In my post on if you need a better camera to make better images, I talked about my frustration at how common it is to see new photographers thinking that the secret to making great images is to buy an expensive, professional camera. In that post, I stated how the best investment you can make when getting into photography is to invest in your own skills and knowledge. I believe that there is no better way to spend money on becoming a better photographer and improving your images than by taking a photography class, buying and studying photography books, watching online courses, or attending a workshop that a photographer who's work you admire is hosting.
So if you've put in the time and done the hard work at improving your skill and knowledge, and are now looking to upgrade your gear with the hope of improving your image quality, where do you begin?
Sooooo Many Options!
There are so many options today, not only in regard specific models, but in broad categories of gear; all of which are supposed to aid us in achieving the very best in our photography. Bodies, lenses, filters, tripods, lighting, editing software, and numerous other accessories all beg for our attention and money. Sure, each purchase will probably improve either our images or our workflow in some way, but few of us have the available funds to purchase a complete professional setup and put it to use immediately. So what's the very best way to use our limited budgets to make the biggest improvement in our craft?
There are many styles and disciplines of photography, but it the end – for any of them – it comes down to requiring two pieces of gear: A camera, and a lens.
That narrows it down, taking a lot of the accessories – some superfluous, some extremely useful – out of the picture. But we're now left with the choice between spending most of our budget on a body and buying a cheap lens or two, the reverse, opting for a cheap body and an expensive lens, or some compromise in the middle. This is a decision that many new photographers consistently get wrong, namely, buying an expensive body, and pairing it with cheaper lenses. To take a closer look into why you are better off buying the best lenses you can right from the beginning, and pairing them with a cheap(er) body, let's have a look at the options available to us, starting with camera bodies.
Why Camera Bodies Are A Poor Use Of A Limited Budget
Every year, camera manufacturers release their new and updated line up of cameras, generally refining and updating old models, but occasionally unveiling an entirely new model. Each year the spec sheet numbers climb higher and higher, upping the number of pixels, ISO capabilities, autofocus points, shots per second and more. While you can't say that these updates are making the cameras worse, are they really worth upgrading your body over every couple years? How much will upgrading your body improve your photo image quality?
The answer is probably very little. Even making a major upgrade from say, an entry level DSLR to a higher end crop sensor or even a full frame, is probably not the most effective use of your budget. That's not to say you won't see any improvements in your image quality. ISO performance on top quality cameras is much better than on entry or even mid level DSLRs. The same goes for autofocus systems and continuous shooting speeds. These features may be important – even crucial – to some, but for most photographers still building their kit and honing their craft, these are the wrong things to be focusing on.
This brings us to maybe the most obsessed over camera feature by new photographers: Megapixels. For whatever reason, almost every new photographer views the number of megapixels offered by a camera as, if not the only, then at least the most important indicator of image quality. I've talked to many professional photographers, making and printing images for a living, people who meticulously study their images for quality. Many of these photographers have told me that at the end of the day, the megapixel count they really need is somewhere between 12 and 20 MP.
The constant updates to camera models is actually one of the biggest issues with investing in a body. As each successive model is released, all preceding models are devalued. Of course this is great news if you're shopping the used market, or don't care about having the latest and greatest. But never-the-less, it's disheartening to know that much like a new car, the moment you take it off the lot, it's value plummets, never to be recovered.
If you're wondering, the same does not hold true for lenses.
Lenses: A Better Choice, But Not A Simple One
For every reason I listed above as to why it's a bad idea to slant your budget towards a camera body, you could almost go so far as to say that the opposite holds true for lenses. Lenses are rarely pushed at us by advertising the way bodies are, they will not be obsolete in ten years time, and because of this, they hold their value incredibly well. They are the kind of investment that, once made, will continue to provide value to you for years, and possibly even decades to come. Buying a quality lens is probably also the single biggest step you can take toward better image quality. With that said, there are still some considerations to be taken into account as to which lenses will truly maximize your dollar.
Hint, it's rarely a good idea to buy cheap glass.
To get the most out of your lenses, you typically have to be willing to dish out some money up front. Cheap lenses are generally of lower build quality, with cheaper glass resulting in reduced image quality. Top quality lenses are the ones that will best hold their value as well, sometimes even increasing in value over time in the case of rare or unusual lenses! Good luck finding a camera body that will do that... With many of the great lenses of years past, there is little left that could be improved or refined, at least in a cost effective manner, meaning that updated models are rare or nonexistent. Often, even if a lens is updated, the optics are left unchanged, adding a vibration reduction system, focus motor improvement, or update to the casing of the lens. Some of the best and most sought after lenses are not only not the most recent models, some haven't even been in production for years!
There are a few exceptions to the expensive lens rule however, such as the ever popular “Nifty 50” a title often given to two 50mm lenses, one with a maximum aperture of f/1.8, and one f/1.4. Nikon and Canon both provide versions of these lenses for incredibly cheap (often under $150 for the f/1.8), and given the image quality provided by these lenses, offer exceptional value. Many recommend that this should be the first lens you buy to upgrade from your kit lens due to the aforementioned image quality, the versatility it offers, and the fact that it's a great lens to train your eye photographically.
Another of my favourite value lenses for crop-frame shooters is the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. I got mine for about $350 brand new and I absolutely LOVE shooting with it. It's consistently rated as one of the top wide-angle lens available for crop sensor cameras, performing comparably or better to lenses that cost quite a bit more.
FX (Full Frame) vs DX (Crop Frame)
One of the mistakes I made when I first started upgrading my kit was thinking that FX lenses were not compatible with DX camera bodies. While the opposite does hold true – DX lenses are NOT compatible with FX cameras, my assumption was in fact false. Not only was I mistaken however, it is generally a very good idea to buy FX lenses for use with your DX body.
As I mentioned, FX lenses will work perfectly fine on a DX body. There are a few upsides to buying full frame lenses, but perhaps the biggest has to be that buying FX lenses will allow you to build up your array of lenses and not have to start from scratch if and when you upgrade to a FX camera body. Investing thousands of dollars in a new body is expensive enough, but imagine spending $3000 on a new body only to realize that the only lens you have to shoot with is now the one that came with the camera (if any), while your beloved DX lenses are doomed to gather dust.
FX lenses also have the advantage of having generally higher build quality overall. This includes both the durability - often utilizing metal instead of plastic in the construction – and optical quality. As mentioned above, if you're looking to make gear purchases with the goal of specifically improving image quality, look to your glass, and FX lenses are generally your best bet in that regard. FX lenses also often have wider maximum apertures than there DX counterparts, which allows you to use a higher shutter speed in low light conditions, something cited by many as a reason for upgrading cameras. Upgrade your glass first, then move on to the body if you still want it.
Of course it can't be all good when it comes to buying expensive full frame lenses, and the main argument most will have is with the price. FX lenses are generally much more expensive than DX and unfortunately that cost can be prohibitive to some. Ask most photographers who've made the transition though, and they will likely tell you that they wish they'd bitten the bullet sooner and invested in their glass from the beginning. As mentioned above, a lot of high quality lenses, especially if they're not straight off of the production line will hold their value for years to come, last you forever (assuming you treat them well), and are an investment you can actually use in the meantime!!!
You can find some great deals on the used market for lenses that have since been replaced by newer models, but which still feature the same optical quality. My first FX lens was Nikon's 85mm 1/1.8 D, which I picked up for $300 used. It's an older lens that has since been updated with the release of the 1/1.8 G, but I've read at least a few reviews by people who actually preferred the older model. Shop around enough and you can definitely find some deals to get you into the FX lens world.
I hope that this article has shed some light on this topic that a lot of photographers looking to upgrade struggle to make. I get it, cameras are sexy. They have LCD screens (some even touch screens), buttons, knobs, dials, built in wifi, and millions and millions and millions of pixels! Less flashy are the lenses, but if you're looking to invest in gear that will not only improve your images, but stay relevant and never need to be upgraded again, go for a nice lens or two and let the camera wait.