Intermediate The title of this article may fill you with worry or anger or frustration. Did you invest in a nice, digital camera only to find you still have blurry, dull photos? There may be operator problems involved but your lens could also be the culprit. You most likely spent upwards of $500 on a DSLR camera body and now I am telling you the kit lens it came with is not all that hot. Unfortunately that is the truth but don't throw in the towel yet. You can still use your kit lens while working towards the purchase of a relatively low cost but much higher quality lens. Yes, such a thing does exist! Read on to find out some options that could greatly improve the quality of your photos.
The Value of a Kit Lens
Before you get rash and resolve to never use your kits lens again, let's discuss its virtues. Price! The biggest plus for a kits lens is price. Often you can buy the body and lens together cheaper than individually, so price is a deciding factor. Most kits come with a 18-55 mm zoom lens. (Just in case there is any confusion - a zoom lens is simply a lens with a range of focal lengths.) If you just want to get your camera out of the box and learn how to use some of its many features, this lens is just fine. It has a decent wide angle as well as the ability to zoom in on distant objects, so give it a try. If you are a beginner to intermediate photographer, this lens can get you off to a great start. Now with that said, once you have the basics of shooting in A, S, and M modes and have some photographs under your belt, you are going to want a nicer lens. There are shots you can compose in your mind's eye that are simply impossible to carry out with a cheap zoom lens.
[If you're not sure what I mean when I talk about mm on lenses, see What Does The MM Mean On A Lens?]
What Makes A Lens
This section could go on ad nauseam and delve into optical physics, but I'll spare you that level of detail. The bottom line is that your lens is made of glass and quality optics make a huge difference. Think of the quality of your cell phone photos. Even with plenty of megapixels and what not, you still can't take the kind of picture you can with a DSLR. The processor certainly matters, but the lens may be even more important.
If you peruse lens prices, you will likely have a mini heart attack. Talk about serious sticker shock! Good lenses cost a lot. For really good ones you need to forget about retirement or sending the kids to college. Quality lenses are made of better glass that allows for faster (larger) apertures, they include metal or other heavy-duty materials, and they often have special coatings to minimize reflections and perform other wondrous feats. This comes at a premium and that is not likely to change.
When deciding on a lens purchase, you need to consider the quality, price, and versatility of the lens. You will not be able to optimize all three of these criteria but two out of three is not bad. Both major camera manufacturers (that would be Canon and Nikon) as well as smaller players offer quality lenses that won't break the bank. It is a matter of prioritizing and determining what you want in a lens and how much you are willing to spend.
It's also worth remembering that most of the major camera manufacturers produce lenses that work with multiple cameras. The electronics inside camera bodies change quickly, but good quality lenses don't change. So it's worthwhile spending a little more on your lens because you'll likely be able to use the same lens when you upgrade your camera's body.
Zoom vs. Prime Lenses
One of the things you probably like the most about your kit lens is the fact that it can zoom. With your feet planted in the same spot, you can zoom in for a closer picture of a distant subject. Who doesn't like that? What you may be realizing though is along with that varying focal length comes variable f-stops. The more you zoom, the smaller the aperture (higher f-stop number) available to you. This is bad because your camera can't let in enough light for many situations. This is a slow lens that is incapable of taking a properly exposed photo in low light without using the dreaded on-camera flash.
Prime lenses, on the other hand, do not zoom. They are a fixed focal length lens. So for example if you have a 50 mm prime lens, the focal length is always 50 mm. What if your subject is too far away? Well, you are the zoom. You as the photographer must physically move closer or further from your subject. Consider it a workout. You get way more bang for your buck with a prime lens. Without the zoom feature, you can get better glass for significantly less money. Prime lenses are fast. Even an inexpensive prime lens will be capable of an f/1.8 aperture (like this Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens or Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens). That is a big aperture that lets in a lot of light. It opens up a whole new world of photographic possibilities.
Prime for Portraits
If you are a portrait photographer, invest in a 50 mm prime lens. This is considered a "normal" lens because it offers roughly the perspective of the human eye. If you are shooting with a beginner camera body (not full frame) it will be more like 75 mm on your camera. This is a very flattering focal length for portrait photography. Most lens makers offer 50 mm lenses in an f/1.8 or f/1.4. You can get into the 50 mm f/1.8 for around $150. What it can do will blow your mind if you have only used your kit lens to this point.
Do you crave those shallow depth of field shots? The ones with the soft, blurred backgrounds and crisp, sharp subjects? That requires a large aperture (low f-stop number). The large aperture capability of the 50 mm lens makes it fast (because it lets more light into the camera), which naturally equals awesome. It may take some getting used to but having a non zoom lens teaches you a lot about photography. You will put more thought into your composition and what is actually visible in the viewfinder. You may need to do some extra cropping in post processing, but it is well worth the effort. You can get up close and personal with your subject and experiment with depth of field.
If you have the extra cash (like 4X as much) you can spring for the 50 mm f/1.4 (Canon or Nikon). Like I mentioned above, this is a higher quality lens and as such comes with a higher price tag. If you get really into portraits, you may even want an 85 mm prime lens (like this Canon 85mm or Nikon 85mm. This is an awesome focal length for portraits. It will cost upwards of $500 though. It also requires some adjusting as you must get back, and I mean way back, from your subjects - especially when used with an entry-level camera body. (So the 85 mm is ideal for some niches, but the 50 mm is a lot more versatile.) If you want to do lots of indoor photography or photograph large family reunions, you may find the focal length of a 50 mm lens limiting. A 35mm prime lens is also another great investment for a wider angle, but be prepared to spend more.
What About Zoom?
I've just extolled the virtues of a prime lens like the 50 mm, but what about those occasions where you need to zoom? You are at your child's soccer game, photographing a bride coming down the aisle, or getting the perfect shot of stampeding wildebeests. In many cases outside of basic portrait photography, you need to be able to take the shot from a distance. You can't very well go out onto the field or risk death by trampling!
A good zoom lens is going to cost quite a bit. Without spending a lot, you are not going to get a zoom lens that offers the same quality of a prime. With that said, you do have some zoom options for those situations where zoom is a necessity. My recommendation for a starter zoom lens is a 55-200mm (Nikon 55-200mm Canon 55-200mm). All the major camera brands offer a well-priced 55-200 mm zoom.
As with any lens you will find the off brands are much cheaper than Canon or Nikon. Keep in mind that with lenses you do tend to get what you pay for. If it is a cheaper lens, it has cheaper optics. Despite that for less than $300, you can get a zoom lens with much more zooming capability and higher quality than your kit lens. This lens can do it all for the beginner to intermediate photographer. You may be tempted to get a heftier lens that can zoom from 18 mm to a focal length of 200 mm to get two lenses in one. Many lenses with this kind of a focal length range lack in quality. If you want more telephoto power later, you can add a higher focal length lens to your wish list.
Buying A Lens
Nothing will make you feel more like a "real" photographer than toting that camera bag around with an extra lens in it. It is nice to have lens choice depending on the situation. If you are looking to make your first purchase beyond the kits lens, consider what you will use it for above everything else. If you need a decent, all around zoom lens that can be used in a variety of situations, then the introductory zoom lens described above is probably for you. While it is versatile, keep in mind it doesn't offer the big aperture and speed of a prime lens. If you intend to primarily photograph people in a portrait-type setting, then a prime lens is your baby. Consider the 50 mm for the first lens to add to your arsenal.
Buying a lens is a big deal. Do your homework and read reviews of the different manufacturers before making the purchase. DPReview and CNet's camera review sections are both excellent resources. Keep in mind that if you have a DSLR with a smaller sensor (not full frame), then just about any lens should work on your camera. Keep in mind that with the small sensor, you need to multiply the focal length of the lens by 1.5 to determine the focal length equivalent for your camera. For example, a 50 mm lens on an entry-level DSLR body is really like a 75 mm lens. You might also want to consider the option of buying a used lens. You probably have choices locally or a safer route may be through an established camera vendor with a refurbished lens program. There are some great deals available this way but there is more risk involved because the lens is probably sold sans warranty.
By now this discussion of lens options may have you feeling like a kid in a candy store - a very expensive candy store. As your budget allows, make that first lens purchase and you won't be disappointed. You will have more creative flexibility and will produce higher quality photos once you upgrade. If you take the purchase plunge and are still disappointed with the result, it is time to hone your skills. With even an entry-level DSLR, a good lens, and some old-fashioned practice, you can make photography magic.
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