Sunday, March 28, 2010

Lens Purchasing Guide Part 1: Kit Lenses

    A few weeks ago I did a series of guides to help photographers who were looking at different kinds of cameras, from point and shoots to pro DSLR cameras. Today I'm going to start a series on lenses. Like the camera purchasing guide, I will not be recommending one brand or another, simply using examples and giving suggestions. The first part of the guide will focus on kit lenses for crop sensor cameras (DX, EF-S etc), the second on mid-range to higher end crop sensor lenses. The third and fourth part of the guide focus on lenses for 35mm (Full Frame/FX) lenses. I will also give recommendations later on, based on budget for different kinds of photography.

Len Purchasing Guide Part 1: Kit Lenses for Crop Sensor DSLRs

    Most entry level to mid range DSLR cameras come with a kit lens, unless you opt for a body only kit, but often there is more than one choice of lenses. How do you choose the kit lens that is right for you? Do you even want one of the kit lenses? These are the kind of questions that I aim to answer in this first part of the Lens Purchasing Guide.

    I have posted images of two of the most common kit lenses that come with Nikon and Canon entry level cameras, for the purpose of giving you an idea of what they are like. Pentax and Sony offer similar 18-55mm kit lenses, while Olympus and other 4/3 and M4/3 cameras often come with 14-42mm kit lenses. Each of the basic kit lenses from these manufactures offer what would be considered a standard zoom lens, giving coverage from 28-82mm approximately (actual range varies based on crop factor). What that means in general terms is that you have the ability to photograph everything from landscapes to subjects that are not too far away.

    For a photographer looking to step up from a point and shoot camera, these lenses are a nice, affordable way to step into SLR lenses. If you were to pick up a basic entry level camera, such as the Nikon D3000/D5000, Canon XS/Xsi, Pentax K-X, or Olympus E-450 the standard 18-55mm/14-42mm kit lens are great because they offer good value, better performance than a point and shoot that have lenses in the same focal range, have image stabilization (some brands of image stabilization/VR in camera not the lens) and they are light weight. So if you are looking for a small, light weight package with a standard zoom, the entry level kit lenses are a great choice.

    What if you want more than that though? Most of the larger manufactures do give you more options in terms of kit lenses. Canon and Nikon for example offer lenses such as the Nikon 18-105mm VR, and Canon 18-135mm IS, which give you a larger focal range to work with. These lenses give the equivalent coverage of 28mm on both, to over 150mm with the Nikkor and 216mm with the Canon model.

    There are disadvantages to using these lenses of course, namely that they are larger and heavier. If you are looking for a small, light weight package, these lenses may not be the best option for you. These lenses are also a lot more expensive than the entry level kit lenses, although they do offer more focal length, slightly better IS/VR and slightly better image quality. The Canon lens also offers a metal lens mount, which means it has a higher build quality, but if you aren't bumping your camera around too much that is not a big deal. The lenses that I just talked about are often kitted with the Nikon D5000/D90 and the Canon T2i and 7D respectively.
    So what if you like the idea of having the smaller, lighter weight 18-55mm/14-42mm kit lenses, but still want more reach? Thankfully you do have a choice if you want more reach, Nikon and Pentax produce a 55-200mm, Olympus a 40-150mm and Canon makes a 55-250mm. These lenses are of equal build quality, and light weight of the entry level kit lenses. These lenses give you a lot of reach in a smallish package, and also provide decent image quality and IS/VR for the price. Each of them give you are great deal of reach, with the Nikon, Pentax and Olympus models giving the equivalent of 300mm. Canon's offering does give you another 100mm of equivalent reach, come in at 400mm.

So how do I choose what lens(es) are right for me?

    That is not an easy question to answer. In the camera purchasing guide, DSLR section, I recommended that buyers pick lenses before a body, and this is why. Look at the lenses that are available in the price range that you can afford, which ones give you the focal lengths that you use the most. If you look back at your photos, look to see what focal lengths you shoot at the most, many photo editors will show this this information, although some will not. Most entry level point and shoot cameras in the last few years give you a focal range from 35-105mm, so that might not tell you the whole story, because you may have run into situations where you wanted to be closer or step back due to the lack of reach or not being wide enough.

    If you want a light weight, low cost standard zoom lens, then the entry level kit lenses from all the major manufactures should be good enough for many users. If you want a little more, then you can buy the higher end kit lenses, such as the Nikon 18-105mm VR or Canon 18-135mm IS. If you need more reach, then again, each of the manufactures offers lenses with focal ranges that give you the equivalent of 300mm-400 reach, without putting too big a whole in your pocket book. If you don't know what you want, then I would suggest starting out with the 18-55mm/14-42mm kit lens and if you later find that you need something else, that is okay.

Do I even want one of the kit lenses?

    There may be some of you that know that kit lenses are not going to be enough for you, or you want lenses that are better made, in which case, either you don't need to read this part of guide, or the later sections will be more helpful to you. Part two of the guide will be covering higher end crop sensor lenses, which may be a better fit for you. One word of caution, you may have read reviews about these lenses and felt a little let down by what the reviewers have said about the kit lenses. If you are just starting out and don't have the money for something better, that's okay. Buy what you can afford, because most of the issues that reviewers will point out are important only to people who view their images at full resolution on their 24"+ LCDs, but never get 4x6 or 8x10 prints. At prints that size, most of the issues will not even be noticeable.

    If you are looking to use a SLR system long term, the lenses will stick with you, most likely a lot longer than the camera body that you purchase! I have lenses, that I still use today for my Nikon F mount bodies that are 20+ years old! The used lens market is another option for users who are starting out, but I would advise caution, if you go that route. Know what you want, and what to look for if you buy used lenses.