- Distance from lens to subject
- Distance from subject to background
- Focal length
When you step up from your smartphone or a point-and-shoot camera to something that has interchangeable lenses like a DSLR or mirrorless camera, it can be a bit daunting.
There's a lot to learn about these cameras, not the least of which is all the added controls you have at your fingertips to get improved photos.
But an area that can be equally as challenging is understanding how to get the most bang for your buck in the lens department.
Camera lenses come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and prices, and the price is usually indicative of the quality of the lens.
Because of that, it's often recommended that new photographers spend their money on upgrading their lens because that will have a much more significant impact on the quality of the photos produced than getting a new camera body.
However, the lens that comes with many mirrorless or DSLR camera bundles - called a kit lens - isn't all bad.
It's not going to be of the highest build quality, nor will it be as sharp as an upgraded lens. They often have poor low light performance because their maximum aperture is usually in the range of f/3.5-f/5.6, but that doesn't mean you can't wrestle a lot of functionality out of it!
So, before you drop hundreds (or thousands) dollars on an upgraded lens, consider the following tips that will help you maximize the power of your kit lens.
Tip #1: Use Your Kit Lens's Variable Focal Length to Your Advantage
Most kit lenses are zooms that range from 18-55mm.
That means you can compose all sorts of different shots with just a single lens.
On the wide end at 18mm, you can frame up shots of landscapes that incorporate a good portion of the scene before you.
On the narrow end at 55mm, you can create more intimate shots, like close up portraits.
In between those ranges, you can tackle just about any kind of photography you want - abstracts, nature, newborn, street photography - you name it!
Having that versatility in focal length is a great advantage for a beginner, simply because that allows you to try out all sorts of different photography without investing in a new lens.
And since your kit lens came bundled with your camera, it's tough to beat that kind of value!
Tip #2: Blur the Background for Portraits
Portraits like the one shown above benefit from a blurry background. That blurry background is a result of a shallow depth of field.
If you aren't familiar with depth of field, check out this in-depth guide to learn more.
As a quick refresher, depth of field depends on a variety of factors:
Each of these factors can be manipulated just as easily with a kit lens as any other lens.
Remember, since your kit lens is a zoom, all you have to do is set it at its maximum focal length of 55mm.
Then, place your portrait subject about 10 feet or so from the background and position yourself a few feet in front of the subject.
Since most kit lenses have a set aperture of f/5.6 at 55mm, you can't do anything to manipulate the aperture, though you should shoot in Aperture Priority Mode (indicated as A or AV on your camera dial) to lock in that f/5.6 aperture. The nice thing about Aperture Priority Mode is that you get to select the aperture value and the camera will select a shutter speed to match it for a well-exposed image.
Between the 55mm focal length and the right distances between your lens, the subject, and the background, you should be able to get some blur in the background.
The results you get won't be as good as they would be with a better lens with a larger maximum aperture, that's for sure. But your kit lens will still produce perfectly fine results.
Tip #3: Get Sharp Landscapes
As noted above, at the wide end, your kit lens is likely around 18mm. That's a great focal length for landscapes.
When photographing landscapes like the one above, it's not just a wide field of view that makes the shot - it's also the sharpness of detail that helps make it a successful image.
When working with your kit lens (or any lens, for that matter), there are a couple of things you can do to ensure maximum image sharpness.
First, though it's tempting to photograph landscapes by holding your camera in your hand, you give your camera and lens a much more stable base by shooting with a tripod and a remote trigger for your shutter.
Even if you're using a fast shutter speed, the movements of your hands - even the action of pressing the shutter button - can move the camera enough to cause blurriness in the shot, otherwise known as camera shake.
By mounting your camera on a tripod and using a remote to fire the shutter, you remove yourself from the equation, leaving the camera to do its work with the stability of a tripod underneath it.
Yes, shooting with a tripod takes a little longer, but forcing yourself to take your time when composing a shot isn't a bad thing!
Another trick you can use to get sharper landscape photos with your kit lens is to shoot in live view.
Live view enables you to check out the scene using your camera's LCD as a giant viewfinder.
But live view also helps you get sharper images because you can zoom in on the scene to check your focus, as seen in the video below by Practical Photography:
All you have to do is switch your kit lens to manual focus, zoom in on the LCD screen at a point about one-third up from the bottom of the frame, and inspect the sharpness. Rotate the lens's focus ring to achieve maximum sharpness at that point, and voila - you'll have a nice, sharp landscape photo from foreground to background.
A final rule of thumb to get the sharpest images with your landscape shots is to avoid shooting at the lens's maximum aperture.
At the wide end of its focal range, your kit lens probably has a maximum aperture of f/3.5. However, the lens isn't its sharpest at that aperture.
Instead, the sharpest aperture is probably somewhere around f/8 or f/11 - the lens's sweet spot. By setting your camera to Aperture Priority Mode, you can select one of those apertures to ensure your landscape shots are as sharp as possible.
Tip #4: Light It Up
It's no secret that kit lenses aren't especially adept at low-light photography, but they do a pretty great job in well-lit conditions.
Given that that's the case, your kit lens can be a great learning tool for working with lighting.
Use your kit lens to shoot during the daytime, like portraits under the shade of a tree, which helps diffuse the light to prevent harsh shadowing on your subject's face but with plenty of light for the lens to collect.
Try your hand at using reflectors for portraiture by heading outdoors on an overcast day or near Golden Hour to bounce more light onto your subject. Again, this will help your kit lens perform better due to the addition of lighting in the scene.
Better still, head indoors and take portraits by positioning your subject near a window, or give artificial lighting a try by adding lighting to the scene to give your kit lens a chance to prove its worth.
You might just find that adding an off-camera flashgun or even a lamp or two gives your kit lens all the light it needs to produce a pretty good result.
In the end, your kit lens has some limitations, but if you work within those limitations, you can generate some high-quality photos.
But the greatest value of your kit lens is as a learning tool. With that in mind, put your kit lens to work to learn how to use different focal lengths, different apertures, and tackle different genres of photography.
It's a worthwhile endeavor and one that will pay dividends over and over again!