Moving Beyond Your Kit Lens

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You bought a DSLR or Mirrorless camera.  It's awesome.  It helps you make great images.  You're really starting to see like a photographer. Yet there's something that's as Pink Floyd would have said "not quite right".  Odds are good, it's the lens, so come with me brave readers and learn where to go next. I got my first job working in a camera store about 35 years ago.  Back then, every camera used film and every SLR camera came with a 50mm lens.  It was called "the standard lens" with the conception being that it had a field of view and perceived depth closest to the human eye.  Now technically that would be about 46mm really and in fact, Minolta, one of the leaders of the day, sold a 45mm f:/2 as their standard lens for a bit.  But I have digressed.

The idea of the standard lens was that because it "looked" like your eye it wouldn't be an uncomfortable lens to shoot.  Now back then, photography was more complicated, more expensive when you took into account film processing and had a very sharp distinction between amateurs and photo-buffs.  Or so you would be told.  You see back then, "real" photographers never used a 50mm.   You probably cannot hear me snark when I say that, but it's just like today where "real" photographers would never use a "kit" lens.

The most common lens that we find as part of a new DSLR bundle today is the 18-55 zoom combined with a crop sensor body.  If a mirrorless it's a 14-42.  In either case it is the full frame equivalent of the 28-85 focal length range.  Now that's a pretty usable range for lots of people.   It has sort of wide angle capability, and sort of telephoto capability in a lens that is lightweight, usually pretty darn sharp, inexpensive and, well, optically slow.  But it gets you going, and coupled with today's excellent sensors, you could go for years getting nice snapshots and never even have to look at another lens or a proper flash.  And yes, I am saying that the thing that pops up is not a proper flash and while that probably sounds antagonistic, those horrible little devices do such a disservice to photographers and subjects that they make me annoyed.

Anyhow, if you're happy with what you're getting out of your camera today, and don't need/want more, then stop reading and have a great day.  But, if you're like most aspiring and developing photographers, folks who are making the transition from taking pictures to making photographs, you're getting a bit frustrated.

I've written a short presentation that I use in seminars to help people understand the realities of lens choice without a bunch of manufacturer or seller hyperbole.  Just like the person who sells you a TV may not actually know much about TVs, with cameras available pretty much everywhere, the camera seller may have just been selling a microwave.  Or a fish.  And that sort of thing tends to breed hyperbole and fertilizer.

No you don't get the presentation because it's a live thing, but here is a very short synopsis.  You can make really great photos with a kit lens.  Contrary to opinion they are not plastic junk and while they definitely are not of the same quality as similar focal lengths costing ten times more, they are pretty good.  In a boxed in, limiting and controlled kind of way.

You want that beautiful out of focus highlight look?  You know, bokeh?  Never going to happen with a kit lens.  You need an optically fast prime with lots of aperture blades that are curved to make a round diaphragm.  And that's not the yuck pew "nifty fifty".  The nifty fifty is marketing dreck to hose good money out of nice people so they think that they are getting a real portrait lens.   Only the very best photographers can do decent portraits with anything short of a proper 85mm on full frame and most all pros today are working at around 180mm.

You want to photograph birds or wild wildlife?  That kit lens hasn't got the reach.  And in fact those super cheap telephoto zooms that are 55-200 or 55-250 don't either.  While they will give you improved magnification, they are so optically dark that you're just going to have to drive the ISO up to the point of speckled noise to get a fast shutter speed to freeze moving critters.  Wildlife and sports are VERY expensive specialties and need very long, very fast glass.  So save your money, look for something around 400mm and no slower than f:/5.6 maximum aperture.

Wait you don't care about the wild things, you want vistas, landscapes, scenery, the kind of thing that creates awe and punch.   The kit lens gets you to the border of usable wide angle and while shooting landscapes is MUCH MORE than just a wide lens, for that sense of awe you need wider than you are going to get out of a kit lens.  Think something in the 16mm range on a full frame or 10mm on a crop sensor, 9mm on a micro 4/3s.  A wide lens on its own doesn't make amazing, but used properly it is the right tool for the job.

Nope.  Not far or wide, you want close.  That's a special purpose lens called a macro lens.  Now here's a mcmarketing avoidance tip.  If you see the words macro and zoom beside each other, know right away that you are close enough that effluent is getting on your shoes.  A true macro lens is an amazing thing, allowing you to focus to 1x life size in most iterations although cheaper variants will only do ½ life size and specialized variants can do up to 5x life size.  Macro done well is a skill you can develop, but you cannot get there without the proper tools and the kit lens WILL NOT get you there.  Oh and if anyone tries to sell you close up filters / lenses that screw on the front and they do not cost as much as a proper macro lens, that person probably didn't know anything about the microwave either.  They are junk.  Run away.

If you find you are loving, or at least really liking going through the artistic development process of becoming a better photographer, in pretty short order that kit lens is going to end up holding down a shelf, or collecting lint in the bottom of your gadget bag.  Nothing wrong with that either.  If it served you well enough to get you going, retiring it is not a bad thing.  It's worth nothing in the used market so don't really bother, but when you are buying the lens that you do need/want don't be afraid to trade it in, if the seller will give you anything for it.  It was built to be the front part of your camera, it cost very little, and it really owes you nothing.

This article has strong opinions.  You don't have to listen.  I have been a photographer for now over 40 years and have purchased the good and the great along with the junk and the crap as I have evolved with this art.  It bugs me when people are mis-sold or give up photography when they just cannot seem to get to where they want to be.  So I write and teach, and sometimes people find it worthwhile.  Thanks for reading, now go make some photographs and have fun!