Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Body or the Lens?

This one is easy to state but difficult to execute.

(FYI - I followed the lens advice from Kevin Brown, a photographer friend of mine, and have not been sorry. See his work at

Put your money in really good, fast lenses. Make them a priority over the camera body. Here are my thoughts on why.

  • A good lens will be fast which means a large aperture (e. g., f/2.8 or larger) so it can gather more light and allow more latitude with shutter speed and/or ISO settings.
  • A good fast, zoom lens will maintain a constant aperture over the entire zoom range. That is a 70-200 mm, f/2.8 zoom will be capable of f/2.8 even at 200mm. A lens that is characterized by an aperture rating of something like f/3.4-f/5.6 means that when it is zoomed to 200 mm its largest aperture will be f/5.6, much slower than the constant aperture of the fast lens.
  • A good lens will be well made and will be durable; lasting for many years (easily 8-10 years). A camera body will be superseded with the newer model in about 18 months but even if you skip a generation you'll still be trading bodies in 3 years.
  • It doesn't matter how many mega-pixels your camera body has, unless the image delivered to those pixels is tack sharp your photo won't be the best it could be. It might be "good enough" but is that what you really want?
  • Ditto on distortion (barrel and/or pin cushion)
OK, now for the "Con" part

  • No one fast lens will cover a REALLY wide zoom range. It is likely that you will need at least three to go from extreme wide angle (12-24 mm), to standard range (24-70 mm) and reasonable telephoto range (70-200 mm)
  • A good lens is expensive. Most fast lenses in the above-mentioned ranges will be in the neighborhood of $1,800 each.
  • These lenses will also be HEAVY.
  • A body with that fast 70-200 mm telephoto will require a more stable (heavier) tripod and a larger capacity (heavier) ball head. The necessary tripod and ball head will set you back about $1,000. I use a Gitzo 3540 LS tripod and Really Right Stuff's largest ball head. (I'll blog about the right tripod/ball head combination in a later posting.)

Some practical notes.

  • This stuff adds up: Body $5,000, Tripod & Head $1,000, 3 fast lenses @ $1,800 each $5,400 - easily $11,000 to $12,000 not counting back packs, strobe, extra batteries, etc.
  • If you are just starting out and can't afford all of this then go for a good body instead of the pro version. That is buy the new Nikon D300 at $1,700 instead of the pro D3 at around $5.000. The image processing engine is the same and many of the capabilities are there. I use the D300 because that allowed me to put the extra $$ into 2 of those fast lenses.
  • Get a lens that will suit what you are doing but be careful NOT to go for the cheapest. A great all-around lens is the Nikon 18-200 VR zoom. It is not a fast lens by the above standards but the VR helps. At around $700 or so it will serve for most things (except macros) that you will want to shoot. Check out lens reviews at Ken Rockwell (good common sense advice) and dpreview (deep technical analyses). I've said before that I LOVE this lens.
  • I haven't bought that fast Nikon super wide angle lens yet. I am using the Tokina 12-24 Pro DX f/4 constant aperture and have had great results.

Bottom Line: In the long run you want to build your equipment around good, fast lenses with the camera body being secondary. Those lenses are going to still be giving great results long after you've traded camera bodies several times. It doesn't matter how expensive or feature-rich the camera body is if you don't get the optimum image to the sensor.

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