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This is somewhat a follow-up to my earlier question on the limitations of the kit lens. I have browsed through quite a lot of sites including this one for user opinions & reviews of different Canon lenses, but haven't found a comprehensive answer to the possible upgrade paths from the kit lens, particularly since I don't have a specific usage scenario in mind. Here are a few that I have found that answer the question partially:

Canon 400D lens upgrade test on Camera Labs (Quite old)

Buying first lens after kit lens (for Pentax though)

What's a good all purpose compact lens for a DSLR

Upgrade strategy for Canon EOS DSLRs (more about the cameras)

If you could pick two lenses as a starter kit which ones would you go for?

What's wrong with the Canon EF-S 15-85mm?

Is it worth to have a 50mm 1.8II canon lens.

For this reason, I thought it would be useful to have a list of sub-$1000 upgrade lenses for the kit lens for APS-C format DSLRs (like the 550D, 60D, 7D etc), as a lot of people are upgrading to DSLRs nowadays. The key points that I seek are:

  • Pros\cons compared to the kit lens
  • Price
  • Scenarios the lens is suitable for

Keep in mind that it is primarily for APS-C cameras, so, EF lenses meant primarily for the full frame cameras would end up with the magnification factor of 1.6x. Also, this is focused towards hobbyists & amateurs for which reason I've added the sub-$1000 bit.

P.S. This question might be more suited for a wiki like article (albeit with user opinions included)

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FYI - Lenses listed as EF-S don't show their focal lengths in "effective focal length" but their true focal length - just like EF lenses so listing this as a requirement is unnecessary. I would lean towards EF lenses personally in case one day you decide to upgrade to a full frame camera. –  JamWheel Feb 10 '11 at 12:49
    
What I wanted to convey in my EF remark is that the EF lenses usually have their focal length ranges tuned for full format sensors, due to which there are no real wide angle EF zoom lenses for the APS-C crop sensors. On the other hand, though EF-S lenses don't report their effective focal lengths for crop sensors, their focal lengths are tuned for the crop sensor formats (e.g. the 10-22mm EF-S). –  ab.aditya Feb 11 '11 at 9:04

7 Answers 7

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Well, upgrades depends on your need. Something what you consider an upgrade might not be the same for a lot of others. You need to think a few things and get decided on the specs you'd like the new lens on and make a priority list of the features.

  • What focal length are you planning on? Do you need a telephoto or a wide angle? If you shoot birds, you need something with a minimum 300mm on the longer side. If you shoot landscapes and sunsets, you'll need something around 10mm.
  • Typically when do you shoot? If you shoot mostly in broad daylight, there's no point buying a f/1.4 lens. But if you shoot in low lights, fast lens might be on top of your priority list.
  • Do you shoot moving subjects at low-light? Get something with stabilizer, otherwise its a waste.
  • Do you use CPL filters? If yes, get a lens which doesn't have a rotating front element.
  • Do you plan to upgrade your kit lens in a sense that you want to replace its focal length with something having better image quality or you need a lens which complements your kit lens's focal length reach? I always believed, if you need a better performer in the same range of your kit lens, get 17-55mm f/2.8. If you need something to complement your kit lens, decide on the focal length you need, telephoto or wide angle.
  • If you shoot macro, get a 1:1X macro lens. If you're a extreme macro user, get MP-E 65mm 1:5X macro lens.

Hope this helps.

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I'd just like to add that any lens that will let you take a picture that you can't take now is an upgrade of sorts -- even if you're talking about something so horribly compromised that it turns your DSLR into a Lomo. Let the pictures you can't take but want to determine what you're going to buy -- there's no sense having the best, most suitable lens in the world for a picture you're never going to take. –  user2719 Feb 13 '11 at 21:10

Here are a couple of different common paths you could go that are sub-$1000. But as everyone is telling you, usage is the easiest way to narrow down your choices to something you actually need, rather than something you just want. The easiest way to really start considering an "upgrade" from the kit lens is to consider in what ways the kit lens frustrates you the most. Then concentrate on those. If the kit lens isn't frustrating you, maybe it's not time to upgrade/expand.

Also, as a cautionary tale, from TOP, see Mike Johnston's "Letter to George".

I want it all, but I'm a tightwad

The most common path most folks will take to after getting an 18-55 kit lens, looking at the pics, and deciding it's gotta be the lens, not them is to finish rounding out the "training wheels triple"--that is, adding a cheap telephoto zoom and a cheap fast prime, most typically the EF 75-300 f/4-5.6 III (although the EF-S 55-250 f/4-5.6 IS is probably a better newer choice if a bit more expensive), and the EF 50mm f/1.8 II (although the EF 40mm f/2.8 STM is probably a better newer choice, if a bit more expensive).

This will give you zoom vs. prime, fast vs. slow, and stabilized vs. unstabilized as a decision basis platform for later, and will cost altogether (assuming you got the 18-55 kitted with the body) less than one good mid-grade lens. And you're completely likely to want to replace all of these lenses later. But you need experience with lenses first before you can decide.

Try before I buy

Have you considered renting? Just to get a feel--widen the experience for your purchasing base. Find out if it's for you, or not your cup of tea. Maybe part of that $1000 budget can go for a $40/day rental of the lens you think you have to have.

I just want a better walkaround zoom

Some folks will go to superzooms for more reach (EF-S 18-135 or EF-S 18-200), or look at upgrading to a higher-quality/faster zoom of around the same range (EF-S 15-85 IS USM, EF-S 17-55/2.8, EF 24-70/2.8, EF 24-105 f/4L IS USM). The Ls are better-suited for full frame and are likely to be more than your $1k budget, while the EF-S lenses might be a better fit. But consider that what you're doing is looking at the lone hammer in your toolbox, and deciding you need to upgrade that hammer, without considering whether what you're really yearning for is a screwdriver, wrench, or drill.

But I really want to...

So. Maybe you don't need another walkaround zoom. Maybe you need a telephoto zoom to shoot wildlife or sports. Maybe you need a fast prime for blurry backgrounds and peoples' faces. Maybe you need a macro lens to get closer. Maybe you need a tilt-shift to make buildings absolutely straight or look like tiny toys. Maybe you need a fisheye lens to get in a ginormous distorted field of view. Maybe you need an ultrawide to get a really big view of things without curved lines.

My second lens was a fisheye (I'm really weird). I bought a dSLR to learn to shoot 360x180 panos handheld with a fisheye. It's what I needed. You are not me. You are also not any of the folks who are going to be handing you lens advice, based upon what they needed and like. dSLR lenses tend to work best as special-purpose lenses, not as general-purpose ones. What do you need to fill your toolbox with? Plumbers, carpenters, and electricians all carry toolboxes, but put different things in them. Tools for the task. What do you need? There's really no shortcut around the usage issue.

I'm a speed demon

Well, if you want to go fast and thin DoF with zooms, then get a bigger budget. f/2.8 zooms don't come cheap. And the autofocus issues with a fast lens in 3rd party makes may not be what you're hoping for when the pricetag is under $1000.

So, primes might be the path for you to walk, but then it's a matter of what length, what price. Do I go for the 28/1.8, the Sigma 30/1.4, the 50/1.4, the 85/1.8, 100/2, 85/1.2L, etc. etc. Easiest thing to do here is to look at your zoom lens usage, and see where you park your butt focal-length wise with a tool like ExposurePlot or the EXIF data in Lightroom.

But you may find that carting three primes about to do the work of one zoom might be more of a PITA than you thought, despite all that mystique on "zooming with your feet" and how HCB only used a 50mm, etc. etc. might make you think.

Maybe it's not glass I need

Maybe your $1000 is better spent not on glass, but on lighting gear. If your main focus is on portrait photography, getting a flash and learning how to use it--particularly off-camera in studio-style lighting setups--could be far more transformative than any single lens to your photography. And the cost of a good flash is roughly the same as that of a good lens.

You may also want to consider at this point if it's a tripod you need. Ditto whether shooting JPEG with Picasa/iPhoto at the end of the trail is what you want to be doing vs. shooting RAW and using the GIMP, RAWTherapee, Photoshop, Lightroom, etc. etc.

There's more to gear than just bodies and glass. Tools for the task.

Damn. It really is me, not the gear.

Maybe you finally took the time to google about to see what other more skilled hands can do with an 18-55 kit lens. Maybe it's not the glass. Maybe it's your lack of knowledge and technique. Maybe spending a little of that $1000 on a class, a book, video, or workshop is going to improve your photography more than any single piece of gear.

Maybe you just need to shoot 10,000 more frames before looking for your next lens.

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Nice answer, and I pretty much ended up doing what you've suggested. Started off by adding the 55-250mm, then 50mm f/1.8, then replaced my 18-55 with the 15-85mm and finally got a 90mm macro. –  ab.aditya Jun 14 at 7:32

The obvious answer would be one of the f/2.8 lenses of similar zoom range. Sigma 18-50, Tamron 17-50, Canon 17-55. With or without IS depending on how useful you find it.

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I think you nailed the problem with finding good answer saying:

but haven't found a comprehensive answer to the possible upgrade paths from the kit lens, particularly since I don't have a specific usage scenario in mind

I this situation you simply asking " I want to spent $1000 on a lens to replace 18-55 kit, what can I buy" So any lens that covers 18-55 range and cost under $1000 meets your criteria.

Each lens has many properties that can be considered pros or cons depending on the use scenario, also some may choose 2-3 primes in pace of zoom etc. There are so many options that I do not think it is practical or even possible to list all of the scenarios here.

There are sites that specialise in lens review so you could start there.

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The two really broad reasons to buy another lens would be to expand your focal length range or to improve some aspect of quality in a range you've already got. For the purposes of this answer, I'll lump optical speed, optical quality, build quality, autofocus speed, etc., together as "lens quality".

The first point is pretty easy to understand -- if you've got an 18-55 kit lens and you want more reach, you go shopping for a lens with more reach, and vice-versa for a wide-angle lens. In most cases, you'll get a zoom of some sort before you start buying primes (for range expansion).

The second point should stem from your experience with current equipment. If you're shooting with a kit lens and you notice softness in your photos, you might consider an upgrade. If you want better low-light performance, you might consider an upgrade. These upgrades can be better zoom lenses, but this is also a great time to consider primes. Primes work great in cases where you know what focal length you're interested in, and you want the best quality you can get at that length.

In order to answer more specifically, you should have some specific objectives you're trying to achieve with the upgrade.

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+1. Concerning focal length, use ExposurePlot (cpr.demon.nl/prog_plotf.html ) to graph the frequency of your choices of focal lengths in the kit zoom. If you find a large spike at the upper limit, look for a medium telephoto lens. If you find a large spike at the lower limit, look for an extreme wide angle lens. If almost all photos are at similar focal lengths, you might not need a zoom at all and could benefit from the better optics of a prime (fixed focal length) lens. Similarly, plot apertures: if many are the lowest possible, look for a brighter lens. –  whuber Feb 10 '11 at 14:39
    
@whuber Thanks a lot for the ExposurePlot tool reference. It definitely helps quantify the nature of my photos. –  ab.aditya Feb 11 '11 at 9:14

You've got already a good answer I voted up from ShutterBug. I would also like you to think of it differently.

You are correct to say that not having a particular usage in mind makes it harder. Typically usage narrows options.

What you need to think about then is particular limitations. The kit-lens is pretty much the most limited modern lens you can get, so there are plenty to choose from:

  • Range: Do you keep wanting to go wider or longer.
  • Depth-of-field: Do you wish to take photos with less depth-of-field, aka more background blur.
  • Quality: Are you tired of your pictures looking like they were taken in a dark tunnel due to vignetting? Do you keep cropping the edges to avoid showing the degradation in sharpness? Do you photos look soft at print-sizes where you have enough megapixels?
  • Performance: Do you miss shots because AF is too slow? Even if you use a small aperture for a photo, AF is always done at maximum aperture, so having an F/2.8 or wider lens will improve things even if you shoot at F/8. USM lenses tend to be faster as well.

There are so many lenses, I hesitate to list particular examples. Pretty much ANY lens will be an upgrade path from the kit lens to improve the factors listed above.

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There are a lot of good answers here of what to try if you already know what you want from your next lens. If you aren't sure yet, though, I'd recommend getting one of the superzooms, like an 18-200 or 18-270. That would give you a lot more creative freedom (I know a lot of photographers learned with a single prime, which gives you a different type of creative freedom), and after you take a couple thousand pictures with it you'll be better able to graph your photos (as @whuber mentioned in his comment) to see what your favorite focal lengths are, and be able to make a more informed decision for your next lens.

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