Should You Buy A Better Camera Body or Lens?

Fall Foliage in New England by Kim Olson

Fall Foliage in New England by Kim Olson

If you’re on a limited budget and are just getting started in photography, you may be wondering if you should spend more money on a better camera body or better lenses.

I’ve been asked this quite a lot, and when I first got started, I wondered the same thing.

Because most of us can’t afford the very best of both in the beginning, we usually have to make a choice between spending more money on better lenses or more money on a better camera body.

So what’s the best option? Well, the short answer is it’s usually better to spend more money on higher-quality lenses than a higher-quality body.

High-Quality vs. Low-Quality Lenses

As a general rule, cheaper lenses use cheaper materials and optical elements which can result in disappointing photos.

Cheaper lenses are usually slower, too, so you’ll have a harder time capturing low-light scenes or achieving super shallow depth of field.

It’s possible that you’ll also deal with some optical issues with higher-quality lenses, but it’s not as common. And of the two options, you’re usually better off using a high-quality lens with an entry-level DSLR body than you would be using a cheap lens on a pro-level body.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. One of my favorite lenses is Canon’s f/1.8 50mm lens that cost me a whopping $90. The image quality is way above what you’d expect of a <$100 lens and on par with most pro-level lenses.

Here’s an example of an image I shot with the 50mm at a wedding. This flower girl was so adorable and the lens captures her beautifully.

Flower Girl at a Wedding by Kim Olson

Flower Girl at a Wedding shot with the Canon 50mm f/1.8 by Kim Olson

DSLR Bodies

From the research I did before I bought any photography equipment, I learned that the majority of new DSLR bodies that have been introduced within the last few years will likely meet most people’s image quality requirements.

If you’re a hobbyist photographer, there’s a good chance you probably won’t notice much difference between the overall image quality you’ll get from an entry- to mid-level DSLR and a much higher priced pro-level body. And you’ll save a ton of money, too.

When prices can vary from about $600 all the way up to $6,000 for a DSLR body, I think it’s safe to say most of us will be a lot happier if we stay in the lower $600-2000 range.

What I Bought

I thought it might also be helpful to tell you what camera equipment I have and what I started with.

Kim Olson's Photography Gear

Camera Body

Initially, I opted for the Canon 40D body. It was a step above the Canon Rebel, but far less expensive than the 5D or 1D bodies. The 40D had a cropped sensor, so I took that into consideration when buying my lenses.

When I decided to pursue photography full time a couple of years later, I did upgrade my body to the Canon 5D Mark II which has a full-frame sensor.

Overall I’m still happy with the 5D MII, but one thing I really don’t like is that Canon omitted a popup flash. Because I like to keep things simple, I don’t usually carry around my Speedlite 580EX II, so I’m left completely flashless. A simple popup flash would really come in handy for just a little bit of fill light once in a while.

Camera Lenses

In the beginning I researched like crazy and finally ended up settling on three Canon lenses that I felt provided me with a good spectrum, from a wide angle to telephoto:

  • 17-40mm f/4.0L
  • 50mm f/1.8
  • 70-200mm f/4.0L IS

I still have these same lenses today, and overall l’m pretty happy with my choices.

I opted for the 70-200mm f/4.0 over the faster f/2.8 because it was cheaper ($900 vs. $2100 USD) and lighter (1.7lbs. vs. 2.9lbs). I’m OK with tradeoff and honestly, I already don’t bring my 70-200mm with me or use it very often. It’s so conspicuous that I don’t really like whipping it out all that much. I do like the quality of the images, though.

Bride Laughing at her Wedding. Canon 70-200mm f/4.0L IS. By Kim Olson

Bride Laughing during her Wedding. Canon 70-200mm f/4.0L IS. By Kim Olson

I will say, though, that now that I no longer have a cropped-sensor body, sometimes I’ll find that the 17-40mm is almost too wide for most of the things I like to capture. At times I do love the wide angle, like for the shot below, but sometimes it distorts the edges more than I’d like.

Matsumoto Castle in Japan. Shot with Canon's 17-40mm f/4.0L IS. By Kim Olson

Matsumoto Castle in Japan. Shot with Canon’s 17-40mm f/4.0L IS. By Kim Olson

My next lens (which will likely replace my 17-40mm) will probably be either Canon’s 24-105mm f/4.0L IS or 24-70mm f/2.8L. I feel like these would be more suitable as a “walkaround” lens for everyday use, especially when traveling.

Balancing Act

You may find that it’s pretty frustrating trying to figure out exactly what it is you should buy. There are so many different combinations of camera bodies and lenses to choose from that you could sit there in indecision for quite a while. But don’t.

Do just enough research so you feel pretty confident in your choices but not so much research that you get stuck and don’t do anything.

It’s all about finding the sweet spot by keeping in mind what types of things you like to shoot most, how much gear you’re willing to carry with you (higher-quality lenses will be bigger and heavier) and how much you’re willing to spend.

Your Turn

Do you agree or disagree with spending more on lenses than your camera body?

Have you already invested in your gear, and if so, how did you go about buying your camera body and lenses?

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2 Responses to Should You Buy A Better Camera Body or Lens?

  1. Tariq December 29, 2013 at 9:07 pm #

    Dear Kim,

    I am facing the same problem, cant make out to buy a expense lens or a body. For me I know that an expansive lens will not fully perform on a less expansive body like EOS 6D, it has less focus points, slower shutter speed, and less mega pixels and on the other hand if buy an expansive body (EOS 5D MarkIII) I will be not having much cash left for the lenses :),but for two years I can live with 1 lens.. like 24 – 70mm f2.8.

    I dont know how to compare the camera bodies, on buying MarkIII it seems more durable, and I know I will not be needing to upgrade on the body for 5 – 6 years .. but if I buy a less durable body or camera with lower specs, it will urge me to upgrade after just an year.. so the money saved in buying cheaper body will be gone soon anyway..

    Just let me know what you think, i am a hobbyist and wouldn’t be racing towards owning more equipment… in simple words i think you buy a better thing if you need it for longer time….but is 5DMarkIII that good that I can use it for 5-6 years at least..


    • Kim December 30, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

      Hi Tariq,

      I think as long as you’ll be taking caring of your equipment and won’t be subjecting it to super-harsh conditions very often (blowing sand, rain, etc.), a more entry-level body will be okay for your needs. I’d personally opt for a better lens and save money on the body. Just my thoughts and hope that helps. Good luck! Kim