28 Jul

Why You MUST Buy a Better Lens

Posted by Jenna, Under Photography

I’ve had this post swimming around in my head for weeks now. Since I started writing my photography tip & tutorial posts I’ve started receiving emails and Facebook asking

“I want to buy a dSLR. Where do I go from here?”

or

“I have a dSLR but I want to get a different lens, what should I buy?”

My answer is always the same, that I think it’s best to buy down in body and up in lens. If this is going over your head already just remember that dSLR’s have two seperate parts, the camera part, called a body, and the lens, and those are interchangeable. In my opinion it’s best to buy the nicest lens you can afford and plan on upgrading the body as needed, rather than buying the nicest body and upgrading the lens as needed. Sometimes though, I think people ignore my advice (which is fine, do what you want with your money and your photos) and get caught up in the megapixels and the nicer LCD screen, causing them to ignore the glass.

I knew that the best way to drive this point home was to demonstrate what a better lens can do for your photos, and I’m lucky enough to own the three lenses, low, medium, and high quality which I knew would be necessary to use in order to show you what I mean. Keep in mind throughout this post that each person needs to buy the lens that fits their needs, and for some people a prime/fixed lens is not going to work. My intent is just to demonstrate that unless you absolutely have to have it for whatever reason you dream up, the kit lens that comes with your camera is absolute crap. :)

Lens 1, Zoom Lens or “Kit Lens”, Low Quality
Focal Length: 28-135mm
Aperture: 3.5-5.6
Price: $374.95

Lens 2, Prime Lens or Fixed Lens, Medium-High Quality
Focal Length: 50mm
Aperture: 1.4
Price: $399.95

Lens 3, Prime Lens or Fixed Lens, High Quality, L Series
Focal Length: 50 mm
Aperture: 1.2
Price: $1349.95

From left to right, Lens 1, Lens 2, and Lens 3.

lenscomparison-1001

At my last hair appointment I crouched on the floor in my friend Jill’s sunroom and took some pictures of her darling little son. I was blown away by the difference I saw between the kit lens and the prime lenses and I think you will be as well. Not all of the photos were taken with the same camera settings, partly because the difference in quality doesn’t allow me to do so, and also because this post isn’t about certain settings, it’s about overall quality.

Above each photo you will see the shooting specs I used at the time the photo was taken. All photos were taken on the Manual setting, giving me absolute control over all of my images. Each photo is SOOC, which means it is Straight Out of The Camera, with absolutely no editing whatsoever, taken with the same camera body, my Canon 50D. I wanted to make sure you knew that Photoshop didn’t give me these pictures, my lens did!

First up, the kit lens that came with my Canon 50D when I bought it from Costco. If I could go back in time I would tell That Wife, before she was known as Jenna Cole, that buying the body+kit lens from Costco was a waste of money, even if it cost $100 less than it did on B&H. I can count on my hand the number of times I’ve used this lens in the last 5 months, and now that I’ve written this post I’d like to get rid of it as soon as possible.

The kit lens has a variable aperture (not sure if that is the right term), so when I zoom in and out the aperture changes automatically (even when I have the camera on Manual) which I find incredibly annoying and it makes shooting so much more difficult. I admire those who are shooting around this limitation while using their kit lens.

Okay, enough educating, let’s get to show-and-tell!

Lens 1

28mm
ISO 320
1/200
f/3.5

lens1

35mm
ISO 320
1/200
f/3.5

editedlens1

28mm
ISO 320
1/200
f/3.5

lens1-2

Get ready, because the difference between Lens 1 and Lens 2, lenses with only a $20 difference in price, is going to BLOW YOUR MIND.

Lens 2

50 mm
ISO 200
1/200
f/2.5

lens2-1

50mm
ISO 100
1/250
f/1.8

lens2-2

50mm
ISO 100
1/250
f/1.8

lens2-3

Are you still there? Or did you just drop down shock? Because I almost did when I uploaded the photos and got the chance to really see what a good lens can do for the quality of photos. That being said, I was also surprised at how little difference there was between the photos taken with the 50mm 1.4 and the 50mm 1.2, even though their is a $950 difference in price. I’m still happy I own the 50mm 1.2, and I love it, but I’m happy to show so many of you that you don’t have to invest in a $1350 lens to take clear, crisp, colorful portraits.

Lens 3

50mm
ISO 320
1/200
f/2.5

lens3-1

I included this one because it makes me laugh. Babies can go from perfectly content to sobbing their eyes out and then back to perfectly content in 5 seconds flat.

50mm
ISO 100
1/320
f/1.2

lens3-2

50mm
ISO 100
1/320
f/1.2

lens3-3

50mm
ISO 100
1/320
f/1.2

lens3-4

50mm
ISO 100
1/320
f/1.2

lens3-5

Still not convinced? Thinking you just need to invest in Photoshop to “fix” your photos so you can keep using your kit lens? I brought my top three photos from each lens into Photoshop and did a few light edits for color and sharpness to help them pop a little bit more. I actually think I prefer the shot taken with the 50mm 1.2 ($400 lens) over the 50mm 1.2 shot ($1350 lens).

Lens 1

editedlens1

Lens 2

editedlens2

Lens 3

editedlens3

Is the $1350 lens an overpriced waste of money? I don’t think that this experiment necessarily proves that. I caught the shot below with my 50mm 1.2 set wide open on an aperture of 1.2, and I don’t think I could have grabbed this with my lower quality glass and smaller aperture 50mm 1.4. Maybe, but I’m not sure.

If you take away anything from this post I hope it will be “when investing in a dSLR, buy down in your body quality, and up in lens quality”.

35 Comments


  1. Oh, Jenna, I love this post! Unfortunately, it’s too late for me in terms of bodies (but c’mon, I bought the cheapest body possible so it didn’t really matter anyway, esp since you can’t buy it at the place with the gift cards without a kit lens!)… but perfect because I was just starting to think about buying a prime lens.

    Also, I love that you do show-and-tell on your photography posts. I know how much work that must be, and I just want you to know that it’s appreciated. You inspired me to get my entry-level DSLR and try to shoot better pics. Before you, I assumed I’d always suck. So, thanks.

    You’re awesome!

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  2. Hi Jenna, I’m on of the many who sent you an email recently asking for some advice on purchasing a dSLR. I went with a Canon Rebel XSi after much research and after reading through your other posts. I also took the advice you gave the other day on Weddingbee TV about purchasing the 50mm f/1.4 lens and I LOVE it! There is such a HUGE difference between that lens and kit lens. The pictures SOOC look so great! I’ve actually had people ask me to take pictures of their kids and offer to pay for my services (wish is very exciting considering I’ve only been playing around with it for less than a week!) I just purchased Lightroom 2 and CS4 with my student discount as well and am learning how to play around with the software.

    So, I just wanted to say thanks for all of the great posts. They are very, very helpful and inspire me to get out there and rediscover my love for photography.

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  3. For those who still can’t afford to shell out the $400 for the 50mm 1.4, the 50mm 1.8 at less than $100 is still a FAR better option than the kit lens. I’ve used both the 1.4 and 1.8, and while the 1.4 is better in lower light, the 1.8 still takes exceptional pictures considering the price. (Plus, I never had issues with the autofocus not working like I do with the 1.4!)

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  4. Thanks, Jenna! But now, my question is, how much of that better quality was because of the quality of the lens itself, and how much because your prime lenses can open to much wider apertures? Don’t get me wrong; I know a better lens is a good thing, but what would the quality difference have been if you could have shot the lens 2 and 3 pictures with the same aperture as you used on your zoom lens?

    (which btw is all I have at the moment…sigh.)

    Sarah Reply:

    I was thinking this exactly. What this comparison really shows is the importance of being able to shoot wide open. A large part of the “better quality” comes from being able to shoot at a wider aperture. That’s why your photos from the f/1.4 and f/1.2 look so similar, despite the huge difference in cost — because the aperture setting is very similar.

    Of course, to get a wider aperture, you usually have to buy a more expensive lens…those two features tend to go hand-in-hand. I mean, you can’t buy a cheap f/1.2 lens. They just don’t exist.

    Kathryn Speyer Reply:

    Exactly! The wide aperture is key both for a smooth bokeh (blurry background) AND because it means that you do NOT have to raise your ISO, which decreases your quality. You may not WANT to shoot with a wide aperture, but if you do, it is one feature of more expensive lenses.

    There are other benefits as well, though some may only be obvious in the long-term: Better casings, weather sealing, flare coatings, etc. These are some of the differences, for example, between the 1.4 and the 1.2. I know a lot of people who feel that the 1.2 is a GREAT lens, but really overkill for the price difference, especially considering how paper thin a 1.2 aperture is at a close distance. BUT! It’s a nice lens, to be sure!

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  5. Okay, I was telling myself that my next purchase would be a better flash for those pesky indoor/lowlight shots (a Speedlight 800 I think it’s called) – now maybe I do need another lens. Aahhh!

    I want to echo the question of the other gal – are the lens better because they are just better or because of the ability for a wider aperature? (look me at acting like I know what I’m talking about….;)

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  6. harmless lurker says:

    I understand and agree with the premise of the article: all things being equal, invest in lenses, because they control the image and practically speaking,they don’t depreciate as they aren’t replaced. Glass is glass. Having said that, you should know your camera body, too–being able to control for various lens/lighting situations is the whole point–the underexposed pics in the first set could have been EASILY compensated for in 1-2 seconds even w/AE metering in the camera (also b/c f-stop was larger which leads me to…)

    However, to compare these lenses are apples and oranges. Not only are you comparing shots at completely different focal length and apertures, but the build quality/design for a zoom vs a prime lens is totally different. Prime lenses are practically MADE for portraits–accentuating the focal plane/softening the periphery, etc.

    If the kit lens is the only zoom lens you have, then it’s a *MUST HAVE* in your bag. I’d NEVER advocate just having a prime and no small/medium telephoto. You want to replace the kit lens with a more expensive, faster tele, then go for it, but not for 90% of shooters out there who want some distance flexibility, since you get the kit lens for FAR LESS (hence the term, kit) than a comparable lens off-the-shelf separately, it REALLY makes no sense to go body-only and just a prime.

    The comment above about the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II is spot-on–there’s a lens for $100 that will outperform most lenses at twice that price point.

    Good post showing differences, though–the core advice and showing the differences in settings is probably the most helpful info one can have!

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  7. Ditto Julie! I have the 50mm 1.8 and love love love it (I shoot mostly food). I bought it when I had no idea what I was doing because it was so ridiculously cheap compared to anything else, and it turns out it was the best decision I’ve made since I started taking pics. Someday I’d like to upgrade to the 1.4, but this is fine for now.

    I totally agree with you on the lower priority of the body. I got an old refurbished Rebel XT body on eBay for next to nothing and I think the differences with the newer/faster/better/shinier ones are negligible.

    Great post, Jenna!

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  8. The comparison is definitely skewed a bit due to the fact that the images weren’t taken with the same aperture, but Jenna is right on with the message…and kit lenses are crap. :)

    For anyone who is NOT seeking a profession with their photography there are some less expensive lens investments that can be made that will still get great results. The 50mm 1.8 (aka the “nifty fifty” or “fantastic plastic”) is always my first recommendation, and then it would be to look at “off” brands like Tamron or Sigma. Most lenses that I’ve looked into have a Flickr group, which can be a great place to see sample images as well as get information on potential lens issues (same goes for camera bodies).

    My 2 cents is spent. :)

    Mary Reply:

    This. I second all of this.

    Hannah Reply:

    I have to agree with this. As someone who wants to get into pro photography, but who hasn’t got the capital (or any desire to use a line of credit) for L Series Canon lenses yet, the Tamron 17-50mm 2.8, the Tamron 28-75mm 2.8 and the Canon 50mm 1.8 have been a really brilliant starting point for me. I have no intention of doing a wedding without higher quality lenses, but I don’t plan to do even my first gratis wedding for about 6 months. If I haven’t got the capital for everything I need, I’ll rent. That being said, I agree that the kit lenses are crap. I decided to go for a 40D and get higher quality Tamron lenses instead of the kit lenses and the difference between the Canon kit lens and the Tamron 2.8 is phenomenal.

    I think that my main point is that you CAN start building your portfolio without L Series lenses, but do this with the intention of reinvesting all your first paid job profits into higher quality glass. That’s my plan, anyway.

    Kelli Nicole Reply:

    I’m going to have to disagree with everyone (but we can all agree to disagree, right?). I bought the 50mm 1.8 a few years ago when I was in school and it was AWFUL. Made of cheap flimsy plastic it was horrible at focusing and nothing was ever sharp. My other lenses were L-series so after a few weeks I sold it to someone for $30 (and I actually felt bad about charging them for it I hated it so much). That guy loved the lens, but wasn’t used to shooting with the lenses that I had. I now tell people to buy the 50 1.4 (including Jenna :)) if they’re beginning and want a great cheap lens.

    I do agree that you don’t need L-series glass to get started and I don’t think you should purchase lenses that expensive unless you have disposable income, a large unexpected inheritance, or are making enough money off of your pictures to justify it. I actually own the 85 1.8 and I love it. At the time I can’t justify spending $1800 on the 1.2. I use it a ton and get great pictures. I also use the 50 1.2 and LOVE that as well. The sharpness and clarity at 1.2 (when i zoom all the way in) is incredible.

    Hannah Reply:

    Agreeing to disagree is fine by me – I admire you enough to listen! For me my decision was entirely financial – earning $500AU a week and trying to save to move out of home in Sydney (one of the most expensive cities in the world) makes it difficult to build the capital for a photography kit. A year ago my parents would have helped me out but the recession has impacted their financial situation and that’s not a fair ask this year.

    I went with the 1.8 50mm because the 1.4 in Australia is nearly $600 which was not financially an option for me when I was buying my camera. I am honestly getting really lovely sharp images in daylight, but the 1.4 is something I plan to buy in January before I start charging for shoots because I know I will need it for low light. I am buying the 85mm 1.8, Tamron 28-70mm and the Canon 480EX first. I plan to upgrade my Tamrons to Canon Ls throughout next year and keep the Tammies as backups.

    I think the hardest thing about getting a ‘start’ in photography is the investment. Yes, you have to spend money to make money, but sometimes it is best to start with the absolute best that you can afford and just get shooting rather than wait eight months to buy what you can’t afford now to save. My plan was initially to do that, and I realised I would still be starting from scratch from the perspective of technical skill if I did that. Hence my decision to go with the lenses I did. Regardless, I agree with you that the 50mm 1.4 is ideal and it is definitely on my list – and trust me, I hate waiting!

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  9. I’m so glad you wrote this post. I have a Nikon D40 and at the moment I have a kit lens and a 50 mm 1.8, which was around $100. The quality of the 50 mm photos compared to the kit lens is outstanding.

    Recently I’ve been thinking about upgrading to a D90 body, but realized I would be better off upgrading my lenses, and am going to start renting them while I save up.;

    Katy Reply:

    this is the camera I have as well – I’ve only ever thought of upgrading to a lens that can zoom from further away (and I don’t know what mm this kit lens is, I can’t believe I’m that clueless) but at least I know that I should be looking into a 50 mm lens.

    Sheila Reply:

    It’s a manual, so there is a little bit of an adjustment, but otherwise, the photos come out looking SOOOOO good, you’d swear you had a more expensive camera.

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  10. I have the “nifty fifty” and love it–great for still life and indoor portraits.

    I definitely need a faster lens though–I don’t want to give up my telephoto, though. Maybe IS would help with blur?

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  11. Thanks for this post, I always love and appreciate your photography posts, especially the comparisons!

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  12. Thanks for all of your camera/photography-related posts. So informative and helpful!

    12
  13. I would also wager to say that my ~$90 50mm f1.8 lens performs better than the kit lens. $90! Plastic construction! I don’t care if I drop it! But that doesn’t change the fact that I also desperately need to upgrade my lenses. Le sigh.

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  14. THANK YOU for this post, Jenna! My Canon Rebel needs a good lens desperately…and I am going to invest in a photography class as well, so that I can *really* learn how to use it! I don’t think that price point for the middle lens is all that bad, either.

    Thanks! :)

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  15. p.s. that little munchkin has me squealing with glee – he is so cuuute!

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  16. Good post, Jenna! The main difference between your photos is obviously that the kit lens is limited in aperture, and I agree with other posters that I would like to see a comparison with IDENTICAL settings… perhaps zoomed in?

    Obviously the main benefit of the wide-aperture lenses is that you don’t have to bump up ISO, which loses you quality. And you also don’t have to worry about camera shake because you get faster shutter speed for hand-held portraiture.

    BUT! I DO want to mention two benefits of high-end camera bodies that are comparable to those you are mentioning about lenses. Primarily that:

    1) The higher-end sensors generally have better light management. That means that you CAN bump up your ISO without suffering from noise degradation.

    2) The more megapixels your camera has, the larger your photos can be printed. If you are going in business to say, sell things that can be blown up for wall prints, you don’t want a camera with a max MP resolution for 8×10 prints at 270 dpi. This is definitely becoming LESS of a problem!!

    The reasons I decided to upgrade my camera body from a 20D, which I received in 2005, to the 5dMkII were both those above, coupled with the following:

    1) A larger viewfinder that allowed me to better see and frame my images, and determine focal point
    2) A larger LCD to view images to check histograms, white balance, focus, etc
    3) Live view! Again for focus, still learning how to use
    4) Full frame images. The lower to mid-range Canon and Nikon cameras have what’s called a crop factor. That means if you put a 50mm lens on the body, and look through it, you are actually NOT seeing what a 50mm lens looks like on a full-frame camera. You are seeing “closer in,” more like an 85mm crop factor. I found this really frustrating with my 70-200 f2.8L zoom lens.

    (I know you know this stuff, Jenna, just wanted to share with your readers!)

    The reasons I DIDN’T choose something from the 1D line over a 5d:

    1) COST. Yeah, it definitely matters. Them things spendy.
    2) Size. I have small hands and they are HUGE and heavy. After a day of shooting, my hand hurts from the 5d.
    3) I didn’t need the weather sealing. I mean, it would be nice… but even the 20d will stand up to pretty much whatever paces you put it through. True weather sealing is for HARD CORE conditions.
    4) Older digic processer than the 5dmkII… and less ISO flexibility (not that you really NEED the “novelty” high-ISO range)

    Things I WOULD like about a 1Ds that my 5d does NOT have:
    1) Lots. More. Focal. Points. All. Over. The. Viewfinder. The 5d doesn’t have many, and people complain that it is slow to focus whereas the 1Ds is superb.
    2) Dual memory card slot. Them things eat memory like CRAZY. Guhhh.
    3) Longer shutter life, cos, well, who wouldn’t.

    Anyhow, I wrote a novel, but once I got started I couldn’t stop! :D Hope someone finds this useful!

    Allison Reply:

    yeah I found that useful!
    thanks, kat!

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  17. Huge difference for not a whole lot of money. Crazy! Thanks for the info!

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  18. stephanie says:

    hey jenna, “first time commenter, long time reader” (haha). i too agree with your bottom line but am not sure this is the best demo. it’s not really fair to compare a wide-angle zoom lens with a prime when the latter almost always blows the other out of the water in portraits, regardless of quality.

    i’m a very poor, very amateur photographer who actually bought a body only on ebay, and my brother gave me his old 50mm 1.8 (LOVE it, by the way…totally worth 90 bucks). after much debate, i ended up buying the “kit lens” you used above for $150 on amazon just a few months later, and i’ve found it’s given me a lot of necessary versatility. since i only use it as a “second lens” and keep the 50mm on most of the time, i find the cost-benefit matches up.

    that said, if i had even another couple hundred dollars to spare and could justify the purchase by being a more serious photog, i would have gone with the sigma 18-50mm f/2.8 one (what my brother has). to anyone wondering: it’s a gorgeous lens. if you’re looking to buy up from the kit, go for it.

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  19. Jenna,
    Great post and pictures!! One CUTE subject! I get those questions all the time from my friends. I’ll link over to your post. Love that f/1.2 lens! Just picked up a nice 50mm f/1.4 lens myself for pics with the kids (I normally Yosemite and bay area landscapes). Keep tweeting and blogging.
    John

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  20. Jenna, Would you mind posting or emailing me a link to the “attachment” you mentioned during the beeTV appearance last week that could be used in place of a Macro lense. I believe you were speaking specifically to Mrs. Gummi Bear. It’s something I’m interested in as well for some work needs (not a photographer by any stretch of the imagination, but need a way to make quick detailed photos of small products, like screws & bolts for our ecommerce site).

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  21. thanks jenna, now I need to go and buy a new lens ;)
    I know you’re right, though. I bought my canon 50d late last year thinking that’s all I needed to “step up” my photography. Then wedding planning got in the way. You know how it goes.
    Anyways, I’ve been meaning to get a better lens for a while. I’m curious – do you ever use your kit lens anymore?

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  22. Very nice blog, I love the layout and I certainly do like this entry!

    Now with sensors and image quality going up, you need to have better glass to keep up with the cameras.

    Ideally one should buy the gear that suites their shooting habits and needs. The 5D2 suites my needs very well for weddings, travel, and portraits, but if I wanted to seriously get into sports, I would get the 1D (or rather the Nikon D3), hands down. That also goes with glass.

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  23. Thanks for this post. I’ve had a digital point and shoot and have been plotting away at how to break into the DSLR world. My old Pentax had me at hello, and made me a loyal fan of the brand. I’ve got two Tamron lenses for it. The joy of the Pentaxes is that they are reverse compatible with all old lenses, so it looks like I can buy a body and use my old lenses! I think I’m taking the plunge soon … this helped me realize it’s better to just purchase the digital body and pass on the kit lenses that seem to be tempting at only $200 more on BH.

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  24. Great post, I wih I had read this before I bought my camera!! I have a medium quality lens in addition to the kit one and it’s much better. But I look at it this way…. The kit lens is 1000X better than my point and shoot so it wasn’t a waste of money (I put it on my camera duri family functions and parties so I can pop it in auto mode and have someone else take a group shot without messing it up too much!) I asked the formspring photo post question I’m just going through and looking stuff up over the photography tag.

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  25. Hey Jenna,

    I came back to read this post again for comparing prime lenses and it looks like all the photos are missing! Just thought you should know, I remember reading this post and thinking it was a great resource. :)

    Jenna Reply:

    Thanks Alisha! I deleted a Flickr account and am now dealing with lots of broken links. I thought I’d have time to fix it this summer, but that hasn’t been the case…

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