[Pho.Talk] Guide to Investing Smart in Lenses and Camera Bodies

At various stages of doing photography, both as a hobby or a career, photographers commonly find themselves at a point where they begin outgrowing their gear.

This article serves as a guide on investing in camera gear, addressing issues in relation to what to upgrade, and when.

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Does the lens matter more than the camera?

From a technical perspective, no, because each has a different part to play and it is hard to compare two inherently different things. From an investment perspective though, yes. Lenses generally hold their value for longer and better than camera bodies. Good lenses can last you a lifetime as long as you stay in the same camera system. From an ergonomics perspective, camera bodies is mostly the determining factor.

This question needs to be broken down into various bits because on a whole, it is like comparing apples to oranges.

So let’s begin with the aspects that are the most straightforward through to the more complex ones.


In terms of how smooth the shooting experience is, the camera body probably has a larger role to play in this.

Lens designs are mostly standard. They have been evolving over the years, though not drastically.

The most observable change in the way lenses are produced concern mainly the omission of the full focus scale, which allows for zone focusing.

That is pretty much it for lenses.

Camera bodies, on the other hand, have undergone significant evolution over time in how the menus and buttons are designed. They have also drastically reduced in size.

Plus, every camera manufacturer has come up with their own way of organising the program on their cameras.

The type of camera body you have also has a huge impact on how heavy your entire setup is.

So in terms of how comfortable the shooting process is for you, definitely pay more attention to the camera body.


The lens and the body do entirely different things and you can’t have a photo without either part.

So it is rather meaningless to compare them in a technical sense because your photos are only as good as your worse part.

Lenses are generally responsible for the amount of light that is let into the camera sensor, and the quality in which the light is transmitted.

Camera bodies are then responsible for the treatment of that light, which largely depends on the quality of the sensor. This treatment process becomes all the more critical when shooting under low light.

In more practical terms, and as we will see in greater detail below in the part on how lenses affect image quality, lenses determine things like edge distortion, vignetting, depth of field, bokeh, focal length, sharpness etc.

And cameras, as elaborated in the section immediately below, determines the level of noise, colour and resolution.


From an investment point of view, lenses tend to matter more than camera bodies.

The camera body is still important, though, in the sense that you pick the camera operating system that you are able to stick to for an extended period of time.

Or else, if you keep switching between camera systems, you will have to sell all your lenses and buy new ones regardless of how good those lenses were.

Lenses are seldom compatible across different camera systems. For instance, Nikon lenses will not fit onto Canon mounts. You can use a Nikon lens on a Canon camera via an extension ring, but that causes another pile of issues that is not really necessary.

So the key in relation to the camera body is to choose a system that you can comfortably stay within for the years to come.

When you happen to outgrow the body, you sell it to recoup a percentage of the cost to subsidise your subsequent purchase. The price typically gets slashed substantially depending on the market and on the camera condition. I bought my Canon 5D Mark IV second hand at 50% the first-hand market price.

Lenses, on the other hand, are generally able to hold their value much better.

The main reason is that with lenses, there is relatively less room for substantial improvements. Based on the state professional lenses are at today, seldom are manufacturers able to come up with ground-breaking iterations of classic, tried-and-tested, solid models.

Inadvertently, this also means that it is harder to outgrow a lens than a camera body.

To summarise, if a lens suits your needs well on day 1, that should stay the case unless you decide to switch to another camera system.

How much do camera bodies matter?

Camera bodies influence image quality substantially. They are mainly responsible for the sensor size, level of noise, colour rendition and number of megapixels. In practical terms, they impact the perspective of images, maximum usable ISO, amount of colour editing required, and general image quality. From an ergonomic standpoint, the user manual design and the placement of buttons determine how pleasant the shooting experience is.

There are many factors that come together in the making of good quality pictures, as briefly summarised in above sections. The camera body of course has a substantial role to play.

From a user experience point of view, some things you may want to pay attention to is the ability to designate custom button controls on the camera, especially if you are looking to invest in a camera body for professional use.

When out in the fields shooting, ideally you should have in place your own tailored system of button controls that enables you to quickly perform basic commands on your camera.

It should not involve more than one step to, for instance, change the shutter speed, the aperture, the ISO; not more than two to change the focus points, light meter compensation etc.

The customisable button system should be sufficiently intuitive so as to cause a minimal amount of disruption when shooting under immense time pressure.

Other peripheral features can reasonably be dealt with via the camera menu, but it should also be as simplified as possible.

These features include things like wifi connections with tablets or phones, rating photos, white balance etc.

Do also consider the maximum bulk and size of you are willing to carry for the type of work you do. Mirrorless cameras are typically lighter and more compact, traditional DSLRs more bulky.

Speaking for the average female, for the health and safety of your joints and muscles, it is not recommended to carry gear weighing over 1.5kg for more than 5 hours on a given day.

As the photo industry becomes more and more weight-conscious, this difference will be reflected in the price. So it is up to you to decide what works best when choosing a camera body.

How do camera bodies affect image quality?

Camera bodies directly affect the quality of images in terms of image perspective, low-light performance, maximum viable ISO, and color rendition.

Full-frame sensors vs crop-frame sensors

The switch from crop-frame sensors to a full-frame one is arguably the largest leap for most photographers, rightly so.

For one, it completely changes the perspective of photos, or in more literal terms, the sense of space in the frame.

The larger the sensor, the narrower the depth of field, the more blurrier the bokeh. This can mean a drastic difference in how the sense of relative distance is conveyed in the resulting images.

For another, full-frame cameras tend to perform better under low-light, returning images with less noise.

Given the same amount of megapixels, the larger the sensor, the larger the pixels and the more spaced out they are.

This results in less noise being produced at a given ISO level among full-frame cameras, because their pixels are able to catch more of the incident light.

Low-light performance

Even at a given sensor size, certain cameras are able to handle low-light shooting better than others.

In practical terms this means that the maximum ISO on every camera that would yield useable images will be different depending on the model.

We are often misled into thinking that ISO is a universal standard. On some levels it is but, without getting into too much technical detail here, the noise levels at a given ISO setting will differ across cameras.

It will take some digging to find out what the maximum ISO is on your camera that will give you reasonably clean results.

Colour rendition

The way that tones and colour turn out is also a key variance between camera bodies, although it does not necessarily matter that much depending on your workflow.

At the risk of generalising, Canon is traditionally known to be best at rendering skin tones, Sony being the worse.

Canon tend to render images rich in reds, Sony rich in yellows.

Nikon colour technology tends to return cooler colours, and Fuji is known for its film-simulation colour profiles.

While the colour profiles of different camera manufacturers can look quite different, this difference matters less if you shoot Raw and edit the colours afterwards anyway.

You can make any photo look exactly how you want if you do your editing right. It is rather the amount of time spent on editing that you will have to consider.

If you foresee yourself having to either 1) send files immediately after they were taken, or 2) send jpgs, then consider the colour profile of the camera carefully.

When should you upgrade the camera body?

Common reasons why photographers upgrade camera bodies include going from crop-frame sensors to full-frame sensors, switching from DSLR to mirrorless systems, upgrading for low-light performance, better continuous shutter capabilities, among others. 4K video is also a consideration for those who do both photos and video.

There is no definite time when you have to upgrade your camera because everyone would be in a slightly different situation, both in terms of photo needs and finance.

Here are some typical reasons that photographers upgrade camera bodies, based on what I have gathered from my colleagues as a photojournalist.

Full-frame sensor

This is usually the first main reason in a photographer’s career to go for an upgrade.

As mentioned above, the larger sensor size does give better low-light image quality.

Plus, it gives a narrower depth of field, which imho makes images look closer to what the human eye sees and thus more natural looking.

DSLR to mirrorless

This comes up quite a bit in recent years, especially when the portfolio of lenses available for mirrorless systems is becoming more mature.

The main advantage of going mirrorless is the apparent decrease in size and bulk of your equipment. The mirror in DSLRs takes up space and imposes a limit as to how small the body can go.

Without the mirror, mirrorless systems tend to be smaller and easier to bring around.

This is an especially important consideration if you intend to travel long distances carrying your gear over extended periods of hours per day.

Low-light performance

Certain sensors are known for better low-light performance than others, which is perhaps reasonable as technology advances.

Whether this is a strong enough reason to upgrade depends on the type of work you do.

If you mostly shoot with the assistance of studio lights, then this probably would not be a good reason to upgrade.

Or for instance if you mostly shoot with a tripod, say, for landscape photographer, this does not concern you as much either.

Whereas if your work requires you to shoot outdoors in the dark handheld, like I do as a photojournalist, the camera’s ability to handle high ISO is key.

Continuous shooting mode maximum fps

This again is a reason that usually becomes relevant when photographers change careers, most typically into sports, wildlife, or photojournalism.

Under most circumstances, the maximum frames per second (fps) would not constitute an important consideration.

If you shoot portraits mostly, seldom would you need to shoot quicker than the model changes poses.

Same is the case with product photography, among others.

But it is really common for professional photographers to switch gears (no pun intended) between these sub-industries within photography, which each have more specific requirements on gear.

So when a photographer decides to venture into sport from, say, food photography, he will most likely need to upgrade the camera body for better continuous mode performance.

4K video

On a slight tangent with what I mentioned above about changing careers, many photographers I have spoken to and worked with are venturing into video.

Not that they are giving up photography to do video, but they need to be able to shoot publishable video where necessary.

Which is what I do as well, although I mostly shoot photos, I am well-equipped to do video as well.

4K video is where the future of video is going.

Currently, there are still a substantial proportion of cameras that only do 1080p on video, which is decent for now.

But if you are to make a living out of video work, you would reasonably want to future-proof your gear, which is why upgrading for 4K video would be a legit reason here.

Should you upgrade the camera body or lens first?

Upgrade the camera body first and simply use the kit lens until you have found a camera system that you are comfortable with. After that, start investing in a portfolio of lenses that covers your needs for the type of photography you do. At this point, the camera body seldom requires an upgrade unless it breaks, or you are venturing into a different area within photography. It is key that you decide on the right camera body first before you build on your collection of lenses.

As mentioned above, lenses are valuable investments, often more valuable than camera bodies in the long run.

However, the key consideration in relation to what to upgrade first, is whether or not you have found a camera system that you could be reasonably sure that you like.

It is meaningless to have acquired a valuable set of lenses and then realise that the camera body does not satisfy your needs, which means you will have to sell everything and buy everything again.

Typical factors that you should think of in relation to the camera operating system include:

  • Sensor size - if you are on a crop-frame sensor, are you sure you will not shoot work that needs to be done with a full-frame sensor?

  • Camera manufacturer - are you sure you are happy with the way different items are organised in the menu, and that they are intuitive enough for you?

  • Mirrorless - this would probably be less of an issue years down the road but at this point, the lens technology for mirrorless systems are slightly lagging behind that for DSLRs. Do you absolutely need to make the change now, or are you open to waiting for a while for mirrorless lenses to catch up?

Once you get to a point where you are confident that you have picked the camera system best for your needs, you can then focus more on investing in lenses.

Now you can know for sure that the lenses you accumulate over the years will be compatible with any model within this camera system, should you choose to upgrade your camera body again.

From this point onwards, ideally you would be in the process of repeatedly buying and selling lenses, until you have recruited an army of lenses that you know you can rely on for every type of circumstance that you may encounter.

Does the lens affect image quality?

Yes certainly, the lens changes the entire outlook of the image. Main aspects via which this happens including depth of field, perspective, distortion, vignetting, flare, contrast, resolution and colour. Different lens profiles can absolutely alter the way your camera records a scene and thus the look and feel of the resulting image.

In the sub-sections below, we will examine these factors one at a time, in greater detail.

How do lenses vary in contrast?

Both globally and locally. Some lenses return images with low global contrast largely because of veiling glare, which involves light spilling outside of its intended contact point on the sensor. This is typical of older or cheaper lenses with relatively primitive internal flare control inside the lens barrow. Lenses also affect local contrast in a myriad of ways, including resolution, micro contrast and even colour rendition.

As you read on, you would come to understand that many of these parameters are interrelated and inadvertently influence one another.

But let’s first begin with contrast, which could be looked at on two levels, at least.

Global contrast - veiling glare

The most common sense in which we understand contrast, is the degree to which the bright areas and dark areas depart from each other in values, otherwise known as global contrast.

It is mainly the veiling glare that is making the difference in this regard. Veiling glare refers to the phenomenon in which the direction of travel of certain light rays are not falling in the right place on the sensor, due to various reasons including internal reflection inside the lens.

This spillover of light is largely random in nature and affects the image overall. It results in a global increase in brightness of areas that should have been darker.

This is typical of older lenses, whereas newer lens designs would be better equipped to counter the effect of veiling glare, by having more advanced coating materials in the internal surface of the lens.

Micro contrast - reproduction accuracy at 10 lines/mm

Now on to micro contrast. This describes the ability of a lens to render clean, defined edges.

This attribute of lenses is widely regarded to be the key determinant as to the ‘sharpness’ of a lens.

Sharpness is largely a perceptive quality and is largely a product of technical parameters and human subjectivity.

But as far as it concerns the lens, micro contrast has an overarching impact on image sharpness. The better the lens renders clean edges, the more crisps the image looks overall.

Without delving into too much of the science, this character of lenses are typically measured by the ability to reproduce a set of lines spaced at the frequency of 10 lines/mm.

The more accurately the lens is able to transmit the light to the sensor, the more micro contrast it is capable of.

The results are typically plotted into a MTF chart, which is Modulation Transfer Function in short. If you would like to refer to a library of MTF charts for classic Canon EF lenses, refer to this article.

If you are really into the technical bits behind the measurement of micro contrast, read up this article published by Canon regarding how to read MTF charts.

Do lenses affect resolution?

Yes. Lenses have different resolving power, which measures the lens’ ability to reproduce minute details onto the camera sensor. The smaller the details a lens is able to render, the higher its resolution. Resolution of lenses is generally compared by their reproduction accuracy of a set of lines spaced at the frequency of 30 lines/mm.

Lenses certainly affects resolution, or better say, different lens designs result in varying levels of resolving power.

But compared to micro contrast, resolution is less defining parameters that contribute to the overall sense of sharpness of an image.

A shot that has clearly defined edges (aka high micro contrast) but less detail will be perceived as sharper than an image that shows a great deal of detail with smudged edges.

For the details to really make a difference, they must also be rendered with a corresponding degree of contrast.

In other words, the edge contrast is the limiting factor and therefore a high resolution only improves image quality up to a degree.

Does lens increase megapixels?

No. Megapixels is a metric that applies to camera sensors only, not the lens. Megapixels refer to the amount of pixels on the camera sensor, each pixel being capable of capturing light and recording details. The megapixel count of a given camera sensor is fixed at the point of manufacture, and does not change whatever lens you decide to use the camera with.

The lens does impact image quality, but in ways other than the megapixel count.

Megapixel is a metric that is associated specifically with the camera sensor and nothing else.

It is a fixed value that is determined by the camera manufacturer and does not change no matter what you do.

The lens will NOT increase nor decrease the number of megapixels on your camera.

Can a lens affect color?

Yes it can, albeit in a peripheral manner. The most common difference in how lenses reproduce colour lies in the amount of internal flare. As colour saturation increases with contrast, the heavier the flare, the more washed-out the colours. Another impact lens has on colour has to do with aberrations, resulting in light purple or green halos around high contrast edges.

Colour rendition is most often attributed to the camera body, which runs the algorithms that determine colour output.

Contrast & colour

The lens can have a slight effect on how the colours render, based on the contrast level of the lens.

As explained above, older lenses tend to produce less contrast in images because of poorer internal flare control.

For one, this results in light arbitrarily spilling over to areas of the image that should be darker, but secondly, a lower contrast invariably leads to lower colour saturation.

As a result, where a high level of flare is present, colours tend to look less vivid.

Color aberrations

Another way in which lenses can influence accuracy in colour reproduction is through colour aberrations.

Aberrations is an umbrella term for a group of imperfections that a lens can cause, but it would be sufficient to know that some aberrations result in coloured fringes that, at an extreme, could create colour casts in parts of the image.

These aberrations happen the most around edges that are high in contrast in out of focus areas in the image, and tends to worsen towards the periphery of the frame.

An extreme example of this would be out fo focus tree branches placed towards the outer parts of the frame in the background, blurred out using a large aperture, and shot against a blank sky.

On a lens with substantial aberration, the tree branches would look like they are coated with a magenta stroke that basically turns the entire tree magenta when viewed at a distance.

Does the body of a film camera matter?

Yes, on the ergonomic level, less so on the technical level. During the analogue era, camera models were still at a very early stage of development. Before the winning model of the SLR was introduced, each camera manufacturers came up with different designs in all shapes and sizes. They therefore vary substantially in operating mechanisms, such as focusing, size and portability, controls, among others.

Just do a brief search on eBay for film camera bodies and you will notice on thing: it seems like no two film camera looks the same!

Of course, as the photography industry became more mature, camera manufacturers became more systematic in the way they designed film cameras and therefore the emergence of series in which every camera resembled one another.

But before that, and sometimes even after, manufacturers were coming up with completely new designs that revolutionise the market at the time.

We have the Kodak Brownie, little plastic disposables, the Olympus XA with the clamshell design, the sleek Leica rangefinders, and finally, the SLR.

This variety means that they operate very differently, and photographers will differ in their preference.

There is simply too many camera models to choose from!

But regardless of which camera model you go with, the variance in the image quality you get is less relevant to the camera body than to the film.

Does the film matter more than the camera?

The film is largely the determining factor of the overall image quality, while the camera body mainly relates to the ergonomics. Occasionally the camera body determines the lens quality where the lens is fixed. Across the same film format, the sensor size is technically the same regardless of the choice of film camera, meaning that the overall looks is largely influenced by the film stock.

It is most likely the case that the film stock you choose to shoot on will determine the overall look of your photos more so than the camera.

Though in certain cases, the camera comes with a fixed lens, most commonly the case for point and shoots.

So in these cases, the camera body becomes an important point to consider because of the lens.

You might want to choose a camera that is built with a lens of a suitable focal length, large enough max aperture, sufficiently sharp, etc.

But apart from that, the significance of camera bodies mostly have to do with how user friendly it is.


In this article, we talked about:

  • Whether the lens matter more than the camera;

  • How much do camera bodies matter;

  • How camera bodies affect image quality;

  • When to upgrade the camera body;

  • Whether to upgrade the camera body or lens first;

  • Whether the lens affect image quality, in terms of contrast, resolution and color;

  • Whether the body of a film camera matter; and

  • Whether the film matter more than the camera.

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