Ah, the kit lens. The type of lens that the photography community either like as a backup tool or a thing that leaves the camera immediately to be left collecting dust once a photographer gets a lens upgrade to their camera body. Simply put, a kit lens is a debated topic that either skews towards a useful tool if nothing else can do the job in someone’s arsenal, a solid starter kit or a piece of crap that deserves to be put into the scrapper once an upgraded lens is purchased. But what is a kit lens? Let’s jump in and explain.
WHAT’S A LENS?
Before we jump into kit lenses, we need to have a short primer on what’s a lens.
A lens is an optical equipment designed to focus or disperse light beams in order to create an image which is then sensed by the image sensor, which is then turned into image data which can be seen, edited and shared. While a single-convex lens is typically enough to get an image, most camera lenses are a series of different elements designed to reduce effects such as barrel-distortion, lens-flare and chromatic-aberration, along with fringing along the edges. Because so much engineering goes into lenses, they don’t tend to come cheap, with the best ones costing over a grand, while cheap lenses tend to have such defects prevalent, which can be used for interesting effects depending on the photographer.
Lenses come in two forms; zoom and prime
Zoom lenses are lenses which have a variable focal length. This makes them immensely versatile since they can adapt to a variety of different shooting conditions from wide-angle to telephoto in the most extreme examples, though most range from wide-ish angle to portrait. However, they do suffer a bit in terms of optical quality due to the extra elements needed for that variable focal length. These lenses are typically used by people who find themselves shooting different types of photos in one session and would like to have a single adaptable lens.
Prime lenses are lenses with a fixed focal length. Due to that, prime lenses cannot adapt to different shooting situations as easily as a zoom lens, but because they don’t require a lot of lens elements, overall image quality is higher and is usually the choice for people who use their cameras for a specific type of photography scenario and rarely takes other types of photos. Some lenses like super wide-angle and fisheye lenses are usually only made as prime lenses as the barrel distortion can be quite extreme for a zoom lens.
It’s certainly not a wise business move to pack in a $1000 lens with a $600 camera as part of a kit, so companies have to develop a lens on the cheap that they can ship as a starter lens in a kit, hence the term “kit lens”.
WHAT IS A KIT LENS?
A kit lens is basically a lens that comes inside the box as a kit when a new camera is purchased. Most of these lenses are zoom lenses with focal lengths ranging from a relatively wide-angle to a short-telephoto, although some kits do include an additional kit lens that have a portrait-to-telephoto focal length.
Kit lenses usually have a variable aperture that adjusts automatically based on the focal length and some include optical stabilization inside the lens itself, which can be useful for new photographers who want to practice night shots or general consumers who may just want a camera with a big lens that they just want to use as a glorified point-and-shoot (although such people generally use their smartphones due to their compact nature).
The 18-55 kit lens that comes as a kit lens on most Nikon and Canon cameras cost around $250, while the Sony SELP1650 lens shown costs around $350, and the kit lens on Olympus M43 cameras cost around $300. While these lenses don’t seem cheap on their own, they’re definitely on the cheaper end of the spectrum where the best ones can cost significantly more than the camera body itself. Obviously, to reach that price, compromises have to be made, whether that’s capabilities, construction or even general image quality.
The one exception are the kit lenses supplied on higher-end cameras such as the EOS 5D Mark IV , Nikon D750 and Alpha A7R II, of which the kit lenses cost $900, $1,100 and $1,200 respectively, which reflects their higher price-tag and as such, offers significantly higher quality than the kit lenses supplied on consumer and some prosumer models, which fits their higher performance and market position as well. However, since we’re focusing on standard kit lenses, these higher-end lenses won’t be discussed as these lenses can also be fitted onto consumer cameras, although many will go into “crop-mode” as these were made for 35mm full-frame sensors.
KIT LENS DEFICIENCIES
To hit a lower price point, kit lenses usually have to make do with a number of deficiencies. Such include;
Reduced sharpness: Kit lenses tend to use glass of a lower-quality or have elements which aren’t the greatest in preserving sharpness. As a result, compared to prime lenses or a better zoom lens, their effective sharpness tends to be lower compared to those lenses. The corners are particularly the most susceptible.
“Slow” aperture: This isn’t limited to kit lenses but also most zoom lenses in general. Because these lenses usually have an aperture that’s around f/2.8-f/3.5 that varies to f/5.6 depending on focal length, the amount of light that it lets in is rather limited. And because many kit lenses have variable apertures, the aperture will close down slightly when the focal length is increased, which means less light when zoomed in, requiring either a higher ISO, shutter speed or both in order to compensate. Some zoom lenses have a constant aperture, which means that the minimum f/stop stays the same regardless of focal length, but zoom lenses with apertures wider than f/2.8 tend to be quite rare, with a Sigma 18-35mm lens being one of the few, at f/1.8.
Defects: Not ‘that’ kind of defect but stuff like chromatic-aberration, fringing and lens flaring plus barrel distortion. All lenses are prone to these issues, but because kit lenses are designed to be as cheap as possible while being versatile, they tend to be more prone to such defects, which is why some cameras like the Sony a6000 automatically correct for these defects in-camera.
Because kit-lenses have these deficiencies, they tend to be less capable than prime lenses and upgraded zoom lenses in some scenarios, especially in areas where lighting is not optimal.
THAT SOUNDS BAD. SHOULD I DITCH IT?
Those do sound bad and you might think that they can ruin your shot. However, don’t count out the kit lens just yet. Remember, the kit lens is usually used as a sort of “starter lens” and in order to get to grips with your camera, you need a lens. While the kit lens obviously isn’t going to be the greatest in terms of optical quality, it is more than enough to start snapping away some photos. Once you get a feel for the equipment and you understand what deficiencies your lens has, you can also use this to start practicing lens correction in software like Adobe Lightroom or Capture One.
That being said, once you’re getting to grips with the camera and you want to step up your game, a fast prime lens is probably what you’d want to go for as the wider maximum aperture will help in extreme low-light situations and also can open up some interesting bokeh opportunities. A fixed focal length can help you learn composition by basically “zooming with your feet”. Other lenses such as fisheye lenses, wide-angles, telephoto lenses and more are also available depending on your style of photography.
However, that’s not to say you can’t get good shots out of a kit lens. When I went to Taipei back in 2014, while my a6000 was still brand-new and I haven’t understood the basic terms of photography just yet, I shot a few photos while there, many of which are in RAW and when I edited them recently, I thought they came out alright, especially once you figure out the deficiencies of the lens and how to compensate for them. That’s not to say it’s a great lens as by comparison to my current Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC DN lens, it’s pretty mediocre, but once you figure out its downsides, you can actually coax a reasonably good image.
In short, the kit lens obviously isn’t one of the greatest lenses you can get because it has to be made at reduced cost so that it doesn’t drive up the price of a camera kit too high. However, while the kit lens isn’t going to be a great tool if you value absolute quality, it is a reasonably good tool to use if you’re a beginner and you want to get to grips with the core basic of photography and can serve as a backup if you need something that can do the job and literally nothing else will work out.
However, serious photographers may want to invest in a couple of good lenses which perfectly fit their desired style of shooting. While kit lenses are very versatile, they also have inevitable costs in regards to how inexpensive it has to be made and that it has to be versatile at that lower cost. Despite that, however, some photographers have shot some great photos with a kit lens, proving that it’s not always about the equipment but the person operating the equipment as well.
Even with a kit lens, in comparison to a point-and-shoot and most smartphones, it’s still considered a pretty substantial upgrade as you’re getting a significantly larger sensor that may also be higher in resolution while featuring larger pixels, more control out-of-the-box, expandability in the future and much more. The kit lens may not be of the greatest quality or the most versatile but if you’re starting out, it should help get the job done and sometimes, you might be surprised at the pictures that come out of it, granted that you might need to edit some to really bring them out. And since these cameras are designed to have expanded abilities through hotshoe mounts and swapping lenses, having that sort of knowledge would be very helpful.
Although honestly, you might want a wide-angle prime in the future because wide-angle is pretty much the trend these days.
I’m just sayin’.