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Which Is Most Important: The Lighting, The Lens, or The Camera?

By Matthew Saville on February 22nd 2013

Our recent post on the SLR Lounge Facebook wall has sparked an amazing conversation:  Which is the most important photo equipment:  The camera, the lens, or the lighting gear?  Check out what people are saying by clicking HERE.

Disclaimer #1

This article is written from the standpoint of portrait and wedding photography, where lighting, lenses, and camera bodies each play a very specific role.  Other genres of photography, such as landscapes or nature, may not require any lighting at all and may place very different demands on the rest of your equipment.  So, keep that in mind as you continue reading!

My History

I have been a (digital) photographer for a decade now.  Before that, I enjoyed shooting film, but it was just a hobby and it did not involve portraiture, so I will not count that.  Either way, I have learned that in portraiture as well as any other type of photography, one aspect always makes or breaks the photo:  The light.  Bad light equals a bad photo, it’s that simple.

Don’t get me wrong, some people can take bad light and turn it into good light. There is no such thing as “bad light” in that respect.  Even harsh noon-day sun can be turned into something dramatic and beautiful, and I have a few tips on that in a video that you can view by clicking HERE.

However,  I noticed something while I was reading through the replies on the discussion.  Some people used the word “lighting”, and some people simply used the word “light”.  I realized that there is actually quite a difference between those two terms.  In fact, probably 75% of my all-time favorite images are made with 100% natural light, or no more than a reflector.  Clearly other people might have a different style and a different preference, but this got me to thinking about the whole “lighting VS lenses VS cameras” discussion.


nikon-24-70-natural-lightNikon D700, Nikon 24-70 f/2.8, natural light plus reflector

Lighting VS Light

I usually call myself a “camera geek”, and when it comes to exciting and geeky photo shoots, lighting is really fun to play with.  Using off-camera lighting is one of the biggest and fastest ways to make your imagery stand out from the crowd.

A lot of people bash on “natural light photographers”, saying that most of them are simply too afraid to dive into the world of lighting.  I agree that if you’re limiting yourself to natural light just because you’re intimidated by lighting, you’re making a mistake.  If you’re a portrait photographer and especially if you have professional aspirations, at the very least you should have the skills in your arsenal.

If you are un-willing to get into lighting gear, then at the very least you shouldn’t be allowed to complain about how fierce the competition is, or how other photographers seem to be “stealing” or imitating your style.  Or worse, if you’re not careful you could find yourself in a lighting scenario that is simply un-solvable using natural light only, and you’d wind up with a poor product delivery and potentially even a bad business review.

So, there’s an argument in favor of learning how to use lighting equipment.  However as I read thecomments about certain lighting equipment, modifiers, etc…I realized another thing:  Personally, I get more excited with low-budget  Strobist style lighting that is lightweight and “ghetto”, than with high-end expensive lighting setups, and heavy power packs or giant modifiers.  I love to MacGyver a lighting setup with a couple cheap strobes and radio triggers, maybe an umbrella or small softbox when necessary. I have much more fun with simple  “voice activated light stands” (AKA friends I can enjoy the photo shoot with) …than having all sorts of stands and gear and stuff that has to be lugged around.

In the end, light itself wins my heart, not lighting equipment alone.

sigma 50-150-28-3Nikon D300, Sigma 50-150 2.8, natural light

tamron-90-25Nikon D700, Tamron 90mm f/2.5 manual focus lens,
Simple umbrella lighting with hotshoe flashes and cheap radio triggers

Quality Glass VS Lens Elitism

So if lighting equipment isn’t my favorite thing to blow tons of money on, what is?  Surely it is lenses, not camera bodies, right?  Again, I started thinking about this.  I’m really not a lens snob, in fact I get annoyed when I see other people scoffing at anything that isn’t “L glass”, asserting that anything less is just un-professional crap and shouldn’t be conssidered.

All I care about in a lens is, is it sharp?  Sometimes the affordable glass isn’t sharp at all, or it’s built cheap and falls apart.  I would stay away from that, obviously.  But do I lay awake at night dreaming about a lens just because it says f/1.2 or f/1.4 on it, or f/2.8?  Nope.  In fact I dread how heavy such lenses are, and if I’m losing any sleep it is to find ways to avoid needing heavier lenses.  ;-)

Bottom line- If it’s sharp and can focus accurately, I’ll take it.  Sure, it needs to be built rugged enough to handle a little abuse, but other than that, I’m just not a lens snob.

For example lately Nikon has been coming out with some killer f/1.8 glass, and I have to say I’m actually more excited about those lenses than their bigger f/1.4 siblings.  Tack sharp and built solid, for ~$1,000 less?  Yes please!  Sure, a few photographers out there will absolutely need that extra 1/2 or 2/3 stop  of shutter speed that the aperture difference affords, but probably only 5-10% of photographers truly need it, the rest just think they do.  They think they’re much better off upgrading to that f/1.4 or f/1.2 lens, instead of upgrading their camera body first.

Uh-oh, did I just suggest foregoing a lens upgrade in favor of a camera body upgrade?  The haters and know-it-alls are ready to pounce…

nikon-24-AIS-1Nikon D300, Nikon 24mm f/2.8 AIS, (manual focus lens) natural light

Nikon-85-18-1Nikon D700, Nikon 85mm f/1.8 D, natural light

Sigma-50-150-28-2Nikon D300, Sigma 50-150 f/2.8, natural light

Lenses VS Bodies

After I thought about everything, from lighting equipment to “lens lust” to the ever-obsolete camera body, I realized that the thing I value most in the photographic process is a camera body that I can trust to never let me down.  I’d rather have a killer camera body that can nail focus on an affordable f/1.8 prime, than make any sort of compromise on camera reliability, focus accuracy, or overall function and customization.

Why?  Because what it all comes down to at the end of the day is, …where is my greatest potential source for annoyance, frustration, and failure?  As a portrait and wedding photographer, it is the camera body.  If my body starts acting up, it can be game over really quick.

So yes, I value my camera body very highly.  Out of lighting equipment, lenses, and camera bodies, I find the most excitement when a camera system overall performs flawlessly and doesn’t let me down.

Does this mean you should go out and buy the best, most expensive camera body you can afford, and forget about lenses or lighting equipment?  Absolutely not.  Light itself is always your number one priority.  And a good, decent lens is the best way to capture light properly.  But your camera body needs to be up to the task.  Some tasks only require a basic camera body, but when you really start to push the envelopes of light conditions and lens performance, you’ll need a camera body that can perform.

nikon-85-18-2Nikon D700, Nikon 85mm f/1.8 AFS-G, cheap hotshoe strobes & radio triggers
(Shot wide open in nearly pitch-black lighting conditions, without AF-assist)

Disclaimer #2

Obviously, the ultimate aspiration of any photographer is to own the absolute best gear in all three respects-  lenses, lighting, and bodies.  This article is not attempting to say that you should continually work with mediocre lenses and lighting gear just because you have the best camera body and that’s all that matters.  Simply put, I am saying that I would invest in my equipment with a different emphasis than the conventional wisdom and advice you’ll usually find out there.

Also, keep in mind that my preferences are not automatically right for everyone else.  However, you should consider your needs, each time you are ready to make an investment.  Always ask yourself the question: “What is my biggest obstacle right now, what is holding me back the most?”  Maybe if you’ve got a half-decent camera body but no primes at all, it might be time for that first f/1.8 prime or f/1.4 prime.  Or maybe it’s time for a basic lighting setup.  But don’t get carried away, if it is going to break your bank for the next two years.  You could very quickly find yourself pushing the envelope of your camera bodie’s capabilities, especially in the first couple / few years as a digital photographer shooting portraits and especially weddings.

For those who would say, “it’s just wise to always invest in the absolute best gear right off the bat anyways, so why bother with intermediate f/1.8 glass or cheap lighting gear?” …to you I would respond, well, if you’re shooting weddings or portraits, then you should consider that intermediate gear as your eventual backup to your long-term investments.  As a professional, you can never have too much gear.  In fact I’d rather have two sets of affordable gear than one set of high-end gear, as a professional wedding photographer, simply because having a backup is that important.

You get the idea.  Don’t let gear lust get the best of you as you build your system.  Always buy the gear that is truly the most desperately needed in your system, not just that sexy new bit of gear that you know will make you the envy of your friends.

Until next time, happy clicking!
=Matthew Saville=

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Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Tom Rose

    It is a silly question. ANd illogical too. All three are necessary, and have to be at least good enough. If any one of the three is sub-standard then it will show in the results.

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  2. Austin Swenson

    At first after I read the article, I thought to myself “well good glass has to be a priority” but then I thought about it from the perspective of a client, and I can honestly say that I think it would be better to have good light than anything else just because it makes more interesting photos than if the subject is sharp. If the lighting is dull, it will be a dull photo even if it is sharp.

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  3. jd kizzo

    Hmm… interesting article, but have to strongly disagree. I would say lens, lighting, then camera body in that order. Good lens and equipment will last far longer than obsoleted camera bodies. Though 90% of my shots are artistic/portraiture. Depends on what you shoot I guess. It looks like you take a lot of outdoor shots, mine are mostly home studio. I still get lots of great shots when switching to D80 and F100, both only worth about 150 bucks on eBay… But I have several thousands worth of lens/lighting equipment. Camera bodies and the whole megapixel war is what isn’t that important.

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  4. Fernando Lachica

    Learned a lot for this article. More articles..please

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  5. Rafael Steffen

    I noticed that when I upgraded my glass to the best kind is what made my pictures improve a lot and not the camera body. Lenses come first, then lighting and finally the camera body!

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  6. Jeff Lopez

    “Don’t let gear lust get the best of you as you build your system. Always buy the gear that is truly the most desperately needed in your system”

    Love this article. I started out shooting about 6 years ago with a Canon 350D. After learning the camera and the BASICS I was able to capture some really nice images with very little options and a crap lens. As you would imagine, I quickly became limited, so I upgraded to a 550D. Still wanting to get better and better, after about 3 years and some new lenses, I got to a point where now the 550D (T2i) wasn’t enough for my artistic needs and I just purchased my first full frame 6D and can’t be more excited. I also really liked the advice in a previous article

    “When you get to a point where you feel like your camera itself is preventing you from taking the kind of photographs that you want, it may be time to buy a new DSLR with a broader dynamic range.”

    For me personally it helped to feel limited and wanting more from each camera, rather than having it all right away with an expectation to be great just because of the equipment I have.

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  7. Peter Raymond

    None of the above.  This argument is what makes you all amateurs.  Why you needed to waste so many letters in the alphabet to get your point across is beyond me.

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  8. kenyee

    Yep…technique is more important than using gear as a crutch…

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  9. Riaan R Roux

    I could not agree more!  I use an older Sony A900 body and newer Sony A77 body for my work and both are rugged designs.  I only have 2 lenses which are a little more expensive, but those where purchased for a purpose and their sharpness.  And then I have some amazing “cheap” lenses such as an old Sigma 90mm f/2.8 Macro which is silly sharp for detail work at weddings (I purchased is second-hand for less than $150!).  I also have a old Tokina 19-35mm lens which I use for wide shots on the A900 (purchased as shop getting rid of old Minolta branded equipment for $70!).  One of my favorite old lenses is my Minolta 50mm f/1.7 which I got for less than $100.  These “old” lenses are not only sharp, but the build quality is great (why don’t they make them like than anymore).  The A900 fitted with the old Minolta 50mm f.17 looks silly, but the results are what I am after, not praise for my cool lenses.

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  10. Glenn Orion

    totally agree! that’s why, after already having a D300s, 35/50/85 primes, and a bevy of flashes and light mods, i decided my backup body would be the ancient D200.

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  11. Jason Lee

    your articles are helpful bro.. keep it up 

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