Why stick a $1000 lens on a $500 body? Well… lots of reasons!


posted Monday, November 23, 2015 at 7:25 AM EDT


Wake up with IR...Here's today's dose of Caffeine Priority!

Let's say you've decided to get "serious" about photography,
but absolutely can't spend more than roughly $1500 right now. Should you spend the majority on a camera body or a really capable lens? Most people think body-first, and that's of course understandable, but after working for and shooting at IR for some time now, I suggest finding the single best lens for your purposes, and then grab the most capable camera body with the money you have left over.

Why? Lenses are not only a major component of your image sculpting possibilities, but are a lot more timeless than bodies. Quality glass can be used for decades if properly taken care of, and used across a variety of platforms (different manufacturer's bodies with the right adapter, and often on different sensor-sized cameras from the same manufacturer). To illustrate this reasoning I grabbed the imminently good Sony 55mm f/1.8 FE lens (currently running for about $1000) and popped it onto a Sony A5100 (currently about $500 body-only).

This full-frame lens on the A5100 (and on the A6000) yields an equivalent focal length of 82.5mm, which is right in prime portrait territory. The aperture is not the brightest on the market in this general focal length, but it only trails lenses like the Fuji 56mm f/1.2 by roughly one full stop, so it's pretty close and can certainly bring in a ton of light. And for shallow depth of field potential, at f/1.8 from roughly 7 feet away you'll experience only about 4 inches of focus depth, and can therefore expect the background (and sometimes the foreground) to melt away nicely into bokeh-land.

1/250s / f/2 / -0.3 EV / ISO 400

1/160s / f/2 / -0.3 EV / ISO 400

I'm using portraits here as a "prime" example, but the same could be said for a whole host of photographic disciplines. Are you primarily into landscapes? Capturing wildlife? Perhaps general street shooting, or you just want one terrific "all-around" lens? Good news, as there's a great lens for every occassion! And you can generally get "great" for a thousand dollars or less for a prime lens, although great zooms can often run a bit more. But the same logic applies, as a great zoom costing, say, $1500 still counts in the argument here, as that's far more important to wildlife or sports photography, if you only had $2000 or $2500 total to spend right now on a camera rig.

1/250s / f/2 / -0.3 EV / ISO 500

1/200s / f/1.8 / -0.3 EV / ISO 100

That last argument may likely be challenged by some readers, and I welcome those comments. But my argument will still stand, because camera bodies these days have gotten so good, that you can get into the ballgame with a "lesser" body and a "great" lens, and then once you can afford it, buy an even more capable "enthusiast-grade" body and then keep your original body as your trusty back-up. Or, as many photographers I know like to do, you can use the first body on which to keep your favorite prime lens attached, and keep the big-deal zoom on your new enthusiast camera.

For a classic sports and wildlife combination somewhat close to the $1500 mark, you could grab an original Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 for $1250, and then add a Canon T5 for only $399. Or grab an Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro for $1399 and add an Olympus E-PL7 for just $399. And for landscape and architectural work you could buy a Nikon 10-24mm DX for $900 and still have plenty left over for a Nikon D5500, which is an incredibly capable camera as we found in our field testing.

1/1000s / f/2 / -1.0 EV / ISO 320

So there you have it! No kit lenses made for enthusiast-grade cameras can offer a wide aperture like f/1.8, nor the sharpness of a lens such as this one. And for anyone who loves landscapes, you'll likely want something wider than a kit lens can go, or longer for those of you interested in wildlife shooting. Start with your lens of choice and build your rig from there - if you take good care of them, they'll last you a long time and deliver the images you're after.

Sony 55mm f/1.8 FE ReviewSony A5100 Review • Gallery

(Images have been resized to fit this page and tweaked in post, primarily to balance shadows and highlights. The original, full resolution images are now available in our Sony A5100 gallery with "55mm" in the filename.)


•  •  •


Caffeine Priority is a new series of short photo-tidbits to ease you into your day, and give us a chance to share a bit more of what life’s like here at IR. We're more like a group of friends testing and talking about cameras and lenses than the buttoned-down, big-corporation world that some of our photo-friends at other companies work in; hopefully these little snippets will share some of that. So... grab another coffee and join in the conversation with us down below!

1/30s / f/1.4 / -0.3 EV / ISO 800