If you can’t decide whether you should upgrade your camera or your lens, then you’re not alone. Photographers frequently struggle to determine the better upgrade, especially when their gear and budget are limited and they desperately want to improve their photos.
But while it can be difficult to pick the best gear, it’s not impossible – and in this article, I aim to help you deal with a longtime debate:
Camera vs lens.
Let’s dive right in!
What are your weaknesses?
Every photographer is at a different place, with different gear, different interests, and different shooting capabilities.
So you need to pick the upgrade that most improves your particular photography.
Before you start looking at cameras and lenses, ask yourself three key questions:
- What are my current gear weaknesses?
- What are my current technical weaknesses?
- What matters to me most as a photographer?
For instance, if you want to shoot birds but are a relative beginner with a 70-300mm lens, your gear weaknesses include a lack of sufficient focal length while your technical weaknesses may include an inability to track birds in flight.
And if you want to shoot stunning wide-angle nightscapes but only own a kit lens and an entry-level APS-C camera, your gear weaknesses probably include a lack of high-ISO capabilities and a slow lens (i.e., the maximum aperture is too narrow). Your technical weaknesses might include an inability to expose properly.
Whatever the type of photography you do, think about which of these weaknesses are more important, then determine whether they can be fixed (or at least improved) with an upgraded camera or an upgraded lens. In fact, I’d highly recommend you make a list of weaknesses before continuing on with this article. That way, you can keep them in mind as you read the next few sections.
By the way, it is important to note: buying new gear will not instantly fix your technical weaknesses. If you’re not good at tracking birds in flight, for instance, a new camera won’t turn you into a tracking pro. But it can make a significant difference, which is why it’s important to think about technical weaknesses as well as gear weaknesses when upgrading your equipment.
Why is the camera important?
Your camera will affect these key aspects of your photography:
- Image dynamic range
- Image noise levels
- Autofocus speed and tracking
- Continuous shooting (burst mode) speeds
- Image resolution
- Comfort when shooting
- Speed when changing settings
- Setup durability
Of course, the lens affects some of these elements – autofocusing speeds, for instance, depend on the lens’s focusing system. And the photography experience (comfort when shooting and speed when changing settings) relies on the lens, too.
But in all the areas listed above, the camera is a major player, so think about your current weaknesses. Will a change in the camera affect any of those shortcomings?
A quick note: Beginners tend to ignore comfort and ergonomics, instead choosing to focus on autofocus speed and resolution. But from a physical standpoint, the camera body is what you’ll hold in your hands. Its comfort is very important when shooting for long hours, so don’t forget to think about ease of use.
Also, if you’re an outdoor photographer, make sure to consider weather-sealing. Higher-end cameras have better weather-sealing than lower-end cameras, so a change in your camera body can make a big difference to your setup’s durability and longevity, especially if you spend a lot of time shooting in sea spray, out in the rain and snow, etc.
Why is the lens important?
Your lens will affect these key aspects of your photography:
- Image sharpness
- Image bokeh
- Autofocusing speed
- Focal length reach
- Comfort when shooting
- Setup durability
- Low-light shooting
For many photographers, lens sharpness is everything. But the truth is that lens sharpness is only one of a handful of important lens characteristics, and it’s not always the most important one, either. For instance, you might have the sharpest lens in the world, but if it doesn’t have a wide maximum aperture, you won’t be able to use it for night landscapes, nor will you be able to use it to capture creamy background bokeh in full-body portraits.
By the way, if the artistic look of your photos is important to you – and I’m guessing that it is! – the lens will offer far more control than the camera body. This is because aperture, focal length, and sharpness are all dictated by the lens, so by using the right lens and the right lens settings, you can achieve beautiful background bokeh, stunningly sharp subjects, perfect compositions, and more.
Camera vs lens: image quality
At this point, you should be familiar with the effects of a camera and a lens on your photography. And you should know that it’s not just about image quality. Ergonomics, durability, autofocusing speeds – it all matters.
That said, image quality is a major piece of the puzzle, and so in this section, I’d like to discuss cameras vs lenses, specifically considering image output.
As I’ve emphasized above, both a camera and a lens will impact image quality. But on the grand scale, most camera bodies won’t make a noticeable difference unless you’re shooting in difficult situations such as low light (in which case higher-end cameras have lower noise levels, for instance).
The lens, on the other hand, will significantly affect the final result. Photographers often experiment with pairing a high-end lens with a low-end body and a high-end body with a kit lens, and they find that the audience gravitates toward the photographs produced with the high-end lens and low-end body combination; the lens just impacts photos so significantly.
You’ll likely never be able to determine whether a high- or low-quality camera body was used in a shot – but you can often pick out the quality of the lens.
Also, a good lens will withstand the test of time as you try many different camera bodies. 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 shape and support your personal preferences.
Are you someone who prefers a shallow depth of field? Wide-angle fisheye? What about epic action shots with a tight zoom? All of these effects are done with the lens, not the body.
A lens is generally the better investment
If you’re worried about budgeting and finances, it’s important to note that a lens is often the better investment because it’ll last much longer than a camera body. Some photographers use the same lenses for decades, for two main reasons:
- Lenses are more durable than camera bodies, especially because cameras have a limited number of actuations before the shutter fails.
- Lens technology changes more slowly. A camera from five years ago is often easily surpassed by a new release, whereas plenty of lenses are still top-notch after five, ten, and even twenty years.
Also, a lens will also retain more of its resale value compared to a camera. Cameras go out of date fast and their used prices tumble, especially when newer versions are released. On the other hand, plenty of lenses can be resold for the same price today as they could be ten years ago (and sometimes the prices even go up!).
Camera vs lens: final words
Cameras and lenses can both make a big difference in your photography – but by recognizing key weaknesses, you can pick the perfect upgrade for your needs.
So think about what matters to you. Think about what would impact your photos most. Sure, lenses will heavily affect image quality, but cameras will majorly affect autofocusing and ergonomics. Lenses will retain more value, but cameras will boost your resolution.
In the end, it’s up to you!
Now it’s your turn:
Which do you plan to upgrade, your camera or your lens? And why did you make that choice? Share your thoughts in the comments below!