Getting Off the Gear Replacement Merry-Go-Round

The fall is one of those times of year when camera and lens manufacturers tend to launch a spate of new products. Accompanying those releases are the inevitable reviews and a plethora of commentary (both pro and con) by pundits and readers alike on photographic web sites. Amidst all of this din and distraction it is often difficult to assess whether to buy new gear or not. Getting off the gear replacement merry-go-round can be much more difficult than it first appears.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 46.1mm, efov 124.5mm, f/5.6, 1/640, ISO-160

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’d likely admit to looking longingly at new gear at least on an occasional basis. This may be especially true when our current gear may be a bit tired looking, even though it may be in excellent working order and producing good results.

I’d be the first person to admit that I’ve fallen prey to unnecessary gear replacement a few times over the years. And, wasted a lot of time and money in the process.  Some of the gear reviews make it seem like life will end if one does not own the latest technology.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 22.9mm, efov 61.8mm, f/8, 1/125, ISO-160

Oh the horror of owning and using older gear!

Motivation to replace camera gear comes from a number of reference points. The first is a noble one…the desire to actually improve the quality of our work because the new gear that we are considering actually does provide a meaningful, and measurable improvement when compared to our current gear.

The other two common reference points are less positive: ego satisfaction and/or low self-confidence.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 27.2mm, efov 73.4mm, f/5.6, 1/40, ISO-1600

Being a prisoner to these emotional motivations is extremely hard from which to break free. It involves invoking the rationale part of our brain…a far too uncommon act for me…and many other folks.

Buying new camera gear is an ego-driven purchase for many people. Being seen out and about with the latest and greatest equipment does provide opportunities for bragging rights, albeit only on a temporary basis.  Ego buyers are easy to spot since they spend far more time showing their gear to other photographers and talking about it with them, then actually using it. I suppose this is the same orientation as needing to have the latest Smartphone, expensive watches, or new vehicles.

Buying from a position of low self-confidence doesn’t mean that one goes through life weighed down under a constant burden of debilitating self-doubt. The low self-confidence to which I’m referring stems from not being a ‘gear head’. Appreciating that one’s own understanding of the technical aspects of photography is somewhat limited, can contribute to an overreliance on the opinions of others. When we find ourselves in this position it is easy to fall prey to gear acquisition syndrome. I know this is what happened to me when I made the transition into full frame camera gear a number of years ago.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 25.7mm, efov 69.4mm, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-160

We can certainly go around in circles trying to figure out what to do about our camera gear, and if replacement in whole or in part, is justified.

It can be even more daunting when getting into photography on a more serious basis when we are trying to make a major decision about which format to use. In an earlier article, Creating a Camera Buying Decision Matrix, I outlined one approach that can help cut through the clutter and focus on one’s own equipment needs.

So, what can we do from a practical standpoint when getting off the gear replacement merry-go-round?

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 10mm, efov 27mm, f/8, 1/125, ISO-400

The first thing is to realize that changes in photographic gear are incremental. And, those changes may not make any material difference to the quality of our photographs. Putting technical advancements into perspective is like looking through the viewing portal in the image above, only a small slice of performance will be affected. Whether that performance difference is significant and important to us as individuals is a key consideration.

One way to assess whether some of these technical improvements are actually meaningful for us is to logically assess the performance of our current gear. For example, let’s say that a camera has a new focusing system that is touted to be ‘more reliable’ than a previous generation camera. How many images did your current camera miss achieving focus when used properly? If the answer is none, then the ‘improved’ focusing system on the new camera is an irrelevant improvement for you. If, on the other hand, you have been experiencing a lot of frustration with the auto-focusing performance of your current gear because it is causing you to miss capturing a lot of images, then this could be a meaningful improvement for you to consider.

Regardless of the technical improvement that is being promoted, if we want to get off the gear replacement merry-go-round we need to critically assess the performance of our current gear, when we use it properly. If we are not missing photographic opportunities with our current gear, specific technological improvements may not be relevant for us to consider.

The professional photographer that my daughter hired for her wedding did a superlative job, producing a wonderful collection of images. It is instructive to note that this pro shooter wasn’t using the most up-to-date or ‘hottest’ camera gear. She used a couple of Canon full frame cameras, of 3 and 6 year vintages, and an old Nikon D300. Her gear did not restrict her ability to demonstrate her considerable talent.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 52mm, efov 140.4mm, f/8, 1/40, ISO-400

There are situations where empirical test data is available for us to consider. Even here we need to exercise some prudence to assess whether improvements are meaningful. As a case in point let’s have a look at some DxO Labs test data with Nikon D7XXX series cameras, from the D7000 through to the D7500.

In terms of overall scores there has been some improvement with overall sensor scores as follows:
– D7000, 80
– D7100, 83
– D7200, 87
– D7500, 86

These overall scores are composite numbers based on how the sensors in each of these cameras performs in specific DxO Lab testing for dynamic range, colour depth, and low light performance. Let’s take a look at these individual factors in detail.

Dynamic Range Scores
– D7000, 13.9 EV
– D7100, 13.7 EV
– D7200, 14.6 EV
– D7500, 14 EV

According to DxO Labs a difference of 0.5 EV is required to begin to be noticeable for most people. Based on that criteria only the D7200 outperformed the D7000 in any meaningful way in terms of dynamic range. The D7500, which is almost 7 years newer than the D7000, is basically on par with it.

Now let’s look at colour depth.
– D7000, 23.5-bits
– D7100, 24.2-bits
– D7200, 24.5-bits
– D7500, 24.3-bits

According to DxO Labs a difference of 1.0-bits is needed to begin to be noticeable for most people. So, out of the three newer generation D7XXX series cameras, only the D7200 would likely perform noticeably better than the D7000, and even then only at a minimal level. The D7500 does not cross that 1.0-bit difference performance threshold.

The final comparison we’ll look at is low light performance. Here are the DxO Lab scores for the four cameras we’ve been comparing.
– D7000, 1167 ISO
– D7100, 1256 ISO
– D7200, 1333 ISO
– D7500, 1483 ISO

According to DxO Labs, a 25% difference in the low light test data equates to a 1/3 EV difference in low light performance. Based on this criteria only the D7500 will produce an improvement of at least 1/3 EV in low light performance over a D7000. This level of low light performance difference is likely not going to be material for most photographers.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 10mm, efov 27mm, f/8, 1/250, ISO-160

I suppose where all of this is leading is to acknowledge that it sometimes feels lonely shooting with older gear, or equipment that is not the ‘latest rave’. I’m not saying that we should never upgrade our camera gear when needed. Far from it. I have no regrets at all buying a couple of Nikon 1 J5s last year. There is a noticeable improvement in image quality (dynamic range and colour depth) when compared to my V-Series cameras. Its my assessment that the work that I produce with the J5 is somewhat better than with the V2s I used in the past.

The key point is for each of us to learn to use our gear, and software for that matter, as fully as possible. When we do, we’ll likely discover that most of our photographic limitations were mainly caused by our skill levels, not by our camera gear. For example, moving to full frame gear from a cropped sensor camera system will not improve our photographs if our main challenge is not being able to compose our images well.

When we do discover that our gear is truly holding us back – then investing money in new gear is a wise decision.

Technical Note:
All photographs were captured hand-held in available light as per the EXIF data. All images in this article were produced from RAW files using my standard process of OpticsPro 11, CS6 and the Nik Collection.

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14 thoughts on “Getting Off the Gear Replacement Merry-Go-Round”

  1. Hi Tom,

    You hit the nail on the head with this and I think your SAS post from months back bears mention. Who hasn’t been guilty of GAS one time or another? I know I was. There was a point when I’d change from one Nikon camera body to another every year or two years. Nowadays, I keep abreast of developments but invest more on photography ebooks, online seminars, etc., very much happy and settled with my D800 and D300. In fact, I recently did a step in the other direction — getting a Coolpix B700 and traveling mostly with it, enjoying the freedom of traveling lighter while still fiddling with manual exposure settings. The earnings to be had from doing photography work have declined steeply in the last couple of years so even entertaining the idea of upgrading is also out of the question. Some clients/companies resort to the more popular method of crowdsourcing pictures for free. As I use my cameras for work, it’s becoming less and less judicious to upgrade when the “old” stuff still works fine.

    Oggie

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences and adding to the discussion Oggie! It sounds like your trio of D800. D300 and Coolpix B700 is doing the trick for you! I’m in total agreement with your comment “As I use my cameras for work, it’s becoming less and less judicious to upgrade when the “old” stuff still works fine.” My trio of V2s is a testament to that fact.
      Tom

  2. I recently bought a Ricoh GR 2 as a lightweight high IQ travel camera. I have been using older Canon DSLRs and an EOS M mirrorless to date. Wow, what a difference! The GR2 has a highly capable sensor matched with a great lens and it is a serious upgrade towhat I was familiar with. So sometimes a gear upgrade does work – as the cliche goes, it can “take you to the next level”.

    But has it made me a better photographer? Well actually it has – it has inspired me to work hard to improve my skills because I can see the potential. It’s a keeper.

    Is it perfect? Obviously not. The boggest hurdle so far is composing on the rear screen. As you said about the J5, you can adjust to that but I just seem to be taking a little longer than you!
    So for wide angle shooting (28mm EFOV and 21mm with an adaptor) I think I am set for a while.

    Now for a lightweight telephoto zoom companion to the GR? Is the Nikon J5 the solution? TBD!

    1. Hi Kevin,
      Thanks for adding to the discussion! Your words “it has inspired me to work hard to improve my skills” really struck a chord with me. When camera gear does that for any of us, we know we’ve spent our money well!
      Tom

  3. Tom,
    I shot this last US Open Tennis Grand Slam, my 32nd during late August/September ENTIRELY with my Nikon 1 J5’s. Yes, all images in Jpeg using the “Sports” setting on the mode dial. Some of my chums laughed and snickered, but the Nikon rep on site watching my pans, and captures on the great articulated LCD screen was very supportive and congratulatory. As for me, it was like shooting off a life HD TV screen. Problems were mostly with the buffer getting filled up when shooting beyond the 10fps burst rate, fast read/write Micro SD cards not withstanding. Didn’t even bother bringing my bigger Canon DSLR’s to the stadium. Not once did my agency Polaris Images here in NY question me, or comment that there were any problems with my J5 captures. I have actually now procured 4, J5’s as my mini arsenal against the empire of derision and malcontents of my approach. Cheers, Rick Maiman/Queens, NY

    1. Hi Rick,

      Thanks for sharing your recent experiences at the US Open Tennis Grand Slam! No doubt you turned a lot of heads when you pulled out your gear…and likely generated some negative comments…that is until some of the other shooters saw your work! My J5s have very quickly become my favourite Nikon 1 body. I love the size and handling of the J5, as well as the improved image quality over my V-Series bodies. I still prefer shooting video with the V2s and I hope I can squeeze another 3 years out of them!

      Tom

      1. Tom,
        While I am a certified gear “whore” pardon the crass epithet, having “Go Bags” filling my camera closet of various systems, I have vowed to use the J5’s for some of my news gathering forays here in NY City, because it has become just that confidence inspiring. Having become, perish the thought comfortable with using it’s lcd for composing, which I hadn’t thought possible until my US Open experiment. Somehow, now, peering through a viewfinder seems more limiting, even claustrophobic, and antithetical to being more aware of my surroundings; like whats on my sides, and back in fluid situations. I have de-e-volved into my comfort zone of pro amateur professional. Do I care what “other’s” might think,? Not in the least. It is liberating. And at near 70, an incredible lightness of being. Cheers, all.

  4. There is another consideration. It is the sheer joy of using certain equipment over others. In my case, I love using the Pen F. I also love my “old” Nikon 1 V2, regardless of fact that the J5 produces better files. The V2 is a pleasure to use and feels right in the hand. No J5 for me; I’m hanging on to the old until it croaks. I feel the same way about my Fuji X-Pro 2. There are certain cameras that fall in hand and to the eye with pleasure. I’m told that many feel this way about Leicas. Certain cameras have a classic “feel” to them. Some say this is the case with the Nikon D500 and the new Sony A9. And these hard to quantify considerations are independent of sensor size and cost and bit depth. To site personal experience again, I’m annoyed at myself for giving up my Ricoh GR. So easy to use, such marvelous photos!

    1. Hi Bill,

      I can really identify with your comment about ‘the sheer joy of using certain equipment’. My least favourite Nikon 1 camera from a pure ‘feeling’ standpoint is the V3. There’s lots that I have come to appreciate about the camera in terms of the additional resolution over the V2, the added external body controls, as well as not having a low pass filter…but it doesn’t have the same ‘feel’ to me. If I wasn’t trying to extend the life of my trio of V2s for my video business I doubt that I would have bought any V3s. My wife on the other hand, much prefers the V3 over the V2.

      Unlike you, my favourite Nikon 1 camera body by leaps and bounds is the J5. I love how it feels in my hands and how it handles. It is the first camera that I reach for when doing general photography work. I never thought I would say this, but it now feels quite odd and awkward to compose a landscape image using a viewfinder. 🙂

      Tom

  5. Good timing for me Tom. I shot with a professional guide during my last trip and I enjoyed it, both his artistic abilities and teaching me more to look for, and from getting the chance to use his gear. We were shooting both my D750 with the 24-85 VR and his D810 with either the 24-70 G or 16-35 VR. I’m still trying to figure out if there’s any real difference between the files, either DR or sharpness or “rendering”, but it sure has me wondering about upgrading my kit lens (D850 usability improvements are heavy on my mind – touchscreen and light up buttons and improved AF). It’s an interesting exercise to see if I can see any difference in the files. Too early for a conclusion right now.

    1. Hi Sean,

      Thanks for sharing your experiences! There’s a lot to be said for actually shooting with gear, then comparing files, rather than just relying on reviews and test results before making a purchase. It’s great you had the opportunity to do that.

      When I was shooting with full frame gear I decided pretty quickly on the 16-35mm f/4 VR and the 70-200mm f/4, but had some mental twists trying to decide between the 24-85mm kit lens and the 24-120mm f/4. At the end of the day I went with the kit lens as I was only looking to fill in the focal length gap between the other f/4 zooms, i.e. 35mm to 70mm. It all comes down to what’s best to meet an individual’s needs.

      Tom

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