Beyond the Kit Lens

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For many DSLR owners, there comes a time when one wants to go beyond the kit lens that came with the camera. The reasons vary. For some it's a matter of sharpness. For others it's a matter of speed and/or focal-length restrictions. And for some it's simply the fact they don't like the ''icky" feel of a plastic lens barrel, regardless of how sharp the lens may or may not be.


Assuming you've been shooting with a kit lens typical of the type that comes with a compact APS-C format DSLR,
you're probably shooting with something in the 18-55mm range, which on a 35mm camera translates into a 28-90mm-ish lens. A few DSLRs in this class are available with slightly wider and/or longer zooms, but like the kit zooms bundled with pricier full-frame DSLRs, they're usually not long or wide enough to radically alter your creative horizons.

For casual shooters, these kit zooms are sufficient for most day tripping and around-the-house applications. But if you plan on shooting Junior scoring a soccer goal, or a herd of charging rhinos while on a safari, the focal range limitations of kit zooms limit your ability to take pictures which, with few exceptions, will be underwhelming at best.

Another issue with kit zooms has to do with lens speed—or lack thereof. Most kit zooms open up to a maximum aperture of f/3.5 at the wide end and trail off to f/5.6 at the telephoto end, which is adequate on bright, sunny days but dicey once the clouds start rolling in or the sun begins kissing the treetops. Better zooms only open up to a maximum of f/2.8 at best, but at least it's a constant f/2.8 throughout the zoom ranges, which better guarantees sharp results when shooting tight.

There's also a limit as to how far you can play with selective focus with smaller-aperture optics, and even zooms that only open up to a modest f/2.8 are still better than f/3.5 or f/4 when you're trying to isolate your subject from the foreground and background.

Resolving power, optical distortions and lens construction are additional issues that get people thinking about moving beyond the lens that came with the camera. Though many kit lenses are fairly decent and more than adequate for general shooting and desktop-printing needs, none of them can be described as "killer" when it comes to resolving power.

Sharpness, especially toward the edges of the frame, can often be wishy-washy with kit zooms especially when shooting wide open, and barrel distortions are common when shooting at the wide end of the focal range. Barrel construction is another area of contention with kit zooms. When building a lens designed to sell for as little as $99 over the cost of a body only, concessions have to be made, which explains why the lens barrels of these optics are invariably made out of polymer rather than metal alloy. This also explains why the zoom and focusing rings aren't always silky smooth, and wobble as you work them. As for weather and dust resistance, I would suggest being protective of your gear on both fronts.

If any (or all) of the above issues strike a chord within you, the following list of lenses are suggestions that may address your particular optical peeve. Some of these lenses go wider than the typical kit zoom, some longer, some wider and longer—and most are faster than the lens that came with your camera. They're all sharper, most likely, better constructed, and will probably feel better in your hand.

Note: The lenses chosen for this article range from wide angle to telephoto. Separate articles on extreme wide angle and extreme telephoto optics will be appearing in upcoming holiday newsletters.


  Format Min Focus Filter Size Weight
APS-C 1' (0.3m) 77mm 19.2 oz  (565 oz)
   APS-C  1.3' (0.4m)  62mm  16 oz (470 g)
   Full-Frame / APS-C  0.92' (0.28m)  77mm  17.5 oz (500 g)
   APS-C  1.18' (0.36m)  77mm  25.6 oz (725.75g)
   APS-C  0.95' (0.29m)  72mm  20.15 oz (570 g)
   APS-C  0.66' (0.2m)  72mm  19.2 oz (544 g)
   Full-Frame / APS-C  1.2' (0.366m)  77mm  33.6 oz (953 g)
   Full-Frame / APS-C  1.15' (0.350m)  77mm  35.2 oz (998 g)
   Ful-Frame / APS-C  1.48' (0.45m)  77mm  24 oz (680 g)
   APS-C  1.08' (0.33m)  67mm  18 oz (510 g)
   Full-Frame / APS-C  1.6' (0.49m)  82mm  30.88 oz (875 g)
   APS-C  3.3' (0.49m)  67mm  24 oz (680 g)
   Full-Frame / APS-C  3.61' (1.1m)  55mm  14.8 oz (420 g)
   FourThirds  3.9' (1.2m)  67mm  35 oz (995 g)
   APS-C  4.6' (1.4m)  58mm  15.5 oz (440 g)
   APS-C  3.6' (1.1m)  67mm  43.4 oz (1229 g)
   Full-Frame / APS-C  4.9' (1.5m)  77mm  44.8 oz (1270 g)
   Full-Frame / APS-C  4.6' (1.4m)  77mm  51 oz (1451 g)
   Full-Frame / APS-C  3.94' (1.2m)  77mm  52.6 oz (1490g)
   Full-Frame /APS-C  3.9' (1.2m)  67mm  24.96 oz (708 g)
   Full-Frame / APS-C  3.9' (1.2m)  67mm  27.2 oz (771 g)
   Full-Frame / APS-C  4.6' (1.4m)  77mm  51.2 oz (1452 g)
   Full-Frame / APS-C  3.3' (1m)  77mm  48 oz (1361 g)
   Full-Frame / APS-C  4.6' (1.4m)  77mm  50.4 oz (1429 g)
   Full-Frame / APS-C  3.1' (0.95m)  77mm  40 oz (1134g)
   FourThirds  3.9' (1.2m)  67mm  35 oz (995g)
   Full-Frame / APS-C  4' (1.2m)  77mm  47.2 oz (1340g)

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 Cool Love them

I'm sure the intent of this article is good, but truthfully, the article is not much more than a essay on "what's wrong with inexpensive lenses" and offers little real advise or help on more mid-range and higher end lenses. What strikes me as somewhat humourous is the idea of Soccer Mom shooting  Junior's soccer goal with a bridge DSLR with a $2961.00 lens attached, especially when the idea is to send it to Aunt Jane in an e-mail.  The last time I checked, Photo Safari's in Africa will run you around $10K, if one has those kind of bucks, you would think they have graduated past the idea of a kit lens.  It's very difficult to write this type of article and really "hit the mark", with so many different types and brands and levels of cameras out there, so kudos for the effort.

I was really excited when I saw this email about which lens to buy because I am trying to figure out exactly that right now but I was terribly disapointed when I read the article and it did not help in any way.  I am glad to know now that the lens that I bought with my camera sucks but I really didn't find out which lens would work to shoot junior (actually I am taking it to pro basketball games to shoot from a distance).  

Very disappointing article - yes, I know the kit lens sucks - but really?  A $2900 lens is the next step up?  That's nearly 3x what I paid for my camera.  Not exactly in the budget for most people to shoot photos at the kid's soccer games, or create some nice holiday photos that you might frame a couple of.  

Actually I think the article was pretty spot on in a rudimentary manner.  Kit lenses are just that, loss leaders.  I have run through two 18-55 Nikon ******* lenses now.  One just plain ole broke in the lens shaft and the 2nd one has fallen victim to a Kansas dust storm.  Still at roughly $100 they do what they do.  The article points this out. 

I write product reviews myself in the hunting industry and it is a no win situation.  Either you are branded as an idiot or you step on some mother-in-laws toes somewhere.  If you recommend a brand or even a lens size, you are going to be hammered by somebody liking another brand.  You have to take information like this in a generic manner and apply it to your own personal use. 

For me, I'll be looking into a better, wider view zoom to get my work done.  Thanks for the piece.

 The proliferation of cameras of decent quality today is a great thing for all.  As a professional photographer, I see all sorts of folks out shooting all sorts of things.  This is wonderful.  I see however lenses that have no business on cameras doing things they should not be doing.  People buying D700's and putting DX lenses on them.  People using D300's and shooting night football games with f5.6 lenses.  It is like the research the camera but buy a lens based simply on focal length.  

Kit lenses have a place for the retailers of the world.  But if folks would spend some time and research what they are buying (for more than an afternoon), money might be better spent.  personally, if I am thinking of buying a D90 and one of these kit lenses.....I'll simply buy a point and shoot instead.  

It's great to offer your customers value in the form of educational/technical/creative postings.  Keep it up.

 Allan, as always an intelligent article.  I was hoping to find a summary/review of adapters, especially those that will fit these lenses on my micro 4/3 Panasonic GF.  I was surprises that the Mirrorless Cameras article in the same newsletter didn't cover this important topic!  Maybe this category was covered in a previous article ... if so could you point me to it?

Fact is that most first time buyers and novices don't understand the importance of the lens when they are buying their first sub $1000 DSLR. And the only way a beginner will ever understand this is after using the product for a while.

This article does a great job helping the novice understand that to achieve noise free freeze action in low-light like they see in magazines and newspapers at grade school Basketball, Football, Volleyball games, will in most cases require they upgrade the stock kit lens.

What most 1st timers never seem to understand is the these cheap kit lenses never let you maintain a fixed aperture as you zoom. This is the the main down fall for the kit lens in low light situations.

The selection of lenses in the list is great. A $600 constant aperature 2.8 lens will dramatically improve the image over the stock 3.5-5.6 lens which is seriously useless indoors for fast moving subjects.

I do believe you should add a 50MM f1.4 to the list as this is the best bang for the buck to improve low light performance. That lens is a game changer to achieve stop action in low light.

Thanks B&H for the great information as always.

MK

For all those folks that have or are buying more sophisticated camers for the first time; this is a good article.  Most of us that have been shooting for any reasonalble length of time, know the kit lenses are like standard equipment on a car. The are multiple options to upgrade to.   What I was looking for, was more information on which specific lenses would be the logical progression. 

Keep the articles coming

I agree when the author says that a $3K lens is better than a $99 one (I never thought that! :-), but instead of trying to convince someone who spent $500 in a dSLR kit to spend 6 times more over a single lens, I think it would be more appropriate to talk about great lens that cost around $250, like the several 35mm F/1.8 (for low light situations), or the excellent Nikon 55-200VR F/4-5.6 and Canon 55-250 IS F/4-5.6 (more adequate to a "soccer moms" than a large and heavy F/2.8 telephoto).
My opinion is that If you're going to spend $3.5K on a dSLR and lens, better go for a $1.5 K body + $2k lens than invest with the proportion that the author suggests.

Good article for me!  I'm just learnng about the lens opportunities out there.

Is there a book out there that visually articulates what the lens will produce? 

I am a visual learner and not a technically oriented communicator (throwing around focal lengths, f-stops, etc just yet).

A book with a photo of the lens, its specs, and then a photo example of what the resulting image looks like - that would really help me!

Thanks!

The one thing the article doesn't specifically address: even inexpensive Canon and Nikon DSLR cameras (and probably others) provide outstanding photos when coupled with a great lens. While you are not going to get 8-10 frames per second with a Canon Rebel, you will get outstanding photos with lenses such as the 17-40L f/4, 24-70L f/2.8, any of the 70-200L lenses. Fact: the lens is more important than the camera.

Good article if you want to spend 3 or 4 times what my camera cost on new glass,  I am in the market for a good close up lense,  Have you done an article or can you do an article on single focal length prime lenses that will do close up work?  Right now I'm torn between a 60mm f1.8 AF S Full frame/DX lense which would be good for low light situations and an 80mm f2.8 AF S DX lense.  Since I might be stepping up to the plate and buying a full frame camera in the next couple of years.  Is the 60mm going to work well enough on the DX format to justify buying it?

RC

 I agree one thing Canon has over Nikon is they make pro caliber lenses like 80 200 f4 a superb optic but as f4 cost less than 2.8

As a nikon owner I have a 17 55 it is   sweet 

but after that I bought Tokinas even they are expensive but i must say they are very good optically and well built although they are d lenses

50 135 f2.8 is sharp as a tack and a hand holdable size

as is 11 16 f 2.8

good to see them putting in motors

I think that many have been too harsh about the step up in price . . . If you are the type to be content with lenses that are sub $1000, then you are likely going to be satisfied with your kit lens and comparable zoom lenses, etc.

I agree with Wil.  Good glass = good pictures.  I would even go so far as to say, that good glass can make up for a lot of the photographer's short-comings.

You don't need a Pro body or even a pro-sumer level body to get tack sharp images.  But you DO need good glass, period.

And, while I'm making recommendations the Tokina 11-16 f/2.8 for APS-C sensors is one of the best bargains out there.  It's wide, wide, wide, and it's got great color and sharpness.  If Canon or Nikon produced this lens it would cost upwards of $1500, but it costs a bit more than a third of that . . .

 I've compared my kit lens (Nikkor 18-70mm f3.5-4.5G)  with several "upgrade" Nikkor lenses like the 50mm f1.2 (I bought that one for the f1.2), the 60mm macro and lower cost 85mm portrait lenses. I decided that they are not worth the additional cost for whatever minor improvements they offer. What you should write about is how spending $2K+ for a pro quality glass will significantly improve one's compositional skills or help develop an eye for a great shot. Or better still, what are the jewels in the under $1K priced lens class.

It was good as far as it went and I am exactly at this point - my kit lens is an EF-S 17-85 and I have been looking at either the EF 24-70/2.8L or the EF 24-105/4L IS.

What I can't figure is which is more important - the f2.8 vs the f4 with IS.

The kit lens has IS and I've come to rely on it (maybe too much) and am wondering what an f2.8 would do without IS.  Or does the additional stop (f2.8) make up for not having IS in being able to use a slower shutter.

What I do know is that it will be nice to have a lens that maintains its f-stop throughout the full zoom range.

See why I'm confused.

Allan,

Not a bad article, though I think that a little more in-depth advice on criteria for exactly HOW to choose the next step lens would have made it a great article. Perhaps a set of bullet points or a decision tree to help guide beginners through the lens selection process would have been better than the chart of lenses.

As to the chart, I suggest that a couple of extra collumns would make it far more useful to the beginners.

1) Separate column for the aperture range. Yes, I know you included the aperture as part of the lens name/link, but beginners may not understand that /4L after the focal length means that it's a fixed F/4 Canon L-Series lens.

2) Column for the B&H price

3) Because many of the lenses in your chart are third-party lenses and are available for multiple mounts, a list of the mounts available would go a log way toward clearing up confusion amongst beginners. I'm sure that a lot of beginners are skipping over Tamron, Tokina, and Sigma lenses because, "My camera is a Canon" or "My camera is a Nikon" and they don't know that those lenses are available for their camera.

A few years back I bought a Canon Rebel XS and was dissappointed with the pictures, they were never sharp, but came out fuzzy on the edges. After some months I just sold it and got myself another DSLR. Afterwards I learned that there might be something with the jpeg processing inside the camera that produced excessive softness. Also, the lens could have been cheap. But I see no point in buying a bundled camera kit only to be forced to go and buy a better lens.

The other DSLR I bought has an excellent lens that came with it. The only trouble with it is that in low light conditions it refuses to work, especially if you have the flash forced off.

Maybe all cameras have their pros and cons, but I don't have the money to do the research. 

Actually I thought the content of the article was appropriate for the subject it was discussing.

I can say from experience that you need a good supplier. Too many salepeople are only interested in getting the sale rather than providing proper advice.  Never use a super store, go to a dedicated camera store.

Good Glass=Good Shots; and no, the lens and camera combo won't turn you into a pro, only practice, practice, practice will do that along with some critical reviews of your own work.

There a great selection of good lenses available sub $1000, all depends on your ***** and budget.

Good article!

I feel that you did a good job on explaining the differences in the kit lenses vs the more expensive lenses.  I'm a firm believer that it's better to put your money in the lense than the body, I still shoot with a Nikon D-200.  The lense is what ***** to be sharp, chrisp, full of detail and being able to control the DOF that's possible with a faster lense like my Nikon f1.4 50mm or  Nikon 80-200 f2.8.  Yes it is an expensive lense, but it's also paid for it's self with my part time job shooting sports for the local paper.  I have used great Sigma, Tokina, Tamron, and Nikon lenses, I've also had terrible ones too.  I think that people have been fooled into believing that they can get an image like you see in a sports magazine from a kit lense.  They see it on the advertisements on TV, so it must be real.  They don't get to see the editing that's been done to get that shot.  Buy what you can pay for, enjoy shooting, be realistic in your expectaions.  AND MOST OF ALL HAVE FUN.

To people complaining about the kit lens ....my observation....and I stick to it....more expensive lenses will only set you free to try different things (but at a higher cost) ..the inexpensive zooms in the kit can actually be made to deliver much more than an average casual photographer seems to extract out of them. Paying more attention to shooting techniques (than camera gear) can help. 

.....again... to Nikon users.....instead of Nikon AFS Nikkor 70-200/2.8...why not try a AF 80-200 2.8D at a fraction of the cost and much better flare control. ...who ***** VR in average outdoor snaps and in these days where results at higher ISO are getting better.

...besides we can save for a large aperture prime tele say 300mm / 2.8 (+ the new TCIII 20E ), at which focal length, added advantage of VR may help more than it does at 200mm.  

I was rather dissapointed too. I completely agree that this was just a simple essay on lenses. Filled with information that most beginners already know, if they have studied at all. I knew all of this within the first week of owning my DSLR.

So yeah, I was hoping for more when I clicked on the link.

But it is good information for the VERY beginner.

I was very excited when I saw this article. I am shopping around for a replacement of my 18-55 kit lens (I bought a Nikon D90 from B&H last March and opted to have 18-55 & 55-200 lenses instead of the 18-105 kit lens - hoping to have a better total zoom range). I then learned the hard way that changing lenses costs you time and you may lose a shot (or your wife loses her nerve!) or you may get dust on your lens. And also it is not always easy and practical to carry a second lens with you.

As my experience builds up my frustration with the kit lens increases. Especially the need for a faster lens is like a thorn on my side.

Having said that, I was very surprised that my top of the shopping list lens does not appear on your article: Sigma 17-70 f2.8-4.0 . This lens (at least on paper-I did not have the chance to test it) has a acceptable zoom range and a very respectable f-stop range. I first looked at Nikon's own 16-85 but it is not different from the 18-55 in terms of f-stop range. The Sigma beats Nikon on price and f-stop range (but falls short of the zoom capability - but I can live with that)

I honestly would like to hear your opinion on the Sigma. It would be good to have an expert opinion before I buy the lens.

Tolga

Istanbul, Turkey

Register my vote for including the prices in the chart.  It's one of the most important considerations, so would be nice if it was there to see without having to click through to the description.  Thank you.

No love for the Canon 17-55 f/2.8? Its an amazing lens.

Hi Allan,

Am I one of the neighbors who always bothers you with questions about lenses? At least I only bother you during the Haftorah. 

I'm looking for a "beyond the kit" lens. Another neighbor just lent me his Canon EF 50/1.4 which I used at a no-flash event. Looking at the photos I took, I've decided I'd trade off a slightly narrower aperture (but would still work for no-flash situations) for a bit of a zoom-range. Something like a 24-55/2.8. I can't find such a beast in the Canon brand or in your list that's in the 50/1.4 price range.

If nothing like that exists, I'll probably get the 50/1.4, but that really won't replace my kit lens. Any ideas, especially with the other brand lenses?

I actually liked that you posted this.  I am currently saving for the Canon 24-70 L series lens as an upgrade.  One thing that I caught in reading the other posts was perhaps the lens is only as good as the body.  I am shooting a Canon 40D and love it but I am wondering if upgrading my glass would really be a benifit to me with out upgrading my body.  Any thoughts would be appriciated.  How about for the Canon 800mm as this is on my wish list as well?

Thanks

Manufacturers produce ranges of equipment to suit different styles, applications, abilities and a good rule of thumb is that the more expensive, the greater the sophistication and quality and they are priced accorsingly. The people who use those units have the sophisticated knowledge to justify purchasing such equipment.

The lower end units still produce good photos, even with limited expertise. If only a "happy snap" is needed, it doesn't justify using really sophisticated equipment.Match the need with the appropriate equipment.

The greater the technical knowledge one has, the better informed one is to choose the appropriate equipment, so if you are unsure, try reading  and learning more about photography. You will find it fascinating...

Photographic shops such as B+H have staff who are trained to advise and guide users.....Listen to them and learn from them if you don't have the expertise to make a technically informed decision...

The tamron 28-75 2.8 is a full frame lens

I thought the article was pretty bland and a little biased. The Canon kit 18-55 lens is rated very high- even better than many more expensive lenses in the same range and the Canon "cheap *******" 50 mm 1.8 prime lens (under $100) is very highly rated. I have looked at the Nikon kit and it is not cheap "looking" at all and I was very impressed with its exterior build. Look up reviews on your kit lenses and you will see that they are pretty good. I would buy a lens that is in a different focal range than the one that came with the camera to add more utility to your equipment. Primes are a good bet too and can be a lot sharper than some of the more expensive zooms.

Thanks, Allen I find this article helpful.

My position as many is, I'm shooting indoor sports of my kids for personal use.

Therfore the need for the f/2.8 and telephototo zoom. I am worried I will buy the Tameron and then wish I had spent triple the money for the Cannon, which is a lot of dinero for recreational use. I am all about buying quality but that is a lot to spend for my recreational photography. Thus having a hard time pushing myself towards the cannon. But reading the reviews it is obvious the difference in quality.

Any advice?

For those of you who want to see different focal lengths, try the Nikon lens simulator.

If you don't shoot Nikon, just choose DX or FX and then pull the focusing length slider left and right.  You can click to change the image.

DX is Nikon for cropped frame and FX is full frame

http://imaging.nikon.com/products/imaging/lineup/lens/simulator/

The angle of view might be a tiny bit different for other brands, but not enough to devalue the simulator.