Most gear chatter online tends to center around the endless and ultimately useless debate about which camera bodies are the best on the market and will transform you overnight into a photographic superhero combining the skills of Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz, and James Nachtwey into one without ever having to practice or learn your craft. But with all the focus on sensors and capture devices, we often pay far too little attention to each image's first port of entry: the lens.
Of course, it’s not completely illogical to think about the camera body first. We tend to think of ourselves as Nikon shooters, Canon shooters, Sony shooters, and so forth. We often identify to an unreasonable level with our chosen camera brand. And, after all, the camera body is where we usually see that big brand logo that announces to the world how we’ve chosen to define ourselves. The camera brands themselves market their lenses as simple accessories rather than drivers of the purchasing decision. If you Google Canon, you are likely to get a bunch of info about the R5 but have to dig much deeper to find info on the 50mm f/1.2 that mounts to it. But should this really be the case? Here are four simple reasons why you should consider your lens choices before deciding on which camera system to buy into.
High-quality lenses cost a lot of money. But “a lot” is a relative term and may vary depending on which system you buy into. Say, for instance, you have been shooting with an APS-C sized camera and have always dreamed about moving into full frame. Your Fuji X-T3 has served you well, but now, you want to move up to the new Nikon Z 7 II. By the way, I’m just using those two as an example and making no judgments on their quality or on whether that would be the right decision for you.
Now, let’s say that you are a prime shooter and will want a basic combination of a 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm primes. In Fuji APS-C terms, that would be a 23mm, 35mm, and 50mm to get the rough full frame equivalent.
The X-T3 body currently costs $999 on B&H. The Z 7 II costs $2996. Again, the increase is to be expected. One is an older camera, at least in today’s rapid technological terms, and the other was just announced. One is a full frame, the other is a crop sensor. So, let’s say you’re okay with paying a bit extra for the full frame body.
But, obviously, you can’t use a camera without a lens. So, let’s look at the costs of the primes. The prime range I listed earlier will set you back $846, $2,096, and $796 for the Nikon. The same would set you back $449, $499, and $449 for the Fuji. So, the full cost for the Nikon system would cost you $6,734, while the Fuji would cost you $2,396.
Now, I already know what you’re thinking. It’s not exactly an apples to apple comparison, because within each of those brands, you have a few options. For instance, the Nikkor Z 50mm f/1.2 S costs $,2096. But you can always opt instead for the Nikkor Z 50mm f/1.8 for only $596. Likewise, Fuji has multiple variations of their primes as well, so if you opt for the faster glass, you might find yourself paying just as much, if not more compared to the Nikon primes. All of which brings me to my next reason to consider your lens preferences before choosing a camera brand.
Do the Lenses Meet Your Use Case?
Just like camera bodies, the value of an individual lens is highly dependent on the person who ends up using it. Let’s build on our previous example. If you are someone who obsesses over bokeh (don’t we all) or someone who is going to be shooting a lot in low-light situations, choosing the Nikkor Z 50mm f/1.2 over the f/1.8 might make a lot of sense. For your use case, there is value in the wider aperture.
But not all camera systems have an f/1.2 option. Nikon itself didn’t have a 50mm f/1.2 for it’s Z system until this year. So if that is essential to your photography, then that might be a reason to go with a different brand regardless of how much you like the Z bodies.
Likewise, you might want to ask questions like how sharp a company's lenses are wide open. If you are like me and rarely go lower than f/2.8, even if a lens is capable of f/1.2, then this won’t be as big a deciding factor. But if a super-shallow depth of field is part of your workflow, you should make sure the system you are buying into has the lenses to support you.
As many times as we try to conjure up objective arguments to explain why our chosen camera brand is better than all the others, if we are being honest with ourselves, more often than not, it simply comes down to whether or not a camera feels right in our hand. This is a wholly subjective measure and not the type of thing brands can market on a spec sheet. But certain cameras just feel at home in our grip, while others seem to reject the very curvature of our hands.
The same applies to lenses. I’ll give you an example. I used to shoot the bulk of my work with a Nikon 24-120mm f/4G ED VR. It was a great general purpose lens, good for everyday photography and professional photography. As I mentioned earlier, I rarely go lower than f/2.8, so the f/4 on that lens wasn’t the absolute end of the world. It handled well for me and was just the right weight.
Then, I went on assignment to shoot a campaign for a client in their out of town studio. They had gear there, so I would be shooting with a Canon 5D Mark IV instead of my trusty Nikon and chose to go with their 24-70mm f/2.8 II USM. I really enjoyed the focal range and feel, so when I got back to Los Angeles, I purchased the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR to pair with my new Nikon D850.
Right away, I could tell a difference in the image quality I was producing with the new combination. But, as I felt the image quality was going up, my enjoyment of shooting with the combination took a marked dip. I couldn’t figure out why. I’d been shooting Nikon’s for 15 years and never had an ergonomics problem yet. So, why was this combination feeling just that one degree off for me? After going through the more elaborate explanations, I realized the answer was the most simple. That lens is heavy as hell.
I had gone from shooting with the 710g 24-120mm to shooting with the 24-70mm coming in at a whopping 1,070 g. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not so feeble as to be unable to lift it, but that 50% increase in weight, especially given the longer weight distribution, threw the muscle memory in my shooting hand into hysterics. The focal range was ideal for the work I do. And the image quality was a step up from the 24-120mm. But the whole balance just seemed off to me. So much so, that it gave me an inaccurate poor initial reaction to shooting with my D850, which I acquired right around the same time.
This is not meant as an article to bash the Nikon 24-70mm. It’s a great lens. And despite the weight, I still use it on the majority of my shoots today because the performance really is that good. But the balance of it has had a tangible impact on my day to day. Could I just go back to shooting with the lighter 24-120mm? Sure, but were I in the process of choosing camera brands in the first place, I might also have opted to go Canon in that situation, as the 24-70mm I use when shooting at my client studio is the same focal range but only comes in at 805 g.
Am I being extra particular? Absolutely. But if you’re deciding on the tools you will use every day to make your living, you’ll want to consider all angles.
Speaking of making one’s living, the biggest reason why I feel as though lenses are ultimately more valuable than the bodies they connect to is a matter of investment. Simply put, lenses hold value much better than camera bodies.
Regardless of your preferred brand, you will have noticed that, in terms of technology, companies tend to leapfrog one another at an astounding rate. Like an NFL game where there are 10 lead changes in the second half alone, the pace of technological innovation is somewhat dizzying. The camera you buy might have the best autofocus on the market at the time you place your order and already be back in third place by the time the camera actually arrives at your door.
This makes investing in camera bodies a very precarious process. Talking with a friend of mine the other day, he was remembering the time he’d bought an old girlfriend of his a camera for her birthday in the days before digital. It cost him a whopping $150. And it was a great camera that still works perfectly decades later. Of course, the cost of film and developing would have added up over the years, but the upfront investment was relatively low.
Nowadays, that equation has reversed. Film costs and development costs have disappeared for people shooting digitally. But the cost of camera bodies has skyrocketed. Now, even some entry-level systems will cost you a couple of thousand dollars. And all that money is paid upfront, whether you ultimately end up using it the way you intended or not. If you are someone who always likes to have the latest model, you are likely looking at an upgrade rate of around once every two to three years. So, if you, for example, spent $2,500 on your camera body, then you really need to get that value back over the course of 36 months before that camera becomes old news.
On the flip side, I am still using Nikon lenses that I bought almost 20 years ago. The lenses have outlived multiple camera bodies and still get used almost every time out. So, even if I decide to splurge and spend more on the Nikkor Z 50mm f/1.2 we discussed earlier, it will have a much longer period of usefulness over which to give me the return on my investment versus any specific camera body.
Also, if I ever do decide to change camera systems and cash in on my old one, the lenses themselves retain a much higher value on the resale market. Buying a new camera body is like buying a new Cadillac. Amazing machine, but it loses half its value the moment you drive it off the lot. With lenses, you might not get back exactly what you paid for them, but you can derive significant value, assuming you’ve kept them in good condition. If you make a habit of buying lenses on the used market as I often do, you can recoup an even greater percentage of your investment should you decide to sell that lens later on.
I don’t mean to suggest in this article that camera features don’t matter. Nor do I mean to suggest that one camera or lens choice is better than another. The value of an individual piece of photographic gear is 100% dependent on how it is going to be used. But before you drop two months' rent on a new camera body, take a moment to reflect on your use case and decide if the lenses currently offered for that system are the ones that best suit your needs.