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If I am able to take a relatively sharp picture with a kit lens, and boost the vibrance and or saturation during post processing, will that picture be comparable to ones taken from an expensive "professional" lens?

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Let me try an analogy - Can two sticks start a fire? I think so. But can a waterproof match start a fire? Almost certainly and in a greater range of conditions and in more favorable form for most people. –  dpollitt Aug 7 '12 at 19:36
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What exactly do you mean by "comparable"? You mention vibrance and saturation, but the real difference between a cheap kit lens and a multi-thousand dollar pro lens is not so much color, but image clarity, sharpness, and background blur. Professional lenses cost a lot because they do a hell of a lot more to maximize resolution and offer smooth, soft background blur. No matter what you do in post, if you don't start out with detail, you can't fabricate it after the fact...you can only try to enhance what you have, which will never be the same. –  jrista Aug 8 '12 at 20:14
    
How would you correct bad bokeh (background blur) ? Some kit lenses's bokeh is "textured" (you don't want that), there's no known way to make that creamy and buttery as a good lens would have done it. –  Berzemus Sep 4 '12 at 7:37

8 Answers 8

up vote 20 down vote accepted

There are so many variables here, it would be impossible to give you a precise answer. It depends entirely what you are wanting to do...

The kit lens can, in many cases, give a satisfactory photograph, however there are two main areas in which the kit lens suffers in competition against a pro lens:

  1. Aperture. Kit lenses are slow. They are usually about f/3.5 on the wide end and by the long end have stopped down to f/5.6 or so. This means that it makes your job a little harder to get a good photograph in say low lighting, indoors, or in the dark. It also means you can't open wide enough to get that shallow depth of field which helps make some photos.

  2. Lens quality. As kit lenses are so mass produced, they do not get subjected to the same rigorous quality checks that pro lenses do. The design too, means a cheap lens which whilst perfectly usable, has certain flaws. These will be in the areas of things like:

    • Sharpness
    • Chromatic Abberation
    • Flare
    • Distortion
    • Robustness (eg. build quality - it will take the knocks, a bit of rain won't hurt it, etc).

You will find a pro lens design helps to reduce all these things, whether it be clever design and months and months of curing the glass and polishing it to within an inch of its life, to the coatings that they put on them. You will find that a pro lens is generally much sharper towards the edges of the frame, and that things like barrel distortion is greatly reduced (except on say, a fish eye where it is actually a desired effect).

If you took your 18-55 kit lens, set it to 55mm, stopped down to f/8, and took a "pro" lens such as the EF 24-70 f/2.8L USM, and ALSO set it to about 55mm, f/8, and took two identical photos of the same thing, with the same lens with the same camera settings, you would I have no doubt see a very similar image. However they won't be quite the same. You will find the sharpness of the L lens better than the kit lens. You may find the colours are richer. If there is a light source such as the sun, or a light, you may find the kit lens exhibits more flare than the L lens. The edges of the frame should be sharper with the L lens too, and you'll have less barrel distortion. Looking at areas of high contrast such as the edge of a building and the kit lens will be much more susceptable to things like chromatic abberation which appears as a green tinge along one side of the area of high contrast, and a reddish tinge along an opposite area. The pro lens should handle this better, if not eliminate it (though its sometimes near impossible).

All that said -- post production software like Adobe Lightroom is getting better all the time. I notice it has options for things like Lens Correction Profiles, and "Removal" of chromatic abberations. How effective that is I'm not sure but it all helps.

So.....yes. Difficult to say really. The cheap kit lens starts way behind the pro series lens for all those reasons and maybe more. But if you like the photo you took with it, and process it well in post - why not hold it up alongside a photo taken with a Pro lens?

Besides - YOU are the magic ingredient in your photography. A better photo will be taken by a skilled photographer with cheap kit, than a total novice who doesn't know what they are doing even if they do have fantastic uber expensive kit!

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I would add, go there: the-digital-picture.com/Reviews/… and check comparison of 17-55 f2.8 to 18-55 kit lens - the first costs $1k the other aroud $180. –  Rafal Ziolkowski Aug 8 '12 at 8:44

If I am able to take a relatively sharp picture with a kit lens, and boost the vibrance and or saturation during post processing, will that picture be comparable to ones taken from an expensive "professional" lens?

No. not consistently.


You would have been surprised if somebody suggested otherwise :-)

You can get some results that are similar some of the time. But in the whole range of situations that you'll meet in real life a superior quality lens will produce superior quality pictures (when used correctly in each case). An expert with a kit lens may well get better results than a beginner with a high cost / high quality lens.

If it was possible on a consistent basis to even reasonably approach the capabilities of a "pro" lens costing say $2000 up by post processing the results form a lens in the $200 or so range then people would do it and there would be few sales of "pro" lenses.

In absolute terms the differences are often not vast - but in terms of 'distance from perfection' a pro lens may be very substantially superior to a cheap entry level lens.

A good way to see what sort of differences exist is to read some good quality lens reviews eg from here

All that said, a kit lens or cheapish third party lens may be able to produce extremely acceptable results - and sometimes a given lens my manage to be much better than its price would indicate, but you should always be able to clearly see the lens quality in the final image when comparisons are made. Otherwise, why would people but the high cost lenses and carry around such super heavy pieces of glass?

Test: Look at the Olympic photographers whose images and equipment you'll see on TV screens worldwide at present. How many lenses that might just conceivably be kit lenses do you see being used? Ask yourself why. [For his sins one of the top Geddy Images photographers is using an upmarket non-SLR compact camera at the Olympics. BUT that's due to promotional considerations. He's going to very much be the off man out.

Have a look through these Beijing Olympics photos
A few MAY have been able to be achieved with kit lenses. But, not many.

With experience and effort very good results can be achieved with some kit lenses. But that will make you want a pro lens even more.

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Can you give some specifics of the advantages / differences? –  mattdm Aug 7 '12 at 15:44

You can certainly improve an image significantly with post processing, however sharpening can introduce artifacts (halos) that would not be present in a truly sharp image so the result will never quite be as nice. There are many other attributes of a high quality lens that are difficult to make up for, corner sharpness (when lenses get really sift in the corners there's often no detail to recover), contrast (pushing this too far results in noise and other artifacts), microcontrast (another important factor in image detail), and bokeh.

If it were the case that you could PP away all the defects from a consumer lens then professionals wouldn't buy "professional" lenses, being businessmen (and women) at heart they'd save their money - build quality alone is not enough when you consider you could buy 12 copies of the Canon 50 f/1.8 for the price of one 50 f/1.2L!

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Yes, especially if you stop your kit lens down. The advantage of pro lenses is they allow you to shoot sharp images in more situations, for example because they are faster, have faster focusing motors, and are less prone to get broken.

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That depends heavily on the "kit lens" in question. Since I'm familiar with them (and they happen to have an interesting variety) I'll pick on Sony for the moment.

When Sony first came into the DSLR market, their standard kit lens was an 18-70mm f/4.5-5.6. It had somewhat wider range than most (18-50 or 18-55 is more common), but frankly quite poor quality (with one notable exception -- for a zoom it was quite resistant to flare). Most pictures taken with this are almost instantly recognizable based only on their unusually poor quality.

After that, they joined the crowd, so to speak, and designed an 18-50mm f/4.5-5.6 that was quite a bit better -- IMO, it was a little better than those from Canon and Nikon -- but not much.

For the A77, Sony introduced yet another kit lens -- a 16-50mm f/2.8. This particular lens is good enough that there's been quite a bit of speculation about why it wasn't given some sort of "pro" designation. The big difference seems to be slightly inferior QA, so there's probably more sample variation.

If you look carefully, you can probably still find a 50mm lens being sold as part of a "kit" too. This will typically be an f/1.7 or f/1.8, so it's slower than the "pro" f/1.4 (or faster) lenses, but otherwise thoroughly competitive (at, say, f/2 these are often even a little sharper than the more expensive versions).

So:

  1. 18-70: clearly inferior
  2. 18-50: somewhat inferior to borderline competitive under the right conditions
  3. 16-50: better than most "pro" zooms
  4. 50mm: about as good as you can get (optically -- not nearly as nice mechanically)
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Yes, if you hit the sweet spot where the kit lens is at its best, then the image quality could be comparable to a much more expensive lens.

There is generally two main differences between cheap lenses and professional lenses:

  1. Professional lenses gives a good result all over the range, while the image quality drops off more quickly in a cheaper lens.

  2. Professional lenses are more sturdy, to cope with daily use, and that doesn't affect the image quality.

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There are some great answers here but here's my two cents, specifically on post processing: PP can improve the results of any lens. Yes, that means the results from your kit lens can be made to look better, but remember that the "pro" lens results will also look better.

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I'd say depends on situation. If you shoot a side-lit landscape, post-process results really good and post image on the web - results will not differ much from "pro" lens, because with image size of some 1000px you will barely notice the difference. But, if you will try to print that image in high resolution - "pro" lens will certainly win. Also, as mentioned above, kit lens doesn't play well in other styles of photography, like portraiture for example

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