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Are 18-55mm kit lenses truly terrible?

A US university photography tutor has caused an online stir for banning students from using ’18-55mm kit lenses’, as they are ‘sub-par’.

The Course Guide ‘blocks’ the use of 18-55mm lenses as they are ‘NOT good quality’. Source: Petapixel.

A North Carolina photography student published an excerpt of the second year course guide to Reddit, which states that kit lenses are ‘blocked’ because they put ‘your work at a serious disadvantage quality wise’.

– The 18-55mm kit lenses that come with entry level, crop sensor DSLR’s are NOT good quality.
– You are required to have the insurance for this class and since most assignments require a trip to the cage for lighting gear, I am also blocking the use of these lenses. You are talented enough by this point to not compromise your image quality by using these sub-par lenses. Student work from this class has been licensed commercially as stock photography, but if you shoot with an 18-55mm lens,you are putting your work at a serious disadvantage quality wise. You are not required to BUY a different lens, but you are required to use something other than this lens. You should do everything within your power to never use these lenses again.

While the capitalisation of words like ‘NOT’ and ‘BUY’ is used to place emphasis, it seems like unnecessarily poor grammar for an official university document. Bad grammar aside, it’s possible the course syllabus shared to Reddit was a rushed piece of communication and the teacher could have made a better argument against using ‘sub-par lenses’. The allure of licensing work for spare change as stock photography ain’t exactly a huge incentive.

Banning entry-level gear struck a nerve with many photographers who feel the requirement is pompous gear elitism. A talented photographer can achieve a cracking good frame regardless of the gear, and an inept photographer cannot make great photos simply because they have premium gear.

Or, in the words of one of the most upvoted Reddit comments:

‘I think the instructor is just a shit photographer. If you’re “talented enough by this point” (and what sort of asinine statement is that?) to use prime lenses or other non-stock lens, then you’re damn well “talented enough” to get quality photos using stock lenses. Fancy equipment doesn’t make your photos better. Skill and experience do. If the instructor is too shit at their job to actually teach someone to take better photos no matter their equipment, they shouldn’t be teaching.’

Others pointed out that not everyone has easy access to a wide range of lenses, particularly cash-strapped students. While the teacher states students can simply borrow gear from the university’s photography equipment cage, the student responded that there is a limited supply of loan gear available. To make matters worst the cage is only open for a few hours during the week, and apparently the university has increased photography student numbers without topping up the loan gear availability.

‘I already own a nice camera and decent glass,’ the student said. ‘However, I’m an adult student and I don’t go anywhere near the student equipment locker if I can avoid it.’

Inside Imaging contacted optics expert and founder of Lensrentals, Roger Cicala, for his take on whether the kit lenses are really nasty.

‘Are kit lenses great? No. Are they horrid? Again, no. Can they make great pictures? Of course they can,’ he said.

Ben Andrews, the imaging labs manager at Digital Camera World, came to a similar conclusion when testing a Nikon kit lens:

‘While there is something to be said for a perfectly focussed, tack-sharp image with stunning dynamic range; there are usually far more important factors to the visual appeal of a photograph than optical sharpness or the prevalence of chromatic aberration. Composition, lighting, emotion, originality – all are likely to be far more impactful aspects of an image, and all can be captured with even the most basic kit lens.’

Andrews even argues that because most photographer start with an entry-level kit lens, the camera manufacturers keep them updated and ‘as tempting as possible’ to entice new buyers into the system.

Cicala points out there is a valuable problem-solving exercise in forcing students to use lenses ‘out of their comfort range’, such as switching from an 85mm f1.8 to a fisheye.

‘My point is to give them limitations on equipment and force them to rethink the shots they take, figuring out how to make it work. Isn’t an 18-55 on a crop sensor camera the same thing? You don’t get wide-aperture, your edges aren’t sharp, etc. Learn your equipment’s limitations and make good images anyway, that’s what becoming a good photographer is about.’

But he adds it’s the university’s role to ensure enough lenses are available to students.

‘Most legit photography schools in the US have at least a loaner program. Places like Lensrentals have big student discounts available to any school that asks for them; it’s important that a film student, for example, has handled an Arri as well as a Black Magic. And we aren’t saints, those students will eventually become customers, we know this. Every rental shop feels the same way.’

2 Comments

  1. Chris Oaten Chris Oaten July 20, 2021

    I’d encourage beginner togs to use the gear they can afford. If this means a kit lens, so be it. Several benefits will potentially result from using a kit lens. Firstly, the user will not have over-committed their financial resources on a pursuit they might well abandon down the track. Secondly, if they stick with it, they’ll gain a better understanding of how lenses are not created equal. I think it’s a great joy to step up to a quality lens after using an ordinary one to discover that the better quality lens may refine your work but not define your work.

    Imagine if the first wine you ever tasted was one of the great Châteauneuf-du-Pape vintages? How would you even know it was great?

  2. Peter Barnes Peter Barnes July 20, 2021

    About 9 years ago i bought a Fujifilm ‘crop sensor’ kit that included their 18-55mm zoom. If you looked at the body-only price the lens was being practically given away. I expected compromises, especially at the extremes of the zoom range, so bought the newly released XF 18mm prime as well. I was pleased to find that the zoom performed really well at all focal lengths and apertures. And surprised to find, in a side by side comparison, that it significantly outperformed the 18mm prime at that focal length.

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