Technology and the balance between camera and lens


Equipment Conundrum

Of late I’ve read several articles pertaining to whether a camera matters to the end result, or if it’s more due to the photographer’s talent. Ken Rockwell has argued for pure talent, and Michael Reichmann and Sean Reid have argued that it’s not just talent, but also the camera.

Sometimes I feel that Mr. Rockwell merely makes such overblown and extreme statements to generate publicity. And it has worked. Someone who accidentally surfs his/her way to his site might actually believe him. As Mr. Reid points out, each photographer picks a tool based on his/her needs, just as Mr. Rockwell uses a Nikon D3 SLR camera, instead of a Canon PowerShot SD1100 IS point and shoot camera.

For my needs as a amateur, it’s a digital SLR camera with good lens. I can confirm that many of the photos I’ve taken are definitely not achievable with a “$3 box camera”, as Mr. Rockwell puts it. Armed with the box camera, I might have been able to take other sorts of photos that have similar quality to them, but invariably not the same shots. Also sometimes that extra lens is absolutely necessary. Sometimes you can’t take the extra two steps back in place of a wide angle lens (think falling off cliff or fusing with wall here), or two hundred steps forward to take a frame-filling picture of a snarling lion. In the latter case, you might likely not want to.

So what am I adding to the story then? There’s one aspect that hasn’t been mentioned by the three authors, and that is , for many, how technology has shifted the equipment choice towards the camera body.

How often have you read on photography forums about whether to spend freshly minted money on a new SLR camera body or a new lens? For a long time now, besides spending money on lessons to improve skill, it’s invariably the lens that makes more of a difference in the final output, if money isto be spent at all.

Components of Photography

Let’s look at the main components of equipment to take a photo:

  1. Film. This is a light-sensitive material. Most commonly, it is either silver halide on a sheet of plastic (known as Kodak or Fuji film to many), or silicon photosites made with CCD or CMOS technology.
  2. Camera body. This is your Nikon or Canon camera body. Or your Polaroid camera body, or your pinhole camera box. This component will usually have some way to control your aperture and shutter speed, although not always, as in the last example.
  3. Lens. This is normally the part that extends out of the camera body, which allows you to focus on the subject. On the pinhole camera, it’s the pinhole.

Staircase at the Vatican Museum
Beautiful spiral staircase at the Vatican Museum

New Balance of Power

Prior to the popularity of digital camera, all three components are normally separate if you have a non-digital SLR camera. You need to buy your camera, lens, and film separately. You can control your final results through the choice of film (and your lens). You have varieties of B&W, color, IR, etc. film. As long as your camera body provided the basic requirements to get your shot — your camera body can achieve the minimum frames-per-second for sports photographers, it has adequate weather-sealing and ruggedness, it has enough controls to satisfy your creativity — with the right film, your new influx of cash would likely go towards purchasing another lens. The new lens might cover a different field-of-view, or might be sharper if your talents is held back by the previous lens. The balance is shifted towards the lens.

This equation changes with the advent of the digital SLR. Now though you still have the three main components, two of them are likely fused into one — the film (or CCD or CMOS) is now part of the camera body. When you buy a Nikon or a Canon or a Pentax body, you also make the decision on the choice of “film”. There are always exceptions to the rule where certain cameras have interchangeable digital backs, but I’m talking about the general digital SLRs here. This merger tilts the balance back towards the camera body. You can no longer just buy high-quality high-speed film if you need to take handheld shots in low light. Your camera body had better have enough quality in the CMOS or CCD to capture the low light photo, otherwise the image quality will suffer. With the fast pace of technological improvements, every few years bring camera bodies with more pixels, better pixel quality, better low light imaging, and lower noise.

If all you care about are 4×6 or 5×8 prints, maybe it’s a non-issue, at which point maybe you should just get the Canon SD1100 IS I mentioned earlier. But if you care for enlarging your images beyond those sizes and they were taken under exacting conditions, and your current SLR doesn’t cut it, maybe you need a new camera body.

In the past, the weakest link was usual the film or the lens. Now it’s either the camera body or the lens. You can’t have one of much higher quality than the other. An equilibrium needs to be reached.

And you can’t have either component of much higher quality than the skill of the photographer either.

It’s all about equilibrium.


2 Responses to “Technology and the balance between camera and lens”

  1. 1 forkboy1965

    During the course of my deliberations in advance of my recently purchased dSLR (which you can read at if you like) I too came across Mr. Rockwell’s web site, which I found to be quite useful. I’m not saying I agreed with everything he stated, but he did offer some interesting opinions. And I would agree with you that he heavily favours the person as the real talent behind picture taking, which, like you, I believe to be only part of the complete picture (pun completely intended).

    I recall reading on his site (and some others) that a new-comer to photography (if purchasing a dSLR or film-based SLR) should first purchase prime lenses and learn how to properly use them (in terms of composition, framing, etc.) before purchasing ‘zoom’ lenses. While I appreciated the advice I found it very difficult to contemplate using it in the real world. I did, in a way, take his advice and purchased a 50mm f/1.8 lens, which I like very much, but the real world is often too fickle for fixed length lenses. Besides, I’m not too happy about the idea of exposing my sensor to dust and other contaminants through having to change lenses often.

    Ultimately I look forward to acquiring more prime and zoom lenses. And I’m quite happy with my Canon 40D because it’s a much better fit in my hand than the Rebel or Nikon D80 (at 6’4″ I have big hands). Oh, and it was more readily affordable than the highly desired Nikon D300.

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