Kit lens masterclass for new shooters – Part 3

Dec 30, 2016

Brad Nichol

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

Kit lens masterclass for new shooters – Part 3

Dec 30, 2016

Brad Nichol

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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Now that you know more about your mechanics and attributes of your kit lens, the time has come to look at the creative use of the wee plastic beasty and we’ll start with macro first, this is by far the longest of the three Kit Lens Masterclass articles so grab a cold drink and some snacks.

Macro Considerations

Perhaps surprisingly, a good number of kit lenses are able to focus really closely, no they won’t replace a good Macro lens, but nonetheless you can get more than passable results. In fact if you’re prepared to crop a bit, which with modern day levels of resolution is hardly a challenge, we can get very good results.

First a little tip, shooting a bit wider and cropping will probably help you get more consistent results with regard to focus and depth of field as the closer we go the harder it gets to obtain adequate DOF. You wouldn’t believe the number of people I have in classes with macro lens focusing dramas! Step back from the insect…..and crop, trust me its much easier and probably will work out better all round! Oh and it’s a fact, that the closer you go with the kit lens the more the performance will drop off, so keep some magnification in reserve!

This little fella was captured with a short auto extension tube and a Sony 18-55mm OSS E mount lens, no problems going close then and plenty of detail.

Filters and Tubes

Beyond just using the kit lens we can always use a cheap macro filter (plus 2 diopter normally works well) to extend the macro reach or perhaps even a thin auto extension tube to go even closer. The edges will never compete with a true macro lens for clarity but who really needs flower shots with tack sharp corners and the cost and weight savings are huge.

Just as an example you can probably pick up a set of three macro filters for less than $30.00 on eBay or a cheap set of Auto extension tubes for $40.00 to 60.00, a decent Macro lens on the other hand will run to about $400.00 as a starting point!

One big advantage of Macro filters is they don’t reduce the light reaching the sensor like extension tubes do thus normally you can get away with a faster shutter speed. Anyway I have both tubes and filters and use them often, especially if I want to travel with the minimum of kit.

It might not be obvious, but this “Aquilegia” seed pod is very small, probably about half the size it appears on this page, again a short extension tube and Sony 18-55 OSS nailed it with ease.

Fixed Focal Length Zoom

Yes that’s right you could use your kit zoom as a fixed focal length lens and in fact I mostly do exactly that. Consider this, all zoom lenses actually have a focal length sweet spot, a point where the balance of all aberrations are best corrected, it is probably somewhere around the middle of the focal length range on your kit zoom but you will need to test to find out.

Generally for APSC lenses it’s in the 24-28mm range and at those focal lengths you are likely to be working with a maximum aperture of f4.3 or so, which in the scheme of things is quite practical provided the lens is nice and sharp at that setting.

As an example, my Sony 18-55 OSS is pretty much perfect all round spot on 27mm, at this setting CA is almost non-existent, there minimal distortion and the vignetting is not noticeable at all unless you are shooting blue skies.

In my case I have marked the lens up to easily find that 27mm setting and I use a big wide rubber band to hold it there, most times I just treat it as a fixed lens, even manually focusing, and I have no qualms about shooting wide open if needed as the lens is plenty sharp at the 27mm setting.

Ignore what you see in kit lens tests on-line, typically sites only test the lenses at max wide and tele settings and maybe the 35mm setting so they almost never uncover the true jewell within every kit lens unless by accident or good fortune 35mm happens to be the optimal setting.

This image is an example of using both pre-focus manual and using a fixed focal length on the zoom, in fact 60 -70% of all images I shoot with the Sony 18-55 OSS are fixed at 27mm. In this case I was walking quickly through an alley in Hanoi and the fixed focus made for reliable faster street shooting.

Pre Focus Manual

In ancient pre-digital times photographers regularly used a concept called “Zone Focusing” to quickly capture scenes with minimal fuss using direct vision cameras. It’s not complex and can be an amazing tool to improve your street photography or even family snaps.

Basically you pre-focus at a fixed distance and adjust the aperture to enable the “Depth of Field” to cover your needs. As an example you might fix your kit lens to 28mm and focus at 2.5 metres. Referring to a set of Depth of Field scales on my iPhone (I use DOF Master) I can see that with an APSC camera I will get from about 1.6m to 5.4 metres in acceptable focus using F5.6. Which is just peachy for shoot from the hip street photography.

All I need to do is place my Kitty in Manual focus, focus on something at that distance (2.5 metres in this case) place my camera in aperture priority (Av mode on most cameras) set my aperture to f 5.6 and my ISO to auto and I am hot to hit the streets.

It is super quick because there is no hunting for focus, or possibilities of mis-focus on too distant or too close objects. Trust me I shoot stuff like this all the time, it works a treat and is often more reliable, not to mention far quicker and less obtrusive for candid work, most people just don’t have time to react or don’t imagine you could be shooting that quickly.

Many of the greats of “Street Photography” worked just like this, you too can be your own Cartier Bresson, with a kit lens!

All I had was the Sony18-55 OSS and of course the action was a bit far away, crop away I say, still looks fine doesn’t it.

Just Crop It

Should the 55mm end be insufficient for your needs you can always crop say the middle 70% out of the frame to get some extra reach with good clarity from edge to edge because you of course cut off those crook pesky corners. Perhaps even better, a good number of cameras will digitally zoom at moderate levels to render out a cropped but upsized JPEG straight from the camera.

Sony cameras for example do this really well, they normally go out to 2 times magnification which makes your 55mm end equal to 110mm, but normally you can choose an
intermediate focal length option.

Now before you start throwing any hissy fits and howling at the moon in protest to “going the crop”, let’s run some numbers. Say you have a 24 megapixel APSC DSLR and you cropped half the frame away, you’d still have 12 megapixels and most of the micro 4/3 cameras were that until very recently. In fact if you cropped without resampling your 24mp frame to M4/3 dimensions you get around 14mp and a Full Frame equivalent of 110mm out of your std kit lens! A 16 meg sensor will be less impressive coming back to about 9-10 megapixels but still that’s enough for a good sized print, like A3!

If you have a focal length that is a bit soft on the edges, sometimes you can actually get a sharper shot by shooting slightly wider on the focal length then cropping to match. For example my 18-55 Sony is a bit rubbish in the corners at 35mm but terrific at 30mm, cropping the 30mm frame to match the 35mm angle of view actually gives a better looking image in terms of having more even “cross frame clarity”.

And try this one on for size….. Often you just need a wider aperture to cope with low light levels. Well, your kit lens is usually f3.5 at the wide end and closes down to 5.6 at the tele end. Perhaps shooting at 18mm f3.5 and cropping the frame down by say 30% to 40% might just give you the aperture boost you need when the going gets really tough. Oh and guess what, those in camera digital zoom functions work at shorter focal lengths too!

But there is more, lets say you have to take a group shot in a low light situation, and you need say 30mm to cover the group and f8 to get enough DOF. Unfortunately for you, the shutter speed will now be too slow, ah but grasshopper try this. Go wider than you need and you can then get the DOF you need without having to go too small on the aperture and bingo you can shoot at a faster shutter speed….just add the crop chop later.

The Creative Crop Chop

Cropping to gain a magnification or f stop boost is fine and dandy but what about cropping for compositional improvement and how might that relate to kit lenses anyway.

If your camera is an APSC model the framing aspect ratio is 2 to 3 which has been around since Oskar shoved a roll of 35mm movie film in a little metal box with a nice lens attached and yelled “Leica”. But photos can look great at all sorts of other formats, like 4:3, 4:5, 16:9 and that holy of holies of medium format, the square.

Now what do you think happens when we crop to any of these formats from 2 to 3 frame? Easy, we lose those pesky messy corners that our kit lenses don’t like to resolve. It would have to be an utterly useless kit lens if when you cropped a square out of the full frame you didn’t end up with good to great corner to corner resolution.

If you’re shooting M 4/3 cropping a 3:2 ratio section or any other crop will of course get rid of any nasty corners as well, though I must add that most times the cross frame performance of M4/3 kit lenses seems to be far more consistent than their APSC cousins.

The only fly in your ointment might be that if you shoot without actually looking through the viewfinder you could end up cropping not from the middle but into the corners to get the final image….but that will be your fault not the lenses.

I often advise my students to shoot a little wide these days to allow for creative post cropping, that way you can get any final format you want, But don’t take that advise as an excuse for sloppy compositional workmanship on your part!

There is nothing sacred about a 2 to 3 ratio, crop to be creative and as a bonus that cropping might give you a better level of overall clarity as well.

What about You?

Whilst we’re on the subject of reach, I could place a fair bet that a lot of the time you could get a bit more reach by just moving closer to the subject, you can use photography’s greatest accessory to help, they’re called legs and amazingly most humanoids come pre-fitted with a pair. (Moving closer will give your kit lens a really great boost in the shallow DOF department as well!)

Just ask yourself this, how often do you have to crop shots because you left too much around the edges of your pic when you could have, should have, moved closer with ease?

Engage the legs!

Be Prepared to Edit

Moving beyond the shooting, you really need to accept that most of the great images you see on the web are not just “out of the camera” jpegs. They have been massaged and manipulated, tweaked, tinkered and stroked in a myriad of ways. The editing is at least as important as the lens, so those great shots you saw created with a Zeiss 35mm on a Nikon D800, were they really OOC (out of camera) or were they edited?

(I usually get a bit cynical when people want to get all hyped up claiming they just want the OOC result because that’s the ideal way to work, basically they are saying they’re either too lazy to edit or haven’t got a clue how to do it)

Fact is, you need to accept that editing and shooting go hand in hand, no company has yet come out with a DSLR lens that applies the full gamut of creative corrections and effects in camera without you moving a finger.

Another fact to chew on, most folk who can justify spending say 2Gs on a fancy lens have long ago worked out how to edit well. A new lens is unlikely to be a magic bullet, but by golly gosh a new editing application and some real editing skills could prove to be mighty close.

And here’s a final insight, any photographer prepared to do a little saving can buy a new or better lens so ultimately you won’t end up with anything advantageous in your possession by taking that path. Good technical skills, creativity and solid editing skills are not something you can purchase off the shelf but are far more likely to yield great photographic results that will stand you apart from the crowd.

This is one of my personal favourite images, it looks terrific as a fine art print on the wall, it was taken several years ago and is part of a series of architectural studies, but there is no way it looked like this without some serious but subtle editing.

I’m in Stitches

Your kit lens normally offers 18mm at the wide end but what about when you want super wide angle shots from your kit lens ?

The answer will have you in stitches.

Like I said a little while back, most kit lenses have one focal length that is just better than all the others, chances are it’s somewhere in the 24-30mm range for APSC cameras. If you can work out what this focal length is via testing and determine the optimum aperture, you can press your kitty into service for truly excellent panoramas…even really big ones.

It’s true that most panorama applications these days can correct distortion and vignetting automatically, however they all work better if the files are close to imperfection free to start with especially with respect to distortion as the corrections reduce details along the sides and in the corners of the donor images.

Many cameras now offer some sort of panorama option, either helping you to line things up in the camera for example like Olympus models or even stitching the images in camera as with most Sony models. You can pan horizontally or vertically but if you’re assembling post capture you can even shoot in a matrix. Regardless of which method you apply the resulting image (for non-moving subjects) will probably significantly exceed in quality you would have otherwise obtained by shooting a single frame on a much wider lens.

But there is much more to this option, it opens a whole new world of kit lens based possibilities, lets explore.

The four core advantages with the stitched approach over using a really wide lens are:

Much higher real resolution

Potentially less distortion on the edges

Greater flexibility for cropping

Vastly less money tied up in a wide-angle lens that has limited usage for most photographers most of the time.

All of the above factors are quite practical but the stitch also opens up a wealth of creative alternatives that are otherwise difficult or impossible to achieve via normal shooting, lets explore a little deeper.

Really Big Photos

With the right technique and enough computer processing you can stitch an enormous number of frames together for massive prints or super high res smaller prints (though still big). In theory and practice the more frames you stitch the less important the ultimate resolution capability of your lens becomes, you’re simply never going to enlarge the resulting final stitch enough to see the defects in the donor frames.

Proper stitching needs careful set-up so most serious panorama shooters work with panorama heads or tools that streamline the process of capturing the frames, however these days the stitching software is so good that you can almost be sloppy with hand held captures and still get great results.

Anyway, fact is your kit lens is perfectly capable of producing great files for stitching and especially so if you take the time to find the optimum focal length and aperture for your particular lens. Should that focal length be at the longer end of the zoom range it doesn’t matter, you just shoot more pics to cover the required area, if it’s towards the wider end you can shoot less frames for the same overall coverage. (Just in case you haven’t twigged, shooting more frames at a more telephoto setting will ultimately lead to a higher total resolution for any given angle of view)

Three Frame Stitch, taken in a lane-way where the 18mm setting was not quite
wide enough to capture the scene due to the narrow width of the lane.
A sony 18-55mm OSS E mount was used at 27mm for the donor frames.

Three Frame Stitch

This is rather neat, let’s say you need a wide angle shot but your lens is not so great at the widest setting, many aren’t, often they produce odd distortions towards the edges of the frame and lack clarity.

Well try this, set your zoom to a more moderate wide angle setting , 26-28mm on APSC or 16 to 18mm for M4/3 being a good choice. Turn your camera sideways for portrait mode capture and shoot three frames to cover the area you need. It’s important you keep the camera level and rotate it as much as possible around the centre of the lens barrel (roughly the nodal point), rather than you spinning on the spot and you’ll need about 20% overlap for each frame.

Once you open the files and run them through the panorama app on your computer you should end up with an image with about twice the resolution (min) of a single frame and a bit more coverage than the widest setting on your lens with very little distortion (this will depend on the projection option you choose). If it the final result is distorted you probably chose the wrong stitching projection/rendering option or your donor shots were very crooked. Practice and experience will make things perfect.

You can always use the “transform” tools in your editing program to push and prod the perspective of the resulting image and a fascinating aspect of stitching is you can get perspective renderings that are not normally possible with a single frame capture.

Another advantage to consider is that 3 – 4 frame stitches normally result in files that fall in the 30-40 megapixel range which gives you a much better array of options for creative editing.

Fact is no matter what anyone wants to tell you, more pixels always gives more flexibility in terms of pushing pixels around in post, and that includes: colour, tone, sharpening, contrast, noise reduction and of course post capture image distortions.

Again another stitch, this time four frames taken in portrait orientation at 18mm f3.5.
There was quite a bit of geometric transformation applied to the image to square things up. But the finished result works a treat and is very sharp where it is intended to be sharp, yet has a lovely shallow DOF look.

Stitch to Simulate Shallow Depth of Field

Well actually this is not a simulation, you really can get shallow DOF.

Let me try to explain this. Normally if you used say 35mm focal length on an APSC camera you’d have to stand back a bit to get all the content in the frame. Now DOF is dependent upon several things, aperture, focal length, the comparative distances between the near and far objects in the scene and overall magnification and final viewing distance/image size.

It’s not the capture format so much that matters by the way, there is nothing magic about 35mm Full Frame or Medium format, rather it’s when you use a larger format the focal length and magnification factors etc have to change to keep things looking the same in the picture. That means that if you actually stitch smaller frames shot with a longer focal length to make one big frame you will probably get a pretty similar look DOF wise to what you would otherwise have obtained shooting in a larger format.

Think of it like this, you’re using a 35mm lens but instead of standing back to fit the whole scene in the frame you now move in closer to fit only part of it. This increases the magnification factor and the comparative distances between near and far objects in your frame. Hence your DOF becomes much more shallow, even if you used the same aperture.

Now of course you are going to take a number of frames to cover the whole scene and it’s quite likely that the resulting image area of the final assembled frame could be as large or even much larger than a FF camera.

So what do we get, basically a very similar look to using a much larger format with very high resolution and that shallow DOF many folk crave for potentially at no extra expense, (other than software if we don’t already have it)

Most people never shoot pans this way, rather they use panoramas to cover wider than normal but distant scenes that cannot be covered with a single frame. In such cases because everything is relatively distant the DOF will look pretty much the same as it always does for the format you are using.

I have noticed a rather nice benefit with this approach over regular shallow DOF shots. We often read long-winded discussions on web forums about the quality of the Bokeh (blur effect in the out of focus regions) from various high speed lenses. Very fast lenses often have blur characteristics that are rough and edgy and it is very much dependent on the aperture shape and setting. Anyway my experience is stitched shallow DOF pans have a much more pleasing bokeh that tends to be smooth and natural rather than forced looking. Bear in mind your kit lens mileage may vary but basically it should be similar to the looks shown here as your apertures will be similar to mine and there is a lot more general consistency between kit lens construction than there is with super fast lens constructions.

Believe it or not this was taken with a the Sony 18-55mm OSS E Mount set at 18mm, the DOF is very shallow and pleasing. The secret, it is a five frame portrait orientation stitch taken from very close up to the sign at f3.5

The Tube Option

Lets visit that macro arena a little more deeply.

Straight up I can tell you nothing beats a real macro lens when you want to go really close, heck I have four of them, but you can get awfully close to the overall look of a macro lens by using an extension tube or two on your kit lens, the actual resolution will not be as great but I promise it will be quite useable.

But first a caveat, using an extension tube and kit lens is generally useless for true “flat field macro” work, stuff like slide/neg duplication, but for most macro dabblers that’s something they will never do.

Sure the edges and corners will not be critically sharp with a kitty plus extension tube, but sharp all over is not really that useful for most real world macro shots.

Macro tubes can get pretty close, right down to 1:1 with the a long enough combo of extension tube/s and suitable focal length. One little oddity is that kit lenses designed for mirrorless cameras typically need far less extension tube length to get really close, hence most tube kits for mirrorless rigs only include two shorter rings instead of the standard three you get for DSLRs.

Just in case you’re wondering “would a fast standard lens work better on the tubes” the answer is maybe, but probably not. Fast lenses are really designed for distance work, when was the last time you heard of a f1.4 macro lens? Generally when mounted to a tube setup, fast glass suffers from all sort of field curvature issues so your kitty could easily outperform the fast fixed focal length lens because at least it was originally designed to go reasonably close to start with.

Forget about those really cheap manual tube sets on eBay, they give you no way of controlling the aperture, everything ends up being shot wide open or fully closed down. Likewise these “cheapies” won’t work with your cameras metering or auto focus options.

You can pick up a full electronic “auto tube” set up for between $80-150.00, (these will allow auto focusing) the dearer ones are aluminium and the cheaper ones plastic. For occasional kit lens use plastic is fine and will save a little weight in the bag and ultimately if you get all “macro excited” you will progress to a full bore macro lens anyway.

This branch of kit lens tom-foolery will require a solid tripod*, unless you want your shots to look like you took them after downing a couple of bottles of fine red. You will also need to think about supplementary lighting, the on-camera flash will be worse than useless. I use natural light and small reflectors, but you can use artificial light sources as well, anyhow it’s all about the light when the going gets tight!

(*If you have one of the Olympus, Sony or Panasonic cameras that feature 5 axis stabilisation you may be able to get passable results with hand held macro, the Olympus may even deliver very good to excellent results, at least that has been my experience with the EM5 mk 2.)

Cheap electronic extension tube and kit lens, yep you can go really close and it works a treat.

Close Focus Filters

Oh I love these innocent looking little mites, they can open a world of creative options for next to no cost with a tiny weight penalty and an ease of use that can’t be beat.

Though you can purchase filters ranging from 1 to 10 diopter you’ll find the one, two or three diopter filters will see you through most of your practical requirements, handily extending the close focusing range of your kit lens. Generally the higher the diopter rating the poorer the clarity, and frankly most 10s I have tried are next to useless, unless you are after a sort of defocused creative look.

Using a number one diopter macro filter in combination with the wide angle end your lens can produces some rather interesting macro affects that I refer to this as “contextual macro”. With this approach you see the surrounding environment combined with a close-up view of the subject, the image at the top of the page is a good example and the following two continue the theme.

Reversing the Lens?

I will add this one as I have seen a few Youtube vids and blog articles that extol the virtues of just grabbing the lens and holding the lens to the camera body to get all close and macro.

So yes it will work but frankly it’s a really terrible idea, but there may be something in it for a few shooters.

When you reverse the lens you do get enormously close focus, like about 24mm or maybe less between the front element and the subject, and surprisingly the rendering can be quite flat field, I guess that sounds like a great deal, ah but grasshopper there are some serious limitations with kit lenses or almost any lens for that matter used in this manner.

First you shouldn’t just hold the lens against the body of the camera, you risk inadvertently scratching the lenses front element as it slips around and second it’s very hard to hold the lens to the camera, hold the camera steady, press the shutter and avoid camera movement at the same time and that goes super double for when you are working at such high magnifications.

You can purchase a lens reversing adapter, which will screw into the front of the lens and then bayonet properly to the camera body.

But that is just the start of solving your troubles… the focus becomes completely inoperative, reverse mounted lenses can only be focused by moving the whole rig backwards and forwards. Still more, you can only focus really really close, like almost impossibly close and you will almost certainly cast dirty big shadows on the subject.

Ok you say I can deal with that, all righty, here’s the kicker…. on all modern kit lenses the aperture control becomes utterly inoperative, you are either stuck with a fully stopped down or fully open aperture, dependent on your camera/lens brand.

If you can live with those impediments then knock yourself out and reverse that lens, but I reckon you’d do better with a good set of tubes or a close up filter.

Oh and almost forgot, If your camera doesn’t have sensor based IS then you will have no image stabilisation using the reversed lens option.

Here is an example of a contextual macro shot taken at 18 mm on my Sony 18-55 OSS kit lens, the trick is using the macro filter to allow closer focus but still get the wide angle view and I find the look to be very satisfying.

Close Up Filters For Portraits

The close-up filter can also sometimes have an effect on the bokeh in a nice way, giving smoother out of focus areas.

When used in conjunction with the telephoto end of your lens you can slightly increase the apparent focal length, say making your 55mm look like 65mm. This increase can give a more natural perspective for close-up portraits, note however you won’t be able to normally focus on anything beyond just a metre and a bit, but for these portraits that’ll be hunky dory.

However, there is always an exception, I have found that some M4/3 kit lenses can almost give infinity focus with the 1 diopter filter attached, for example my lovely little Panasonic 14-42 ii will almost achieve infinity focus at all focal lengths up to 36mm. A neat trick here is that the filter has a very nice residual effect on the DOF/Bokeh and can make some shots look as though they were shot with a much wider aperture, you milage may vary so you will need to experiment.

Here I go breaking my own rules and showing my dog pics, but Holly the Collie just looks so sweet when shot with the 18-55 OSS and a no 1 close up filter, 55mm roughly equals the look of 65mm lens at f5.6.

Adding a close up filter can also provide a vehicle for shooting creative “Out of Focus” shots, which can be great fun.

Close up filters never provide perfect clarity across the entire frame and into the comers but the centre and out towards the edges of the image should be more than adequately sharp which for most macro work is fine, but the effects can be even better when you actually want stuff out of focus like the example below.

Small Apertures

Somewhere along the way you have probably heard that you should not stop your aperture down too much otherwise your pics get soft due to diffraction. True, all true! But don’t let that deter you, if you need more depth of field you can always go small on the hole and big on the sharpening, either “in camera” or in post capture editing.

I have found from experience with thousands of images shot at small apertures, they can easily be sharpened up if needed, but the opposite of adding detail when it wasn’t even recorded due to “too wide an aperture” is near impossible.

Look at it this way, diffraction works by lowering local contrast, so long as you don’t go too far that contrast can be recovered by low radius sharpening of the image. When a small aperture image fails to respond to sharpening it’s likely it has camera movement due to a “too slow shutter speed”

Of course there are benefits to using small apertures other than just getting more DOF. You can use slower shutter speeds and a tripod to increase motion effects, you can kill stone dead “moire” (weird colour patterns and false detail ) on patterned objects and often get around many of the common lens aberrations and even as a bonus control high contrast scenes a little bit better.

Anyways, learn to sharpen files properly and you can happily work away with those small apertures, like f16, f18 or even in extremes f22, but just to be on the safe side probably best to leave f28 and smaller alone, they are just a “hole to far” for even the best sharpening tools and methods.

Here we have a test image to show what happens at very small apertures, this is the original Raw File Shot at f22 on Sony 18-55 OSS set at 18mm. You will easily see the distortion, chromatic aberration gives the edges and corners and uneasy appearance, vignetting is still present regardless of the small aperture and the overall softness of the image due to diffraction.
Same image, this is the OOC version (out of camera jpeg), it has less distortion and chromatic aberration and vignetting but still looks a bit soft as a result of diffraction from using such a small aperture, these days some cameras can partially compensate for diffraction but not in the case of this older NEX body.
And now for something vastly better, in this case we have a raw file version that has had all the corrections applied for CA, vignetting and distortion, but importantly it has been properly sharpened in post to address the loss of clarity introduced by the small aperture used at capture. Net result, a boring test image that is technically very good and has enormous depth of field.


Without doubt one of the most common questions I get asked in classes is along these lines “Hey Brad what filters should I get and what brand works best” My usual answer is.”to start with don’t get any”

I know that almost sounds heretical, go ahead burn me at the tripod, lash me with a bare camera strap.

Look here is what you need to know, I mentioned this earlier but let’s revisit….

UV filters will do nothing for your photos, all lenses and sensors are coated to reduce UV so you’ll see no visible change, the only thing a UV filter is good for is protecting the front surface of your lens from dirt and scratches but even then that’s quite dubious.

Circular Polarising filters are only needed if you want to kill reflections off water and other shiny surfaces, they do that quite well but leaving one permanently attached to the front of your lens is crazy, you are reducing the light striking the sensor by about two stops and thereby reducing your ultimate image quality. Oh and a cheap polariser can be have a negative effect on colour reproduction and clarity.

ND filters and Variable NDs. These serve one purpose only…to allow you to shoot with a much longer shutter speed. If you want to do those lovely flowing water or smoothed over surf photos then you need an ND filter. A variable ND filter is just an ND filter that is …well variable….which makes it great for video, but we are not getting into that stuff here.

Frankly if the budget is tight just buy a good polarising filter; it can work as both a polariser and low/moderate ND filter and to protect your lens make sure you leave the lens cap on unless you’re actually taking photos and leave the hood on.

And Now Something Soft and Gooey

There one great thing you can do with a UV filter and you don’t need and expensive one either.

Take that sucker and paint little tiny drops of clear nail lacquer on it! Not too many and it’s probably a great idea to keep the centre reasonably free of lacquer. You have now created a classic “softer style” portrait filter to give that sweet dreamy look.

Heck why not buy a few cheap UV filters on eBay and experiment with different sized dots and densities. This is great fun and it works beautifully with you kit lens at the more telephoto settings!

I will now sum up a few points and show a few more kit lens created pics for your inspiration. All these shots were taken with a Sony 18-55mm OSS E mount on a Sony NEX 5n.

This was created by shooting through a close-up filter with the focus set to the minimum, there are a few ways to get really blurry images and in the end it can be a lot of fun.
This is taken at 30mm f6.3, DOF is plenty shallow enough to fit in with the story without overpowering the intent of the image.

Just Shoot f6.3 or f5

Oh dear, I think I can hear an angry mob coming up the drive with pitchforks and baseball bats, how dare I make such a simplistic statement.

Now sure there are compelling reasons to shoot at both wide apertures and small apertures but there is also a very solid case for f6.3/f5 for most general shots, allow to elucidate and maybe illuminate.

To be clear the f6.3 applies to APSC lenses and f5 to M4/3. It needs to be noted that on M4/3 kit lenses the aperture will need to stop down to f5.6 from about 32mm or so as that will be the widest aperture on offer.

In terms of performance almost for almost all APSC Kit lenses on the market f6.3 represents the point where the best overall compromise is reached. It’s the point where the wide angle and mid range performance is usually at it’s peak, any improvement offered by going to f8 is minimal and in fact whilst the edges and corners may improve the centre of the image will probably get worse.

At the telephoto end f6.3 is probably short of the ultimate on offer in cross frame clarity, generally thats about f9, but usually when you shoot at the tele end it’s the middle of the frame that counts and f6.3 represents close to the optimum point for mid frame clarity.

The M4/3 kit lenses work to much the same pattern except the aperture is usually 2/3 stop wider.

Additionally by f6.3 and f5 the other lens performance issues of CA, Vignetting, field curvature are much better tamed.

f6.3 at 26mm, no problems getting enough separation between my wife and the insides of the tram, tells the story nicely.

F6.3 Just Works

Yep there are times to go wide and small on the aperture but f6.3 or f5 on M4/3 basically works for most of the pics you are likely to take with your standard kit lens, let’s just take a few lines to explore the claim.

Say you set the lens to the wide angle setting, chances are you are wanting to include a wide array of details that are spread across the frame and are at significantly different distances away for the camera. In other words you want a deep depth of field, this is the typical wide angle scenario.

If you do the calculations you will find that f6.3 is pretty much perfect for this, you will get “full depth of field” rendering, the focus point placement will not be super critical and the aperture is not so small that diffraction cuts into your fine detail, and fine detail rendering is probably more important for wide shots than those taken at other focal lengths.

Let go to the other extreme on your kit lens, 55mm. Generally you will have chosen this focal length because you want to isolate the subject and concentrate the detail in the middle of the frame, for example a portrait. So doing some quick calculations with my iPhone “depth of field” scales I find that if I focus the lens at about 1.9m (which is pretty typical for tight head and shoulder portrait) I am going to get a total depth of field of 20cm. That 20cm is pretty much ideal for a reliable portrait as that will give focus from the tip of the nose to the middle of the ears.

Take it further out, let’s say we want a pair of people covering waist to the top of the head and a bit of space around the frame, in this case we can focus to 3 meters with the 55mm. At f6.3 the total depth of field is about 50cm, which should be pretty much ideal to render the bodies and heads sharp and have some reasonable background separation.

Ok you want more, let’s say we shoot a building, the closet element is 25m which again would be typical. F6.3 gives us a total depth of field of around 100m, ranging from 14m to 130m, which will just provide some separation of the building from the background.

Further out again, a landscape, where the closet element is say 30m, obviously you want it all sharp. F6.3 gives us a total depth that runs from 16m to infinity.

The practicality of f6.3 (or f5/5.6 for M4/3) holds true for almost every focal length when you take into account the types of scenes you are likely to be shooting most of the time.

No, it’s not perfect and there are creative reasons for using other apertures but trust me it is surprisingly effective most of the time and for new users it can simplify the technical process, just choose Aperture Priority and set it to f6.3 then concentrate on your exposure compensation/white balance and composition.

Oh and just in case you are wondering, no it’s not going to work ideally for most macro shots, you will need to stop down a little more for that.

This was taken at 26mm and cropped in but the point holds true, if you stepped back a bit, you probably did so because you want to include other important elements, and f6.3 is enough to render that extra depth of field when you need it. In this pic, everything is sharp that I wanted sharp.
So here we are at 49mm and of course f6.3, with a shot like this you generally want good overall focus, no worries f6.3.

Parameter Settings Count

You will often read articles on how the Zeiss lenses have high contrast and punchy colour, or old Minolta glass has a warm tint and so forth, all true by the way, but to a great degree for JPEGs you can punch up or tame out any lens by adjusting the parameter settings on your camera. In other words you can go some way towards getting the look of some more expensive glass.

The three main controls are saturation, contrast and sharpness and all three of these are useful to help modify the rendering of your lens.

Of the three, sharpness will likely be the most useful for tailoring your lens rendering, followed by contrast and then saturation.

Adjusting the sharpness up will increase the local contrast giving a punchier look and if you keep an eye on your exposure to ensure you don’t clip your highlights it might be just the ticket.

Contrast will increase the overall impact of an image but going too hot on it will likely lead to highlight and shadow clipping, probably of more use is the lower contrast setting, which in combination with low sharpness and saturation but a brighter exposure can give a kind of dreamy look.

Saturation will increase the colour intensity, most cameras come set on with the saturation at the mid level and fine tuning can usually be achieved by shifting one notch up or down. Going to the extremes generally gives a rough overcooked or underdone look so that’s probably best avoided.

Your white balance can of of course be fine tuned on most cameras, even when shooting in Auto White Balance, and this can provide you with a pathway to warmer and cooler renderings, you can also tint things a little green or magenta but generally excess green just looks crook.

By combining contrast, sharpening, saturation and WB shift you can get a reasonable analogue for many classic lens renderings, for example you might obtain an old school Minolta lens look by increasing the saturation, lowering the contrast one notch and shifting your white balance just a tad to the warmer end of the spectrum and pulling back the sharpness one notch.

Your kit lens will not end up being a Zeiss or Minolta clone, but you can certainly get it a little more “Zeiss like” via careful adjustment of the parameters, and conversely you can dial things back for a far more muted rendition such as was seen with many old uncoated lenses.

All good creative fun!

Low light levels are hardly a challenge for kit lenses these days, just raise the ISO setting, honest its not too bad on the newer cameras.
This shot is a cropped frame from a 55mm shot taken with the Sony 18-55 OSS, it is equal to about 80mm, still looks plenty sharp right out to the edges and corners. You could of course crop far more if needed.

Why Get Another Lens

Ultimately a higher quality replacement for you kit lens will give you a higher grade tool with some benefits for specific purposes, for example shallow DOF portraits or closer macro ability, perhaps it will just feel nicer to use, but it is highly unlikely to make you a radically better photographer. You know this, we all know this, but somehow marketing places us in a state of suspended disbelief where all we need to do is click “buy” and offer up our credit card for some instant photographic gratification.

With a new lens you are not looking at massive improvements, rather an incremental change that might help in some select situations like shooting in marginal light, working with manual focus or extending your focal length range, so long as you accept that reality then go ahead get that lens.

What gain would there be with a fast expensive lens, not much really!

But…..being honest.

If you want really good bang for your buck then perhaps sticking with your kit lens and learning how to use it better and experimenting via actual picture taking experience might be the superior approach, and if you can combine it with sophisticated editing processes the sky is the limit.

There is of course nothing wrong with rewarding yourself a lovely new lens but good technique and creativity will easily win out in the end and others will judge you by your images, not your lens.

Yes you can shoot close up at the wide angle end with a macro filter…works a treat!

The Ultimate Kit Lens Kit

So you want to travel light, you want to be a free wheeling creative dynamo, unencumbered by too much gear, too much expense and too many decisions. There is a great truth in that old adage, “keep it simple”.

Well with no further ado here is my idea of the KISP kit. “Keep it simple photography kit”

  • Your camera and the kit Lens
  • 1 Spare Battery
  • A car/usb charger
  • Collapsible rubber lens hood
  • Variable ND filter for shooting video
  • Circular polarising filter
  • 2 diopter close up filter
  • DIY’d softar filter made from a uv filter
  • Short auto extension tube
  • Good camera grip
  • Half a dozen memory cards so you don’t have to worry about running out of memory or deleting stuff.
  • And of course a little case to put it all in.
  • The filters will stack together and the hood can remain on the camera, the memory cards can slip into a small holder.

I suspect that if you use the ideas extolled in this kit lens series you might just end up taking some of your most creative shots for very little outlay and realistically you will be able to cover pretty much whatever comes your way.

I hope this series has helped you get started with your kit lens and thanks for reading through to the end.


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 FacebookFlipboard and Instagram, or reach out to him through Twitter. This article was also published here, and shared with permission.

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