Mastering Your Kit Lens - Part 1

My Mother in Law, Ivy, one of the nicest ladies you could ever meet, captured with my Sony 18-55 whilst waiting at a bus stop

So your kit lens is rubbish, you know this for a certainty because numerous photo blog sites and test sites have told you so. 

Don't worry most kit lenses are not great when measured or assessed in any empirical way, but realistically your kit lens was almost a freebie so what have we got to moan about.  In any case, without meaning to insult anyone, most kit lenses are capable of better results than most photographers are able to deliver.

Now I have seen a few articles on the web regarding “using your kit lens, getting more out of it” but most seem pretty token at best so I thought “how about I do a series of blog posts that really give you something to chew on, something that will really help and hopefully inspire you”.  There will be lots of words and lots of pics to show you just what you can do, today we will set the scene, but make sure you come back now.

In the words of a past Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, I want you to feel “comfortable and relaxed” about your kit lens.

This blog series might seem misplaced, after all, almost every photographic website will have articles telling you that you simply must replace that “hound doggy” of a lens with something better and the inference being that you cannot possibly get great results until you do so.  

What a crock!

Sure it’s a good idea to buy a new lens if the current one is limiting you, but being brutally honest you’ll gain more by really coming to grips with what your current kit lens can do.  The whole world of consumerism is built upon the premise that any shortfall or problem can be resolved by throwing more money at it.....your money of course.  Truthfully, skill, technique and artistic application will drive you much further than a new lens.  I think I can confidently say that the overwhelming majority of world famous images from the start of the photographic period right up until a few years ago were taken with lenses much less capable than most kit lens found on any new camera!

Yes it's true that your kit lens will not give you that beautiful shallow DOF and the Bokeliciuos Blur you hear so many Photographers waxing about on web forums,  but realistically that look has limited applicability and in any case the lenses that will really sing in such applications are very expensive primes.  Look I would love to occasionally get the look of the Ziess Otus but at $4500.00 Aus, it ain’t going to suddenly appear in my camera box and if I find I actually need that look commercially, I will hire one and charge it out accordingly.

There are so many better things you could spend your dollars on if you are in the early stages of your photographic journey, like a good workshop or on line course, travel to some nice location to use what you currently have and in more practical sense and really good tripod or flash will open up far more possibilities for you than a better lens.

Back to the kit lens.....

I have had a few kit lenses, of those, my Sony E series 18-55mm has proved to be a fine example of the breed and is in fact my most used out of the 50 or so lenses I own.  A Canon 18-55mm I owned for several years produced images that looked a little like they were shot through the bottom of a beer glass and I think my Sony "A" series 18-55 actually was the beer bottle that originally contained the beer in the bottom of the Canons glass, but nonetheless even they redeemed themselves with plenty of good shots.

I have 3 Minolta 35-70 f4s from film era Minoltas, two were really good and one was stellar, that is until I dropped it on a cement floor and misaligned its innards. It still works fine but is soft on one side at the wide end in the now “post flight state”.

The main issues with kit lenses in my experience is "sample variability", which goes a long way towards explaining why user experiences reported on forums are so.....well variable. 

And perhaps why some test sites will call a lens a sours’ ear and others a silk purse.

Of course kit lenses are generally slow of aperture, slow to focus and slow to sell on eBay, but they are not without their virtues either.

Build quality is generally pretty average, lots of low grade plastic, sometimes even in the lens bayonet itself and in many ways it has got worse over the years, trust me on this, there is a world of difference between say a Minolta or Nikon 35-70 of 20 years ago and a new 18-55 kitty of today.  A single turn of the focus ring will lay bare the rough approach of most new kit lenses in comparison to their forebears.

Speaking of the Nikon 35-70, the one I have has consistently proven itself to be a stellar performer on my NEX 5n, in fact it is probably one of the best lenses I have ever put on that little NEXY including fixed focal length jobbies. Note there have been an enormous array of Nikon 35-70s so don't take this as an automatic recommendation.

So are modern kitties all rubbish, are there no redeeming factors?  Actually there are quite a few, the modern kitty whilst no paragon of constructional perfection or optical excellence can be a very useful device indeed.

I must say up front I have found from playing with hundreds of kittys belonging to thousands of past students cameras, some brands and models are much better than others.  The best in terms of optical consistency are the Nikons, no doubt about that at all from my experience, in fact some have been bloody impressive in terms of the rendered files, the worst, no that would be telling, besides my flameproof suit is at the dry cleaners today.

In constructional terms the M4/3 versions all seem pretty solid and the Fuji "x" series are very nicely done and apparently the new “light as air” kit lens attached to the Panasonic GM1 is a bit of a revelation.

In the next blog entry I will examine the optical factors with kit lenses that we can actually do something about.

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