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.
Many photography blogs, this one included, will advise you to make the most of what you’ve got and, only when you feel that your camera equipment is holding you back, should you upgrade.
We 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…
What are you photographing that requires an expensive camera?
The features of a particular camera body become important only if you specialize in a particular type of photography that demands those features.
To explain this point, here are a few reasons to upgrade your camera before your lenses…
- 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 – a camera body with a high frame rate of say 10 fps (frames per second) and the necessary processing power is what you need
- Photographing a bird in flight – focus tracking is an essential feature of the camera body you need
- 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.
One thing to bear in mind if you do upgrade your camera before your lenses…
Cheaper lenses are often made for APS-C sensor cameras. 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 are not 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.
Now, here’s why photography blogs advise upgrading your lens first…
Why should you invest in an expensive lens first?
All APS-C and full frame digital sensors are perfectly good enough for the hobbyist photographer. Some 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! What 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 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…
This is probably the most well known difference between consumer (cheaper) lenses and professional (expensive) lenses.
We all know that if you want to shoot at the widest apertures, you need to invest in expensive lenses. But why?
Why are lenses with wide apertures so expensive?
Because of the more advanced mechanics within the lens, professional lenses are ideal for:
There’s one other aperture factor that is not mentioned as often, but is quite an important one to consider…
Variable aperture versus constant aperture
This applies to zoom lenses only.
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.
What that aperture detail 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!
At longer focal lengths you need (in low light situations at least) all the light you can get for your shutter speed to be fast enough, unless your camera is mounted on a tripod.
Nearly 1.5 f-stops is also a big difference in depth of field.
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.
Focus – autofocus motors
The autofocus motor of an expensive lens is superior to a lower quality, cheap lens. Focus motors in expensive lenses are able to lock onto the subject so much faster, and they’re quieter.
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 points.
2. LENS COMPONENTS – QUALITY OF MATERIALS 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 is 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.
On a side note – it helps to have a really good bag too.
Another time my camera bag saved my expensive 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 weather proof, no beer got inside.
It didn’t smell too good in the car on the way home though!
Further reading: How to choose the best camera bag for you
The glass itself
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, but 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 reflections, ghosting and 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 quick than a kit lens, so is better for capturing fast moving subjects, like superheroes in full flight!
3. BUILD QUALITY
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 the top grade lenses, with more rigorous quality standards. That’s not to say that consumer level lenses are not inspected for quality. It’s just that the quality threshold is lower.
Top of the range lenses are sealed against dust and moisture, so are more likely not to be affected by 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.)
When 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 so, they twist in and out. This is particularly inconvenient if you’ve attached a graduated filter as you’d have to reset the filter each time you move the lens so that it is not skew.
As with all things, movement can over time be wearing on the lens, which could affect its ability to capture good quality images. Prime lenses don’t move, so there is less wear. This might be a point you’d like to consider when thinking through your next lens purchase.
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:
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.
This ties in with my point above.
Eventually, if you invest in good quality lenses, you will 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. It can feel front heavy.
Again, not a big deal, but bear in mind that you’ll also need to be more careful in how you handle it. The lens mount on the cheaper body is not as tough as that of a professional 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 10 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 4 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 is not bad and this camera will continue to serve me well for a while yet.
I’m waiting to see what’s happening with Nikon’s mirrorless technology before I invest in my next lens, or switch over my kit altogether.
But, as I said, there’s no rush.
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