Not satisfied with the kit lens that came with your APS-sensor DSLR or interchangeable-lens compact digital camera? It may be time to upgrade!
A Buying Guide for anyone who wants to grow as a photographer
Is it time to upgrade that 17-55mm lens that came with your DSLR? You've got options that will help you go from good photographs to great photographs!
Kit lenses are a great stepping stone when getting started with DSLR or MILC photography. They’re inexpensive, cover a modest zoom range, and are small and light. But the initial excitement eventually fades as you become more experienced and discover that images are a bit fuzzy at the corners, and there are purple, blue, or red fringes on some hard edges in your photos (the result of an optical fault known as chromatic aberration). Finally, you’ve decided: You’ve grown beyond this lens, and are ready to shop at Adorama for a replacement. What should the next one be?
While you may be tempted to augment your zoom range with a wider-angle or tele zoom, or perhaps a prime lens—and these are good choices—I am here to suggest your new lens should cover roughly the same focal range as your original—perhaps a few millimeters more in either direction. No, I haven't lost my marbles. But if you want to make high-quality prints (especially larger than 4x6 inches), and not just share your images online, focus on better glass, better build, and you will see a remarkable difference in image quality if you upgrade with better quality without changing the focal range dramatically.
Also read: "8 All-In-One Lenses That Do It All" at the Adorama Learning Center.
What's wrong with kit lenses?
Kit lenses, which cost in the $100-200 range (depending on manufacturer), offer the convenience of light weight and small size. But they tend to produce more color fringing and vignetting, and have difficulty maintaining consistent focus from the center of the image to the edge when you're photographing a flat surface. At the widest setting, they tend to have noticeable barrel distortion. While this will disappear by the time you get to 55mm, it may be replaced with slight pincussion distortion. Yes, manufacturers can engineer most of these faults away, but that takes time, tighter manufacturing tolerances, and better quality material. And that costs more.
And so, for its cost and convenience, it's a good starting point, but the kit lens is a compromise. For most people it works. For a while.
If you only plan to share your photos digitally at low resolution, then you may not notice the difference between a kit lens and a higher-quality mid-range zoom. But if you make prints, especially big ones, the difference will quickly become obvious.
So, what's different?
Aperture range: While a typical kit lens opens up to f/3.5 (5.6-6.3 zoomed out), a mid-range or pro version will open up to f/2.8, allowing 1/3 a stop more light in. Some models have a wide aperture that stays consistent throughout the zoom range.
Better glass: Mid-range lenses (typically in the $300-600 range) are made of better quality glass and stronger build. Pro-level lenses will give you virtually fault-free images. The glass elements may be coated with material that improves light transmission and gives you better color fidelity and contrast.
Fewer optical gotchas: Optical design is carefully done to reduce or even eliminate color fringing. The lens barrel and moving parts are built to last longer, and in many cases can be used under more rigorous conditions.
Better Bokeh: The aperture rings are typically either rounded or more numerous, leading to more pleasing Bokeh.
Steady shooting: The image stabilization may be better, which means you may be able to hand-hold and get sharp images while shooting a stop or two slower.
Solid construction: The lens mount is metal, the barrel is made of stronger material. These lenses are built to last.
Disadvantages of stepping up
There are three disadvantages to going to a higher quality lens at the same focal length:
Size: It will be bigger.
Weight: It will be heavier.
Price: It will cost more (an enthusiast-level lens will be in the mid hundreds, while a pro lens will likely run at least $1,000)
Why spend all that money when I can fix it in Photoshop?
Admittedly, you can buy software from Adorama, such as DxO Optics Pro, which has a module for almost every lens currently available. Apply Optics Pro to the images you shot with your $100 kit lens, and the images will look better. Fringing and linear distortion can be eliminated completely, but at a cost. When applying linear distortion, a sliver of your original image will be sacrificed. And you can't replicate the better contrast and bokeh of a high-quality lens in software without a lot of extra steps.
However: If you’re thinking Optics Pro is a fine fix in post-processing, think about this: Would you rather spend your time sitting in front of a computer doing repetitive tasks applying software actions to your images to make up for your lens’s optical faults, or would you rather spend your time taking pictures? I’d rather be exploring the world with my camera.
So consider how much is your time is worth. Is that time spent (and Optics Pro's $299 pricetag) worth the difference between a $100 lens and a $600, $800 or even a $1,000-plus lens? That is up to you!
Three Case Studies, Thanks to DxOMark
While there are many other choices, I took three popular kit lenses and upgraded them, to see what the results look like in the lab. I went to Adorama's lab test partner, DxOMark, an independent test facility that provides unbiased test results, to (hopefully) prove my point. What follows is the basic test results for each comparison, in alphabetical order, followed by my comments that are based on a more in-depth analysis of the data provided by DxOMark. All DxOMark findings are used by permission.
Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II kit lens vs. Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM
Yes, the Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM is an older lens, having been introduced way back in 2005, but it has stood the test of time. For starters, this lens, which, like the Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II, is designed for APS-sensor cameras, a faster lens, with a wide aperture of f/2.8 that stays consistent throughout the zoom range. In all lens metric scores measured by DxOMark Labs—resolution, transmission, distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberration—the Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM outscored the Canon EF-S 18-55mm . The difference is especially noticeable when measuring distortion (the 18-55mm had noticeable pillow distortion at 18mm while the 17-55mm showed virtually no distortion) and chromatic aberration (the 18-55mm showed chromatic aberration, which results in purple, red or blue “fringing” in abrupt high-contrast transitions, while the 17-55mm showed no fringing.)
If I were to compare the Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G kit lens with the Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S DX zoom lens, you'd see similar results.
But what if you compared lenses based on expanding the zoom range? Let's compare a couple of Nikon lenses that fall into the “mid-range” spectrum.
Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens vs. Nikon 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED AF-S DX VR lens or Nikon 16-85mm f/3.5 lens
In this three-way test between the Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens and two longer-range lenses, the Nikon 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED AF-S DX VR lens and Nikon 16-85mm f/3.5 lens, that are considered mid-range, the results are more of a mixed bag. All are DX lenses—designed for use on an APS-sensor based Nikon DSLR, or a on a full-frame Nikon DSLR in crop frame mode. Overall, each of the longer-range lenses scored better than their budget-priced sibling, but each had its strengths and weaknesses, as you can see in the comparison chart. Resolution, as expressed in lines/mm, is consistently better in the more expensive lenses, but distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberration performance vary from lens to lens. A longer zooming lens is going to have a tougher time producing better chromatic aberration and distortion results, so the fact that the 18-105mm didn't do worse than the 18-55mm lens—despite its extended focal range—speaks to its better optical quality!
Sony DT 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 vs. Sony Vario-Sonnar T 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM vs. Sony Vario-Sonnar T 16-35mm f/2.8 ZA SSM
The Sony comparison is completely unfair In a world where you get what you pay for, the Sony Vario-Sonnar T 24-70mm f/2.8 Ziess ZA SSM and Sony Vario-Sonnar T 16-35mm f/2.8 Zeiss ZA SSM lenses are pro-grade and pro-priced and so it should be no surprise that they dramatically outperformed the Sony DT 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. The 24-70mm covers a full frame sensor, so its most vulnerable areas—the corners of the image—are cut off by an APS-sensor camera. That tells me is that it is worth getting a lens built for larger sensors. If one day you choose to step up to full frame, you will have at least one compatible lens!
In all measurements, the Sony Vario-Sonnar T 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM produced optically superior images, with almost zero vignetting, the lowest chromatic aberration scores and the least optical distortion of the three lenses tested. The Sony Vario-Sonnar T 16-35mm f/2.8 ZA SSM lens, also designed for 35mm sensor cameras, scored higher than the 18-55mm. Which lens should you buy when upgrading? That depends on your shooting needs. If you find yourself mainly sticking to the wider end of the zoom range, I recommend the 16-35; if you are always zooming to 55mm, the 24-70 may better suit your needs. But in both cases, they would be major upgrades to the kit lens. Of course, with a more than $1,400 price difference between the kit lens and either of these pro-level zooms, you might balk, and make do with what you've got.
These are just a few examples of lens upgrades and the list is by no means comprehensive. It does prove that:
• You get what you pay for; expensive lenses deliver better quality than cheap ones;
• You’ll need a stronger back or a good chiropractor; good lens quality requires more glass elements and better construction. As a result, they’re bigger and heavier;
• When you’re ready to grow as a photographer, the previous two bullet points won’t matter much.
Go to the Adorama Lens department and browse the possibilities for your particular camera. You can check out test results of the particular lenses you’re interested in at DxOMark’s Lens Test section, but be sure to come back to Adorama for the best deals and service!
What is your single most valuable go-to lens? Leave a comment, below.