The space shuttle Discovery at the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy museum.

Damn the man! Don’t upgrade your kit lens!

What is a kit lens?

That's the lens that came with your DSLR when you bought it. I'm guessing you didn't buy a "camera only" model, because if you did and you're not clear on what a kit lens is, you're probably pretty confused about picture quality right now. Among several other things. Both Canon and Nikon have a standard set of entry-level lenses engineered to hit consumer price points, as opposed to image quality. For Canon, these are the Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II SLR and Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lenses. The big gripe with these lenses is that, as mentioned, they are designed to meet economic goals first and quality standards second.

The Common (And Absolutely Wrong) Kit Lens Advice

So what's the first thing you hear when you, with your shiny new Canon and 18-55mm Canon kit lens, go ask for advice from professional photographers?
"Gotta get rid of that kit lens!" "Whatcha gonna replace that kit lens with?" "Upgrade your kit lens!"
If you think about it, the underlying assumptions here are pretty incredible. First, the assumption that you're made of money. Right.
Sunset on Chincoteague

Here, we're probably at the limits of the 18-55mm EFS lens. This shot required a bit more post-processing than I normally do, and could have been improved with a faster lens, but kit lens got the job done.

Second, it's really pretty insulting to be told out of the gate your awesome new camera is STILL NOT GOOD ENOUGH. The implication is that you're only a "real" photographer if you're hauling 19lbs of gear and force people to jump out of the way as you walk down the sidewalk. More than that, it's like a big joke that "advanced" photographers get to play over and over on the new guys, like hazing the freshmen in high school. He's sucks cause he doesn't know where his locker is!
"Oh, I just hate it when I see a new photographer with an EOS 7D Mk II with the kit lens still on it. They don't  know what's up."
Really? That's your reaction on someone who just bought a new camera, probably sacrificing a month's worth of salary? I hate that. You know what? I commend that person! They already made one mistake by paying $3,000 for a camera they don't how to use, but at least they didn't compound the mistake by buying a lens an order of magnitude more expensive. More importantly, they're interested. Why would you poop all over someone's newfound interest in your craft?

The Legitimate Reasons Why Photographers Hate Kit Lenses

Night sky with clouds and stars

Using a kit lens for night photography is challenging, and you'll have to accept some noise given the high ISOs, but you can still produce excellent images with some patience and practice.

Before we get to my main point, let's look at the reasons the photography community dislikes kit lenses. Build quality is typically the biggest gripe. They're cheap, light and don't have a great "feel," plus there's no weatherproofing to them. You'll know what I mean by "feel" the first time you use a high quality lens. They'll typically survive a light rain and a short drop onto carpet, but not much more than that. They're slow lenses with a variable aperture. Typically the best you can get is f/3.5. That makes anything beyond moderate lighting conditions rather hard to work with.
SR71 Blackbird

Here, I would've liked a bit more focal range, but I got the shot, though I had to crop a bit.

Also, the aperture will change as you zoom in--by the time you get to the long end (that 55mm or 135mm), the aperture will have pushed to f/5.6. You'll understand the effect of this when you're shooting in manual and you've got all your settings notched in for the f/3.5 aperture, then your subject moves and your shots are underexposed. It's annoying! But not deal-breaking! Image quality is typically so-so, because, as with the housing, the imaging components are manufactured with a price point, instead of image quality, in mind. But, here's the thing...if you're new to this photography game, it'll take you awhile to see and understand the difference. Your photos will already look better, even on full auto, than they did with your point and shoot.

Why None of Those Things Matter and Anyone Telling You To Upgrade is Wrong

Do you know how to use a more expensive lens? Do you even know what you get with a more expensive lens? Probably not. Learn that. When you're able to articulate in photographic terms why you want a new lens, you're probably good to go. But, as I have learned, a pro telling you "this lens sucks" is not a good reason. Do you know the differences between 18mm, 35mm and 55mm? Do you know how those focal ranges affect depth of field and compression? These focal points all have applications they're best for; if you don't know what these generally-accepted practices are, go learn them.

This was a long exposure from inside a hotel room in San Antonio. I had minimal gear, and carried my kit lens, with its 18mm near-wide-angle capability, for just such an opportunity.

Do you know (last time I'll ask, I promise) where your lens is its sharpest? Do you even know what I mean by that? Seriously, the real tragedy I see is someone dropping a couple grand on a lens and then complaining that it's still blurry at f/2. No, they don't have a problem with focus--they don't understand how aperture affects clarity. Most, if not all, of these lenses include image stabilization. That's a pretty great feature! Essentially, the lens uses gyroscopes to counteract vibration, and the functionality gives you an additional stop or two of shooting ability. Learn when to use this and when not to use it (on a tripod). IS doesn't come on all lenses, even high-end ones don't always have the option, and it's a pretty significant extension of your lenses' capabilities. As I said previously, you'll know the difference in "feel" of a cheap lens and a good lens once you pick up the good one. But you'll also notice the bulk and weight of the good lens. Since there's a lot more metal, weatherproofing and elements in expensive glass, the weight goes up quite a bit. This has been a factor for me when deciding what lenses to take out. Although I often choose the weightier, better lens, I've been known to take the kit lens some days simply because it's lighter. You know what I love about a kit lens? It has one of the best price to flexibility ratios around. You can get a used one for $100, and it's the perfect back up lens. It'll cover 80% of your needs at about 80% the quality.

How to Rock Your Kit Lens Like...A Rockstar

Again, traveling with minimal gear, I took this early morning shot of Prospect Peak in West Virginia using the 18mm end of my kit lens.

Again, traveling with minimal gear, I took this early morning shot of Prospect Peak in West Virginia using the 18mm end of my kit lens.

There's a ton of angles to take (see what I did there?) on learning photography with a kit lens. Note that's what you're now doing--you're learning photography. That's awesome! Treat it like a prime! As I said earlier, practice with it set on the most common focal lengths (18/35/55) and study the differences in the photos... You'll find subjects that are excellent for one end don't work in the other, and that you use the camera in completely different ways at all three points. The folks over at Digital Photography School have an excellent approach--use your kit lens as three different lenses in one. Learn how aperture, depth of field and distance from your subject work together. Getting a nicely blurred background involves some planning and spatial understanding. Working with that f/3.5 will really challenge you to get it right. That's great! It means when you upgrade to your 50mm 1.8 prime, you'll know how to use the ultra-shallow DoF. ExposureGuide.com has a nice, easy-to-digest tutorial (with a nice graphic at the top) that'll get you comfortable with the relationships between these three. While you're at it, this exercise is a great time to learn how aperture affects sharpness. Every lens is a little different, but most get their sharpest around f/8 to f/11. This is, weirdly, called the "sweet spot." (The term just weirds me out.) Again, take a systemic approach--set your camera up on a static scene, preferably with a tripod, and snap a series of pictures at different apertures. Pull them onto the computer and zoom in to 100%, paying special attention to the edges of the image. Your sweet spot will be the aperture at which those edges look the best. You'll apply this learning to every lens you own. (JFGI alert: type your lens name and "sweet spot" into Google if you want to go the "efficient" route.)
The sky was overcast and gray, but I had ample natural light to catch the bright, contrasty colors using my Canon kit lens.

The sky was overcast and gray, but I had ample natural light to catch the bright, contrasty colors using my Canon kit lens.

The most important thing after learning exposure is composition. You've heard of the Rule of Thirds--I suggest following it exactly. Once you understand it, forget about it. Study and understand the Golden RatioStart with this great post by Jake Garns. This is one of the best concepts you can learn after the Rule of Thirds. Here's the thing--neither the Rule of Thirds nor the Golden Ratio will be improved with a $1k piece of glass. Not even a little. (Math!) Learn to use your camera in manu--you know what? Learn to use..most...of those settings.  Focus on aperture priority and shutter priority, then full manual. Learn how your lens is going to react when you zoom and the aperture changes, how to compensate for that, and how to do it in half a second (so that you'll be comfortable enough to make other changes super fast). Are you freaked out about learning everything on that dial? Don't be--there are some great tutorials out there to teach you how to use the modes that matter, like at PhotographyLife.com. Did you know DSLRs can still manual focus? It's true, and it's fun! Learn to do this, and not in luddite fashion, but because it's like keeping score during a baseball game (aren't I just one of the funnest people you've ever met?). It focuses you and forces you to dive much more deeply into the process. It's almost a meditative thing; you and the camera really gotta work together. Don't harsh on my manual focus time, bro.
Sign at Seattle Market

Really played to the kit lens' strengths with this one. Exposed for the brightest part of the image with an aperture around 8 to get it sharp.

When you look at a picture, or a painting, and you either love or hate it, can you tell me why? Seriously, it's not rhetorical--pick one out and put it in the comments. It's very hard to articulate what drives your emotions in an image. Study some art, and don't upgrade your equipment until you can describe a piece with more than, "It's purty." You've got a few awesome months of discovery and realizations with all I've laid out above; sneak some study time in there to understand what the masters were seeing.

When to move on

You've stubbornly held to your principals and refused to be peer pressured into upgrading. For the last several months, you've taken hundreds, if not thousands, of photos, sharpening your skills and understanding. You've even taken an art appreciation course and learned the subtle differences in crazy between painters, photographers and writers (spoiler alert: vodka, bourbon, whisky). So you're ready to move to one of those big, badass lenses with multiple dials, switches, buttons and, if you want the deuh-luxe model, additional mounts? Nope. You're buying a prime lens. For, like, $120. It's nicknamed the Nifty Fifty. No, of course it's not proud of that. Look, I know you want to look like the photographer version of Indian Jones out there, but the way to really level up your skill is to take all those things we just worked on over the last few months and apply them with a cheap prime. There's a few reasons primes are great for this stage of photography:
  • they force you to move your feet instead of adjusting your lens.
  • with few moving parts, they're cheap to manufacture.
  • you get a serious quality bump without maxing out your credit card.
As you mature as a photographer, you'll find yourself taking it more often than you realize, even with multiple other lenses.

Now That You Know How Awesome Your Kit Lens Is...

Vintage airplane

One of my favorite shots ever with this lens, everything I produced from our trip to Udvar Hazy was done with my kit lens.

Ok, so that's my best advice, but really, if you're going to upgrade to another lens, consider what you've enjoyed the most. Do you just want to do street photography, and document the everyday interactions of real people? Don't buy a huge lens (in fact, you may want to consider going mirrorless). Are you just dying to take one more picture of some insufferable bird landing in a nest that looks like every other nest out there? Ok, get a big lens. Are you digging those big, breathtaking landscapes and want to fit more in there with tons of detail? Wide angles are your bag. Some people like close ups with macros; I somehow don't have the patience. What did I do? Glad you asked. I got that Nifty Fifty, not because I knew what I was doing, but because it was the only upgrade I could afford. All the advice above is advice I'm still following, actually. I should have held off much longer, but I at least made my next purchase articulating that I wanted to do more sports photography. You know what? I haven't done nearly as much sports photography as I expected (but I've loved using the lens I got for it). Last tip: if you're determined to get something other than my recommendation, figure out where around town you can rent a lens. Usually, your locally-owned camera store is the place to go, even if their selection is a bit smaller than the chain store. They'll advise and let you try different things out in the store. If you're reading this, you probably are in some way a beginning photographer. You don't know what you don't know--I didn't know that I love trying all sorts of different approaches. That's why I'm on this big astrophotgraphy kick right now, but in general I'm much more careful and focused about my expenditures. It's so easy to get carried away with photography, both in terms of dropping thousands on gear and with the peer pressure of having the best and shiniest. No one wants to look like a "newbie", but the actual sucker is the guy who's invested a year's worth of college tuition in his gear and can't get it out of auto. Don't be that guy. Equipment does not a photographer make.
Take a look at these images. They're all produced using my kit lens.
No comments yet.

Leave a Reply