Everything You Need to Know About Kit + Prime Lenses

In the world of photography, choosing gear can often feel overwhelming. There is so much STUFF out there, that it’s sometimes hard to decipher what you need and what you don’t.

Today I want to break down some differences in camera lenses for you, mainly talking about the differences between kit and prime lenses, and more importantly, help you decide which type of lens might be right for you!

Should I buy a kit lens? Or Do I need a Nifty Fifty? Everything You Need to Know About Choosing a Lens for Your Camera

Lens Types - Kit vs. Prime

Let’s talk a little about lenses! DSLR cameras operate on “interchangeable lens systems” which means you can change the lens you are using to give your images a different look and feel. This makes it super fun and super easy to switch things up for a different look and feel to your photographs!

Most entry level cameras come with what’s called a “kit” lens. It’s called this because it comes in a kit with the camera body! Easy, right?

While these lenses are super appealing because of the way they are packaged with the camera body, as well as their ability to zoom in and out (hello, fast moving kiddos anyone!? Zooming in and out sure seems like an easy way to capture fast movers!), they are typically not the best quality lenses, and are somewhat limited on what they are capable of! We will talk more on why in just a minute.

The best performing lenses are called “prime lenses.” They have a fixed focal lens, which simply means they don’t zoom in and out - you use your feet to do it! Professional portrait photographers used professional grade prime lenses to capture beautiful portraits, and most camera manufacturers have entry level options at a great price point.

The other benefit of prime lenses is that they have fixed apertures with wider ranges than zoom lens options. You know that blur that everyone loves to get in their photos? Well, aperture is what controls that, and how much blur you can get is based on the lens you are using and it’s widest aperture capabilities. We’ll touch more on this in a moment, but it’s important to know that a fixed aperture is a great feature.

Understanding Focal Lengths

Lens focal length refers to how wide or narrow the angle of view a lens gives you, and is measured in millimeters So for example, when you talk about a 50mm lens aka “The Nifty Fifty”, you are talking about a lens with a focal length of 50 millimeters.

The smaller the focal length number, the wider the angle of the lens. Wider angle lenses can take in more of a particular scene, allowing you to capture not only your subject, but some of the surrounding elements as well. It’s important to know that wide angle lenses (for example a 16mm or 24mm lens) create distortion at the edges of the pictures.

The higher the number, the closer your subject will appear when you look through the viewfinder. My go to focal length for portraits is a 50mm lens. This lens is very versatile, and is a perfect lens for photographing people. Because it isn’t too wide, there is no distortion so it doesn’t create any funky effects on the shape of peoples faces! Tighter focal lengths also include an 85mm lens, and many wedding photographers use lenses with up to a 200mm focal length so they can capture moments from far away such as during a wedding reception when they can’t be super close to their subject.

How Lenses Work With Your Camera

It’s important to know that some cameras alter the focal length of a lens right out of the gate, due to the camera’s sensor, which is the camera’s way of converting what you see through your viewfinder into a digital image. Most entry level cameras operate with what is called a crop sensor. This means that the camera itself actually crops the focal length of the lens automatically, creating somewhat of a zoom effect right out of the gate.

For example, I have a Canon Rebel T2i. This camera has a crop factor of 1.6. Basically, it means that if I put a 50mm lens on my camera, I have to multiply this by 1.6 to get the true focal length of this lens on my camera. So on my Canon Rebel T2i with a 50mm lens, I get a focal length of 80mm. This is a fairly tight focal length, so when you peek through the lens, your subject will appear close to the camera! Since you can’t zoom in and out with this kind of lens, simply move your feet forward or backward to create more space between you and your subject.

Understanding the Pitfalls of a Kit Lens

So what the heck is wrong with a kit lens!? Honestly, there isn’t anything wrong with them! But it’s important to know both the pros and cons to make a good choice about which type of lens is right for the results you are after!

So let’s talk pros. The pro is that these lenses are super affordable when purchased with your camera! It is really appealing to buy a camera in a “kit” so that you can open that box and start snapping away! It’s also really appealing to be able to zoom in and out, especially if you have young kiddos.

Now let’s talk downsides! I’ve found that most of my students are looking to me to learn how to really take things up a notch. They’re frustrated that they aren’t able to capture beautiful blurry backgrounds in their images, and that they aren’t getting that bright, light look to their photos. If you are after a certain result, such as blurry backgrounds or light and bright images, and are just generally looking to improve your image quality, your lens has a lot to do with it! The truth is that kit lenses just aren’t capable of creating those beautifully blurred backgrounds that everyone loves in their photos.

I mentioned above that the reason kit lens aren’t ideal is because of their aperture capabilities.

Aperture refers to how wide or narrow the opening of your lens is, letting light come into your camera and hit the sensor. The lower the aperture number, the more light that is coming into the camera, and the blurrier your background will be. The higher the number, the less light coming in, and the more of your image will be completely in focus, therefore not having any background blur.

When you buy a camera with a kit lens, that lens is usually an 18mm-55mm 3.5-5.6 lens.

So what do we know about this lens already? We know that the focal length can go as low as 18mm (a nice wide view) and as high as 55mm (a less distorted tighter view). The 3.5-5.6 in the title of the lens refers to the aperture range of the lens!

If you recall a little earlier, I mentioned that prime lenses have fixed apertures which is a really appealing feature. It means that you can use your feet to zoom and not have to worry about the aperture changing - you have much more control over that background blur.

With a kit lens, the aperture isn’t fixed. As you zoom in and out with the lens the aperture automatically changes. The number gets higher and higher, which means less and less of the background has blur, therefore limiting what you are able to capture, and the results you can achieve. A changing aperture makes it almost impossible to shoot in any other mode but automatic, which will give you even less control over your final photo!

Now, sometimes we don’t HAVE space to move backward or forward, like if we are inside and are limited by the four walls of the room. This is when its helpful to have a wider angle lens so that the camera can take in more of the scene. When it comes to taking pictures indoors, I love to use a 24mm on my Canon Rebel T2i. The equivalent focal length when I factor in the crop sensor is 38.4, which is a nice wide distance without too much heavy distortion!

So What Type of Lens Should You Use?

Whew, that was a lot of information huh!? But I hope it helps you understand some of the pros and cons of using a prime lens vs. a kit lens! I’m a huge believer that it’s not the gear that makes the photographer - it’s how the photographer uses the gear! But ditching the kit lens is one gear upgrade I really recommend to help you along in your journey, and finally start getting the results you are after. It doesn’t take a big investment to get one nice prime lens, and I promise, it’s worth every penny!

My recommendation is to start with a 50mm lens! Most entry level cameras are compatible with a 50mm 1.8 lens. See that 1.8 number? It means this camera has a great wide aperture range, and can open up to let LOTS of light in to really get you that beautiful blurred background effect. While the numbers aren’t all that different, a 1.8 aperture vs. 3.5-5.6 with a kit lens makes a HUGE difference.

These lenses usually come in with a price tag of around $150-250 and are worth every penny. This is what you’ll need to capture blurry backgrounds and beautiful portraits!

You can find the entry level Canon 50mm lens here, the Sony 50mm lens here, and the Nikon 50mm lens here.

***Make sure you confirm your camera body and lens are compatible! Each camera has a unique mounting system, and you want to make sure the lens and camera will communicate. Amazon has a "part finder" feature that should pop up when you click the above links. Search your camera, and make sure to do your due diligence on your specific camera.

For more details on gear, camera bodies, and choosing the right camera for your interest level, you can check out this post for A Guide to Camera Gear for Beginners, Semi-Pros and Professionals!

* Please note that this post contains affiliate links, which means I receive a small commission should you purchase a recommended item. I only recommend products and services that I know or trust to be of high quality, whether an affiliate relationship is in place or not. Thank you for supporting this free content!

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