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Photographers and filmmakers often dismiss kit lenses for being cheap and of poor quality. But before you write off the lens that comes bundled with your entry-level or ‘prosumer’ camera, give it a chance. It does serve a purpose, and you might as well learn to make the most of it.
What is a kit lens?
First of all: what is a kit lens? Almost all manufacturers offer some kind of camera lens kit when a basic lens is bundled with an entry-level camera or a camera that’s a step up from entry-level but not necessarily professional.
These lenses aren’t special, but they give you immediacy and a bit of versatility. You can start shooting straight away without really knowing what you want or need from a lens, and they provide you with a range of focal lengths. A kit lens lets you hit the ground running.
The most basic kit lenses are usually 18-55mm ƒ/3.5-5.6, and only compatible with APS-C format cameras. Mirrorless cameras will have an equivalent. For the slightly higher-specced cameras, there are somewhat better kit lenses. The more advanced Canon kit lens is often a 24-105mm, while the Nikon kit lens is 24-120mm. The Sony A7 III kit lens is usually a 28-70mm ƒ/3.5-5.6.
Advantages of a kit lens
When you think about the weaknesses of a kit lens–the glass is cheap and the quality not great, the focal lengths are limited and the apertures are restricted–you might think they are not worth it. Why would manufacturers bother with them? Well, kit lenses do have a bit going for them, including being able to go out and take photos straight away. Mostly, though, it boils down to them being great for growing your skills and knowledge.
First, when you’re starting out, you have a lot to learn. You won’t know what your style is or what lenses you will need to achieve this. A kit lens gives you a taste of everything, allows you to experiment and helps you decide what your next lens step should be.
Second, the limitations of kit lenses, particularly their restricted apertures and focal lengths, force you to think about what you’re trying to achieve and how you’re going to manage it. You’ll need to learn about exposure and making the most of the light you have. You’ll have to work with a depth of field that might not be as shallow as you would like. You will have to ‘zoom with your feet’.
Finally, a kit lens’ cheapness and more inferior quality can be a blessing, too. For a start, you will quickly learn to recognize sweet spots and how focal lengths and apertures work in combination to create optimal sharpness or can just look really soft. But if you’re filming somewhere where you don’t feel so confident, or the conditions mean that your gear could get damaged from, say, sand or water, it doesn’t matter so much if it’s your kit lens that comes out worse for wear.
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Disadvantages of a kit lens
It doesn’t matter whether you weigh up mirrorless vs. DSLR; the drawbacks of a kit lens will be the same.
For a start, they are not of very good quality, which means they can lack sharpness. This will be most noticeable toward the edges of the frame, where things can look soft or ‘mushy’.
Next, their variable and limited apertures can be extremely frustrating. When looking at the 18-55mm ƒ/3.5-5.6, you will have a maximum aperture of ƒ/3.5 at 18mm and ƒ/5.6 at 55mm. Even at its widest, this is not a very fast lens, so you cannot let in a lot of light. When you zoom in to 55mm, the maximum aperture of ƒ/5.6 means you will not benefit from a very shallow depth of field. It will be tougher to get good exposure in low-light conditions, too, because the aperture is relatively small.
Making the most of your camera lens kit
You will get the most out of your camera lens kit by playing to its strengths. In particular, you should use a kit lens in good light so that you can work with its limited aperture.
All lenses have a sweet spot, where their aperture and focal length (if they are zoom lenses) produce the sharpest possible image. Experiment with your kit lens to see where its sweet spot is. The chances are that the sweet spot will not be at its widest aperture, so stop down a little.
Not having a particularly large aperture means that you will struggle to achieve a shallow depth of field with a kit lens. However, by ensuring that there is some distance between your subject and the background, you will help accentuate what background blur you can manage.
Camera filters are a relatively inexpensive and simple way of making the best of the kit that you have. For a start, you might want to try using a close-up filter or use polarizing filters to help with the color when shooting outside. There are lots of options out there, so take a look.
Thinking of upgrading
The best DSLR camera or best mirrorless camera for you will not be decided by the kit lens that comes in the box with it. It’s the camera that meets your needs and has the right range of lenses that you can grow into. Your camera lens kit will serve you well initially, but you will want to extend your glass collection depending on what and how you shoot. It’s always worth looking out for Nikon’s lens bundle deals for good value and also thinking about specific cinematic lenses, too. But never forget what a kit lens can do.