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Photography Lesson 3: Invest In Lenses Not Cameras…
You may have read in ‘The Great Debate: Canon or Nikon?…’ blog post, that I said ‘it doesn’t matter what equipment you use…’, and the fact that it is much more about the photographer. Well, that is true, however, like everything else to do with photography, it’s not strictly black and white!….there are always various shades of grey to consider. Obviously, the more capable a photographer you become, you will inevitably want to upgrade your kit eventually. This is entirely reasonable…But when is the right time to upgrade?
If you got to the end of the ‘The Great Debate: Canon or Nikon?…’ without nodding off, you will have hopefully also read that I mentioned ‘Having top notch professional equipment helps to extend the range of the possible, only if you know how to use it’…now this is the key.
If you feel, truthfully, that your camera with all it’s sophistication and capability is a better camera than you are a photographer, then stick with it, and don’t waste your money on expensive new kit.
It is a myth that buying a better camera will help you take better pictures. Purchasing an expensive camera prematurely, will do nothing to improve your photography. Indeed, professional grade cameras with their high specifications, vast menus and controls, that don’t come with an ‘auto point and shoot mode’, are typically more unforgiving than cheaper cameras designed for hobbyists and enthusiasts with their user various friendly modes, therefore they can actually hinder your photographic results if you don’t know how to get the best out of them.
Is Your Camera Better Than You?…
So be honest with yourself…Is you current camera better than you? If it is, keep using it, keep learning and keep practicing. If it isn’t, then before you take the leap and spend a load of dosh, just analyse for yourself, what aspects of your current camera’s capability are constraining your photographic prowess?!… If you can answer this specifically, then you’re on your way to upgrading to the RIGHT new camera, and not just the latest one released by the manufacturer with the most buttons, beeps and megawotsits.
I mentioned in a previous blog post ‘Photography Lesson 2: Practice…’ that one of the common ‘mistakes’ (note the inverted comma’s here!) fledgling photographers make, is to rush out and spend a ton of money on expensive kit….(Don’t worry we were all fledgling photographers at some point, it’s nothing to be ashamed of). My main point here is think carefully about what you want, and what you spend your hard earned money on.
Here’s a health warning for you…generally speaking, camera bodies depreciate like last week’s lottery tickets…Good quality lenses, don’t.
This is due to a number of reasons, but in the main it is because cameras are techy items, like computers, that relatively quickly become outdated, or if you use them frequently, they can become clapped out. The rapid obsolescence of camera bodies is fueled by frequency of new models thrust upon us by the manufacturers.
Whereas lenses are essentially optical items who’s performance doesn’t deteriorate over time, so if you buy a really good lens, it will always be a really good lens…that’s the simplistic view.
If you are happy with the brand of camera you have and your pretty certain that you’re going to stick with that manufacturer, then consider your new lens purchase… So what do you enjoy photographing?…What is it you want to be photographing?…Answer these, and you’re on the right road to buying the right lens for the job.
Which Lens For Which Purpose?…
So which lens is best suited to which type of photography?…What are the rules?…
Personally speaking, there are no rules, use any lens for any purpose, if it gets you the results you want. There are however, obviously some typical uses for lenses of different focal lengths and speeds…here’s a rough guide:-
Just for clarity, the focal lengths in the above chart are not depicting zoom lenses, just any lens within that focal length range.
To simplify this further, any lens shorter than 50 mm can be considered a wide angle lens, and any lens longer than 50 mm can be referred to as a telephoto lens.
The 50 mm lens itself is referred to as a ‘normal lens’, as it produces images that are approximately equivalent to those as seen by our eyes. Only when used on a full frame camera, the 50 mm focal length, reproduces this normal effect, i.e. not magnifying or shrinking the image.
There are a few more comments on lens technology in ‘The Great Debate: Canon or Nikon?…’ blog post.
There Are No Rules As A Rule…
The above is a summary. Don’t run off with the belief that this represents hard and fast rules, it doesn’t. For example a professional sports photographer covering say, a football match, will probably have a 400 mm f/2.8 super telephoto lens on a monopod, along with a 17-35 mm f/2.8 super wide zoom lens on a separate camera body on a sling. He/She will use the 400mm for the distant action, which will be most of it, and use the 17-35 mm for when the action presents itself close by…Look at the list above, I haven’t indicated that the 17-35mm lens can be used for sport…so, no hard and fast rules here.
Also, if you ever want to venture into more specialist photography at either end of the above table, you can forget lenses altogether. You can bolt your camera to a microscope at the small end of the scale to photograph amoeba’s and microbes (to see where you came from, if that’s what you choose to believe), or bolt it to a telescope at the large end of the scale, to photograph the stars and outer space (to see where you came from, if that’s what you choose to believe)!
How Much Money Have You Got?…
You will notice also in the chart there is no reference to the lens speed, or maximum aperture. This has a significant impact on the performance of the lens, therefore it’s use, and even more so on the price.
Camera manufacturers are expert at extracting money from us. For example, Nikon currently offer a number of lenses covering a ‘300mm’ focal length, 3 examples are below:-
- The ‘AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED VR’ (to give it it’s full title!) for £489.00
- The ‘AF-S 300mm f/4E PF ED VR’ for £1,439.00
- The ‘AF-S 300mm f/2.8G VR II IF-ED’ for…wait for it…are you sat down…£4,689.00 (that’s just for the lens, not the camera, or the company)
Iv’e used Nikon, as an example, I could equally have used Canon. The prices are current in 2017 and are nominal from reputable dealers.
Without possessing a Phd in mathematics , number 2 is three times the price of number 1, and number 3 is ten times the price of number 1 and three times the price of number 2! So the question is, how much money have you got? Other questions are, is number 2 three times as good as number 1?… and is number 3 three times as good as number 2?
Back to the optical side of the discussion. The lenses which are faster are so, because they allow more light through to the sensor on your camera, facilitated by having an aperture capable of opening wider and by higher quality optics (lens elements). Therefore allowing faster shutter speeds for the same given ambient light level, hence ‘fast lenses’. This is indicated by a lower f number i.e. the f/2.8 lens is faster, and more expensive, than say an f/5.6 lens of the same focal length. Faster lenses will typically also have higher performance auto-focus motors in the lenses, and be of a higher build quality, ultimately to withstand the rigors of being used day in day out by professionals, in sometimes harsh conditions.
The lenses which are slower however, indicated by higher f numbers, are made more cheaply.
To state what is obvious to many but not everyone, all lenses, are sold for much more than they cost to make.
Zoom or Prime?…
The other issue you may want to consider is whether to opt for a zoom lens or a prime lens. Firstly, back to what I said earlier, be guided by what you enjoy photographing and what you want to be photographing. Secondly, how much can you afford, or are you willing to pay? And lastly, what is your preference in terms of zoom or prime?
Typically (I’m emphasizing ‘typically’ here), zoom lenses offer the versatility and convenience of having adjustable focal lengths. So for example, a 70 – 200 mm f/2.8 zoom lens, spans the reach of every lens between a 70mm and a 200mm. So you ‘may’ conclude that this lens replaces all the prime lenses that fall between that range of focal lengths. Top quality zoom lenses are now better than ever, and consequently they are not cheap, but they probably offer you more for your money, when you consider that you need fewer of them to cover all the focal lengths. There are plenty of budget zooms on the market which offer good value, at the expense of performance (re above), if you are willing to compromise, or if you are on a budget.
Double typically, prime lenses offer superior optical performance and superior speed to the equivalent zoom lens, in that they are often available with faster performance specifications. They also have no moving parts relative to their focal length so they come out of the factory calibrated sharp and stay that way. Some popular primes can be very good value for money, given the efficient mass production techniques used to satisfy the numbers demanded. Top quality professional grade prime lenses however, particularly those at the very long or very short end of the focal distances, are always at a premium price. Given that in theory at least, you’d need a bag full of them to cover all the focal lengths in the chart above (and it’d have to be a big strong bag), the total cost will easily run into multiple tens of thousands of pounds. In fact, one single super telephoto prime lens alone can exceed five figures £xx,xxx.xx and that’s from popular manufactures like Canon or Nikon, not some of the more expensive brands like Leica or Hasselblad.
Now there are one or two exceptions that contradict what I’ve just said about zooms and primes, but in the main, it is the case. Ultimately, faster lenses are capable of delivering superior image quality in all conditions, particularly lower light conditions.
But what is your preference?…do you want to lug around a bag full of prime lenses, or just a couple or three zoom lenses? Or a combination of both? For me, the answer is a combination of both, based upon the factors I’ve mentioned above…but don’t carry all your lenses around, just take along what you need.
Allow me to dispel another myth. Pro’s don’t lug around a bag full of lenses, they will assess exactly what is required for any given assignment, and bring along the minimum amount of kit to successfully execute the job.
Here’s another health warning. A ‘trap’ that many fledgling photographers fall into, is to buy every conceivable lens covering the entire range of focal lengths from 10mm to 800mm fearing there may be a gap in their collection! This mentality will only leave a gap in your bank balance, you simply don’t need every lens that Canon or Nikon have to offer.
Have a glance at my article on the ‘one camera one lens’ approach to practicing your photography, in my blog post ‘Photography Lesson 2: Practice…’
Here’s a top tip, learn how to use your legs. When you’ve mastered the use of your legs, you can position yourself closer to or further from your subject, then you don’t need so many lenses of different focal lengths, saving yourself thousands of pounds.
The Good News…
In summary, before you splash out, think about what you want and what you want it for, consider what you are prepared to pay, and decide which suits you best in terms of prime or zoom. If you do a bit of homework i.e. research the performance of your shortlisted lenses, try one or two out in a shop before you buy or even hire before you buy, you can easily satisfy yourself as to which lens is best suited to your requirements.
Finally for the good news…there isn’t any!…only joking. The good news is, unlike buying camera bodies which is the equivalent of rolling up your bank notes and smoking them, buying quality lenses is certainly not squandering your cash. Typically, top quality lenses always hold their re-sale value on the second hand market, more than any other photographic equipment. Some have even been known to increase in value, relative to inflation, as they have become sought after…and a few specialist pro lenses have rocketed in value as demand far outstrips the limited supply, however this is exceptional.
So, Invest In Lenses Not Cameras…
So, invest in lenses, not cameras! I would go as far as saying, buy the best quality lenses you can afford (but not too many!)...as good lenses have more impact on the quality of your image reproduction, than the camera itself.
Did you notice I said ‘image reproduction’ and not ‘photography’ there?…If you want to improve your photography, invest in practice and learning, not in a new camera.
On the re-sale value of your kit, particularly your lenses, there are one or two thing to consider if you are looking to obtain a top price. Firstly, the lens must be kept in mint condition – only the very best examples available on the market attract the top money, and that typically means ‘as new’ condition, or better than the rest of the pack the market has to offer of that particular lens. Also, and strangely this could be even more important, all the original packaging and paperwork must be present…yes by throwing away that cardboard box, you could be throwing away hundreds of pounds!….
But please, whilst we don’t buy good kit to just to abuse it, don’t buy it just to keep it mint for a future user!….get out and use it!…if it does end up battered, it’ll still produce great images and you will have had your money’s worth out of it, and surely that’s why we buy anything isn’t it?
What lenses have you bought and what do you think of their performance? What lenses would you like and why?… Let me know, below.
More ‘Photography Lesson’ posts along with other blog posts, are in the oven…watch this space. Thanks for reading, cheers cheers.
Please note: My ‘Photography Lessons’ blog posts, are designed to ease you through the journey of learning photography, focusing on the things that matter up front. This means I’m steering clear of delving too deeply or too soon into technical aspects of photography, which can often switch people off. If you want to learn more of the technical specifics of photography along with gaining practical experience, then consider having a bit of practical one-to-one photography tuition with us. I will introduce more techy stuff later as the lessons cover more advanced topics, but in the early lessons I am aiming to offer some different thinking and maintain focus on the pure visual aspects of photography…? Anyway, the internet is awash with all kinds of technical photography advice (of varying levels of quality)…so if that’s what you want, just search it out.
Please note: I welcome your comments and contributions to my blog, thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I always publish and respond to your contributions. Personal contact details are not made public. I moderate any contributions as appropriate, only to ensure they are not offensive or in poor taste, I do not alter the actual message itself.