Over the last week I’ve finally caught up on all the new cameras that have come out recently. I don’t consider myself a huge gearhead, though combined with bicycling, photography does provide a bit of a techie outlet at times.
It isn’t new news, but Nikon and Canon each have a pair of new pro DSLRs out, and then some. What is newsworthy though is that these new cameras are all highly evolutionary, while not necessarily being revolutionary.
I don’t say that to make myself feel better for not buying one of the new cameras (yet), I say it because I’d like to offer some camera buying advice to my “amateur” friends interested in getting into DSLR photography and “pro” friends who are wondering if they need to upgrade or not.
The four (or five, depending on how you count) new cameras are the Nikon D4, Nikon D800, Canon EOS 1D X and the Canon 5d Mark III. They offer better resolution – all the way up to 36MP for the Nikon D800, improved auto-focus, improved low-light performance, more video functionality and impressive metering improvements over their predecessors. Nikon’s even offers a second D800E model with the anti-aliasing filter removed to improve sharpness (that’s the fifth camera.)
No doubt, these cameras are all drool-worthy. But should you upgrade? Here are my five reasons why you should consider sticking with your current camera – maybe…
1) Megapixels are overrated.*
Have you seen National Geographic lately? You’d be surprised to find out how many images published over the past few years in these hallowed pages were taken with the 12mp Nikon D3/D3s/D700 or the 16mp Canon EOS 1D Mark IV.
Even with recent improvements in sensors, a relatively modern (2009+) 12-16mp sensor provides better images than we could have ever imagined from 35mm film.
The 36mp Nikon D800 and 22mp Canon 5d Mark III may replace medium format studio cameras in certain instances, but for most photographic applications the resolution isn’t yet required. Is it nice? Yes. Would I refuse either if given to me? No. Will I buy one? Not likely.
(* Not being a fortuneteller, I may live to eat my words on this subject in a year or two…)
2) Even “cheap” cameras focus amazingly fast and facilitate near-perfect exposures
I’ve seen the evolution of auto-focus and auto-exposure over the last 25 years and honestly doubt it can get much better. The high-end features of cameras like the Nikon D2 and Canon EOS 1d Mark II have “trickled down” into consumer level cameras – and the pro cameras are only getting more accurate with each release.
Have you picked up a Canon T2i or Nikon D3100 recently? Go to Best Buy or Target and take these little gems for a whirl. Zip, beep, snap! Focus is faster (including tracking moving targets) and exposure is more accurate (including backlit subjects) in these $500 cameras than pro-level $5,000 cameras were five years ago. To be sure there are subtleties that pros appreciate, but they are subtle.
3) High ISO (low light) shooting is amazing in newer DSLRs
Need to shoot in a darkened room or increase shutter speed for sports? Newer cameras have you covered.
I won’t regale you with stories of the thousands of rolls of Tri-X I pushed to 1600 ISO and developed in two-bath Diafine so I could capture football, basketball, or other sporting events. Oh wait, I just did… And you know what, those images – even when properly exposed and developed – were horrible in comparison to any modern DSLR at 1600.
Even my trusty Nikon D200 can outdo Tri-X at 1600 ISO. And my Canon EOS 1D Mark IV runs circles around the D200, even when set to 12,800 or 25,600! I’m sure the new crop of pro cameras is even better.
I owned a Nikon D7000 for a while and it was pretty good at 3,200 ISO – I understand Nikon’s D5100 and Canon’s T3i/7D have similar results. Better resolution was had from the Canon 5d Mark II, and still nice at 3,200.
Again, the newer DSLRs are all great. But you’ll have to spend a little money beyond the standard “kit” lens to truly take advantage of the low light capabilities
4) Pro cameras are expensive, not necessarily better
I know a photographer who recently sold his fleet of four Nikon D3s bodies and bought four Nikon D7000 bodies with some new glass and pocketed $10,000 in the transaction. He shoots a mixture of multi-camera video sets, still life, studio and a little photojournalism.
This photographer “right sized” for the type of shooting he was doing and is very happy with the change. He realized he didn’t need to shoot 9fps at 52,000 ISO on the polar icecap very often and changed his gear to fit the more controlled environment of the studio.
Sure, you can buy four (or more) high-end prosumer cameras for the price of one pro body, but does it make sense for everyone?
The answer, of course, is – it depends.
It comes down to features that you can’t live without.
Twenty years ago, there wasn’t a single camera made that could shoot over 5fps – simply because the film would tear. (Yes, I know there were specialized versions of cameras that could do this – but not one that everyday pro photographers would have access to for studio use or journalism…)
We now take for granted that 8-10fps is a requirement for a pro journalism camera – but is it really? No. It is a convenient feature and does enable a photographer to get shots they previously couldn’t. But one well-timed frame is better than 30 consecutive chimps in four seconds.
My lowly Nikon D200 has captured thousands of publishable images – even sports – at its 5fps rate and keeps plugging away. Prior to moving to digital, my bread-and-butter moneymaker camera was a Leica M6 with a manual film advance of approximately 1fps. Sports? Yep. Photojournalism? Yep. Portraits? Yep. Money.
Is my Canon EOS 1D Mark IV better at everything than these two cameras combined? Yes. Could I live without it? Reluctantly.
One big consideration with pro cameras is durability. Magnesium bodies, hard-mounted mirror assemblies, weather sealing, etc., make pro cameras tougher, heavier, and statistically more reliable. You’ll have to decide if these are features you can’t live without and/or are willing to pay for.
Of course the “buy four for the price of one” argument above may be just the insurance policy you are looking for.
The other consideration is the full-frame (or near full-frame) sensor size in the more expensive cameras. Putting more pixels on a sensor doesn’t necessarily make it better if those pixels are crowded onto a 1.5x or 1.6x crop (APS-C) sensor. I don’t have an opinion on sensor size – shoot what works for you.
5) The next-NEXT generation of camera will be way better than the one you have now
I started by saying the new crop of pro-level cameras is evolutionary, not revolutionary. But that all depends on where you are starting from.
If you have a six-year-old DSLR (like my Nikon D200) it makes a lot of sense to buy a Nikon D7000 – as it is at least two generations improved. Everything is way better.
Canon shooters who had EOS 1D Mark IIs felt the same about the EOS 1D Mark IV – more resolution, better auto-focus, better metering, and so on.
If you have a current-version camera (2010 or newer) the new cameras may not be as big of a leap for you. Megapixels aside – Nikon jumps to 16 and 36mp, Canon to 18 and 22mp – there are low light and focusing improvements to be had in the new models.
These features will make their way into consumer cameras in their next versions too, so if you are patient you can have these high-level functions for a fraction of the price in your next camera.
I hope this roundup is an accurate reflection of why you should or shouldn’t consider upgrading your camera in March of 2012. The advice here is time specific – March 2014 will be very different than today, so keep that in mind.
The wonderful thing about competition in the camera marketplace (which, of course, includes manufacturers other than Canon and Nikon) is that each evolution of camera is designed to help us be better photographers.
You can’t manufacture creativity or vision. You can’t upgrade inspiration. You can’t program instincts. These traits are the true marks of great photographers, and cameras are tools for capitalizing on those skills.
So pick up your camera already – the best one you have right now – and go make some images!