A point of contention amongst photographers everywhere who are budgeting for their new gear is one question, “What should I invest most in when upgrading my photography equipment, the camera body or the lens?” This can be a rather complicated answer, as it does depend on the type of photography that you’re interested in doing.
However, for the sake of a thoughtful article, we will be speaking in generalizations. To break it down, the image quality and ease comes from the lens but the capability comes from the camera body. Here is why.
The Camera Body
The body of the camera contains all of the controls necessary to record digital pictures. The camera is basically a container to house the sensor and the lens along with the electronics and controls. Camera bodies come in all shapes, sizes, and weights. The sensor can be a full-frame or a crop which affects how your images are sized and cropped.
The camera body you use will affect the dynamic range of your images, amount of noise in low light, a significant part of the autofocus, the frames-per-second, and the megapixel count (among many other things, but the aforementioned are the most commonly referenced). The camera body is what influences the number of pixels in a photograph and how fast you can shoot. It is also an integral part of the autofocus system.
From a physical standpoint, the camera body is what you’ll hold most in your hands and its comfort is very important when shooting for long hours. Higher end cameras also have better weather sealing than lower end cameras. From a logistics perspective, different camera bodies allow you to control more or fewer aspects of the picture taking process.
In laymen’s terms, lenses gather and focus light. Light strikes the front surface of the lens and passes through the glass element. Keeping this in mind, the difference between a good lens and a bad lens is that the former does a much better job at producing properly illuminated and sharp images. Lenses vary in focal length, aperture, type of glass, and so much more.
The lens will make the biggest impact on the final outcome of an image. In regards to the artistic look of a shot, the lens will be in far more control than the camera body. This is because aperture, focal length (the perspective achieved due to the focal length), and sharpness are all dictated by the lens.
Lenses with a wide aperture are considered “fast” lenses because they can achieve the same exposure with a faster shutter speed.
Bonus question: What influences the autofocus, the camera or the lens? The electronic autofocus system is basically a motor. The motor housed inside of the lens will generally provide the greatest performance and highest accuracy. However, the focus motor in the lens is only one part of the process.
The camera body is what drives the motor. In addition to the mechanical components, the firmware in the camera body is what operates the autofocus system. The reason the lens is still the go-to even for autofocus is that it controls the accuracy, and the accuracy tends to be more important!
Which Will Last You Longer?
Everyone will outgrow their equipment eventually, whether it be due to an improvement in skill, a desire for something better, or equipment dating itself too much. Essentially, interest in upgrading equipment comes from someone’s image-quality criteria.
Keeping this in mind, on the grand scale most camera bodies won’t differ in overall image quality unless you are shooting in difficult situations such as low light (in which case higher-end cameras have lower noise levels than others, as an example). The lens will make a significant impact on the final image result.
A good example of this is pairing a high-end lens with a low-end body and a high-end body with a kit lens. You will find that the audience will gravitate towards the photograph produced with the high-end lens / low-end body combination versus the opposite because the lens will impact the shot that significantly.
You’ll likely never be able to figure out what body is used in a shot, but you can often pick out the quality of the lens.
A good lens will withstand the test of time as you try many different camera bodies (so long as it is compatible). The lens will travel with you from camera to camera. The lens will also help you create your specific style of shooting, as the aperture and perspective will mold to your personal preference.
Are you someone that prefers a shallow depth of field? Wide-angle fisheye? What about epic action shots with a tight zoom? All of the aforementioned are thanks to the lens, not the body.
The Lens is a Better Investment
In my opinion, in regard to financial investment, a good lens is the better choice because it’ll last you much longer than the body (as you’ll generally be changing camera bodies faster than lenses). The lens also opens the door for you to create the images you dream of making.
That being said, the camera does determine if you’re capable of photographing what you want to photograph – but you can work around many limitations with an excellent lens. Cheap, low-quality lenses will affect both your shooting experience and the final product far more than the camera body will. This is because cheaper lenses tend to be slow, which results in a harder time capturing low-light scenes or achieving a super shallow depth of field.
The lens will also retain more of its value (both from a monetary and photography standpoint) than the camera body when talking about resale value. This is because camera bodies are upgrading and advancing at a far faster rate, thusly, older bodies become obsolete quickly.
The same lenses, on the other hand, will likely still be used five to 10 years from now (if not even longer).
The best investment is the lens that lets you capture all of the pictures you want. You’ll find ways to work around body limitations, I guarantee it! Though when you do upgrade that camera body, you’ll appreciate the ease even more as you’ll no longer have to work around previous limits.