In Photography, Think Lens First, Then Which Body You Can Afford

The story usually goes like this: you buy a new camera, and then you decide on the optics. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, really. Shouldn’t it be the other way round. Aren’t the optics at the heart and soul of an image? Sensor and camera are second priority. Rather decide first which lens(es) you need, and then which body you can afford. If you have to, save on the body, never on a lens.

Lens first, then body, that’s not the common practice. Most of us buy into specs, not what makes sense. Most people don’t buy a camera based on lens considerations, but on functionalities, sensor specs, brand loyalty, ergonomics, feel, etc. Most of the major photography websites don’t even tell us what lenses are used for a camera review, as if the lens is a constant something without any variances.

DP Review doesn’t specify lenses, DxOMark doesn’t and most others don’t. We’re told about ISO, lighting conditions and even ambient temperature in a standard studio setting, but no word about the lens. Optics are reduced to a neutral, nameless and faceless means to an end. Even though they lie at the heart of the image.

That’s a capital offense in photographic matters because each and every lens has a character to its own that is hard to measure, but that determines the final output a.k.a. image quality considerably more than “just” the sensor and parameters such as noise, shadow detail, dynamic range and so forth.

A lens character might not be an issue if your photography is about “sharpest” images. Then reviews like Lens Rentals’ The Great 50mm Shootout are top. But there is so much more to an image than sharpness.

Seriously, I don’t care too much about sharpness. Not because Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept.” Sharpness can turn into an unhealthy obsession. A good photograph is a good photograph. Even with our own eyes we never see razer-sharp. The concept of perfect detail is deceptive.

So if I don’t buy a lens for mainly sharpness, what else could be important? I don’t mind a certain imperfection and therefore shop for a lens’s character in contrast to the mostly flat, one-dimensional rendition an average lens delivers. Because today, about every camera is up to the task. If you’re not able to shoot nice images with a, say, D7100, then you’re not worthy of the Leica you’re dreaming of.

The digital imaging sensors of most of today’s serious cameras are of a quality that most viewers are in no position to tell cameras apart from each other. A Micro Four Thirds camera can produce an output that matches a full-framer. That’s hardly news. But many seem to ignore that the systems’ “equality” lies more in the choice of optics than the choice of cameras, oblivious to the fact that superior glass does give superior results.

That’s why you pay a hefty price tag for quality glass. It delivers. Keep your hands off kit lenses. Don’t call me a snob. Kit lenses do what they’re supposed to do. They work. They take pictures. Not that money doesn’t matter. But saving on lenses is saving on the wrong things.

If anyone aims to bring one’s photography to a different level, better keep your aging camera and invest in good glass with fine optics. Consider the opposite: sticking a slow zoom of average build quality on a D800. Ouch.

There’s always post-processing. It’s perfectly legitimate to ask what’s the point of spending more money on nice fast glass when blurring, contrast and other characteristics of a lens can be achieved by simple data manipulation.

Well one doesn’t have to be an expert with a practiced eye to see a difference between the outputs of prime glass and a run-of-the-mill standard lens. In most cases there’s a fullness, clarity, a life and three-dimensionality to the better glass that’s hard to be achieved without the better glass.

That doesn’t mean the more one spends on lenses the more ravishing the photography will be. That’s what the marketing departments of camera makers are trying to hammer into our heads.

But with the exception of specialized photography (that requires fast AF and fps) an experienced photographer will always ask first what optics are needed for the job. It’s the lens that creates the image. The camera only captures it.

In photography, always think lens first, and then which body you can afford to go with it.

The other way round?

You’ll likely develop a high tolerance for GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) with no end in sight while blaming gear for a photography that’s treading water.

And then again, you’ll find out the lens isn’t the all-important factor. It’s who’s behind it.

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  • philip a rigby

    Good article, which sort of mirrors the way l go. I’ve always spend money on quality glass, and when it came to bodies, a good quality second hand item is / was for me – you know the sort of thing, the one that everyone else just traded in for the newest offering with all those bells and whistles you’ll never use.

    Quality glass is king.

  • Raddaddy

    The article is only partially true: Photography is the language spoken here, but different lenses are the “dialects” In old times it used to be: new lenses were superior, old lenses had all kinds of drawbacks. The photoshop and electronic image enchanting changed all this ! I have two 50mm lenses with different character, old 70`s canon 50mm 1,2 that is soft in the corners by all standards, Three 35mm lenses, sharpest being the Voigtländer 35mm 1,2 and the one with most character, the Russian Biogon copy 35mm 2,8. ( i have some vaseline on that to make it more “soulful”) It`s all about your vision…What you want to say with your images.

  • Kent

    Not entirely right, I guess. It was true in the film roll age, but nowadays there is the film (=sensor) in the camera that increases the importance of the body. A new cam will give you a better sensor most probably. So it’s not only the lenses.

  • derekdj

    The problem with basing your decision based on the lens is that the lens will also lock you into a camera family. It’s not like I can buy a Nikon 50mm 1.5 F-mount lens and use it on a Leica body or Mamiya. It’s actually the opposite in today’s camera market, you need to look at the camera and see what kind of lens support it offers.

    One of the beauties of the M4/3 or Sony NEX camera bodies is that there are plenty of adapters that allow you to mount Leica, Nikon, Canon lens mounts. When investing in a camera you have to look at the entire eco-system not just the camera body and its features, but also the array of native lens and potential for 3rd party adaptation.

  • Michael Allie

    I can’t really agree. In the old days, it was the lens and the film that made the picture. Today it is the lens, the sensor, and the image processing engine, not to mention capabilities that affect the situations in which I shoot. I recently changed camera families, for example, because I was tired of the idiosyncrasies of my camera system’s known issues with correct flash exposure.

    If I am a sports shooter I need a high fps rate; a wedding shooter needs high iso/low noise. Most camera manufacturers have pretty respectable glass available, and the major companies have a range of third party lenses available. But once I buy into a family of equipment, then my investment starts and it is very expensive to change. But any single lens isn’t so tough to change.

    I’d also point out that sometimes (usually) we have limited budgets. I can always expand and upgrade my lenses as money allows. But if I fundamentally bought the wrong camera system, I’m in a bad spot. Furthermore, decent lenses are sold without too much of a depreciation hit (i.e., if I sell a lens to upgrade, I can get a decent amount of my investment back). Cameras depreciate significantly, so I probably want my camera to really last.

  • Sam Kanga

    Lens first?

    Can’t agree. Generally speaking, unless you are doing copy work, micro/macro photography or other specialty work, it’s been decades since really good lenses were not readily available, at least from the major brands.

    For other than specialty shooting I suggest you gets the camera that lets you work effortlessly or most comfortably for the way you shoot, or for the task at hand.

    Thanks

    Sam

  • Roc889

    Things were simpler during the film days. Today, the quality of the sensor and the algorithms used for procession its data has a tremendous impact on the kind of RAW image you can wind up with. Each one has its proclivities in terms of color rendition. And changing the “leanings” of that processing can be costly in terms of workflow time to correct the color to your vision. So no, I cannot agree with a simplistic idea of choose lens overrides everything else. The same image photographed with a Nikon or Canon or Fuji all vary. Mirrorless bodies give you the most leeway for a variety of lenses, albeit used in manual mode, which means no AF. And if the image stabilization is in the body you gain that too.