When buying a digital SLR camera, should you get it with the 18-55mm lens?
As the digital SLRs are becoming more and more affordable, an increasing number of families are buying a camera of this type. Friends and students who are planning to do so, often ask me the same question. "Should I buy it with the 18-55mm zoom or with a better lens?" Since the kit lens adds only about $100 to the price, they're worried that it won't be able to provide fine image quality. And if it cannot, what would be a suitable alternative, they wonder.
While most DSLRs can be purchased as "body only" they're also available as a kit including a short zoom, such as an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 model. Such lenses vary in terms of their optical quality but some (like the Canon IS model) are better than average and may be worth considering.
The Short Zooms:
When reviewing DSLRs for photo magazines, I occasionally get cameras with one or two kit lenses. (Most camera companies also provide a high-grade lens for the test period.) Based on my experience, some of the 18-55mm kit lenses are actually quite decent in spite of the affordable price. For example, the following are better than average: the Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS, the Sony 18-55mm SAM, and the Pentax 18-55mm models. The Olympus kit lens is a 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 model and it may be the best of the bunch.
A lens of this type is fine for getting started if you rarely make prints larger than letter-size. (You can find test reports on many lenses with a google search.) On the other hand, if your budget allows, a high-grade short zoom would be even better, particularly if you make or order larger prints. I would recommend the Sigma 17-70mm ƒ/2.8-4 OS HSM, the Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 and especially the similar lenses from the camera manufacturers. Expect to pay $450 to $700 for a lens with superior optical elements, wider maximum apertures and more rugged construction.
Two Lens Kits:
No short lens can provide full versatility. If your budget is tight - and if the primary kit lens has gotten good reviews - consider a twin lens camera kit. The second one will be an affordable 55-200mm or 55-250mm lens, and the two will allow you to shoot most any type of subject effectively. This type of zoom often scores well in test reports. That's because it's easier to make than a lens that provides focal lengths from wide-angle to telephoto.
A twin lens kit including a short zoom and a telephoto zoom - such as this Sony setup - provides great versatility. A "bundled" package also offers much better value than buying the second lens separately at a later date.
Some manufacturers also package certain DSLRs with an 18-200mm zoom, the so-called "vacation lens". This type is very attractive if you prefer to carry only a single lens, but it's more expensive than the two kit lenses. As well, compromises must be made by the optical designers when creating a compact/lightweight lens that covers focal lengths from 18mm wide-angle to a full 200mm telephoto. You'll definitely want to read reviews about the one that's available in a kit with the camera you want.
If you want great versatility with a single lens, a DSLR kit including an 18-200mm zoom would be the best bet, such as shown with this Nikon DSLR. Granted, a two-lens kit may be a bit more affordable but it will not offer maximum convenience.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Since a short kit lens adds so little to the price of a DSLR, it's worth buying if you do not already own lenses that are compatible with your new camera. For the best results with an inexpensive lens, use f/8 to f/11 when practical, avoid shooting into the sun and buy the suitable lens hood if one is not included. If you insist on superior quality, however, check out the premium-grade short zooms from the camera manufacturer, or from Tamron and Sigma.
A 55-200mm or 55-250mm kit lens is very useful. Still, you might prefer to save up for a 70-300mm zoom if you often want to shoot more distant action. Expect to pay $450 to $600 for a very good 70-300mm lens and $700 to $1600 for a prosumer-grade model that will provide superb image quality. If the DSLR body is not equipped with an image stabilizer, be sure to look for a telephoto zoom designated IS, OS, VR or VC to get that feature in the lens barrel. The system will provide camera-shake compensation and you'll get sharper photos at long focal lengths.
NOTE: Peter Burian teaches two excellent online photography workshops - Mastering the Digital Camera and Photography and Mastering the Canon EOS Digital Rebels - at BetterPhoto's online digital photography school. Also see Peter's Pro BetterPholio website: www.peterkburian.com.