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I was reading this question and recalled how often I hear the advice "choose your lenses and then choose the body that matches" in the context of deciding on a camera platform (Nikon/Canon/Pentax/Sony, etc).

I shoot Nikon and so I study a lot about Nikon-compatible lenses. From what I see though, Canon seems to have an equivalent lens for most Nikon lenses. For example, there's the nifty fifties and the pro midrange zooms. On top of that, there's lots of lenses from 3rd-party manufacturers that come in versions for each system/mount.

I agree that lenses are a more important investment than a body; they have a huge impact on image quality and a longer product life cycle. And there's lots of variation between lenses within a platform's offering.

My question is: how much lens difference is there between the different platforms? Do you really pick the lens first and then pick the body that goes with it?

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There is also the point about availability of the lens lineups & platforms in general (accessories, the cameras themselves) across different platforms in many countries. In this regard, the big names like Canon, Nikon & to an extent Sony are quite ubiquitous, while brands like Pentax & Olympus may not be very easily available in some of the developing markets. –  ab.aditya Mar 4 '11 at 3:53
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10 Answers 10

up vote 103 down vote accepted

The lineups have a lot of overlap but there are considerable differences as well:

  • Canon and Nikon have the most lenses by far, followed by Pentax, Sony, Olympus and Panasonic, in this order.
  • Canon has the largest range of focal-lengths, from 8 to 800mm with Nikon a close second, going from 10 to 800mm. This is followed by Pentax with from 10 to 560mm and then Sony with from 10mm to 500mm. Olympus has the shortest lineup, covering 7 to 300mm only.
  • Canon has the most weather-sealed lenses, the most stabilized primes and the most weather-sealed primes. Pentax has the most affordable weather-sealed lenses. Sony and Panasonic have both exactly two weather-sealed lenses, everyone else has more.
  • Pentax has most of the smallest lenses and most of those are of extremely high-quality. Pentax lenses can save size and weight since they only need to be designed for cropped-sensors, although legacy lenses have full-frame coverage.

Specialty lenses:

Keep in mind that only Canon, Nikon and Panasonic need stabilized versions of their lenses, everyone else gets stabilization from the camera body.

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+1 listing the specific differences. –  Craig Walker Mar 1 '11 at 17:25
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+1 This nice summary could save people a lot of research at the outset. –  whuber Mar 1 '11 at 19:07
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+1 The list, though, only touches on the primary providers. Some brand gaps will get covered by secondary options from companies like Sigma (such as going beyond 300mm on the Pentax mount). –  John Cavan Mar 1 '11 at 20:37
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@Philip - Yes, Canon covers a lot of ground. But it should not be about what you CAN do but about what you WANT to do. Weight is a serious concern for many and one reason people go with Pentax. Also, the stabilization issue is big. There are only 3 stabilized lenses apertures wider than F/2.8, if you shoot in extremely low light and you can shoot at F/1.4 with stabilization with Pentax and Sony (also Olympus and Panasonic with third-party lenses). –  Itai Mar 1 '11 at 22:52
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@Jerry - Tied for what? Pentax has a few more lenses, but a shorter range of focal-lengths (10-300 vs 11-500). On the other hand, they have a considerable number of weather-sealed lenses (Sony has zero). More than half of Sony's lenses are full-frame, which means heavy for a cropped-sensor camera ;) BTW, 55mm F1.4 is weather-sealed and super-sonic, while the 50mm F1/4 is neither. I sold the 50mm to fund half of the 55mm, so I know. –  Itai Mar 2 '11 at 13:44

If you're looking at generalities — are there normal-range primes, are there wide zooms, are there telephoto zooms — everyone has it covered. But if you start looking at specifics, there are meaningful differences.

This comes out in three different ways:

  1. Individual quirks of a certain brand's lineup
  2. Availability of niche/special-purpose lenses
  3. Lenses in different price brackets

Lineup Quirks

Pentax is the poster-child of a quirky lineup. Particularly, since they're very committed to APS-C rather than full-frame (steering you to the 645D if you want to go up), many typical lens types only exist in their 35mm-e field-of-view equivalents. For example, there's no 24-70mm / 70-200mm f/2.8 pro lens pair — instead, there's the DA★ 16-50mm and 50-135mm. There's no 85mm f/1.4 portrait lens — instead, there's the DA★ 55mm f/1.4. And the entire DA Limited and FA Limited series of jewel-like primes, with odd focal lengths and max apertures, pretty much trades on quirky.

Conversely, Canon does not offer very many non-entry-level lenses designed for APS-C, preferring to steer people who are interested in investing in lenses towards full frame. Nikon has put more effort into developing modern and interesting entry-level APS-C primes, but the nicer lenses are always full-frame.

Olympus and the Four-Thirds system is also somewhat quirky in the lens lineup, both for sensor-size reasons (there's no "nifty fifty", but there's the form-factor equivalent), and because it's an all-new designed-for-digital system with no legacy considerations (or legacy designs to fill gaps). That last means it's a rather small lineup overall.

And there are random "gaps" in the Big Two's offerings as well. Canon doesn't have a 12-24mm f/4, for example. (There's decent third-party offerings like Tokina's, though. A point, I should add, which also goes for 70-200mm on Pentax.) If some particular focal range or lens type is important to you, make sure to look for it.

Specialty and Niche Lenses

Then, there's the issue of niche lenses. Nikon has three tilt-shift offerings, while Canon has four (including a 17mm); there's nothing in Four-Thirds, and for Pentax or Sony, only third-party options are available. On the other hand, if you want a super-compact and lightweight autofocusing "pancake" style normal lens (which, objectivity disclaimer, is what I use on my camera 90% of the time), Canon hadn't one until 2012 and Nikon doesn't have any, so you need to turn to Pentax or Panasonic/Olympus.

Pricing and Lens Market Tiers

And finally, the price bracket distinction. Canon and Nikon have both the top and the bottom covered, from hundred-dollar 50mm f/1.8 lenses all the way up to the price of a new car.

Seriously — the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM is $11,900 from B&H, and the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4G ED VR is $10,300. Both brands offer half a dozen lenses over $2000, and another dozen-and-a-half between one and two grand.

Pentax doesn't have anything like that — the most expensive lenses they have for sale at B&H are the DA★ 60-250mm f/4 ED and the DA★ 300mm f/4, both of which come in at $1200. (You can order pricer lenses from Pentax Japan, as special build-to-order, but that doesn't really count.) The next-most expensive is the FA 31mm f/1.8, at $965.

Sony is in-between here, with the 300mm f/2.8 G-Series at $6300, and then about a dozen lenses between $1000 and $2000. Olympus too.

At the bottom end, Nikon and Canon again have things covered — cheap primes and zooms for all occasions. Sony too, although the selection is smaller. Pentax doesn't really have that. With the exception of the new cheap-normal DA 35mm f/2.4, they've mostly let those lenses (like the FA 35mm f/2) drop from the lineup.

But that's not the complete story — what Pentax has is a bunch of very nice medium priced lenses, from $340 to $965. Some of these are almost legendary in their optical qualities (and not just among Pentax partisans), but they probably don't compete with the likes of the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.4G. This may go back to "quirky lineup" overall, but basically they don't have super-cheap or super-expensive lenses, but the middle has some unique high-quality lenses.

I don't mean to slant this too personally (or to advocate my own choices for everyone), but on a personal note, lenses that cost over $1000 are nice to drool at, but practically speaking might as well not exist. If this is your bread and butter and those lenses cover your needs, though, definitely make sure not to choose Pentax. Conversely, if you're only going to pick up a few entry-level lenses and don't want to spend $500 for a single prime, Pentax might not be the best choice. Or, if you're just going with the kit lens plus maybe one telephoto zoom, they are fundamentally no different from any of the other major brands and it doesn't matter at all. (Unless you want to go all out collecting manual-focus legacy glass — a different story altogether....) For me, it fits my (saving up a bit!) budget, and I'm not compromising on quality. So, Pentax for me, specifically because their lens lineup is a great fit.

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Good points about pricing. I do find that Sony and Pentax have a two-or-three grade system (good, better, best) while Canon seems to have at least 6 levels of price/quality compromises. Other brands are somewhere in between. –  Itai Mar 1 '11 at 18:11

I picked a brand first.

I went and picked up several different cameras at a local store and compared them physically. Since each brand has technically similar lines, I decided that the ergonomics were a bigger factor than the technical aspects. For me, Canon bodies had a better feel. I have a friend that chose Nikon for the same reason.

I can see the argument for picking based on lenses, but that factor is negligible if you stay to larger brands (Canon, Nikon, and to some extent Pentax), as they all have an extensive lens selection.

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To be honest, I think you've got the right answer - there's no substitute for holding something in your hands and seeing if it feels right. –  AJ Finch Mar 2 '11 at 10:07
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One thing to keep in mind, though, is that usability over a long time (such as the time for which one might own a camera!) are different from first-impressions of ergonomics. While there may be such a thing as love as first sight, it's also true that handing characteristics which seem awful (or great) initially may turn out to be no big deal after a month of use, and there may be wonderful little touches that improve your everyday use which you don't discover until later. –  mattdm Mar 2 '11 at 19:38
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@mattdm That might be true if it were his first SLR. I discovered a lot of nice things on my D90 since I bought it, but the decisive basics like first and foremost the body-handling, then the bright pentaprism-viewfinder, on-top-lcd and fast-access wheels stay more important than the good and bad I found out later. (Took me some weeks to finally decide.) –  Leonidas Mar 3 '11 at 3:14
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@Leonidas — I'm assuming that this will be read by a lot more people than the specific original questioner. And, arguably, those big, basic things you mention don't need handling to discover — you can get a good sense of that level of things simply by reading dpreview (or anywhere else that does that style of review). I'm thinking about, for example, Canon's weird big flat back wheel as opposed to the way Nikon and Pentax do it; for me, that's always been really really awkward — but I bet if someone gave me a 5D MkII I'd get used to it in a month or less. –  mattdm Mar 3 '11 at 3:34
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@Leonidas — We'll have to agree to disagree, then. My point isn't that hands-on experience isn't better than reviews, but rather that in order to really get a proper impression, you need to really use a camera for a while. That's a flaw shared by both handling the camera in a store for a while and the big tech-focused review sites. Ordering something and returning if it doesn't suit is a good approach. In the US, B&H has a policy like that, although the number of exposures you can take before returning is limited without a restocking fee (fair enough). –  mattdm Mar 4 '11 at 2:25

If you're interested in older, manual focus lenses, and not just lenses that are still in production (either because you already have several or, like me, just think they're fun and don't mind that they're typically not as optically sharp as modern lenses):

  • Canon's EOS mount only dates back to the mid-1980s; Nikon's mount and the M42 mount used by Pentax have much older lenses available. So there aren't a lot of old Canon lenses that you can just mount on your Canon camera; there are plenty of old Nikon lenses you can put on your Nikon camera and M42 lenses you can put on your Pentax.

  • Canon's lenses sit closer to the sensor than M42 lenses, which are closer than Nikon lenses. This means that Nikon and M42 lenses can be used on Canon DSLRs with adapters without compromising optical quality or losing infinity focus.

  • Micro four-thirds cameras have the shortest distance from lens sensor of all of them, and can (with mechanical adapters) use virtually any old manual focus lenses, including (I believe) rangefinder lenses.

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if you're going to get into EVIL cameras (rather than actual SLRs) it's probably also worth mentioning that Sony's NEX cameras are pretty much the same as micro-four thirds in terms of short flange distance and being able to accept most lenses. NEX also uses a larger (APS-C) sensor. –  Jerry Coffin Mar 2 '11 at 15:56
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I have a Nikon F and a lot of lenses for it. While the Nikon F mount is the same since the beginning (I think late 50s or early 60s) the fact are that most of my old non-AI lenses will not mount on most modern Nikon bodies. My lenses have the "prong" that was used to couple the lens to the meter on Nikon bodies of the 60s into the mid-70s. The prong will not clear the pentaprism of many modern Nikon bodies. I keep seeing folks say that Nikons use all old F-mount lenses. Its just not true. Lenses made in the past 30 years work. Not all. –  Pat Farrell Aug 24 '12 at 3:03

This is sort of a tangential answer, but I picked the platform first, then specific equipment.

Lenses are a huge part of the platform, to be sure. The lenses offered by the camera manufacturers themselves represent the bulk of this portfolio, but you've also got third-party lenses from Sigma, Tamron, and others. Out of this portfolio, you might find that certain lenses aren't going to work with certain bodies (EF vs. EF-S, or focus motors in lenses vs. bodies, etc.), so the portion of that portfolio that's really available to you might vary depending on your body choice.

But when I picked a platform, I was also aware of the features of the body I was looking at, as well as the potential upgrade path for that body. I bought a used Canon 30D knowing that I'd be able to start buying lenses, batteries, memory cards, etc., and I'd be able to use them with a 40D or a 50D later. That was an important part of my "platform" choice (I've since moved up to the 40D, btw).

The choice for me ended up being not just about the specific equipment I was buying on day 1, but more about how much flexibility I could see in my future options.

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With quality 3rd party lenses from Sigma and Tokina (mainly, there are a few Tamrons that aren't too bad either), you can cover most of the focal length range covered by the branded lenses using 3rd party lenses on any body almost (the ranges these brands offer on minor camera brands like Pentax and Olympus may be only a subset of their total lineup though, you'd have to check).

As to the smallest lineup of lenses for SLRs, that's probably Leica :)

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In addition to the variations in lens lineups, focal length ranges, and available features (for example image stabilization or weather sealing) that others have mentioned, there's a lot to be said for preferences of the look of the images that come from a lens. Lens designs can emphasize different elements of a photographic image that people might find appealing and can drive their purchasing decisions.

Some lenses deliver smoother out-of-focus areas than others; lenses transmit colors in all different ways; all lens designs are a variety of compromises in sharpness and resolution across the frame at varying apertures. People can care very much about these variations. For example, you'll find Leica aficionados that will be be able to discern the differences between the images from lenses from different eras of lens designers.

So in that respect, yes, if you're able to discern these differences in image rendering and like the look of one manufacturer over another, that could play a role in choosing one system over another.

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Having wanted to buy a DSLR since long, I chose a brand first. Nikon. Went with the most affordable (to my pocket) camera D3100 which came with a basic 18-55 lens kit.

This was 2 years back. I did not know anything about pro-bodies or lenses at the time.

Gradually, as I started investing more time into photography, I realized that lens lineups not only vary across different platforms, they vary on their own platform as well.

Last year, I wanted to upgrade my lens to a 1.8 aperture lens and found the 50mm 1.8D to be in the affordable range. However, this lens does not auto-focus on the entry-level Nikon camera bodies. It would fit, but with only manual focusing. The 50mm 1.8 AF-S (autofocus) lens which would work for my camera was more than twice the price.

This is because Nikon entry-level bodies do not offer an "in-camera auto focus motor" required to auto-focus older lenses. This feature is only available in mid-upper-to-pro-level-camera-bodies.

Manual focus is fine for object or table-top photography, but I myself did not find it useful elsewhere for my work.

Also, the 50mm lens was also better suited for a full-frame body and on my camera the effective focal range after mounting a 50mm would be 75mm due to the added 1.5x APS-C crop factor. Sounded Ok for portraits or tight-shots, but not for general everyday photography to me.

I ended up purchasing the 35mm 1.8 lens instead which auto-focuses on my camera and would give a 50mm equivalent focal range.

Comparatively, Canon does not have mount/auto-focus issues with their currently available entry-level or mid-level cameras and lenses. Canon also does not offer a "budget-range" 35mm lens (50mm equivalent) for the crop-sensor body. The current available Canon 50mm 1.8 lens would work, but with a focal length of 80mm due to the 1.6x APS-C crop. Other manufacturers or micro 4/3 cameras would have a 25mm lens with the body to achieve a similar focal range.

I also have a group of friends with Nikon cameras and share multiple different lenses from time to time.

Also, with entry-level-mid-level cameras, having luckily found the time and chance to use Nikon, Sony and Canon since past two years, the kit lenses 18-55, 18-135, 55-200, 55-250, etc. on all three platforms perform quite well based on the shooting technique.

I have also used the Nikon 105mm 2.8 macro and the 300mm F/4 on the Nikon D3100 camera body and the results are most exquisite just because of the lens quality. Similar lenses on other platforms would also perform equally well but in the end, you need to figure out your style of photography first.

To answer your first question, yes, there is a difference between platforms, but final image quality depends on your shooting style. Like, in printed images (such as magazines) or those which you see on the internet, you will have a hard time figuring out the manufacturer + lens make just by looking at a photograph. Wide/tele can be figured out - but how far was the final image cropped before publishing is still a question.

For the second question, you "can" pick the lens first and then the body but that would only be the case in which you have first figured out your photography style - portraits, wildlife, macro, sports, etc. If you have more than 2 different styles - like for example, you are a wedding as well as a wildlife photographer, then you need to choose a platform which provides a more extensive lens choice.

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Just a comment about your statement "Canon also does not offer a 35mm lens for the crop-sensor body.", which is wrong. Any Canon EF lens will work on a Canon crop-sensor body, and Canon currently sell two EF 35mm lenses. –  Håkon K. Olafsen Dec 11 '13 at 12:27
    
@Håkon — fair point. However, Pentax, Nikon, and Sony all offer budget APS-C 35mm lenses, for under $200. Canon currently does not cater to this particular niche — basically a normal prime kit lens alternative. (Kind of related to the second part of this question.) –  mattdm Dec 12 '13 at 12:34
    
Hello Hakon, I agree with you. I was referring to the budget-range lens for an APS-C camera. I have edited the post accordingly. Thank you mattdm for the explanation. –  yadunandan Dec 13 '13 at 2:47

Well, the short answer is, that most camera brands have comparable lenses, but there are some differences.

Canon, from what I can tell, has the most lenses available of any of the major manufactures. Nikon has compatible lenses to most of Canon's, and has lenses that can cover the gap for the rest (Ie, Canon tends to have cheaper lenses, as well as the more expensive ones, Nikon tends to have only the more expensive ones.) Of course, one can find cases where the trends are reversed.

The third party lenses also cover much of the same space, but they tend to better cover the cheaper lens gaps, and not so much the more expensive lenses.

Sony/Pentax/etc tend to not have the top of the line lenses, but the typical lenses used by most people, they have. Just don't look for a 800mm lens for one of these camera brands.

As for what brand to choose, well, as they are all really about the same, it's best to find out what your friends use, and use it. There's really not much of an argument one way or another to be made, so...

Hope this helps!

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There's nothing wrong with Sony's lenses -- many of them out-resolve the equivalent Canon/Nikon lenses. The old Rokkor designs (with updated coatings and adapted for autofocus) tend to be of very high quality, and much of the line now is Zeiss. (I'll let other speak to Pentax quality.) You're right about the extreme telephotos -- but if you want a truly hand-holdable 500mm lens, something you can throw into your camera bag just in case, Sony's the only game in town. And if bokeh's your game, you're really missing out if you haven't tried the 135 SFT. –  user2719 Mar 1 '11 at 16:54

All the brands typically have the lens basics covered: walkaround zooms, portrait primes, ultrawide zooms, telephoto zooms, etc. The differences tend to come in where the exotics reside, which may not matter to some people because of the expense, but might matter if that exotic just happens to be a lens you actually need.

There are a lot of individual holes along those lines. Canon has a 17mm tilt-shift; Nikon has a crop-body fisheye; Canon has f/5.6, f/4, and f/2.8 400mm primes, while Nikon only offers an f/2.8 400mm prime, the Canon MP-E 60 Macro does 5x magnification, the Nikkor 105 portrait lens does soft focus, etc. etc. etc. I think the only basic lens Canon is "missing" is a low-cost normal-on-a-crop lens (i.e., no $200 EF-S 35/1.8 USM to set against Nikon's AF-S 35/1.8 DX lens), but there are higher-cost full-frame lenses that can fill that function.

But to overgeneralize, I think Nikon has more offerings in wide lenses, and Canon has more in the supertelephoto range. And both have more offerings than the other three brands.

Sony is unique among the dSLR mounts in having autofocusing Zeiss lenses, which are designed specifically for A-mount and are not identical in optical design to the ZE/ZF/ZK manual-focus lenses for Canon, Nikon and Pentax (e.g., the ZA 135/1.8).

Pentax is unique in having a variety of pancake lenses to offer.

Olympus and Panasonic four-thirds offer Leica-designed lenses, the only f/2 zooms, and the lenses overall are smaller and lighter (although the four-thirds development seems to have halted in favor of μ4/3). And a 2x crop factor gives more "reach" than APS-C with a mere 300mm lens.

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