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Thursday, 12 August 2010


Thank goodness it's possible to make memorable photographs with less than optimum epuipment. Sharpness and perfect exposure don't guarantee a great image(I know,you didn't claim they did). I just get tired of all the effort searching for perfect equipment instead of good images. Steve Willard

Good points. There is, though, one good reason to focus on "the lens." It will be obsoleted far more slowly than the body it's attached to.

So if money's an issue (as it is for most people), there's something to be said for buying the best glass you can afford up front, and resigning yourself to updating the camera body later.

You know someone is going to make this sort of comment, so I might as well be the one...

...and that's why I shoot with this camera from 1964! (and because my digital is headed off to Solms to have its malfunctioning sensor replaced)

I think the problem is that many photographers, especially the hard-core enthusiasts, will expound for hours on one camera or another, while putting inexpensive lenses on those bodies because they're oblivious to the fact that superior glass does give superior results.

I have seen work that was well-composes and exposed, but where the final image was really let down by softness and poor contrast because the photographer was using an inexpensive all-in-one zoom or a bottom-of-the line model lens. A lot of it was my own.

When I look at equipment today and decide to get something for a specific purpose, I decide first on the lens I need and go from there. The lenses are, especially given the fact that I use both 4/3 and m4/3, forever, while the bodies will be used up within a few years (my 3-year old E510 has close to 24k exposures on it already...) and I consider bodies to be a consumer expendable, rather than a permanent investment (especially considering the advances in electronics that continues to amaze me).

It's not that the bodies aren't important: it's just that without good glass, you're not going to see that body live up to its potential. It's an interdependent system, not a binary question...

Interesting thoughts. My own photographic life has seen me take more shots on film than on digital, although now none at all on film for 3 or so years. In that time I first hankered after "better" cameras - a typical young man's approach to technology, and just shoved in whatever film was to hand. After a while, I settled on films that I liked - TriX and Velvia, and gained some consistency in results. I then realised that most of my expensively-acquired collection of lenses were getting little use, so I pared down to a 24, 50, and 105 trio. While doing this, I subconsciously gave up on the desire to update my camera body - I gave little thought to it where once I had changed bodies whenever a new one came out.

Moving to digital I went through a few P&S and a couple of early Nikon DSLRs until standardising on the (for me) good enough D200. I expect I'll have that until it fails on me, then just buy whatever is the newest equivalent if Nikon are still making cameras.

I wouldn't say the camera body was unimportant - of course not - but so long as it works it doesn't cross my mind much. The perspective I get from my lenses is more important, and I'm gradually honing a post-routine to give me a consistent look to the results from the digital camera. I'm not going to update my Lightroom version 1 until I do!

I think many folks also forget that a bad, annoying-to-use camera will also have a negative effect on the photographer. Many people, for instance, love the Ricoh GR-D cameras precisely because they're so nice to actually use - it's like Mike's post the other day about how putting an optical viewfinder on the GF1 makes it nicer. Sure, the Olympus Pens might make nicer images, but only if you can be persuaded to make them do so in the first place.

These are good points. I think the attitude that "the camera doesn't matter" is in part a reaction against the tendency of many people (especially beginners) to think that their dissatisfaction with their pictures has to do with some failing of their camera, and that their work will magically improve if only they trade in their $500 beginner DSLR for the most expensive one they can afford, or switch from APS-C to full-frame.

Of course, substituting lens fetishism for camera fetishism isn't really much of an improvement; it's still hardware fetishism in the end, and if you don't know enough to figure out the cause of your problems, you're not going to be able to fix anything in any case.

At the end of the day, the single greatest obstacle for most people to producing great pictures is the limitations of their own photographic skills and their own ability to see great pictures in the world around them. In that sense the mantra that "your camera doesn't matter" is well justified. If you can't make great pictures with a Nikon D40, upgrading to a D3 won't help.

An other obvious but unmentioned aspect of this is the APS-C vs. full-frame question. I own a 12 MP Sony A700. Which purchase would give me sharper photos- a Zeiss lens (your pick), or an A900 body? I don't know for sure, but I'd bet that doubling the pixel count would make more difference.

I'm sorry, but I couldn't disagree more. The lens IS more important than the camera.

Not only is the focal length paramount to the creation of the message and feeling of a photograph, but so too are other ingredients such as the depth of field. And let's not forget about the importance of bokeh, color rendition, focus speed, sharpness, and the absence of chromatic aberration. I'd much rather have a very good 50mm lens on an average camera than an average lens on a very good camera. Further, a good lens can last a lifetime, whereas a camera body is much more likely to replaced (repeatedly) through time.

Give me an 8-year old used dSLR any day (i.e. Canon 10D, 20D, etc.) over any of the newer bodies, but let me keep a nice super fast, sharp lens or two and I feel I can shoot circles around anyone with a state-of-the-art camera and a kit zoom lens (or any reasonable facsimile thereof).

Then again, the more people who pay way too much for a camera and then attach a kit lens to it, the less competition I have.

Indeed, I've also seen "...besides, the lens is more important than the camera."

As you nicely summarized, it's generally a falsehood. The degree of its fallacy depends on the medium behind the lens. The type of camera that would come closest to supporting this myth is the view camera, which is photography's closest analog to a lens being given an acapella performance.

But that's not generally what folks have in mind when they recite, "...besides, the lens is more important than the camera.", is it? Nope, they're usually thinking of a hand-held camera.

In film days the lens did play a much larger role in image quality, particularly when cameras were free of electronics. (Although even here I would argue that the skill and talent of the carbon-based biological unit pressing the shutter had the greatest impact on image quality.)

But when popular photography merged into the maelstrom of the consumer electronics industry the impact of the lens on image results dramatically diminished. So many processes make their marks on images between the time the photons pass through the glass and the time an image is displayed that a credit roll at the end of each digital image would like that of Avatar.

"Many lenses, even cheap ones, are a lot better than people think they are." Yup. We can thank developments in computer-aided optical design and optical material manufacturing sciences for that. The best values in performance today may well be the "cheap" kit lenses offered with cameras such as the Canon T2i and Olympus E-P2/E-PL2. Such pairings act like long-time happy couples. The camera knows the lens's shortcomings and compensates accordingly before recoding the image. The kit lens on my E-P2, for example, is excellent.

So let's get to the real issue underlying the opening premise: Does it make sense to spend big dollars on camera lenses?

As someone who probably (somewhat shamefully) owns / uses more camera lenses than 99% of the readers I have to say probably not. The characteristics so admired in the "best" lenses - color, contrast, sharpness - have become commonplace in the middle-class of optics. They're also characteristics that can often be easily provided by even an inexperienced digital re-toucher.

Let's go one step further and ask if it makes sense for most folks to spend big bucks buying fast lenses? Again, my honest answer would have to be no. Again, the camera and computer can provide several f-stops of luminance that would be extremely costly to deliver purely optically. (Anyone want to buy my Noctilux? ;-) )

So where does that leave us? I suggest that the best lens values for most folks lie in that middle-class. If you're an occasional casual snapper, not constantly trudging through war zones or through Amazonian rain forests, go for a few nice, modestly-priced, modestly-fast lenses well-mated with your camera(s) and devote your energies (and money) toward using them.

Right before I got out of film I bought a Contax RTS III. The film alignment was spectaular, and it did help make the best out of those wonderful lenses.

I miss that camera...

You make a valid point in what you say in this article. It coincides with an discussion I had recently about the lens vs. the body and what was causing the image to be out of foucus. Great article.

"...the fault of a camera body that wasn't holding the film flat or matching the focus screen position to the average film 'plane.'"

Reminds me of that beautiful 35mm Contax SLR (RX?) which sucked the film flat against the pressure plate then released it between motor-driven exposures.

That was the RTSIII that Jim in Denver just mentioned.


Camera decide the format (35, 6x6, 6x7, .... 8x10, ...) which is the most important factor in what picture you can take and what it will look like.

The camera is the message, in a great sense.

However for those stays in the same format and like water to fish, you do not feel its existence. Camera is largely unimportant within a format and type (slr, rangefinder, twin lens and mirrorless etc) is fixed. A canon, Nikon, minolta, ... Not exactly the same but the differene within this is much smaller than switching format and/or type.

In fact, lens is like fireman and got the glory all the time but no one pay attention to fire prevention guy. You know the camera when it does not work. When it work, it is transparent and hence it does not exist, especially when you fix the format and type.

As a novice who purchased some old lenses for my Olympus E-P1, I find images have a film look that is usually more pleasing than the sharp but often brittle look of images from modern mid-market lenses.

The "film look: does not seem to mean simply reduced resolution. I had the opportunity to put a high-price lens on the camera, and its images have the same film look as the legacy lenses, but with better resolution and even richer colors.

Ever notice the people who claim that lenses don't obsolete like bodies so therefore invest in lenses usually have all current brand-new lenses?

To Ctein's point, I agree with him to a point. I bought into the Olympus FourThirds system because of the body--in this case, the E-1. In spite of its awesome ergonomics and image tonality, it is still JUST a 5MP camera body with a hyperactive AA filter and noisy high-ISO. Oh, maybe not. I bought the E-1 because it used my old Zuikos.

But wait! Why am I continuing to use the old Zuikos? Why not just upgrade to all new digital lenses with AF? Well, because there are those OM-3Ti and OM-4Ti camera bodies in my bag...

It's a vicious circle.

The noticeable difference is in the user interface which has got so much better and has added more features, many of which aren't totally useless. More kinds of metering, for one, better auto and scene modes and so on.

Freeman argues that different vendors have different technologies around the sensors but I wonder if that adds up to a distinct style, especially if we're shooting RAW?

Yes it is.


"To be sure, poor lenses ruin a lot of photographs. But, so do poor camera bodies."

More than likely poor photographers ruin more photographs than lenses or bodies!

Ctein, you have hit points that I have wondered about for a couple of years. I have a modest Olympus E-410 with what I think is an almost all plastic body. I have noticed Olympus is very reticent about revealing the lens flange to sensor distance specs. I now wonder if this is because they vary from body to body. My conspiracy is that there is a range in the body molds and as each body is assembled the distance is checked and then programed into the electronics of that body. Then, when a lens is mounted it asks the body what spec it is and the body replies '38.55mm' (or whatever value it is) and then the lens knows what distance to bring the image to focus.

Or am I just crazy?

One of the virtues of some digital systems is (I believe) that they focus using contrast measured directly off the sensor. This eliminates the problem of getting the path length to the film/sensor identical to the path length to the focusing system.

You still have perpendicularity to worry about, of course, but you've at least eliminated one of the nastier variables.

Not that I shoot digital, of course. And, I might be wrong on this point entirely!

Great post. 100% agree. Doesn't matter how good the glass is if the focus is wonky or the AA filter or in-camera processing smears away fine details.

Generally I agree with Ctein's point, but given a specific camera body wouldn't a higher quality lens get you a technically better picture? This is what makes a Leica a Leica and why Linhof quality tested the lenses they sold with their cameras. I think the real point is that you can't skimp on either (camera body or lens).

Ah, at last! A reason to justify buying that expensive Leica!

Dear Ctein,

I like this your article very much. It is so refreshing when someone tackles common clichés. And this is one of the most common ones "Cameras do not matter"
This, by the way, not only compared with lenses, but also with photographers ...
This reminds me of an anecdote about the great movie director Frank Capra who was very proud of his personal style, the "Capra Touch".
He had no respect for script writers. He thought the success of his movies was only due to his directing genius.
Once he was given a book. When he opened it he saw it only had empty pages.
"What shall I do with this?", he asked.
The answer: "Now, put the Capra touch on it!"

The single most important camera body 'feature' for me is the viewfinder (assuming the camera even has one), and how the camera allows me 'to see.' This is a different and broader issue than focussing, even on a manual focus camera.

Ctein lists mechanical camera functions related to holding film and focussing, but the body also serves as a window to the subject.

As I commented on a recent post by Mike, If I can't get along with that camera aspect, the other features and functions are irrelevant since I'll never buy the thing.

Implied is the question of whether it is the lens or body which is more important. I would contend that this sets up a false dichotomy, neither lens nor camera body takes photos without the other (or without a photographer to be in the right place, make the right settings, point the camera in the right direction and press the shutter release at the right moment). It is the combined action of a lens and camera which records visual information, they could be thought of as "multiplicative" in action, rather than "additive". One element cannot arbitrarily compensate for the flaws of the other.

I would say that a more useful way of considering the choice of lens and body is to optimise them with respect to each other, use combinations matched in performance. A balance is achieved when neither significantly holds back the operation of the other, and they combine to assist the photographer to realise their vision.

I'm with Jeff.


Dear Daniel,

That question is not implied. I was very careful to NOT establish that false dichotomy. Please note, I did not say the camera body was more important than the lens, in either the title or the body of the column. That was by careful intent.

"A not more important than B" is not logically equivalent to "B more important than A."

I take no responsibility for people who view everything as binary either/or. It's their problem, not mine.

pax / Ctein

Dear Rick,

Funny that you should bring that up. In the early 90s, one of the CompuServe regulars who was a camera dealer sent me a brand-new M6 kit with a bevy of lenses to test out.

Running my usual assortment of tests, I discovered that the camera wouldn't focus the lenses accurately. The pattern of misfocusing showed that while the cams on the lenses weren't exactly right, the camera body was off also. Even if you were to mount a perfect Leica lens on it, you would only get very good, not extraordinary, results.

I don't recall that anything was outside of normal industry manufacturing tolerances. But it was nowhere near good enough to yield exceptional quality.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 


First time I looked through a (film) SLR with a 35mm lens attached I thought "That's how I see scenes. Don't care if it's a Leica M2, a film SLR, a digital full frame SLR (5D), or now a Canon S90 compact which can be locked at the 35mm equivalent.

Same way, first time I looked through a 135mm lens I thought "That's how I focus on details".

Bought Canon EOS specifically to use those two lenses. Only own one other lens (85mm), and only use it when there isn't enough room to use the 135mm.

Don't care what the camera is, give me a 35mm and a 135mm lens and a camera body which shoots black and white, and I'm happy.

(apologies for taking the debate off course!)

Hi Ctein:

I am not sure that I agree with your comments. I still find the biggest issue in photography is lens quality. First, it is by far and away the most critical image processor in the imaging chain, and as we have seen over the years lens design is not just as simple as what occurs in the focal plane, but also how it feeds into and out of the focal plane.

But by far the biggest issue of our modern times with lenses is chromatic aberration and its effect on resolution. There is still a mythology in the industry that software alone can resolve the issues of chromatic aberration to the extent that it is not a factor in lens selection. This has not been my experience. I have watched many photographers taking high pixel count cameras (24MP or more) and rendering them into much lower fidelity instruments due to CA.

I am currently shooting the D3x with the Zeiss ZF 2/50 Makro on it---which if basically CA free. It has given me a good platform to compare how RAW conversion behaves with and without CA, and I would say there is no comparison. Nikon NX2 and Capture One Five Pro have auto CA correction, the former inducing artifacts in the micro structure of the image, the later doing a better job (but I dont like it). While there are signs of improvement in CA mending by software, I still have not seen anything work as well as a CA free lens.

So for me the critical issue is still the lens. I do understand your point of how important the body is in the overall function, but I see more camera bodies available with good innards then lenses that are CA free.

Just one guys opinion, and am enjoying the topic---so thanks for bringing it up! :)



the new mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras have actually made it possible to eliminate most of the sources of problems in old film cameras - as long as you're willing to shoot fully manually. you can see actual exposure on the lcd/evf and histogram overlay. you can see actual focus at ~100% crop level as you take the picture. mirrorless cameras also get rid of the lens lock in to a large degree. you can put pretty much any lens on them (just don't expect to get autofocus or auto aperture).

Mike - while you're saving for that Sony a850 you can probably get ~$20 adapter to use your lens on the camera you do have. it will be a bit bulky but it'll keep the lens from just sitting around unused and give you a nice 70mm f/2 to go with your 40mm f/1.7.

anyway, cameras are still very important because of ergonomics and the differences in sensors between them. most of their mechanical deficiencies are becoming less important though, at least to someone like me who prefers to move slow and take manual control.

I'm with Jeff and Mike...

I have recently been philosophising a little about this very thing, and I sympathize particularly with Todd for standing up to disagree.

However, I also disagree with that a bit. For me the importance includes not only lens and sensor, but the ergonomics of the box in the middle. After having had a Canon G9 for a couple of years, one of the things I've learnt to love is a live-view LCD with b&w preview. I understand other people like having auto-focus detached from shutter button so the two can act independently. Still other people like having EV-priority shutter controls on the lens so you vary both aperture and shutter-speed keeping the same exposure but selecting speed/DoF (Hasselblad). And that brings me to the most clichéd most-important of all: your photographic "eye", for seeing a shot. It so happens that my eye is attuned to square aspect-ratio frames (thanks to the hassie) and drawn to b&w-compatible scenes (shape/form/angles/texture).

Ctein, I'm sorry to say this but: buying a digital camera body is like deciding that you're always going to be photographing with Kodachrome is gibberish. Buying only kodachrome is like buying only kodachrome - and the consistency & uniformity of tonal appearance between your photographs means customers know what they might expect from you, too. The existence of presets in ACR ultimately puts the lie to your statement, though. By tweaking sliders and buttons one gets responses varying from some kind of slide film to some kind of colour-neg film to some kind of b&w film.

I think you have to `pay your money and take your choice' - assuming the thing is not completely screwed (in which case, RMA it), learn the minutiae of operation and go make photos based on what the camera teaches. All else seems like a desire to control the very md5sum of the JPEGs, for no good reason.

Yet another example of the engineer's dilemma.
When the engineering is young and a bit haphazard everybody recognises and values good engineering.
Once good engineering becomes the norm it fades into the background and is no longer valued.

It may depend on where are in your photography journey.

In my mind Ctein is pretty much dead on when a person is starting out. Ken Tanka's comment takes it to the next level.

Dare I say, once you have reached that point , with a body you are comfortable with, the glass will make your images sing your song.

Ctein starts by quoting somebody here who recently said "the lens is more important than the body." I'd be a nickel that comment was made in response to Mike's post about buying a great lens for a camera he doesn't own. In other words, IT WAS A JOKE.

But in any case, the cliché is not without its justification—so long as you understand that it's a SAYING, designed to represent a particular truth, and not a metaphysical proposition. It's like Ken Rockwell's great claim that "Your camera does not matter." He said that to make a point, to provoke amateurs to think about how mistaken they were if they thought buying more expensive cameras was going to make their pictures better. It was never meant to be taken literally. As far as I can tell, Mr Rockwell doesn't do his photography with a point and shoot. Still, his comment provoked an indignant response over at Luminous Landscape—a crowd that wasn't even in the audience that Rockwell was trying to address. Sheesh. Some folks need to grow a sense of humor or at least read up on "hyperbole, educational uses of."

Look, I'll stipulate the obvious: every aspect of the capture matters: the light, the lens, the sensor, the photographer, etc. Failure at any point may cause the photo to fail completely. I want to shoot in good light, with great lenses, great bodies, beautiful subjects in beautiful surroundings, and I want to be on top of my creative game for every shoot. I'll go further and say that my Pentax DA 70mm f/2.4 limited NEEDS to be on my K20D body rather than my old *ist DS in order to be the lens it's capable of being. Great lenses want great bodies and vice versa.

But the cliché still has a point. Lenses matter because the lens is the interface between the sensor and the scene. It's the conduit through which the light travels to the capture medium. In computer terms, garbage in, garbage out. I'd rather shoot with a great lens on a low-end body (knowing that nearly all low-end bodies now in distribution are actually pretty darned good) than work with a Nikon D3 and a crummy lens.

A hierarchy in which X is said to matter more than Y, and Y than Z, does NOT mean that Y and Z are NOT very important. Really, this is elementary.

I have always erred toward the side of fast, high-quality lenses, which at my budget point has meant relying on primes like James above.

The one thing on a camera that frustrates me the most is shutter lag (and in point-and-shoots, also flash lag). No way to capture the decisive moment if the camera takes too much time to catch up to your vision. You ultimately just can't consider the camera to be an extension of yourself.

I learned on an old Minolta SRT film SLR and I enjoyed that responsiveness. Very slight shutter lag is what made me upgrade from a Nikon N80 to an F100 back in the day. Severe shutter lag and flash lag is what makes me want to throw my wife's Canon PowerShot far into the nearest body of water whenever I try to capture candid and/or action (broadly defined) shots of my children.

In a system of components leading ultimately to the end product, all links in the chain matter - Systems Analysis 101. For us, technique, body, lenses, post production, printing/display issues.

So digital bodies do matter - and (besides ergonomics and dimenions) they differ in technical ways far more than is widely recognised. The colour filter arrays (CFAs) in Sony's FF cameras give much better hue separation and pay for it with lower high ISO performance, for example. Canon bodies are the exact opposite.

But lenses make the greatest difference, IMO. They are strongly associated with final colour rendition and micro-contrast, but most importantly to me, 'authenticity'. The feeling the viewer has of being in the photograph, also often referred to as three dimensionality; or as Zeiss call it, 'contour definition'. We are also so lucky that most DSLRs can now use great 'old' lenses like the Contax, Voigtlander and Leica R lineups, which moreover cost much less than top flight 'OEM' lenses - which seem to sell on highly promoted feature sets, such as VR/IS, wide zoom FL ranges, built-in AF motors, etc., all at great weight, durability and often, optical penalties.

Dear Folks,

Quite a few of you are missing a most important point and focusing on a body's features, not it's 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, far more than most of you could imagine, it's well below that theoretical best.

A good lens on a poorly-performing body will give you poor results. Really. Truly.

pax / Ctein

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.

Just about all of my cameras require me to set the aperture, focus and shutter speed. All I require of a camera body is that it keeps out stray light (or stops the darkness from escaping from within) and that the actual shutter opening time is close to the setting I put it at.

So it needs to be a simple box which holds the film in the right place.

I'll go out on a limb and say that I doubt anyone has ever taken a picture without a camera or a lens, unlike say a tripod.

Can't argue with any of the points, but I also can't help feeling that things like keeping the film flat, accurate shutters etc are "a duty rather than a virtue". Now with lenses...

Photography is art, not mathematics. (Though eloquent math is art. See, my dad is a mathematician). The implication that the lens choice does not matter as long as the lens in question scored enough points in pixel-peepological testing is false to me. What about the individual, subjective flavour of quality lens optics and the image it renders?

Take OM Zuiko 50mm 1.2 as an example. Technically, wide-open shots are a bit soft, and the lens is a curved-field design to an uh-oh extent. A sure looser in the testing lab. But! Once you see the glowing, etheral atmosphere of the portraits taken with this lens wide open... You don't get that with just any lens and most certainly not with the usual suspect, the proverbial kit zoom lens.

Surely, the camera body must be up to the task, technically and ergonomically, but I would argue that the lens choice is much more important for the final (visual) result the photographer is aiming to achieve.

Here's a link to something that links a lens and a body in a completely different way!


A replica Canon lens that feeds your body coffee... For sure I can say in this case: they are equal.


Interesting point. Dear Ctein, what would you say about photos shot on a mediocre body with a high-end lens? No, it's not a binary choice, but those photos would have been either worse or impossible with a lower-grade lens.

E-P1 with 14-35/2, all the wider photos on the second and third day, but I'm particularly satisfied with the Flaming Lips sequence on the third day.


So I'd say that there is a lot of the cases where the lens is more important. (If the bodies used were at least equivalent if not equal.)

Dear Ctein,

My comments were rather aimed at the surrounding discussion which predicated your post in the first place, apologies if it wasn't clear. I was not saying that your article itself said that cameras matter more.

I agree with the argument that camera bodies matter, but was trying to go up one level to examine the context of the quote "...besides, the lens is more important than the camera". I would say that this quote in itself implies the question of what matters most, lens or camera.

Thank god all our equipment has so much wrong it. I don't feel so bad now about taking so many utterly forgettable pictures.

Worth noting:

We view camera types will cheerfully point out that if the film plane isn't flat or perpendicular, it doesn't mean that everything's out of focus, it just means that the plane of focus is somewhere unexpected, and not a plane. SOMETHING is in focus.

Guys like Ctein have very definite ideas about what should and should not be in focus, but maybe you've got a little bit of lomography in your soul! A little serendipity isn't always a bad thing.

Remember, it's not CRAP, it's LOMOGRAPHY!

One other comment on the "camera body matters" combined with "people still have to know what they're doing..."

I know several people who own very nice dSLR's. Not a one of them - including two very experienced photographers - knew what I was talking about when I asked if they'd adjusted the viewfinder's diopter control after buying the camera. Tweaking the diopter control is one of those little things that you have to do if you want the best out of your camera. (Technically you should do it every time you change the lens, but I have found that once it's set it doesn't seem to change more than the control increment, at least on my Rebel-series dSLRs.)

Obviously, the diopter adjustment doesn't directly control your results in autofocus mode, but it can indirectly mess you up by making you think that your autofocus (or your lens) isn't doing a good job. And for manual focus, it just has to be right or you won't get the best image you can. How well a body takes this adjustment, and how consistent it is from lens to lens, is another unsung task that the body HAS to do well, or your zillion-dollar lens will produce shots that aren't razor sharp where they're supposed to be no matter what you do.

"This reminds me of an anecdote about the great movie director Frank Capra who was very proud of his personal style, the "Capra Touch"."

It might be ignorance, on my behalf, but I've never heard of the Capra touch. There was the legendary Lubitsch touch but he was a director who worked closely with screenwriters, including Billy Wilder.

As for Ctein's interesting article, I'm playing to safe and say that both lens and camera are important.

Apologies for mangled English in my previous post.

The current camera body is surely a technological marvel. But in the biggest picture, and when all is said and done, its purpose is there to simply allow light onto the sensor/film for a defined period of time.
Attaching a lens then simply allows a certain amount of light onto the sensor/film.
It is just those two things; amount of light and the length of time of light, that makes up photography.

"I'll go out on a limb and say that I doubt anyone has ever taken a picture without a camera or a lens, unlike say a tripod."

I think you'd fall off your limb. Some of my students made pinhole pictures with oatmeal canisters or shoeboxes and a bit of tin foil. Just sayin'.


Dear Ctein & All....

The lens and or camera are of course of some importance, BUT great light is the most important thing to get excited about.

For without light there is no photography, so for me the search for great light is my passion, not gear!

Wonderful images have been made by many photographers without the aid of even the simplest of lenses, check out “Steve Gosling” http://www.stevegoslingphotography.co.uk/ And look at his Monochrome Work, Lensless Landscapes to see what can be achieved with good light and a great eye.

So don’t get too upset if I don’t get all excited about my circles of confusion! ( Ho Hum ).

Cheers and keep well. Paul.

Ctein, you can find exceptions to any rule, but with cameras as with any manufactured product, you get what you pay for. Paul, if you want a camera made to the best tolerances possible, it will be expensive. Canon's digital body (my 5DMkII, among others) micro adjustment for different lenses is a user-friendly feature to rectify the +/- 5% manufacturing tolerance that can hinder a sharp result. Leica will adjust and fine tune a lens set to a camera body and Linhof will hand cut focusing cams to be accurate. Many photographers may not realize that their cameras and lenses, even new out of the box, may not focus perfectly accurately. You need to test the lens, even a new lens, and if not happy with the result on your camera body, be able to return it and try another example.

That used to be true, I would often build up whacky cameras from bits and pieces , get a great lens , a Mamyia 23 back and a chunk of wood to separate them, and run out and take pictures.

In the analogue age, the order of importance for me was
film and processing
Lighting gear if necessary

Now the film and processing part has been merged into the camera, so the camera is a lot more important.

One thing I have to say is that using live view for focusing can make all the difference in the world. The canon 5dmk2 is vastly better used with only the live view. Lenses that I gave up on , turn out to be pretty good if you use the live view.

Looking at it from a systems perspective, both camera and lens are equally important. And both have to be matched to deliver the best of the combination (which leads to the old "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" chestnut). This philosophy starts with the designers of the camera system, who always consider the body and the lens as a complete system in order to deliver the best out of both body and lenses.

A lens is just a shiny bauble without a body on which to mount and use it, and the body, no matter how sophisticated and well engineered, is just an empty and expensive box with an empty hole in the front without a lens.

It's the old cliche, it's only as good it's weakest link. Be that the body, the lens, the film/software, the operator.


I dunno if I have the right to make a comment here as i'm only 2 years into my photography journey, for sure you can stick a horrible lens onto a great body and get mediocre results and vis versa but the question thats always on my mind is have digital camera bodies actually caught up with the best optics yet? Take for example the Pentax FA43mm, is the K20D or K7 sensor actually capable of resolving the full capabilities of this lens? Ok that might be a bit unfair but how about the DA35mm Macro which I believe that Mike is a fan of. Surely this would be an example of a well matched body / lens combination (at least with a K20D) which really is what we are looking for. If you have this, something interesting to take a picture of, enough light, then surely its down to the photographer and his / her imagination + skill to deliver 'The Image', the kit does not come into it.

I am going to have to differ a bit in some of the explanation. I see them both as important but unless you are shooting jpegs (traditionally I am a JPEG shooter) or the ergonomics get in the way most current cameras are all great and it really starts boiling down to the lens (though again I still see it like half and half).

I have seen an e-510 shot with a kit lens and one of the Olympus Super High Grade primes (the 150mm), and the difference was night and day. It really looked like another class of camera.

It's true that dynamic range will play a way with the camera body depending on what you shoot. It's also true that if you are exposing images within the DR of what you are working with you can get similar shots between different cameras, if you are shooting raw.

I would like to see what lens gives poor results in a poor performing body- other than iso issues.

Raist3d and others,
Don't make the mistake of assuming that less expensive bodies are automatically "poor-performing" bodies in Ctein's definition. Often cheaper bodies do have more slop in identifiable ways, but the standards are very, very good these days, and modestly priced bodies can do very well.


After 20 years of gear accumulation I started getting bored (and broke) with constantly dwelling on the gear. It was like a curse had been lifted. Suddenly I could take decent photos, even good sometimes, with whatever gear was at hand. Film or digital, zoom or prime, big or small, it just didn't seem to matter what I was holding in my hand. I've used bodies and lenses made from the 1880s through just a few years ago. They all seem to be very capable of being used to make good photos. Even the stuff that the masses claim is lousy.

Dear William,

You owe me a nickel. Please remit to my PayPal account.

My column was not written in response to Mike's column; Mike and I are in substantial accord on the subject. It was written in response to a reader's comment to that column that was made entirely seriously. And, you will find if you do much reading on the subject, that it is a comment that is frequently made quite seriously and without hyperbolic intent.


Dear Tim,

Any attempt to nitpick a metaphor, simile, or analogy between film and digital is doomed to failure and largely a waste of your time. It's like comparing apples and oranges by arguing about the number of seeds.

That said, my comment was most definitely not gibberish. Settling on a particular digital camera constrains a whole bunch of visual characteristics that are not manipulable in ACR or can only be done so at the cost of other image qualities. Almost everything is malleable in Photoshop, but one of the things photographers talk about almost universally is trying to find a way to do photography that minimizes the need for unnecessary grunt work. If one can make camera A's photographs look like camera B's, but camera A requires one to jump through a bunch of software hoops and camera B does it naturally , photographers will almost always choose camera B.

That said, some of the very important characteristics that are dictated by the choice of camera are resolution and sharpness (not the same thing), noise, and color rendition. I'm not talking about color balance, I'm talking about things like the relationship of flesh tones to neutrals to sky colors.

I'm not saying one set of qualities is superior, any more than I'm saying that Kodachrome was better than Ektchrome. I am saying they are different and you buy into a set of characteristics when you buy a camera, just as you bought into a set of characteristics when you bought into a family of film. It's no more important than that. And no less.

And, as I emphasized in my addendum, it's still all dependent on whether the camera actually is delivering what the manufacturer claims it will.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

"I dunno if I have the right to make a comment here as i'm only 2 years into my photography journey"

That's the nice thing about a self-selected audience. If you're here, you belong. You're always welcome to comment if you want to.


Dear Steve,

No, you don't set the aperture, focus and shutter speed. You manipulate a set of mechanical adjustments or electrical switches that instruct the camera body to do this. The body then follows your instructions and performs the actual actions. That's where it all goes south. Just because you tell the camera body to do something doesn't mean it does exactly that.

Just as an example, of many possible ones, if you're using a camera old enough that it is entirely mechanical and manual, odds are better than 50% that your highest shutter speed is at least a half stop slow. Better than 25% it's a full stop slow. Electronically controlled shutters fixed most of that, and they introduced their own oddities. Focus screen (or autofocus module) position almost never matches the film (or sensor) plane. Etc.etc.etc.


Dear Folks,

Yeah, what Mike said: It's not about good vs bad, it's about good versus better. It's really hard to buy a truly **bad** lens or body these days.

pax / Ctein

"I think you'd fall off your limb. Some of my students made pinhole pictures with oatmeal canisters or shoeboxes and a bit of tin foil. Just sayin'."

I knew this was gonna happen lol, but Mike, your students couldn't have taken their pictures without oatmeal canisters and tin foil, unlike say a sawhorse ;-).

Player is of course wrong. I've both made photograms and used a pinhole camera, so by any reasonable definition I've taken pictures without a lens.

Can't claim without a "camera" though (the pinholes have been with a body cap on various Nikon SLR bodies, clearly cameras).

At the moment, camera bodies are more important to me than lenses. Back in 1983 lenses were more important to me. I had to save up for a long time before I could buy a second lens, and then a third lens, but I had zero camera body envy at that time.

I switched 100% to digital photography 10 years ago, but I still haven't found a digital body I like. [NOTE: I've never used a "pro" level digital body so will trust the other posters.]

I hate every viewfinder and every manual focus procedure of every digital camera I've ever used--which adds up to quite a few in the "entry-level-DSLR" niche like Canon 10D, 20D, Rebels, and all the competing Nikons, Olys, etc. Of course I hate ALL menu-structure interfaces, but I knew what I was getting into when I switched to "computerized photography." But I had expected the viewfinders and manual focus problems to have been solved more quickly than the way things turned out. Oh well, I still love digital.

I used to point out to people that the lens and the film are the only things that actually touch the light that makes a photo. In the context of trying to convince people that the lens had considerable importance, I found this a useful and not too dishonest approach :-) . (We all know the stereotype of the guy with the Nikon F3 with the Vivitar 28-200mm lens on it, right?)

In my older cameras, the body was just barely involved in setting the aperture -- it triggered the lens to stop down at the time of exposure (or sometimes earlier; Spotmatic). What I think of as setting the aperture happened with the ring on the lens itself, that information was never relayed through the body. On my M3, the body played no role in setting the aperture at all.

One point Ctein made that I feel is being underappreciated here: your camera body or lens may be in perfect spec now, but how long will it stay that way?

And asked even less often: once it has drifted out of tolerance, can it be adjusted back?

I suspect that's a key difference between costly and budget gear. For example, a Leica M's rangefinder can slip out of tolerance within a few months if you're working it hard -- but it has externally accessible adjustments designed for just that reason, so a technician can tune it up in a few minutes. A Rebel or a D40? I'm not so sure...

(Of course that's a moot point if you're so convinced your camera is perfect that you can't accept that it might need occasional servicing!)

A bit off topic. How about using a tripod to improve sharpness, steadiness etc.?

A huge discussion of this post over here: http://www.fredmiranda.com/forum/topic/926724

These kind questions bore me a little because the best answer is always "it depends". The bottleneck could be the lens, the body... the photographer. There's no unique answer. But I suppose you knew that, you just wanted people's reactions.

When I started 3 years ago, I bought a cheap body (K10D at the time) and then concentrated on buying the lenses I needed even if a better model was released (K20D). Because I could not really do macro with a 18-55mm, could not take birds in flight and do low-light work, etc, etc. Now that I have almost all the lenses I need, I buy every new body that is released (I bought the K-7 as soon as it was available in store).

Great topic this one, I must say I run with Ctein on this one, most modern lenses in my experience are capable of good results providing they are used optimally but a crook body can really foul things up. With lenses we can find the optimal f stop, change focal length and position and ultimately correct in software a whole array of lens based issues.

But a bad body that doesn't allow accurate and reliable focus, a decent viewing experience, has a too much mirror slap, poor processing, inaccurate exposure etc etc is going to have a huge impact on the final result.

In the real world however most of my students could get far better results without actually changing either the lens or body. There is for the average punter an opportunity for far better results simply by reducing camera movement and learning to pick the optimum focus point better. Additionally far to many people shoot at too wide an aperture leaving no room for error and ending up with misplaced focus in an attempt to create the "out of focus" background look. Don't get me wrong fast glass is nice, but in reality when we are talking about actual "on the wall" prints (not small web images) there are very few subjects that actually should be shot at say f2 to look right. But.....if you do want to shoot at f2 then you better have an accurate focussing system in that body.

Exposure also has a major impact, if the camera body stuffs this up you will end up with detail loss in shadow or highlights and all sorts of other problems.

Of course it goes without saying that a great body is also far nicer to use and the fewer user impediments we have the better we can concentrate on the actual image making experience.

In the end if someone can afford great glass, fantastic, but considering that many lenses cost far more than the body to which they attach and lots of folk have budgets to balance, I say don't sweat it. Buy a nice body that won't get in the way and a reasonable lens or two because chances are that super fast super expensive tele etc is not going to make much difference to the overall result.

All things considered of course ultimately your skill and vision will be far more important and they are free.

for sure you can stick a horrible lens onto a great body and get mediocre results

And you can stick a horrible lens onto a mediocre camera and get a great picture.

No, you don't set the aperture, focus and shutter speed. You manipulate a set of mechanical adjustments or electrical switches that instruct the camera body to do this. The body then follows your instructions and performs the actual actions. That's where it all goes south. Just because you tell the camera body to do something doesn't mean it does exactly that.

You could take anything to taht extreme though. You could say that when I am selecting second gear on myb car I am just telling the car to go into second gear and hoping it does as it's told. I know that it will do this though so essentially it is me doing the selection.

Dear Steve,

This column is not about what is good art, it's about technical quality. You want to talk about art, find another column to comment on.

Also, you entirely miss the point of this column in making your car comparison. When you tell your camera to give you a shutter speed of, say, 1/1000 sec, what you actually get is whatever the camera decides to give you. Before electronically controlled shutters, it would be close to 1/500th sec. Even with EC shutters, it may be half a stop off, especially as the camera wears.

Similarly, in camera metering can have substantial systematic errors.

When you focus an SLR camera, you have to assume the focus screen is the same distance from the lens as the film/sensor. It's not. Sometimes the error is very large, and it will increase with use unless the camera is regularly tuned up. If you use auto-focus with a phase/contrast detection system, the same problems arise, with the additional ones that the servo mechanism won't move the lens into precisely (or accurately) the correct position but only an approximately correct one.

If you use a rangefinder, there will be always be large errors between what the rangefinder tells you the correct focus is and what the correct focus actually is, for some combinations of distances and lenses.

I cannot emphasize this too strongly: You do NOT make the camera settings, the camera does.In an ideal world it follows your desires and instructions faithfully. In the real world, it is always prone to some degree of error. The errors are often substantial.

pax / Ctein

Well well well ... BOTH are important :-)
A great lens and a good camera are important
But nothing is more important than the EYE using it
The way we (each one) sees the world is what is gonna make the big difference.
Thanks for the post

I have to think that this saying of "the lens is more important that the camera" has to be taken in context. With most technologies, there is a cost and development curve. Chips and technology are becoming ever cheaper, while labor in staying relatively flat (though we are seeing it being relocated around the world to keep it so). We have already seen the move in focus in P&S cameras from MP stats to lens technology (see the Panasonic LX3 and that was 2 years ago).

Will this Spring's model Canon take better pictures than last Fall's Nikon- I doubt it. Might it be better to save eating the cost of trading your "old" Spring edition camera for the "new" Fall edition? I fully agree that a decent camera body is important, but I personally think money might be better spent on a lens.

...Of course, I think a different lens and a different perspective is just more fun.

Though the sensor is very important in a modern body, you can pretty much get around poor AF by focusing yourself (via main sensor so you know it is accurate) bad metering by manual control and bad converting by saving raw.

Getting around the limitations of a bad lens is far worse (and sometimes impossible) all together.

Soft drawing never gets as good sharpened in PP as a sharp drawing lens.

Some CA can be eliminated without side effect, other cant.

Most distortions can be mended, but like sharpening it will never get as good as a good lens.

The notion that ONLY the lens matters is as bad a generalization as most any generalizations are ofcause.

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