The story usually goes like this: you buy a new camera, and then you decide on the optics. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, really. Shouldn’t it be the other way round. Aren’t the optics at the heart and soul of an image? Sensor and camera are second priority. Rather decide first which lens(es) you need, and then which body you can afford. If you have to, save on the body, never on a lens.
Lens first, then body, that’s not the common practice. Most of us buy into specs, not what makes sense. Most people don’t buy a camera based on lens considerations, but on functionalities, sensor specs, brand loyalty, ergonomics, feel, etc. Most of the major photography websites don’t even tell us what lenses are used for a camera review, as if the lens is a constant something without any variances.
DP Review doesn’t specify lenses, DxOMark doesn’t and most others don’t. We’re told about ISO, lighting conditions and even ambient temperature in a standard studio setting, but no word about the lens. Optics are reduced to a neutral, nameless and faceless means to an end. Even though they lie at the heart of the image.
That’s a capital offense in photographic matters because each and every lens has a character to its own that is hard to measure, but that determines the final output a.k.a. image quality considerably more than “just” the sensor and parameters such as noise, shadow detail, dynamic range and so forth.
A lens character might not be an issue if your photography is about “sharpest” images. Then reviews like Lens Rentals’ The Great 50mm Shootout are top. But there is so much more to an image than sharpness.
Seriously, I don’t care too much about sharpness. Not because Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept.” Sharpness can turn into an unhealthy obsession. A good photograph is a good photograph. Even with our own eyes we never see razer-sharp. The concept of perfect detail is deceptive.
So if I don’t buy a lens for mainly sharpness, what else could be important? I don’t mind a certain imperfection and therefore shop for a lens’s character in contrast to the mostly flat, one-dimensional rendition an average lens delivers. Because today, about every camera is up to the task. If you’re not able to shoot nice images with a, say, D7100, then you’re not worthy of the Leica you’re dreaming of.
The digital imaging sensors of most of today’s serious cameras are of a quality that most viewers are in no position to tell cameras apart from each other. A Micro Four Thirds camera can produce an output that matches a full-framer. That’s hardly news. But many seem to ignore that the systems’ “equality” lies more in the choice of optics than the choice of cameras, oblivious to the fact that superior glass does give superior results.
That’s why you pay a hefty price tag for quality glass. It delivers. Keep your hands off kit lenses. Don’t call me a snob. Kit lenses do what they’re supposed to do. They work. They take pictures. Not that money doesn’t matter. But saving on lenses is saving on the wrong things.
If anyone aims to bring one’s photography to a different level, better keep your aging camera and invest in good glass with fine optics. Consider the opposite: sticking a slow zoom of average build quality on a D800. Ouch.
There’s always post-processing. It’s perfectly legitimate to ask what’s the point of spending more money on nice fast glass when blurring, contrast and other characteristics of a lens can be achieved by simple data manipulation.
Well one doesn’t have to be an expert with a practiced eye to see a difference between the outputs of prime glass and a run-of-the-mill standard lens. In most cases there’s a fullness, clarity, a life and three-dimensionality to the better glass that’s hard to be achieved without the better glass.
That doesn’t mean the more one spends on lenses the more ravishing the photography will be. That’s what the marketing departments of camera makers are trying to hammer into our heads.
But with the exception of specialized photography (that requires fast AF and fps) an experienced photographer will always ask first what optics are needed for the job. It’s the lens that creates the image. The camera only captures it.
In photography, always think lens first, and then which body you can afford to go with it.
The other way round?
You’ll likely develop a high tolerance for GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) with no end in sight while blaming gear for a photography that’s treading water.
And then again, you’ll find out the lens isn’t the all-important factor. It’s who’s behind it.