"I view 'cameras'—i.e. bodies—as consumables; the
film of the digital era."
Picking a camera is really a matter of picking a system, and picking a system is really a matter of picking a lens line. That's where your more important investment is going to be. You're going to be replacing your digital camera body every 1.5–5 years, and the expense of buying digital camera bodies is like buying computers or cellphones or keeping a vehicle—an ongoing expense, like a tax you pay every so often to keep current and keep working. Gary Bliss (quoted above, from a comment he posted here on TOP) is right—bodies are the additive, ongoing expense of the digital era, like film and processing was in the film era. But your lenses might last twice to five times as long as your camera-buying cycle, and if you buy good lenses you'll invest more money in them than in any particular camera body. And you'll get more back out of them as well.
A good lens can inspire you, and reward you, every time you use it. And if you limit yourself well, you'll really get to know each of your lenses, learning their full potential, and you'll get more reward out of them that way too.
Most newbie consumers of interchangeable-lens cameras treat lenses as an afterthought. They shop for the camera, then economize, skimp, or compromise on the lens. I've done that myself a time or two, but that's backwards. Better to buy a lens you'll keep, and upgrade to a better body when you can.
Make a list
At this point there's another wrinkle. How do you know what you're going to want? Usually, experienced photographers pick lenses for two reasons—the first is because it's what we need for specific tasks we concentrate on, and the second is that they're what we're used to, and fit (or have come to fit) how we tend to see.
The more experienced you are, the less you'll need advice. You will already have learned your preferences. So what if you haven't had a lot of experience, and you haven't yet gravitated to certain kinds of work, so you don't really know yet what lenses you want to end up with? Well, that's a tougher question, and it assumes you're a total beginner. So that's a question for another column. We'll leave that aside for now.
Fortunately, most of us tend to use one "main" lens which we shoot with a lot, one or two secondary lenses with which we shoot a lesser but still significant amount, and one or two lenses we only use very occasionally but still need once in a while. For example (note well—this is only an example! I'm not saying this is what your own percentages must be), I used to use a prime (single-focal-length) lens in the 35–40mm (or -equivalent) range as my main "axe," an 85–90mm lens for portraits, and a wide-angle for tight spaces. Historically my usage pattern was in about these proportions: 80% main lens, 15% portrait lens, 5% WA.
It's very unlikely that your preferences will parallel mine. You might have learned differently, or see differently, or shoot different things.
So here's what I recommend: make your own list. Imagine you had to start over completely from scratch—all your equipment fell overboard or fell out of the airplane's cargo hold. (Don't get sweats, it's just an exercise.) You have to make a completely fresh start.
Write out what you think you might want and how much you need them. Do this as a theoretical exercise—don't be thinking of specific lenses. Don't look at any lens lines to see what's available. Just imagine it. Imagine what you really want/need, and write down what that would be.
Then, prioritize it. Put your "main" choice, the one you think you'd use the most, at the top of the list. Then go from there.
After you've written your list and put it in order, cut it off after four or five. Only pros need more than five lenses, and they can handle it because they do it full time. The rest of us are better off with four or five lenses or fewer. I recommend only two or three, but few people are that disciplined. For anyone, though, I recommend not planning to buy too many. You'll do better work if you have enough lenses, but having too many is often just as much an impediment to working effectively as owning too few. With one lens, you really learn how to see like the lens sees. (That's part of the revelation of a One Camera / One Lens / One Year [OCOLOY] project.) With too many lenses, especially if they're all zooms, you're more likely to end up in a persistent state of partial unfamiliarity. It's like driving a different car every week—you never settle into that kind of total old-shoe familiarity that allows you to operate the car like it's second nature, without conscious thought.
The less you know about yourself and what you care about, the harder this is going to be. If you're lucky enough to know already what your main lens needs to be, then it stands to reason that the lens line you choose when buying a camera should have a really good option, or even more than one good option, in that position. As for the other lenses you'll need, it's easy to prioritize—just imagine you'll buy them one at a time, and put them down in the order you'd buy them. Even if you don't actually have to buy them one at a time. Or, estimate the percentage of your work you'll do with each lens. The further you go down the list, perhaps the less you might need to spend on that lens, and the less important it is that the lens be an absolutely perfect match for what you want. So if you're a macro photographer, say, and do 85% of your shooting with two different macro lenses, naturally they'd both need to be very good ones and quite close to exactly what you want, and you'd be sensible to spend what you need to get the right ones. But if 2% of your shooting requires a macro lens—for an occasional product shot, let's say—then your macro lens hardly needs to be expensive or perfect; most anything close, that you can get for a bargain, will do. And if 2% of your shooting is with a macro lens, maybe you don't really need a macro lens at all.
Something to avoid: Some newcomers—more experienced as shoppers than as shooters—have the notion that you should "cover all the focal lengths." So they carefully shop for several zooms that go from very wide to very telephoto, sometimes even being obsessive about not allowing overlap! This is a common mistake, but wrongheaded and counterproductive. You are much better off doing the opposite—sticking to just a few focal lengths that are far enough away from each other that you can't use either for tasks the other is good at.
Now is when you start looking at systems
Lens list finalized, then you start looking at systems, to see what system has the lenses you're going to want to buy. For example, if your choices look like this (focal lengths given in 35mm/FF terms, but could be equivalents):
- Super-fast 50mm, 50%
- Ultra-wide-angle perspective-control lens for near/far landscapes, 30%
- 200mm macro for insects and varmints including venomous arachnids, 15%
- Slow but sharp 400mm for airshows, 5%
Well then, once you start looking at systems, you know you'd be well suited to Canon full-frame, because Canon has a 50mm ƒ/1.2, a 24mm TS-E lens, a 180mm macro (not an exact match but close enough), and a 400mm ƒ/5.6.
...And so forth.
And when choosing a system based on lenses, look at the whole system as it exists now. We have the convenience of "roadmaps" now (charts showing future planned product releases), which is an improvement over the pure guessing games of decades past, but a roadmap isn't a guarantee. Don't buy into any system based on a promise.
You'd think I'd be immune to this pitfall, after 36 years as a photographer and 28 years of writing about equipment. But a few years ago I landed happily in the Sony NEX system just as its lens line fell into benign neglect. The "main" lens I needed existed, and drew me in; the second one I wanted never arrived. Still hasn't. Oops.
If all systems satisfy your needs, or if you are not picky when it comes to lenses, then maybe this method won't help you much. Come up with your own list and see. Even if you already own a collection of lenses, perhaps try the exercise to see how close what you have really comes to what you want.
It's when you've settled on a lens buying plan that you'll know what camera line you want to be in, and from there it becomes quite a bit easier to choose a camera. But don't sweat the camera too much. If you're like most people you'll be replacing it in a few years anyway. It's the lens "arsenal" you're really investing in. Being able to own a fine selection of lenses that are ideal for your work is one of the nice things about being an amateur. And the lenses will have a big effect not only on how your files look, but on how you will learn to see with them.
Your collection of lenses is really the key investment. Choose wisely.
Original contents copyright 2015 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
KeithB: "As another datapoint you might be able to get your DAM software to tell you the percentage of use of various lenses and focal lengths."
Richard Newman: "There is sometimes another option. If you have lenses from one maker (e.g. Nikon) but you would like the capabilities of another body (e.g. Sony) you may be locked into the lens brand due to cost of replacing the lenses in a new system. Instead, see if there is an adapter that will permit your current lenses to work on the other brand body. These adapters are made by a number of companies, generally for less than $200. Try a lens on the new body to see if it works well before buying the new body. It may or may not satisfy you, but it has worked for me."
Kenneth Tanaka (partial comment): " If I was starting from scratch today I would be strongly tempted to keep the gear to a minimum with just a Sony RX100, RX10, RX1RII, Panasonic LC100, or other similar camera, depending on my need for focal length and/or carryable compactness. Costs aside, I'd make every effort to eliminate the lens-choice distractions between my mind/eye and the image. It's generally not productive."
Mike replies: Doesn't every zoom lens come with lens-choice distraction built in?
Gordon Lewis: "I generally find that the more specific your needs, the more you have to think about lenses first. For example, if you're into architectural photography, you're going to need a camera that accepts tilt-shift lenses. If you're into low-light photography you're going to want a lot of fast primes. If you're into wildlife or sports you're going to need long lenses, and so on. What's more, you're probably well aware of this, so you choose cameras and lenses accordingly. This decision is often harder for general-purpose shooters because they want one lens that can do 'everything.' A jack-of-all-trades wide-to-tele zoom may be master of none but can still be more useful and satisfying to the generalist than more specialized lenses."
Will: "When you say that the lens you want still hasn't arrived, are you forgetting the 55mm FE Zeiss lens released with the A7 line? It seems like it meets your 85–90mm-e portrait lens requirements.
"But you're a Fuji man now, and better for it (as are all of us Fuji men).
"I found your column remarkably on point even if it isn't advice that I need. As a cinematographer, particularly one well used to budget production, I go through this process often. For me, it isn't a decision I make and then live with for two or more years, it is a decision I make and live with for at most a week. Does this commercial require a lot of wide angle work? Does this corporate video demand mostly portrait interviews? I often have the budget for only three lenses, but every project demands a different three lenses. And Zeiss and Cooke (really, my only choices, budget and preference-wise, though I'd love to try Leica's cinema glass) have really full lineups for many lens series. So if I go Zeiss Ultraprimes, for example, I know I'm ƒ/2 across the board, but I can choose from 10, 12, 14, 16, 20, 24, 28, 32, 40, 50, 65, 85, 100, 135, and 180mm options. That's a lot of choice, and very granular. Zeiss Master Primes (ƒ/1.4) have an as extensive but different lineup, and Cooke S4s (ƒ/2) have as extensive a lineup as well, but with a very different signature, lacking the clinical Zeiss sharpness and bringing in softer rolloff from sharp to bokeh.
"The point being that every project calls for a different 'look,' different aperture needs, and different focal length requirements. It kills me when a system lacks a ~65mm, because I find the jump from 50mm (always present) to 85mm (also always present) skips over (cinema is usually APS-C, remember) the kind of portrait focal length I like to use. 50mm is 70mm-e, which I hate, and 85mm is practically 135mm-e, and you've spoken well about the usefulness of that.
"At any rate, it means that every job begins this process anew. And it also means that I'm skilled enough at choosing APS-C focal lengths that I know that my Fuji system meets my needs, and also that my next lens will be in the 12mm to 14mm range."
Mike replies: You should rent the XF 14mm ƒ/2.8 before making a final decision. I'm just sayin'.
Doug Thacker (partial comment): "For paid work outside a studio (spot news, combat, events, travel, weddings), only the 'aristocracy' of pros have the option of relying on single focal length lenses. Parenthetically, in his (excellent, interesting, but too short) Autobiography, Helmut Newton tells the story of shooting Jodie Foster for Vanity Fair. He shows up on the appointed day with no assistant, and sends home her stylist, makeup people, etc. Then, with just the two of them there he does the shoot using the kit he brought: an SLR, a 50mm lens, and four rolls of Tri-X.
"I related this story to a pro-shooting friend of mine and enjoyed the horrified look on his face. 'You'd have to have balls of steel to do that,' he said. The idea hadn't occurred to me until he said it, but on reflection you know Newton had those in his kit, too."