Why You Should Spend Big on the Camera, Not the Glass

Why You Should Spend Big on the Camera, Not the Glass

"Splash on the glass" or so goes the time-worn mantra. Has the market flipped, and is that the right advice anymore?

There's no getting around the fact that lenses are expensive. Actually, that's not strictly true: the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 costs only $125, while the Holga is a trifling $20. The latter is less than going for a coffee and cake with your partner.

Lens Pricing

However, when I say lenses are expensive, I'm not talking about plastic lenses or the simplest of glass designs. No, these are fast glass, often at longer focal lengths, or zooms. Take, for example, the 85mm, a popular focal length for portraits: if you invest in the budget version, such as the Nikon 85mm f/1.8, it will set you back a moderate $423. However, that might not be fast enough for your tastes; at which point, step up to the Canon 85mm f/1.2 ,which costs a fair bit more at $2,000. Move on to medium format, such as the Fuji GF 110mm f/2.0, and the price jumps to $2,800. The general principle, however, is that the bigger the mount (the Fuji G is 62 mm compared to 50.6 mm for the Canon RF), the bigger the lens, so the more glass you will need. Throw in a little more technology, such as Canon's RF defocus smoothing version of the 85 mm f/1.2, and it increases the price to $3,000!

Moving up a notch, you could always go to the extravagant — and eye-wateringly expensive — Nikkor 58 mm f/0.95 Noct, at a wallet-busting $8,000. But then, manufacturing a top-end lens is expensive, as this Leica video shows.

The profit margins on lenses are variable, but can be less than 10% for the retailer. For the manufacturer, it is much more difficult to know, although high-ticket items generally have healthy returns. This is one of the reasons that manufacturers have been retreating from the decimated high-volume, low-price sector usurped by the smartphone, focusing instead upon lower volumes and higher quality. Lenses also have an expectation of longevity, the principle reason for a vibrant secondhand market with robust prices that only gradually fall away from the new price.

The Camera Market

Lenses are a big investment, and it is for this reason that Nikon was wed to its F mount for so long: they last a long time, and if a user buys into a system (with its incumbent mount), then they expect to be able to continue using it. In short, lenses tie users into a manufacturer's system, and over the lifetime of a lens purchase, you expect multiple camera purchases. In fact, this has probably increased in the digital age of faster design times and shorter periods for iteration to the next camera body.

However, this fact highlights one of the key characteristics of the modern camera market and, in fact, consumer electronics more widely. The pace of technological innovation is rapid and is the result of a number of factors. The first of these is the free market with open competition between businesses. The focus has traditionally been upon profit, achieved through a combination of selling more products (because they are cheaper and/or better), higher profit margins, or lower production costs than your competitors.

In short, build a camera, sell the heck out of it until you lose competitive advantage, then build a better camera to supersede it. Or as Sony does, continue selling the old model at a lower price. This requires constant R&D to develop products, along with efficient production systems.

The second factor is globalization, where capitalism allows you to expand sales to the global market, selling widely. The combination of these two factors leads to complex business systems, which manage product development, supply chains, and production. This is something that Apple mastered, which in combination with high profit margins, has led to large cash surpluses. It is also something that Toyota is renowned for with its Toyota Production System (TPS), or kanban, where production is designed to exactly meet supply, all the while iterating over product improvement.

Businesses therefore have an intrinsic inbuilt motivation to increase sales. Providing newer, better products is one method, while creating obsolescence is another. The smartphone sector is particularly adept at deploying these strategies — just look at how rapidly phones become unsupported. I sometimes wonder if the tech sector works on the principle of "buy today, so that it is defunct, redundant, or obsolete tomorrow."

What this means is that products change quickly, and where there once was an impetus to support aging devices, this no longer holds true. In fact, manufacturers are not averse to killing products and changing strategies. Google has a long track record of software it has jettisoned (the Google Graveyard has a full list).

Innovation

So where has the real innovation come from in the camera sector? Without a doubt, the products that have been most high profile for consumers have been camera bodies with developments that include full digital, component miniaturization, the mirrorless form factor, IBIS, WiFi/Bluetooth, touchscreens, in-camera raw processing, video output, high frame rates, focus tracking, on-sensor focusing, focus by wire, and EVF. That's not to say that there haven't been developments in lens design and production, enabling smaller lenses, lighter designs, and sharper images, but they are far less obvious to the end user.

All of this innovation comes at a price, as camera bodies are relatively high-ticket items with rapid depreciation. But here's the rub: as a pro, you can leverage innovation for a competitive advantage, which means having the latest camera can be a valuable commodity, be it the high frame rates of the Sony a9 II9, remarkable color depth of the PhaseONE XT, or video capabilities of the Panasonic GH5.

Buy the body, take the financial hit to do what others can't, but rent the lenses. The marginal cost on a shoot is low, but the return on investment is high. You may find there is one lens you shoot with so often that it is worth buying, but try to think long-term. This is not an investment in a particular system, but simply buying a manufacturer's capabilities at a single point in time. By not buying glass, you can easily switch systems, selling the body to maximize any return. In fact, go the whole hog and rent the camera body as well. That way, you get genuine flexibility.

Of course, this is exactly what manufacturers don't want you to do. Having a 70-200 mm f/2.8 sitting in the houses of 10 pros unused for 250 days a year is a great way to sell more lenses. It's for this reason that Lens Rentals has been so successful, celebrating their millionth rental in March 2020.

For may pros working on jobs that don't require that extra special spicy sauce of the latest camera, they simply drop back to a "yesterday system camera" using relatively cheap standby lenses. Fstoppers' Nando Harmsen suggests thinking hard about the features you need in a camera before buying. Moving beyond renting, leasing has become more common across high-price items such as cars. Will we see a similar move with cameras?

Will you be renting or buying your next lens?

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23 Comments

Usman Dawood's picture

There are now so many brilliant and inexpensive lenses on the market. I think you're absolutely right. With my Sony camera I bought the best, cheapest lenses I could buy. The 28mm f2 is just incredible and it only cost me £250. I think you might be right to some extent, it's probably worth spending more money on the camera instead of the lens.

Tom Reichner's picture

I read your entire article, looking for at least something, somewhere, that you wrote that I can agree with ..... something that applies to me and what I shoot and the way I shoot it. Couldn't find one single point of yours that would make any sense at all for me.

I shoot year round, rarely ever going more than 3 days without shooting. Renting would be preposterously expensive and inconvenient for me, as I would need to constantly have lenses being shipped to me as frequently as people used to have Netflix videos mailed to them!

Plus, I pretty much use the same two lenses all the time, anyway ..... why the freaking hell would I rent a lens for 300 days a year, year in and year out, when I can just buy it for about 1% of what all those damn rental fees would add up to?

As far as spending more for the body than the lens, that would be flat-out asinine for me to do, being as I use an $8,000 lens as my primary, everyday lens, and the everyday lens before that was a $6,400 lens. Hell if I'm going to spend over $8,000 on a camera body when a $2,000 body suits my needs very well.

I wish that you would have written at least something - anything - that would have made some sense to me. Seems like when you write, you are assuming that your readership uses cameras and lenses in a certain way. You should not assume this. Don't assume anything, or what you write can end up being very, very incorrect and nonsensical.

Not to mention...a $200 lens on a $5,000 camera gives you a $200 camera.

Uneternal Van de Dood's picture

Couldn't agree more. That article makes absolutely no sense. Put a $56 Yongnuo lens on your $2000 camera and your camera is worth sh**. Put a $1500 lens on a $250 body and you get the greatest shots.
And it's not even that black and white, there are great lenses like the Sigma Art series, which just set you back $600-$1000 which is not that bad.

And why would you rent the lens and buy a camera body? Camera bodys are outdated after a few years, even an 1DX Mark I is super outdated nowadays - just 8 years later.
Lenses however have a much longer life cycle, even today people still use premium lenses from the M42 and Canon FD era, or even lenses like the famous Canon 50mm f0.95 "dream lens" from the 1960's.

Kurt Hummel's picture

So instead of spending $11,500 on my Canon 600/4 IS II three years ago I should've bought a Opteka 420-800 F8.3 for $200 to mount on my 5dsr and 1dx2 .I'm sure that would've let me get the most out of those 50 megapixels for my wildlife shots or take advantage of the 1dx2 auto focus speed.

Or if I rented the Canon 600/4 for all my shooting the cost would be higher than buying it between the rental cost and insurance for the rental period.

I'm not buying the logic that the best, latest, greatest camera give someone a competitive advantage. It can be true but ultimately THE competitive advantages are talent and marketing IMO. People with those skills, great glass with 1 generation old bodies will spend less money and continue to keep their real competitive advantages IMO.

Jozef Povazan's picture

Why You Should Spend Big on the Camera, Not the Glass. What a title and a s***y statement! the stars are for sLOPy not *HIT* statement! Why would you spend at all big $$$ when you need them for something more important these days! Have been using D4s camera body with 500K shutter and 24-70 and 70-200 VR II for years and they still deliver and make income for us. Lenses are above cameras, period. You will change body more often then a lens. period. You do not need all the newest tech if you can achieve what you and your client want to have as results!.... Save cash guys you will need it these 2 years. If anyone thinks this virus crisis is over in a month or two than you are naive. We are in global meltdown and pushing articles about spending on useless things such extra gear is absurd IMO. Happy shooting everyone, and stay safe if you still work since this Sars 2 does not know borders! Cheers.

I agree. posting articles like "Spend Big" in this time is insensitive and ridiculous
as well, I always invest in glass. any camera body released in the last few years is more then enough for great IQ. glass is clearly the difference for outcome

Ryan Ringstad's picture

Ummm good glass hardly depreciates. In the end you save more vs renting for anything you’re somewhat regularly using.

I logged in, just to comment that this post is utter BS. The general rule in photography, lens is more important than a camera body. You can buy an expensive body with all the bells and whistles, and in the end the crappy lens you use is exactly what that will let you down. I've seen my own photos improve night and day just from buying better lenses than are more expensive.

This kind of advice right here will make everyone go out and buy a Sony A7iii or A7R4 and then stick a shiitty kit lens on it because they have no budget left for lenses. People who do this sort of thing will never be a good photographer. I said it - never.

Why does fstoppers publish rubbish photography advices like this? I've lost all my respect for this site.

If you look at the prices you can resell lenses against bodies you can understand that this article does not make sense. Yes, if I move on to Canon mirrorless I will continue using mt EF lenses as much as I can. And I cannot imagine having to deal with lens availability when I want to go out and shoot.

The only scenario where rental makes sense is the case of videographers renting according to customer requests in the case of very expensive equipment. This article is not very useful, it just puts forward a non-logical view so that people engage to read.

On the contrary! Buy things which will last long (F-mount lenses) and rent things which will be replaced by better things in the near future or things you cannot afford. But since 2012 image sensors only got marginally better. So you could extend (the tax consultants opinion let aside) the write down and get away much cheaper than renting.
And you did not mention the effort to call the store if your lens is available and then to get it and to bring it back. What about the risk getting a faulty lens? It could be a bad copy, having back focus issues.
I'd rent lenses only which I could not afford or would very rarely use.

for a hobbyist or part time shooter, I could say yes. For a working pro, between november 1 and March 1 I shot 67 sporting events..then Covid-19... My rental costs would be insane. Remotes, grip, etc. Lenses hold value better and will outlast any body. I do rent some lenses, tilt shift for example, But my main gear I own all of it. (4 bodies and 7 lenses).

barry cash's picture

This is completely opposite of Leicas marketing which is why I sold off my Leica system twice. Once because I was frustrated with the exceptional low hit rate, then when the M240 was released I jumped back in again only to Sell it off for a final time. Now they released a S3 yes it will do the job and yes some of the CS glass is superior but the camera lacks.

There is a meaning to this article! I think the way to look at what all of us want as photographers is a camera body that makes our job not only less troublesome and time consuming but a camera that combined with the right glass can offer the easiest road to fine captures. Be it integrated focus stacking, overpowering the sun with flash sync ar 1/2000sec, AF that with the right glass gets a 99% hit rate, internal one shot dynamic range bracketing (hdr), Long batter life, low light capabilities and the list goes on. This is the photographers quest a dream or obsession that was made possible by technology and we all want it.

But you can now buy lenses that are incredible for cheap that render amazingly either AF or MF that were and still are best in class just given up for the latest and greatest.

But I tell you this to those who wonder or those whom haven’t even conceived the the capture to large print nothing beats a really large sensor, 16bit and good glass. Forget about it don’t wonder, files produced by these cameras barely need To be touched to be brilliant.

So yes the camera makes a difference? Our vision of the final image though still Trumps the camera and lens!

Dan Marchant's picture

Sorry but just.... wrong. The items you should spend money on that will actually improve the quality of your images are...
Your brain.
Your glass.

Expensive camera bodies are more robust, more configurable, have some better features. They make it easier to take the same photo, they don't make the photo better.

Gil Aegerter's picture

This would make sense if you shoot video or need a specialized lens (someone above mentioned tilt-shift) our staff photographer is shooting an older 1DX in our COVID coverage and getting extraordinary images. With so much of consumption being on the web, newer cameras' advantages are blunted. Here's one of Megan's images. https://twitter.com/_megan_farmer/status/1240005855224815616?s=19

Optics are the biggest factor in determining image quality so no, I'd rather buy a cheaper body and a better lens than the other way around. Besides, from an investment standpoint, a lens will carry you through multiple bodies so it makes more sense to spend on the thing that will be with you longer. That being said, there are plenty of great third party options on the market right now so you don't actually have to spend an arm and a leg for a great lens these days.

If you are going to spend the money on the best body, you will also spend the money on the appropriate lenses for your needs. Your logic is about as sound as an ex-wife who once told me shortly after we bought a new car, that we should rent a car for trips. She still had a hard time reconciling the rental cost versus the total cost per mile of ownership. I could see renting a specialty lens that does not warrant the cost of owing given how much it may be used. However, if you use it enough, then buy it.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Article is pretty illogical.

1. You're assuming the rental place will have the lenses you need. Yes, most likely. But, what if they don't.

2. If rental is not local, you're assuming the delivery service will arrive on time. No doubt they mostly do. But, recently this happened to me. FedEx delivered a day late even though they had the lens 4 days just 30 minutes from my house. Now, to ensure this doesn't happen again, I'd have to set the delivery date 2 days prior to the shoot date, which means I have to pay an extra day rental. Or, pay extra for some guaranteed delivery.

3. This is probably one of the more dumber statements, ....

"You may find there is one lens you shoot with so often that it is worth buying, but try to think long-term. This is not an investment in a particular system, but simply buying a manufacturer's capabilities at a single point in time. By not buying glass, you can easily switch systems..."

....What if you have no plans of switching systems. So, if a lens you shoot often costs $2000, don't buy it? Instead, rent it? Just keep renting it even though you've accrued rental fees beyond $2000? Lol, makes no sense. smh

Renting is great for those one-off or infrequent needs; or if you can get someone else to pay for it. :D

Tom Reichner's picture

You're right, Eddie, the article is illogical. Most of us "real photographers" use our lenses at least twice a week, almost every week of the year. I can't even imagine how much money we would have to spend if we were renting lenses on a perpetual basis. Plus, I don't think it is even possible to rent a lens for a full year, and if it was, it would cost far more than just buying the lens. It just doesn't make any sense, no matter how you look at it. He may be talking about very inactive hobbyists, who only shoot a few times a year ...... but those are not the people that one will find reading the articles on this website. The author failed to assess the habits and tendencies of his readership.

You are absolutely right. I am hobbyist and I have about $30K in my cameras and lenses at purchase price. Worth about half if I decided to sell them all. Not life changing at all. But if I decided to sell some of my lenses that I don't use often I would get few thousand dollars that is absolutely minuscular amount (at least in USA). I went thru four generations of Sony A7 cameras and still have and like the very first FF lens I bought - 55/1.8 Zony. I will keep buying newer bodies in a future but probably not much in terms of lenses because I already have just about every lens I could use (between primes and zooms I have a dozen) and because they are high quality lenses. All of my lenses work great on my newest 61MP body. When you already own high quality lenses it makes it that much easier to make a decision to upgrade your body.Only time I ever rented a lens is to evaluate a new lens to see if I like it or not.

adam carter's picture

Lease maybe, not sure about renting for regular daily usage, it would be too expensive. If you’re a working pro you specialise in a certain type of photography, you’re using the same camera and few lenses constantly. Sure rent lights and studio equipment when you need for a certain job. That being said the exception would be for a Hasselblad or phase one, where renting is definitely the best way. But for day today I’m sure your return on investment would be better buying or leasing.