Buying a new DSLR or mirrorless camera today is much like buying a meal at McDonalds. “Do you want to supersize that?” Typically, you are offered a kit that includes your camera, kit lens, and a second inexpensive zoom lens along with a host of accessories. Should you ‘go large’ on that order or pick and choose your options? Is the quality of the lenses included with your sale-priced bundled camera kit worth the bundled price savings?
Kit lenses have been offered with film SLR cameras since the 1960’s. 35mm SLR cameras were routinely sold with a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens. These prime lenses were sharp, had all-metal construction, distortion-free optics and were made to last. Modern kit lenses are typically zoom lenses with plastic construction. What are you really getting for your money nowadays? Does the optical performance of kit lenses make them a good value? What are the compromises that come with the low price of kit lenses?
Let’s look at three measurements of lens quality, sharpness, distortion and speed. How do kit lenses measure up to higher priced pro lenses in these three areas?
Popular Photography magazine in 2006 did comparison tests between kit and pro lenses for sharpness. Suprisingly, these tests revealed little significant difference in sharpness between kit and pro zooms. Most modern lenses, regardless of price, are sharp.
DxOMark tests lenses in every price range. When it comes to distortion, this is where the differences between inexpensive and pro lenses become apparent. Cheaper kit lenses generally show more distortion throughout their zoom range than their higher priced counterparts.
Is this really an issue? No. Here’s why. Many modern DSLR cameras will automatically correct distortion if you are shooting .jpg images with the standard kit lens (it’s usually a menu setting in the camera). If you are shooting in raw mode, modern raw editing software including Adobe Lightroom will allow you to correct distortion for your specific kit lens digitally in post processing. Problem solved.
Owning a fast lens is like driving a sports car with a powerful V12 engine. You don’t always need all that power, but it’s nice to have on the few occasions when you do. Every photographer craves speed at one time or another. Fast lenses give you the ability to shoot sharp hand-held images in lower available light than slower kit lenses. Also, faster apertures (typically f1.4-f2.8) allow you to create a creamy smooth background blur behind your subject.
Modern DSLR cameras have to some degree eliminated one advantage of faster lenses. Higher ISO settings on many modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras have very low noise, eliminating the need for a faster lens. Just bump up the ISO setting when shooting in lower light. However, if you want that creamy background blur, you do need to spend the big bucks for a pro zoom lens. Sorry!
Build Quality Comparisons, Kit and Pro Lenses
Kit lenses are nearly always made of plastic construction. Focusing rings and controls feel plasticky on kit lenses and do not have the silky-smooth feel of expensive pro lenses. Plastic construction kit lenses will not last as long as an expensive all-metal construction pro lens. Plus, it is more likely that kit lenses will lose their precision alignment over time as they are banged around or subject to heavy use.
Is this a problem for the average consumer? Not really. Most of us simply do not use our cameras frequently enough to wear out the mechanism of lower-priced kit lenses. If a kit lens does fail at some point, you generally are not paying more than $100 to replace it. The inexpensive 70-300mm lens you got as part of that camera bundle most likely is easily replaced for well under $200. Pro lenses, on the other hand, will generally cost you $800 and up.
If you want travel with your camera, the lower weight of plastic kit lenses will be a blessing. Pro lenses are large and heavy, making them a less pleasant companion for vacations.
Feel Good About Your Bargain Priced DSLR Camera Kit!
Buy what fits within your budget and enjoy it. Expensive lenses won’t make you a better photographer, but it may make you a poorer one. The point is, don’t agonize over camera gear that is out of your price range. The capabilities of modestly priced cameras and lenses easily exceeds the abilities of most photographers. Enjoy your camera kit and take some great pics!