Assessing Camera Gear Differences

Whenever there is a major camera or imaging show happening, or when a number of new pieces of gear are introduced, I tend to get more emails from readers. The common question raised is “Should I upgrade my gear?” Assessing camera gear differences can be difficult. It seems to me that the vast majority of differences with which we concern ourselves are marginal at best. Truly meaningful differences are few and far between. Those differences are the ones that may justify us opening up our wallets… beyond just being affected by GAS (gear acquisition syndrome).

Whether a feature on a particular piece of camera gear is truly meaningful will vary depending on our specific photographic needs. We often get so hung up on what a feature IS from a technical standpoint… and all of the hype attached to it… that we overlook the only thing that actually matters… what it actually DOES better for us in a quantifiable manner.

For example, people could spend their time discussing the relative technical merits of various auto-focusing system designs ad nauseam. Fact is, the only thing that is meaningful is if an auto-focusing system increases our keeper rate to a significant degree. Going from 50% to 55% is marginal. Going from 50% to 85% is meaningful.

To illustrate that point further let’s look at sensor performance differences. People seem to go crazy over sensor data, even though most of the time this is a marginal issue.

It is true that some folks need to produce files that will be used for very large prints. In these cases differences in sensor performance may be meaningful for them… especially for certain subject matter. Whether an advantage in sensor performance is actually meaningful depends on the actual amount of difference between sensors.

According to DxO testing, a difference in dynamic range is not noticeable for most people unless it is at least 0.5 EV. A difference in colour depth needs to be a minimum of 1-bit to start to become noticeable. And, a difference in low light capability of 1/3 of a stop (which is barely noticeable to most people) requires about a 25% difference in test data.

So is the difference in sensor performance between a Nikon D7000 (introduced in September 2010) meaningful or marginal when compared to a Nikon D7500 which was launched in April 2017?

Let’s have a look…
Dynamic range
D7000 = 13.9 EV
D7500 = 14.0 EV
Difference 0.1 EV, likely not noticeable for most people

Colour depth
D7000 = 23.5 bits
D7500 = 24.3 bits
Difference 0.8 bits, likely not noticeable for most people

Low light performance
D7000 = ISO-1167
D7500 = ISO-1482
Difference 27%… about 1/3 of a stop and thus barely noticeable

So 7 years of sensor development has not created a meaningful difference in sensor performance. I’m not picking on Nikon gear with this example. All camera manufacturers face the same issue to some degree.

We could go on and on about more specific features and debate them until the cows come home. At the end of the day we’d find that most features and the advantages that they represent are only marginal differences at best.

I suppose I have a very simplistic view of what constitutes a meaningful difference.

Let me share an example. Back in the summer of 2015 I decided to use Nikon 1 gear with its small 1″ CX sensor for my video business, rather than using my full frame D800. Choosing Nikon 1 gear over full frame equipment was a meaningful difference for me.

In a nutshell, the meaningful difference was being able to get the depth-of-field I needed shooting 1080 video at f/2.8 with a 1″ sensor camera, rather than at f/8 with full frame camera gear. Changing from using a full frame camera to one that uses a 1″ sensor allowed me to stop bringing 3-5 studio lights to my video shoots. That saved me all kinds of time when setting up and shooting individual video scenes. When looking at the total time logged for an entire project docket… it equated to about 30% less time on an average project.

The change was meaningful for me because I could stop using some gear I had used in the past (i.e. my studio lights) and simplify my work. Plus, I could quantify a time saving which resulted in increased margins for my business.

Any time a piece of camera gear allows us to stop using a more complex set up to do our work… it represents a meaningful difference.

Technology is allowing cameras to increase their functionality in some interesting ways. For example, would it make sense for a photographer to consider buying camera gear that allows them to take 2-3 second hand-held exposures so they could stop hauling tripods around?

Would it be worth it for a video shooter to consider buying camera gear if it allowed them to record video clips while walking around without needing a camera stabilizer?

Should a bird photographer consider buying camera gear that allowed them to shoot at 60 frames per second (or even faster in the future) if it enabled them to get shots most other folks simply couldn’t capture?

For that matter, how many bird photographers would consider buying camera gear that allowed them to photograph birds hand-held at an equivalent field-of-view of 2000 mm with image quality equal to an APS-C camera?

How many people could dramatically increase their keeper rates if their cameras used artificial intelligence to recognize the shapes of specific moving subjects and could lock onto those shapes?

Again… we could go on and on about new technology that is coming to the camera market. Suffice to say that the application of artificial intelligence and other technologies in the future have the potential to significantly change how cameras could operate in the years to come.

As we ponder adding new gear to our kit, or replacing our current equipment, each of us face decisions about whether it is prudent for us to invest in camera gear that provides only marginal differences.

I suppose resisting GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) ultimately comes down to only investing in meaningful gear differences, and avoiding marginal ones. Regardless of our individual photographic needs, I think there are two specific factors that would represent meaningful differences for each of us.

A meaningful gear difference allows us to simplify our work by no longer needing the additional equipment we had to use in the past… or it enables us to capture images that we were unable to do with our previous gear.

If a piece of camera gear does one of those two things it is providing us with a meaningful difference. If it doesn’t, then the difference it offers can be considered to be marginal in nature.

I’ll get off my soapbox now…

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25 thoughts on “Assessing Camera Gear Differences”

  1. Hi Thomas,
    When I was looking if I could adapt Nikon 1 lenses to any other cameras, nothing came up. I have a Nikon 1 J1 and several lenses. Since Nikon has now discontinued the system, I might need to get a J5 for backup. You wrote you bought an Olympus to be safe. Will it take Nikon 1 lenses?
    Are you happy with your J5? Or should I try to get a V something? I always knew that the Nikon 1 J1 can take great pictures, and from your photos I learned that there are even more possibilities, especially with my neglected 30-100 lens.

    1. Hi Renate,

      I am not aware of any adapters that will make 1 Nikkor lenses usable on other systems. In terms of back-up for my Nikon 1 gear, I have been adding Nikon 1 bodies and lenses to my kit for a few years now. At this point I should have sufficient Nikon 1 gear to last for another 5 years or so… hopefully.

      I do have an Olympus TG-5 but this was not purchased as a back-up to my Nikon 1 kit. The TG-5 has some functionality that my Nikon 1 gear does not have… so it augments my Nikon 1 system. The TG-5 is a fixed lens camera… so Nikon 1 lenses cannot be fitted to it.

      Tom

      1. Thanks , Tom.
        I will get another Nikon 1 camera, too. I have the adapter for big Nikon lenses. For years I was hoping that the price for the 70-300 mm Nikon 1 would drop but now I see that it has risen beyond belief. This is too bad. Putting the DLSR lens on does not give me the reach I want, but it does not make sense to invest into a dead system. And I am still mostly photographing just for fun in automatic mode. I will read your booklet.
        You know the first time I used the J1 with the 10-30 I was in AWE of the pictures! My Nikon 5200 could never replicate this.

        1. Hi Renate,

          I have also noticed that the 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 is getting quite expensive if one is trying to buy one of the new copies of that lens that are still out there. Even the used ones can be pricey. Most Nikon 1 users that have that lens are holding on to them and seem to only be willing to part with them if they are getting rid of all of their Nikon 1 gear. Thanks for buying a copy of The Little Camera That Could – I hope you enjoy the eBook!

          Tom

  2. Hi Tom
    Interesting approach. My two cents: I do landscapes and to reach my scenes I usually start very early and hike for all day, but do not stay overnight. My fate is to love bigger formats. So after I bought Z7, my Nikon 1 gear stays at home more often, Z7 is „be ready and do all“, D850 is for tilts and shifts and „specials“, means longer lenses. Interestingly, Z7 is not meaningfully bigger than many half-format cameras. And to allow oneself a bit of GAS I bought a „small“ Hasselblad (only one lens) for really grand scapes. So for me this was meaningful, although I must confess, I miss Nikon 1 sometimes, mainly when we are a company, just looking and talking and not concentrating on photography. With age creeping on me – perhaps I will come back to the smaller formats.

    1. Hi Robert,

      As noted in the article… “Whether a feature on a particular piece of camera gear is truly meaningful will vary depending on our specific photographic needs.” No doubt that for landscape photographers shooting with larger sensor cameras that provide significantly more dynamic range and colour depth, can represent meaningful differences when compared to smaller sensor gear.

      I attended a Z-Series introductory event last year. While the Z-Series are somewhat smaller and lighter than their DSLR brothers… the bring thing that seemed to be stressed during the event was increased lens performance, especially sharpness, of the new Nikkor mirrorless lenses. Have you been finding this to be a meaningful difference for your work?

      Tom

      1. Hi Tom
        I am sorry, but I must disappoint you at the moment. Right now I only have the zoom (24-70), because I use the camera as „the small one“. I did not test it in the sense I would photograph some charts or newspapers. But I think edges are sharper than 24-70 F-mount without VR. I do not „shoot“ (don‘t like this expression for taking photos) open, mostly f8 and even more, so even this is not very meaningful (to use your words) to me. Otherwise I use Zeiss lenses and Nikon tilt-shifts, but not much with Z7. This is because when I take them (Zeisses) with me I mostly have a particular target and take D850 with e.g. 19mm tilt-shift and 80-400mm and Hassy with the middle zoom with me. They are all very good and I am not going to weigh minuscule differencies (and pay for them) knowing that what is going to trouble me afterwards is never the quality of the lens used but my shortcomings.
        Waering my shoes, you would probably say, that the lighter and smaller body with full format sensor was meaningful enough for me to buy it. Because of this I am carrying FF more often with me „just in case“. I am writing too much again, hope the message does not get lost 😃
        PS
        Being old school film man, I am mostly in manual mode and do not care about other features with „fastest“ and such. BUT Z7 has new features for me I use andlike very much: Sharpness in manual mode (forgot the proper name) and the ability to see the Liveview in the viewer (changes of the aperture/time on the exposure). As you see, this is not exactly a scientifical method and Ilijah Borg would cringe, but sometimes it helps me to get the feeling for particular situations with lot of contrasts. I see then if it is worth to search forthe exposure meter in the backpack. 😉
        So, I must stop here, wrote already too much. But please, do ask should you want to know something. Those Z7 and Z6 are so handy! For me a real breakthrough!

        1. Hi Robert,

          It is always great when additional insights and information are provided… so the potential for a reader to ‘disappoint’ me simply does not exist! I always appreciate the time that readers take to post a comment and share their thoughts and experiences. It makes this website better.

          The convenience of using smaller, lighter gear is something to which I relate. If I would have relied on scientific rationale for buying my Nikon 1 gear… I would likely have never bought it… and I would have missed out on using a system that was ideal for my needs.

          Your thought about having “the feeling for particular situations” really struck a chord with me. To me, this happens when a photographer understands and experiences their gear to the point when it no longer ‘gets in the way’ of creating a photograph, but rather it has become an integral and intuitive part of their creative process.

          Tom

          1. Hi Tom
            Thank you for your kind words. You are so polite! All those nifty features of my cameras do not get in my way only because I either donot know they are here or I simply do not need and use them 😉
            Your question about sharpness of the new lenses got me thinking. Yes, the zoom I have is very sharp. Photographylife writes it is sharper than the F-mount zoom. Maybe, I would not know how they measure and I did not do it myself. But there is still something I am not able to comprehend, let alone to describe with some accuracy. I have the older F-mount zoom without VR. I still have the feeling, that it is somehow different, „nicer“ in the centre. And in the corners? I do not care much, I think the viewer should not see the same optical quality all over the image, at least not always. When there is a clear image-centre, than not. But of course, when I take a photograph e.g. of a really monumental rock and want to show the sheer size of it, isolated without other hills orwhatever on the left or right, just to fill the image with the greatness of the „wall“, well (if you are still with me), then I would say that the highest possible richness of details everywhere in the image would strengthen my purpose. So here a lens with high and even sharpness „all over the place“ would be preferable.
            As you might have suspected already, Iam in mycamper again, right now in Italy (lenses with the centre) and looking forward to move to the mountains in may (lenses with even sharpness wellcome 😉)
            Take care, Robert

            1. Hi Richard,

              Your reply identifies another issue… that being that the overall impression that a photograph creates can be more important than a technical assessment of the image quality. For example, if a photograph touches a viewer at an emotional level whether the corners are as sharp as possible or not… will not detract from the personal impact that the image had on the viewer. I suppose this is one of the reasons why a particular photograph may have very different impacts on viewers.

              I don’t recall ever being described as ‘so polite’ before… that’s another first for my photography website!

              Tom

              1. Hi Tom
                When I was a little boy, I read historical books. Richard Lionheart was one of my heroes. I even wanted the same name, but my mother was adamant – Robert it is and stays 😉
                You have a gift to rephrase someone‘s incoherent words (mine) and make a meaningful statement from them. English is not my mother tongue, therefore my ability to express myself is sometimes hampered. No pun intended, I mean it!
                I still do read gear reviews – technics fascinates me in itself – but came to conclusion, that „better“ is not always really necessary. It is the same with wine: 5% better wine is surely 95% more expensive and not everyone can notice the difference. Imagine: Ourneighbours in the camping we are staying drank red wine yesterday. Just „red“ on the etiquette. Yes, this happened in Italy, Tuscany, home of Sangiovese in various flavours! Take care,
                Robert

  3. Hi Tom,

    Just to add to the discussion — I would’ve loved to keep my full-frame D800 for years to come except that it has increasingly become trickier to keep hiking and at the same time, be on the ready to shoot, should I find something interesting along the trail. After resisting the temptation to shift to mirrorless for years, circumstances (a loss of a loved one that meant getting rid of my full frame body/dslr aps-c body and lenses) paved the way for exploring something else. I agree with some saying that the UI of Sony is a bit confusing but after more than a decade on Nikon, I was ready to learn new things.

    It’s great that you raised up the facts — manufacturers love to muddle the issues so as to trumpet their newfangled thingamajigs and maintain their sales quotas. Negligible differences/improvements in IQs mean little for a lot of casual photographers out there but manufacturers, I guess, would have none of that 😀

    Oggie
    http://www.lagalog.com

    1. Hi Oggie,

      Thanks for adding your perspectives to the discussion! Size and weight can certainly constitute a meaningful difference… good to read that you are happy with your Sony gear.

      Not sure if your experience is the same as mine… but over the years I’ve noticed that professional photographers tend to upgrade their gear less frequently than enthusiasts. I guess pros have to consider their amortization write-down schedules for their gear etc.

      Tom

      1. Tom,

        Your observation is correct — those who derive their livelihood from their gear tend to be more invested in them, their lenses, speedlights, and peripherals that they squeeze more years of use from them than the average enthusiast. I would like to think the camera makers know this, hence, their methods of persuasion would mainly center around “bigger”, “better”, “more MPs”, et al that means little to the working professional who knows better, who knows image results are derived from expertly harnessing the camera’s capabilities and limitations, not just from its wow factors.

        Oggie

  4. How does your newest camera, the Olympus TG-5 fit into this discussion? Does it reduce your set up time on macro shots, add features that are useful to you such as focus bracketing/stacking (that I presume you didn’t have before) and maybe other benefits? And the big question is whether the output meets your requirements.

    I ask because I am seriously thinking of getting one. The GAS urge is getting strong! Cost ($260 for a reconditioned unit) is not really an issue but the downside of GAS is the time you spend learning how to use your new toy.

    You don’t do a lot of equipment reviews, I guess because you don’t change equipment very often (which I admire) but I think I am not alone in being interested in your thoughts and experience with this fascinating, little unit.

    1. Hi Kevin,

      The TG-5 fits into this discussion quite well when compared to my Nikon 1 gear.
      1) It is waterproof which allows me to use it in very inclement weather, and also for occasional underwater use.
      2) It is shockproof and can be dropped from a height of 6 feet without damage. This allows me to mount the TG-5 on moving industrial equipment like tow motors without fear of damage should it fall off. (I have accidentally dropped my TG-5 from waist height with no adverse affects).
      3) The microscopic mode was an unexpected advantage. I thought it would be ‘fun’ but I did not anticipate the degree of magnification that was possible, as well as how easy it is to use in this mode. The TG-5 has become an integral part of my butterfly and flower photography.
      4) f/2 aperture with image stabilization. This was a feature that I thought would come in handy on occasion. While my Nikon 1 gear can shoot at at more open apertures (f/1.2, f/1.8, and f/2.8) none of the lenses have VR which limits slow shutter speed use. I find I can regularly shoot the TG-5 at f/2 at fairly slow shutter speeds and still get the depth of field I need at f/2.

      So… those are some of the capabilities that the TG-5 provides me with that are different than what my Nikon 1 gear offers. No question that the TG-5 will never replace my Nikon 1 gear… but it does have a spot in my kit because of its unique capabilities.

      The TG-5 does not offer the level of control that I would like as it is a semi-automatic camera at best… but it does add some capabilities to my shooting.

      Tom

      1. all good points. Thank you for your comprehensive reply. Counteracting the camera’s automation is going to be a challenge but I think I will take the plunge.

        I do appreciate the way you run your blog. Eliminating most advertising and other click revenue offers a very different and pleasant experience to your readers.

        Kevin

        1. Hi Kevin,

          I’m still grappling with the semi-automatic nature of the TG-5… sometimes I correctly anticipate what the camera will do… sometimes not. I have been finding that trying to control the ISO range a bit tighter does help give me the shutter speed I think I need for a particular image.

          Tom

    2. Hi Kevin,

      Yes, I really don’t do many camera gear reviews. There are a number of very good websites that specialize in this type of content, and the folks that run them do a far better job than I ever would with equipment reviews. Reviewing gear for the sake of reviewing it has never been of any interest to me. I’m more interested in experimenting with my gear to see what can be produced with it. This is the approach that I’ve been taking with the TG-5.

      Hopefully experimenting with my camera gear and sharing my images with my readers will inspire them to do the same, and keep their love of photography burning.

      The business model of most photography websites is much different than mine. They rely on per click advertising revenues and making a commission on ‘click through’ camera gear sales for their revenue. I have no interest in junking up the look of my site with advertising. Nor do I want to force my readers to view ads that they may have no interest in, just so I can make a few bucks. Readers support my efforts through donations and by purchasing my eBooks. We also generate some revenue by doing presentations to clubs and groups, as well as doing some photography coaching. Other revenue opportunities are under consideration for the future. Having said that, you can rest assured that you will never see advertising on my website.

      Tom

  5. Good points, Tom.

    Another perspective to consider (in camera gear differences) is handling and set-up – – For example, I value highly the ability to customise my Sony cameras such that purpose of various buttons and settings remains constant across my Sony RX100 iv, a7ii and a7iii cameras … whereas, many other makers have fixed camera functions (that are not always consistent across same-maker models).

    1. Thanks for adding to the discussion John! I agree that some camera menus tend to be less than user friendly. This can directly affect a photographer’s ability to change their settings quickly in order to capture an image. Handling and set-up can impact our ability to capture an image. For example, my V3s handle a bit better than my V2s when changing certain camera settings. I have faced specific situations when I would have liked to have changed frame rate with my V2 but didn’t quite have enough time to do so. I still was able to capture images… but did not get the variety that I would have liked.
      Tom

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