19

As the question says, when should I upgrade my camera body? In particular, if I have a low- to mid-range body (A DSLR such as a Nikon D3200 or Nikon D5100, or Canon SL1 or T5, or a mirrorless camera such as a Panasonic GH3 or an Olympus E-PL6). How do I know when I need to upgrade?

I have a complement of "kit" lenses, such as an 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 and a 55-200mm f4-5.6. Maybe I've even added a 50mm 1.8 to the kit. Flash is only for indoors (right?) and I usually shoot outside, so that means I don't need an external flash.

I shoot photos of my family and friends whether out at the park or having a picnic, my kids sports practices and games, vacation photos, as well as some landscapes, flowers, and whatever else catches my eye. Pretty familiar territory. I'm not a professional and don't intend to become one.

27

You need to upgrade your camera when, and only when, you need a camera that can do something in particular that your current camera can not. This is not only true for your camera body but for your lenses and any other accessories that you might need in order to produce a photo you desire.

The specific reasons for upgrading a camera body can be as varied as the different photographs one might wish to take. Here are just a few of them.

  • Perhaps you need a faster, more accurate autofocus to capture fast moving subjects more consistently.
  • Perhaps you need a camera with more direct controls that allow you to change settings quickly without having to take your eye away from the viewfinder to deal with rapidly changing shooting conditions.
  • Perhaps you need a camera that can take bursts at a faster frame rate and for a longer sustained period to maintain coverage through a sequence of events that you wish to record from start to finish.
  • Perhaps you need the ability to do some basic in-camera editing and maybe even convert some raw files to jpeg so that you can move time-sensitive pictures to their destination faster.
  • Perhaps you need a camera that can weather more harsh conditions without being damaged by them. Or a camera that will hold up to more frequent and heavy usage and last longer.
  • Perhaps you wish to produce photographs that can be displayed at larger sizes that require a sensor with more resolution.
  • Perhaps you desire shallower Depth-of-Field than is practical with the sensor size of your current camera, even with fast lenses with apertures as wide as f/2, f/1.8, or even f/1.4 and f/1.2. Assuming your lenses are compatible with the larger format, a larger sensor gives the ability for shallower DoF to all of them.
  • Perhaps you need a better signal-to-noise ratio for extreme low light situations. Improvements in noise reduction and post processing can only take you so far. And whatever techniques you learn that work well with a lower/older/smaller sensor model will work that much better with a newer/better/larger sensor model.

Until you can articulate exactly what you wish to do photographically that your current body or other gear doesn't allow you to do you don't yet need an upgrade. It is even better if you can articulate exactly how you expect the newer camera will allow you to accomplish what your current camera doesn't. It is fine if you wish to upgrade without needing to and can afford to do so, but don't expect the change in gear to make a marked improvement in your images until you actually need what the newer gear will offer. Because until your skill level and vision demands the improved capability of the newer camera (or lens, or lighting, etc.), you're not going to be able to take advantage of the improved capability the newer gear offers you.


Here's an example of this concept from my last upgrade.

Shooting Scenario: Friday Night Lights

For several years I've shot high school football and marching bands at night under artificial stadium lights that flicker at 120Hz. My normal shooting arrangement was to use an APS-C Canon 7D with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens and a FF camera with a wider lens (usually either a 24-105mm f/4 IS or 17-40mm). Due to the need to use faster shutter speeds so as to freeze the action with the telephoto lens, coupled with the way focal plane shutters accomplish exposure times shorter than the camera's sync speed, this often resulted in shots that were well focused and timed to capture the exact moment I wished but which were affected by the differences in color and brightness that resulted from the variation in the intensity and color of the lights as the slit between the first and second shutter curtains transited across the image sensor. The faster the shutter speed selected, the narrower the slit between the two curtains, and the more pronounced the effect of the flickering lights would be. One side of the frame could be dark and a brownish looking color and the other side much brighter and a cooler color temperature. Or the entire frame could be dark and brown (when the shutter transit time was centered on the lights at their dimmest) or too bright and much cooler in color (when the shutter transit time was centered on the lights at their peak). Post processing these images was extremely time-intensive and many otherwise good images were unusable due to the problem with flickering lights.

Problem: Dealing with Flickering Stadium Lighting

I pay a little attention to forthcoming product introductions, but I'm far from obsessed by them. For years the word of an impending replacement for the 7D had been coming down the pike. By the time the Canon 7D Mark II was officially announced I had little interest in ever buying another APS-C camera. In order to take advantage of the superior AF system of the FF Canon 5D Mark III, compared to the more inconsistent AF system of the 7D, I had begun to use the 5D3 with my 70-200 and an older 5D2 with the wider lens much of the time when shooting under lights at night. This gave me more consistent AF performance, but did nothing for the problem with flickering lights. I also gave up the "extra reach" of the APS-C camera which is a rather significant consideration when comparing the difference in cost between a 70-200mm f/2.8 and a 300mm f/2.8 lens!

Then I read a review of the newer 7D and one word describing a new feature leap off the screen at me: anti-flicker. Of course the first question I wanted to ask was, "Does it really work?". This was closely followed by my follow-up question: "How good is the new AF system based on the same one in the full frame 1D X and 5D3, but still with the narrower baseline due to the size of the APS-C mirror? After several months of researching those two questions and learning everything I could I decided to acquire a 7D Mark II before the beginning of the next fall's season.

Solution: Canon 7D Mark II with Flicker Reduction

I've been very happy with the upgrade. The single feature for which I purchased the camera has led to measurable improvements. Some of them are related to image quality, while others are related to the efficiency with which I can deliver images. And the AF system in the 7D Mark II is much better than the AF system in my original 7D, although it is still not quite as good as the AF system in my 5D Mark III.

  • Because the lights are at their peak when the shutter is released, depending on the particulars of the lighting in a specific venue I can actually shoot anywhere from 1/2 to 2/3 to one full stop faster and still get the same exposure levels I got previously when I set exposure based on the average intensity of the lights rather than their peak. In the same stadiums where I once shot at f/2.8 and 1/500 second, I can now shoot at 1/800 or even 1/1000 second at the same aperture and ISO. Many times this is the difference for what I shoot between freezing the action and having the feet/legs and arms/hands of the athlete blurry with their movement.
  • By releasing the shutter when the lights are at their peak in the cycle, every image shot in a burst has the same brightness and color. This allows me to apply the same WB and exposure correction to the vast majority of the raw images in post processing. My work flow is no longer bottlenecked by the need to custom color-correct every image separately.
  • The consistency between each frame also means jpeg images generated in-camera are also the same brightness and color and much more likely to be usable straight out of camera (when I set the correct exposure).
  • With both raw images and jpegs, the entire frame has a consistent exposure level and color. Players on opposite sides of the frame wearing jerseys for the same team actually look like they are wearing the same color!
  • 3
    I really like the first section of this answer. I'm not sure that the detailed account of why you upgraded to the 7D MkII adds quite as much value, but it was an interesting read ;) – dpollitt Nov 25 '15 at 14:50
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    I felt perhaps it would help illustrate the concept: Identify the specific problem that a potential upgrade might solve and then find a specific solution that deals with that particular problem. – Michael C Nov 25 '15 at 15:40
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    And it is as detailed as it is to show that a statement such as "my images aren't sharp enough" is not enough justification for a higher resolution sensor or new lens until the poor images have been analyzed to determine the root cause of the problem. Perhaps shutter speeds too slow for using a camera handheld are the true culprit. – Michael C Nov 25 '15 at 15:43
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    A really awesome answer, Michael! – Dan Wolfgang Nov 25 '15 at 16:15
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    In my opinion he's wasting money buying gear that doesn't improve his photography. Because better gear won't improve anyone's photography unless they have the skill and vision needed to use the new gear better than what they are currently using. He should spend it on a class instead. – Michael C Nov 25 '15 at 18:15
12

You should only upgrade when you need to. Chances are good you won't wait that long or be that sensible. ;)

So, basically, to me, it comes down to a few "tipping points" as to when "upgrading" (more realistically you may be sidegrading [e.g., crop to full frame], or expanding [e.g., adding mirrorless to a dSLR rather than replacing it]) has been worth it for me. You will find these reasons not unlike those that decide when it's time to purchase a car. In order of most-sensible to least they are:

  • When your current camera dies and you have nothing to shoot with.

  • [Personal "worth it" metric--your eventual value may vary] When the sum of the new camera body's tier and generation counts above/after my old one is at least 3, and my old body is getting near that 100k click mark.

  • When your frustration level with your current gear makes letting go of money you've set aside more than worth it--and you've done enough research to know how the new gear eliminates (or reduces) the frustration. [May involve discovering previously-unknown/unresearched tradeoffs after purchase that may equalize frustration more than envisioned].

  • When you can find a rockin' deal (usually used or refurb)

  • Just because you damn well want it that bad.

However. Keep in mind that nearly ANY other piece of gear you can purchase will hold value longer and better than a camera body. Lenses, flashes, and support gear can be used across multiple cameras. They tend not be replaced every 1-3 years, and they also tend to hold value better on the used market. Camera bodies depreciate even while they're still new.

And, in addition, experience and training often count for more when it comes to image quality than any piece of gear. If the goal is to get better photographs, then your money may actually be better spent on airline tickets, or a seminar, or books and training videos than on any camera body.

8

I am going to answer this from the perspective of "want" rather than "Need" which has been handled really well by Michael Clarks answer.

Unless you are a Pro and the camera is just a tool, the whole feeling of owning a new camera for enthusiasts and hobbyists, is amazing. Its equal to driving a new car straight from the forecourt.

For most enthusiasts, it is more than just a need, it is a want, a desire! A desire to own a new camera. A new camera brings with it renewed motivation. An invigorating desire to play with your new toy! To instinctively start doing those thing once again that you did with your previous camera.

It creates a desire to learn new things, spend hours studying the manual and looking up videos and ultimately opens up your self realisation as to what your potential is and what you can achieve!

It increases your self esteem when others compliment you on your new camera and images produced, and motivates you to produce better content.

The point I am making; although logic dictates, we should only upgrade our camera when there is an absolute need for it, there are times when.

"Need to Buy" has to be put to one side, and make way for, "want to Buy".

A new camera may not necessarily produce better images, but much like your car which feels as if it drives better after a valet, you will feel the same with your new camera and as a result, you will naturally strive to produce better images.

If you happen to be someone who loves photography, always carried your camera, but now seem to be lacking that motivation and in need of some drive, then it may just be time you went and bought yourself a new Camera!

  • 1
    So just to be clear, you are arguing that the time to upgrade your camera is when the "new" factor of your current camera wears off? When exactly is that? – dpollitt Nov 25 '15 at 15:02
  • @dpollitt Not arguing, but providing an alternative perspective that can end up being the compelling event which can lead to the purchase of a new camera. How do we measure these emotions is difficult but we can say that the emotion-evocative stimuli from the barrage of adverts for new technology and how it will improve our images, has a greater effect on the buying behaviour of someone who has perhaps either a low to Mid level camera as they strive for something higher in quality. When does the novelty wear off with regards to their current equipment, is subjective to them as an individual. – Abdul Quraishi Nov 25 '15 at 15:55
  • I didn't mean "arguing" in a negative way. I meant "answering". So would you say that this is a subjective question then? – dpollitt Nov 25 '15 at 17:00
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    There are 2 sets of rules when purchasing. Objective, to which I belong to now as I have managed to acquire gear relevant to my needs and will only upgrade if need arises and Subjective, where Hobbyist and enthusiasts with Low/Mid Level cams sit. Saying that, I myself did an emotional purchase of 5Ds with a 16-35mm lens this year for no other reason other than, “I want one, and I am going to do Landscape". Fortunately, the camera has turned out to be a great investment and brought about some new opportunities for me. I say, without a doubt, subjective emotion plays a big part when purchasing. – Abdul Quraishi Nov 25 '15 at 17:24
  • The question does not ask whether or not subjective emotion is a big part of many folks' buying decisions. Rather, it asks, "When should I update?" It does not ask, "Why did I update?" – Michael C Aug 22 at 5:38
1

As something of a Luddite, I believe a camera body should be upgraded only when the existing one limits what you can do when trying to take photographs. When upgrading camera kit, other priorities are widening the range of lenses possessed; buying better quality lenses; buying accessories that, with the existing kit to achieve the desired photographic outcomes (tripod, flash, gaffer tape, etc); improving the shooter's skill level by practice and attempting new things.

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    Also using post processing methods, e.g. if you want less noise in night shots but you are not into image stacking and this is an option (if static scenes are the main focus) then you could opt for getting familiar with such methods instead of buying a lower noise camera. – Count Iblis Nov 24 '15 at 18:42
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    True to a degree, but whatever improved post processing methods work well with an older APS-C model can also be applied and will work that much better with a newer FF model. – Michael C Nov 25 '15 at 8:48
0

(I am grouping the bullets, because I think the first group is a more general reason to upgrade than the second group)

Some specific reasons could be:

  • Better low light performance, either higher ISO or less noise at the same ISO
  • More Megapixels
  • More focus points
  • You want to shoot video and your currenc camera can not.

  • More FPS
  • Two memory slots
  • Ergonomics? Bigger screen? Articulated screen? Aditional button?
  • Aditional features, like Micro focusing?
  • Sharper images, using a bigger sensor.
  • Marketing?

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