Should I buy a new camera? Which one?

As I said in my last entry, I get a lot of questions from a lot of people who want to upgrade their dSLRs.  These people often have the vague notion that a better camera will take better pictures, but that’s often not the case.  As we’ve already seen, expensive cameras aren’t filled with Magic Crystals that cause the camera to take perfect pictures.

This particular series of articles was triggered by a reader named Erin, who asked me the following question:

This has been a great information source for me thank you so much! I feel I am at the max on my newbie camera (Canon Rebel XTi) and need to get a more sophisticated camera now – scary thought :( but I am glad I am realizing the limitations, it shows I am learning something. Do you have any recommendations for the next step camera?

We had a good discussion about it, which you’re welcome to read for yourself if you’d like.   Like many people, I suspect that Erin was vaguely expecting that I would recommend the Cakon D283M20LMNOP as the perfect upgrade from her XTi.  Instead, I responded by asking questions.

When people want to upgrade their camera bodies, I generally try to talk them out of it.  As I said in my last entry, the quality of a photographer’s images are far more dependent on the skill of the shooter and the lenses used than they are on the camera body.  I would hate for someone to spend a lot of money on a new camera only to be disappointed that they didn’t get a miraculous improvement in their images.

Does that mean that you should never upgrade your camera body?  No way.  I’ve done it twice since I bought my first dSLR, and I haven’t regretted either one.  I generally ask potential upgraders one major question, and that question is big enough that I’m going to ask it in bold:  In what way are you feeling limited by your current camera?

What I’m looking for in the response is for them to articulate a concrete reason or reasons why the current body is holding them back, and then why a new body would help them overcome that hurdle.  There’s no right or wrong answer except for vague, fuzzy notions about better pictures.

Here’s the story of my first dSLR upgrade:

It’s 2 a.m.  I’m standing on top of a hill in Henderson, Nevada, trying to get the perfect panoramic image of the Las Vegas skyline.  I’ve been playing in the World Series of Poker for two days straight, and I’m exhausted.  I’ve also just made some money in the event, so I have about ten grand burning a hole in my pocket.  It’s surprisingly cold for June.  It’s windy.  I’m freezing my butt off, and I really just want to get the shot so I can go to sleep.  Because it’s a panoramic image with lots of shots, I have the camera in manual everything mode, including manual focus.   This should be easy– I level and align the tripod, focus, set the exposure, then just rotate the camera while taking a sequence of exposures.  I’ve done this dozens of times, and I can do it in my sleep.

Well, except for one thing.  I can’t focus!  I was using a Canon Rebel XT, and that camera has a viewfinder that wants to be postage-stamp sized when it grows up– it’s really tiny.  I have a very clear memory of watching the red neon on the side of the Rio swim before my eyes, and I just could not get it to focus.   I’m generally an extremely calm person, but I quite literally found myself yelling obscenities at the camera, and barely managed to keep myself from throwing the camera over the side of the ravine.

I bought a 5D about 12 hours later, and I have no regrets.

When you read that story, can you see where I was feeling limited by my body?  I bet you can.  The small viewfinder made it too challenging for me to focus manually.  I do a lot of manual focus work, not just panoramas, so this was a big deal for me.  There were other reasons as well, chief of which was that the Rebel’s high-ISO performance was giving me too much noise.  I do a lot of indoor, low-light shooting, so having better performance at higher ISOs would give me more latitude with those shots.  Did it work?  Just today I was notified that three of my images have been selected for an upcoming art show.

So going back to my question– yes, you should upgrade when you can articulate a clear set of reasons why your current body is holding you back, and why a new body will help you overcome those problems.  Making that list is really good discipline, since it helps you think through the issues and come to a decision.  You might find out that you don’t really need a new body after all, just a change in the way you use your current one.

Articulating your reasons for upgrading has a really nifty second benefit, too– it’s a perfect shopping list for your next camera.  If you know you need a camera with a larger, brighter viewfinder, you can narrow your focus to just cameras that fit that need.  If you need faster shooting, say because you do a lot of action sports shots, that’s a deciding factor.  If you need a camera that also cooks your dinner and whispers sweet nothings in your ear, well, go read science fiction.  Or invent one and get rich.

Oh, yes.  There’s one other “bad” reason for upgrading– I need more megapixels.  Unless you’re doing lots of printing at large sizes, you probably don’t need more megapixels.  More megapixels sounds cool, but in reality the bigger images can just be a hassle.  They take more space on your flash cards, more space on your computer’s hard drive, and are slower and more cumbersome to edit.  I say this with the conviction of someone who owns cameras of 8, 12, and 21 megapixels… and multiple terabytes of disk space.

So yes, you should buy a new camera if you understand exactly what problem a new camera will solve.  The one you should buy is the one that meets those expanded needs.

I hope this saves you money!  And thank you Erin for giving me the final nudge to write this article.

Next, I’ll talk about how to choose your first dSLR.


Filed under Discussion, Equipment

15 responses to “Should I buy a new camera? Which one?

  1. Hi, I read your article and it help me to some extend. I currently have a canon 350d with a canon 28-135mm lens. And I’m really struggling in low light indoor events, where i take most of my pictures. I’m looking to upgrade but cannot decide what would be the best between a 5D or the new 7D. And also between a 24-105L or a 24-70L. I would really appreciate it if someone could help me?

  2. stopshootingauto

    First off, f3/5.-5.6 is really slow.

    I’ll deal with the lenses first. A lot depends upon what you’re shooting. Is it fast-moving? If so, the 24-70 f/2.8L is probably a better choice, because it’s f/2.8. If it’s slow-paced stuff, then the 24-105 f/4L will give you more reach, plus image stabilization.

    It would help if you were more specific about the problems you’re encountering. Are the images too noisy? Do you get motion blur? Camera shake?

    • Thanks for the reply. It is mostly artists on stage, and the people attending the concerts that I shoot.

      And I’m struggling with not having enough light, and if do try and push my iso to 1200 the images are to noisy. I hope this gives you a better idea.

      • stopshootingauto

        Have you tried shooting with the 50mm f/1.8 or the 50mm f/1.4? They will give you a lot more light to work with.

      • No I haven’t but your not the first to mention the 50mm. And how do they compare to the prime lenses? But that still leaves me with the camera, would I still upgrade? If yes, to what the 50D or the new 7D, sorry not the 5D like I said at the top.

      • stopshootingauto

        The 50mm lenses are primes. Primes are just lenses that have one focal length, as opposed to zooms that can vary. In other words, a 28-75mm is a zoom, and a 50mm is a prime. In terms of quality, both of them produce excellent images. The 50mm f/1.8 is a steal at around $100, but the downside is that it’s made of plastic rather than metal so it’s not as rugged. The 50mm f/1.4 is built like a tank, but it’s also a fair bit more expensive.

        I’d recommend trying one of those lenses and deciding whether it improves things for you before buying a new body.

        In terms of bodies, I haven’t used the 7D, only briefly glanced at the specs. The major difference between them is that the 5D (both original and Mark II) use a full-frame sensor. The 7D is a crop-sensor camera. If you have any EF-S mount lenses, they won’t work on a 5D body. Even with EF lenses, the 5D will show you every weakness in your glass.

        On the flip side, the 5D has exceptionally good high-ISO performance, and the Mark II is even better. I routinely shoot at ISO 800-1600 on those bodies and have very little noise. Today I wanted some pictures of my kittens, and I wanted to do it in existing light without using a flash. I whipped out the 5D Mark II and set it to ISO 3200, and I got acceptably good results. They were a little bit noisy, especially since I boosted the exposure in Photoshop, but you only see it when you look at the full-res images.

  3. Scott

    Just stumbled upon your website tonight at work while looking around at new cameras and lenses.. I must say, you have enlightened me on many things. I have always been confused about all the fstop apertures and shutter stuff… but its starting to click now..

    I was thinking about getting a new camera and stuff.. was looking at the new canon d60 and was wondering your opinions.. also, my curent camera.. the rebel xt was thinking of getting this lens.(more for nephew little league games and the like)..

    thanks for your dedication.

    • stopshootingauto

      In my opinion, mirror lenses (which is what the 800mm is) are pretty much just toys. They have a constant aperture, usually f/8, and the image quality is mediocre at best.

      Everything I’ve heard about the 60D is that it will be a fabulous camera. As I always do, though, I have to ask– in what way is your current camera limiting you? What problems are you trying to solve by buying a new camera?

      • Scott

        Well, honestly.. really only thing I dont like about the 350d is that I cannot use the viewscreen to set up the shots.. im always having to look thru the viewfinder and figured if I had a viewscreen I might be able to get some different angles .. and like I said, was also looking at trying to find a good lens to shoot some Little league action ;-). or if you think the ones that came with my set would be good enough if I start playing with the settings more.. I currently have the 28-105 and the 75-300 4-5.6 lens


    • stopshootingauto

      I can’t keep nesting replies, unfortunately.

      I’m the wrong person to ask about live view. I have it on my 5D Mark II, but I’ve never really found a use for it. The 350D does have a teeny, tiny viewfinder, though, and that’s one of the reasons I upgraded mine a few years ago. I’m told that live view eats batteries like crazy, BTW.

      75-300 is a good range for little league, I would think. What aren’t you capturing that you would like?

  4. scott

    Well, what I can’t seem to get are the good action shots. You know Pitcher in middle of delivery, batter swinging. I can get stationary shots ok. By reading thru the info here I’m thinking I will need more light. But not sure if that will mean upgrade lens or “playin” with settings. I do more portrait shots than sports shots at the moment, but want to be ABLE to do if asked. Hope I’m not babblin to much


  5. stopshootingauto

    What problems are you having? Are you getting motion blur?

    Can you share the EXIF data for a couple of problem shots? ISO, aperture, shutter speed?

  6. scott

    Yeah, getting a lot of blur. And the images seem to dark and grainy. I don’t have any data caise I shot these all in that ols standby feature. AUTO. Lol. I started today playing with the settings. I have learned that the biggest apeture I have is 4. And judging by the apture value to zoom level. I would say that most of my sports shots were have been done at about 5.6 or so (total guestamate)
    Sorry I can’t give you any factual info. What I will do on my days off work is set up flickr and put up a couple of my bad shots. So you can get a look at what I’m talking about

    • stopshootingauto

      You can still get exposure information if it was shot in auto– the camera records all of its exposure data. If you send a shot to Flickr and allow Flickr to show the data, it will give you fairly detailed info. Check this one out:


  7. Scott

    i put a few pics up for ya to look at and evaluate for me.. be kind.. these are my real first attempts at trying to capture action

    you should have flikr mail with my name


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