I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Canon and Nikon won’t tell you this but, as fantastic as their high end professional lenses are, you don’t need them to take great photographs. The kit zoom lens that came with your entry level camera body is perfectly capable of taking a great photo. So, if you’re just getting into photography or are about to make the transition from shooting film to shooting digital, don’t let smug comments about amateurish kit lenses deter you.
Canon and Nikon are the dominant manufacturers of digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras. Amazon.com updates their “Best Sellers in DSLR Cameras” list on a daily basis. Canon and Nikon are typically the only two companies in the top 20. In the Under $700 category, Canon’s EOS Rebel T3 and T3i, and Nikon’s D3100, D3200 and D5100 are top-selling DSLR’s. All come with 18-55mm kit lenses. Of course, you can purchase just the camera body or substitute another lens. However, there is a strong case to be made for getting the kit lens with your entry level camera body.
Let’s look at the specs for these optics. Canon’s kit lens is the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II. The Nikon variant is the AF-S DX 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR. On paper, both offer the same focal length range, aperture range and built-in image stabilization technology. Designed for use with crop sensor bodies, the effective 35mm zoom range for the Canon lens is roughly 29mm at the wide end to 88mm at the long end. Nikon’s DX format sensor is slightly larger than Canon’s. The Nikkor 18-55mm delivers a 35mm zoom range of 27mm to 83mm. Both are street priced under $200, offer good optical performance and excellent value.
These mid-range zooms offer versatility that will meet the needs of most photographers. You’ll be able to shoot everything from wide angle scenics to portraiture. Their plastic construction means these are not rugged lenses. They’ll crack or break, if treated roughly. And they’re not weather sealed. If it starts to rain, you’ll want to stow the camera until the sun comes out. But these high value optics are also lighter and more comfortable to wear around the neck all day than professional grade zooms.
What are the hallmarks of a professional optic? As already mentioned, professional lenses offer more rugged construction with metal parts and tighter seals to protect against the elements. They’re also optically faster. At the wide end, the above-mentioned kit zooms operate at f/3.5. In other words, the focal length is 3.5x the aperture (opening) of the lens. Professional lenses typically offer focal ratios of f/2.8 or faster. In other words, the lens aperture is larger.
Why is this of value? Well, the larger the aperture with respect to the lens focal length, the shallower the depth of field. So, if you simply must have a lens allowing you to shoot portraits with super sexy bokeh (out of focus background) or freeze the action during an outdoor athletic event at night, you should invest in fast optics. But if you do most of your shooting during the day, if you enjoy crisp landscapes, or if you’re satisfied by modest soft focus in your portraiture, the kit lenses Canon and Nikon package with their entry level DSLR bodies are more than up to the task.
Back in 2004 when I made the move from a classic Nikon F3 35mm film camera to the highly regarded Nikon D70 DSLR, I purchased the AF-S DX 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G kit lens. In 2010 when my D70 body was damaged beyond repair during a backpacking trip in Grand Canyon, I upgraded to the 12MP Nikon D90. But I kept the 18-70mm kit lens. It’s been a good performer for me, as evidenced by the above images. I have added two lenses to my kit in the last couple of years. They are a Tokina 12-24mm f/4 Pro DX wide angle zoom and a Nikon AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR telephoto zoom. Both compliment the old, trusty 18-70mm and the thee-lens set delivers an 35mm equivalent zoom range from 18mm to 450mm.
Now, I’m not here to blow smoke up your tailpipe. I’ll admit it, I covet the so-called holy trinity of Nikkor glass: 14-24mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm. All are AF-S, f/2.8 zooms delivering images so sharp they cut glass. This covetous condition is a common malady affecting many photographers. However, not having these lenses has not stopped me from doing photography or from capturing the occasional great image. Would these lenses allow me to take photos for which my current stable of glass is not suited? Yes. Do kit lenses and affordable third-party lenses render one incapable of doing great photography? Absolutely not!
Get out and shoot.
Bill Ferris | August 2013