Should you “upgrade” your camera?

Who doesn’t love new gear? I do, but lately a few posts online have caught my attention because people think a mirrorless camera is an automatic upgrade; in particular “full frame” models. I’m talking Nikon and Canon here, mostly since they are the last to the mirrorless table. In some ways it is – more features, improved I.Q., improved focusing etc., but will those things make you a better photographer? I’m not going to tell you whether you should or should not upgrade, but rather give you some things to consider before you spend your money.

Consider need versus want

Almost no one NEEDS to upgrade. Outgrowing a digital camera is pretty difficult to do. Think about it this way – if you handed your kit to a photographer you admire, could she do better than you? In almost every case the answer is yes. It’s not what’s in front of your eyes, but what’s behind them that will make you better. Learning, practicing, building skills both in the field and in editing. That’s what makes a better photographer.

Consider what you have

Any camera made in the last, lets say 10 years, is a pretty advanced image capture device. Once digital hit, the improvements came like an avalanche. Things we never had we now can’t live without. So, go get a book published before 2000 that features excellent photography. I don’t care what genre. Look at what people could do. With low tech. With film. With rigid parameters. Really look. Study your favorite photographer’s photos from 2010. Anything there still worthy or do you bin the shots because they only had an 8MP camera? The flagship cameras (and even a lowly consumer-grade rig) were and still are good machines capable of producing terrific pictures. Camera companies want you to feel your gear is inadequate even as they were trumpeting its game-changing capabilities 2 years ago. They will do the same again with the latest sexy beast you are drooling over right now.

Consider what you need

Are you missing shots? What’s your keeper rate? Is there a particular type of photography you can’t do because of your camera? How deeply have you dived into your camera’s features? What is it about the photos you’ve been taking that makes you unsatisfied? Is your camera starting to get physically beat? Sometimes a little honesty is all that’s needed. I put off upgrading to my current camera until the first price drop because my GH3 was still working just fine because I’m a little bit money conscious that way and because I was pretty honest about what I kinds of pictures I was taking and liked to take. Would the G9 change any of that right away? I wasn’t convinced.

Consider your lenses

They say to marry your lenses and date your camera. Better glass will almost always make a more noticeable improvement than a new camera. I’m not going to tar all kit lenses with the suck brush, but many are noticeably less sharp and produce more flaws like chromatic aberration than their more expensive counterparts. When I first wanted to get into wildlife photography, I bought an inexpensive long zoom just to see if I’d like doing that kind of work and if I was any good at it. After using it more and more for two years, I upgraded to a better class of lens at three times the price. Was it worth it? Absolutely. The image quality is noticeably better.

If you use Lightroom or a catalog software that can filter and sort by lens, take a look at which you use most and analyze the results. Are those the shots that don’t work? Is it that lens that’s underperforming? Then that’s the one that should get upgraded first.

If you decide to pull the trigger on a new camera, buy the best main working lens you can even if it means you only buy one. I did this when I moved to Panasonic and bought a Lumix GH3 with the more expensive 12-35mm f/2.8 lens. Not only did it have a constant f/2.8 aperture, but better glass, weather-sealing and more rugged construction. Nine years later it is still my go-to walking around lens. Even though there is a Mark II version, the firmware upgrades for it and its counterpart 35-100mm f/2.8 help them remain viable and more than usable on my much newer Lumix G9.

Consider other skills

Maybe learning better lens handling or compositional skills could result in better photos. Take a workshop. Buy some books. Maybe some online tutorials. Join The Nature Photographers Network and submit your work for critique. There is no replacement for field skills. Learning lens properties and when to use what, composition, framing, dead-on exposure, bracketing – these make the biggest differences above any gear or any other tool. Connecting your creative vision to your ability to fully realize it separates a snapshot from art.

Consider post-processing

Editing is an extension of your field work – the endpoint of your vision and what you wanted to express with the photo you took the time to take. Think about how you use your software and whether it’s the right tool for the job. Do you use most or all of the things it can do? I’m not saying that bad pictures can be saved with processing, but this is just as important an element as your field knowledge and it’s important to keep your skills sharp and your apps up to date.

Consider other gear

Ahem *cough*Tripod*cough. Most photography can be improved with this one simple piece of kit, yet it is often overlooked for too long with the average photographer. Put simply, a tripod is your sharpest lens. Using one will give you choices you don’t have for handheld work. It can make you slow down and consider other compositions and that’s a good thing. How about a flash or an LED panel? A blind for wildlife? Sometimes the right accessory is what gets you the shot, not the camera.

Consider file size

Bigger sensors produce bigger files which will need bigger drives, more memory and faster CPUs to process them. So you’ll have to shell out for the new camera, lenses and maybe computers and hard drives, too.

Consider renting

This is an easy way to make sure the rig you’re dying for is really right for you. Will it have weird ergonomics, be too heavy or awkward to carry. Will the way it produces colors please you? Will you use the fabulous new features you think you can’t live without? Will your old lenses still work? All these things and more can come from a few weeks using the camera, but without the full commitment.

Consider buying used

Just like a good used car, a good used camera is a great way to get high-end features at a low-end price. Let someone else take the hit for buying the latest and greatest. After all, that 5-year old professional flagship camera probably has a lot of life in it.

Consider the images in this post

All the photos were done with various cameras spanning back to 2010. Can you tell what was done on what? I doubt it. Oh and all were done on M4/3 cameras. The smallest sensor in the pack. I know I’m supposed to feel inadequate or amateurish because I haven’t “upgraded”. It’s funny how that seems to be the prevailing opinion. Not the photos produced, but the gear it was captured with. Bizarre and very, very male. Bigger must always be better. The tool is always more important than what’s done with it. Yeah, I went there, but I find it an obvious comparison. And don’t #notallmen at me. I know.

Anyway, one last plug for M4/3 – image quality and weight. One is high one is low. Which do you want to drag around the countryside with you? If all my gear fell into a black hole, I’d probably buy another G9 and if not the exact same lenses, a very similar kit. Or maybe even the new and very sexy OM-1.

This post isn’t here to tell you what to do, only to give you some ideas to think about when you feel the pressure to “upgrade”. And it is pressure. Cameras in the old days lasted years or even decades without an “upgrade”. Companies relied on attracting new users and retaining customers with new lenses, but even with those the pace was slower. Planned obsolescence was barely a thing, now it drives everything.

So I’ll wrap up. Enjoy what you have. Enjoy new gear. Enjoy the process. Have fun and don’t feel guilty, ashamed or bad about the camera you have or what you do with it.

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