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Don't feel the need to upgrade your older DSLR but still want it to perform better? There's good news: it's possible! However, it will take a bit of smart investing and will require some careful selection based on the goals and tasks you want to accomplish while shooting.
With the right tools and applied knowledge, there is no reason why your images shouldn't look as awe-inspiring as the day you got your camera. With practice, they will look even better. Here is some advice that will help your camera's performance reach its maximum potential.
Generally, the first step in an upgrade path that any budding photographer or hobbyist takes is acquiring a change in optics. There are many options from affordable super-telephoto zoom lenses to wide-aperture primes and beyond.
One option that you may want to consider is getting something not in your focal length range. If you've got the standard 18-55mm kit lens that comes with most DSLR cameras, then you may want to go for a 70-300mm to give you more versatility. This focal length range is great for shooting the kids playing little league baseball, soccer, pop-warner football etc. It's also a great choice for long distance nature and wildlife photography.
There most likely are a number of you that may be asking, "Why the heck would I get a fixed focal length?" The reason is because of the sharper images and the wider aperture that is very useful when shooting in lower lighting. The tradeoff is that you will not be able to zoom in and out from one stationary position but instead will have to walk back and forth. Users typically call this, "Zooming with your feet." The results will be more carefully composed images.
As a tip, remember that the life of your lens will be much longer than the life of your DSLR. Camera manufactuers typically upgrade their lenses around every 10 years give or take. In contrast, DSLRs are replaced as often as a year and as long as around three years.
Furthermore, when getting these new lenses you should always check to ensure that the focus is accurate. Since the depth of field is so shallow at the wider apertures, one often needs to check that the images taken are always tack sharp on the autofocus point. If it isn't, you should perhaps look into lens adjustments within the camera to try to check or rectify the problem. As a Canon shooter, I tend to micro-adjust my lenses to get even sharper focusing out of them. LensAlign makes tools to help you out if needed.
If you prefer not to autofocus, be sure to use the depth-of-field preview button on your DSLR or switch it into Live View.
Your pop-up flash will deliver very harsh lighting that will not be particularly flattering to your subjects. If you really want to stick with this flash, I recommend purchasing something like the Gary Fong Puffer. This little add-on will soften that hard lighting to create more flattering shadows on the subject's face. It is also very compact and can almost live in your camera's hot shoe. However, the best way to really get better photos is to experiment with lighting; especially off-camera strobes.
There are many resources where you can read about this, and many of them will tell you to take the plunge and go buy a couple of flashes or strobes with umbrellas. Flickr has a bunch of strobist groups where users post their final images and oftentimes caption the photos with diagrammed lighting setups.
Impact makes a great, portable kit for this purpose although you will have to buy the flashes seperately for your camera system. Student photographers will be wise to purchase this early on in their career as it will make their long term growth and refinement of skills that much more fruitful.
Users looking to upgrade and breathe extra life into their older DSLR should also know that good lighting can make images from even older DSLRs look brand new. For example, at the time of writing this posting, the Canon 1Ds Mk III is starting to show its age. However, most photographers that use this camera also have great lighting equipment and are still able to deliver phenominal images that are more than publishable. Similarly, many wedding photographers still use the original Canon 5D vs the newer 5D Mk II—and their clients can't tell the difference! The reason for this is because of their creative lighting knowledge.
Upgrading your editing software is very important if you'd like to keep your images looking fresh. New features come out every year that help you create better images and art. For example, Lightroom 3's new noise reduction algorithms are much better than they were previously and can help make images from older DSLRs look much better than before. In previous versions, if a photographer shot at their highest ISO, they would have to be careful of how much noise reduction they applied to the photo so as to keep it sharp and detailed. Adobe took note of this and created much better noise reduction in the latest version of the software.
Now this doesn't mean that you need to upgrade every year. In fact, some features of newer software are just the older features made easier to manipulate than previously possible. Be sure to read through the newer features thoroughly and decide for yourself whether or not you truly need them.
Software companies tend to offer free trials for a certain amount of time to help you in your decision making process.
These are just three ways of breathing new life into your aging DSLR. If you have other ideas or thoughts, please share them in the comments below.