Do This Before You Upgrade a Lens for Your New Camera

Do This Before You Upgrade a Lens for Your New Camera

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So, you just got a new camera! Congratulations! You’re in the right place, DPS is absolutely full of amazing tutorials that will help get you started, and point you in the right direction. As for me, if there’s one thing that I could say to someone who has just purchased, or received a new camera, this is it:

If this is your first DSRL or mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses, don’t buy any new lenses or gear for at least a month.

I know, I know. You’ve probably heard that the kit lens is terrible. You’ve probably already been given a list of things that are “must-buys” in order to take amazing photos. You may have even tested out your brand new camera, and been disappointed that your images don’t quite look like you’d hoped they would after you upgraded.

I understand, because I’ve been there. However, waiting to upgrade for at least a few months (get that you need like batteries and memory cards, but hold off on any major purchases like lenses) may actually benefit your photography in the long run. To explain why, let me tell you a little about me and my story.

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I received my first DSLR, a Canon Rebel XS, in 2009. I’d done black and white film photography for years, so photography itself wasn’t new to me, but my old fully manual Pentax camera didn’t have things like white balance, or the ability to choose metering modes, and neither did my point-and-shoot digital camera at the time (at least not that I knew of), so there was definitely a big learning curve for me as I transitioned to a digital SLR.

The image above was one of the first that I took with my new camera, and I remember being so frustrated. I hated how yellow it was. I hated the fact that it didn’t really look any better than the images I took with my point-and-shoot camera, and it might have even looked worse! It didn’t take much complaining on my end before well-meaning friends and family members started suggesting different lenses, flashes, and other gear that would help me achieve the look that I was hoping to achieve.

Although I was confident that I’d need to upgrade lenses if I wanted to take my photography to a new level, my husband and I were still pretty newly married and money was tight, so I just kept on with my Rebel XS and Kit lens. I was really frustrated about not being able to upgrade at the time, but the truth was that I didn’t need a lot of new gear, I really just needed to learn how to utilize the gear that I already had.

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I was pretty sure that I was more interested in photographing landscapes and abstract items than I was photographing people. So, I’d take my camera to work with me and go on photo walks during lunch breaks, taking photos of whatever was around. I discovered how white balance worked, and started to chip away at learning a little more about how my camera functioned. The images still weren’t perfect, as you can see by the examples above and below, but I felt like I was making progress in terms of the overall aesthetic of the photos, and I was really starting to have fun. I was still itching to upgrade, but am forever grateful that we just couldn’t afford it at the time, because it turned out that the type of photography that I thought I was interested in, wasn’t actually my passion after all.

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Over the course of the next year, I started taking photos of my nieces and nephew just for fun, and much to my surprise, discovered that I loved taking candid photos of kids. I had experience with portrait photography in high school and college, but thought I didn’t like it. As it turns out, most of my portrait experience had been in a studio setting with a professor who was very, very passionate about Rembrandt Lighting. I didn’t enjoy that kind of photography, but I discovered that I loved sitting in the grass in the backyard, and taking photos as my nieces and nephew played. I loved taking pictures while singing funny songs, and telling little jokes to see if I could make them laugh. Around the same time, I took a few senior portraits for some family friends, and discovered that it wasn’t just kids I enjoyed photographing. I loved taking pictures of people, and I especially loved taking portraits of people.

I also really loved portraits that had a nice blurry background, which was hard (but not impossible) to achieve with my kit lens. I began to look into how I could achieve that effect more easily, and quickly came across Canon’s Nifty Fifty Lens (50mm f/1.8). I purchased that lens shortly before my first daughter was born. It stayed pretty permanently attached to my camera body for the next several years.

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My love for portraits has only intensified, and though I have made a number of upgrades to my gear since 2010, I’m glad that it took me about a year to make my first purchase. Being forced to wait allowed me time to discover which type of photography I was really interested in. Had I upgraded right away, I probably would have purchased a lens that would be collecting dust in the back of my closet, because I would have gotten something targeted towards landscapes or macro, rather than something more appropriate for portraits. It’s not the end of the world to own a lens that you don’t use all that often, but it’s also something that can be avoided with just a little patience!

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Waiting to upgrade also forced me to really learn to use the camera that I had, which was actually a great camera, kit lens and all! Still need a little extra convincing that the kit lens isn’t terrible? Check out this Flickr Group called Kit Lens Losers. There are some incredible images in there, all taken with the standard kit lens. You CAN take great images, right out of the box. I promise.

When it did finally come time to upgrade to a new lens, I did so knowing that the upgrade was necessary in order to achieve something (better bokeh and the ability to shoot wide open), that my previous setup limited. The lens was important in helping me achieve the aesthetic that I like in photography, but it was only one piece of the puzzle. Learning about white balance, metering modes, shooting in RAW, and a whole slew of other camera settings were just as important as a new lens in terms of the overall affect on my photography.

I’m not saying that you need to have a perfect understanding of your camera before you upgrade, but I firmly believe that we’re never done learning when it comes to photography. What I am suggesting is that if you spend some time really getting to know your camera and what it is capable of before you upgrade, you’ll be able to ensure that you’re spending your money intentionally, in ways that will allow you to continue to grow in your photography – and that’s always a good thing.

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Have you upgraded you gear? If so, what was your first purchase? If you haven’t, please share what has made you decide to wait.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Meredith Clark is a wife, mother, native Oregonian, complete bookworm, Top Chef lover, and new quilting addict. She can also be found blogging at La Buena Vida and Meredith Clark Photography.

  • AnkitD

    Excellent points. I bought my Sony Nex-6 camera about 3 years ago and only bought a new lens two weeks ago. The kits lens have been good for most of the photos I have taken and knowing the limitations of it forces you to be more creative and smarter about photography.

  • Meredith

    Yes. That’s exactly what I’m talking about! And congratulations on your first lens purchase 🙂

  • Tasha Booth

    I bought a 50mm 1.8 pretty quickly – b/c I already knew I was going to be taking tons of portraits since I have 5 kids! I’m holding off on buying anything else but I knew I wanted that one!

  • Jeremiah Tanquintic

    My first DSLR was a Canon 50D without the kit lens because I read from the internet that kit lenses are terrible. I bought the Nifty Fifty because the internet says so.

    I was kind of glad I listened to the internet. But honestly, the journey towards taking good photos was a daunting task. It was then that I actually realized what the internet means when it says “one prime lens will force you to be creative”. It was FORCING me because not only was the lens too tight on a crop, but the shallow DOF meant tons of out-of-focus shots in the hands of a beginner. But I stuck with it for the next two years because I couldn’t afford buying better lenses since I was a student then. I’m glad I stuck with it because I fell deeply in love with fast primes.

    I tried to upgrade to an UWA (Canon 10-22mm), but while I was happy with the new perspective it gave me, I wasn’t too happy with the small apertures compared to the Nifty. I quickly resold it and bought Canon 35mm L. 5 years later and I still haven’t bought new lenses because I never felt the need to. Sticking with one or two lenses for almost 8 years now allowed me to master what I can do with it

  • Jim Sinclair

    Great article for new photographers!!! My experience was similar. I moved from a point and shoot with a 25x zoom to an entry level Canon and a kit lens. I was frustrated to find, even after I moved up to an 18-135mm lens, I was still no where near my previous ability to get close to wildlife and sports action with the 25x.

    Not because I couldn’t afford a new lens, but because I was also boggled at all the things I was reading about controlling my new camera and moving off the auto mode. I found I liked taking candid photos of friends, especially when they weren’t doing the canned smile and pose. Even photos of my dog, became interesting and new as I learned about bokeh and depth of field. I took some amazing landscape photos while driving around looking for wildlife. I realized I had a strong passion for more than just wildlife photography. I made found some like minded people with the photo bug and was able to learn what they had learned about the ever changing need for new equipment. We started a photography group in town and soon had 25 people with strong interests in all sorts of photography. We shared ideas, equipment and taught each other things we learned from classes and the internet.

    Now, two years after buying my first DSLR (Canon T3i), I had developed my understanding of my photographic interests, what kind of equipment I really “needed” or at least wanted, and knew where (and where not) to buy things. Well, since then my passion and interest have continued to evolve. There never seem to be an end to the things I “could use” to move in more interesting directions.However, I have also learned the value of what I have in my hands and the value of what I have in my head. I never considered myself artistic, in my previous 40 years of life, and now I had a whole new passion for what was around me. I wanted to take classes, teach classes, learn on the internet, read books and talk with other photographers on a regular basis.

    So be careful, there is an amazing world out there if you learn how to use that new, entry level DSLR. There is no end to the creativity you can draw out of yourself. At 50 years old, I have found a passion for life. One that I never knew without a camera in my hands.

  • Takoyaki

    ….may i know what is your settings for this one? I am looking to get a shot of this kind of sharpness with my nikon d3200 kit lens….

  • Jim the Photographer

    Your voyage into digital is remarkably similar to mine! We hit most of the same potholes along the way. But, I must say, that after turning digital, I took more photos in month than I did in three years with film!

  • Annie Metcalfe

    To get bokeh to that level, you’d need maximum aperture and shutter speed/ISO/ white balance to suit whatever lighting conditions there are. I have a d3200 as well and have managed similar background blur with a kit lens, but you need a significant distance between subject and background, and to have the lens fairly close to the subject. Hope this helps somewhat!

  • Meredith

    I’m right there with you, Jim! That is certainly one benefit!

  • Meredith

    Yes, Annie is exactly right. The kind of settings you’ll need will vary tremendously depending on lighting and subject. I’d guess that my aperture was close to 1.8, as you can see that the camel on the lower left had started to lose focus.

  • Meredith

    “I have also learned the value of what I have in my hands and the value of what I have in my head.”

    I love this. Thanks for sharing your story!

  • Meredith

    That’s a great point Jeremiah–a small number of lenses really does push you to learn how to best utilize what you DO have!

  • David Burckhard

    Dismissing the notion that kit lenses can’t produce publishable images is more an amateur thought than that of a pro. I work with pros who thankfully keep a long range zoom kit lens on a camera for walk-around. When an unexpected but fleeting moment appears, that lens may be the best possible to have at hand. For me, I’ve delivered shots taken with a kit lens to national clients who have been quite pleased with them. I’d much rather take a good shot with a good lens than miss a great shot with a better lens. Having a $2,700 telephoto zoom mounted means little when that super shot that lasts two seconds needs wide-angle coverage.

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