Should You Buy A Better Lens or Better Camera?

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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

The equivalant

retails for $2,569.00

The same sized

is priced at $1,399.00

And, the

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

costs $469.95

A professional level

costs $2,699.00

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.

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  • http://blog.reflex-photo.eu Fred

    A new article to confort that a D90 with a good lens is better than a D3S with a glass bottle bottom ;)

  • http://www.imageandlight.co.uk/ Diane

    I totally agree. I spent some years with Sigma lenses and thought my images were OK, but after hiring a Canon lens I was blown away. At the time I had a Canon 10D, but have since bought a 40D. Last year I eBayed all my Sigma lenses and bought a new Canon L lens – 24-105 f/4 IS. My husband had already bought me the 70-200 f/4 IS, which is great, as I am in the throes of turning my hobby into a business, so I really needed quality glass. The difference is amazing.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this article. A year ago I went with a mid-range SLR with consumer grade lenses. I’ve already thought about upgrading them all but with this article I’m convinced perhaps a pro grade lens is maybe all I need at this time.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PBFWIB7JHA6URU4D6NANMDDLH4 NOIR

    I hardly to know where to begin my response to this. It seems that you’ve never read a lens review to determine the quality of a lens.

    One can’t just look at the prices of comparable products and assume the more expensive one is superior in proportion to difference in price. And it would be naïve to believe that a significant part of the price paid for those more expensive Canikon lenses isn’t the funding for ad campaigns — like ones that involve Aston Kutcher for example.

    The Tamron lens in your price comparison is years older than the other lenses and it’s not stabilized; both these facts partially account for it’s current retail price. Yes, its price at introduction was still about $1000 cheaper than those newer Nikon and Canon lenses you’ve listed, but it’s not $1000 inferior to them.

    The common thread that runs through most reviews I read for Sigma EX series lenses is that equivalent Canon and Nikon lenses are “slightly” or “marginally” superior in certain respects, but NOT enough to justify the [often huge] difference in price. Two notable examples are the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM and the 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM; the former considered by some to be actually superior in certain respects to its Nikon and Canon equivalents.

    Here’s an excerpt from the verdict of the SLRGear.com review for the Sigma 50mm:

    “So is the Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 the lens for you? In comparison to some of its contemporaries, it offers slightly better wide-open performance; for many people, this will be the deciding factor.”

    Yes, that’s only a couple lines from a single review, but does that read to you like a lens that isn’t competitive with Canon or Nikon equivalents?

    As for the Nikon 85mm f/1.4 is priced twice as much as the equivalent Sigma, but no review or test I’ve seen would suggest that it is even close to being twice as good. Don’t’ know if links are allowed in the comments section, so let me suggest that you’ve perform a web search for “Ryan Brenizer” and “Sigma 85mm f/1.4”. After doing so, you will be able to say that you’ve seen a professional photographer who uses a “third party” lens. Of course you could easily do similar searches and find many more examples of professionals using “third party” lenses, but I wouldn’t recommend doing so unless you want to completely explode the “logic” you employed in your article.

    Where it concerns the professionals I’ve met, I’ve found that most of them know very little about camera gear outside of the systems they use; among these people, the existence of a competitive, or even a superior product made by a manufacturer that isn’t Canikon is something about which they would never know, or wouldn’t admit.

    From what I can tell, your goal here is to suggest that buying “third party” lenses, even ones from those manufacturers professional series, is tantamount to buying “cheap” consumer-grade glass. This just isn’t true, and I’ve never seen anything in the way of testing that will support any such idea.

  • DavidC

    Completely agree. The name or the price does not make it a great lens. That being said, Canon has earned the reputation of producing great glass so they have some leniencies. Buying Tamron or Sigma just means you need to do extra research. I have a 7D and a Sigma 8-16mm. This lens is incredibly wide and incredibly sharp. I do not feel it is at all degrading the potential of the 7D in the least.

  • Steve Russell

    Had you read the article closely you would have noted that in the second paragraph I stated that the article was my opinion. I’m very aware that not everyone has the same opinion and you’re surely entitled to yours. I also pointed out that I wasn’t knocking any lenses but that I do favor some lenses over others. Additionally, I stated that Sigma and Tamron made serviceable lenses depending on how you wanted to use them.

    That said, I will always put the best glass I can possibly afford between my camera and my subject. If my client wants a 17×22” print of a photograph and I’m getting paid for it, I’m not going to scrimp on lens quality.

    As for trying to draw a direct comparison between price and difference in quality such as your comment that one lens wasn’t twice as good even though the price was twice as much, your logic is somewhat fallacious. If I was only going to use the lens one time you would be spot on. However, if I take 5,000 images with the lens and it’s better each time, then yes, it’s worth the price difference to me.

    Of course, there are people that really can’t tell the difference between the various lenses just like there are people that buy their glasses at the local mall in stores like Lenscrafters and couldn’t tell the difference between their $50 lenses and the same prescription in $400 dollar lenses. They’re not the same, but if the $50 lenses are what you want to use, go for it.

    I never expected everyone to agree with my article and we encourage everyone to post comments, whether they agree with us or not.

  • RockinRick

    I agree with most of this article except to say that with research one might find a 3rd party lens that is every bit as good as the big name lens from a strictly photographic point of view. However, as a professional, I am going to part with more money to gain the real difference which is ruggedness, dust sealing, water resistance, etc. Canon and Nikon both spend vast sums of money to ensure that my equipment will be reliable regardless of the conditions I face. So, the next question to answer is, “Is the quality and price tag of prime lenses worth the loss of convenience versus zoom lenses. How does the Canon EF 200mm f/2.0 L IS USM compare to the 70 – 200 IS mentioned above?

  • Steve Russell

    Rick,

    I don’t know the answer to your question because I’ve never used the 200mm f2.0L.
    Obviously it’s faster. However, I’ve heard from a lot of photographers, including some Nikon diehards that the Canon 70-200 is the sharpest lens on the market. I know that it performs extremely well for me. Note that the 70-200 is an f/2.8L IS USM as well.

  • Nicknak

    Thank you for sharing you opinion. If only you had shared it before now. I started with a rebel and some after market lens, but found that what you say is true. I quickly realized that buying a high quality lens was the better choice. It made all the difference in my photos and has increased my business. When the time comes, and I can upgrade to 5D I will already have all the lens I need. I would advise anyone that might not be on the fence to rent a high quality lens and see for themselves.

  • RockinRick

    I found this review of the 200 mm f2:
    http://www.the-digital-picture.com/reviews/Canon-EF-200mm-f-2-L-IS-USM-Lens-Review.aspx

    I saw a side by side real life comparison of this lens versus our 70-200 lens on the pro4um. I was quite surprised to see that this lens absolutely blew the 70-200 out of the water. The shots I saw were wide open, camera on tripod, mirror lockup, cable release. Amazing! If the 70-200 is tack sharp then the 200 f2 is scalpel sharp.

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  • Migs

    I disagree completely. The camera body is extremely important. Later on the photographer will add lenses, all the while being able to do MUCH more in terms of controlling his camera.