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Photography

Before You Buy a Better Camera, Buy Better Lenses

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This post is part of a series called Lenses.
New Course: What Every Photographer Should Know About Lenses
Here Is What to Look For When You Buy Photography Lenses

It can be hard to determine what piece of equipment will help you take your photos to the next level. With all the marketing around new cameras being released every year, and all the articles and reviews that go with it them, choosing your next upgrade becomes a difficult job. In this quick tip, you'll learn why a better lens is a better purchase than a better camera, all other things equal.

The Lens Forms the Image

I strongly advocate that you should choose better glass first because the lens forms the image on the sensor and if that image is not at its best, no sensor can make it better.

All lenses try to maximize image quality and light transmission but they have to deal with the complicated physics involved in optics. Lens makers have to balance a number of factors, from technical limitations like distortion, flare, and chromatic aberration to aesthetic considerations like color rendition, sharpness, and the appearance of out-of-focus areas. The design and materials of some lenses simply do a better job dealing with these challenges than others.

By Bill Ebbesen - Transferred from en.wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Lenses Are the Main Ingredient

Moving up from a kit lens is a huge step up in quality. A good-quality lens on a consumer or older camera can still deliver great results. A poor-quality lens on the newest, most expensive camera will not.

Many newer lenses, even inexpensive ones, are really very good. There are decent, affordable lenses available for all camera systems that produce an image that is technically acceptable—sharp, contrasty, neutral—in most situations. What these lenses do not have, however, is character. They feel clinical. In other words, they're designed to be good-enough lenses for the maximum number of applications. These lenses are not tools for artistry.

Pick Lenses for Your Style and Needs

If you're thinking about investing in some new photography gear, consider getting a pro-level zoom or a good prime (fixed focal-length) lens.

Prime lenses are less expensive, lighter, and more durable than zooms and often have terrific optics. Zoom lenses allow you to change the focal length and, with it, the field of view without repositioning the camera. The really good zoom lenses with large apertures are expensive, however. Depending on your needs, you might get by using just one pro-level lens.

Most importantly, good-quality lenses emphasize certain image qualities over others, meaning you can select for the characteristics that matter most for your kind of photography. When considering a lens, look for:

Angle of View

How much or how little of the world ends up in your frame. What angle of view does the lens provide? For lenses that work with crop-sensor APS and four-thirds cameras this is sometimes expressed as a full-frame equivalent.

Draw

The character of the lens and how it "draws space," or creates a pleasingly three-dimensional image. This is a function of several factors, but in general lenses with fewer lens elements (that is: lens parts inside) have a more pleasing character. Look at noses and chins: does the lens flatten these, or do facial features appear pleasing and three-dimensional?

Sharpness

Sharpness comes at the expense of ability to draw three-dimensional images, but depending on your application this might be OK.

Color Rendition

Color and flare control are in large part about the quality of the lens elements. New lens coatings have improved flare reduction, but basically all lenses made in the last forty years or so have good color.

Speed

How much light does the lens allow to reach the sensor at maximum aperture? For sports and wedding photographers, for example, speed matters a lot. For nature photographers, however, characteristics like weight and sharpness might be more important.

Contrast

What is the tonal range and contrast the lens is able to reproduce? Newer lenses generally have higher contrast and tonal ranges, but some people prefer the smoother reduced-contrast look of older lenses.

Manual Focus or Autofocus

There are a variety of focus systems available, from manual focus to advanced autofocus mechanisms with "silent wave" motors. Autofocus is handy, but ading autofocus to a lens means a lot of extra metal, bulk, complexity and cost, which you might not need.

Minimum Focusing Distance

How close can the lens focus? Rangefinder lenses, for example, usually have a fairly large close-focus distance due to their compact design.

Barrel Distortion

All lenses the render shapes of subjects differently at the center of the image than they do at the edges. This is especially apparent with wide-angle lenses. Some lenses have more distortion and some have less, even at the same focal lengths.

A cut-away view of a Canon Zoom Lens
By Dave Dugdale from Superior, USA (Canon L Series Lens Cutaway View) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Some Lenses are Highly Specialized

Some lenses are specialized to certain areas of photography. A long, telephoto lens may be great for sports photography but for other types of photography, a fisheye lens may be indispensable. Macro photography requires a macro lens. Things like close-up filters just don’t compare to a proper macro lens.

A photo of a Canon Tilt-Shift Lens
By Nickolas Titkov (Canon L Series Lens Cutaway View) [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via  flickr

Architectural photography gets a huge benefit from a tilt-shift lens which can correct the perspective in the image before any photos are taken. They are expensive but you can’t beat their great optics and their ability to shift the plane of focus. 

Lenses Can Last Forever

You will most likely own a lens far longer than you will own a camera. This longer time allows you get more return on your financial investment. Camera lenses get updated about every ten years, while a camera body gets superceed every two to four years.

Lenses rarely wear out or break on their own accord because they have few moving parts. The main reason a lens fails is due to damage, not due to age. So as long as you are careful with your lens, it will provide many years of service.

When contemplating how to take your photos to the next level, a good lens is often a better investment than a new camera. Not only do they last longer, but they offer a range of specializations that benefit specific photographers. Lenses are complicated with a lot of physics happening unseen, except in a really poorly designed or damaged lens, and that makes their importance easy to overlook. However, it is the lens that forms the image on the sensor and if that image is not at its best, no sensor or fancy camera features can make it better.

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