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Cameras vs. Lenses–Which is More Important Long Term?

Darrell Young (DigitalDarrell) on February 25, 2013


Keywords: camera, basics, guides, tips, tricks

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I’ve been shooting with Nikon SLR and DSLR cameras for about 33 years now. I’ve also been buying lenses for those same camera bodies. Looking back in time, I’ve come to some conclusions about the importance of camera bodies and lenses. Which is more important over time?

While the shapes and sizes of my Nikon camera bodies have changed over the years and the functionality built into each camera body has increased, my lenses have pretty much remained constant.

NikonFMWith50mm_600px  
Nikon FM with AI-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 Lens  

During your photographic journey, camera bodies will come and go, especially in the digital world. In the digital era, camera bodies are like computers and may become obsolete within a few years. You don’t absolutely have to buy a new camera when the new ones come out. I have a ten-year-old DSLR camera body (Nikon D100) that works perfectly. Of course, you have to achieve a minimum level of camera body quality to take advantage of your excellent lenses. Don’t skimp there either!

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However, new cameras add more features and may even increase the quality of the image, so you’ll upgrade. Your photographic enthusiasm will insist; even if your partner or spouse does not understand why. One of the reasons photography is so relatively expensive is that—nearly every time you want a new accessory—you will have to buy something new for your partner too. If you buy a new accessory-shoe-mounted GPS unit for your camera, your partner isn’t going to settle for a nice coffee mug! I hope your partner is someone that loves photography too.

(5 Votes)
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Darrell Young Darrell Young (DigitalDarrell)

Knoxville, USA
Platinum, 5908 posts

26 comments

Daniel Ouimet (kodiak photo) on April 2, 2013

Hi everyone! …a lot of rock-solid wisdom spoken here! The common denominator of all these comments is: The best investment seems to be in Nikon gears BECAUSE it is a system. A sustained system. I should know, I bought the F2 as it came out on the market some… years ago, and today I work with two of the original lenses on both the D3S and the D3X (of course, there are features issue, but I get the work done. I don't use film for more then 1% of my shootings, and when I do, it's just like in the ol'days! A trustworthy system. I agree with Darrell totally (and admire his touch with his partner). I will not change a VR I lens for a VR II cause I don't use VR anyway. On the other hand, I will invest in a D4"X" with +/- 50MPs (speculated). The hope that this body will eventually come is the only thing that keeps me from buying the Danish medium format that I know would cost me a lot more then the D4"X". Lenses makers succeeded to solve most problems that lenses should handle. Some other aspects of picture making must be dealt with through the camera itself. For sports shooters, their edge is achieved with the body more then with the lens. Granted. Nevertheless, the bodies will be changed quite earlier then the lenses will. The only thing I miss from my F4Es is the exchangeable pentaprism. With the year, hockey and tennis have taken their toll on my knees… This is something on my wish list for the next D4: a waist level finder. kodiak French speaking nikonian moderator Groovy Shootings www.kodiakmedia.at

Rick Spehn (PSAGuy) on March 19, 2013

Like absolutely everything in life....determine what you NEED, and go from there. For guys like me spending 99% of their life in dungeon-like ice rinks and gymnasiums shooting sports, I have to say BODY is much more important. The ability to go to ISO's of 6400 and beyond is so critical, my business depends on it daily. Lenses are important yes....but nothing like the body. For someone who shoots trees, and mountains in broad daylight....the right body is almost any one. It simply "depends".

grant stringer (Devon Weddings) on March 18, 2013

Got to go with lenses!

Rick Bauer (rickbuddy) on March 10, 2013

I agree that that there is a "partner cost" when purchasing camera equipment, and there was a time when the equipment cost was double as I had to purchase equal dollar value in jewelry. However I have managed to reduce that cost by taking the time to shoot subjects she likes: her birds, butterflies and flowers. So I built her a big bird & butterfly garden and learned to enjoy shooting those subjects. Just a thought for others.

Gregg Schuler (gschuler) on March 6, 2013

I'm fairly new to this hobby but my son gave me some sage advice that I think reflects the wisdom of most of the comments I've read here. "Buy the least camera that you can get away with and spend twice what you can afford on the lens." Of course there are some caveats that go with his recommendation but all in all not bad advice from the younger generation.

sreeramachandran (naiveindian) on March 5, 2013

IMHO AFS Motors and VR would break down eventually so is it wise to invest in exotic lenses like 70-200 2.8 vr?

Michael McKee (MysticCowboy) on March 4, 2013

Traditionally, lenses have been the foundation of a shooting kit. Now there seems to be an arms race in sensor technology that's putting the focus on bodies. I don't see lenses improving drastically in the near future, but sensors, that's another story. The next few years are going to be very interesting. That is not to say that good glass will not still be important, but that we may see sensors improving by leaps and bounds. For example, Borrow Lens recently compared the 5D Mark III and the D800 with 24-70 mm lenses. The conclusion was that the Canon lens out resolved Nikon's, but that the higher resolution of the D800 more than made up for the different lenses, providing more detail in the images from the D800.

Michael McKee (MysticCowboy) on March 4, 2013

Traditionally, lenses have been the foundation of a shooting kit. Now there seems to be an arms race in sensor technology that's putting the focus on bodies. I don't see lenses improving drastically in the near future, but sensors, that's another story. The next few years are going to be very interesting. That is not to say that good glass will not still be important, but that we may see sensors improving by leaps and bounds. For example, Borrow Lens recently compared the 5D Mark III and the D800 with 24-70 mm lenses. The conclusion was that the Canon lens out resolved Nikon's, but that the higher resolution of the D800 more than made up for the different lenses, providing more detail in the images from each camera.

Bill McGrath (wfmcgrath3) on March 4, 2013

I bought the 17-35 f/2.8 AFS, the 28-70 f/2.8 AFS, and the 80-200 f/2.8 AFS Nikkor lenses when I was still shooting film with my F-100. I still use these with my D800. I'm not convinced that the newest lenses, aside from having VR, are better than what I currently have. As far as bodies go, I went digital with a D70, upgraded to a D200, and now shoot with the D800. I've added the 24-120 f/4 VR and the 105 micro VR for reasons that have nothing to do with IQ. It seems to me that the technological advances in glass proceed at a much slower pace than that of sensors and processing capability. Therefore, I agree that lenses are a longer-term investment than bodies. However, this is not an absolute; when there is a significant advancement, such as VR, it might be time to reconsider one's equipment complement. Since I do mostly landscape, using a tripod and good shot discipline, I can live without the VR benefits, and save a lot of money on glass upgrades. Eventually, every technology sees its day, and one has to upgrade to maintain the current state-of-the-art in image quality, whether the limiting factor is glass or electronics. Such is life in our complex world.

Eugene Powers (InsaneO) on March 4, 2013

Interesting to read most standard responses. But anyone considered that camera like D800 can actually make a mediocre lens much better? Or that lens works really good on one body but not so much on the other? Happened to me personally quite a few times and I read here and there that it also happened to others. So I would say that if it make sense to upgrade I would always do.

Robert S Baldassano (robsb) on March 3, 2013

Darrell I agree with you. Todays cameras are really optical input computers and as we know, buy a computer today and it is obsolete tomorrow. Like Kent I tend to use my camerss for a long time. I used my F3HP for 20 years and did not own an AF lens until I bought my D200. What I have found with digital bodies is that I am only upgrading when I am being cramped by their capabilites, and that is mostly low light performance and frame rate. So my D200 was replaced by my d700. Yet when I moved to digital, I was still using the lenses from my F3HP and I slowly added more modern lens to my collection. But I still use the old lenses too. My collection of lenses has appreciated while my camera bodies have depreciated, so it is clear that lenses first is the best choice of dollars spent, and changing bodies should be based upon added performance that can let you shoot in conditions that you currently can't perform with your current body.

Peter Geran (gearsau) on March 3, 2013

Lenses are more important. I can still use my 1990 model 800mm f5.6, 1995 model 500mm f4 AF-I, 1997 model 300mm f2.8 AF-S with my D3s, D3 and D2Xs. Even my 8 mm f2.8 fisheye will work on the D3S and D3. That's why I like Nikon,as they haven't made some lenses incompatible with the current digital models. I haven't gone D4 just yet. Maybe D4S or D5.. BTW...still have a couple of F5's sitting here :-)

N. Kent Lewis P. (nkcllewis) on March 1, 2013

Not sure I'm in the same camp with regards to value of a lens over a camera body long term. I tend to keep my camera bodies for a long time; my F3HP is still around and only just recently upgraded from the D200 to a D600. The F3, D200 and now D600 are nearly indestructible, take excellent pictures, and intercompatible with lenses. Yes, a lens lasts a long time but frankly speaking they are easily replaceable and often traded in or upgraded especially that the older ones tend to flare, etc. with the newer digital bodies. So, perhaps what I'm saying is that good Nikon bodies from yesteryear are still capable tools and in the right hands everybit as good as the lens mounted on the body. What would you rather shoot with, a 60mm f/2.8 AF or a 60mm f/2.9 AFS ED with nano-coating? Cheers

Zita Margit Kemeny (zkemeny) on March 1, 2013

For me a good lense is more important as well.

John Sands (JBS101) on March 1, 2013

I agree that the lens has traditionally been a better investment than a camera body, at least for Nikon whose mount has not changed. I do wonder though, as Nikon and other lenses have more embedded technology like AFS motors, whether we will soon see an increased need to upgrade them more often. I hope not.

Michael L. Boss CEP CFP CQCSM (MikeBoss) on March 1, 2013

Buy the best glass you can afford, most camera manufacturers add bells and whistles to bodies regularly and call them "new" however the core ability of the body does not change that often.

Tom Feazel (tfeazel) on February 28, 2013

I like the audio analogy. I've had 3 processors, but one set of B&W 802's. And one set of power amps. I'm not sure how the Power amps fit into the analogy, but I'll cogitate on that.

Guerry Doolittle (Relaskop) on February 28, 2013

I believe they are in some ways analogous to stereo equipment, with camera bodies being like receivers (unless you opt for components) and lenses being like speakers. Once you get to a certain level of quality of receiver, you can pay more for "bells and whistles," but are unlikely to get any better sound that most can detect. Better to put more money into high quality speakers. Similarly, for many of us good mid-level cameras will produce images better than our photographic capabilities--or that we can detect on typical monitors and small prints -- and we probably should allocate more money to high quality lenses.

Peter Lim (plim) on February 27, 2013

to add on to Arkayem's comment, I invested in the top-of-the-line DX lens (17-55mm f/2.8) only to find myself having difficulty selling it when I upgraded to the D600, but that's a slightly different issue. Also, as sensors improve dramatically, lenses that used to be great on older bodies are getting out-resolved by new sensors. For instance, the 17-35/2.8 is not as good on a D800 as the 14-24/2.8 If you look at it on a macro scale (10+ years), you will end up upgrading both glass and bodies. But inside that 10 year span, yes, you will find that glass outlasts bodies.

Tom Feazel (tfeazel) on February 27, 2013

In my meandering thoughts above, I should have mentioned the amazing leaps that zoom lens quality has made in this century. New zooms are phenomenal. Sensor technology is what drives the obsolescence of cameras, and I think we have reached a plateau at 24 Mpixels: that resolution is very nearly equal to fine grain 35mm film.

Jean Hardy (eliot3b4) on February 27, 2013

Nice writing, Darrell, and oh so very true on spouses, etc. I find that I can correct, for the most part lighting, shading, color, etc, but if the image is not razor sharp it's no good

Greg Schmidt (nikond90greg) on February 27, 2013

My 1st Nikon was a D90, and yes, my wife INSISTED on her own D90 (her 1st camera). When I upgraded to the D600, you guessed it, she also wanted her own D600.Now she wants FX glass. Why couldn't she settle for flowers?

Kent Larsson (klars2) on February 27, 2013

I tend to agree, but I am wondering if the technology and quality of the many types of censors in use, is not becoming at least equally important.

Russ MacDonald (Arkayem) on February 27, 2013

I agree that lenses are a better investment than cameras. However, I tend to upgrade my lenses almost as regularly as my cameras. The performance of especially the latest zoom lenses is phenominal compared with lenses from the 90s and older. My 24-70mm f/2.8 AF-S is as good as many of my primes from pre-2000. So, I tend to sell my older lenses for a much higher percentage of their original price than a camera will fetch and buy the new lenses as they come out. Recently, I have seen a noticeable improvement in distortion, flare, and vignetting in my new lenses.

Tom Feazel (tfeazel) on February 27, 2013

I recently bought a 135 mm f2.8 lens. It is a pre-AI lens, modified to be safe to use on modern D-Nikons by the previous owner. This is an absolutely superb lens. I paid $100 for it. There is no question that investment in lenses is a far better dollar spent than that spent on camera bodies. The actual number of dollars that I spent on this 40-year-old lens is probably close to the initial cost. Of course $100 was an enormous amount of money to this architecture student in 1970, and the cost of a new equivalent lens is around $1000. I'm rambling a bit, but the point is that the lens that was made in the early 70s is not only still usable today, but that it is optically superb, and new technology has not improved on lens performance very much. There are improvements, of course; there is noticeable flare in the old lens, but this is manageable. I'm sure that I'll see other issues as I get to know it better. Well, my old Canon FTb from that time would be a $20 curiosity now. I don't remember how much that camera cost, but there's no question that the lens would have been a better investment. Modern cameras are computers, and, like computers, the second you buy one, it is obsolete. I have had three Nikon DSLR's since 2003. I have had three 4/3 cameras recently. Before that I also had film Leicas, Pentax, and Nikons, and several point and shoots. Those camera bodies were disposable. My ever-changing collection of lenses, though, has retained value, and when they were sold as I've migrated to different brands, they returned a substantial portion of my original investment. I don't think that there's any argument about which is a better investment. Good lenses are a joy to use, and they hold their value.

Richard Luse (DaddySS) on February 25, 2013

Thanks for the reminder Darrel (as he sits anxiously awaiting the D400 to upgrade the D300s)and thanks for taking the time to write this. I also enjoyed the guidance on managing the other half of purchases! Many of us love photography not only for the love of creating images, but also the love of great gear and if you treat your gear - especially lenses as you say - like babies - they will last a long time, well through a whole series of camera upgrades.

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