Camera Bodies vs. Lenses

There are many arguments between camera owners regarding camera bodies and which is the best. Then there are arguments regarding types of lenses suited to general purpose shooting or specific types of shooting. I am not going to address different manufacturers of camera as I am partial to Sony and do own 5 Sony cameras (of which 3 are decommissioned due to age, though all working), but I will address lenses and the general argument around them.

There is a permanent hunt by professional photographers for the perfect lens which can do everything you need; from wide angle to serious zoom (Tele-Photo), but until some manufacturer is able to produce such a lens we are stuck with making a choice between lenses, and always making a trade-off. A fantastic all-round lens would run from 10mm-500mm at f/1.4 and would be sharp as a razor at all aperture settings and focal lengths. But such a lens, if able to be produced, would cost an absolute fortune!

Most camera manufacturers, including Sony, have what is referred to as a Kit Lens. This is a basic general purpose lens which usually runs in the region of 18-55mm with f/3.5-f/5.6 maximum aperture, depending on your focal distance. These lenses are usually produced from cheaper materials and glass to make them affordable to entry-level photographers. These “kit lenses” are often shot-down by professional photographers as “junk”, but that is only because they own better lenses. But are “Kit” lenses really that bad? The short answer is… NO!

Yes, kit lenses feel plastic and cheap, and for the most part, look cheap. But that is exactly what they are… cheap. If these lenses were worth as little as the professional photographers all claim, why do you find them on most all entry-level cameras? Well, there is once again a short answer, they are good at what they are intended for! The kit lens is a purpose built general purpose lens built for everyday use by the enthusiast. The keyword here is “DAY” as these lenses generally perform poorly under low-light conditions and will require a flash.

I currently use 6 lenses and have chosen 3 of those, which includes the kit lens, to demonstrate the quality difference. I will also use the same set of lenses on 2 different camera bodies to show the difference between an “Entry-Level” body and a “Professional” body. Many people believe that the Body is the most important part of a professional photographers’ kit, but here you will see that a good lens beats having a good body. I would rather shoot with a “pro” lens on an “entry-level” body than a “kit” lens on a “pro” camera body!

Below is a set of images taken with different bodies, a Sony a230 “entry-level” and a Sony a55 “pro” body. For clarification purposes the a55 falls into the “mid-range” group on par with the same “mid-range” cameras as Nikon and Canon have. Very few photographers can afford the “top range” cameras by Canon, Nikon, Sony, Mamiya, LEAF, Phase1 or Hasselblad, and it accepted that anything above “entry-level” enters the “pro” arena. Most “Professional Wedding Photographers” use “mid-range” camera bodies! If your wedding photographer arrives with a R200 000 Phase 1 645DF you should expect to be paying R50 000 or more for your wedding photos!

Sony a55 vs a230 Body and Lens comparison

Sony a55 vs a230 Body and Lens comparison - Click Image for Larger View

In the above images, which are 100% crops (ie., images were zoomed in to 100% and part thereof was cropped), they all look pretty similar! Even when you click on the image to get the full-sized image the differences look almost negligible to the naked eye. So what is all the fuss about lenses!!!


The above images were taken under very good lighting conditions out in sunlight. This provides for pretty good photography, similar to everyday outdoor conditions used by enthusiast photographers. All the lenses were fitted with UV filters, even the kit lens, and this improves image quality in harsh sunlight as well. If you do not have a UV filter on your camera go to your nearest camera shop and buy one right now, it is the best investment you will make. I am not going to try and explain the advantages and technicalities of UV filters here, but you are welcome to google it if you really want to know what it does.
The above images were also shot at f/8 which, on virtually any lens, makes the image as sharp as possible! Many, if not most, lenses lose varying degrees of sharpness the wider the aperture is set. Kit lenses suffer the most while in pro lenses it may be negligible.

So what ARE the differences?

To the untrained eye the images seem the same, but once you see the large scale image (click on the image for the large view), you will note a slight desaturation and slightly higher contrast in the kit lens. The colour (especially purple) is slightly off and the lens is slightly less bright than the other two. The 50mm fixed-focal f/1.7 (it cannot zoom in and out; also known as a Prime Lens) is the brightest (slight) of the three and the 28-75 f/2.8 (zoom lens with max aperture of f/2.8 through zoom range) is a great all rounder. The Sony 28-75 f/2.8 SAM lens costs more than both camera bodies put together, but the investment is worth it! At large view of the image you will also note that the kit lens is slightly softer (less focused) than the other two which appear slightly sharper. Granted the Sony Kit lens is a pretty good lens but it still produces slight colour fringing (purple edges) when you look in the large view of the image.

So why not just stick with the Kit lens?

It must be remembered the the above photos where taken under good lighting conditions. As soon as light gets low, near sunset or at dawn or indoors or anywhere there is not direct sunlight, the lens will start to show its primary weakness. Kit lenses generally have a max aperture of f/3.5 at 18mm and when zoomed in to 55mm it is only f/5.6! At f/5.6 you need A LOT OF LIGHT! This is where “fast” lenses come in as they require less light at a higher shutter speed to produce a good image. A lens is considered “fast” when its maximum aperture is f/2.8 or more (smaller f number). To compensate for low light, a camera fitted with a kit lens slows the shutter down which increase the probability for blurring. Once your shutter speed drops below 1/60th of a second you are in trouble! Using a “fast” lens with a max aperture of f/2.8 or even the prime lens at f/1.7 I can comfortably shoot indoors at a wedding. Most venues have more than enough light for a fast lens enabling you to shoot at 1/60th shutter or faster without raising the ISO too high and introducing “noise.”

So why not just use a flash?

Professional photography avoid using flash unless it is unavoidable. Flash is unnatural and once it fires directly from your camera it flattens the image and causes unflattering black shadows behind people. Using flashes (aka speedlights or strobes) is a subject all on its own and will have to be covered later.

So what’s the difference between the “entry-level” and the “pro” camera?

In most part the main difference between a “pro” camera body and an “entry-level” camera body is the image sensor and the functionality. Here it starts getting technical. Megapixels alone are not going to produce you a better image! The a230 is a 10.2Mp body while the a55 has a 16.2Mp body. If you click on the image above to get the large view you will note the slight difference in size of the crops (6Mp) between them. Is 6Mp gain that much better? NO! All it produces is a slightly larger image!!! In fact, the image sensor size (APS-C sized sensor in both cases) is exactly the same with exactly the same light dispersion and divergence for the same fitted lens. 16-18Mp has been found to be pretty much the upper limit for APS-C sized sensors since introducing additional pixels only increases the flawed characteristics EVERY lens produces. The only way this will get better is by increasing the sensor size, thus moving you to “top Range” camera which use “Full-Frame” sensors. I will cover this “mega pixel limit” at a later stage.

So why not just shoot everything at f/8 to get sharp images?

Again, f/8 is great for outdoor use where there is a lot of light, but as soon as light quality drops f/8 will result in slow shutter speeds which then again causes blurring (once you drop below 1/125). If you have a very steady hand you can shoot at 1/60 shutter speed, but only for subjects closer than 3 meters or so. Further than 3 meters you WILL get blurring (even with stabilization / VR or other anti-blur mechanisms), unless you use a tripod and your subjects are motionless. Your option here would be to open up the lens aperture to allow more light in (smaller f number). The smaller the aperture number the wider it is open. The downside to this is that lower quality glass used in cheaper or kit lenses will result in “soft” focus (images seem slightly out of focus). Try this with your kit lens and you notice a big difference between f/3.5 and f/8 shooting the same subject. Even pro lenses have this problem, but to a lesser degree and the higher the quality glass the less noticeable the softness becomes.

So what lens should you get?

This subject seems complicated, but is actually very simple. Here are the questions you need to ask yourself when considering a new lens.

  1. What will you be shooting the most?
  2. Where will you be shooting your subject the most?
  3. When will you be shooting you subject the most?
  4. How wide do you need to shoot?

Application examples:

Landscape Photography

  1. What – Landscape photography
  2. Where – Outdoors
  3. When – Sunrise / Sunset
  4. How wide – Most of the landscape, so 10mm-18mm will be good

For the above you should be using a tripod if you are doing this professionally, so a fast lens may not be necessary, and you can get away with slow shutter speed. You could try a kit lens here, but at a wide angle kit lenses tend to distort slightly and become soft-focused.

Wedding Photography

  1. What – People
  2. Where – Indoors and Outdoors (Think church with low light and wedding reception)
  3. When – Times can vary from late afternoon to sunset (and you don’t want to flash all the time)
  4. How wide – Wide enough to capture groups (family shots), but also tight enough to capture details (exchanging of rings)

For the above a 24-70mm f/2.8 or 28-75mm f/2.8 is the most popular type lens as it cover a fairly wide angle but can zoom in tight enough for those detail shots. Here a 18-55 kit lens is wide enough, but 55mm is just too short to get close to the detail during the ceremony (unless you stand right beside the priest!). The kit lens also does not offer that light sensitivity (max aperture is 3.5) for indoor church shooting and is very soft at wide aperture.

Sport Photography

  1. What – Sport Action
  2. Where – Outdoors
  3. When – During daylight hours (assuming outdoor events only)
  4. How wide – I want to get close to the action!

For the above you want to look at the tele-photo range of 200mm-500mm with good quality glass which produces sharp images. You may not need big aperture if you events will be in daylight, but you want a lens that is sharp at its widest aperture when events run into late afternoon near sunset!

Apply these questions to any lens you are considering as a guide and consider the manufacturers guidelines for use. Check out on-line reviews for any lens you consider buying and compare them to other similar lenses available. If budget is a constraint, then either save for that better lens. Buying a cheaper lens only to find it doesn’t do what you were hoping for is a waste, especially if you are into professional photography as a living. Remember that a camera image sensor can only record what it is given to record by the lens. Sensor technology has advanced greatly and the chances of a sensor being the cause of poor images are rare.

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