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.