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I'm basically a Rockwell-esque 'Dad With a Camera' and take lots of pics of my family, with aspirations to get into formal portraiture. I've already took my first steps into corporate headshots, and have other outlets to work on 'photo essay' type stuff in the field, working with natural light.

I currently use a D3400, and have the DX 35mm lens, and the 50mm. I plan on getting the 85mm to round the set out, although it will have uses limited to primarily headshots due to the crop factor.

Anyway, I am finding that I do not like the noise I get at usual ISO settings (800–6400 for me in the conditions I shoot in), and find that the AF doesn't keep up with moving targets as well as I'd like. Basically, I want better low light performance, and more 'keepers,' so figure an upgrade is on the cards.

I have been looking at the D7500 and the D500, and have come to the conclusion that low-light performance is only going to be negligibly better, although feature-wise I'm going to get a lot of extras that will help me net more keepers.

What would my upgrade be here for maximum $1,500 that can deliver better low-light performance, has a better AF, and is a part of the Nikon line?

Part of me is even looking at an older full-frame camera like the D700 or similar, but I'd need to also factor in getting an FX 35mm, which my budget of around $1,500 is going to stretch. I'm undecided whether to keep my D3400 and 35mm around as a spare and a 'house' camera.

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    "Part of me is even looking at an older full-frame camera like the D700 ". That is a very old one, why not the D750, D800 or D810? I think you can get any of those with your budget. – Orbit Feb 12 at 15:52
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    All else aside, bear in mind if you go to an FX body, your 50mm will fill the frame similarly to how your DX35mm did, & your proposed 85 will similarly frame like your current 50mm setup, so you may not feel the need to immediately replace the 35 as well. – Tetsujin Feb 12 at 16:33
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    Practice and knowledge will increase your keeper rate. – Alaska Man Feb 12 at 18:48
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    snicker you can always do what we do for insects- put them in the 'fridge for a little bit... the cold slows them down :) – J.Hirsch Feb 12 at 20:55
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What is my upgrade path from a D3400 for better low light performance, that will also increase my keeper rate?

Lights, modifiers, and stands, not different cameras and more lenses.

If you want to get serious about portraiture and headshots, you're going to have to learn how to use lights. For your currently stated budget you can outfit yourself fairly well.

Something like:

  • A Godox XPro-N trigger for about $70
  • Two Godox TT600 manual flashes with built in X-system radios for about $60 each (use 4 AA batteries) or two Godox V850II flashes that are basically the TT600 with a Lithium-Ion rechargeable battery that gives faster recycling times and about the same number of "pops" as three sets of AAs in the TT600 for about $150 each
  • One or two budget priced studio monolights such as the Godox SK400II ($139 each) or Godox QS400II ($210 each)
  • Light stands for each flash from about $30 for the speedlights to about $50-60 for the heavier monolight
  • Some cheap two-way (shoot-through and reflector) umbrellas for about $20-30 per set
  • A softbox or two for when the spill from the umbrellas is a bit more than you want for anywhere from $30 or so for small ones to $$$ for large high end ones with all price points in between
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  • I neglected to mention it in my post, but I currently own a few flashes that get used, and a bunch of modifiers that always come with me when I'm shooting around. However, I take your advice onboard, although my issues with regards to low light performance (and less urgently AF performance) still stand. – tomdot Feb 12 at 15:19
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    Many on camera flash triggers include an AF assist light. The only way to get less noise in low light is to add light. Used skillfully, it does not have to totally overpower the ambient light and change to "mood" of the scene. – Michael C Feb 12 at 15:45
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Your wish is the wish of every other photographer in the world. The simple fact is that physics dictate what is possible, and the compromises you have to make are hard.

Cameras do not do well in low light conditions. If you're indoors and needing high motion, you're going to need a strobe. Bounce it off the ceiling all the time to help mitigate the harshness, but fundamentally you can't squeeze more photons out of the environment that aren't there.

You can go to higher speed glass- f1.2- and you'll love it. You'll also pay for it in both number of frames that are in focus as well as your pocket book. That DOF is shallow, which will result in more photos 'out of focus'.

Fundamentally you can go to a smaller sensor. That will increase your DOF and permit higher speed lenses. That compromise is one I can't make, but it would require retooling all of your gear.

Various noise reduction options exist but they all take time to process and learn.

I believe the strobe aimed at the ceiling, or a bounce flash that has a small card/window. I made my own 2 decades ago (sigh), but now they're cheap and everywhere.

Good luck; I know it's not the answers you wanted to hear.

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    Yes, I have a number of strobes and modifiers, and they all get used frequently. A razor-thin DOF isn't my bag, and doesn't work well when I'm shooting a kids party of what have you. I understand the sensor in my camera is really good, and probably isn't going to have too much to give in a more expensive model of camera. – tomdot Feb 12 at 15:22
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    For kids at a party- I literally lit my daughter's first birthday party with studio strobes aimed at the ceiling. I also put a soft box in front of her when she was opening presents. I was 'that' Dad. I haven't done it since, but if the venue permits it a strobe popping at the ceiling is very effective at removing lights. Get radio slaves, however (they're cheap now, sigh) instead of optical to prevent people from 'stealing' your light. – J.Hirsch Feb 12 at 15:39

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