The myth: lens first before camera body

Buy a good lens instead of buying a good camera body.

This is probably one of the best advises you can get from pro photographers…and even those claiming to be pros. Let me dispell the myth.

Ask yourself first: What do you aim to achieve in photography? Are you a casual shooter taking snaps of family events? Do you wake up at 3AM just to catch the magnificent light of dawn? Do you frequent the forums arguing about sharpness and noise? Do people pay for your photos?

These are very important questions that you should be honest about. They are far more important than the age old “lens or body?”.

The “lens or body?” question originated in the film era and the answer to that is “of course, get a good lens.” And the answer makes complete sense. The camera is just a device to trap light. Back then, there were no sensors. Well everyone had the same sensor: FILM. To invest in a really good camera body was almost taboo. I know I’m exaggerating but you get the point. As long as your camera body can flip the shutter curtain in perfect timing and can properly advance the roll of film then you are good to go.

Not so with digital photography. The camera body plays a very important role in capturing the photo. You have to consider the sensor, the processor and reliability of your shutter. That last bit is important since digital photography is really a shoot-peek-and-discard routine for casual shooters. And with the advent of HDR photography, a single “frame” is now composed of three to five or even seven real frames. You will wear out your shutter faster than any film camera.

The sensor is what stores the light captured by the lens. Better technology offers better noise control, color rendition and higher resolution. The processor is the one that tries to make sense of the light stored in the sensor. How quickly and cleanly it can translate that signal into a photo and store it in your SD/CF card is equally important.

So you really have to consider the chain of events in capturing a photo and the hardware involved in the process. Light goes into the lens, gets stored in the sensor, translated by the processor and then saved in the storage medium. If you look at it, bulk of what’s happening is in the camera body. Camera body does matter.

You might have watched videos in youtube or read some articles in the interwebs about premium lenses on ordinary cameras vs ordinary lenses on premium bodies. And you know what, the first combo always wins. Now here’s the lie: the ordinary camera actually does not have an ordinary sensor and processor. Let’s give some examples: a Nikon D3100 (entry level camera) has better sensor and processor than a Nikon D300 (pro camera); a Canon 600D (entry level) has a more advanced sensor and processor technology than a Canon 5D II (pro camera). Here’s another gotcha: the difference in quality between the ordinary lens and the premium lens is so huge that when you use the same analogy to camera bodies it’s like comparing a Nikon D60 with a medium format Hasselblad with 40Mp sensor. Sort of.

Let’s forget about the equipment for a while and concentrate on “why are you taking photos?”. I think this is THE most important question you should ask. For me, the answer is very simple: FUN FUN FUN!

News flash: premium lenses are NOT fun. They are darn heavy. You do not want to carry them around all day unless you got muscles like Arnold Swarsh#!@#!@$ (can’t even spell his name but whatever). Premium lenses get in the way of fun. Seriously.

Good camera bodies are lots of fun. That’s why people are paying premium for the Fuji X100 even if it has a fixed prime lens. That’s why there are more photos taken with a cellphone than any other cameras combined.

Bottom line is sort your priorities. And that leads us back to the questions at the beginning of this post. Are you in it for the fun? Then invest in a good camera body. Something that will encourage you to take photos and take lots more photos. When you are a beginner (and I’m sure you are if you are still asking that same darn question) your main goal should be to keep the fire burning, to sustain that enthusiasm that got you started with photography. Trust me, premium, heavy lenses won’t get you there.

Let me end this post by telling you a short story of how I started getting serious with photography. I bought a Nikon D60 with a 18-55 kit lens. Never used it for more than a year. Then I saw my friend taking fabulous HDR photos and I got hooked. Sadly, the D60 can’t do AEB which is a necessity if you are serious about HDR. So I got me a Canon 40D with 17-85 kit lens. I used that camera for more than a year. Then I switched to a Sony A700 with 16-105 kit lens because the Canon could not nail the exposure properly in aperture priority mode and because I wanted to be different. Other photographers are using Canikon and I didn’t want to become one of them. By shooting a “different” camera, people don’t judge me for the camera I’m using but by the photos I take. So for more than two years, I only had one lens glued to my camera(s): a kit lens. Never needed anything more than that.

Of course I got several lenses now but they are still cheap. Some of them are manual focus primes which I use for my film cameras. I acquired these lenses after making informed decisions based on my experiences and honest evaluation of my capacity to take photos. I don’t think I deserve a premium Nikon 24-70/2.8 although I am lusting for one to be honest. I now have a Nikon D700 and a Pentax K5 (my main camera). I could have used the money for the K5 combo to get me my dream lens but nope, I decided not to. The Pentax K5 is such a beauty and the most fun camera I have ever used … EVER! The D700 is gathering dust if you ask me.

Lastly, I’ll share a secret: prematurely investing in premium lenses is the surest way to fanboism. You will be locked in to that brand because switching over will be very very expensive. You will be forced to defend your errant purchase in forums against fanbois of other brands. That is not fun at all.

Happy shooting.


2 thoughts on “The myth: lens first before camera body”

  1. Well, as a Pentax K100D Super, K20D & K-5 owner I know where you’re coming from. While I really like the various Canon printers I’ve had over the years (IP3000, IP4000, IP5000, IP4600, MX885), when it comes to DSLRs, the idea of being just another Canon owner never appealed. I wanted something different and with a better bang-to-the-buck ratio, hence Pentax.

    Actually, my mentality is “boost about how little you’ve sent” rather than “how much you’ve spent”. The big money of many of the lenses and some of the bodies frightens me. Where possible, I’ll use older primes, because they’re better value. My most expensive new lens, a Pentax DA* 60-250/F4 was bought as an upgrade from a DA 55-300/F4-F5.8 and was bought reluctantly. I didn’t like spending $1,269 on one lens. But its weather-proofing and better performance have already been useful, and next year when soccer season commences, I’ll be using it with a K-5 for the first time, and I’m hoping for an improved keeper rate. The dodgabilty and shadow pull-up capability of the K-5 over the K20D is already evident, and this should help with the shadowed faces & fronts of players. So the K-5 body with is much better shadow noise, faster continuous shooting rate and improved AF, is a critical item in my upgrade strategy.

    I’m a technical person, not an arty person, so I’m never going to be a great photographer, but occasionally I get an action shot I’m pleased with. For me, the pits would be doing weddings all the time. I’ve done 3 videos with slideshows for friends as love jobs and I’m not that interested in these events. I’d hate the pressure of doing it for money.


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