When you purchase your first dSLR camera (a camera with interchangeable lenses), it usually comes with a starter or “kit” lens – a basic lens included with the camera body priced inexpensively as to not increase the overall cost of the camera bundle.
While they have their limitations, kit lenses are generally pretty decent and do a great job of allowing you to learn, play, and explore, before you begin to invest more significant money into higher end, and often more specialized, lenses.
When purchasing an entry level camera body, Canon and Nikon both offer the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 “kit” lens along with it. These lenses are priced between $100 and $200 when sold on their own and typically less when purchased bundled with the camera body. Some professional cameras come bundled with a good lens, and those higher quality lenses are still referred to as “kit lenses”, but for the sake of this article I am referring to the kit lens that accompanies an entry level camera.
So let’s talk about the pros and cons of that kit lens…
Pro: A kit lens is inexpensive
To start, you just can’t beat the price of a kit lens which tend to be in the low hundreds of dollars compared to thousands for that of a higher quality lens. Not only are they inexpensive, but their price to performance ratio is quite good – meaning, you can get a lot of bang for your buck!
The low price point of a kit lens also offers the peace of mind of knowing that should the lens become damaged, you haven’t invested too much in it. Because these inexpensive lenses are made with cheaper materials, they also tend to be smaller and lighter than most lenses, which make them easy and comfortable to carry around with you all day.
Pro: A kit lens is versatile
The kit lens is a zoom lens and in the case of the 18-55mm, it provides a focal length ranging from wide angle to short telephoto. What does this mean?
As opposed to a “prime” lens, which has a fixed focal length (meaning the view in camera is always the same – if you want to get closer to or further from your subject you physically have to move your body), a zoom lens can be adjusted to get a closer (or further) view simply by adjusting the lens. Shooting at the short end (or at 18mm) of an 18-55mm lens will give you a wide view of your scene, versus shooting at the 55mm end of the lens, which will give you a closer and more narrow view of your scene.
This versatility allows you to make a variety of types of shots – great for expansive landscape or beach scenes, as well as close-up portrait shots. As you continue to shoot, you will begin to learn what your preferences are – what subjects you like to shoot and what your favorite focal lengths to shoot at are. Which brings me to…
Pro: A kit lens allows you to learn before spending a lot
Really good lenses are expensive. And there are SO many choices out there – it can be a little overwhelming to shop for lenses when you are first starting out.
It doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend thousands of dollars on a lens when you are not yet sure of what you like or what kind of lens will best achieve what you want. When you are first starting out, you are not only learning about photography and learning how to use your camera, but also learning what you like.
As you shoot more and more, you may realize that you really enjoy macro photography (requiring a long lens) or landscape (using a wide lens), or maybe you just enjoy photographing your children and that a really good 85mm would be perfect for you (or maybe you realize that you actually prefer the look of a wide angle 35mm). As you grow and develop as a photographer, your style (and likely preferences) will continue to evolve as well.
And as you grow and evolve, you will most certainly start finding the limitations of your kit lens.
Con: Limited aperture
The kit lens does have technical limitations that may begin to frustrate you as you look to do more with your images. I remember early on in my photography journey longing for that really blurry background effect and feeling frustrated when I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t able to get that look in my own images – I soon learned this was due to the maximum aperture size of my kit lens.
The aperture on your lens is the opening that lets light into the camera body and different lenses have different sized openings. The larger the opening, the more narrow the depth of field (resulting in a blurred background behind the subject).
Using our above example of the Canon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, the largest aperture you can achieve is 3.5, and when shooting at the 55mm end it is f/5.6 (more on the changing aperture below). For comparison, my Canon 50mm f/1.2 can open up to an aperture of f/1.2 (a smaller number actually means a larger hole).
Shooting at f/1.2, or even f/1.8 or f/2 will result in a narrow depth of field and will produce a much more blurry background then when shooting at f/5.6 (which will produce a wider depth of focus). Along these same lines, because a smaller aperture cannot let in as much light a wider one, shooting in lower light conditions can be harder.
Con: Variable aperture
Lenses that contain a range in aperture size, as in the case of f/3.5-5.6 is called a variable aperture lens (compared to a fixed aperture in which the aperture is independent of focal length). In a variable aperture lens the widest the aperture can open depends on how far the lens is zoomed in.
At a shorter focal length (such as 18mm), the lens is able to use a wider aperture (f/3.5 for this kit lens) while at a longer focal length (such as 55mm) the aperture closes down (in the case of the 55mm, down to 5.6). What this means is that as you are changing focal lengths, your aperture is also changing – and this changes the amount of light entering your camera and the overall exposure of your image.
This can be pretty confusing for a new photographer, so it’s something you want to make sure you understand. If you are shooting in automatic mode, the camera will make all of these decisions for you (it will adjust the aperture and other parameters affecting the exposure, such as shutter speed and ISO) for you.
However, if you are shooting in any of the creative modes or trying to learn to shoot in manual, you will need to be aware that each time you change your focal length, your aperture has changed as well, and you will therefore need to adjust your other settings (such as shutter speed and ISO) accordingly. This also provides a limitation in the creative choices you are able to make – as in the above example, if you really want to create a portrait at the 50mm focal length, f/5.6 will be your largest aperture option.
Con: Limited quality
Ultimately, the quality of the glass that makes up a kit lens is inferior to its higher end counterparts. This results in softer (less sharp images) due to both the quality of the glass itself and the slower autofocus. Sharpness can be enhanced to a degree in post processing so initially this may not be a reason to give up on your kit lens.
So should you immediately ditch your kit lens for something bigger and better? No! This is really a great lens for when you are just starting out and learning. Use it to get to know your camera well and to figure out what you like.
At some point however you may begin to feel limited by your kit lens and feel ready to start exploring new lenses. When that time comes, be sure to check out the Click Image by Lens gallery – this is a wonderful resource which allows you to explore our Click Pros’ images by brand and lens type in order to give you a sense of what different lenses can do for you!