In Part 1 we looked at the potential issues and problems relating to kit lenses, now tis the time to turn our attention to the terrific upsides of owning and using the cheap as chips but under-rated kit lens, this section will be the shortest not because there are problems I want to skirt around but because there positives are easily explained.
The Ideal Focal Length Range
It’s no coincidence that most APS-C kit lenses range from about 18-55mm, equal to 28 to 75mm for full frame cameras, camera makers and long term photographers worked out aeons ago that this range covers 90% or better of what most people need for real world shooting. Micro Four Thirds camera makers tend to stick with the 14 to 42mm range which is the full frame equal of 28 to 84mm which adds just a nice little boost for portrait shooting, though in truth due to slightly less wide frame proportion M 4/3 kit lenses don’t go quite as wide the other kit lens options.
Truthfully anything wider than 18mm on APS-C (27mm in full frame money) tends to create potentially unpleasant edge distortions and render people with egg shaped heads and 55mm is about perfect for normal portraits and slightly distant landscapes.
The 18-55mm range is also about as extreme as you can go before other practical compromises start to creep in, any wider or longer and you get the double penalties of increased weight and greater cost and probably weaker performance at the extremes. Nothing’s impossible to solve of course, the just released Olympus 12-100 f4 pro lens is a great example of what can be achieved but what price are you prepared to pay for it with your new camera purchase.
Yes sir, 18-55mm just works, you might think you need something wider or longer, but the occasions are actually rare for most photographers. When I ask students in classes, how many shots have they taken with the now almost standard 50-200mm kit tele-zooms I find not many have used them for more than just a few exploratory snaps.
Likewise I get plenty of students with super-wide angle zooms in the 10-24mm range but again the lenses are accompanied by few actual photos. Ultimately most students seem to find it hard to compose successful images on the wider field of view afforded by lenses in the sub 18mm (APS-C) range.
So 18 to 55mm just works, it’s that simple.
The disposable Lens
Look at it this way, the kit lens is almost a free lens if you buy it with your camera, and even used ones on eBay go for almost nothing if you need a replacement, with the exception of the Panasonic models that seem to demand used prices in line with their excellent performance (by kit lens standards). So your kit lens can be seen as disposable, no big deal if it gets dropped, lost, damaged etc thus it can used in risky environments or situations like being attached to drones with impunity.
Of course in the event of an accident your kit lens will likely be attached to your camera and that might be an issue if it gets hurt, so if possible let the lens act as a sacrificial offering to the concrete, which oddly is often what happens in the event of a bad gravity spot taking hold of things at inconvenient moments.
A few years back I knocked my A900 over whilst attached to a tripod (I tripped on the tripod, call me clumsy klutz if you like). Anyway there was good news, the lens mount (the bit the lens bayonet is attached to) acted as a fuse and broke on impact with a very solid cupboard, but the camera remained unharmed….nice one. I cost me just $80.00 on eBay to replace the 28-85mm Minolta lens but a camera repair bill would have been far greater, thank goodness for small mercies.
Most kit lenses are light, which mightn’t matter if you’re taking the odd shot then resting your camera down, but should you wish to carry it around all day on a holiday trip, those extra grams definitely matter. I’ve had several Canon shooters tell me how much they just love their wonderful 24-70 L lenses but then add they rarely carry their camera around with the lens attached cause it’s just too dammed heavy! So even if you get the sexy expensive glass maybe you should keep the kitty as the walk around option.
Normally these days cameras perform all sorts of nifty adjustments during the jpeg processing stage to correct for the optical deficits of the kit lens as discussed earlier in part 1, these adjustments could include: vignetting, distortion and CA removal and maybe other stuff as well. If you have a Canon camera and you buy another new Canon lens for example chances are it will do so for that lens as well. But there is no promise at all it will do so with a third party brand lens and when using older pre-digital lenses it certainly won’t.
Net result, when shooting JPEGs the kit lens might be the most fuss free option and even deliver better looking files out of the camera.
Generally for regular shooting people are not making big prints. Postcards and web images on posted on Facebook rule the day. These represent the lowest common denominator of imaging quality (with regard to detail) and none of these usages will be impacted on by the image quality differences between a fair kit lens and a really classy glassy.
Despite the marginally lower levels of edge resolution on offer via the average kit lens, for most real world photos it’s just not a factor. Consider for a moment, maybe your kit lens is a bit poor in the corners at 55mm, so what, chances are you’re shooting something like a portrait and tack sharp edges and corners would likely to be a distraction anyway.
In the mid range most kit lenses actually perform really well across the frame and moving to the wide end if you stop down to f8, it’s likely everything right out to the corners will be adequately sharp for web and for moderate or maybe even large size prints. You could also stop down to f11 and apply some clever sharpening to compensate for the image softening diffraction effects in your editing phase, in which case you will probably even get the very outer edges sharp at the widest 18mm setting.
The kit lens will not offer the same level of peak central sharpness as a great fixed focal length lens but if you’re not printing bigger than 11 x 14 inches again it will probably not be seen at all, unless your lens is a real stinker, and if it is a stinker use it creatively and call the resulting images “art”!
Now heres a tip, most of the visible resolution deficits can be made up via clever and subtle sharpening in post production, so spending some extra money on a good editing app and learning how to actually use it may reap a vastly bigger visual reward than just buying an expensive new lens.
Equally you might also be surprised at just how much better your lens looks when you shoot RAW and use a “state of the art” convertor. It sounds odd but often the ‘in camera’ processing can accentuate the weaknesses of a kit lenses reducing resolution via noise reduction and other adjustments over which you have no access or control.
Sometimes Resolution Just Doesn’t Matter!
A few years back when I started working with iPhoneography I had an epiphany. Often resolution just gets in the way, sometimes you just want impressionistic results. Since that time I have deeply explored the world of iPhoneography and produced many artworks that were deliberately “not well resolved”.
Your kit lens can do much the same thing and probably with greater ease than an optical scalpel like a Zeiss Otus would allow. Resolution be dammed, embrace the fuzz, explore the blur, get cosy with mush and most of all have some fun.
It probably has Image Stabilisation
When someone is severely afflicted with GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) or suffering from MEGS (Money Equals Great Shots) syndrome they will often attempt to justify the purchase of that 35mm f 1.4 lens along the lines of “I can shoot under really low Light”. Oh c’mon pull the other one….what a load of Bovine.
Sorry to upset anyone heavily invested in that line of defence but here’s the thing you need to know. Most of those fast glass heavyweights don’t have “IS” and “IS” is worth about 2-3 stops in terms of practical shooting under low light. So a non IS f1.4 is about as practical as say a f2.8 to f4 lens with IS, but it gets even sillier.
In most practical instances an aperture of f1.4 has such shallow DOF that except for a few creative uses it is impractical to shoot many subjects at that aperture and additionally unless the lens is particularly well corrected (read very expensive) it is unlikely to be critically sharp wide open anyway.
Inevitably these expensive fixed focal length lenses get used at f4 or smaller most of the time, but without IS they could well be delivering blurrier shots than the lower resolving but IS equipped kitty. Basically a shot with camera movement loses to a steady shot every time!
In any case even half decent cameras these days can shoot clean at crazy ISOs and that goes a long way towards making it possible to shoot in available darkness with slower kit lenses.
Of course I must add, if your camera has sensor based stabilisation then you can use any lens you like and still get the advantage, but that rules out all Canon and Nikon DSLR stuff. Sony A mount and Olympus shooters and a few Panasonic guys, you’re in luck!
What About Video
High quality pro-style video is typically shot with fixed lenses with various stabilising rigs to get that “cinematic look”, but for folk who just want to shoot the events of daily life such an approach is rarely warranted. Image stabilisation is critical to get getting smooth footage without rigging and all kit lenses now offer this.
Beyond the stabilisation kit lenses may offer other advantages for movie shooting, often the focus can sometimes be driven by a lever or control on the body (such as on the Sony 3N) or even via a touch screen, the focus point can also be often set and moved around via touch control as on the Olympus E-M10 Mk II.
And generally, and this is a big deal in video, all the above usually happens in near mechanical silence with most modern kit lenses.
No Wide Apertures ?
Kit lenses of course lack wide apertures at either end of the focal range, that limits those creamy shallow DOF effects but then that look only really works for a limited range of applications and if you’re like most non-pro shooters a quick examination of the exif data attached to your files will probably reveal the majority of shots you take are in the f5 – f8 aperture range. Which of course is right in kit lens land anyway.
There is in fact one hidden advantage to a slower aperture lens, it’s a dirty little secret that purveyors of fine fast glass would rather not tell you about. Fast glass typically suffers from focus shift as you close the aperture down, meaning the lens might focus at say f1.4 but when you take the shot shot and the lens stops down to say f3.5 the focus shifts a little as a result and your final image ends up looking unexpectedly soft. For example maybe you focused on the eye but the final shot looks like the left ear is in perfect focus.
Smart cameras and owners have all sorts of ways of trying to game around this focus shift issue but it remains one of photography’s most infuriating and misunderstood problems.
Kit lenses being slow almost never suffer any focus shift, so if you focus the wide angle at say f3.5 and shoot at f5.6 you can be sure the focus remained just where you placed it! That’s reassuring isn’t it?
And here is a big tip for some of you… drumroll please… If your kit lens is a true par-focal zoom, you can focus at the most telephoto setting, (manually of course) and then zoom back to the wide setting to take the shot knowing the focus has stayed put. This is much easier than trying to focus at the wide end manually and will probably beat auto focus reliability at the wide end of the range as well. Sadly, however most kit lenses are nowhere near para-focal so you’d need to test for it, having said that I have had two kit lenses that were very close to being par-focal.
So in summary there is a lot to grateful for when it comes to kit lenses, all the above makes them sound like a bargain, and in fact they are! So for the final instalment we are going to get all creative, see you there.
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.