Camera lenses are more important than the camera they’re attached to, at least in most situations. An entry level DSLR with a great lens will take great photos while a $10,000 professional camera with a terrible lens will take terrible pictures. Here’s why.
Cameras Are Just Really Really Good
A big reason cameras don’t matter so much anymore is that even entry-level models are excellent. Think how much the camera in your smartphone has improved over the last decade. With the much larger sensor in DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, the difference is even more distinct.
Here’s a shot I took using my entry-level (and five-year-old) Canon 650D with a 50mm f/1.8 lens.
And here’s a shot with my professional, newer, Canon 5D III using the same lens.
When you’re shooting with good light and displaying your photos online, there’s not much difference in quality between images produced by both cameras. There are other advantages to more expensive cameras, but pure image quality isn’t the biggest one anymore.
What Gets in the Way of Light Matters
So, let’s get to the crux of it: anything that gets in between the scene you’re photographing and the sensor of your camera affects the quality of the image. It’s easy to test this yourself: just take a photo through any window. Although you can see through it clearly, the quality of the photo you take will be badly affected.
Just look at this photo I took from a plane. It’s an okay photo, but it’s easy to see how the extra panes of glass are making everything look a little bit blurry.
Every lens is made up of multiple different lens elements. Each element affects the light as it passes through. With expensive lenses, the manufacturers go to great lengths to use the highest quality techniques and materials to minimize any chromatic aberration, distortion or vignetting from how the elements interact with the light as it passes through. Expensive lenses also tend to be sharper across the entire image for the same reason. With cheaper lenses, manufacturers can’t afford to invest as much money in materials or research. They try to do their best, but compromises must be made, and image quality is one of the things that suffers.
Now don’t get me wrong, there are great, reasonably priced lenses out there—check out our articles on good lenses for Canon and Nikon cameras—but they still cost between $150 and $600. Anything cheaper most likely is poorly made and has a serious effect on the quality of your images.
Lenses Control What You Can Shoot
Your camera is just a dumb, image capturing, brick. Without a lens, all you’ll be able to do is take selfies like this:
I’m so sexy.
It’s the different lenses you have that enable you to shoot different situations and subjects. If you want to shoot at night, you’ll need something with a nice wide aperture. For sports or wildlife photography, a telephoto lens is ideal. The best portraits and the best landscapes use totally different lenses.
While it’s possible to shoot different subjects without the “right” lens—I shoot a lot of sports stuff with a wide angle lens—it makes your life much harder. Choosing the right focal length lens for your subject is a big part of photography.
Cameras go out of date every few years. New developments, new technologies, and so on. Lenses, however, are updated much less frequently. If you look after your lenses, they’ll last through multiple different camera bodies as long as they’re compatible—which is why we recommend thinking carefully about buying crop sensor specific lenses.
Buying good lenses is an investment. You’re far better off spending $500 on a camera and $1000 on good lenses than vice versa. They have more effect on image quality, determine what you can shoot, and will last way longer.