I've spent a while looking at lenses and their prices, and now I'm wondering... Does it make sense to bolt a really expensive lens onto a cheap camera? Or is the extra performance only worth it if you have a similarly expensive camera to start with?

Is it "sensible" to buy a lens that costs 10x or 15x the price of the actual camera?

Or, on the contrary, is it "expected" that the lens is the expensive part?

(If I'm looking at the price list correctly, the £400 "kit" I bought consists of a £150 camera with a £250 lens. So already the lens is more expensive than the camera.)

Or is it that the price of the lens and the price of the camera are completely unrelated numbers, and you're paying for different attributes on each part?


12 Answers 12


This is mostly an anecdote but here you go. At one point I was shooting on a Canon Rebel XT. New I believe I paid in the range of $500 for the camera. By the end of what I found to be the useful range of the body, I had used a $2,200 70-200mm lens, a $1,500 85mm lens, and a $1,200 50mm lens on multiple occasions.

The lenses all performed wonderfully, and if anything just exposed the limitations of the body I was using. I found that pairing great glass with a not so great body is well worth the exercise for two reasons:

  1. To capture great images
  2. To understand where my camera body is holding me back

The lenses I give as my own personal examples only have a price difference of 2-4x. A price difference of 10-15x is in a completely different realm. The body itself may not be quite up to the task and may immediately be exposed for its weaknesses. It is possible that it fits your skill set and vision just fine, but only you would know.

Further, if you really can afford a $2,500 lens, why buy a $250 camera? I'm surprised that such a camera will actually fulfill the requirements that a user of such a lens has. In other words, would someone that has a discerning enough eye that needs a $2,500 lens to get the quality that they need actually be happy with a very inexpensive $250 camera? That would be far from typical.

My recommendation would be to bring the price multiplication factor a bit closer to the 2-3x range; I.e. If a $250 body suits your needs, check out $500-$750 lenses as a rough starting point. It is a good idea to spend a great percentage of your investment on lenses, but I think that 1 to 15 is far too great of a gap in all but the most extreme cases.

  • \$\begingroup\$ 10x price range difference is REALLY hard to do... You will have to do something second hand AND super old paired with a brand new lens, or you will have to mount a 500mm L lens with a Rebel... shudder... \$\endgroup\$
    – Nelson
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 5:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Nelson I have the cheapest SLR in the range. There seem to be plenty of lenses that are 10x that. Then again, I don't seriously think I actually need an 800mm prime... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 8:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MathematicalOrchid Once you get beyond the high end 70-200mm range, you get into fairly specialized equipment, which most people simply have no good reason to own. The 50-250 or those super wide range lenses are usually considered "mid range" at best, due to fairly obvious flaws in the lens when you have a focal range that wide. If I own a 300mm, the only thing I see myself using it for is the moon, and you can only take so many photos of that. The thing is just way too heavy for casual use... \$\endgroup\$
    – Nelson
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 8:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just out of curiosity, what sorts of body limitations get exposed by a great lens? \$\endgroup\$
    – Jules
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 18:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ @dpollitt I partially disagree with your answer. Speaking about the Canon DSLR ecosystem, there are a number of crop-sensor bodies with identical sensor resolution and noise level - for example 600D vs. 60D vs. 7D. In that situation, a more expensive body has faster autofocus and better "handling", but the image quality is still identical. So I would be cautious about the recommendation of blindly buying more expensive bodies to match more expensive lenses. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nayuki
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 22:28

Yes, absolutely! A great lens on an ok body will generally outperform an ok lens on a great body.

Also, high end lenses tend to keep their value much better than a body will. Not sure what system you are using but here are some numbers based on Craigslist postings in my town:

Canon EF 24-70 f/2.8L

  • Price in 2011, new: ~$1400
  • Price today, used: ~$850

Canon 5D Mark II

  • Price in 2012, new: ~$2200
  • Price today, used: ~$850

Additionally, new models of lenses come out far less frequently. The one in my example was sold new for well over a decade. Lens technology is very well developed and progressing very slowly at this point compared to digital sensor technology. I bought a great lens when I started and I am still using the same lens 4 bodies later with no complaints.

Finally, if you are new to photography, don't get too caught up in equipment. Buy the best stuff you can comfortably afford and enjoy it. A good photographer with ok equipment will produce vastly better photos than a hack with the best equipment available.

  • \$\begingroup\$ And that $2200 5D2 in 2012 included a $300 instant rebate from Canon when the dealers were having sales to make way for the 5D3 released in March of 2012. For most of the time it was available between 2008 and 2012 the price was $2500-2600 without any rebates. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 8:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ For a perfect example of good photographers with OK (or even crappy) equipment is this playlist: youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7ECB90D96DF59DE5 \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 15:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ The good photographer/crappy camera series is good at showing that a good photographer knows how to work within the limitations of what he's got in his hands to get something. But it also shows how even in the most capable hands the crappy gear limits the possibilities of what can be shot with it because that something you can get with the crappy camera isn't always the only thing you want to do. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 15:55

To answer this question, you first have to ask yourself what is important for you.

The camera will impact mostly the color rendering and depth, the autofocus (number of focus points for example), and the overall control you have on the picture. The lens will have a lot of impact on sharpness & acutance , depth of field, quality of bokeh. Both will have an impact on low-light performance and autfocus speed. Obviously, the number of megapixels on your camera does have an impact on sharpness, but in many cases the lens is not sharp enough to benefit from the sensor's resolution.

Depending on what's most important, you need to spend more money on lens or on the camera.

Two other factors to consider: one usually have more lens than cameras (which tends to favor buying expensive cameras to balance the price), but one usually renews the camera more often than the lens (which tends to favor buying cheap cameras, since anyway, next year's camera will be even better, ...).


Yes, certainly. If you're going to upgrade from the basic kit, always upgrade the lens first. The lens is what makes the picture. The camera is just a box for the film. This is somewhat less true now with digital cameras, but there still isn't a lot of difference in sensors unless you go way up in the product line. The things you get from upgrading the body, such as faster frame rates, seem exciting but seldom come into play unless you have a specific narrow interest like sports photography. A better lens will make a bigger difference in all your photos. And a good lens is something you'll keep for a long time. In a few years, there will be a new entry-level body with features that today's pros would envy. Upgrade then, if ever. I'm still using a D50 body (6 MP) because it's good enough. I'd rather buy more lenses.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I actually bought myself a D70s as my first DSLR. That got me convinced it was for me. When my kids knocked my camera and tripod over, I went to a D100 (still with a kit lens). I had been frustrated with some of the limitations (low-light performance, the D100 had several hot pixels, tiny preview screen) I finally decided to do exactly that - upgrade to a new (okay refurbished) entry-level body. I got a Canon Rebel XT with 18-55mm IS, and 70-300mm lens for just shy of $300. I just started investing in glass with the 40mm. It should've been delivered today, but UPS broke shipping. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 15:10

All of the other answers make good points, but I think there is one important factor to consider, which netrox touched on briefly:

Sensor Size

Most sub-$1,500 camera bodies will include an APS-C/APS-H size sensor, whereas more expensive bodies include a full-frame sensor.

Expensive lenses are almost unanimously designed exclusively for full-frame cameras, and while there is no loss of quality from using a full-frame lens on an APS-C camera, the pixels per square mm on smaller sensors is usually somewhat higher than that of a full-frame sensor, which means that the effective sharpness of the lens will be reduced.

APS-C lenses are not a terrible investment if you never intend to upgrade to full-frame. They're usually 20-50% cheaper, often lighter and will usually achieve the same relative performance.

With all this said, this is not a spectrum, a camera is either full-frame or APS-C, and almost never somewhere in between, and the price differences in these sub categories will vary wildly on the merits of the product. All it means is that it's something to consider and not a global rule. If an APS-C alternative lens is of equal quality (which is not uncommon), then the only thing you're sacrificing is the potential to upgrade to a full-frame system later on.

If you do have a habit of purchasing full-frame lenses for an APS-C camera, a Speed Booster adapter may be an option, which is able to shrink the image circle of a full-frame lens onto an APS-C camera, retaining all of the extra light from the lens. This usually come at a cost of both image quality, autofocus capability, and the biggest market for them is converting full-frame Nikon/Canon lenses onto APS-C or Micro-Four-Thirds Mirrorless systems.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, FF zooms are often an odd fit for APS-C. 24-70mm is great on FF, but on APS-C it feels a bit handicapped. You'd still want something that went out to 18, just to cover a "normal" wide shot. That sucks a bit. Same with a 70-200mm - yes, it's got a bit more 'reach', but at its widest it's too tight to do what you expect a 70-200 to do : tele/portrait-y things, but able to pop wide to catch a scene. Maybe not a dealbreaker, but it's something to consider, and definitely depends on the type of photography. Wouldn't want to shoot a wedding on APS-C with those lenses above, for example. \$\endgroup\$
    – J...
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 10:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Expensive lenses are almost unanimously designed exclusively for full-frame cameras,..." This is finally beginning to change. Sigma has released a couple of APS-C zooms that take advantage of the smaller image circle to offer brighter apertures (e.g. 18-35mm f/1.8). It's only taken 10-15 years since the APS-C form factor was pretty much settled as the defacto digital format size. LOL \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 12:34

It's important to realize that you don't need all the lenses. For some people, collecting lenses is a hobby, and that's fine — although an expensive hobby. And some enthusiasts and professionals do accumulate a lot. But many serious photographers don't frequently use more than two or three lenses.

That isn't because they buy a megazoom 18-600mm behemoth — in fact, quite the contrary. Many beginners assume that this gigantic zoom range means that every possibility is covered, but actually, these lenses are usually quite slow (in the optical sense, with very little light-gathering ability), and incredibly heavy, and full of image quality compromise — which means that while they have a large focal length range, there's actually a huge amount of photography they're not well suited for.

Instead, you figure out what you like to do and how you like to work, and buy a few lenses that do that really well. If it's landscapes, a really nice wide angle might be what you use for 90% of your photography, with a narrower "normal" lens for other situations. If it's portraits, maybe you have a really good 85mm (or 55mm in APS-C), and a 105mm you use a little less. If it's sports, then it may be a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom — or a 400 f/4.

There are so many different lenses not because you need to have them all, but because different people have different needs. Now, you might think: but I want to do everything! And, I guess you can try — but you're unlikely to really be good at everything. Not because I think you are a terrible learner, but simply because there aren't enough hours to do it all. Plus, most of us have a natural affinity for some way or another. So, find it, and spend your money there.

Okay, so, that's the background bit. Here's the relevance: buying a few good lenses that fit 90% of your photography can be steep, but it's basically a one-time cost. Because of the current pace of technology, most people replace their camera bodies every 2-4 years. (I think it's slowed a bit in the last... five years or so, as the processors have become fast enough to not be annoying and the sensor tech reached amazing levels, but, still, it's a fast-moving field.) That means that while lenses might be a higher part of your initial outlay, they probably won't be in the long run.

For example, I recently switched to Fujifilm, and I intentionally bought a lower-level body, the X-T10, at $800, so I could spend more of my immediate budget on lenses. And for lenses, I got the 23mm f/1.4 at $750 and 56mm f/1.2 at $850 — so, twice as much on lenses as the body. The thing is, in the next year or so, I'm probably going to upgrade to the forthcoming X-T2, for around $1300, and then again in a few more years, but I don't have any particular need to buy more lenses. These lenses fit really well with the photographs I want to take and how I want to take them, so, having spent that money, I'm pretty much all set. (Well, maybe that weather-sealed 35mm... because lens-buying addiction dies hard!)

  • \$\begingroup\$ So tempting to want to buy all the lenses! :-D But you're right, of course... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 7:58

Any serious photographer, specially if photography is going to be a life long passion, should always spend a large part of their budget on the Lens. The lens provides the greater overall return for a photographers investment.

Here is a hypothetical example of a typical Camera upgrade pattern for an enthusiast photographer

  • Year 1 - photographer buys a $500 Camera (Canon rebel) and a $120 50mm F/1.8 Lens
  • Year 3 – he/she upgrades to $1000 Camera (Canon 70D) and a $400 50mm f/1.4 lens
  • Year 5 – he/she upgrades to $2500 Camera (Canon 5D MIII) and a $1500 50mm f/1.2 Lens

Total 5 year Spend = $6020 ( I am not considering any resell values)

Now, being a keen photographer, knowing that this is a life long passion, and taking the hypothetical assumption that s/he prefers the use of a 50mm lens, their desire will be to one day own the 50mm f1.2 or perhaps just the 50mm f/1.4.

If s/he is able to extend their budget in Year 1 to one of the more expensive lenses, say the f/1.2, then not only does s/he benefit from a Return on their Investment which is $530 less then the route above, but s/he also benefits from the use of higher grade lens with a wider aperture throughout the entire 5 year period and forward.

The same applies for the f/1.4, s/he gets a better Return on their Investment and get the benefit of using a wider aperture.

The Lens is what is ultimately responsible for bringing the image to your sensor, and the better that image is, the better your source is for the camera to process.

Today, there are many professional photographers who still use lenses that predate the Digital Camera age. Some still seek out lenses from, 20, 30 or over 40 years old and use them with all manner of adaptors.

A good lens if kept in good conditions, should remain a good lens for a very very long time.

On the other hand, Cameras very seldom last more than a few years. Not because they breakdown, or run out of shutter count, they simply get superseded with something new.

Generally, this is enough time for a photographer to be considering an upgrade anyway as during this period, the photographer has most likely increased their skills and discovered the shortfalls of their camera and when ready to upgrade, they now, don’t necessarily have to consider buying a new lens.

That is, unless they are shooting with a budget lens and once on the new body, the shortfall of this budget lens, soon becomes apparent!

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Because the lens provides a better return on investment, I don't think it's quite right to say that that will be a larger part of the overall budget. For example, I recently switched to Fujifilm, and got an $800 camera body, along with the 23mm at $750 and 56mm at $850. That's obviously more on lenses, but the thing is, I don't see much need to buy another one soon — but I'm going to pick up the X-T2 when it comes out, probably for $1300 or so, putting the total cost for bodies considerably ahead, and I'll probably continue to upgrade bodies every 3-4 years. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 23:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm Thats pretty much what I am saying Matt. Not Larger but just large part of the budget with continued upgrade of bodies compared to a cheaper lens or cheapest lens which later you may want to upgrade with the Body. What you are doing, is pretty much the point I am making. I don't see a conflict. The $1600 for the lenses will stretch further than the £800 for the camera as you will continue to upgrade adding to the cost. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 23:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, I guess I'm more emphasizing than disagreeing. :) I've expanded my comment into a longer answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 0:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's not an investment unless you expect it to allow you to earn more than you spent. Otherwise, it is an expense. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 16:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ There really has been a sea change in terms of zoom lenses over the past 5-7 years or so. Primes have been pretty much at their physical limits for a while (although new lens coatings/textured surfaces show some tantalizing promise recently). But the advance of computer modeling to design and accurately predict the performance of a particular design in a matter of hours without having to spend months actually building a prototype has revolutionized zoom lenses. The best zoom lenses are now challenging some of the primes within their focal range in terms of all aspects of lens performance. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 16:58

All of the other answers discuss good rationale, but here's a different example: exotic and obscure lenses. Whether you look at an old ultra-rare and ultra-wide Nikon 6mm ($34k) or a new Sigma 200-500mm ($26k), you will be spending far more on the lens than body. In fact, for the Sigma, you could perhaps spend more on lens support than the camera body. These are certainly not lenses a beginner would look at (or even something most seasoned amateurs or pros consider) but the price gap is there.

Shift over to video and cinematography lenses, and you could spend six figures. Yes, the cameras will also cost more!

We can move away from lenses and find some additional price leaps when compared to a body. Look at the top-tier flash from Nikon and Canon (~$600) and after buying two or three and related accessories to accomplish some location lighting and you're well beyond the cost of any beginner camera. There's absolutely nothing wrong with going that route to accomplish your goals -- that is, you don't need to spend $2-3k on a body to justify a large investment in flashes or lenses (or anything else) to reach your goals, whatever they may be.


Does it make sense to bolt a really expensive lens onto a cheap camera?

Yes. If only because the lens is liable to be with you far longer than the camera body. This wasn't the case in film days where mechanical bodies would last you for decades, but now that sensors are digital and folks have the upgrade bug/feature greed thing, chances are good that a camera body may only be with you the same amount of time a cellphone or computer is. But lenses can move with you in a body upgrade. As a general rule of thumb, the camera body is the most disposable part of the camera system. New camera bodies are released twice a year. The general product life of a camera in a lineup is 1-3 years. Lenses are replaced in the product lineup at a much slower pace. Camera bodies depreciate while they're still new, and lenses tend to hold better value used. So, the money you spend on a lens can stay with you longer than money you spend on a body.

Or is the extra performance only worth it if you have a similarly expensive camera to start with?

Chicken and the egg. It depends. You will, however, usually see some improvement with better glass no matter the camera. But a lens can be more worth it with a more expensive camera. Case in point, like dpollit, I put L glass on my old 350D/XT. One of those lenses was the 24-105L. It was a good lens on a crop body, but when I finally got a full frame (5DMkII), I finally got to see what that lens was designed as (it's basically the kit lens for Canon's full frames), and it's more useful to me now that I can actually use it as a wide angle lens. It's not necessarily about performance in this case, more about usability.

Is it "sensible" to buy a lens that costs 10x or 15x the price of the actual camera?... is it "expected" that the lens is the expensive part?

Depends on the lens, the camera, and the usage, but I'd say 10x or 15x it's unlikely to be sensible unless the shooter's into something really exotic, glass-wise and got a seriously rocking deal on the body. 2x to 5x, however, is liable to be. And yes. Lenses are expected to be the expensive part, if only because you're liable to buy more than two or three of them. My general advice to most folks is to set aside at least half of their initial budget for lenses. And that's assuming they're just getting a "training wheels triple" (consumer-grade walk around, telephoto zoom, and fast prime).

In US$, new lenses, "low-cost" tends to be $300 and under, "moderately expensive" is around $600, and "expensive" starts at $1000.

Or is it that the price of the lens and the price of the camera are completely unrelated numbers, and you're paying for different attributes on each part?

By their very nature a lens and a camera are two different things. So you're right in that you pay for what a body does and you pay for what a lens does as two separate things. But how that particular lens/body combination works together is part of the pattern, too (like my 24-105L story would suggest).

Generally, cheap lenses and cameras go together, because there are low-budget shooters; and expensive cameras and lenses go together because there are professionals who can write equipment off on their taxes and rich hobbyists. That doesn't mean you can't put cheap lenses on expensive cameras and vice versa. The character of a lens is individual. If you like that character, and you can mount it on your camera, there's no reason not to use it.


Sometimes it makes sense, but it does not always make sense. It all depends on what you want to do with the camera and lens. It really does depend.

Your pictures will never be better optically than the lens that projects the light onto the sensor. But the performance of the sharpest lens in the world is mostly wasted on a noisy, low resolution sensor. There IS some degree of the need for each piece of the puzzle to be complimentary of the other. But that doesn't mean a lens and a body well suited for each other to do a particular job will both cost about the same. Far from it.

For most casual shooters or amateurs who never generate any income from their photography an entry level body is good enough. At the entry level the lenses are generally cheaper than the bodies. This may lead a lot of folks just venturing into ILC and DSLR-land to think the camera is more important than the lens when it comes to image quality and should always cost more than the lenses one hangs on the body. Nothing could be further from the truth.


Other than sensor size, which we'll get to in a moment, bodies are distinguished from one another by features and build quality, not differences in image quality. Within most manufacturers product lines all of their APS-C sensors have about the same image quality. As you move up the product line you get more direct controls that allow faster handling. You get faster frame rates and deeper memory buffers, which allow faster handling. You get more configurable AF systems that are (hopefully) more accurate and consistent that give you a higher "keeper" rate of fast moving subjects. You get better protection from the elements and other hazards that can damage your camera that allows you to shoot under less than ideal conditions without trashing your gear. You get sturdier, more durable bodies that can take more knocks and abuse without breaking. But you don't usually see much image quality difference among APS-C cameras of the same generation from the same manufacturer. The same is true, to a lesser extent, with full frame sensors. There are a wider range of resolutions available between the lowest and highest resolution FF bodies, but when images are displayed at typical viewing conditions there aren't that many differences between cameras under that same makers' umbrella and in the same technological generation. There is a demonstrable difference between FF sensors and APS-C or smaller sensors with the same technology, especially when shooting moving subjects in low light.


Lenses, on the other hand, improve more incrementally starting from the cheapest kit zoom lenses through the mid-grade, enthusiast, and pro lines. And while there are certainly exceptions to the rule, when comparing prime lenses to other prime lenses or zoom lenses to other zoom lenses higher priced lenses in the same focal length range with image circles designed for the same sized image sensor are generally better optically than their lower priced counterparts as well as built to be more rugged and durable. Due to the increased cost of such lenses, reliability is more of a concern for buyers as a good lens should last decades beyond even the liberal five or six year warrantee that some lenses now carry. There are a few lenses that have great optics placed in housings with not so great build quality, but they are generally the exception rather than the rule.

For $900 you can get a lot better normal zoom such as a 17-50/55mm f/2.8 than a $100* 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6. But it is not 9x as good of a lens by most ways of reckoning. And to get that much improvement again, one would need to spend far more than another $800 or maybe even a LOT more than $8,100 (9x). See Canon CN-E 14.5-60mm T2.6 L S Cinema Zoom Lens with EF Mount.

(*The EOS SL1 currently sells body-only for $400, the 18-55 kit lens sells alone for $200, but the kit price for both, at $500, is only $100 more than the body.)

The way I look at lenses is not so much how far above a "zero" starting point they are as it is how close to a perfect "100%" do they reach? A decent modern 18-55mm kit lens might be somewhere around a "75%" on my arbitrary "percentage of perfection" scale. That's a passing grade, but at 25% away from 100% there is still a lot of room for improvement. A 17-50mm f/2.8 costing several hundred dollars more may be somewhere around an "85%". That extra 10 points cost a lot more! But the 85% lens is only about half as far from a perfect 100% as the 75% lens is. The next step up might be something like the $2,000 EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L II (because a lens of that grade is almost certainly going to be for FF cameras and 24-70mm will give roughly the same field of view on a FF camera as a 17-50 will on an APS-C body). Say it is a 92% lens. That additional 7% added another $1,100 to the price. You could also say to get half as close to 100% you had to spend twice as much. To get to 96%, that CINE lens we referenced above runs about $43,000! 20x as much for either a 4% gain or to get half as close to 100%, depending on which way you look at it. I say all of that to say this: As the quality of a lens approaches an idealized expectation, the costs of designing, producing, and owning such a lens grows exponentially.

The same is true of many things: A $30K car is a lot nicer than a $15K car, but it probably won't go twice as fast. To get there you probably need to look at an $80-120K vehicle. To get another 20-30% beyond that in terms of top speed, you're talking about spending millions of dollars for something like a McLaren or a purpose built F1 racer!

Putting it all together

So how much should we spend on cameras and how much should we spend on lenses?

There's no correct answer that fits everyone. Some need better bodies. Others need better lenses. Some need both. Some need neither.

One shooter may be perfectly happy with an entry level body and kit lens. The body is roughly 70% of that equation for a 2:1 ratio in favor of the body. Throw in a cheap telephoto and it goes to about 50/50.

Another shooter may be interested in fast sports action in bright daylight. A consumer grade zoom such as a 70-300mm f/4-5.6 that runs about $500 may be optically good enough but a body with very good AF and fast handling is going to run around $1,300. We're now in a 3:1 ratio in favor of the body, even though we've spent three times as much in total as we did for the entry level body and kit lens. But what if he needs that same reach under stadium lighting at night? The same body will do but now a $3.6K 120-300mm f/2.8 lens is called for. The ratio just shifted to 3:1 weighted towards the lens! And if you need to go beyond 300mm with any kind of fast aperture the lenses get very expensive very fast.

Someone else may need to capture ambient light photographs in very low light without using flash. That may call for a FF camera such as the 6D ($1,400) but a fast prime lens like the EF 50mm f/1.8 STM ($125) may be all of the lens needed. That's an 11:1 body ratio! But if we throw in the need to have focal lengths all the way from 24-70mm and only enough time to change lenses once or twice, the equation changes very quickly. That EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L II ($2,000) plus the EF 50mm f/1.8 STM (125) for when it is really dark has now shifted the ratio to 3:2 in favor of the lens.

Now let's look at a working photojournalist on staff at a mid sized newspaper. Her gear takes a pounding day in and day out, but it has to be dependable and just work. So she probably has a $5K pro body and perhaps another $2.5K backup body. In terms of lenses she also must be able to cover pretty much everything from ultra wide angle (EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L II / $1.5K), to normal (EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L II / $2K), to short telephoto (EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II / $2K), to long telephoto (EF 400mm f/2.8 L / $8K in 1998 dollars when her newspaper bought it - it's still good and the bean counters can't justify replacing it with the $10K replacement). And then there's a set of good (but not great) primes: $1.1K 35mm f/1.4 (v.1 see note on 400mm above), $350 50mm f/1.4, $370 85mmf/1.8, and a good $600 100mm f/2.8 Macro. Anything else will need to be checked out from the photo room's specialty lens cabinet for a particular assignment. She's driving around with about $8K worth of cameras and $16K worth of lenses in her trunk. So we're back to about a 2:1 ratio weighted towards the lenses again just to get her through a typical working week. And we haven't even started talking about lights and modifiers for feature assignments, fashion assignments, a couple of shoots for the ad department (oh wait, newspapers aren't selling ads any more!), and photo illustrations yet!

In the end the cost of a camera body and the cost of a lens aren't that related. DSLRs range in price from around $400 to $6,000 new. Lenses run anywhere from about $100 to $12,000 before you start getting into exotic or CINE territory. So the spread between the extremes in terms of bodies is only about 15x while the spread between lenses is much greater at 120x. The cheapest bodies are about 4x as much as the cheapest lenses, but the most expensive (non-exotic) lenses cost around twice the price of the most expensive (still image oriented 35mm/FF) bodies.

If you need or just want the image quality of an expensive lens but don't need the low light gathering capabilities of a full frame sensor, the ruggedness of a pro grade body, or the bells & whistles of an advanced APS-C body then it makes perfectly good sense to spend a lot more on a lens than on a camera body.

But just because that makes sense for one photographer doesn't mean it will make sense for all.


I bought an used $200 ultrazoom camera (35-420mm equivalent).

After some time I spent $500 for a brand new fish-eye add-on (a 0.24x lens), and to date I can't recall better spent money.

Then: yes! - sometimes it definitely makes sense, adding features well worth their price.

Caveat: for future upgrades I'm now locked to cameras compatible with that lens attachment. Arrrgh.


Good lens provide better contrast/sharpness but the size of an image sensor makes a bigger difference as a bigger sensor captures more light which in turn improves color depth and reduces noise.

If you have a cheap len on a full frame sensor, the difference would be noticeable.

Not so with an expensive len on an APS-C style sensor or smaller. You would see somewhat an improvement but it pales in comparison of what you'd get with an expensive camera with a decent len. So,you'd be better off buying an expensive camera with an average len than a cheap camera with an expensive len 10x the cost of cheap camera!

  • \$\begingroup\$ No, it's good for any sensor format. A "better lens" that gives f/1.8 as opposed to f/4 will let you take pictures with available light with far less noise. It doesn't stop being true just because someone makes larger sensors than the one you've got. And it won't stop being true on FF just because your neighbor buys a medium format. \$\endgroup\$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 8:50

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