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Which is More Important: Camera or Lens?

As photographers, we tend to use a lot of gear but some items are clearly more important that others. So if you want to create the best images possible, which is the best place to spend your camera buying dollars, on the camera itself or on the lenses you fasten to the front of it?

The camera tends to be the center of attraction. People far more often ask what kind of camera I shoot with than what lens I used. That seems to make a lot of sense since it's the camera that actually records the image. But without lens to focus light on the camera sensor, it won't be much of an image. Perhaps you could end up with some sort of wash of blurred color, but definitely nothing you would want to hang on your wall and be proud of.

On the other hand, if you hold a lens up to your eye while forcing the aperture diaphragm open, you might be able to see an upside down image of the world in front of you, but you obviously won't end up with a photograph without a camera attached.

Clearly, it takes both camera and lens to yield a photograph, so answering the question of which is more important won't be a simple process of elimination.

When a new photographer buys their first camera, it either comes with a lens permanently attached, or probably at least comes with a "kit" lens. Yes, you can buy just a camera body, but package deals including a lens are the norm for most new users. Some kits even come bundled with more than one lens. Indeed, regardless of how many of each someone may start with, they will generally end up with more lenses than cameras once they start adding to their gear.

So does this mean the camera is more important? After all, if you have three or more lenses but only a single camera, that camera will get used for every image while each lens will, on average, only get used for a third of all images taken.

But if you spent most of your money on that camera, any lenses you have may not be of the best quality. If those lenses simply aren't capable of focusing a sharp image on your camera sensor, you will likely end up dissatisfied with the photos your expensive camera records. They may not be totally unfocused washes of color you might end up with not using any lens, but you likely still won't be entirely pleased. It would be easy to conclude that your expensive camera can't take sharp images, but that would be to ignore the contribution of the lens.

Lenses matter, more than some people give them credit for. In real world use, the only thing your camera's sensor can ever see is what is focused on it by a lens. Even the best of cameras is limited by the resolving power of the lenses used with it.

This might lead you to believe that lenses are more important than cameras, but the answer is a bit more complicated than that. Back in the days of film cameras, a camera wasn't much more than a light-tight box with an accurately timed shutter into which you put film. It was the film that recorded the image. In the form of the sensor, digital cameras have the equivalent of film built in. You can't increase the resolution of your recorded images by using a better film these days. The only way to do the equivalent is to replace your camera with one that has a higher resolution sensor.

I would still argue that lenses trump cameras in terms of importance though. Lenses should be looked at as a long term investment. Camera makers release new camera models quite regularly but a good lens can last far longer. When you do upgrade to a new camera, you should be able to continue using your existing lenses in most cases. A lens that is capable of focusing a sharp image on one camera can do the same on a newer camera that uses the same lens system. A newer camera may do a better job of recording that image, but money spent on a new camera would be wasted if your lenses are the limiting factor.

Imagine the situation where you've been frugal and bought lenses that aren't necessarily the best but are up to the task when used with your current camera. Reasoning that your camera isn't the best possible, it could easily make sense to assume you don't really need the best lenses possible. But if and when you do get a better camera, it would truly be a shame if you were forced to upgrade all your lenses to get the most out of that new camera. All that extra expense would probably put a dent in anyone's budget.

Certainly, you can sell those old lenses to recoup a portion of what you spent on them, but even name brand lenses are unlikely to sell for what you put into them in the first place. As an overall expenditure, buying the best lens you can practically justify in the first place will cost less than buying a less capable one and later selling it to pay for a better one later.

Each new generation of camera tends to be better and cost less than the camera models that came before. Such is the case with everything based on digital technology. Anyone who's bought a new computer lately understands that. But lenses rarely follow the same pattern. Much of the cost of a lens lies in the optics themselves, not the modest CPU built into them. Newer optical designs and innovative features such as image stabilization and "nano-crystal" coatings do change the equation somewhat, but it's still the glass that costs the most. Good glass isn't cheap, but it rarely gets less expensive over time.

It once was pretty cut and dried that you were better off spending money on good lenses than on a better camera. Today, the decision as to how best to apportion your budget is less clear cut, but for most users the priority of lenses over cameras still holds true. Or at least its' nice to know that when you do next upgrade your camera, your lenses will appear to do their job better as well since you'll be able to capture more of what they were actually delivering all along.

Date posted: December 13, 2015


Copyright © 2015 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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