Lens or Camera:
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If you're on a budget, should you spend more money on the lens or on the camera?
Should you get a better camera body today and wait for a better lens later, or should you get the lens you want today and wait for a better body?
Easy and timeless answer: always put your money into your lenses. This is because lenses have far more to do with picture quality and ease of use, and because lenses retain their monetary and photographic value indefinitely while camera bodies become worth little in a few years.
Whatever lens you buy today you'll probably still be using in five or ten years. You'll wanting to trade in your digital camera in not more than 18 months, while the best lenses will still be current for years.
The dumbest thing I've seen people do is buy a top camera and put a cheap lens on it. I've cringed for decades every time I see someone with a Nikon F5, a $1,500 camera in its day, with a no-name zoom on it. Today the F5 is only worth several hundred dollars, but any of the f/2.8 zooms you could have gotten with it are still still worth, used, about what they cost back in 1999, and these lenses will be perfect on the new Nikon D3. The Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 I bought back in 2000 is still the best and most practical wide zoom for the D3 today.
Camera companies spare no expense in pushing new cameras on us, but don't push the lenses very much. This hurts us all, because the best way to spend limited funds it to get the very best lenses but the cheapest bodies. This applied in the days of film, and applies even more strongly today as we all fill our digital camera dumpsters.
I'm going to explain this today, and even Ansel Adams wrote this decades ago. Ansel wrote that a first-class lens always holds its value, so it really doesn't cost you anything after you've sold it. I agree: always buy the best lenses you can, and don't worry about the camera body.
Not only are good lenses the best investment financially; great lenses are also more important to making great images than cameras.
I'll speak mostly about Nikon, but this applies everywhere. I'll mention Canon and view cameras at the bottom.
Reality back to top
Think about even the past few years of history. The hottest lenses of today are at least a couple of years old. I bought my Nikon 18-200mm VR back in 2005, and it's still the #1 lens to get for any DX Nikon camera, even tomorrow's D300.
The most practical long zoom for Nikon is still the 1990s 80-400mm VR, and the very best and most practical wide zoom for the D3 is still the1990s 17-35mm f/2.8 AF-S. The 80-200mm f/2.8 AF-S I bought new in 1999 is going to work spectacularly on my D3, lacking only the VR of the newest 70-200 VR.
Cameras have always gone obsolete and become less valuable much faster than lenses. This is particularly painful today, where I have a drawer full of obsolete digital bodies like my D70, which are newer than the lenses I use today and will use tomorrow on my D300 and D3.
The best lenses cost you nothing, because they remain useful and often can be sold for what you paid for them in the future. This is especially true with Nikon lenses, most of which are compatible with most Nikon Cameras made in the past 50 years. (See my Nikon Lens Compatibility Table.)
I've made money when I sell my lenses just as often as I've lost it. Try that with cameras.
Invest in Lenses, not Stocks back to top
Never cheat yourself out of a lens you deserve. The very best and weirdest lenses often will appreciate in value.
I've always been very frugal. As a college kid, I could have afforded a new Nikon 300mm f/2.8 in the early 1980s, but didn't spend the $1,500 it would have cost me brand new from NYC. If I had, I could have sold it used for about $3,000 ten years later as the prices rose. I would have had a great lens to enjoy, and could have doubled my money. This would have paid me more cash profit than traditional financial investments, and money serves no purpose while it's invested in financial markets.
Since I know where to get the best prices on my lenses, especially the ones you can't find at retail, I sometimes can sell them locally for more than I paid for them after many years. I've sold most of my weirder lenses for more than I've paid for them.
I'm glad I bought a used Nikon 28mm f/1.4 AF back in 1999 for just under $1,000. I had lusted after one ever since it was introduced in 1993, although it was Nikon's very most expensive lens short of the f/2.8 super telephotos. I had always been too cheap to drop about $1,800 on a new 28mm f/1.4.
If I had bought one for $1,800 back in 1993, I would have gotten an extra six years of use out of it instead of having waited to find a used one.
Better still, since the 28mm f/1.4 AF is one of those incredible lenses that has no current equivalent, even I'm amazed today that it sells used for about $3,000. I've had people offer me $3,500 for mine, but I turn them down out of common sense. $3,500? Are we kidding?
As I hope this shows, if I paid more attention to my intuition, I would have bought a pallet of them back when they were in production.
I lost most of my money in the great tech stock crash of 2000. The NASDAQ peaked at over 5,000 and everyone was buying tech stocks because they smelled a fast profit. The NASDAQ crashed to about 1,200, and as of 2007 is still at half what it was in 2000. If I put my money into good lenses back then, I would have made money today instead of losing it all. Fools like me who put their money in the stock market still haven't gotten it back.
Today some people buy lenses purely for profit. Unusual lenses like today's Nikon 50mm f/1.2 AI-s lens can still be bought new from New York City for $430, and then ignorant people pay $500 for them a week later on eBay.
As every responsible art dealer will tell you, buy a piece because you love it. Never expect to turn a profit. If you do, great, but don't expect it. Get lenses if they help you make better pictures, but never expect to earn money on them.
Obsolescence back to top
All brands of view camera lenses fit all view cameras since the 1800s. There's no problem here: just get the right lens board and you're set. Linhof's newest Technika IV lens board came out in 1956, and is still used today, so even old lensboards are often compatible.
Nikon SLRs and lenses are very compatible across almost 50 years. See my Nikon Lens Compatibility Chart.
All Canon AF (EF) lenses are compatible with all their AF EOS film and digital cameras made since 1985. There is no need for a chart; they just work.
The bad news is that in order to have today's perfect compatibility, Canon orphaned all their manual-focus FD cameras and lenses. Canon used to promote their FD (manual) lenses as "timeless," but then dumped them in favor of the new, improved but completely incompatible EOS AF mount of 1985 through today. Old Canon FD lenses and bodies don't have much value today, compared to Nikon.
Tomorrow always holds surprises, but don't let the fear of the unknown prevent you from seeing the obvious: good lenses have always been good investments.
Today's Best Investments back to top
The best investment is the lens that lets you make the pictures you want. Never be cheap with lenses, because they will be with you for years to come.
Cameras are always one-upped every few years, but lenses take much longer.
Just as often as new lenses are improved, sometimes older great lenses go away. Nikon no longer makes its very best high speed aspherical NOCT-Nikkor 58mm f/1.2 and 28mm f/1.4 AF. Each of these was so expensive in its time that few people bought them. When all the people who wanted them had them, sales dropped, and Nikon discontinued them. Now that Nikon makes them no more, they sell for more used than they ever sold for new.
Lenses rarely wear out. Get what you deserve today and enjoy.
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