When starting out in photography, it’s hard to resist the temptation to go out and spend a boat load of money on the best pro level camera body. Most people when first starting, myself included, think that a better camera always makes better pictures.
It doesn’t take long before the harsh truth sinks in, and we all realize that the camera is the least important factor in great photography. No matter how good the camera, we all still need to learn to see in order to make great photos. However, there is a time and place for newer and better cameras and lenses. The question is, how do you know when that time has arrived for you?
Best doesn’t guarantee better
Now by all means if you can afford to go out and buy Canon’s flagship 1DX, about $5,300 (with current rebates at the time of this writing) or Nikon’s D810, about $3,000 (with current rebates at the time of writing) for your very first DSLR be my guest. Just know that having the best won’t automatically make your pictures better than they would have been had you bought a $500-$600 entry level DSLR.
The same is true when it comes to lenses. The best may offer better features than the cheaper, more budget friendly “kit” lenses, but better pictures isn’t inherently one of them.
Better, stronger, faster!
Now that I’ve talked you out of spending your hard earned money on a newer and better camera or lens, let’s talk about when and why you should.
Whether sports or wildlife is your thing, you may very well find the autofocus system on an entry level camera unable to quickly acquire or maintain focus on fast moving subjects. One of my favorite things to photograph is dragonflies. They are small and fast, and they don’t sit still for very long. In order to increase my rate of “keeper” images one of the things I look for when upgrading camera bodies is fast and accurate autofocus.
High ISO performance.
If you do a lot of low light photography, such as photographing the Milky Way, indoor concerts, or any other situation where you’ll be required to increase the ISO setting of your camera in order to get a proper exposure, you’re likely going to be concerned with digital noise, or grain, in you pictures.
Higher end models handle this noise better than entry level cameras, and full frame sensor cameras handle noise better than APS-Cs, also known as crop sensor cameras, do. The above shot was taken with a Canon 7D MkII at ISO 6400. Had I been using my previous 7D, or the 40D before that, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish the stars from the noise. The photo would have been unusable. My recent move from the 7D MkII (APS-C sensor) the the 5D MkIII (full frame sensor) will result in even less noise in photos like this one.
Buttons, wheels and other features.
Another good reason to upgrade camera bodies are the improved features and button layouts of models higher up the line. These improvements in themselves won’t make for better photos, but they can often make getting better photos easier and faster.
For example, on Canon cameras once you get above the Rebel series and into the xxD (semi-pro) or xD (pro) series, you get a Quick Control dial. The Quick Control dial is the large dial with the “Set” button in the center of it. I won’t own a camera without it and several of my workshop clients who own a Rebel series camera start thinking of upgrading as soon as they’ve tried it.
This dial makes it super easy to dial in exposure compensation and change either shutter speed or aperture, depending on which function you give the button. No more button presses and scrolling through various menus to make a quick and simple setting change.
This brings me to another point – customization. I can give almost any button or dial on the 5D MkIII, shown above, a custom function.
Using the Quick Control dial again as an example: in aperture priority mode I can quickly dial in some positive or negative exposure compensation as needed. For manual mode, I was also able to change its function altogether. In manual, right out of the box, the Quick Control dial sets aperture and the wheel on top of the camera just behind the shutter button, controls shutter speed. That was never intuitive to me so I switched their functions. Now the top wheel sets aperture and the dial takes care of shutter speed.
When should you upgrade?
Upgrading your camera by itself won’t make better photos.
What a new and better performing camera can do is make it easier to make the photos you want and make it possible to make photos you couldn’t before through improvements like better autofocus, high ISO performance or a whole slew of other features and improvements.
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