Is an expensive lens more important than an expensive camera, or should you invest in a better camera first? This is one of the most asked questions by photographers wanting to upgrade their kit. To answer this question, I’m assuming that there’s nothing wrong with the camera you already have and that you just want a better camera.
Many photography blogs, this one included, will advise you to make the most of what you’ve got and upgrade only when you feel that your camera equipment is holding you back.
I also advise you to “spend on glass”. In other words, yes, invest in a better quality lens before you upgrade your camera.
There are some very good reasons for this. But before we get into why you should upgrade your lenses before you upgrade your camera, let’s first look at why you might need a better camera.
Sometimes, the answer is indeed, upgrade your camera. So, the question you need to ask is…
Why do you need an expensive camera?
Advanced cameras are more robust than entry level cameras with better weather proofing so can handle to rigours of being used daily for professional photography. Plus they have full frame sensors for higher resolution photos and produce better quality images in low light conditions.
So if you’re starting to work as a professional photographer and have an entry level camera it would be good to invest in a better camera.
Or you might want to stay up to date with the advances in camera technology and exchange your DSLR for a mirrorless camera.
Other reasons to upgrade your camera before your lenses…
You might need certain features of a particular camera body for a particular type of photography. Here are some examples…
- Very low light photography – combining a wide aperture lens and a camera body with excellent low light sensitivity is needed
- Sports photography with fast action – you need a camera body with a high frame rate of say 10 fps (frames per second) and the necessary processing power
- Photographing a bird in flight – you need focus tracking
- Wildlife photography from a distance – a high resolution sensor, combined with a good telephoto lens, might be necessary so that you can crop in closer than you can physically get
So that’s the argument for upgrading your camera.
Full frame vs crop sensor
One thing to bear in mind if you do upgrade your camera before your lenses is that cheaper lenses are often made for APS-C sensor cameras (crop frame). As these cameras have a smaller sensor, which uses the center of the frame, the center of the lens is the important part.
Because the corners aren’t used, less attention has been paid to the picture quality of the corner areas of cheap lenses. So, a cheap lens on a full frame camera won’t produce the same top quality results from corner to corner of a high quality lens on a full frame camera.
Why should you invest in an expensive lens first?
All APS-C digital sensors are perfectly good enough for the hobbyist photographer. Remember, modern day digital cameras are far better than early digital cameras that were used by professionals to create images for billboards. Some mid level camera models are even good enough for the working photographer, especially when paired with good glass (an expensive lens).
An expensive lens is actually good value
The best reason I can give for upgrading your lens rather than your camera is one that affects the pocket. The technology in cameras changes so quickly! Any camera you buy now will be outdated in two years.
Even worse, cameras lose value fast! If you want to sell your camera body to help buy a new one, the value of it will have dropped dramatically in two years.
An expensive lens, however, will serve you faithfully (if cared for properly) for many years, so it’s actually good value. I’m still using lenses every day that I bought more than 10 years ago. They’re built to last. In addition, they’re still being manufactured and have retained their value if, for some crazy reason, I wish to sell them. Although, the only time I would consider selling them is if I switch from Nikon to Sony. Maybe.
An expensive lens is superior in regard to:
- Build quality
Let’s take a closer look…
1. Lens performance
Wide aperture settings is probably the most well known difference between consumer (cheaper) lenses and professional (expensive) lenses.
So if you want to shoot at the widest apertures, you need to invest in expensive lenses. But what makes them expensive?
Why are lenses with wide apertures so expensive?
Expensive lenses have more advanced mechanics within the lens, so professional lenses are ideal for:
- Beautiful creamy backgrounds from narrow depth of field
- Aesthetically pleasing bokeh – the shape of the out of focus spectral highlights in the background and foreground of photos
- Photographing in low light
The other less known reason that’s quite important is that more expensive zoom lenses have a variable aperture instead of a constant aperture.
If you look at kit lenses – the zoom lenses supplied with consumer camera bodies – you’ll see that the aperture is written as f/3.5-5.6, for example. One such lens is the Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR Lens, which is the kit lens supplied with the Nikon D7000.
This means is that at 18mm the maximum aperture is f3.5 and at 105mm the maximum aperture is f5.6. That’s a difference of nearly 1.5 stops of light!
To avoid camera shake at longer focal lengths you need to be able to set a faster shutter speed, unless your camera is mounted on a tripod. Because you need a faster shutter speed you need a wider aperture. If the widest you can go at 105mm is F5.6, you’ll have a hard time capturing sharp photos in low light at long focal lengths.
Nearly 1.5 f-stops is also a big difference in depth of field, so it’ll be harder to get a blurry background.
My 24-70mm and my 70-200mm f2.8 lenses are both constant aperture lenses. So, regardless of whether I’m shooting at 24mm or 200mm, I’ll be able to use an aperture of f2.8 and I never have to worry about a variable aperture.
Focus – autofocus motors
The autofocus motor of an expensive lens is superior to a lower quality, cheap lens. Focus motors in expensive lenses can lock onto the subject so much faster, and they’re quieter. This increases the chance of sharp focus with moving subjects.
Plus, a noisy shutter in a quiet church is incredibly off-putting for wedding photography.
Take money out of the equation and image quality becomes the primary reason for buying an expensive lens. Afterall, optimum image results is what we’re all after. We want the best performance in:
Because more engineering goes into the top quality lenses, they outperform consumer lenses on all these image quality points.
2. Lens components of expensive lenses – quality of material used
Cheaper lenses are not as hardy as expensive lenses.
They’re not designed to handle the constant use and therefore occasional abuse of working professional gear. One reason why cheaper lenses are lighter than professional lenses is that the parts are largely made from plastic and aluminium.
Professional lenses use metal and brass parts, which can better withstand knocks. The optics are more developed and there are more optical elements within higher grade lenses to perfect lens aberrations.
Event photography is not my thing, but like every working photographer, sometimes I take on work that’s not my usual thing. A few years ago I photographed a kid’s go-karting event. I was moving around the outside of the track between two chosen spots and had left my gear at one spot. A go-kart went flying through the barrier and straight into my camera bag with my extra lenses. However, my lenses were fine – they took the knock without any issues, because of their build quality.
On a side note – it helps to have a really good bag too.
Another time my camera bag saved my expensive camera gear was when I was leaving a wedding and a guest who’d had a few too many stumbled into me and accidentally tipped his full pint of beer over my bag. Fortunately, all zips were closed properly and, as my bag was weatherproof, no beer got inside.
It didn’t smell too good in the car on the way home though!
The glass on expensive lenses
This is quite simple – the quality of the glass used in an expensive lens is better than in a cheap lens. Just like in jewellery, a flawless diamond is significantly more expensive than a lower quality diamond, and the difference is obvious.
Coating on the lens
It’s not just about the moving parts inside the lens, or the quality of the glass, but the coating on the glass. Believe it or not, even that makes a difference!
The coating on professional quality lenses has a big impact on image quality. It reduces:
- Lens flare
All these things add up to lenses that cope well with light hitting the front of the lens and deliver clearer, sharper images with better color.
A good quality lens will lock focus much quicker than a kit lens, so is better for capturing fast moving subjects, like superheroes in full flight!
3. Build quality of expensive lenses
Expensive lenses are hand assembled, which ensures more detailed attention to quality. Cheaper lenses are more machine assembled.
Even the inspection process is better for top grade lenses, with more rigorous quality standards. That’s not to say that consumer level lenses aren’t inspected for quality. It’s just that the quality threshold is lower. You pay for what you get.
Top of the range lenses are sealed against dust and moisture, so are better at handling extreme temperatures, dust and rain. Not that you should unnecessarily expose your camera to these conditions, but it is comforting to know that when you have to shoot no matter what, your lens will be okay. Of course, it’s a good idea to take all necessary precautions to protect it as well.
I’ve heard from readers of The Lens Lounge who have had a tough time with fungus affecting their consumer lenses. One reader in Sao Paulo, Brazil tried everything, but the humidity levels were so high he couldn’t stop the fungus. (PS – if you’re in a humid area, keeping silica gel packets in your camera bag will help.)
We were camping in Namibia, with temperatures exceeding 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) on some days. I obviously took care not to leave my camera lying in the sun when not in use, but I wasn’t particularly worried about it and I knew it would be safe in my camera bag. In fact, my gear handled the heat better than the car windscreen, which cracked right through the middle while parked. Not such great glass as it turns out!
Higher quality zoom lenses maintain the same shape when zooming. All the movement is internal.
Cheaper zoom lenses expand and collapse. As they do, they twist in and out. This is particularly inconvenient if you’ve attached a graduated filter to the lens as you’d have to reset the filter each time you move the lens so that it’s not skew.
As with all things, movement over time can be wearing on the lens, which could affect its ability to capture good quality images. Prime lenses don’t move, so there’s less wear on them. Something to consider when thinking through your next lens purchase.
Challenges when you upgrade your lenses
Like with most things, you pay for what you get. With top quality lenses you’re paying for the extra research and development, advanced mechanics, quality materials, quality threshold and quality of assembly.
However, there are two points you should bear in mind when upgrading to expensive lenses:
1. Weight of quality lenses
All that engineering, top quality parts and glass comes at a price. And I don’t mean money. The price is weight.
Top quality lenses are bigger and heavier than cheaper lenses.
2. Weight balance
This ties in with my point above.
Eventually, if you invest in good quality lenses, you’ll need to upgrade your camera body to match.
It’s not a big deal, but is worth bearing in mind that heavier lenses balance well with the heavier, professional quality camera bodies. A cheaper camera body can feel front heavy with a high quality lens attached, depending of course on the focal length of the lens. A 50mm lens, for example, won’t make nearly as much difference as an 200mm lens.
You’ll also need to be more careful in how you handle a high quality lens on an entry level or mid level camera. The lens mount on the cheaper camera isn’t as tough as that of a professional camera body.
Last words on buying an expensive lens
Just to be clear – I’m not encouraging you to go out and spend a fortune to improve your photography.
I’m encouraging you to think before you spend, and to buy only when you need to. When you invest in your next purchase, whatever it is, do so with all the knowledge needed to be confident that you’ve made the right choice for you.
I still use my 14 year old Nikon D700 as a second camera and it’s still great. My partner still uses my old D300, which I bought in 2008 and I haven’t bought new lenses in several years.
I want to, but I don’t need to. It’s not going to improve my photography.
I’ve had my D810 for 9 years now and it’s still going strong. I don’t shoot in burst mode and, because I prefer to keep time at my computer to the minimum, I don’t overshoot. So the shutter count isn’t bad and this camera will continue to serve me well for a while yet.
I’ve been waiting to see what’s happening with Nikon’s mirrorless technology before I invest in my next lens, or switch over my kit altogether. Now that the Z8 is out, I’m tempted.
But, as I said, there’s no rush.
Leave a comment
If you have any questions about upgrading your camera equipment, let us know in the comments.
Also, I love good news, so if my photography tips have helped you to work out whether to invest in a better camera or expensive lens, share that too.