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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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?

Harry wrote:

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?

Sorry Harry, the beast you're looking for doesn't exist in the price-range of a 50/1.4.

Your best bet is to pick up a 35/2 ($299) and/or a 50/1.8 ($99). They're not zooms, so you'll have to move around a bit more, but such is life unless you want to spend far more for an f/2.8 zoom.

Allan Weitz wrote:

Sorry Harry, the beast you're looking for doesn't exist in the price-range of a 50/1.4.

Your best bet is to pick up a 35/2 ($299) and/or a 50/1.8 ($99). They're not zooms, so you'll have to move around a bit more, but such is life unless you want to spend far more for an f/2.8 zoom.

I just read some of the other posts. The Sigma 17-70 f2.8-4.0 seems to match my wish-list, including price. I know you haven't reviewed it yet, but that's the beast I meant.

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

Joel wrote:

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

First off, I think you should purchase the 800mm lens for 2 reasons.

First, you would really enjoy using it, and chances are you'll be the first person on your block (or maybe your town) who owns one.

The second reason is I'd really get a kick out of knowing somebody bought a Canon 800mm simply because I told them to buy one on a blog post. (Howz that for honesty...huh?)

But getting back to reality, I know you are currently shooting with a Canon 40D (not the latest Canon 'D"-series body, but a fine camera none-the-less) but I have no idea what lenses you are using.

Is the 24-70/2.8 better than the kit lens you may or may not have? Yes. But buying a 60D to go along with your kit lens isn't going to make any dramatic changes in the quality of your pictures, except if you like shooting at insanely-high ISO levels or other situations where the 60D beats the 40D.

And always keep in mind the lens  you buy today will outlast your next few camera bodies.

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 plastic" 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.

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