In praise of kit lenses

You can go a long way, photographically, with a budget-priced starter zoom lens

I come to you today to sing the praises of the kit lens--that humble midrange zoom that is often bundled with starter and intermediate-level SLR cameras.

First, let's get all the negatives out of the way:

  • They're not as fast as pro lenses: Kit lenses have smaller apertures, which keeps cost, size and weight down, but can reduce your chances of getting steady handheld shots in low light.
  • They're not as sharp as pro lenses: They're good enough at middle apertures (f/8 and f/11) but if you shoot wide open, there may be some softness on the edges.
  • They're not as durable as pro lenses: They'll hold up to most travel and general shooting, but don't count on them in extreme environments.
  • The short focal length range is limiting if you're shooting sports and architecture, for example.

So, if you're a professional photographer, you probably don't want to rely on a kit lens. But if you're not a pro, read on..



Just enough: With my lens set at 55mm, I was able to capture just what I wanted to show this old fence and flowers. If I'd used a longer zoom lens I wouldn't have gotten that “K” pattern, made by the fence, on the right side. But the slight zoom compressed the scene enough. Later, I partially desaturated the image to get an older feel. Gear for all photos: Canon 20D, 18-55mm lens. All photos by Mason Resnick.

The lens for the rest of us

Pretty darn close: I didn't have to switch lenses to get this detail shot of a soldier's gun and uniform in a Revolutionary War re-enactment. Exposure: 1/250 sec at f/5.6, ISO 400.

For the rest of us, however, kit lenses are a great place to start when you first get a digital SLR. What, exactly, is a kit lens? That depends on the specific brand, but it's typically in the 18-55mm range, which covers from moderate wide-angle to moderate telephoto. Apertures typically are in the f/3.5-5.6 region, which is modest compared to f/2.8 on most pro mid-range zooms. The lenses can focus fairly close, and you can get respectable detail shots.

The Positives:

  • Ligthtweight
  • Inexpensive
  • Sharp enough to deliver excellent 8x10 prints (at least), especially when using mid-range apertures

How do I get one of these things?

If you are planning to upgrade from a compact digital camera to a DSLR, you can buy any current starter DSLR with a kit lens. Search our DSLR section and look for deals with 18-55mm or 14-45mm lenses.

How is a kit lens different from a lens that's built into a compact camera? After all, many compact cameras sport a zoom lens that's wider than a typical kit lens's 3x range. Kit lenses are a bit faster and seem in general to be a bit sharper than built-in lenses. But their real strength is what they're attached to: an SLR.

No lag time: SLRs make a difference; when you press the shutter release, you take the picture immediately. That's important when trying to time a picture. This casual-looking but carefully composed image, for instance, wouldn't have worked if the ball wasn't frozen in mid-air. Lens set at 18mm; f/8 at 1/500 sec., ISO 400.

Go deep: Use wide angle setting to take in more and to emphasize space. Added benefit of shooting at a wide-angle setting? Better depth of field, so more is in focus from near to far.

A Single-Lens Reflex offers through-the-lens optical viewing, allowing for greater control of composition and focus. Shutter lag? There is virtually none on DSLRs, whereas the delay between the moment you press a compact camera's shutter and the moment the picture is recorded is noticeable, and often frustratingly slow. And since a DSLR will have a larger imaging sensor than a compact camera, the overall image quality will be superior.

The range of focal lengths

At its widest setting, a Kit lens takes in approximately the equivalent of a 28mm 35mm-format lens (less or more, depending on focal length and sensor size combination). This is a good place to start when attempting a journalistic or documentary approach to your photos. A typical kit lens focuses close--not enough to be considered macro, but close enough for reasonable flower shots.

Flattering portrait lens: At 55mm the kit lens can shoot excellent portraits, even in the studio.

At 55mm, the lens is ideal for portraits and outdoor group shots. Keep in mind, however, that one of the limits of the lens is that as you zoom out, the widest aperture effectively gets smaller. An f/3.5 lens at 18mm may be an f/5.6 lens by the time it reaches 55mm. This means you need to be aware at longer focal lengths that you're more likely to get shaky shots in low light.

What about pro lenses?

What do pro shooters get when they pay hundreds of dollars more for a high-end lens (such as the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 shown here) that still has a mid-range focal length? Besides a more durable build quality, they get a faster f/2.8 aperture that stays consistent throughout the zoom range. Where kit lenses may have some pincussion or pillow distortion, that is minimized in pro optics. Yes, it costs and weighs more, but for a professional who makes a living with images, it may be worthwile.

How to tell if you've grown beyond a kit lens:

Oh, for a telephoto zoom! Shot at 55mm from about 50 feet away, this is OK as an establishing shot, but if I'd had a good 200mm lens to get right in the faces of the musket-shooting demonstrators and eliminate the people in the background, I would have used it.

As versatile as it is, eventually you may find that some subjects are beyond the scope of a kit lens. Here are some ways you can tell it's time to buy your second lens:

  • If you shoot a lot of sports or wildlife, you'll probably want to supplement with a tele zoom or telephoto lens, which will get you closer than the modest 55mm lens can.
  • If you shoot a lot of close-ups that aren't quite close enough, it's time to invest in a macro lens.If you shoot scenic vistas that don't seem grand enough, or do a lot of group shots indoors where someone gets cut off at the edge of the frame a bit too often, it may be time for a wide angle or wide-angle zoom lens.

The final word

A kit lens is a great way to get started if you are using your first DSLR. Spend time with it. Use it a lot, and get to know its ins and outs. It may be the best bargain you'll find.

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