OK, I admit, the title of this post is purposely overly dramatic. The truth is, I don’t know if you should buy a digital SLR with the kit lens or not. That was partially a cheap ploy for attention and Google searches. But the reality is, Canon and Nikon don’t know what you are taking photos of and how you work, so just because they pair a lens up with the body you want, don’t assume it is the right lens for you and your work. You may save some money at first, but if you soon upgrade and replace the kit lens, and then toss it aside and rarely use it again, you’re really not saving any money. (It should tell you something that when you read forum posts from people discussing kit lenses, you discover the most common phrase is “I bought the kit lens, but…” typically followed by the words “soon replaced.”) You don’t need a “starter lens,” whatever that means. You need a lens that does what you want.
For additional posts about lenses, see Best Lenses for Travel and Humanitarian Photography and Fixed vs. Variable Aperture Lenses.
So I’d like to raise some issues that can help you make a better, more informed decision if you should get the kit lens or if you should buy just the camera body, and purchase a different lens. (A “kit lens” is a lens that is sold together with a dSLR camera body, as a package – as opposed to buying the camera body only and selecting your own lens.)
San Francisco, Peru – Shipibo Village
1/640, f/5, ISO 200, 105mm
If some of the digital photography terms in this post are new to you, check out this great glossary for assistance.
There are several routes to follow regarding buying lenses. One common path seems to be to start out with a single, all purpose zoom lens, like the EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS, that takes you all the way from wide angle to telephoto. Then when your experience and needs change and develop, you might get higher quality zooms with more limited range, such as a wide angle zoom, a standard zoom, and/ or a telephoto zoom. Somewhere along the way you may throw in a couple prime lenses, and then maybe upgrade the zoom lenses to the professional series, or get a super expensive, giant telephoto if your work requires that. There are a million sites that address everything about lenses, so I don’t wish to repeat it all here. But one thing is for sure: they can’t tell you which lens you need. You have to figure that out yourself, and hopefully this post will help you do that.
One thing to keep in mind with lenses is that you almost always get what you pay for. With more expensive lenses you often get features including:
- better sharpness throughout its full range of focal lengths and apertures
- better sharpness, color, contrast, and image quality across the image frame, from the center to the corners
- higher quality construction
- higher quality glass and coatings to prevent flare and internal reflections
- larger maximum apertures
- fixed maximum apertures (read about what this means in this other post)
- better durability
- Increased dust, water, and weather resistance
- image stabilization (designated IS on Canon lenses; VR on Nikon/Nikkor lenses)
- higher quality auto focus mechanisms
- quieter and faster auto focus
- full time manual focus (ability to override auto-focus for manually tweeking focus while remaining in AF)
- internal zoom mechanisms – meaning the lens does not extend when you zoom – which also allows for better weather sealing
- metal lens mounts (the part that screws onto the camera) for better durability, sealing, and electrical connections (cheaper kit lenses often have plastic mounts that wear and then the lens wobbles and loses electrical connection)
One notable exception to this rule of price=quality seems to be Canon’s 50mm f/1.8 II for under $100. From what I’ve repeatedly read, the quality is exceptional, although the build quality seems to be what suffers. Also, since higher quality lenses typically contain more internal lens elements, they are often heavier than equivalent cheaper lenses.
If you are new to learning about lenses, you may wonder why you shouldn’t just buy a relatively inexpensive lens that takes you from 18mm or 55mm all the way to 200mm or 300mm and covers all your needs. The general answer is that lenses typically can’t maintain high quality throughout a huge range like that. If you have a high quality camera, you are better off sacrificing some of that zoom range for better quality through a more limited range. And any dSLR with 15, 18, or 21 megapixels will show the shortcomings of cheaper lenses due to the high resolution of the sensor.
Ucayali River, Peru
1/400, f/6.3, ISO 100, 105mm
So, to choose the lens that is right for you, first look at what you plan to or typically take photos off. What range of zoom or individual prime lenses best fit these needs? If you have lots of recent photos, look at the EXIF data to see what focal lengths got the most use. (Make sure you take into account sensor sizes and crop factors though. A photo taken at 55mm focal length on your digital compact may be the equivalent of 55mm on a camera with a full frame sensor, like the Canon 5D, but will likely not be the equivalent of 55mm focal length on a 1.6x crop factor size sensor of a Canon Rebel, 60D, or 7D. You may have to do some research and some math and figure out what the equivalent focal length is to make sure you are comparing apples to apples.)
When I was initially upgrading from an all purpose zoom to higher quality but more limited range zooms, I put all my favorite and most successful recent photos in a folder and then opened that folder in Adobe Bridge. In the “Filter” panel, I expanded the “Focal Length” list, and saw the number of photos taken at each focal length. It quickly became apparent that I was always working at the extremes of my lens, either at 28mm or at 105mm, and then the next highest concentration of images was around 50mm and 85mm. What this metadata told me was that I needed a wide angle lens for those times I was working at 28mm, and also a telephoto lens that started around 80mm and went up to 105mm or greater. Knowing from experience that I often wished I could get much wider than 28mm, and seeing in the EXIF data that when going wide I rarely went above 30mm or 35mm, I chose a 16-35mm wide angle zoom lens. Also knowing from experience that I often wished I could zoom in much closer than I was able to with 105mm, a 70-200mm lens was a great solution. With these two lenses, I have the wide and telephoto ranges covered. But the EXIF data also showed a concentration of images from 50-65mm, so this tells me perhaps I should consider a 50mm prime lens. I can make up the difference of 50-65mm by “zooming with my feet,” as they say.
Cusco, Peru – Inti Raymi 2007
1/500, f/4.6, ISO 100, 21mm (digital compact)
If you don’t yet have enough experience or past images to know which range of lenses will best fit your subject matter, look at photographers who do similar work. Professionals usually list what gear they use on their website – look for the “equipment” or “gear” link. If you are into travel, look at what Bob Krist and Nevada Wier use. If you are into landscapes or birds or sports, look at your favorite pros in these areas (sorry, I don’t know too much about these areas). If you favor international humanitarian photojournalism (as I do), look to Karl Grobl and Ami Vitale, or any number of other working pros. If you can’t afford or are not ready to invest in the professional series lenses that they use, determine the closest equivalent in a less expensive lens. Or another approach is to look at the types of images that draw your attention, the types of images you wish to emulate. See if the focal length is listed under the image (this is often done in photo magazines and books), or with images on Flickr view the EXIF data. If it is not listed, just determine the focal length more generally. Are the images you admire and are attracted to close-ups, details, or faces with blurry backgrounds? These are typically made with telephoto lenses – lenses that range from 70mm to 200mm, 250mm, or 300mm. Or are they all encompassing wide shots, landscapes, or environmental portraits? These are usually taken with wide angle lenses or lenses that range anywhere from 10mm or 18mm up to 70mm or 85mm.
There may be 2 or 3 lenses that fit in your desired range, so the next step is to head to the photo store. Have them pull out the camera body you have or want, and then 2 of the similar lenses. Try them both out, and you may quickly see which one you favor. One may be much heavier than the other, or just feel more comfortable in your hands. There may be a significant difference in size. When I went to look at the 70-200mm, there were 4 to choose from: it came with or without image stabilization and with f/2.8 or f/4 aperture. I knew I wanted the IS, and even though it was significantly more expensive, I knew I wanted the f/2.8 since it is generally considered better for a variety of reasons. However, the moment the guy placed them side by side on the counter, I was relieved I had not ordered it sight unseen. The f/2.8 is gigantic. It is a cannon, (not just a Canon) and it weighs a ton. I knew I would not want to haul that thing around, have it around my neck or in my hands all day, and that I would probably begin to dread its weight very quickly. So I went with the f/4 (Canon EF 70-200 f/4L IS), with its very similar optics and performance, and half the weight. I sacrificed a little “speed” and compositional possibilities (as well as bragging rights) with the f/4 aperture, but based on how I knew I would be using it, it was worth the trade off. However when comparing two similar wide angle zooms, side by side and in my hands, I chose the heavier one. Its shorter focal length at the wide end and its wider aperture, which would be beneficial in the low light situations I would be commonly using it, were more important to me that the weight.
Whichever lens you get, be sure to get the optional lens hood (they come with L-series lenses) and a high-quality coated or multi-coated UV filter (such a the B+W brand). The lens hood will help shade the lens to prevent unwanted lens flare (although lens flare can sometimes be used for a great effect when desired), help protect the lens from bumps and drops, and will make you look cooler and more professional! Have a look on my post about The Best Lenses for Travel Photography which specifies the applicable Canon lens hood and filter size for several lenses.
Lake Titicaca, Peru
1/1000, f/6.3, ISO 400, 105mm
If you still can’t decide, rent the camera and both lenses, or just the lens you are leaning towards, and try them out for a weekend. As far as all the other comparisons between lenses, do research on-line. Avoid forums that debate the pros and cons of various lenses but are subject to subjective judgments. Look for sites with actual side-by-side reviews and comparisons. I’ve listed a few links at the bottom.
Don’t rule out a prime lens as your first lens either. The 50mm used to be the “kit lens” back in the 35mm films days, and for a good reason. It is called a “normal” lens, meaning “the way it renders perspective closely matches that of the human eye.” (Gary Voth). Also, its large maximum aperture – often f/1.4 or f/1.8 – means it works great in low light situations, as well as creates dramatic background blurring. Gary Voth has written an excellent post about the 50mm, “The Forgotten Lens,” describing its numerous other benefits. He also addresses the issues of a 50mm with a full frame vs. cropped frame digital SLRs. The couple of photos on his post may be enough to convince you he is on to something.
On a final note, I’ve read of people being concerned about buying lenses that overlap, for example having a 24-105mm and a 70-200mm. These 2 would overlap, and thus potentially serve the same purpose, in the 70-105mm range. I don’t think this should be a concern at all, for a couple reasons. First, the lenses may not act exactly the same optically at the same focal length due to the lenses’ minimum apertures or their focusing “sweet spots.” More importantly, there are so many situations where you can’t or don’t want to change, or even carry around a variety of lenses, so consider each lens’ range independently of your other lenses. If you were walking about in a city taking photos, a 24-105mm would be great range, and more convenient than having to change lenses every time you wanted to zoom past 70mm. Of course if you have 2 bodies, you may have to reconsider this philosophy.
I go into further detail about the best lenses for travel and humanitarian photography in this post where I discuss specific lenses in the different zoom ranges of wide, standard, and telephoto, as well as choosing the best one lens for travel. That post will also benefit those looking for a general, all-around lens.
If you plan to purchase any equipment, I encourage you to do so through the referral links I’ve set up with Amazon. Use the product links throughout various posts, or just use this one and go directly to Amazon using this link to the Canon Lenses or this link to the Nikon lenses. Purchasing through my site or through that link will help support my blog – thanks! And for those of you across the pond, click here for my referral link to Amazon UK. If you are in another country, click on one of my Amazon links, scroll to the bottom of the page, and click on your country for your local Amazon.
For those interested in purchasing through B&H Photo, Adorama, or directly from Canon, I have set up affiliate links with them as well – find them on the left side of this page.
Renting Lenses: If you wish to first try out a lens before buying it, click on this link to go to BorrowedLenses.com, where you can get great prices on short-term rentals of any lens as well as the latest Canon and Nikon dSLR bodies (as well as video, audio, and lighting equipment).
Great sites for lens reviews:
Please leave a comment, ask a question. Let me know what has been helpful, and what you’d like to read more about.