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Bruce's Photo Blog
Bruce Foreman | November 2014

That ubiquitous but much maligned “kit” lens

The kit lens — you know — the one you get with many entry-level cameras. Some superior all-knowing individual will look at your new purchase and make a snide comment about your lens being “not very good” or “substandard” or something like that, and follow that comment with a suggestion that you really need to replace it with something costing quite a bit more. I think of these individuals as being lens snobs.

The high end DSLRs are usually sold body only, price will usually be four figures. The manufacturers figure, most buyers will want to select lens options themselves. But for the entry level cameras in APS-C sensor size format the manufacturers and marketers understand they have a better chance of their camera selling if the buyer feels they can charge the battery and start taking pictures right away. Hence the inexpensive kit lens.

When a new model is released it is usually sold only as a kit with a general purpose lens, it may be available body only 8 months to a year after hitting the market but initially it is usually available only with that general purpose kit lens. Typical examples are the Canon Rebel with the 18-55mm f3.5 to f5.6 zoom or the Nikon 3300 with an 18-55mm f3.5 to f5.6 zoom also.

So just what kind of performance can you expect out of such a lens?

Well since it often only adds around $100-150 to the price of the body only, it is made with some compromise. The lens barrel components will often be polymer instead of metal, which leads to some claims of inferiority, but the optics are usually not bad at all. In the Canon line I've had five examples of the 18-55mm Canon kit lens that came with the various Rebels I've purchased. The first that came with the original Digital Rebel (Canon 300D), was a bit disappointing in definition yet I have a 16x20 display print from an image shot with it that looks to me to be as sharp as 16x20s I used to get from 6x7cm color negatives shot on Vericolor Professional film.

With each subsequent camera, the Canon XSi, T1i, T2i, and T3i, the same lens formula was an improvement over the original. Now, what they've tried to do with this kit lens idea is to give the buyer a pretty useful general purpose lens that ranges from a workhorse wide angle to a portrait perspective telephoto that covers a wide range of applications, and I think they've succeeded.

By workhorse wide angle I mean the 18mm end of the kit lenses for the APS-C cameras is the approximate equivalent of the 28mm wide I used to carry in my 1970s era Nikon kit. This was wide enough to get me in somewhat close to Chinese temples in the crowded streets of Taipei. The 55mm end was the equivalent of 88mm with my ideal choice of portrait focal length being the 105mm Nikkor f2.5 lens at the time, but I considered the 70mm on later 35mm film format kit lenses to be workable.

But with the Canon APS-C cameras I found the vast majority of pictures I took fell right in that workhorse-wide to portrait-telephoto range. In Micro Four Thirds format the sensor size crop factor is 2x, so the 14-42mm kit lens was equivalent to (again) 28-84mm and covered the same range. The first camera in that format I tried was an Olympus Pen E-PL1 with the 14-42mm f3.5 to f5.6 and that lens astounded me with the definition it held. As a test I shot the same subject with a 14mm prime and the 14mm end of that kit lens and I really had to magnify way past what it would take to get a 16x20 to see the slight difference.

One other complaint people have with the kit lens is lack of a fast maximum aperture. The f3.5 to f5.6 aperture range isn't known for its capabilities in low or marginal lighting. Nowadays this is not as much of a handicap as it would seem, especially since high ISO performance is getting better in newer cameras. You get the f3.5 max aperture only at the wide end of the zoom, move to longer focal length and you start progressing towards f5.6. For night scenes where you have good street lighting or lots of light sources (building lights and the like), I've seen some pretty good work from folks who only had that kit lens available. And for some degree of selective focus (shallow depth of field) I've seen some nice looking work from the telephoto end (f5.6) where the photographer managed shooting-distance of subject to background-distance and exposure, so f5.6 would give him what he wanted.

While we feel other lens options cover other needs, I generally don't advise selling the kit lens to help fund other lens purchases. For one thing, they usually don't bring a lot used (even if not used much), I think it's wiser to hang onto it and save up longer to be able to afford the next lens you covet. I recently went out of my way to purchase the Olympus m.Zuiko 14-42mm f3.5 to f5.6 kit lens for my Olympus OMD E-M5 due to its incredibly compact size (I had given the Pen E-PL1 with its kit lens to my brother-in-law). The OMD E-M5 is itself quite compact and with this lens makes a very small package.

One of our club members came to the same decision and walked into B&H to purchase the very same lens for her OMD E-M5.

When we are about to head out the door and that camera bag with stuff in it seems more than we want to deal with, that's when the camera with a kit lens comes into its own!

To sum it up, that kit lens performs better than a lot of folks give it credit for. It tends to be light weight and the ones I have now are optically very good. So it tends to make your camera an easier to deal with ‘carry around’ camera and the lens is quite flexible with the zoom range it has. It does not diminish the need for other lenses if your application requires something “more,” like longer telephoto and telephoto zooms for wildlife work, “fast” glass for low light, or ultra-wide for wider views than the kit lens provides.

See y'all at the meeting.

Bruce Foreman