To celebrate my first year into photography as a hobby I would like to share this little comparison on the capabilities of the 18-55mm VR kit lens that comes with most entry level Nikon DSLR cameras and the 50mm prime that aspiring portraitists would like to have in their bag.

Throughout my stay at the Digital Photographer Philippines I have for quite a number of times seen questions on which is the best lens to use for this or that sort of photo. While the question is quite valid, it usually comes from the newer camera owners who have the notion that the kit lens is so limited in its capabilities that it is imperative that they get a second or even third lens asap, even before the focusing barrel on their kit lens has felt the salt of their palms.

To be fair, I used to think the kit lens was not up to the job too. This was because I had quite a limited knowledge and understanding of focal length and subject placement at the time. Now when I see questions like the one I mentioned in the previous paragraph I am tempted to experiment to see whether or not the purchase of another and more expensive lens is actually necessary. By necessary I mean the shot you want is absolutely impossible to make with the existing gear you have.

Before I proceed I would like to state that this post is not intended to be a slight against people who like buying lenses. My attitude is always “If YOU can afford it, then go ahead.” This article is more for people who CAN’T afford it but haven’t realized that they might not really need it — YET.

Let’s take bokeh and depth of field as the most common examples of why newer camera users are tempted to buy a prime lens immediately after buying their brand new DSLR.

New users argue that round globs of blurry light in the subject’s background is possible only with a prime lens.

Kit vs. Nifty

I would like to disagree. In the example I have above (click on the photo for a larger version), you can see that it is entirely possible to get bokeh and depth of field with the kit lens (photo on right) without feeling bad that you don’t have the money to get a prime with autofocus (photo on the left). While for some users getting a 50mm f/1.8 AF (currently priced between PHP 5.5 and 6K, or even an f/1.4 AF-S at PHP 26K) may be as easy as buying a McDonald’s meal, others not as financially endowed like me need not crave for the Big Mac Meal with upsized drink and fries, while settling for Crispy Chicken Fillet with Rice.

The key is the distance between your subject and the background, plus a little available light. In both examples, the subject (the bulldog) is at least 12-15 feet away from the background (green tree). The photo on the right was shot with the kit lens at 55mm focal length and at f/5.6. The photo on the left was shot with the 5omm prime at f/5.6 for purposes of comparison. Point of this exercise is you CAN get very good bokeh and DOF with the kit lens. You just need to know how to position your subject in relation to the background.

Rule of thumb is, the farther away your subject is from the background, the shallower your DOF can be, with the lowest f-stop you can manage. You also have to be positioned as close as you can be to your subject (in this example I was about a foot away from the dog).

Hope this helps anyone pining away for a prime — for now 😀

Kit and Nifty

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