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.