Should I upgrade my camera body or buy a better lens instead? It’s a classic question photographers ask themselves – or, more likely, post on a photography forum.
In the days of film cameras, the answer was more clear-cut: choose a new lens over a new camera. After all, the camera was essentially a box designed to hold a roll of film.
You could get dramatically different looks and an upgrade in quality by simply changing the film and lens.
With digital cameras, the choice between upgrading the camera or lens is not so easy. Improvements in sensor design – not to mention the choice of sensor size – and high ISO performance, combined with creative in-camera features, advances in video and more have made the choice of camera an integral one.
One thing continues to be true, though: you’ll get better quality pictures from a high-end lens on a low-end camera versus a cheap lens on a pro camera.
Here are 6 suggestions for upgrading your lens before buying a new camera…
1 You’re shooting with a kit lens
Current 18-55mm kit lenses are much better than their predecessors, and there are many reasons why a cheap kit lens is the perfect lens.
But there’s no getting away from the fact that kit lenses leave a hole in your focal length range. If you need something wider or want to shoot from a distance and still get a reasonable image size, then you’re going to find the zoom range of a standard kit lens limiting.
Cheap kit lenses also have relatively slow maximum apertures. So when it comes to low light photography or stopping action, you may need to increase the ISO to compensate.
Obviously improvements in high ISO performance are made with each generation of digital camera. But upgrading to a faster lens – one with a wider maximum aperture – will allow you to keep the ISO low for maximum quality while still allowing you to tap into faster shutter speeds.
Fast glass also makes it easier to achieve a shallow depth of field, which can help you to isolate the subject of your photo, and also enables the high-precision AF points on compatible camera bodies.
2 Your pictures aren’t sharp enough
There are plenty of reasons why your photos may be soft. Invariably, it’s down to technique – or rather, the lack of it – but the inherent sharpness of the lens makes a difference too.
Upgrading your lens might bring only a minor upgrade in sharpness, but as the lens is the first link in the sharpness chain it’s also the most important.
A sharp lens will still produce soft pictures if it’s not used properly, and the sharpness of all lenses is limited by diffraction once you hit the smallest apertures available.
3 You want to pursue a specialist area of photography
If you know that macro photography is an area that you want to indulge in, then clearly you’re going to want a macro lens that can get you 1:1 with a subject.
The same goes for landscape photography. Yes, you can shoot landscapes with any lens, but if you’re truly bitten by the landscape photography bug then having an ultra-wide angle lens to hand will make a difference.
It’s a similar deal for portrait photography or wildlife photography – specialist lenses can make it easier to realize the pictures you have in mind.
You can of course hire specialist lenses, but you can only do that if you plan ahead. There’s a lot to be said for always having a lens in your camera bag so that you can take advantage of fortuitous moments.
There’s also an argument to be made for the camera body being a more important consideration for certain types of photography.
If night photography is your thing, then a camera that offers low-noise capture is likely to be the big issue, while sports photographers will view continuous shooting speed and autofocus accuracy as prime requirements.
That being said, the maximum aperture of the lens, its autofocus speed and image stabilization are beneficial to these types of photography too…
4 A lens upgrade can extend the life of your current camera
While a new lens won’t make your camera live longer – on the contrary, you’re more likely to burn through the shutter actuations when you have some new glass to play with – it can help you get more value from it.
You don’t have to spend a fortune to achieve the effect. There are plenty of budget lens upgrades whose cheap price belies the creative options they unlock.
A new camera can of course inspire creativity too. But it’s the choice of lens that really makes a difference. From its angle of view to the way it ‘draws’ a picture, a lens helps to define your photographic style.
5 A lens is for life… sort of
Lenses are an investment and a good lens will hold its value on the second-hand market.
Cameras are upgraded more frequently by manufacturers and their value can depreciate at a much faster rate than lenses.
While this is unlikely to be at forefront of your mind when you’re window shopping for your next lens, two, five, even ten years down the line, when you come to thinking about trading a lens in for a different one – or, indeed, a new camera – then it will be.
6 New camera features may be overkill
A camera upgrade can buy you better features such as a faster frame rate and improved autofocus, as well as better build quality and a host of other hi-tech bells and whistles.
Sounds good, right? But is your photography at the point where you need those things? If you’re new to DSLRs then a lot of those features may go unused.
In this instance, upgrading your lens to one which is sharper, focuses closer, offers a larger maximum aperture or a more extreme view – or a more versatile range of views – may make more sense.
by Marcus Hawkins May 28, 2015