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.
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.
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.
Being a prisoner to these emotional motivations is extremely hard from which to break free. It involves invoking the rational 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, than 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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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