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SLRs aren’t worth it if you’ll only use the kit lens

Glenn Fleishman urges freelance writers to take accompanying photos with better cameras than their iPhones:

The iPhone and similar smartphones with decent built-in cameras aren’t as good as a real camera when you’re taking photos to accompany reporting.

We’ve seen this a few times with The Magazine: writers take their own photos of places or events that are otherwise hard to find photos of — great! — but the image quality is so poor that we can’t use them.

It’s not just iPhones that are the problem: too many people are shooting with SLRs, but only using the kit lens.

I’d go further and suggest that you shouldn’t buy an SLR if you only ever plan to use its kit lens or an inexpensive zoom lens. Kit lenses and low-end zooms produce blurry, distorted, drab images — they can look decent on blogs or phones, but the flaws become apparent when you see them on big Retina screens or printed at larger sizes.

A decent consumer SLR body, usually $600–900, is a big investment for most people. But if you can’t also afford to buy at least one good lens with it, you’ll get better photos by going with a less expensive kit, such as a high-end point-and-shoot or an entry-level mirrorless setup.

Fortunately, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to get a great lens if you’re willing to make one tradeoff.

Good lenses have three competing factors: price, versatility, and quality. You can optimize two of them, but usually at the expense of the third.

My best suggestion for Canon SLRs is the 40mm “pancake”, which is currently just $149 — the same price as most kit lenses. It’s a prime lens, meaning it does not zoom: it’s fixed to one medium-distance focal length, and you can zoom with your feet. By using simpler optical designs that don’t need to zoom, primes sacrifice versatility but bring very good quality at very low prices.

My wife and I have a lot of fantastic (and expensive) Canon lenses, but we use the 40mm pancake most because it delivers great quality in very little size and weight.

Photo by Tiffany Arment, taken with the Canon EF 40mm “pancake” lens.

If you absolutely must have a zoom range — and please, really reconsider if you must — you’ll generally need to spend about $700 to get noticeably better optical quality than the kit lens, and it still won’t be as good as most primes.

To approach or surpass a $150–300 prime’s quality in a zoom, you generally need to go well above $1000 — pro photographers needing a general-range zoom usually use this $2100 model, or for longer range, you’ve probably seen photographers using this $2200 beast.

Starting to see why I recommend primes if you want quality?

Understandably, these requirements may drive you out of the SLR market, but that’s OK: the smaller, cheaper mirrorless market is hot right now. There are some great midrange camera bodies around $500, such as the Olympus E-PM2 or E-PL5 (don’t miss their pancake prime).

Oh, and please don’t use your camera’s built-in flash. Ever.