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There are many good reasons not to use a kit lens for travel photography. If a kit lens is the only lens you own and you have a photography trip planned, you may be thinking about buying a better quality mid-range zoom or even a prime lens to replace or accompany it.
But before you do so, I want to tell you a story.
10 years ago I bought my first digital SLR, a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT. I had switched systems from Pentax so I didn’t have any lenses to use with it. The camera came with an 18-55mm kit lens, and undecided about what other lenses I needed, I took it with me on an extended trip to South America.
I soon realized that the quality of the lens was not as good as it could be (I nearly used the word horrible). It wasn’t sharp and there was lots of chromatic aberration and purple fringing in my photos. Canon have since discontinued that early kit lens and replaced it with another, better one.
But that lens and camera combination gave me a tremendous amount of freedom. It was light enough enough to carry with me everywhere. I never had to change lenses, which helped keep the sensor reasonably free of dust. I had a wide-angle lens at 18mm, a short telephoto at 55mm, and all the focal lengths in-between.
It was during this trip that I had time to think about my future and what I wanted to do with it. I decided that I wanted to write about photography for a living.
Five months later I sold my first feature to Practical Photography magazine, illustrated with photos taken in South America with the Digital Rebel XT and that same kit lens. Yes, the lens may have been horrible, and I’d never want to go back to that camera and lens combination, but the photos I took with it were good enough to be published in a major photography magazine.
What lessons can we learn from this? Here are some of the key lessons.
The key thing is that the equipment you chose to take with you is light enough for you to take just about everywhere, so that you don’t miss any photo opportunities that present themselves. That’s one of the reasons that mirrorless cameras and high end compacts have become popular with travellers.
Relating this back to lenses, one of the benefits of kit lenses is that they tend to be smaller and lighter than better quality mid-range zooms.
Travel photography is about getting yourself to interesting places, when the light is beautiful, so that you can take photos that evoke the mood and atmosphere. If you don’t do this, it doesn’t really matter what camera and lens you have. Your photos won’t be as interesting as those from people who do take the trouble to do these things.
The photo above was taken during a 4-day jeep trip in south-west Bolivia. It’s a remote location at 4200 meters above sea level in the Andes that I never would have seen without going on that trip. It doesn’t matter what camera and lens you have, you’ll never take photos like this if you don’t make the effort to get to places like this one.
You get more out of the journey on a personal level when you talk to local people. The ability to confidently communicate gives you the chance to learn about their lives and the way of life of people from a different place or country.
It also opens up the number of photographic opportunities that come your way. Perhaps the people you talk to would like to have their photos taken, if you ask. Or you can ask people what local sights they can recommend for you to visit with your camera. You will learn about local temples, markets, festivals and other interesting cultural events or places that make good subjects.
I came across this scene in Punta Arenas, Chile (above) and was struck by the contrast between the expensive looking racing car and the houses. These two guys were happy for me to take a photo. The confidence to talk to people in this type of situation, and ask for permission to take a photo, is just as important as your gear.
Travel can be expensive, and it may be wiser spending money on experiences than gear. You don’t want to be in the situation of having spent so much on lenses that you don’t have enough money left to do all the things you would like on your journey.
I think it’s wise to acknowledge at this point that there are many reasons why you might want to buy a better lens than your kit lens. You might need a prime lens with a wide aperture for shooting in low light or experimenting with shallow depth-of-field. Or you may need a shorter focal length or a longer one. A weatherproof lens so you can shoot with confidence in the rain might also be handy.
These are all valid reasons for buying a better lens. Most photographers who start out with a kit lens end up buying better ones eventually. My photos were published in spite of me using a kit lens, not because of it.
But if a kit lens is all you have, there is no need to worry. You will have plenty of opportunities to buy better lenses in the future. For now, just get out there and seize the moment. Enjoy your trip, have a wonderful experience and make as many beautiful images as you can.
If you want to know more about buying and using lenses then please check out my ebook Mastering Lenses: A Photographer’s Guide to Creating Beautiful Photos With Any Lens.