Jan 2, 2021 | Reviews

Camera Upgrades | Should I Upgrade My Camera Body or My Lens First?

Ralph

Ralph

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So you are looking to upgrade your camera gear, but where would it be smartest to spend that money?  Should you be looking at a sexy new camera body or look to upgrade your glass?  Read on to find out!

One of the first questions most beginners will have in photography is where to spend money first.  Everyone that gets passionate about photography wants to invest in new gear, but there is a good way and a bad way to go about investing in your photography.

Upgrade your glass first

If you have a decent camera body, or even if you are using a beginner’s camera body, you will probably want to invest in better lenses first.  This is an almost always kind of thing.  Chances are the camera body you have, unless it is decades old, will be quite capable of capturing good images.  If you have one of the below cameras (or similar) work on getting new lenses since that is where you will see the most impact on your images.

  • Canon Rebel line
  • Canon 60D and up
  • Nikon D3000 series and up
  • Any of the Sony mirrorless cameras with an E mount
  • Any of the Fuji X mount cameras
  • Lumix, you probably want to have an L-mount camera body, since that is the newest generation.

If you are using a full-frame body, chances are you don’t need this guide.  If you have come into possession of a full-frame camera body, check the list below.  Chances are you will be fine also.

  • Canon 5D Mark II and up, 6D Mark II and up, 1D Mark II or 1DX and up.
  • Any Canon R series (R, RP, R5, R6, etc.)
  • Nikon D3 or D600 and up
  • Any Nikon Z series
  • Any Sony Ax series (A7, A9, etc.  NOTE: Not the A77 or A99)

To be honest, I’ve shot some outstanding photos with a Canon 30D, which is now about 14 years old.  An image from that old 30D will still look great, unless the image is zoomed way, way in revealing the lack of megapixels.  If you zoom in far enough (pixel peep) on an image from any camera, it will pixelate.

In short, if your camera doesn’t have an interchangeable lens system, it’s time to replace it.  If it is using an old, obsolete lens mount system, it’s time to replace it.  Other than that, shoot the body you have.  I have a camera body article for 2021 available here.

What kind of lenses should I look to upgrade to?

If you have a camera body with a kit lens on it, which is usually very light, cheaply made and in the range of 18-55 mm of focal length, it is time to upgrade that thing!  Don’t get me wrong, those kit lenses can put out some very nice photos, the only problem with them is they are so slow.  

A slow lens means they have a smaller aperture, meaning they won’t let in as much light as a faster lens will.  That means you will have a harder time trying to photograph in low-light situations.

The aperture also controls the depth of field, which means how much of the view is in focus.  

But don’t I want the whole image in focus?

If you are trying to document a crime scene, then yes you do.  Even with a very fast lens, you can still keep the entire scene in focus.  If you want to be creative with your photography, then you might want to blur part of the photo to draw the viewer’s attention to a particular part.  

As humans, our eyes will be drawn to the area of a photo with a sharp focus, versus an area that is out of focus.  This separates the subject from the background and makes the subject stand out.  It’s a common thing to see with professional portrait photography.

Infographic explaining depth of field and the corresponding aperture values with their effect on blur and light

For a fast lens, we are looking for a lower f-number.  Therefore, an f1.8 is a lower number than an f5.6.  That f1.8 is a faster lens because it lets in more light per second.  An 18-55mm f5.6 is not a very fast lens.

There are also some lenses that will have a variable aperture depending on the focal length.  The Canon 10-18mm f4.5-5.6 is a decent beginner wide-angle lens, but it isn’t very fast.  I used one for real estate photography and the speed didn’t matter to me as I typically shot at around f7.1, quite a bit slower than the maximum aperture of 4.5-5.6.

CANON 10-18 PRODUCT HERE

Keep in mind that as you look at lenses with lower and lower f-stop numbers (which means larger and larger apertures – I know it sounds backwards) the price tends to go up.  If you are looking at variable focal lengths with a fast aperture, the price goes way up.  I’ll show some good selections of both.

I will focus on Canon lenses in this article since that is what I shoot with.  You will be able to find similar lenses for your camera if you are using something other than Canon.  The prices won’t be the same, but the relative distance between a fast prime and a fast variable will.  Canon lenses generally will produce great results and sharp images.

I will focus solely on Canon EF mounts for DSLR cameras and Canon RF mounts for mirrorless cameras.

Two basic lens types

Prime lenses

A prime lens is simply a lens that has but one focal length.  For example a 50mm prime lens.  You put that lens on your camera and it is set to 50mm.  Nothing more or less.  Want to zoom in?  Walk closer to your subject.  Want to zoom out?  Walk away from your subject.

They still have autofocus and usually, everything else works the same way as a variable lens except no zoom.  As a side note, prime lenses are usually very, very sharp lenses.  They don’t have as many moving parts and fewer lens elements to distort the image.  They are also usually much cheaper for the same aperture size.

Variable focal length lenses

These are the lenses that most people think about when discussing camera lenses.  These lenses have a zoom ring on them that increases or decreases the focal length, which is to say it zooms in and zooms out.  These can be quite pricey when looking at lenses with a large maximum aperture.

EF mount lenses

Canon 50mm f1.8 – The Nifty Fifty (EF mount)

The Canon 50mm f1.8, also known as the Nifty Fifty is a fantastic lens, to begin with.  First of all, it is cheap.  It is the cheapest fast prime lens you will see on a Canon.  It is a fantastic lens to purchase as a first upgrade.  Being a prime (fixed focal length) it will make you think about your subject composition more than working with a variable focal length lens.  If you want a little more speed out of the lens, Canon also makes a 50mm f1.4 for about 3x the price.

The f1.8 aperture on this lens will get you some nice background blur on your portraits.  Just make sure you focus on the subject’s eye if you are shooting with the aperture at maximum, as the depth of field can get pretty thin.

Canon 24mm f2.8 (EF mount)

The Canon 24mm f2.8 is known as a “pancake” lens because it is shorter than it is wide and, well, resembles a pancake.  Having an f2.8 aperture, the lens is quite fast, not as fast as the 50mm above, but still very fast.  There is even a 40mm f2.8 version as well, which would be a better fit on a full-frame camera body.

This makes a great wide-angle walkabout lens.  Many great photos have been shot on a 24 mm lens.  This lens is quite a bit wider than the 50mm above without being close to a fisheye lens with lots of distortion.  The price just doesn’t get much better than this.

Canon 70-200 f4 (EF mount)

Moving up the price range now, we have the Canon 70-200 f4, which begins to get into the realm of an enthusiast or pro-amateur lens.  Like its more expensive cousin, the Canon 70-200 f2.8, this is a variable focal length lens.  It zooms from 70-200mm making it more practical and handy for shooting sports events where you can’t be close enough to the field to work with one of the other lenses listed above.

There are cheaper variables with high focal lengths available for Canon cameras, such as the Canon 70-300 f4-5.6.  I’ve tried using the cheaper Canon 70-300 f4-5.6 on sporting events and it will work great with an f5.6 aperture during the day, but not at night.  They just won’t gather light at f5.6 the way an f4 lens will.  (NOTE: The Canon 70-300 f4-5.6 only has an f4 aperture at 70mm, once you zoom in the tiniest amount, the lens switches to f5.6)

Canon 60mm f2.8 Macro (EF mount)

The Canon 60mm f2.8 Macro lens is a great lens that can pull double duty.  It can, as its name implies, serve as a macro lens to take very close up photos of things.  Being that it is a fast f2.8 and a 60mm focal length, it can also double as a portrait lens or a walkabout lens.

Canon 24-105mm f4L (EF mount)

This is our first venture into the world of Canon “L” series lenses with the Canon 24-105mm f4L.  The L series is Canon’s professional series of lenses.  You can count on this lens to have superb build quality as well as image quality.  This is an amazing general purpose lens to have on your camera, capable of a wide range of photography work.  

The less expensive (and slower) Canon 28-135mm f3.5-5.6 is a cheaper general-purpose alternative that will sacrifice performance for a lower price.

RF mount lenses

These are lens suggestions for Canon mirrorless camera bodies such as the Canon R, the RP, the R5, and R6.  These lenses are not compatible with EF-M series camera bodies like the M50 or M6 series.

Canon 50mm f1.8 – The Nifty Fifty (RF mount)

The Canon 50mm f1.8, also known as the Nifty Fifty is a fantastic lens, to begin with.  First of all, it is cheap.  It is the cheapest fast prime lens you will see on a Canon.  It is a fantastic lens to purchase as a first upgrade.  Being a prime (fixed focal length) it will make you think about your subject composition more than working with a variable focal length lens.

The f1.8 aperture on this lens will get you some nice background blur on your portraits.  Just make sure you focus on the subject’s eye if you are shooting with the aperture at maximum, as the depth of field can get pretty thin.

Canon EOS-R lens mount adapter

And this is pretty much all that is left for beginners with the Canon RF mount.  The Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R allows the user to mount EF lenses to a Canon RF mount camera body.  Since the RF mount is new, and Canon has focused mostly on professional lenses, most of the lenses produced for the RF mount are very expensive and not what beginners are generally looking to spend.  The lens mount adapter is a compromise if you own one of the Canon Rf mount mirrorless camera bodies.

The adapter should sell for about $99 at the time of this writing, but is out of stock everywhere I have looked, so I will not link it here.  The only options for this mount right now seem to be fake adapters and used items being sold as new.  Buyer beware and trust your sources.

Conclusion

There are some great lenses that you can buy to upgrade your camera equipment without breaking the bank.  Lens upgrades will definitely give you the most improvement in your photography capability, given you are working with a decent, modern camera body.  Very few camera body upgrades will have as much impact on your photos and your photography experience as upgrading one or more of the lenses on this list.

If you liked the article, please leave a comment below.  If you would like to see a topic covered here, be sure to leave a suggestion in the link in the menu up top.  Until next time, go take some pictures!

Ralph

Ralph

Ralph is an avid photographer in his spare time. He spends a lot of his photography time shooting sports photos of his daughter, who plays softball and swims. He also has a keen interest in mobile photography.

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