Ditch the kit lens

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Why ditch the kit lens?

You've bought your first camera, and ready to get shooting. Before, you were using a phone or cheapo point-and-shoot pocket camera, and let's face it this new camera has cost a fair bit of money, so surely you're going to notice a big difference right?

Well... maybe not. Sorry. What's holding you back is probably your kit lens.

The "kit lens" is the "starter" lens which was included when you bought your SLR or mirrorless camera. It is generally an inexpensive lens, and that's because the manufacturer feel they have to include a lens but they don't want one that will push up the price. Most likely it's something like a 18 - 55mm zoom.

This kit lens is designed to appeal to those people who are buying an SLR or mirrorless camera for the first time. So it will give you similar options to what you might have had with a compact camera - a fairly versatile zoom, acceptable photos, but at a cheap price.

Your kit lens is a jack of all trades, master of none.

So there's the problem, it's trying to be a versatile zoom, but also for a low price, it turns out it's not a very remarkable piece of kit.


What makes a dream lens?

Essentially there are 4  attributes we want in the perfect camera lens : 

  1. VERSATILE ZOOM - also known as variable focal length, giving versatility and often offering both a wide-angle lens and telephoto lens
     
  2. LARGE APERTURE - not all lenses are created equal, those with the largest possible apertures will give you a more shallow depth-of-field and ultimately what everyone is looking for - bokeh (fuzzy backgrounds).
     
  3. AMAZING SHARPNESS - all lenses should give you a sharp images - but some are noticeably sharper than others. The human eye is amazingly perceptive at seeing the differences in sharpness.
     
  4. LOW PRICE - all other things being equal, yep, the lower the price the better!

Here's the problem though - there is no lens which reaches perfection in all 4 attributes. Sadly such a lens doesn't exist - so you can't "have it all".

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There is always a compromise

You can't have it all. So you have to compromise.

With the kit lens, the compromises are large aperture and amazing sharpness. Well that means that we can't get that lovely bokeh - those fuzzy backgrounds, and for me as a family portrait photographer working with children and newborns, that's a big no-no.

You might think the logical step might be a zoom lens which offers a large aperture and amazing sharpness, for example the Nikon 24-70mm f2.8. But a quick check on that link will see this "perfect lens" falls down on one point - it will cost you a pretty penny. Around £1600 in fact.

This is because creating a lens with versatile zoom + large aperture + excellent sharpness requires expensive manufacture - so the price point will inevitably be high. 

So with nearly every lens available, you will find, has some degree of compromise, or an attribute missing completely.

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So what do we compromise on ?

Looking back at our attributes again, that compromise will depend on the type of photography you're interested in.

I am interested in portraiture, so I would always opt for large aperture and amazing sharpness.  This is basically describes a prime lens.

A prime lens is a lens with NO zoom at all. It has a fixed focal length so you have to "zoom with your feet". Instead of the camera lens zooming in and out, you need to physically move the camera closer or further away from the subject. However this isn't a great hardship, and in fact this tends to improve your photography and composition technique anyway.

Why are aperture and sharpness so great ?

You will struggle to get the amazing portraits with fuzzy backgrounds (bokeh) without that large aperture, and frankly every amateur should try using the large apertures because the results are so satisfying as well as fun.  The amazing sharpness is a bit more subjective, but once you start getting very sharp images I'm afraid you will want all your images to be that crisp - there is something just a bit more special about it.

Large apertures also mean your camera performs so much better - and is more usuable - in poor lighting. Where I am, in North-West England, with long winters photographing my children indoors in small houses with small windows, a large aperture is essential for indoor photography.

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So are prime lenses cheap?

Yes and No.

The 50mm prime lens ( nicknamed the "nifty-fifty") is one of the cheapest ones you can buy. It's also one of the lenses I would recommend you start with - but make sure you have understood whether this is the best choice for your camera first.

For example, the 50mm prime lenses  by Canon and Nikon 50mm lenses retail at between £120 and £200 in the UK (between $120 and $220 in the US).

However the same can't be said for other primes, such as the 85mm, 135mm and 200mm. These are fantastic lenses, but the 85mm f1.8 prime lens and 135mm f1.8 prime lens retail at around £450 and £1200 in the UK. In the US the prices are similar - $400 and $1400.

But that's nothing - if you wanted a 200mm f2 prime lens you would have to pay over £5,000 in the UK for this amazing piece of kit.

So is the "nifty-fifty" cheap because it's not very good?

Definitely not!

The 50mm prime lens is cheap because the lens design is by far the simplest lens design.

Many years ago the lens manufacturers discovered that they can manufacture a 50mm lens with very simple bits of glass inside - simple and cheap to manufacture. Those simple bits of glass are technically called a double-gaussian lens, but you don't need to understand that or what it means.

As the chart below shows, the 50mm has fewer pieces of glass plus less complicated pieces of glass.

The 50mm prime doesn't require any of the fancy bits of glass such as aspherical elements or low dispersion glass that they have to put in other lenses to make them perform well, and which adds a huge amount to the manufacturing cost.

But not all prime lenses look like this. Other primes, such as the 85mm, 135mm and 200mm mentioned above don't have the same simple insides and hence they cost up to 50 times more.

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50mm - the most versatile focal length

The nifty-fifty, the 50mm prime lens, offers us a large aperture, amazing sharpness at a low price. The only thing it doesn't offer is a zoom.

50mm is the perfect all rounder for focal length. You can move far from the subject and use it for landscape shots or more documementary-style shots. But it is also a long enough lens, so you can still get some separation of your subject from the background for portrait shots, allowing you to get some lovely bokeh and shallow depth of field.

These images (right) are great examples of both wide-angle environmental shots but also close-up portrait shots shot on the nifty-fifty.

With the 35mm, you can get wide-angle shots, but it doesn't give you the focal length required to get such good same bokeh.

With a longer lenses, like the 85mm, you naturally get great compression and bokeh, but it will be tricky to get any wide-angle shots.

The 50mm prime lens is the perfect starter lens and perfect all-rounder.

What to buy?

Unfortunately it's not as simple as just buying the 50mm lens for your make of camera. Read how camera sensor size affects your camera lens and why you need to know this before buying any lens .

Finally please take a look at my list of recommended prime lenses under £250.

And then, enjoy! I guarantee that it will both inspire you and improve your photography.

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