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Expensive Camera or a Great Lens: Which IS The Best Choice for a Photography Course?

  • Tutorials
  • 18/09/16

There it sits on its retail throne, the brand new Nikon D5. Nikon’s flagship camera is the main display at Jessop’s, and just seeing it up close makes me drool a little.

Expensive Camera or a Great Lens: Which IS The Best Choice for a Photography Course?

With a full-frame sensor and a 12-frames-per-second continuous burst rate that would make any sports photographer weak at the knees, Nikon has a lot to boast about with its D4 replacement. In fact, this camera is leagues ahead of its predecessor. In the camera market, the competition is fierce between the supreme brand champions Cannon and Nikon.

As I walk over to the next window display, Nikon’s arch rival, the Canon D1 X Mark II also sits proudly on its retail box throne. The Canon flagship camera also boasts an impressive set of features, from on-sensor phase detection and television broadcasting capabilities, to an even higher burst rate of 16fps.

All very impressive, especially if, unlike me, you know how to actually use the features. Of course, a camera does not a photographer make – but a professional is able to get the most out of the best tools available for the job.

Both these cameras cost upwards of £5500, and that’s for the body alone. We haven’t even begun to talk about lenses.

My salary and photo skills don’t justify the price, unless I take a photography course, in which case I might be more tempted to make such an investment. What I do know is that the retail kings have made their way into my heart, and I can’t get the idea of owning one of those beasts out of my head. What if I bought one and just stuck my kit 18-55 on it?

Would all of those impressive specifications be worth it if I couldn’t afford a fancy lens? I have a chat with couple of the salesmen who are happy to engage in the conversation. They pull a little micro four-thirds off the counter and let me play around with it (I don’t feel safe holding the big boys in case I get slippery fingers). The first pictures I take are with the kit lens. Then after about 5 minutes the first salesman hands me an Olympus 75MM prime lens, and tells me that it’s the most beautiful lens they have.

The difference literally knocks me off my socks. OK, not literally, but you get the idea. The focus is instant; the detail incredible. Same camera, different lens. Also, it turns out my lens won’t even fit on those flagship models, because mine is designed for use with a cropped sensor and both the cameras are full-frame. I could fit the lens, sure, but the field of vision would be incredibly limited.

That evening I take my old Nikon D80 out of the cupboard where it’s been collecting dust for quite some time. I get to thinking, what if I spent the £5500 on an incredible lens instead: would it turn my old clunker into a dream machine?

The next day I head back to Jessop’s. Turns out my APS-C sensor isn’t sensitive enough to pick up on the low light capabilities of the Leica’s incredible F0.95 stop. Still, I’m told a fairly decent lens would definitely bring out the best in my camera.

It’s complicated, because certain lenses are best for certain cameras. Horses for courses. An entry-level DSLR with a cropped APS-C sensor should be paired with a lens designed to take advantage of the camera’s capabilities, but that isn’t to say that all crop senor lenses are cheap and low quality. There are plenty of primes with beautiful glass designed to let the maximum amount of light hit the smaller sensor.

So to draw some kind of conclusion (because the answer is to cheap body/good lens v expensive body/cheap lens is extremely complicated), it is fair to say the lens is more important than the body for a number of reasons. Even the best camera body can never produce a great image if it doesn’t have the brawn to back up the class glass. The other reason has to do with the digital marketplace. Competition among camera manufacturers is fierce, and every year they like to come out with better, newer tech to give hungry consumer savages like me more reason to empty out their wallet. That means that whatever body you buy, there’s going to be something better next year, or maybe even next month.

Lenses on the other hand are like wine; they only get better over time, unless of course they were lacking to begin with. A 1975 35mm F0.95 Voiglander is just as beautiful a lens now as it was when it first hit the shelves. What’s more important is to choose a brand you like – for your own reasons (that’s right fanboys and girls) – and stick to it, because lenses cost a hell of a lot more than the body. And the greater your collection, the more you can do with your photography. But before ANY of that: learn to take pictures and take them well. Go find a photography school and take some classes. I would love that Nikon, though – what a handsome beast it is.

Header photo: Cary Norton