New Camera Body or Lens?

You may have heard the old adage that it is better to upgrade your lenses than your camera body. If you ask the question on any photography forum which you should upgrade first, you will no doubt receive an overwhelming response that you should “invest” in lenses because they will give you the maximum increase in image quality and hold their value better to boot.

What is not often said is that this conventional wisdom is handed down from the film-era days, when the job of the camera body was significantly different from the modern day. In those days, your camera kit consisted of:

  • Camera body – an SLR or rangefinder camera whose principal job was to provide the mechanical instruments to hold and advance the film, open the shutter, mount the lens, and in more advanced bodies, provide light metering and autofocus capability. Other than these support functions, the camera body had very little (if any) impact on the image quality. If you used an external light meter and focused manually, the image quality was entirely dependent on the film and lenses you used, and the choice of camera body would be based on aesthetic and ergonomic preferences (not that those aren’t important factors, mind you).
  • Lenses – as with the modern day, film-era lenses focused light onto the recording medium (the film). Lens quality is critically important because imperfections in the glass can cause optical artifacts which are generally undesirable because they translate into distortions and imperfections in the final image. There is truth in the notion that lenses hold their value better than camera bodies, and lenses from the film-era days continue to be used in today’s cameras, sometimes without even the need of an adapter. However, lens design technology has progressed significantly since those days, and modern-day lenses are by-and-large technically superior to their film-era counterparts. This means that you can get still very usable film-era lenses at a substantial discount. Note that many people are fond of some of the characteristics of film-era lenses that might be seen as imperfections today and will actively seek out these retro lenses.
  • Film – this is where digital and film-era cameras diverge. Modern-day DSLRs house the recording medium in the camera body as a digital sensor. This sensor is fully integrated into the camera body, and the quality of the sensor directly impacts the quality of your final image. In the film era, film stock was the recording medium and was usually sold separately from the camera, so the camera body had little effect on the quality of the recording medium (and hence the final image quality) other than to dictate the size of the film sheet/strip that you could select. Because camera bodies had such limited impact on image quality in the film days, it was generally thought that money was better spent on upgrading camera lenses and high quality film than on upgrading the camera body. Today’s modern DSLRs on the other hand have sensors that greatly impact final image quality, since it is the sensors that determine the image resolution (megapixels), dynamic range, low light performance, noise, and color rendition, among other things.

 

So should you upgrade your camera body or lens first? Well, as with many things, that depends.

Firstly, you should always upgrade whatever needs to be upgraded first. What I mean by that is, if your camera body is good enough to do what you need it to, then there is no need to upgrade it as a priority. Of all the things that people tend to worry about when choosing a camera body, the number of megapixels usually tops the list. Megapixels is a measure of the resolution of the image file coming out of the camera, and affects how large you can print an image and how much you can crop into an image before you notice deterioration in image quality. If you want to print larger, then you need to provide greater resolution files to the printer, and this is most easily achieved by increasing the number of megapixels in the image file. However, generally speaking, it is the lens that most significantly affect factors such as image sharpness and contrast, two factors that most people are value highly in a final image. If you find that the image coming out of your camera is not tack sharp, and assuming you are already practicing proper shooting technique, then it is most often the lens to blame rather than the camera sensor. Also, each individual lens has different focal length and aperture ratio, and these attributes affect your ability to control perspective, depth of field, and framing in your image.

Therefore, my suggestion is to upgrade your camera body if you find that you are suffering from pixelation due to cropping in too tightly or from printing too large, or if you need non-image-quality-related improvements such as faster autofocus or shooting speed. Upgrade your lenses (or buy new ones) if you wish to increase image contrast and sharpness or if you want to shoot with a different perspective (e.g. a wider-angle lens to exaggerate near-far perspective, or a telephoto lens to compress distances). Buying specialty lenses can also allow you to shoot in ways that you have been unable to previously, such as very close to your subject at great magnification using macro lenses or by providing interesting effects (e.g. using Lensbaby or tilt-shift lenses).

One final thing to note: while it is true that lenses do generally hold their value better than camera bodies as they do not get outdated as quickly, remember that if you upgrade your camera body, it will affect the image quality of all of your images regardless of which lens you use, whereas if you upgrade a lens, it only affects images taken with that particular lens. Also, note that if you are a beginner, often the biggest upgrade gear-wise that you can get is neither lens nor camera body, but artificial light such as an off-camera flash. While it can be quite tricky to learn to use artificial lighting correctly, once mastered, it can make an enormous difference to your photography far beyond what upgrading your camera body or lens can provide. Of course, there are also non-gear-related ways to improve your photography, but that is the topic of another post.

Mark Teng.

Teng Photography, L.L.C.

Before You Buy – Tips on Researching Camera Gear

So you are interested in a new piece of gear: perhaps its a new camera body, or a used-but-still-good-condition lens that you found for a bargain on E-bay. However, you have no idea if the new item is actually an upgrade from what you already own: are you just suffering from a case of G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) or will the new gear allow you to take better photographs?

Photography is both science and art, and therefore the reviews that you find on the Internet for photography gear can be both objective (science) and subjective (art). Some sites, such as DXOMark report measurable and repeatable statistics such as image resolution, dynamic range, and MTF charts. Others give you real-world usage feedback that can be more subjective, such as the ergonomics of a particular camera body or the color and skin tones coming out of a camera’s files.

So how exactly can you research a new piece of gear before making a potentially expensive purchasing decision?

 

Try Before You Buy

By far the best way to see if a you will like a new piece of gear is for you to actually take it for a test drive. If nothing else, you can try visiting a local camera store to handle the camera in person and see how it fits in your hand – a subjective matter that no amount of online research can adequately answer. Most larger metropolitan centers have local camera stores that stock popular camera bodies and lenses on display. For those of us living in the U.S., Best Buy recently introduced “Camera Experience Shops” that carry a much wider array of camera gear than the regular stores, and these can be a good way for you to try out that new camera you have been eyeing before buying. Better yet, Best Buy actually offers free photography education classes that you can register for each month at these special stores (check out: Best Buy Camera Experience Stores.) Now, if you find that you do like the camera or lens, I recommend that you do at least consider buying it at your local Best Buy since these camera experience stores can only exist if they continue to generate a profit for the parent company. And you do get to take the camera or lens home with you right away – no shipping delay.

If you live in a smaller town and don’t have access to a local camera store, you can still try out a piece of gear by borrowing or renting it. One way is to join a local camera club, which, by the way, can do wonders for your photography. You will generally find that fellow members will be quite helpful in gear advice and letting you try out their gear. One way to find a local camera club is through Meetup. A Google search for “camera clubs near me” could also yield several results. Another good place to find camera club flyers is at your local library, community center, or community college or university.

Another alternative if you don’t belong to any clubs is to simply rent: LensRentals will drop-ship camera gear to any location within the United States, and you can use them to try out a new lens or camera body to your heart’s content and return it afterwards, or use your rental as credit towards purchase if you decide to keep the gear after the rental period.

 

Check Out Real-World Examples

The second best way to evaluate camera gear before making a purchasing decision (next to trying it out in person) is to see example shots that others have taken with the same gear. While camera reviews and scientific tests have their place and provide valuable objective information, unless you plan on using your camera to shoot test charts exclusively , what really matters at the end of the day is the subjective look of the photographs coming out of the camera – do you personally like the way the images are rendered? Real-world usage of a camera or lens differs from the sample images you often see on professional review sites in that these images are taken by regular camera enthusiasts and non-professionals and can provide a more honest “behind the scenes” look at the quality of images that you will likely actually get. Don’t get me wrong – there are many advantages to reading professional camera reviews – the results they publish conform to specific benchmarks and are designed to be repeatable, and since it is usually the same person or same couple of people evaluating the various gear, it reduces variability in results due to user experience and skill. I highly recommend reading high-quality and reputable camera gear review sites for such objective reviews, but they are not, in my opinion, the best source if you want to actually see the kind of images a camera produces in the real world. For real world images, the best place to do your research is Flickr. You can search Flickr’s database for any particular camera body or lens (e.g. “Canon EF 85mm f/1.8”) to bring up literally thousands of sample images posted by ordinary people (as well as professional photographers). For convenience, you can also join a Flickr group dedicated to a particular piece of gear, and scroll through the massive archives of photographs contributed to the group by the Internet community.

 

Review Sites

Finally, I recommend that you visit reputable camera gear review sites prior to making a purchasing decision. Why? Because these are still basically the only practical way to obtain objective information for comparing scientifically how a camera or lens performs compared to others on the market.

The industry standard for scientific benchmark testing of camera gear is DXOMark. This site provides scientific measurements and scores for a wide variety of camera bodies and lenses, and the “DXOMark Score” is an oft-quoted statistic by professional camera reviewers. Be warned that it can be difficult to properly interpret the numbers and charts on the site, and the site does exclude many third-party lenses and bodies. However, if you want to get “just the numbers” on a comparison between two camera bodies or lenses, this site is authoritative.

Another really useful site is Photozone, which relies on gear donations for their reviews, so naturally not every new lens or camera body will have a review on the site, but for those that are available, they do a really excellent job of evaluating the gear in an impartial and objective manner. They have a very consistent testing methodology which makes comparisons between different cameras and lenses much easier, and they rate lenses based on optical quality, construction quality, and value for money.

Other good review sites include Imaging ResourceDP Review, and Camera Labs. It is beyond the scope of this blog to delve into each site in detail, but I do encourage you to check out these sites as they provide very high quality reviews. Finally, you can always turn to Youtube for camera reviews from people such as Tony and Chelsea Northrup and Dustin Abbott. Youtube video reviews tend to go into more depth than written ones, but tend to cover only the more popular items from the major manufacturers.

Mark Teng.

Teng Photography, L.L.C.

Professional Photography on a Budget

Technically, professional photography is any type of photography that generates income. There is no gear requirement other than that the image capturing device must be sensitive to light. However, when we think of professional photography, there are certain expectations – we need to be able to handle a variety of projects and shooting conditions and deliver respectable image quality to the client. Therefore, it is easier to conduct professional photography with a modern DSLR than a pinhole camera constructed out of cardboard. But what if you are on a budget? Here are some tips for getting pro-level gear on a budget.

One of the common things that people do when they get serious with photography as a hobby or business is to buy a consumer camera kit package, which usually contains a crop-sensor DSLR such as a Canon Rebel or Nikon D3xxx-series camera with one or two kit lenses and some other accessories thrown in (as of this writing, the kit price ranges from $450 – $850 depending on model and promotion). While this is a fine way to start out, there is an even better option: buy used. Suppose you want to take portraits. You can purchase a Canon 5D full frame camera body for around $300 used. Add a fast prime lens such as the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 for around $80 (used). Finally, round it off with a Yongnuo YN-560IV flash YN-622C transmitter for around $110, and you have a complete portrait kit for around $500, about what you would have paid for a consumer camera kit.

If you are wondering why one would opt for used equipment (such as suggested above) compared to buying a new consumer kit, well there are several advantages. For one thing, most professional photographers tend to prefer full frame cameras because they represent an optimal balance between size, price, and image quality. Cameras larger than full frame tend to be very expensive, bulky and heavy, have limited flexibility when it comes to usage, and are usually quite limited lens and accessory selection. When you start getting smaller than full frame sensor size, you start to sacrifice image quality and low-light capability. However, one an even more important reason to use full frame cameras vs. smaller sensor sizes is the ability to isolate your subject from the background using shallow depth of field. The smaller the sensor of your camera, the greater the depth of field you will have at any given aperture and focal length. When shooting portraits, you want as much control over depth of field as you can get, and this is one reason why many portrait photographers before using full frame cameras in the field. Note that if you are shooting on a background (e.g. in a studio), then this is far less important as you usually want the background to be in focus anyway.

But even if you are unsure about the genre of photography  you want to shoot, it is a good idea to at least consider buying full frame-compatible lenses, because full frame lenses can usually be adapted for use on a crop sensor camera, but not the other way around. Therefore, building a full frame lens collection is a form of future-proofing your hobby or business for the future.

Mark Teng.

Teng Photography, L.L.C.