Kit Lenses Aren’t All That Bad

I recently came across a piece by Marco Arment, developer of the popular Instapaper app titled “SLRs aren’t worth it if you’ll only use the kit lens“. In the blog post, Marco wrote:

I’d go further and suggest that you shouldn’t buy an SLR if you only ever plan to use its kit lens or an inexpensive zoom lens. Kit lenses and low-end zooms produce blurry, distorted, drab images — they can look decent on blogs or phones, but the flaws become apparent when you see them on big Retina screens or printed at larger sizes.

While I fully agree with Marco that one should definitely not buy a DSLR if you have no intention of using anything other than the bundled kit lens, I have to disagree with the blanket statement that kit lenses “produce blurry, distorted, drab images”. Not all kit lenses are as bad as he described. Not to start another Nikon vs. Canon war, but from what I’ve heard from their respective users, Canon’s kit lenses are indeed unspectacular. Whether they really produce blurry and distorted images I can’t really comment as I’ve not used them myself.

YS: Blurry? Distorted? Drab? When is he from? 1963? I present to you, the Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 STM IS lens. Modern computer-aided designed lenses are much better than many think; the Canon is just one example. I also have no issues with people buying the a DSLR with one lens – until there are alternatives that produce the same blend of autofocus performance, image quality, and price, I foresee many buying cameras like the Canon EOS 100D and sticking  with that one kit lens.

CK: For many years, I’ve used the Nikkor AF-S 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G kit lens which was bundled with the Nikon D70 on my D100, D200 and my D7000, spanning over a period of almost 10 years. It’s only recently that I replaced it with the Nikkor AF-S 17-55mm f/2.8G as I wanted a faster aperture for low light shooting.

Granted, the 17-55mm f/2.8 is many times better than the 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5D, bear in mind that it also costs almost 5x as much. For what it’s worth, the 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5D delivers pretty decent sharpness at the middle apertures (e.g. f/8-11), definitely not blurry and distorted by any means.

The kit lens which came with the D7000, the 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 is apparently pretty good too, though I have not tried it myself. On the Canon side of things, the “kit lens” of the very popular EOS 5D Mark II/Mark III is the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS. I don’t think this L lens can be described as blurry and distorted.

Not many people who are starting out can afford high-end zoom lenses, so the bundled kit lens allows them to get started with using the DSLR rather than a high-end compact. Marco addresses this by suggesting buying a couple of primes instead – a very sensible suggestion and one to highly consider. I can’t comment on whether the 40mm pancake is any good, but personally I think it might be of limited use on a cropped body like the EOS 7D. This gives a field of view equivalent to 64mm on a full-frame body, which is a bit tight for things like group shots. Most first-time buyers of DSLRs would probably want some flexibility in the focal lengths to cover as many situations as possible, so it’d still be good to keep the kit lens around for that, and add a prime or two if you want that extra quality.

Finally, Marco also suggests the mirrorless cameras if all these expensive lenses and bodies scares you. Again, another sensible suggestion. But I wonder if he thinks the kit lenses with these cameras also sucks.

YS: So let me get this straight. Buying a DSLR and using just the kit lens is stupid, but it’s fine with a mirrorless system? I suspect someone’s elitist attitude is at play here…

David: I’ll have to chime in and disagree with Marco as well (in a rare moment of agreement between YS and CK on equipment choices). Frankly speaking, the equipment doesn’t matter (there, I’ve laid down grounds for the next online debate) – great work has been produced, and will doubtlessly continue to be produced from kit lenses bundled with entry level DSLRs / Mirrorless cameras. One only has to scour picture sharing sites like Flickr and 500px to find many a great examples of work done with very humble equipment.

The advice that kit lenses produces flawed images is in and itself flawed – I would submit to say ALL images produced are flawed compared to those coming out of the Leica APO-Summicron 50mm f2 ASPH – one stunning example of perfection. (Another statement which no doubt will ruffle many feathers). If we take the perspective then, that technical perfection is of no consequence to an image, then all lenses are good, provided they meet YOUR particular focal length / aperture needs and they draw in a way you like and prefer.

In fact, I think it would be hard to find a really bad lens in these days of modern computer aided design and manufacturing.