There are widely-held sentiments in photography that don't hold up under close scrutiny. Recently, a reader made the remark, "...besides, the lens is more important than the camera." This is not an uncommon feeling among photographers. It was frequently expressed back in the film era, the general argument being that a camera body, no matter how exquisitely crafted, was really nothing more than a box for carrying the lens and the film, and those were what really counted.
That thought shows a serious lack of appreciation for what a camera body is responsible for. Even back in the days of relatively simple mechanical cameras, the camera body was responsible for accurately setting the exposure, both lens aperture and shutter speed. It was responsible for holding the film flat, perpendicular to the optical axis of the lens, and in the correct plane of focus.
None of these responsibilities were easily fulfilled, and camera tests regularly demonstrated that. Failure wasn't always reported. Possibly the most pernicious open secret in the business was just how badly most camera bodies worked at holding the film flat and at producing accurate focus. Even 35mm had its problems, but the runouts for medium format and sheet film cameras were astonishingly large. Furthermore, stability was frequently an issue; many camera bodies, especially the flimsier and more "amateur" ones, could be brought into exquisite adjustment with little effort. Sadly that would not be likely to hold for more than a dozen rolls of film.
More than one photographer has reported on the mediocre performance of a kit lens or even an expensive prime used wide open without realizing that the fuzzy photograph they made was actually the fault of a camera body that wasn't holding the film flat or matching the focus screen position to the average film "plane."
The addition of electronics and automatic functions to camera bodies upped the ante. Electronic shutters did make shutter speeds more accurate, but the camera's built-in meter was responsible for determining what that shutter speed should be. In the most modern of cameras, focus was also determined automatically, with that technology introducing its own set of uncertainties.
Digital camera bodies take that to an even more extreme level. Not only are all the aforementioned characteristics still the province of the camera body, but now a camera body has the "film" built in. There's a lot more flexibility to that silicon chip than a roll of silver emulsion, so really it's more like buying into a family of films. Still, buying a digital camera body is like deciding that you're always going to be photographing with Kodachrome (25, 64, or 200) slide film. You get a look and a feel, an image quality that is characteristic of that camera. That remains true no matter what lens you slap on the front.
Oh yeah, they still haven't solved the focus issues. Many lenses, even cheap ones, are a lot better than people think they are. Well, at least now we can count on the "film" staying flat—even if it's not where the focusing screen or the autofocus module thinks it is.
To be sure, poor lenses ruin a lot of photographs. But, so do poor camera bodies. It's no easier making a camera body that achieves exquisite quality than it is a lens. And, unfortunately, it's no more common.
P.S. My Digital Restoration from Start to Finish book sale has three more days to run. The sale ends Sunday, the 15th. Thanks to all past, present and future purchasers!
ADDENDUM: Quite a few commenters are missing a most important point and focusing on a body's features, not its real functionality. It's not about what the camera maker claims the camera body will do; I am talking about what most of them actually do. No platonic ideals, here; most camera bodies out there perform at less than their theoretical best in some aspect or another. In many cases, to a greater extent than many people realize, it's well below that theoretical best.
A good lens on a poorly-performing body will give you poor results. Really. Truly.
Ctein's regular weekly column appears on TOP every Thursday morning.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.