Camera and Gear Buying Guide – Part 3: Upgrade Philosophy
Photography is based on a technology. As such, that means there will always be an opportunity to upgrade. If money were no object, those opportunities come along frequently. Manufacturers of cameras and products will update their catalog ever six months, sometimes more often, with new cameras and gear. We, the photographers, are naturally drawn to such technology. We can't help it, we're geeks – and if we had our way, we'd have a new cameras and new lenses every couple of months. Sadly, we're not all independently wealthy and so we have to have an update strategy.
Look Through (Or Past) The Camera
Before we can really speak about the potential for upgrades, it's important to discuss how these upgrades will affect your photographic style.
You've heard it elsewhere, you've heard it from me and now for the sake of redundancy, you'll hear it from me again: A better camera will not make you a better photographer. A camera with a higher resolution may be able to print larger photos. A better sensor may allow you to take photos at a higher ISO which allows you to shoot in darker scenarios. A better camera body might have more connections allowing more communication with peripherals. But none of this matters if you're not ready for them.
My best upgrade advice is that you should really only upgrade when you're hitting the threshold of your current equipment. This isn't a money issue. I don't care if you have an unlimited budget. You should not upgrade beyond your abilities or your needs. Fancy equipment – and the awe factor – will prevent you from seeing your own mistakes. It can also overwhelm you with options and considerations that could hinder your ability to act efficiently. This is a skill that can only be acquired with practice with a camera better suited for your skills. So again, upgrade only when there is a need.
When you're ready to upgrade, you should consider upgrading intelligently. Spend the money where it will make the largest impact. You may be surprised to find that the most effective upgrades are often some of the cheapest. Before you go out and consider buying a new camera or even a new lens, I would encourage you to look into alternative upgrades that will help you meet your needs. I refer to these type of upgrades as secondary upgrades and these would be things like:
- Reversing Rings – These beauties let you mount a lens (preferably a prime lens) backwards on your camera. You'll give up all your automatic controls, but it turns any lens into a macro lens – and you can get very close to your subject.
- Close-up Lenses – Despite the name, it's actually a filter that narrows the focusing distance of your lens. It also adds macro abilities to your lens. Among the best are the Canon 500D and the Canon 250D as they have two glass elements for crystal clear photos without aberrations. They can cost as much as $250 USD, but certainly cheaper than a lens. These mount like a filter, so despite the manufacturer, they work on any lens with the same ring sizes (like my Nikon lenses).
- Tripods / Monopods – Camera stabilization is key to many great photos. It's absolutely worth it to spend money on tripods and monopods. Look into getting a really good one that will hold far more weight than you need and has a replaceable head. Consider lightweight carbon fiber if you plan on trucking it around.
- Remote Triggers – They aren't just for self portraits. Remote triggers give you the ability to be somewhere other than behind the camera. You can be your own assistant and hold a reflector or a flash at ideal positions while triggering the camera from afar. They also allow you to keep a camera on a tripod completely still while shooting at slow shutter speeds.
- Filters – Filters can introduce a number of effects to your setup. Circular Polarizers help you get richer colors. Neutral Density filters help to lengthen the exposure time in bright sunlight. There are also a number of effects filters to match your style.
- Reflectors – Indoors or out, natural or artificial light, reflectors help you to bounce light back onto your subject. Such control will improve the light quality in your photos.
This is, of course, an incomplete list as there are far too many things to cover in this article. But I think you get the idea. The point is that many of these things can help you achieve your goals without having to spend the money on primary upgrades.
Primary upgrades fall into one of three categories: Lighting, Lenses and Camera Bodies – and I prioritize these upgrades in that order.
Lighting – Lighting is perhaps the most important aspect of photography, in my opinion, and so I consider lighting upgrades to be one of the most cost-effective ways to improve your work. Your consumer DSLRs often have a built-in flash. These should be used to trigger other (better) flashes or as fill light, and nothing more. They are on-access and very close to your lens, so one of the early primary upgrades should be a decent off-camera flash. I am personally a fan of strobes – hot shoe flashes that can be remotely triggered. They are lightweight, small and easy to carry around. You should also make every effort to get the flash off camera, so look into peripherals like light stands, cords or wireless trigger systems for your flash. Flashes are surprisingly a broad topic, and I could talk all day about them. But as there are greater, more wise resources than I, I will defer you to David Hobby's Strobist Blog – a fantastic strobe photographer with similar philosophies to my own.
Lenses – Lenses are the real workhorses of your camera setup. Your kit lens – the one that came with your camera – likely covers a wide range of focal lengths, but often at the cost of fidelity or a maximum aperture (or both). Such a lens is suitable as an all-around lens, but as you hone your skills and start to develop your own style, a higher quality lens may be warranted or necessary. Don't be surprised to find that the best lenses are short focal distances or even prime lenses with fixed focal lengths. When looking for a new lens, the focal length is of course a factor. But the real measure of a lens's ability is it's maximum aperture. You want one with a wide aperture (a lower f-number). A wide aperture gives you more control over depth of field. It also often means that your middle apertures are going to be tack sharp. But such lenses come at a cost. Many of the best lenses on the market could cost as much as, if not more than, your camera body. Don't let that discourage you. After all, you'll likely keep your lens through body upgrades. All the more reason to do your research before you buy. Read technical reviews – such as the ones offered at the PhotoZone Site – and if you can, rent the lens and try it out.
Camera Bodies – If your camera is reaching the end of its life, if your limited by the ISO, if you need a faster shutter response (continuous shooting) or a specific feature and a secondary upgrade won't help, then it may be worth upgrading your camera body. Body upgrades are fairly straight-forward. You will likely stick to the same brand (unless you want to give up all of your lenses and peripherals). Each brand has camera bodies set up in a linear progression – both in feature sets and price. The features are often additive so that one model has all the features of the models below it. So in many cases, the next model up will give you what you need – or if it doesn't, you can look at the next model above that. There's really not a whole lot of science to it.
Now when you do upgrade your body, don't get rid of your old body. It never hurts to have a backup, of course. But each body is going to grow progressively larger and heavier. I am a firm believer in having a camera with you at all times, and you will be more comfortable toting the cheaper, smaller body around at all times. You can save the more serious, more expensive body for planned sessions.
Now the purpose of this series was not to get into specific details. The entire intent of this series was to get you thinking about your purchases in this great hobby of ours. There are thousands of choices to make, and it can often be very difficult. Especially if you've never done it before. So it is my hope that this series gave you an overview and enough things to consider so that you can make a better educated decision. In the future, we may come back with a more in-depth discussion of some of the aspects in this article. So if there is any specific aspect of this article that you'd like to discuss in greater detail, leave a comment below and we'll do our best to address everyone's questions.