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I currently have the Nikon D5300 along with the kit lenses (18 - 55mm). I use it for my backpacking travels to make better shots than with the smartphone, but what I've noticed is that the photos are quite dark and lack vivid colors.

I will post some examples on the bottom. Is this the fault of the lenses, or is this the fault of me as a bad photographer?

I'd like to buy something with a little more zoom (around 18 - 100mm?) which would give some better image quality. Will this help me accomplish what I want?

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    "dark and lack vivid colours" - not in the slightest. There are some hard shadows in the first picture, but there's still plenty of vivid colour in them all. I would suspect your computer's display calibration. The lens really isn't going to affect the colour in the way you appear to mean. – Tetsujin Dec 23 '17 at 16:12
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    We generally avoid specific model recommendations, because those can change quickly and the right answer is often subjective. I've edited your question to focus on what seems to be the core issue, because I think if we get that figured out you'll be better equipped to decide what to do next. If that doesn't seem helpful, feel free to roll back and we'll try again. :) – mattdm Dec 23 '17 at 17:09
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    I agree with @Tetsujin, all those pictures look to me like they've had their color saturation boosted to the limits of what's realistic, and maybe a bit beyond. Granted, the last one is a picture of mostly gray buildings against a mostly gray sky, and there's only so much even a saturation boost can do with that. But the few parts that aren't gray, like the blue tanks and the red and light blue walls, have really intense colors. – Ilmari Karonen Dec 23 '17 at 20:33
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    It is funny that you complain about dark images that lack vivid colors and then post pictures which are about as bright and vivid as I can tolerate ;-). Why don't you post a bright reference picture with vivid colors so that we can understand what you are trying to achieve? – Peter - Reinstate Monica Dec 23 '17 at 23:16
  • I actually thought you put the images into the question as the goal of what you want your images to look like, until I read the text more closely. The images you posted seem to be explicit demonstrations of excellent colors. Have you tried copying photos taken on your D5300 to your phone so you can do a side by side comparison with photos taken on your phone, right on your phones screen? – Todd Wilcox Dec 25 '17 at 11:52
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"Better image quality."

You use that phrase.

enter image description here

When we say image quality in reference to comparing two lenses, we rarely are talking about anything with regard to which one is "... less dark and gives more vivid colors."¹

Those things are more a function of the light in the scene, the photographer's skill at seeing that light and capturing it while also composing the frame is such a way that our eyes are guided to what the photographer wants us to focus on, and how the information gathered by the camera's sensor is converted to an image. Increasing or decreasing contrast, white balance, saturation, exposure, etc. are what most affects the things with which you are concerned.

The kinds of images you see on 500px, Flickr, or even Instagram that many people describe as "vivid" are not usually straight out of camera jpegs created using the camera's built-in development settings. They're images that have been captured using raw format and processed with highly configurable applications such as Lightroom to make them look the way they do. They've also not usually been captured during the harsh light of midday.

Moving from your 18-55 kit lens to an 18-100 wider range zoom will not make your photos less dark or more vibrant. Generally speaking, an 18-55 mm lens will usually give better image quality than a similarly made 18-100mm lens will. The wider the range between the extremes of a lens' focal length, the more difficult (and expensive) it is to make a lens with high optical quality. But even if the 18-100mm lens has "better image quality", it's still not going to make any difference to the things you mention in your question.

In terms of lenses, image quality is about things such as acutance ("sharpness"), geometric distortion, peripheral light falloff, etc.

The entire point of an interchangeable lens system camera is to allow you to use different lenses that are better or even great at one thing but unsuitable for other things. Fixed lens cameras force you to use a single lens that is mediocre or worse at a lot of things but better at nothing. Insisting on using a single lens for everything on an interchangeable lens camera is not much different than using a fixed lens camera. In some cases the fixed lens camera may meet your needs better than an ILC with only one lens.

The best lenses are all prime lenses. That means a single focal length. No.Zoom.At.All. They're really good when they provide the field of view and other characteristics you need. This is because they can be optimized to do one thing at one focal length. A good flat field 100mm macro lens is different from a good 85mm, 105mm, or 135mm portrait lens. But they are not very flexible, so you need a lot of them for various different things. Some are pretty good for not much money (e.g. EF 50mm f/1.8 STM @ $120). Others are incredibly good for a boatload of cash (e.g. EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS II @ $10K). Most fall somewhere in between.

Compared to their zoom lens counterparts, in addition to equal or better optical quality at a lower price prime lenses can also be smaller/lighter, have wider maximum apertures, and often still be much cheaper.

Short ratio zoom lenses, that is zoom lenses with a less than 3X difference between their longest and shortest focal length, can also be very good. But the best ones cost a lot.

When you move outside of the 3x limit is when image quality really starts to noticeably go down. Some 4-5X zoom lenses that fall entirely in the telephoto range can be pretty good. But when you start trying to design a lens that goes from wide angle to telephoto and covers a 5X-10X or more zoom range, that is when it really starts getting difficult to keep it affordable and manageable with regard to size and weight and still provide excellent image quality. You'll usually get better image quality and spend less buying something like an 18-55mm and a 55-250mm pair of zoom lenses than you would get with an 18-200mm 'all-in-one'.


¹ Sure, we can measure the T-stop (light transmission vs. the f-stop) of one lens versus the other. We can measure how each lens affects contrast and color. Back in the "dark ages" of the manual focus film era, theses were more important considerations. We couldn't alter the ISO or color response curves on every shot with a single roll of film. It took a LOT more work (i.e. time and money) in the darkroom to fine tune color, contrast, etc. than we can now do with raw digital data. Those very slight differences in transmission and color are now trivial to adjust after the image has been taken. On the other hand, digital sensors are a lot flatter than film and can resolve more detail at 35mm sizes than film can. We now expect tremendously more of our lenses in terms of resolution than we did back then. Most 35mm photos never got printed larger than 8x10 in the film era. Now we routinely look at everything we shoot under 100% pixel peeping viewing conditions that are equivalent to blowing it up to 60x40 (24MP on a 23" HD monitor).

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    I assume this got a downvote because someone found the image/quote to be unnecessarily mean. Dunno. – mattdm Dec 23 '17 at 17:11
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    @mattdm - Inconceivable ! ;) – Tetsujin Dec 23 '17 at 17:11
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    It may be worth mentioning that different lens materials (plastic vs. glass) can have some impact on the spectral transmission which can affect the relative contrast between various pairs of colors, and also different lens designs and materials can also impact the chromatic aberration ("color fringing") differently. But those are still fairly minor issues compared to the big ones this answer quite nicely addresses. – fluffy Dec 23 '17 at 23:30
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    Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you took lack luster photos in the harsh mid day sunlight, prepare to post process. – Alaska Man Dec 24 '17 at 19:40
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    @Michael Clark Thanks a ton. Really helped me remove a lot of misunderstandings. Just to confirm, I have 2 follow up points I assume are right, please correct me if wrong. 1. Even many of the cinematic scenes with a cool browinsh/graying feel, something tio give the feel of a top notck business meeting - is grading (along with lighting etc). It is not that the whole setup was grayish/brownish when shot. Same with the vibrancy of cookery shows. The colour popup, because cetrain color shades gets added. – Rahul Dec 25 '17 at 7:52
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I currently have the Nikon D5300 along with the kit lenses (18 - 55mm). I use it for my backpacking travels to make better shots than with the smartphone, but what I've notice is that the photos are quite dark and lack vivid colors.

...than your smartphone, I presume. The difference is that by default, dSLRs are set not to enhance images much, while smartphones enhance the bejeezus out of any image taken. If you are shooting JPEG, and haven't changed the in-camera processing settings, then you can tweak the color values to be more saturated if that's what you want (although, frankly, the examples you posted look to already be tweaked along those lines to the point of artificiality). On a D5300, look for Picture Controls. Vivid may be the setting you're after.

But using in-camera JPEG processing might reduce your ability to adjust colors in post, later, since JPEG is a lossy compression scheme. A lot of photographers will shoot RAW for later manipulation in post-processing because that way they have more latitude for adjustments than with JPEG.

"Quite dark" could also be that you're underexposing for the scene, and relying on the camera's autoexposure system to do the thinking. And it doesn't really think. It just plops what it sees as a middle tonal value where it thinks it should sit—in the middle. That value may actually be lighter than in the middle of the range (mostly white scene), so you get underexposure. If the value is actually darker than the middle of the range (mostly black scene), you'll get overexposure.

See also: this article on histograms.

Is this the fault of the lenses, or is this the fault of me as a bad photographer?

Neither. It's the assumption by an inexperienced photographer that the camera should do all the work on processing the image, without realizing that you can control the processing to match your tastes and the exposure to match the scene. You're driving stick, now. It's only natural to grind the gears a little at first.

I'd like to buy something with a little more zoom (around 18 - 100mm?) which would give some better image quality. Will this help me accomplish what I want?

Unlikely. It will give you more reach, and that's all. And it may even hurt image quality, because to accomplish a larger zoom range, the lens designers had to make compromises. A superzoom lens tends to have issues with distortion and softness at certain points along the range because it's so big.

See also: Why are my photos not crisp? for some basic technique pointers.

  • I think you name the key issue here: Post processing. For the typical amateur (like me) many lenses are good enough for many pictures and their uses. How the final picture looks in print or on screen at the end is mostly determined by the post processing. Over- and under-exposure as well as lack of contrast or color can be corrected within wide margins with acceptable results. With electronic pictures that's really easy these days. But this puts a burden on the photographer: That post-processing is expected and necessary for anything beyond the occasional snapshot. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Dec 23 '17 at 23:24
  • @PeterA.Schneider It's even more about finding (or creating) good light and creating interesting compositions when you shoot. – Michael C Dec 24 '17 at 20:18
  • Light is not as important as it used to be when you shot on slides. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Dec 24 '17 at 23:00
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    @PeterA.Schneider, I'm not sure I'd agree that post-processing is necessary, just that control and choice of any processing, whether in-camera or post, is. – inkista Dec 25 '17 at 1:25
  • @PeterA.Schneider Light is always the most important thing in creating a photograph. Slides required nailing exposure. Film gave a bit more leeway. Digital gives even more. But all other things being equal, getting exposure as close to one's artistic intent in camera will always produce the image with the highest technical quality, even in a digital environment. – Michael C Dec 25 '17 at 19:15
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Posting this additional answer because so far it's really only been mentioned in comments.

what I've noticed is that the photos are quite dark and lack vivid colours.

This is quite apparently not what everyone else is seeing in your example images. They are bright & punchy - almost too punchy for some people judging by the other comments.

If we are all seeing bright & punchy, yet you are seeing dark with a lack of vibrancy, then the first suspect is the computer monitor you are editing them on.

Most modern laptops are shipped with monitor calibration that looks attractive on display in the shop, but the first thing you have to do when you get home is to change it from attractive to accurate.
To do this properly, you need a device called a colorimeter. These vary in price from entry-level at maybe $£€ 80 up to several hundreds.
Without one, you will never know when your pictures are right.

Very briefly - you connect it to USB, hang it over the screen, blocking it from other interfering light sources, & run the software. It will tell you exactly what to do. It will then generate a profile for your screen & tell your computer to apply it.

You can now see what colour things are supposed to be.

There's an in-depth tutorial at B&H - How To Calibrate Your Monitor which includes links to some specific colorimeters.

  • Very important issue, too! Good that you mention it. It is stunning how different a picture can look on a different monitor, and then again on different prints. Color reproduction and perception is vastly more complicated (and hence difficult to get right) than one would naively think. The problem is also the audience. You may have a repro grade processing chain, but you are almost alone; if you produce online content you are pressured into catering to people's sRGB default and typical monitors and their settings. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Dec 25 '17 at 8:41
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While anything will give you better image quality than the kit lens - which is why the kit lens is the least expensive lens - it will not have an impact on colors.

A better lens will give you much better sharpness, improved contrast and better resistance to flare and that will make your images look less dull.

What you really need to have better colors with details in shadows and highlights is time. Images look better when taken at certain times of the day, usually an hour around sunset and sunrise when light is not too harsh which allows your camera to capture more details. See my answer to this question.

Good lenses tend to have a shorter zoom ratio, so from the kit lens, I would suggest upgrading to a DX 17-55mm F/2.8. You can cover longer focal-lengths later with an additional lens. Nikon makes an 18-140mm F/3.5-5.6 which is better than the kit but it still a dim and slow lens. Plus you do have to stop it down at least 1-2 stops to get good sharpness (depending on the focal-length selected).

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    "Anything" won't necessarily give better quality than a kit lens. 18-55mm and 55-200/250mm lenses usually perform better than consumer grade 18-200mm type "all-in-one" lenses that cost considerably more. – Michael C Dec 23 '17 at 17:09
  • Images look better when taken at certain times of the day – Jasen Dec 23 '17 at 22:18
  • Nikon 18-140mm is exactly what I was considering to buy in place of the kit lenses. What do you mean by "you do have to stop it down at least 1-2 stops to get good sharpness" though? – khernik Dec 25 '17 at 16:49
  • @khernik - That means that it is soft at F/3.5 near wide-angle and at F/5.6 near telephoto, so if you want any sharpness you need to shoot at F/6.7 or F/8 at the long end. This is quite dim, while the 17-55mm F/2.8 gives very sharp output even at F/4. – Itai Dec 25 '17 at 19:21
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Changing the lens won't help with the issues you are describing, instead, change your color profile to 'vivid' and use 'exposure compensation' for almost every shot. The camera does not know what you are shooting, and makes everything average bright. A sunny beach is supposed to be more bright than average, so you should set it to +0.7 or +1. Also the time of day makes a huge difference, everything looks better when you get closer to sun set or rise.

If you are looking to buy a new lens, consider going for less zoom, like a 50mm prime. An f/1.4 lets in about 10 times more light than your zoom, so you can keep shooting without a tripod when the sun is setting. It can also make the background very blurry, which is great for portraits, or just to make your subject stand out more. An other big advantage of primes is that they force you to move around a bit. This helps a lot when you are learning about photography. If you are moving around anyway, you start to pay attention to how your composition changes, and for me this helped to improve my pictures a lot.

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