What are the pros and cons of buying an older higher-level camera if the price is about the same as a new entry-level one?
I had to decide the same thing a short time ago, whether to go for a D7000 vs any other camera. The only restriction was that it had to be Nikon because I owned a couple of Nikon fit lenses that I wanted to reuse. First of take a look at:
In summary, if you ask me whether to get a D7000 vs d3300 or d5200 my recomendation is going to be every time to go for the D7000. I own both a d5100 (which my girlfriend uses) and a D7000.
Here're the highlights:
The only real benefit for getting a D5200 over a D7000 would be because of the flip out LCD which allows you to record videos easily and allows for some pictures to be composed easily in some situation without having to get on your knees or lay in the ground. In addition the D5200/D3300 weight a little less and are a little smaller although the difference is not really that big (about 200g and the D7000 being a little bigger).
In summary, go for the D7000 if you can afford it, and specially if you're in doubt between d7000 and a new entry level for the same price...
As a fairly generic answer, I'd go for an older higher level camera every time. To me, higher spec cameras tend to have a longer life span (in terms of shutter actuations), and more solid build than entry level ones. Although saying that it is more likely that they have had heavier use before getting to you. I reckon also that features and specs of high end cameras tend to take a long time to filter down to lower end cameras, so they may balance out over time. You pay a premium for using a large retailer for second hand kit, but at the same time you usually get a warranty (some in the UK offer a whole year's warranty on second hand cameras and lenses). I took a chance and used eBay and got a great deal but it isn't as safe.
To put in context and give my reasoning for this answer, I upgraded from a Canon EOS 350D to an EOS 40D when the 40D had already been out for 6 years, and what a leap it was for me. It was also cheaper than almost any current entry level Canon DSLR.
My first DSLR was a used Canon 30D. I was considering something like this vs. a new Rebel, and I'm convinced I made the right decision. The 30D was so much better in build quality and durability, and it had extra controls for all the settings I found I needed to change regularly (vs. finding a setting in a menu somewhere). It served me well until I traded up to a 40D and later, a 7D.
I can't tell you for certain that I wouldn't have found a lower-end camera suitable to learn with, but on the occasions I've had to pick up low-end Canon & Nikon cameras since I've been shooting, the difference in quality and features is striking. I'm very glad I made the choice I did when I started.
The new, entry level camera will likely have better hardware and software than the older, higher level camera. But the higher level camera will likely have a bigger sensor. The higher level camera will be built with a professional or pro-sumer in mind.
It is not easy to find an older higher-level camera (new OR used) at a price that is even close to a new entry level camera.
If you are an entry level photographer, you cannot go wrong with an entry level camera. It is a great learning device and the cost to own it is a very good deal.
The biggest questions are what are your required features, and what are the generational differences.
Feature requirements can help make it easy to decide what to buy. Deciding between an old pro camera and a new entry-level camera, but want an integrated vertical grip? The pro camera is the only sensible choice. Require a camera the other half won't mind carrying? The entry-level camera is almost definitely a better choice.
Generational differences in digital SLRs can have significant image quality differences. Resolution, dynamic range, and ISO, in particular, advance a little with every generation of camera. Compare the D7000, D5200, and D3300 and you can see that the oldest camera (D7000) is bested by the newer D5200. The D3300 is a mixed bag in that it's a step back on dynamic range but a step forward on color depth and high ISO. These differences are minor (and likely not visible without significant comparison), but each of these are only one generation differences. Compare the D3300 against the D90 (the D7000 predecessor) and there's a big jump in performance that will be visible under a variety of circumstances. If image quality is an ultimate goal then a newer camera will, in general, be the best choice.
In my opinion it boils down to two factors (assuming you mean DSLRs in the low- and mid-range):
Given an amount of money you balance the two based on your current and predicted use of the camera and your capabilities as a photographer.
The pro features are: more buttons giving you direct and quick access to parameters that you might want to set manually (ISO, aperture/shutter speed if you choose between having one or two control wheels, additional LCD panel on top and many more). With these features you can choose the settings you want easier and faster. And for some shots time is crucial.
On the other hand the technological advancement (i.e. a newer camera) gives you better quality of your photos in low-light conditions, better live-mode etc. With a new camera you can easily shoot in a pub with a cheap lens. With an older one it's more tricky and it's good to have a wide-aperture lens.
There are also other non-pro features like adjustable LCD (you can hold your camera above your head or just above the ground for unusual perspective and still frame the shots on the adjustable screen) that also increase the cost.
So you need to choose between having the features that you need and the performance in low-light conditions. Just don't confuse image quality with photo quality. You can take crappy photos with the best, high quality camera and great photos at low quality with an old camera.
In one sentence, based on my opinion: if you can use the features to get better photos, buy the older camera that has these features.
For me it was a choice between D5100 with a great sensor (at the time) and an older D90 with the additional LCD and all the important settings easily available with their own buttons. I've chosen the latter, although I do miss the adjustable screen of D5100.
And I still use my old compact TZ8 camera that fits in the pocket - a great feature on its own, sometimes surpassing the low image quality. It's better to take a low quality photo than miss the opportunity altogether.
You can take amazing photographs with any camera. The trick is to know and understand your equipment. An older professional camera might be more rugged and durable, but might have lower resolution or light sensitivity. It really depends on the specific cameras you are comparing.
A few years ago I was dead set on buying a used 5DMk2 because I wanted a full-frame camera. Just to be sure, I checked it and a brand new 7D out in the store, and fell in love with the ergonomics of the 7D. It had a better AF, grip, and view finder than the 5DMk2.
One final thought: A professional camera might be more rugged than a prosumer camera, but if it was USED by a professional, its probably seen a lot of wear. The new, cheaper camera will be brand new and undamaged.
I'm not saying you shouldn't buy a used camera, just keep it in mind. I would buy used lenses if you are careful about what you are getting.
So to summarize: I wouldn't worry about what your equipment is as much as I would worry about knowing how to take advantage of the equipment.
It is in the nature of design to make compromises. In the context of Camera selection, your purchasing potshot is at a moving target. Until now, the buyer was always forced to compromise - even with the currently "top-rated" camera - and that kept them coming back for more. But first things first.
Beyond the drip-drip of advancing specs, there's the customizations nightmare. Custom peripherals cabling. Custom batteries (cost: as much as a solid third of the camera itself). Custom memory cards. Custom flash. Custom Lenses.
Where too would we be without software that -even after more than a decade in development- leaves the latest and supposedly famous brand camera's lenses locked and useless?
Then there's that unintentional (but inevitable) physical damage. Electronics trashed and guarantee voided by the first encounter with hill mist. Creeping pixel errors. Lense bloom. Scratches.
Obsolescence and perception: resolution too low, sensor not fast enough, blurry telephoto, flash not strong enough.
Finally, the inevitable supply limitations. Even max-possible-sized memory card (or cards of the precise type supported) are at some point simply no longer produced.
The good news? Given the (let's be honest) perfectly acceptable resolution and speed of almost all current offerings (including 2nd-hand), you can relax the technology fetish and concentrate on MINIMIZING YOUR WORRIES.
Concentrate on surprisingly few characteristics and these days you will generally get a decent photo: battery life, card capacity, robustness and waterproofing. All else is either overkill, weight and/or liability.
New lower cost cameras can have impressive credentials. My Sony A55 focuses faster, has higher resolution, and takes better pictures in low light than my "higher end" Sony A700. The A700 has features that I like better than the A55. But the A55 clearly wins the comparison.
The new camera will have a warranty. On the old camera wear and usage can vary from user to user. Really old digital cameras are like really old computers, full of obsolete parts and not really relevant in the fast evolving camera world.
If you are uncertain about what camera model is best for you, how about looking for a used, newer, lower end camera? Spend a few months shooting, and you will better understand what you want in your camera, not what others suggest.