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I have a Canon EOS 550d with the 18-55mm IS kit lens. I have done quite a bit of shooting with it over the last few months (portraits, nature, night shots etc), and find the image quality to be pretty good. In fact most of the reviews have also been positive (at least in terms of image quality):

dpreview Quote:

indeed Canon's main concern may ultimately become whether users have as much incentive to upgrade to more expensive optics as they did before

DxOMark comparison to the Canon 17-55mm lens

Amazon user reviews

So, what are the key limitations of this lens (or any other similar kit lens) that would compel one to upgrade to a more expensive general purpose zoom lens (apart from the wanting to upgrade the zoom range)?

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If intending to upgrade, see: What is a good general purpose lens for Canon? –  chills42 Jun 21 '12 at 14:19
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5 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

For general purpose photography for a general purpose casual user there probably isn't much reason to upgrade your general purpose lens. For everyday photos you'll be printing out on your printer or at the local lab/supermarket to 6x4or A4 etc to show friends and family I doubt you'll notice much of the quality difference between this lens and the more expensive ones. The only gripe you may have is wanting a shallower depth of field on people shots, or wanting a lower ISO when shooting in low light.

It's when you start wanting to view or print your pictures bigger than a screen/A4 that you may be wanting a better lens. When you start looking more closely at the pixels you'll notice some fringing/chromatic aberration around subjects. You can help minimise this by closing down the aperture but then that makes the lens less useful in certain lighting conditions.

Also if you're doing some action shots you may want a lens with a quicker autofocus, or a quieter one for nature photos. You might want a slightly more robust lens if you're planning on hiking places and worried it might get knocked or dropped, or weather sealed if you'll be out in the rain.

So as a general purpose lens it's great, but if you start noticing it's limitations in the kind of photos you want to be taking then that's when you realise you 'need' to be using a more expensive lens. If you don't notice any of these things in the photos you're taking, then there is probably little point in upgrading, and as more and more casual users are investing in DSLR's these days more and more people are going to be finding the kit 18-55mm lens more than adequate for their needs.

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My opinion is that you are not going to upgrade from the kit lense then you might as well go for a camera like the g11 which is more convenient and gives you better zoom. –  andrew Feb 9 '11 at 21:33
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There are several:

  • optical quality
  • build quality
  • Autofocus Speed
  • manual focus ability is minimal (not USM, very narrow ring)
  • rotating filter mount (bad for polarizer use)

The key factor for me though, is the maximum aperture. Usually a kit lens is f/3.5-5.6, while a good zoom is f/2.8. That difference is huge when working in low light.

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+1 difference is huge when working in low light. –  metdos Feb 9 '11 at 13:02
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+1 build quality and focusing override. –  JoséNunoFerreira Feb 9 '11 at 13:09
    
I was going to answer, but I think you've nailed it :) –  AJ Finch Feb 9 '11 at 16:46
    
-1 for etc - that given no additional inforation and I would like you to list what etc is so that I can see it –  andrew Feb 9 '11 at 21:29
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This is a very subjective question, it depends on your photography style. You may not find any limitations with it.

My experience was with the original (non IS) version of the lens, I found manual focus difficult, and wanted something a better built since I was doing a lot of action sports photography. (I ended up going for 17-40L).

You may find that it isn't long enough, but in that case I'd advise a 2nd lens rather than replacing the kit lens if you are happy with the performance.

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There are different aspects. If you want to shoot a scenery where you are able to accommodate all your subjects of interest with a 18-55 mm lens, then you wouldn't need a better one. After all you can take very nice pictures even with a kit lens. But as you go along you would miss things like focusing on a subject from a little distance or taking in more subjects of interest into your photograph. For the former you would need a telephoto zoom lens (something in the range of 70-300mm, or may be even better still) and for the latter you would need a wide angle lens (something like a 10-20 mm). And obviously a specialized lens is expected to yield better results as it has specialized optics. With these factors already considered, there comes into picture the concept of fast lens. The lower the F number (e.g f 2.8/1.4) of the lens, the faster it is (means it will even be able to focus better under low light conditions). But usually a lens with a fixed F number across its focal range will be really costly e.g. A Nikon 70-200mm F2.8 lens costs 160K (INR) and a Nikon 70-300mm (keep in mind a better zoom) F4.5-5.6 lens costs 29K. So decide what sort of photography you find more interest in. If it's landscape go for a wide angle lens and if it's wildlife/ raw street etc. go for telephoto zoom and then if your budget fits go for a lens that is fast (in the range of F1.4/2/2.8).

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First and foremost aperture, as others have noted. And if you want to use a polarizing filter, the 18-55 is more or less useless because the front element rotates when focusing. A more expensive lens may give you better contrast and colour even if sharpness is not an issue... my advice would be to use the 18-55 until something about it really starts to annoy you, and then you will know exactly what to look for in its replacement!

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(+1) Good advice. I had no trouble using a polarizer with this lens, though, because the range of rotation is so slight (about 45 degrees from 0.3 meters to infinity) that small changes in focus after setting the filter made no visible difference. –  whuber Feb 9 '11 at 16:43
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To expand on finding a replacement, I find it is useful to see what focal lengths you primarily use and try to find a good lens that concentrates on that region. For example, I was ready to buy a 50mm lens, but my usage of the kit lenses (18-55, 55-250) made me realize I primarily concentrate on 18-30. This convinced me to purchase a wider prime lens. –  rm999 Feb 9 '11 at 18:58
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