Should You Buy a Cheap Camera Lens or an Expensive One?

What do you get for your money? That’s the question everyone looking to buy a piece of tech asks themselves. It also happens to be the question this recurring feature will try to answer. Is it worth spending extra on high-end gear, or do you get what you need with cheaper models? Every month, we’ll look at some of the cheapest and most expensive products in a given category, testing each to see what their limits are and help you figure out when you can cheap it out, and when to plunk down some extra cash to get what you need.

Hi/Low: SLR lenses

The legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson described photography as being about what he called “the decisive moment,” capturing that image frozen in time that is the essence of the subject. Although much of what Cartier-Bresson was taking about was learning to see that perfect moment, the equipment you use also plays a part in capturing it.

But is it worth the extra $1,350? For most shooters, no. The $350 lens shoots excellent images, and a lot of photographers won’t notice the subtle differences between the two — especially if they’re not generating large prints. Camera lenses are like wine: when you get to the good stuff, a subtle improvement costs you a lot more, and some people can taste the difference. Others are happy with a cheaper bottle that tastes just fine, and the $350 50mm f/1.4G lens shows that you don’t need to spend that much to get a lens that is much better than the cheap zoom your SLR came with.

It’s a truism to say that buying a more expensive lens isn’t going to make you a better photographer. Our old friend Cartier-Bresson himself used one camera and one lens—a Leica with a 50mm—for most of his career. But he was regarded as one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century because he knew exactly how his camera would perform. A good photographer takes the time to understand their equipment so they can get the best image, irrespective of how expensive their kit is. If you spend $350 on a lens and really learn how to use it, you’ll be closer to the ideal of photographers like Cartier-Bresson, who used good equipment to take great photos.

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