Should You Buy A Better Lens or Better Camera?
Written by: Tiffany Joyce
Today’s article is on a subject I’ve wanted to write about for some time. Before I get to the actual article there are a couple of things I wanted to mention. I am going to give my opinion which is supported by the opinions of other photographers I know – professionals, accomplished amateurs, etc. While my comments will be supportive of certain products, they aren’t meant to denigrate other products. Many of you will disagree, which is fine. That’s part of why the comment section at the bottom of the article exists.
I frequently hear the same question asked about the combination of lenses and cameras. In the last week, I’ve either been asked the question or heard the question asked of another person on four different occasions. The question – should I buy lenses made by the same company as my camera or are third party lenses just as good?
The short answer is I believe that if you have an entry level DSLR and all you’re going to do with your images it view them or have others view them on the internet then it probably doesn’t make very much difference – Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, etc. all make good, serviceable lenses. What’s more, they are usually much less expensive than a Nikon or Canon lens. For example, if you wanted a good 70-200mm lens, here are your choices:
The top of the line
retails for $2,299.99
retails for $2,569.00
The same sized
is priced at $1,399.00
is priced at $769.00
The source for the prices was Amazon.com and as you can readily see there is a very wide range of prices for the same focal length lens. You would find similar difference in price ranges with other focal lengths, both zoom and prime lenses.
So why would anyone ever pay $2,569 for a lens that’s the same focal length as a lens that is only $769? The answer has to be the quality of the lens. If the Nikon and Canon lenses didn’t possess optics that were of a much better quality to justify the much higher cost no one would buy them. Even Nikon and Canon have lenses with different quality levels and they are very straightforward about it. A $750 Canon 70-200mm lens isn’t the same quality as the $2,500 lens and the difference isn’t just because the less expensive lens is one stop slower (f/4 vs. f/2.8) and that it doesn’t have IS. The main difference is in the glass, the image quality of the lens itself. There are other differences like the materials used to manufacture the lens, but optics is the main difference and optics is what the lens is all about in the first place.
So, if Nikon and Canon sell lenses that are comparably priced to the third-party lenses and they are up-front about the quality difference between their own lens line-up, what does that say about the third-party lenses? Remove your emotions and think about this in a logical fashion. I’m not saying that the $750 Canon or Nikon lens is necessarily superior to the $770 Tamron lens but there is a very noticeable difference between the $2,300 Nikon lens and the Tamron product.
If we have a lens, we obviously need a camera and this is where I see some things that puzzle me. Let’s take a quick look at camera bodies that we might buy to use with the lens.
An entry level
A professional level
Let’s say you have around $3,200 to spend on camera equipment and you want one of the cameras with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. Where do you spend the money? (I’m aware that there are many other possible combinations and the one’s I’m suggesting here are extreme and probably impractical but stay with me on this.) Do you buy the 5D Mark II camera and the Tamron lens or the Rebel XS camera and the $2,500 Canon lens?
I see a very surprising number of people that buy a high end camera and then a third party lens. That’s just backward on so many levels. Buy the best glass you can possibly afford and spend less money on the camera body if you have to make a choice. It’s the lens that sees the subject.
While somewhat of an over-simplification all the camera does is capture the image and write it to a memory card. If the lens isn’t of high quality, the best camera made today can’t do anything to improve the image and neither can Photoshop. A number of years ago when I lived in Seattle, some friends and I made wine together – pretty darn good wine too. There is an adage in winemaking – anyone can make bad wine with good grapes, no one can make good wine with bad grapes. It’s the same with photography, if you have a less than high quality lens you will always have less than high quality images.
In my opinion, buying an expensive camera and putting a cheap lens on it is like buying a Corvette and putting a four-cylinder engine in it. You’d be better off buying a Honda Civic and putting a souped-up V-8 in it.
If you think I’m all wet, watch the professionals. Next time you watch a sporting event look at the camera and lens combinations you see. It’s not as easy to discern the combinations with Nikon unless you’re close because all their lenses are black and don’t have the red stripe around them, but look at the gray colored lenses you see. Those are Canon L glass (professional grade) lenses with professional level Canon cameras. Watch the successful portrait photographers, wedding photographers, etc. I have never seen one with a third party lens. There’s a reason and the reason is the quality of the lenses. When someone is making their living in photography, they wouldn’t be using Canon or Nikon lenses if a third party lens was better.
Another reason to spend the money on the lens first if you have to choose is the lens will always be a high quality lens while cameras are constantly changing because of advancement in electronics. If, in the future, you upgrade your camera body, the great lens you purchased will still be a great lens.
If you’re considering upgrading and you can only afford one item, upgrade your lens and buy the best lens you can afford. I know that a new camera is a new whiz-bang toy with more megapixels and more gadgets and we all love new toys while a lens is just a boring lens that looks like the lens you currently have. The objective is supposed to be taking better photographs and the lens will help achieve that objective more than a new camera body.
To a degree, this is what I did. All my lenses are Canon L lenses which are the professional model lenses. Until recently the only camera body I had was a 7D (which is a really good camera) and the combination of great lenses and a really good camera enabled me to capture some of what I consider to be great images. Three weeks ago I purchased a 5D Mark II and I’m amazed by the quality of images. Because from the beginning I purchased the top of the line lenses, I’m getting the maximum out of the cameras and not hindering the performance potential of either camera because of the lenses.
In the end, it’s the photographer that takes great images, not the camera and not the lens. Those are just the tools the photographer uses. However, really good tools makes the photographers job a lot easier and so-so tools render so-so work no matter how hard you try.
Previous Post: John Shaw Nature and Digital Photography Seminars (cont.)