Home How-To Tip Of The Week Should you upgrade your camera or your lens?—01/30/12
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Monday, January 30, 2012

Should you upgrade your camera or your lens?—01/30/12

How to decide which important purchase is best for you.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Lots of folks have the same question for me when they find out I'm a professional photographer: which camera should I buy? Recently, though, a friend posed to me a considerably more interesting and challenging question: should I buy a new camera or a new lens? Boy, that's a tough call.

The question gets easier when money's no object, but in most cases it's an either/or proposition. So what do you do when you've saved up some extra cash—but only some—and you're itching to upgrade your kit? Just like the "which camera" question, it turns out you've got some options to consider before you make what amounts to a very personal decision. Here are the questions I'd recommend you ask of yourself when trying to prioritize your purchase.

1. How experienced are you? If you've got years of photography under your belt, you've got a better chance of enjoying a subtly better lens than a newbie would. Whereas the newbie might be a bit more wowed by camera features that increase comfort and convenience. At the same time, if you've outgrown the feature set of your camera—say, you want a PC connection or a camera with a faster frame rate—you'll likely want to consider upgrading the camera. Another way to ask this is, "What's been frustrating you?" If it's sharpness, choose the lens. If it's functionality, choose the camera.

2. How many lenses do you own? If you've got a camera bag full of lenses, and if you don't hate them, maybe upgrade your camera. (That said, if you've got too many lenses you could consider consolidating a few into one new one. Just to muddy the waters.) If, however, you've only got one or two lenses and you frequently find yourself longing for another focal length, by all means buy the lens. Do you have both primes and zooms? If not, consider filling in the gaps in your gear bag with a lens that you don't already have. (You can also ask the same question of your camera; if you own a couple of them already and a new D-SLR would serve only as a backup or a subtle upgrade, maybe you'd be better served by a new lens.)

3. How old is your current equipment? If the camera is more than three years old, you may want to consider a new one. Cameras seem to evolve in greater leaps much faster than lenses. If it's more than five years old, I'd say it's time to definitely upgrade the camera. That said, if you're strapping on ancient non-digital glass that happens to fit your lens mount, I say upgrade the glass to a designed-for-digital option as quickly as possible. And don't forget when it comes to significant resolution increases you're also dramatically increasing file sizes—which may require you to upgrade your aging computer as well in order to process your new camera files correctly. Sometimes a camera upgrade also requires a computer upgrade, so if that's not appealing you know which decision to make.

4. What's the use? Are you a budding professional, constantly looking to improve the sharpness and quality of your pictures? Have you ever complained about sharpness in an image? Or maybe you make big prints, or deliver digital files to critical clients. If you've advanced to a level of photography in which fine sharpness and detail are starting to hold you back, consider an upgrade to your lens collection. Likewise, if those big prints you're making aren't quite big enough, a new D-SLR with a higher resolution might solve the perceived sharpness issue, and would certainly allow you to make bigger and better prints. This one's a tougher choice, because both lenses and cameras have a huge affect on the print size and quality you'll be able to deliver. Better start saving again.

5. What about the wow factor? Sometimes we read about a new piece of gear—whether it's camera or lens—and it simply speaks to us. If you find yourself feeling strangely drawn to a camera or a lens, I say buy the thing. You're bound to be happy with your purchase, even if you eventually outgrow it or even if it isn't the most practical item in your kit. The reverse scenario is bound to leave you regretting your decision to not buy that great piece of gear when you had the chance. I'm lamented more purchases I skipped than those I've made.

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