This is the second post addressed to beginners to get the most out of your brand new DSLR camera. Unless you know exactly what you are looking for, you will probably consider a DSLR sold as a kit which includes a camera body and a so-called kit lens. The body of the camera is something that you might keep for a couple of years, without the need to upgrade it. However, you might very soon find yourself limited by your kit lens for various reasons.
The issues that you might encounter are numerous and depend on the type of photography that you are interested in. I list them in 5 categories below, along with some suggestions to get the most out of your kit lens.
1 – Focal length
The focal length of your lens (expressed in mm) determine how much of the scene you can capture. The focal length of a typical kit lens can vary from 18 to 55 mm or more.
– A short focal length (wide angle) can be used for landscape or interior photography. However, the widest available angle on your kit lens (associated with a cropped sensor) might be too small to capture the entire scene.
-A long focal length (magnification) can be used for instance for wild life photography. However, the longest available focal length might be too short to zoom close enough to your subject.
– For very wide angle shots and interior photography, I would recommend to shoot several frames (turning your camera vertically) and to stitch them as a panorama in post-processing. This is less convenient than using a wide angle lens and might not work every time, but you can try it right away with your kit lens!
– Select a kit lens with a long maximum focal length, instead of the more traditional 55 mm, for increased versatility. When I bought my first DSLR, I selected the Canon EF-S 18-135mm for this reason.
2 – Focus
Focus capabilities of DSLRs are amazingly superior to point-and-shoot cameras (in term of speed, accuracy and flexibility). Some limitations remain however.
– For macro photography, the lens might not be able to focus when placed too close to the subject you want to capture.
– When using a large aperture for shallow depth of field, the lens might focus a bit off your target, without this being immediately noticeable on the LCD screen.
– For sport and action photography, the time for your lens to focus might be too long to capture the action at the right moment.
– One fun experiment to do is to backward mount your kit lens to transform it into a macro lens. You can simply hold it with your hand (or buy an adapter) in front of the camera. The lens will be able to focus on very close objects.
– Whenever you have the time, use the zoom function on your LCD screen to ensure that the lens has focused correctly. Also, take several shots to increase your chance to get the focus right.
– In order to gain time when you are at a known distance from the action, pre-focus your lens and set it to manual mode. That way, the camera will take the picture as soon as you press the shutter button, and you will not miss the action!
3 – Aperture
This is probably one of the main drawbacks of kit lenses. In order to keep the price down, the maximum aperture of these lenses are limited. This means that the ability to create interesting shallow depth of field images (for instance, by blurring a distracting background), is severely restricted. Also, the lower amount of light corresponding to a lower maximum aperture, means that compromises need to be made using shutter speed and ISO to get the proper exposure. For these two reasons, a kit lens can often limit the creative aspect and the overall quality of your photography.
– In order to minimize background distractions with your kit lens, step back and zoom (increase the focal length) on your subject instead, to change the perspective.
– When the camera is handheld, do not try to decrease the shutter speed (should always be > 1/focal length) or under-expose the picture in low light situations. Increase the ISO setting on your camera to get the correct exposure instead. Even though increasing the ISO also increases the noise of your image, this is nearly always a better option than getting a blurry picture due to too low shutter speed or magnifying the noise along with the brightness in post-processing.
– Finally, there is really nothing you can do about increasing the maximum aperture of your kit lens. An equivalent lens with a large aperture is probably a significant investment that you might not want to consider at the moment. However, fixed focal length (“prime”) lenses are available for a fraction of the cost of decent zoom lenses. For instance, the 50 mm f1.8 lenses from either Canon or Nikon are an excellent first choice to add to your collection at a budget price (around USD 125).
4 – Sharpness
Making a lens sharp over its whole range of focal length is a technical challenge. This is in part why professional lenses are so expensive. Because of the lower quality of the glass and the mechanisms inside a kit lens, sub-par performances can be expected in term of sharpness. This is something that you might not notice initially, but over time it may become more obvious when comparing your work with other photographers.
I would start by saying that, very often, the lack of sharpness in a photo is due to other factors than the quality of the lens. The number 1 rule for sharpness is to have a sufficiently high shutter speed to avoid any camera shake. If the light conditions are not favorable, then the use of a tripod is required. Only after making sure that these rules have been followed, then the limitations of your kit lens may be the issue.
The first thing to do is to identify the so-called “sweet spot” of your lens, either by checking it yourself or going online. This corresponds to the focal length / aperture combination that will provide the best results for the lens. Using these settings should give you excellent results but will obviously limit your possibilitites. An alternative option at a reasonable cost would be to buy a prime lens with the focal length that your are most interested in, it could be a 50 or 85 mm for portrait, or a wide angle lens for landscape, etc. For portrait photography, I use the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II.
5 – Image distortion and aberration
All lenses, but more particularly kit lenses, are subject to image distortion and aberration. This is also something that you might not notice initially but will become more obvious as you gain experience.
– The image distortion occurs mostly at the extreme boundaries of the available focal lengths.
– Vignetting can be visible on the edges and reduce the brightness of the photo.
– Finally, chromatic aberration and fringing can be visible, under specific situations.
Recent DSLRs can offer the possibility to directly correct the image distortion and aberration in-camera, though this prevents you from shooting RAW files. Another option is to make these corrections in post-processing with your photo editing software. For instance in Lightroom, the image distortion correction is performed automatically, as long as the profile of your lens (providing the correction to apply for each focal length) is included in the database of the software.
Some final thoughts
Before considering buying a new lens for your DSLR camera, I would recommend you to explore the possibilities of your kit lens using the suggestions provided in this post. Beside having more control over your photography, this will provide you with a lot of learning opportunities! I would like to encourage you to share your own experience and suggestions, how to get the most out of a kit lens, by writing a comment below.