Monday, August 4, 2014

Rediscovering Your Kit Lens

This bench scene makes for a perfect kit lens subject.
Ah, the kit lens. It’s probably the most underrated lens in your gear bag. Most photographers get this lens as part of a kit along with the camera body. The quality of a kit lens can vary greatly from standard consumer quality to professional grade quality, often depending upon the level of camera body purchased. A s a general rule, pro rated bodies come packaged with a pro, or near pro, quality lens. If you are buying a consumer or enthusiast level body, the lens may be more of a standard level of quality. Perhaps even plasticy.

Often, photographers move on from that lens and start to add other lenses to their aresnal. The kit lens ends up getting pushed aside for the more recently purchased lenses. I know personally for myself that this has been the case over the years. As a fan of telephoto views and shallow focus imagery, I often find myself reaching for my longer telephoto zooms or my lensbaby.

But if I can only bring one lens with me, most often It will be my kit lens. It is the most basic lens in my bag, and I know that with it I can capture almost any subject I will encounter on a typical outing. At only 14-54mm (28-108mm in 35mm equivalent) I obviously won’t be capturing any extreme closeups of small and distant song birds. But if I need to capture images of people, general scenics, and even near macro quality close up of small but close subjects – my kit lens is quite capable of getting the job done.

Last year I spent quite a lot of time working with my extension tube that had recently purchased. As my most recently purchased lens accessory, it had become my most used accessory. I can use it with most of my lenses, but like to use it most with my 40-150mm lens. It’s a great pairing. But the widest aperture of that lens is 4.5 and it goes down to 5.6 as its widest opening at the telephoto end of the zoom range. Plus I lose a stop of light by using the extension tube. As a handheld shooter this can sometimes be a problem as the shutter speeds required for proper exposure are below what I can safely handhold the camera and still capture sharp images.

Reenter the kit lens. Now I admit, my 14-54mm kit lens is no shabby lens. It came packaged with the Olympus E-1, which was released as a professional camera. The lens is F2.8-3.5, a relatively wide aperture for a standard kit lens. It is solidly built with a metal lens mount and quality glass. It also has near macro level close focusing capabilities. Many kit lenses only have a maximum aperture of F3.5-5.6 and may not be able to focus as close as my kit lens can.

One day last year, as I was photographing flowers it got a little dark out as the clouds rolled in. The light was so dim that my favorite EX25 and 40-150mm lens combo was not able to do the job. The lighting was too dim to achieve a fast enough shutter speed for handholding and the viewfinder was too dark to focus. I decided to try something different. At first I pulled out my Lensbaby, and the results were nice as expected. But the Lensbaby 2.0 is no high grade optic, and is not known for capturing fine detail. That’s when I decided to play with my kit lens again.

Now, at that point my 14-54mm kit lens was far from retired. As the only lens in my bag with focal lengths lower than 40mm at that time, it was my go to lens for concerts, wrestling, and wider views. Really it’s just about perfect for any standard subject I might shoot. But I rarely use it for my portraits of single flowers, and most definitely not for capturing images of flowers with limited depth of field effects and interesting bokeh. Until recently that is.

On that day when the clouds rolled in and I decided to break out the kit lens and see what I could capture it, my eyes were opened to the potentials of using the kit lens for some of my flower portraits. I was pleasantly surprised at the results and now try to make use of it when doing my flower work. It won’t replace my telephotos and EX25 as my favorite setup for flower photography, but after seeing it’s potential I will now include it in my flower shooting repertoire.

So what about your own kit lens? When was the last time you used it? Not only used it, but actually took advantage of its unique qualities and got creative with it?

Some things to try are:

Get Close
Many kit standard zooms (in the 14-50mm range, not telephoto versions) have capabilities for close focusing. Check your lens’s specs to find out how close you can focus with yours. You may be surprised to find out it can focus quite close, it may even perhaps have a macro setting.

Long before that overcast day I speak about in this post, I discovered my kit lens could render beautiful bokeh if used "correctly." Correctly in this scene which I wished to render the softest bokeh possible, I chose the longest focal lenght available to me, used a wide aperture, and got as close to the spring blossom as possible. My kit lens may not be my lens of choice in this situation, but when it’s the only lens with you that’s when familiarity with your tools pays off.

Use The Entire Focal Range
If you are like the typical photographer, you may find yourself using a few of the focal lengths but you don’t make use of the entire focal range available to you. For example I use to use the wide and tele ends of my lens most often (even though image quality is typically best in the middle ranges, true of pretty much all lenses.) I favor the wide angle for my landscapes and the longer end for my flower and nature closeups. After taking those photos as you usually might, experiment with the other focal lengths that your lens has to offer you.
I usually start off at the widest or most telephoto settings available on my lens and zoom from there. Don't just leave your lens parked on one end or another, spin that zoom ring!

Zoom With Your Feet
Zooming with your feet, moving to frame the composition rather than relying on zooming, is a really great seeing exercise for photographers. Pick a single focal length, and get closer or back off from your subject to make the composition. This is the opposite advice from my previous tip. How does this help you rediscover your kit lens when your kit lens is a zoom lens? It helps you to learn how spatial relationships & focal lengths work in combination with eachother.

A combination of zooming with my feet and zooming on my lens enabled me to capture this composition with the lights of another ride perfectly positioned in the background in relationship to the carousel.

Experiment With Focal Lengths & Apertures

Try using different apertures and focal length combos to learn how they impact depth of field. I usually like shallow depth of field for my florals, so I often choose to shoot wide open and work close to my subjects. When I shoot some of my wide view landscapes, I generally like more depth of field to keep everything sharp. Because I have experimented with different focal lengths and apertures at home, I am able to choose which combination works best quickly when out in the field.

Though my 40-150mm was not purchased as part of a kit, it is one of Olympus’s telephoto kit lenses and it was used for this photo. Knowledge of what effect focal length & aperture combinations would render enabled me to effiently choose the right lens and settings for this scene. Past experience and familiarity with your equipment pays off.

Use Your Kit Lens In Situations You May Usually Not
Just as I had discovered a new use for my kit lens for my flower photography on that cloudy day, you too can discover a new use for your kit lens by simply using it in situations that you may not usually have chosen it normally.
For a subject like this, I would normally chose my 40-150mm and shoot with a reasonable distance between subject and camera. But this time I chose my 14-54mm and shot as close as possible.

Read Your Lens’s Manual
Read your lens’s manual to discover hidden features, such as macro settings for example, and standard features of the lens. Also included are lens specs including such important information as a lens’s closest focusing distance which is important to photographers that like to work close to their subjects.

I hope this blog post encourages you to rediscover your own kit lens! You can also use any of these exercises & tips to rediscover any of the lenses in your current kit.

At the time I originally wrote this, I only had one kit lens. I have since purchased the Olympus 14-42 II R micro Zuiko lens for my Olympus OMD EM-5. It is a standard consumer F4.5-5.6 lens. Nice image quality but no bokeh master and definitely no match for the 14-54mm in that respect. But it does focus faster and is much smaller and lighter, so if I need to travel light and need a quick focusing standard lens it is the lens of choice at the moment. The 14-54 is far from in retirement though, and sees frequent use with my at home flower photography. The Olympus pro micro version 14-54mm (the kit lens for Olympus’ professional camera OMD EM1) would be a more suitable replacement for my old kit lens, but is out of my budget at this time.
While my 14-42mm may be no 14-54, it does a more than adequate job. A neat little kit lens! And for those that are not familiar with Olympus lenses, the 35mm equivilent of any Olympus lens mentioned is 2x. IE: 14-54mm would be 28-108mm on a full frame 35mm camera.

Thank you for your support.

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