Re-Imagining the Kit Lens

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One of the most daunting aspects of stepping up to an interchangeable-lens camera is the startup cost of purchasing a camera body and a lens. Fortunately, camera companies and retailers, well aware of this financial deterrent, often team up on a solution: the “kit” lens. While technically kit lenses come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and price points, for the purposes of this article I am thinking of a specific lens many photographers have encountered at one point or another when buying a new camera: the “all-purpose” zoom that provides an extremely wide reach, has a variable aperture range, and is just usable enough to tide you over until you can replace it. Practicality is the name of the game. Bundled with a camera body at the time of purchase, a kit lens is designed to provide useful features to everyone, no matter what their intended subject.

Different types of photographers benefit from lenses of different focal lengths.

If this sounds too good to be true, that’s because it usually is—portrait photographers have different needs than sports photographers, who in turn have different needs than landscape photographers, and so on. The thrifty appeal of the kit lens is usually a siren song to mediocrity. Your camera is only as good as the glass in front of its sensor. You can avoid the kit lens trap by re-allocating the money you would add to the cost of your camera for a generic lens and putting it toward something more tailored to your style of photography.

Experienced photographers know what kind of lenses they need, but what about beginners? This article provides some basic alternatives to the kit lens while trying to remain within a somewhat reasonable budget. So, smart photographers invest in their future. Digital camera technology changes much faster than lens technology. Investing in quality lenses from the outset will save you money in the long run, since it is not uncommon for lenses to outlive multiple cameras. This article looks at the kit lens not as a disposable “add-on” that will eventually collect dust as your lens collection matures, but as a worthy investment in the future of your image making.

One point to note: the focal lengths mentioned in this article are for full-frame cameras. If your camera’s sensor format is APS-C or Micro Four Thirds, be sure to check your desired lens’s 35mm equivalent focal length before making a selection.

Some photographers can achieve all that they need with a single, compact prime lens.

Three Prime Lenses

Since the main appeal of many kit lenses is their expansive zoom range, it may seem odd to start this article with a trio of prime lenses. However, anyone who has experienced the difference in brightness and image quality between a prime lens and the equivalent focal length and aperture of a long zoom knows why primes are worth serious consideration—even as a first lens. Beyond imaging, there is a practical reason behind my logic. Consider portrait photographers whose work nearly never requires the extreme wide or tele features of many kit zooms. Why wouldn’t they want to put their money into a lens that features an optical design tailored to achieving the best possible portraits? The same could be said for any other type of photographer. Here are three of the most popular prime focal lengths to consider kitting with your new camera.

50mm: A Multipurpose Prime

The brilliant street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson famously used a 50mm lens for the majority of his work. He wasn’t alone. The 50mm is arguably the most versatile prime lens, equally at home in the street or in the studio. Providing a field of view roughly equivalent to that of the human eye, when you look through your camera’s viewfinder, a 50mm lens will approximate what you see around you. A favorite of portrait photographers, the 50mm works well for full body portraits and closer headshots. To learn more about the benefits of the 50mm, check out Todd Vorenkamp’s article here.

Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens

The most affordable—and kit-able—option is an f/1.8, such as Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens. Aside from cost, the benefit of going with an f/1.8 over a faster f/1.4 is the smaller and lighter construction of these lenses. One additional popular option worth mentioning that is just a tad longer is Sony’s T*FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA lens. Known for its exacting sharpness and quick autofocusing, this lens offers high performance in a small package.

85mm: The Portraitist’s Choice

The 85mm lens is beloved by portrait and fashion photographers. A top choice for headshots and excellent for full-body and even environmental shots, this medium telephoto covers all the bases if your subjects are primarily people. Like the 50mm, you can get excellent results with f/1.8 lenses, such as Panasonic’s Lumix S 85mm f/1.8 lens. To see it in action, check out our review here. If you are feeling indulgent—or portraiture is your business—consider a slightly faster f/1.4 lens. Among the more reasonably priced options is Sigma’s exceptionally sharp 85mm f/1.4 DG DN Art lens.

Panasonic’s Lumix S 85mm f/1.8 lens

35mm: A Wider Range of Possibilities

If you think of the 50mm lens as a middle-of-the-road prime, photographers looking to capture a wider field of view should consider a 35mm lens. A tried-and-true favorite for street, landscape, and architectural photographers, the 35mm provides greater coverage than the 50mm while avoiding the distortion that can accompany wider lenses. While not a great choice for close photographs of people, this focal length does excel when capturing large groups or environmental portraits. FUJIFILM’s XF 23mm f/2 R WR lens is a 35mm equivalent lens for X-mount APS-C cameras that pairs well with FUJIFILM’s rangefinder-style cameras. Lightweight and unobtrusive, it is a solid choice for taking on the street or turning to nature.

FUJIFILM XF 23mm f/2 R WR lens (35mm equivalent)

The Holy Trinity of Zooms

While prime lenses are excellent choices, they simply cannot match the versatility of zooms. When choosing a zoom lens, it is still a good idea to stick to a reasonable range. Lenses that try to do too much will be forced to make more optical compromises than lenses with realistic ambitions. Generally speaking, zoom lenses are more expensive than primes because their design is more complex. This is especially true of lenses featuring constant apertures, which allow you to maintain the same exposure throughout their zoom range. Despite the high cost of proprietary zooms, third-party lens manufacturers like Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina have stepped up their game to create high-performing options at more accessible price points.

Zoom lenses are a necessity for wildlife photographers.

24-70mm: The Everyday Zoom

If the 50mm lens is the prime “every photographer should have,” its zoom equivalent is the 24-70mm lens. When you consider what can be accomplished within the range of this lens, its popularity comes as no surprise. Whether you shoot landscape, architecture, street, event, wedding, portrait, or fine art, this type of zoom offers something for you. The 24-70mm is an extremely popular tool for event photographers, whose work demands efficiency, since it allows them to switch from individual to group portraits without needing to change lenses. Tokina’s AT-X 24-70mm f/2.8 PRO FX lens offers a constant f/2.8 aperture across the entire zoom range, while remaining compact. If you are looking to add a bit more reach, you may also want to consider a 24-105mm, like Canon’s RF 24-105mm f/4.7-7.1 IS STM lens. The extra length opens up even more possibilities for portraits and macro photography.

Tokina’s AT-X 24-70mm f/2.8 PRO FX lens

70-200mm: When Closer is Better

The 70-200mm lens features the most reach of any of the lenses discussed so far. Like the 24-70mm, its applications span multiple genres of photography. Wedding, portrait, and fashion photographers love the range provided by this lens. It is arguably even more popular with sports and wildlife photographers, who use the added reach to get up close to distant subjects. Paired with a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter, it can be extended to provide 98-280mm or 140-400mm for even greater magnification. Check out Tamron’s SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 lens, which offers a fast, f/2.8 constant aperture for a price comparable to that of a proprietary f/4 lens. Sports and wildlife photographers may also want to consider a slightly longer zoom, such as Sigma’s 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens, which will eliminate the need for a teleconverter to get that coveted extra reach.

Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary Lens

14-24mm: Go Wide

Photographers looking to capture landscapes, starscapes, cityscapes—or who just crave the creative possibilities offered by wide-angle focal lengths—will want to consider a 14-24mm lens. As zooms begin to approach the ultra-wide range, optical designs become increasingly complex to combat various distortions, and prices rise. Sigma’s 14-24mm f/2.8 DG HSM Art lens is a solid choice for achieving sharp, accurate wide-angle imagery while not punishing your wallet as much as its competition. An equally popular range for photographers who don’t need to go quite so wide is provided by Nikon’s AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR lens. The added reach allows this lens to enter into the wide portrait range when needed.

Sigma’s 14-24mm f/2.8 DG HSM Art lens

Which is your ideal kit lens? Have you purchased and used any of the lenses we’ve mentioned? Have we missed one of your favorites? Share your experiences and thoughts in the Comments section, below.

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