Maximizing The Use of Kit Lens: Olympus M.Zuiko 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 EZ

I have written lengthily about Olympus underrated Kit Lens, the M.Zuiko 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 EZ Pancake Zoom lens, and you may read them here and here, if you have not done so.

I have heard many times newcomers to photography whine about how useless and crappy the kit lens that comes with their DSLR or Mirrorless System camera, and they immediately dismiss that kit lens, upgrading to better and more expensive pro grade lenses or prime lenses. While I do not deny that kit lens is not as good optically as the more expensive upgrade options, I would not call kit lenses useless, or crappy. For learning photographers, I would recommend rigorous and extensive use of the basic kit lens set up for at least one long year, before considering any upgrades. 

It is my belief that, if you are not yet capable of effectively using the basic kit lens to shoot good images, you are just not ready to upgrade your lens. Even if you choose to get a better lens, you could do so much better if you have just spent some time and effort in developing your skills in optimizing your kit lens use. 

Yes, upgrading to better lenses guarantees sharper images, better contrast (global and micro contrast), more specific capabilities (ultra wide angle, macro, long tele photo, etc) as well as shallower depth of field (wider aperture). I strongly and confidently believe that the kit lens is sufficiently sharp, versatile zoom range  enough for most practical uses and adequate in performance, lacking only by the limitations of the user. 

In this blog entry, I am sharing a few tips and tricks to maximize the potential of your kit lens use in every day photography. It is my hope that more newcomers to photography would not obsess about gear too soon, and explore photography with their new camera and kit lens. 

1) Focus Focus Focus

I know this tip is quite a common one, and nothing out of the ordinary, but I have seen so many cases of out of focus images. No, not the completely blurry, missed focus image, but the slightly off and not 100% in focus image, resulting in softer looking output. There are so many reasons why the camera may not be able to lock down the focus 100%, and out of that many reasons, a huge part of them has got to do with human error, whether the photographer like to admit it or not. Many newcomers to photography did not realize the importance of critical precise focus. Most modern cameras, especially mirrorless system cameras have extremely high hit rate when it comes to focusing, but the camera can be tricked in some complicated shooting situations. How do we covercome the problem of not having 100% sharp, in-focus image? There is only one solution I can think of: review your shots AFTER you snapped the shutter button. Always make sure you zoom in 100% (or more, depending on your level of OCD-ness), any hint of softness indicates only two possible causes: either the image was not entirely in focus or the image suffered hand/camera shake. We shall adresss the second cause in the following point. 

The main advantage of using a digital camera is the instantaneous feedback after the image is being taken. There really is NO excuse that you do not get fully in focus, sharp images with the modern capabilities of digital imaging. It all comes down the strict discipline of whether you put enough effort to make sure you nail your shot, or not. 

2) Slow Down the Shutter Speed When You Can

If you are using newer Olympus OM-D and PEN cameras, you will have discovered and experienced the wonderful 5-Axis Image Stabilization built into the camera. This is a powerful advantage not to be taken lightly. With the effective stabilization, you can lower down your shutter speed and still get away with sharp images, hence using this to your advantage you can get away with one or even two stops of lower ISO settings. Lower ISO settings always benefits greater fine details captured, thus producing overall sharper images. For example, to shoot a night scenes, instead of using 1/30 sec for a wide angle 28mm shot, I can get away with 1/8sec, hand-held. If I ISO3200 was necessary to achieve the said shutter speed of 1/30sec, being able to slow down to 1/8sec, I can get away with ISO800!! That makes a huge difference in getting more out of the image sensor. 

3) Electronic Zoom Speed

Many people disliked the Olympus Pancake Zoom lens design, due to the electronic zoom mechanism. The main reason the electronic zoom was used, was to be able to reduce the size of the lens down to a pancake-like slimness. If you actually prioritize the mechanical zoom then there is the option of the older M.Zuiko 14-42mm IIR, which is bulkier and not to slim. Nonetheless, the main benefit of going Micro Four Thirds, and mirrorless in general is the small footprint of the overall system, and the pancake zoom design accomplishes that goal. The biggest complain with the electronic zoom is the focusing speed, and many do not know that there is a hidden menu deep inside the camera that you can customize the zoom speed in both stills and movie shooting. 

To Customize the Electronic Zoom speed:

Menu --> Cogs --> Utility --> Electronic Zoom Speed --> Still Picture/Movie --> Low/Normal/High

I generally find the zoom speed to be fast enough (I set to High) and have not lost any moments critical shots yet.

All images were taken with Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II and M.Zuiko 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 EZ Pancake Zoom kit lens

1/320sec, F3.5, ISO200, 14mm

1/200sec, F5, ISO320, 20mm

1/10sec, F22, ISO200, 14mm

1/125sec, F6.3, ISO200, 14mm

1/200sec, F5.3, ISO200, 31mm

1/500sec, F5.6, ISO200, 14mm

1/800sec, F8, ISO200, 25mm

1/320sec, F4.5, ISO400, 14mm

1/1000sec, F3.5, ISO800, 14mm

1/80sec, F8, ISO320, 14mm

4) Stop Down The Aperture 

We use wide apertures for a few reasons: to create shallow depth of field, and to gather as much light as possible during low light shooting conditions. Honestly, being a kit lens, there really is not that much potential in creating super shallow depth of field, unless you can get super close to the subject, zoom in all the way to 42mm and use the maximum aperture of F5.6. When shooting in relatively bright situations, in order to get the optimum performance of the lens optics, stop down the aperture to F5.6-F8. When you are shooting wide angle at 14mm, instead of using F3.5, by stopping down to F5.6-F6.3 will get you better overall sharpness in the image. Same applies to shooting at maximum zoom of 42mm, if you stop down your aperture to F8 instead of F5.6, you gain a bit more sharpness. 

5) Get Close

The kit lenses from Olympus generally has very good close up shooting capabilities, and this strong advantage should be exploited! Yes, it is no macro lens, and it does not mean you cannot get close up and reveal the fine details of the subject. You will be surprised by how close the lens can get, as you zoom in all the way to 42mm (full zoom), and move your lens as close as you can to the subject. Not only will you gain better magnification especially shooting very small objects (flowers, jewelries  , insects), in this method you can also create super shallow depth of field, isolating your subjects from the background. If you cannot get close enough, and you wish to have more magnification, get the budget friendly Olympus Macro Converter M-CON P02, and you will obtain near-macro results. 

6) High ISO Use

I know this will sound contradictory to Point 2) earlier about not using high ISO, but there are some circumstances that require the boost of ISO to get the shot done. We are all aware that the kit lens has narrow aperture widest openings of variable F3.5-5.6, and in very dim lighting conditions, these less than stellar aperture openings will not be sufficient to gather light for fast enough shutter speeds if needed. Slow shutter speeds may work for static subjects or to induce motion in photographs, but in cases when movements need to be frozen, there really is no choice but to bump up the ISO settings. And you know what, bump it up if you need to! Do not be too scared about high ISO noise, remember, it is more important to capture the moment in the photograph, than lose it at the expense of getting clean noise-free images. A little bit of noise may be present in a photograph, that is perfectly ok, and I do not see a problem with that. The goal is to produce sharp image, if you need to freeze motion, and not have blurry subjects due to movement, then go for higher ISO settings!

Do not be hesitant to use high ISO when needed. This was shot at ISO5000, as I needed to freeze the hand motion. 
1/100sec, F5, 19mm, ISO5000

1/20sec, F3.5, ISO1600, 14mm

1/30sec, F5.5, ISO3200, 30mm

1/50sec, F5.6, ISO400, 25mm

To reveal all the fine details, go in close! Zoom in to full 42mm and go as near as you can to the subject. Also, to gain more depth of field and to get a sharper image, do not shoot wide open, stop down the aperture.
1/60sec, F7.1, ISO320, 42mm

Crop from previous image. Kit Lens, sharp enough?

Maximum magnification with the kit lens. If more magnification is needed, add MCON-P02 macro converter, as shown in the following image. 
F5.6, 1/30sec, 42mm, ISO200

Image taken with MCON-P02
F5.6, 1/30sec, 42mm, ISO200

1/25sec, F16, 42mm, ISO640, MCON-P02 used

1/15sec, F5.6, 35mm, ISO200 

7) Use Olympus Viewer 3, of in camera JPEG 

If you are using the kit lens, most likely you are new to photography, and do not be too adventurous when it comes to photo-manipulation. Start with natural looking outcomes as your objective, capturing images as close as your eyes can see (is that not the original goal of photography? not that I am against the more fantastic style of image processing, but if you cannot get the basics right, I am afraid the photo-editing may just spiral out of control). The straight out of camera JPEG images from Olympus cameras (and most modern cameras) are already so optimized you may only need to do minor tweaking to your taste, without much trouble. 

I highly recommend Olympus Viewer 3, of Olympus JPEG files for a few reasons: optimized image output with necessary technical flaw corrections (chromatic aberration reduction, noise suppression, sharpness compensation, distortion control, auto-white balance, etc). If you choose to process the RAW files yourself in your software of choice other than Olympus Viewer 3, you have got to know what you are doing taking care of all the above-mentioned aspects. Sharpening a photograph is a skill, which I do not even have, and I rely heavily on the Olympus Viewer 3 to churn out images that are already optimally sharp! 

8) Have Confidence in Your Kit Lens

This is probably the most subjective tip ever given, but many photographers already mentally decided that the kit lens is not good enough. When you are out shooting with your friends and peers who use those gigantic F2.8 Pro zoom lenses and fast prime lenses you start to lose faith in the kit lens and its ability to deliver excellent images. You know what? So what if their higher grade cameras and lenses deliver sharper images? So what if they can produce shallower depth of field? Does that make your camera and lens combo any less adequate? I can understand how many newcomers in photography are easily discouraged and de-motivated when they feel inferior and do not measure up. 

I spent almost two years shooting with the 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 (Zuiko Digital, DSLR version for Olympus E-System) on Olympus DSLR E-520. I admit I had the 40-150mm F3.5-4.5 with me, which I did bring alongside the 14-42mm kit lens at all times. I did not upgrade or buy any better replacements for that kit lens until about 2 years later (I got myself the 11-22mm F2.8-3.5 lens, and 50mm F2 Macro lens). I have improved a great deal, and learned so much in photography by staying with the basic, humble kit lens. Did I wish I have better lenses to work with? To be honest, in some few occasions, being human, yes, but looking back now, after all these years I can give a firm NO as an answer. I have laid a strong foundation for myself learning photography using the kit lens, and through the limitations I have worked around them and get better through the years!

Therefore, do not be psychologically affected, trust in the kit lens, it has not failed me. If you are doing photography as a hobby, there is no one to fail, but yourself. I can fully understand if you are shooting for a client, and do photography professionally, as you need professional equipment to deliver the best possible outcome, which you should already know what you are doing and will not need to read this blog entry. 

Do you find these tips useful? Do you have other tips to share? Please let me know!

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  1. Hey Robin, the plastic box photos are great! I always like the way that Plexiglass structures look like they're glowing from the inside. Kit lenses can be really fine - just consider the Oly 12-50. It has a 24-100 / 35mm equivalent range, moisture resistance, close focus capability, decent sharpness, and nowadays a really low price! Good stuff!

    1. Thanks David for the kind words! I also still use the 12-50mm regularly, and it does deliver good images as well!

  2. I am also having a serious affair with the kit lens, albeit the panasonic 12-32, not the zuiko. It's very small, surprisingly sharp, and that wide 24mm is delicious. Newcomers should definitely spend more time with these kit lenses.

    1. I have not tried the Panasonic version and I think it should be doing great as well! such tiny lens it is.

  3. Love the shot of the 5 guys. They looks like a retired boy band

  4. Hello, Robin. Nice and useful article as usual. I confirm this lens is capable of producing very good pictures, but if you want to get the best of it, you must absolutely shoot in raw. I was very disappointed with direct JPEG files from the camera (an E-M10). JPEG files generated from raw with Olympus Viewer 3 are much, much cleaner and sharper. Now I only shoot in raw, no matter the lens I use.

    1. My experience proved otherwise, the RAW files converted from the Olympus Viewer 3 is the exact same quality in comparison to the JPEG files!

    2. You are right, Robin, I have tried again, shooting in RAW and JPEG, and the JPEG quality is the same. I can't tell what went wrong with my "disappointing" JPEG files at that time, but I have changed my camera settings since, thanks to your blog, and now it works fine. Thanks again !

  5. Great article! All well said and to the point. Nice pix too!

  6. Robin, I like my 12-40 kit lens, really nice.
    I am still laughing at the retired boy band comment....

    1. I know, it is still stuck in my head somehow!

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Thanks for that article, I really love the 14-42 EZ. It is great, to have such a good usable lens in that size and for me a big plus for the mft system.

  9. Great tips, Robin! This lens came with my OM-D E-M10 camera when I bought it about 2 months ago (came with the bulkier version, not the pancake lens). I've used it and it is a very nice kit lens. I haven't really pushed it far because I'm still very new to photography and frankly, I'm not knowledgeable enough yet to know why and when to push its capabilities, but I am learning! I like your blog, it's very helpful to me. Thank you!

  10. Good stuff Robin! I just bought the EM10II a month ago and I'm loving it so far! One question for you, what mode dials do you use when shooting and why? What mode dial should I start with? Thanks :)

  11. Loved the article Robin. Athough I have the Olympus 17mm 2.8, and alos the Lumix 25mm 1.7 prime lenses I find that the 14-42mm EZ keeps up with them in a lot of respects and I find that i am using the kit lens more and more.
    When you say that you use Olympus Viewer 3 OF in camera Jpeg was that mean to say Olympus Viewer 3 OR in camera Jpeg ??.
    Thanks, I really enjoy your blog.

  12. Hi Robin, your point number two just reminded me of a couple of things. First one is that would be nice for A and P modes to account for the IBIS, even just a stop or two or a customizable amount. As you say the chosen shutter speed (and then the Auto-ISO value) is almost always too high for static subjects.

    The second thing is that it would be nice to have something similar to a TAv mode like few other cameras have. Often you want to set a higher shutter speed (to avoid movement blur) or lower (to reduce ISO) AND also a specific aperture (to get some DoF) and this is simply not possible. You may switch to Manual but then you loose Auto-ISO and ISO is not so immediate to change. Even with the 2x2 lever a big bad panel comes up covering things and you have to remember to push the lever back and forth. And each time you want to change one single parameter you have to also move another one to preserve the exposure (and this often involves a 2x2 switch).
    Auto-ISO here would act as a little "shock absorber" for small adjustments.

    I know that you can enable Auto-ISO for Manual but as soon as you do this you loose control over exposure because there is no exposure compensation in Manual mode (some other cameras have this feature and would be nice to have it, maybe configuring a dial to control this rather then WB when the 2x2 is switched?). In the end to control aperture, shutter speed and proper exposure is simply not easy with M + Auto-ISO (and using ISO as an hack to do exposure compensation is possible but clumsy and hackish anyway. Exp comp may end up changing the ISO but the "intention" is different and if I later change aperture or shutter speed the compensation would be preserved, the ISO hack not).

    Ever been there? Don't you think there is room for improvement here with a moderate effort?

  13. I know I'm late to the party.

    However, thanks for the post Robin and reminding us that the 14-42mm "kit" lens is still a worthy lens to use. I love your photos and accompanying text.

    I have the "big" version of the lens. However, it's been a reliable lens that does the trick with my Pen 6. In fact, the bulk of my Pen shooting is with this lens. Again, I love what you were able to achieve with this lens.

    Thanks again, and all the best.