If you’re like most photographers, your first “serious” camera came with a kit lens, probably a standard, 18-55mm option.
But is a kit lens worth keeping? Is it capable of taking great images? Or should you immediately upgrade to a more expensive option?
That’s what I aim to address in this article.
I’m going to show how a kit lens, despite its shortcomings, can get you stunning images (and I give plenty of examples along the way!). I’m also going to give you a few quick tips for working with an 18-55mm lens.
Let’s dive right in.
Is a kit lens bad for photography?
Most kit lenses are, by nature, inexpensive (a polite way of saying cheap).
And that’s understandable – manufacturers are in competition with one another and they keep the prices of their camera bundles down by creating inexpensive kit lenses. A kit lens will get you started, and you can buy other, better-quality lenses when you outgrow it.
But if kit lenses are cheap, does that mean you should go out and buy a better lens straight away?
No, it doesn’t. No matter what anyone says, or how much you lust after expensive glass, your kit lens is a great way to get started with serious photography. If you’re in a position where you can’t afford to buy another lens, or you simply just don’t know which lens to buy, don’t sweat it. You’ll be surprised by what you can do with your kit lens once you know how to get the best out of it.
Don’t believe me?
Then check out this blog post by Jingna Zhang – a professional fashion and editorial photographer. She’s good, and she got her start with an EOS 350D and the 18-55mm kit lens that came with it. The quality of images she created with that camera and kit lens is very high. Take a look, and you’ll see what I mean.
Her article resonated with me because I got started with the same camera and lens combination. I didn’t know what lenses to buy for my camera, so I decided to stick with a kit lens and took it with me on a trip to South America.
I soon realized the lens wasn’t a great one; thankfully, it has been discontinued, and Canon sells a much better kit lens with its entry-level cameras.
However, despite the relatively poor image quality, some of the photos I took with that lens were good enough for publication. I illustrated my first published article, a piece in Practical Photography, with photos taken using the kit lens:
And several more of the photos were published in other photography magazines. My Canon 18-55mm wasn’t the world’s best lens, but it was good enough to get me started (and the Practical Photography article was a turning point for me because it helped me believe I could make it as a writer).
Getting the best out of your kit lens
So how do you get the best out of a kit lens? My approach is to think of it as two lenses in one.
If you have a kit lens that ranges from 18mm to 55mm (the standard kit lens focal length), then treat it as an 18mm lens and a 55mm lens in one body.
The 18mm is a moderate wide-angle lens that is great for landscapes, architecture, and environmental portraiture. The 55mm end makes for a short telephoto lens, ideal for compressing perspective when taking portraits or closing in on small details.
That doesn’t mean you can’t use the middle focal lengths, and there are times when you can’t avoid them. But by sticking with the short and long end of the lens, you will learn how those focal lengths behave.
After all, lenses are the “eye” of your camera system, and your photos will improve as you learn the characteristics of each focal length.
Some kit lenses also have another useful feature: image stabilization.
(Note that image stabilization is Canon’s term, while Nikon calls this vibration reduction.)
Image stabilization lets you take photos at slower shutter speeds than would otherwise be possible. So theoretically, you could hand-hold the camera, set the focal length of the lens to 18mm, drop the shutter speed, and take a photo without camera shake – even at 1/4s or even 1/2s.
Your kit lens as wide-angle glass (18mm)
The photos below were taken at the 18mm end of my kit lens.
You can see how I got in close to the subject, sometimes even tilting the lens backward to take advantage of the effect of the converging verticals.
Your kit lens as short telephoto glass (55mm)
These photos were all taken at the 55mm end of my kit lens.
Shortcomings of kit lenses
As you now know, your kit lens is probably a better lens than you originally thought.
That said, kit lenses aren’t incredible, and they do have several shortcomings. At some point, you will bump up against these limitations.
(Running into limitations is not a bad thing. It simply indicates that you’re at the stage where a different lens will help you take better photos.)
These are the main drawbacks of kit lenses:
Limited focal length: You may find that even the 18mm end of your kit lens is not wide enough for the photos you’re after. In that case, it’s time to start thinking about buying a new (even wider) wide-angle lens.
On the other hand, if you find that the 55mm end doesn’t get you as close as you would like to your subject, then you need a telephoto lens. This may happen if you’re interested in photographing wildlife or sports, for example.
Slow autofocus: The autofocus on kit lenses tends to be slower and noisier than autofocus on more expensive lenses. If the autofocus performance of your kit lens is holding you back, it may be time to upgrade.
Narrow maximum aperture: Kit lenses are slow lenses. In other words, they don’t have a wide maximum aperture. The reason is simple: the wider the maximum aperture, the larger the lens body and lens elements required, which pushes up manufacturing costs. So kit lenses are made with relatively small maximum apertures to keep the price down.
The maximum aperture at the 55mm end of most kit lenses is around f/5.6. If this isn’t wide enough, you can buy a zoom that covers the same focal length with a maximum aperture of f/4 or f/2.8, or a 50mm prime lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 or wider. The wider apertures on these lenses will help you take photos in low light or use a shallow depth of field creatively.
Subpar build quality: Kit lenses tend to be pretty plasticky, so if you often knock your camera around or shoot in bad weather, then you may need a better-built option. The top lenses in each manufacturer’s range have metal bodies, metal mounts, and weatherproofing.
Why your kit lens is better than you think: conclusion
Kit lenses have a bad reputation, but they’re actually pretty great for beginner photographers.
So don’t feel you need to upgrade the moment you purchase a camera. Recognize that your kit lens can take stunning photos – as long as you know how to use it well!
And just have fun playing with your kit lens and experimenting.
Now over to you:
Do you use a kit lens? If so, what do you think of it? Are you pleased with it? Do you plan to upgrade? Share your thoughts (and images) in the comments below!