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The Low Down on Lenses | Day 17

This is the post that many of you aren’t going to like. Sorry about that.

I’m going to keep it real. There are a lot of ways to cut costs, making homemade light modifiers, and getting creative with props and backdrops, learning to use natural light instead of buying lighting equipment, etc.. But when it comes to lenses, there’s just no cutting corners.

lens collection

The not-so-pleasant fact is that most of you may be shooting with really mediocre-at-best lenses. I hope we can still be friends. I say that, not to offend you, but to actually encourage you – as bass ackwards as that may seem.

Some of you feel discouraged about the shots you’re getting and you don’t know why they are never as good as you’d hoped. But the fact is, if you have a kit lens or some off-brand no one’s ever heard of that you bought from your cousin’s neighbor’s sister-in-law for $50 you may struggle getting the shot in your mind’s eye. Some lenses just aren’t sharp. Some lack the ability to nail focus if the lighting situation is anythin less than perfect. And that’s where this gets difficult, because good glass requires a fair investment. And for those among us who only do this for fun, it’s just not going to happen. People generally don’t get spendy when it comes to recreational activities.

And lenses – good lenses – aren’t cheap.

I like to compare photographers with foodies.

I love food. I love the way my house smells when I pretend to be Rachel Ray in the kitchen. I appreciate good cooking. I also know that Rachel Ray’s knives cost more than my camera and Emeril’s pans cost more than my mortgage. When I see images from Pioneer Woman’s kitchen and see her Le Creusets and jadite piled up – I can see that she’s made some serious investments in her passion.

But I’m no Rachel Ray. I can still love food and enjoy cooking even though I’m not willing to shell out a mortgage for her newest line of kitchen gear. For me – what I do, what I make is good enough. And for a really special occasion, I’ll head to a restaurant and allow a real chef to be in charge of the meal.

Photography works exactly the same way. You have to learn to be content with good enough.

So in the School of Hard Knocks – like cooking – this is one case where, if you don’t make the investment, you aren’t going to get the same results as those who do make the investment. That’s not to say that you won’t get beautiful photos. Or that you can’t love the photos you take. You can. You will.

So, the encouragement… be okay with the best your lenses can do and don’t beat yourself up when your photos aren’t like the pros: You may not be able to shoot in a dark church. You may have a hard time isolating focus with a very shallow depth of field. You may have a hard time capturing the craters of the moon, saturn’s rings, or filling the frame with the details of a new baby’s eyelashes. But you can capture the faces and places you love and build a collection of pictures that are beautiful.

You can make yourself feel better knowing just how much money you’re saving by allowing the photos you take to be good enough. If you’re not a pro, don’t spend like one. Hire out professional portraits yearly, or at milestones, and consider the snapshots you take to be in addition to, not a replacement for, professional portraiture.

When pros write checks for $2800 for a lens, keep in mind they can write it off as a business expense. When you write a check for $2800 for a lens, you have a very spendy hobby. They have a name for shoppers like you – “prosumers.” Prosumers are consumers who shop like pros but only shoot for fun. And camera stores loooooooove customers like you.

Hints you might have a good lens:

Good lenses often have one job and do it well. They are wide angle OR telephoto OR macro OR portrait.
Good lenses have very large max apertures. f/1.2 or f/1.4 for prime lenses and f/2.8 or greater for other lenses.
Good lenses may be heavy.
Good lenses shoot fast and shoot sharp.
You did your homework, and it’s an investment piece.
The results are consistently bright, clear and tack sharp.

Hints you might have a crappy lens:

It came with the kit of an entry-level dSLR.
The max aperture is very limiting, like f/4 or f5.6 or smaller.
It claims to do all / be all. Wide angle, telephoto, macro all in one – has an unbelievable range, like 18 – 200mm or 55 – 250mm.
It’s slow and you can hear the motor crawl.
You paid almost nothing for it.
When you open your images on your computer, they look hazy or soft.

Tomorrow we’re going to talk a bit more about lenses, equipment, and how to pace yourself in the race for lenses.

Feeling riled up? Wait for it… wait for it... Day 18 reeeeally tackles this topic.

In the meantime, please go check out my girls…

Don’t forget these awesome girls who are sharing this 31 Days journey with us:

31 Days of Grace :: Chatting at the Sky
31 Days to an Inspired Table :: My First Kitchen
31 Days to a Less Messy Nest :: Nesting Place
31 Days of Living Simply :: Remodeling This Life
31 Days of Autumn Bliss :: The Inspired Room
31 Days to More. . .With Less :: Beauty and Bedlam
31 Days to a Better Photo :: My 3 Boybarians
31 Days to Stress Free Entertaining :: Reluctant Entertainer


  1. Well, I readily admit that I’m in the “I have a crappy lens” group. I’m still using the lens that came with the camera…my trees aren’t plush with cash, baby! :o)

    I’ve been dreaming about (and ogling) some different lenses. Looking forward to finding out what lens would be a good one to graduate to….

    I’ve been enjoying these 31 Day series that all of you talented ladies have been doing…feeling so informed and inspired!

  2. great post darcy!! i’m happy to hear that the new lens marvin just bought me for my bday is a good lens b/c it is a wide angle (17-55) and is F2.8, yay!! but i know for a fact that it wasn’t cheap…! and yea, i am totally a prosumer who loves to spend money on lens… haha!

  3. I have been loving this series – but this post in particular has really spoken to me today. Today I will be happy for my photos to be good enough!

    • Me too. Thanks for this. I have lots of friends who are outstanding photographers (and a few who are professionals) who have sunk serious cash into lenses. I’m still using the lens that came with my camera, and probably will be for quite some time. I AM going to buy a polarizing filter for my lens since I borrowed one and it greatly helped my outdoor shots.
      I went to the zoo yesterday with a friend who has an awesome zoom lens but less knowledge about what to DO with her camera, and her pictures are better-looking than mine. I’m still struggling with color even using the custom WB setting every time the lighting changed noticeably.

  4. Yes, I have “Lens Envy”! There I said it, but the kicker is, I’m happy with what I got. I’m even happier after reading your analogy of lens vs. cookware. That makes so much sense. Now, I have no desire to be Rachel Ray or Bobby Flay, but I would not mind being… you or your husband!

    One day :~)
    Thanks Darcy!

    • I also really liked this analogy. I hope that with time & training however not only could I become a Rachel Ray in cooking but also one in photography.

  5. Ladies, if you want to know whether your lens is good, go to the nice people at {link removed} and ask them in the forum section.

    A lot of the things in the boxed test are gross over-simplifications. An f/4.0 lens is by definition crappy? Tell that to my Pentax 16-45 f4.0. Good lenses can’t do more than one thing? Show me a 100mm macro lens that *doesn’t* work as a portrait lens. Good lenses are by definition heavy? Some are, I suppose, but most good fast primes I’ve encountered are delightfully lightweight. And there are plenty of heavy, off-brand zoom lenses out there.

    • Ya gotta come back for parts two and three. 😉

      … and yes, absolutely… the hints list is a sweeping generalization, filled with the tips one gets while googling “What makes a good lens?” It’s a compilation of what Google and dozens of photo forums say. It’s the proverbial “they” in…. “They say….”

      It’s filled with truth, semi-truth and total over-simplification. The good often meet those criteria, but never all of them. The crappy may meet none of those criteria, or all of them.

      And while the resource you listed is a useful one, I’m removing the link because it’s not universally work / family friendly. And while I have no problem with it, my conservative readers would.

  6. You are speakin’ my love language now, Darc.

    Prosumer. Me. Totally.

  7. I got the Canon 50mm (f/1.8) lens on Saturday and the crappy 18-55mm standard lens is sitting on the shelf right now…wonder if I’ll ever use it again?

  8. a good friend told me that the best lens for your camera is always the next lens. : )

  9. Great post. I completely know that my zoom 70-300 is not a top of the line lens, but like you said, I’m not a pro and it works for me. We spent a few hundred dollars for it and I’ve been pleased. Would I love to have a better lens? Of course, but I can’t write it off and I can’t “make money” to pay it off. That doesn’t stop me from looking, drooling and thinking.

    My zoom is a Quantaray 70-300 1:4-5:6 LD Tele-Macro (1:2)
    My smaller lens is an AF-S Nikkor 18-70mm 1:3.5-4.5G ED DX

    For what I use them for, they work great. There are a few I have my eyes on, but time will tell. Right now I’m looking at new cameras. I currently have a Nikon D50 which I have loved, but I’m ready for a new one. I’m looking at the new Nikon D7000

    I really have loved these posts.

  10. oooh, girlfriend …. you might want to duck. Tomatoes might be thrown in your internet direction. I won’t be the one to do it, but I will say: the best lenses in the wrong hands will still take crappy pictures. And crappy lenses in the best hands will still take amazing pictures. Having the best gear is a nice bonus and a good leg up. But skill trumps good gear. Every time.

    • darcy @ m3b says:

      No need to duck… I absolutely agree with this comment. So much so, in fact – you have to come back to read the next part. One liability, I suppose with a series where you break up the content into parts… Some people will miss the message in it’s entirety if they come one day and not the next.

      I guess that’s part of what makes a series interesting. 😉

    • amen! just because you have good gear – doesn’t mean you take great shots – nor does it mean you see things the way a gifted or talented photographer does. not everyone has that gift and that is OK. God gives us all a different talent and gift – thank GOD for that! however, it is NICE to own a good lens and know how to use it 😉

  11. LOL! Susan Keller’s comment is AWESOME! And I just have to add my two cents in. I have a Nikon D60. It came with the kit (18-55) and I got a deal with it to add in a zoom (55-200). They’re not top-of-the-line and they were doing wonderfully for me. I paid for all these things last year when I asked for nothing but “money toward my camera” from my husband and family for…get this…my birthday (October), our anniversary (November) and Christmas. I got enough to pay for all of it with cash. Then this year, I saved any “spending money” and bought my WONDERFUL 50mm (F1.8). I bought the F1.8 instead of the F1.4 because,…really? what’s the difference? I didn’t see any in the “customer example” photos on the web and I saved myself a WHOPPING $400 and I LOVE my 50! Then for my birthday last week my sweetheart bought me a Nikkor 35mm (per my wish list) and I LOVE it also! I have friends who have a Nikon D60 and their pictures are well…subpar. Whereas mine, even with the kit lens, were looking much better! I’m not bragging, but I am saying that it definitely depends more on who’s eye is looking through that viewfinder. Getting down low, getting close, having a steady hand and taking LOTS of pictures is really most important.

    • There is two sides to every street and this topic is included. While what Susan said is true there comes a time when you are limited by your lense. I too have a d60. I had the kit lense and then bought the 35 f1.8 and the moment I looked at my first shot I knew that $200 was worth it. There are some things that skill just cannot make up for.

  12. No offense taken! I have already asked for a nicer one for Christmas! 😉

  13. I am so glad you posted this. I have a “crappy” lens and have been looking at getting another lens that has the “same” zoom as the one I have. The price just keeps me from purchasing cause i figure well i have the same focal length with the lens I have why do i need to spend more money on something that will not make that much improvement. i have now decided that I am going to get it for myself for Christmas LOL

  14. I’m so glad I found your blog and read this post. I’ve been struggling with lens envy also and just recently decided to be content with what I have. (especially since my hubby bought me the d90 with the kit and 70-300) i had been going back and forth about selling and upgrading, but in reality it’s not possible, I like to do this for fun and not business, and i’m happy and grateful for what I already have. I’m glad that people like you are so helpful with tips on photography so that i can make the most of what I have. Thanks.

  15. I’m so glad I found your blog and read this post. I’ve been struggling with lens envy also and just recently decided to be content with what I have. (especially since my hubby bought me the d90 with the kit and 70-300) i had been going back and forth about selling and upgrading, but in reality it’s not possible, I like to do this for fun and not business, and i’m happy and grateful for what I already have. I’m glad that people like you are so helpful with tips on photography so that i can make the most of what I have. Thanks.

  16. Darcy I just posted a link to your tutorials – truly they are the best I have found anywhere and know they will help many mom’s and photogs out!

    Great job!

    Thanks again!

    our family blog is http://www.forevernevernalways1.blogspot.com

  17. My lenses would be considered “crappy” by this post’s standards, but I still love them and the pictures I get with them.

    I have a Nikon D40 which I just upgraded today to a D5000. While it’s still considered entry level, I don’t see myself upgrading any further than this. Not for a long while at least. I have been shooting for a year and a half with just the kit lens that came with the D40, but when I got the D5000 I bundled and got the 55-200mm VR lens too. For a young couple without lots of spare change, this was a big investment for us. I am learning fast that since this is just a hobby for me I’ll have to learn to love what we can afford.

    Can’t wait to read tomorrow’s post!

  18. Sigh. Thanks for speaking realistically. I would love to have those beautiful pics I see in the magazine spreads But alas I am not the talented Photographer I wish I were. Sewing machines on the other hand………. Thanks for all the tips!

  19. I loved this article. Tell it like it is.

  20. ahhh… I hear you, but it wish it wasn’t true.

  21. I’ve been enjoying this series a lot.
    And I wanted to tell you that you can find Rachael Ray’s knives and Emeril’s pans at TJ Maxx and Home Goods.
    Though neither are considered the L lens category of cooking ware. The RR Santuko knife is under $20!

  22. wow, I am for sure in the crappy lens catergory. I can’t wait to be able to purchase the lens I want. Thanks for the encouragement and information. It’ s priceless and what I needed.

  23. thanks for the encouragement! I often get frustrated but have to remember that I’m not a pro!

  24. Do you have a site you would recommend that really “spells it out” in layman terms what you need/get in terms of lenses?? Camera bodys, too. Through the help of your site and a local community college class I feel like I’ve “mastered” the beginner equipment I have and am ready to upgrade, but have a limited budget and want to make sure I make the perfect purchase to help take my photography to the next level! Any help would be appreciated! Oh…and I have a Canon. Thanks!

  25. Kit lenses are fine for most people’s applications. I often go out with walking with a kit lens instead of my expensive lenses because of the weight. Also, for most, very fast lenses are a waste of money and too big and heavy. With the sensitivity of cameras today you don’t need the wide stop. I’ve been a photographer for 35 years and have owned some exquisite glass for all formats up to 8″x 10″. Some of the best lenses weren’t particularly fast. I have no idea why anyone needs a F1.2 lens.

    • Agreed. Kit lenses will do the job for anyone who just wants decent snapshots of the faces and places they love.

      But I do know exactly why people may want an f/1.2 or f/1.4 lens. Some artists’ signature style is wide open. They rely on the right tool to help them accomplish this look.

      You simply cannot achieve that same look with a variable aperture lens that jumps to f/5.6 when zoomed in. For them and for their art, it’s worth it to them to have the right tool for that signature look.

      For the rest of us who don’t shoot like that? We wouldn’t need that tool. A landscape photographer, for example, certainly wouldn’t. I bet most commercial photographers don’t shoot that wide open. But for a wedding photographer who shoots in dim light and wants a shallow depth of field – it’s the right tool for that job.

      Thanks for stopping by. Don’t miss Day 18… this is just the warm up for that post.

  26. I love this! I just got my first dSLR about 6 months ago and while I can see a huge difference between what I shot with my p&s and what I shoot with my (entry level) Rebel, I know that a lot of it is what I have learned, not just the money I have spent. I have serious lens envy and have been saving for a few months now for a 50mm f/1.4 because I take a ton of pictures of my kids and (especially during the winter months), we seem to be inside a lot. But, I know that I’m never going to make a living on my photography and that this will probably be the only lens I ever buy (well, until they get older and I need that zoom lens for soccer games…).
    Having left my LeCreuset dutch oven, my All Clad pans, and my Henkel knives in the States when we moved to Korea, I am learning that I can cook without the expensive equipment, and I need to remember that I can take great pictures without the expensive equipment too! It’s good enough for me! 🙂

  27. What you said is only partially true. If we break down a lens by three factors: 1) Wide zoom range; 2) Image quality; 3) Affordability (around $100-300). You cannot have all three of them. But having any two of them is possible. Canon 85mm f/1.8 and 100mm f/2 cost around $300 and have excellent image quality that rivals if not surpasses that of expensive “L” lenses. These are examples that you can have both 2) and 3). Great image quality is possible in lenses that cost over $1000. I do agree, however, that anything with a zoom range of over 5x is guaranteed to be a stinker. Furthermore, macro lenses are known for their excellent image quality and are great for portraits.

  28. so just bought a new Nikon D5100, and right now just have the 18-55mm lens that came with the kit. I’ve always enjoyed taking pictures and have been into cameras, and with a trip to South Africa I have planned coming up I decided to invest in a nice DSLR. My question is I want to buy a better lens for it especially for my trip and would like it to be able to have a wide zoom range so I can use it for nice scenic shots and shots of my friends, close up etc without changing lens every time. I saw Nikon is releasing a new lens soon that has a zoom span of 18-300mm, 16.7 zoom ratio. I thought this would be great for what I am trying to do, until I read this article. I don’t want to invest almost a $1000 into a “crappy” lens. Can anybody tell me if A) if this would be a bad investment , and B) recommendations for a good lens for what I am trying to do? Thanks!

    (I am taking tons of notes and learning a lot about my camera from this blog! and practicing! Thanks for writing it!)

  29. Am loving your site and just finished reading all of the above but what I didn’t hear was that no one mentioned just buying the camera body, which is cheaper than the kit. From there upgrade to a better lens than the kit lens. Simple!!

  30. I would also argue that prosumers won’t get better shots JUST because they have a pro lens. You can have a 1.2/1.4/2.8 and still take fuzzy pictures if you don’t know what you’re doing. It won’t solve anything if you don’t take the time to learn and practice.