Should you buy a new camera?

 

A common question that’s contemplated is whether or not someone should buy a new camera. Often times, the reason is to improve his or her photos. For most people, the answer is no and I’ll explain why shortly. However, for some instances, upgrading cameras is a good idea. The reason to buy a new camera is dependent on why you think you need it. When I read or hear the reason is to take better pictures, I follow up asking what about your pictures needs improving? This is often not thought about as thoroughly as you’d think. 

Why you should buy a new camera:

Cameras consist of 2 major pieces: the camera body and the lens attached to it. Whether we’re looking at small point and shoot cameras or digital SLRs or DSLRs, the concept remains the same. For the sake of this article, I am going to use DSLRs as the example. When looking at the two pieces of the camera, realizing their purpose will help understand whether you should buy a new camera or not. The camera body serves almost entirely as a set of features to use while the lens impacts image quality. 

New cameras come out every year, several times a year even. What changes? Not much. They shoot faster, are slightly more sensitive to light, smaller, bigger, add wifi, add GPS, etc. The reality is that these new features aren’t necessarily going to improve your ability to capture better photos. When determining whether to buy this camera or that camera, compare available features and determine if you’ll use them or need them. Leave it at that. 

I upgraded my camera over a year ago. I owned a Canon T2i for 5 or 6 years. I had outgrown it and started looking for my next camera. I settled on the Canon 7D Mark II. While I hoped for the better low light performance, I knew not to expect better image quality. I was right, the photos looked very similar between the 2 cameras despite them releasing about 5 or so years apart from one another. 

I had many other reasons to upgrade. First and foremost was the durability of the camera. I just had my first son and was afraid one day he’d get a hold of my camera and drop it. That happened a few months ago and the magnesium alloy construction of this camera held up. This camera was also known for it’s focus tracking system. This was important for capturing moments of my son in action. This was also important to the concert photos I take. The increased number of focus points was also a reason for the action I occasionally shoot. 

Another consideration for upgrading cameras is sensor size. If you want to upgrade from a small sensor DSLR such as APS-C to full frame, then there is more to consider than just features, but features are still the center of why to upgrade. Full frame cameras offer shallower depth of field and better low light capabilities than smaller sensor cameras. However, in well lit environments or daylight, most can’t tell the difference between an APS-C or full frame camera. Full frame cameras also come with a premium price tag. Most cameras of this class are priced very high and their lenses are priced higher too. Not all lenses are compatible, so you’ll want to ensure the lenses you already have will work or consider selling them if they’re not.

Why you should not buy a new camera:

If your sole purpose of buying a new camera is to take better photos, you’re thinking about it all wrong. There’s a lot more to photography than the gear you’re using. Often times, people see photos of other photographers and wonder why their photos don’t look that good. Before you assume the camera is to blame, really analyze those photos. What makes them so much better? It could be the time of day, lighting, position of the camera, composition, location, or even how the photo was edited. All of these reasons those photos are better can’t be fixed by a new camera. 

Once you identify why those other photos are so good, begin emulating those techniques and develop your own style. The money you don’t spend on a new camera can be better spent elsewhere like photography lessons or books. There are many professionals and quality artists that use cheap cameras and even smartphones for their work. For example, this past holiday season, I took my son to get a picture with Santa at a nearby town festival. The hired photographer had great lighting set up with an attractive scene behind Santa. When I walked past, I noticed the camera he was using was a cheap Canon Rebel DSLR. I couldn’t identify which model, but it was an entry-level Canon he used. The photo turned out great and there really was no need for anything more expensive. I also read forum and blog posts a few times a year about a photographer that uses an iPhone and shares photos on Instagram that found success, quitting his or her day job to do photography full-time thanks to their social media success. Ignoring the fact that a successful social media strategy is required to quit your day job to be a photographer, it still proves that smartphones can produce great photos. Most cameras outside of a smartphone are capable of producing better photos than a smartphone. 

How to decide:

Deciding whether to buy a new camera and which one will ultimately be your decision. In weighing the option, use the guide below to help make the decision.

  1. Analyze your short-comings in photography. 
    1. Are they related to features such as ISO performance, focus speed, number of focus points, focus tracking, video-related limitations?
    2. Are they technique related such as lighting, angle, composition, etc.?
  2. Determine if these short-comings can be fixed with your purchase.
    1. Will higher ISO capabilities help take better landscapes, for example?
    2. Will smarter/faster focus tracking improve sports photography, for example?
    3. Will a weather-sealed body allow you to capture photos you otherwise couldn’t, for example?
  3. Compare features of your current camera to those you’re considering buying.
    1. Current camera has 9 focus points, new camera might have 65 focus points — how will you take advantage of this?
    2. Current camera shoots up to ISO 6400, new camera might shoot up to 12,800 — will you ever shoot that high?
    3. Current camera has no radio transmitters, new camera might have WiFi built-in — how will this make you a better photographer?
  4. Compare those features to your list of short-comings. 
    1. For example, shooting sporting events frustrates you with out of focus shots. Better focus tracking may help.
    2. Landscape photography is not very interesting. Having WiFi won’t help make this better. Time of day, composition, etc. will help instead.
  5. Weight the added value to the cost of the camera.
    1. Only new feature you might take advantage of is improved focus tracking, new camera costs $1,200, old camera might be able to sell for $300. Is $900 worth better focus tracking? 
    2. Could the $900 be better spend on a lens that might offer a wider aperture or sharper picture? 
    3. Could the $900 be better spent on photography lessons, classes, or books to improve your technique?
    4. What else could the $900 be spent on? 

Conclusion:

I don’t mean to discourage any readers from buying a new camera, but I want to make a point that owning a better camera does not make you a better photographer. The same could be said that owning a BMW or Audi doesn’t make you a better driver. The choice in gear you use depends on your needs, features offered, and cost to acquire them. The best photographers can take stunning photos with any camera.

The reality is that many people are disappointed in their camera purchase when upgrading from an older model. The expectation is for better pictures to be captured but they end up looking the same. The problem isn’t the camera, but the photographer. There are exceptions, however. For instance, a relative went from a early Canon to a T6i. This was a vast improvement in picture quality due to the age of the older camera. His previous camera offered a maximum ISO of 800 and preferred shooting at ISO 400, even indoors. This didn’t allow for proper exposure indoors and thus created a lot of dark or blurred photos. The T6i is far more capable in indoor settings, but so was my older T2i. It’s rare that most would encounter a similar change in camera performance unless they’re using similarly old cameras. 

I hope this helps you decide if you should buy a new camera. If you take nothing else from this article, remember to weigh your short-comings as a photographer to the differences in features between your current camera and the one you’re considering. If you have any additional advice you’d like to share, add it to the comments.

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