Beyond The Kit Lens

Buying a digital SLR as part of a kit that includes a lens is a popular option, especially for those moving up from a compact camera or switching brands. Usually for just a small increase in price, you get the camera body with a zoom lens—enough to get you started. It probably won’t be long before you start looking at other lenses, though, either as a replacement for the kit lens or as additions to your arsenal.

Why A Kit Lens Is Just A Starter

In general, lenses included as part of a kit have lower-end construction and optics. The cost savings need to come from somewhere, and that usually means plastic mounts and less expensive coatings on the optics. You’ll also find that many kit lenses don’t have the more durable construction typical of a similar higher-end lens. But it’s an excellent way for you to get up to speed with your camera, and for casual use, it may be the only lens you need at first.

What You Can Expect From A Kit Lens

Let’s look at the popular Canon and Nikon kit lenses. Canon includes an EF-S 18-55mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 IS (Image Stabilizer) with its EOS Rebel series of cameras. By itself, this lens sells for about $160. Purchased as part of a kit with the body, the price drops to less than $100. On the Nikon side, the AF-S DX 18-55mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 VR (Vibration Reduction) zoom sells for about $185 on its own, but only adds $120 to the price of a D5000.

Both lenses cover the same range, with a 35mm-equivalent focal range of about 27-82mm, and feature the same variable aperture settings of ƒ/3.5 at the wide end and ƒ/5.6 at 55mm. Both lenses include the manufacturers’ versions of image stabilization, and both are optimized for the smaller sensor sizes of the typical digital SLR.

Balancing Cost And Performance

The whole reason behind the kit approach is to get you into a camera that you can use immediately and at a set price. The lenses included with many kits are entry level in an effort to keep the costs to a minimum. They’ll usually cover the “normal” range of shooting, from moderate wide to moderate tele, in part because these lenses are easier and less expensive to manufacture and in part to encourage you to buy additional lenses when you want to go wider or longer.

While pro-quality lenses are often made from metal components, the average kit lens will have a plastic body, making them a little less durable, but much lighter in weight. Top-of-the-line lenses, like the L series from Canon, also include expensive coatings and glass elements, along with more robust focusing systems.

Finally, you’ll notice that high-end lenses tend to be larger than the typical kit lens. This is because they’re faster—often with a constant maximum aperture of ƒ/2.8 or even faster, rather than the variable ƒ/3.5-5.6—which requires larger optical elements. This lets you shoot in lower light and gives you more control over the depth of field in your images, but it comes at a price of size, weight and cost. As an example, the Nikon 18-55mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 kit lens with a $185 price jumps to $1,250 when you go to the faster 17-55mm ƒ/2.8 lens.

Differences Between Manufacturer Kits And Retailer Kits

As you’re shopping, you might come across different kit options, including some with multiple lenses. It’s common for retailers to put together their own kits, often using third-party lenses rather than those offered by the camera maker. For example, you might find a Canon or Nikon body combined with two Phoenix or similar lenses at about the same price that you’d pay for the manufacturer’s kit with a single lens. While it’s not necessarily a bad thing, you have to remember that in many cases, especially with optics, you get what you pay for. Lesser optical quality compromises your SLR investment, so if you’re looking at one of these alternatives, be sure to do your research on the quality of lenses included with your kit.

Expanding Your System

As the typical kit lens is a zoom that covers a moderate wide to moderate telephoto focal range, consider these lens options to expand your focal range wider or longer.

Canon. For some of us, you can’t get too wide. The Canon EF-S 10-22mm ƒ/3.5-4.5 USM is a good option for ultrawide angle (equivalent to 16-35mm on APS-C-sensor cameras). At about $700, it isn’t cheap, but the image quality is excellent, and the wide-angle views will give you a new perspective on scenic and travel photography. For more telephoto range, you might consider the EF-S 55-250mm ƒ/4-5.6 IS. With image stabilization and a zoom range nearly four times that of the standard kit lens, this $300 lens is a great option.

Nikon. Nikon also offers the AF-S DX 18-105mm ƒ/3.5-5.6G ED VR. The construction is the same as the 18-55mm, but the zoom range is nearly twice that of the standard kit lens. With the same aperture settings and built-in Vibration Reduction, you’ll extend the reach of your images for about $160 more than the 18-55mm. For greater wide-angle options, consider the AF-S DX 10-24mm ƒ/3.5-4.5G ED, which will give you a 35mm-equivalent range of about 15-36mm for under $850.

Olympus. If you’re looking for more reach with your Olympus camera, the Zuiko Digital ED 18-180mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 is a good choice. The price is about $250 more than the standard 14-42mm kit lens, but for that extra money you’re getting a 10x zoom with excellent optics. On the Olympus, this is equivalent to a 36-360mm lens.

Panasonic. A telephoto option for the Panasonic system is the 45-200mm ƒ/4-5.6 Vario MEGA O.I.S. This lens works with the newer Micro Four Thirds system bodies (the G1 and GH1) from Panasonic (and other Micro Four Thirds bodies) with a street price of about $300. The lens includes Panasonic’s image-stabilization system.

Pentax. Pentax offers the smc DA 50-200mm ƒ/4-5.6 ED zoom (about $250) to extend your range to the 35mm-equivalent of 300mm. The lens utilizes an ED (Extra-low Dispersion) glass lens element for improved image quality, as well as a Quick-Shift Focus System to go from autofocus to manual instantly.

Samsung. Samsung offers a selection of eight lenses for its digital SLR line. Of particular interest to someone expanding beyond the kit lens is the D-Xenon 50-200mm ƒ/4-5.6 ED zoom. Giving you the equivalent of a 75-300mm range, this $330 lens is very compact and lightweight. You also can use any lens compatible with the Pentax digital SLR line, as Samsung bodies are built with Pentax mounts.

Sigma. Sigma offers a wide range of lenses for many camera systems. If you’re considering adding a second lens to your kit, the 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 APO DG Macro at $160 is a good value, especially if you’re interested in doing close-up work with the macro setting that allows you to get up to 1:2 magnification at 300mm. The lens also uses Sigma’s SLD lens coatings to reduce chromatic aberration in your images.

Sony. The SAL 75-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 zoom is a great option for extending your reach with the Sony Alpha cameras. At about $250, the lens is compact and lightweight, giving you the equivalent range of 112-450mm on a full-frame camera. You can focus as close as five feet for close-up telephoto shooting, too.

Tamron. If the high price of the manufacturer’s wide-angle zooms is holding you back, consider the SP AF10-24mm F/3.5-4.5 Di II LD Aspherical (IF). At less than $500, this lens gives you improved performance over the previous model, thanks in part to an optimized optical design for digital cameras. For macro photography, check out the SP AF60mm F/2 Di II 1:1 Macro. With the ability to reproduce full size (1:1), this lens is extremely sharp and compact. With a street price of $569, it’s an excellent option for getting into this type of photography.

Tokina. Along with Sigma and Tamron, Tokina is well known for producing a wide range of lenses for different camera manufacturers. If you’re looking for extreme telephoto range, check out the AT-X 80-400mm AF D ƒ/4.5-5.6. At $550, this lens will give you a 5x zoom range with the equivalent of 120-600mm when used with the APS-C-sized sensors found on most digital SLRs.

Lensbaby Composer

Selective-focus lenses let you get creative with how you frame your subject. Lensbaby lens systems are an interesting and affordable alternative to conventional tilt/shift lenses. Our favorite Lensbaby is the Composer—its simple, intuitive design makes selective-focus photography easy. You simply tilt the lens to your desired angle and focus manually. The best part of this system is the ability to choose from several unique optics and swap them to achieve different effects. There are currently four options, including a plastic lens for a “Holga” look and a Pinhole/Zone Plate optic. Other accessories include telephoto and wide-angle adapters, a new 0.42x lens for ultrawide shots, a macro kit and a Creative Apertures Kit, which lets you transform out-of-focus specular highlights into shapes like a star or heart—or create your own. List Price: $270 (Composer with Double Glass optic installed; additional Optical Swap System lenses and accessories available separately).

Contact: Lensbaby, (877) 536-7222,

Inexpensive Ultra-Tele

Mirror lenses are an affordable alternative for extreme telephoto. The Pro-Optic 500mm ƒ/6.3 mirror lens sells for about $159 and can be used with a wide variety of SLRs via a supplied T-mount. While it can’t compete in sharpness with a $7,000 500mm ƒ/4 prime lens, the manual-focus Pro-Optic lens is compact (4.6 inches long and 24.9 ounces) and focuses down to 6.1 feet—at a price that’s easy on the budget. Contact: Adorama, (800) 223-2500,


Canon (800) OK-CANON
Nikon (800) NIKON-US
Olympus (888) 553-4448
Panasonic (800) 211-PANA
Pentax (800) 877-0155
Samsung (800) SAMSUNG
Sigma (800) 896-6858
Sony (877) 865-SONY
Tamron (631) 858-8400
Tokina (THK Photo Products) (800) 421-1141

Leave a Comment