware that in manual focus it makes it all too easy to focus too far out and get ugly soft images should you not be aware of the problem.
A general principle for accurate manual focus is to use the magnified view on a mirrorless camera or the magnified live view option on your DSLR.
A final issue is flare resistance and indeed many kit lenses are less than perfect in this regard, but I humbly suggest that for most instances, actually placing the lens hood on the lens and/or shooting a little more carefully would have negated the issue.
Any lens can be made to flare if you shoot into the sun or other bright light sources, the issue is not “will it flare”…but “how bad will the flare effects be”. There are a few pancake zoom lenses that are designed to be used without lens hoods, having special coatings to compensate, but even in these cases you can mount a hood if you get a step up ring and a collapsible rubber hood to screw into the ring.
Older lenses are typically much poorer than new lenses due to the radical improvements in lens coatings over the last couple of decades. I have many older lenses that have more flares than a seventies disco but regardless with a little care are still terrific lenses 99% of the time. Despite my Sony 18-55 OSS being touted as more than a bit flare prone in tests, I have never had an issue with flare, so don’t sweat it, yours is probably fine too, but for goodness sake use the hood!
Another issue that actually does cause flare is adding a UV filter to the front of the lens, trust me on this they are pretty much a waste of money and if you shoot into high contrast lights, like street scenes at night, they will generally degrade your pics by adding considerable flare to them.
But it’s worse than just adding flare, they actually cost you money and do nothing for your lenses security or image quality.
If you don’t want to take my word for it check out these two videos:
More often than not in classes when someone says their lens is soft and flare prone, the problem is dirty haze and mushy finger prints on the front element, so keep it clean and fingers off.
Back in the hood…..If you didn’t get a hood with your lens, (and oddly some makers skimp on this essential piece of kit hoping you will pay through the nose for one as an expensive plastic accessory, yes I am looking at you Mr Olympus and Mr Canon) you can pick a “cheap knock off one” up on eBay for just a few dollars.
The kit lens hoods are a bit of a compromise, typically having a petal shape that prevents vignetting when you adjust the lens to the wide angle setting, but providing minimal protection at the longer focal lengths. If you like me, you find yourself using your kit lens at predominately the one focal length you could purchase a deeper and far more efficient hood than the standard petal one.
Another Smaller Tip
I often use a foldable old style rubber lens hood that can be adjusted to suit the different focal lengths…….and there is a big bonus with it. Should you need to shoot through glass it can be held up against the glass and will both act as a shock absorber and cut out reflections coming off the glass…..oh and they’re very cheap on eBay too, like less than $5.00!
To conclude, from my perspective a good example of a kit lens is one that has the mechanical criteria well under control but may display some of the fixable optical issues.
Ultimately your technique, artistic flare and editing skills will prove far more important than the actual quality of your lens, unless of course it is a real stinker, but thankfully those are quite rare these days.
The good news is that now you are far better informed regarding the realities of your kit lens, make sure you come back for pars two and three!
NOTE: This is a three part series. It is a rejig of a previous 8 part series I wrote earlier this year. It is my intention to get you comprehensively up to speed with your kit lens. This is a long read, but it reflects my overall approach to training people in photography, mainly that once people understand the underpinning concepts thoroughly they are more likely to become creatively liberated.
Part One: Deals with the characteristics and limitations of the kit lens and also give some insight into how it fits into the bigger picture of photography, it is a frank an honest appraisal, it may also be at odds with some of the accepted wisdom in the photographic community.
Part Two: This is shortest instalment it deals with the many positives aspects of kit lenses and will help you see clearly why your kit lens is a valuable photographic friend.
Part Three: This is probably the most important part, it deals with how to use the lens creatively, explores the technical possibilities and hopefully will inspire you to make the most of your kit lens.
About the Author
Brad Nichol lives in Goulburn, NSW, in the land down under. He is a professional photographer and artist with 40 years of experience under his belt and too much good living over his belt. He has explored in great depth the realms of both analogue and digital photographic technologies, was an early adopters of digital photo editing and iPhoneography, has developed highly sophisticated image capture methods, explored and created advanced methods for editing and printing and taught photography face to face to over 12,000 students in past 15 years.
You can find out more about Brad on his blog or commercial website, follow his work on Facebook, Flipboard and Instagram, or reach out to him through Twitter. This article was also published here, and shared with permission.