When should you upgrade your digital camera? While that question does not have a clear one-size-fits-all answer, it is not a difficult question to ponder for many photographers. The answer, believe it or not, is that you rarely, if ever, need to upgrade your camera for the announcement and release of each and every new model.
It happens every few years (and now much more frequently than it used to). You are browsing the B&H Photo website or reading B&H Explora and your Favorite Camera Mk. III has just been replaced by Favorite Camera Mk. IV. The Mk. IV has a few more megapixels, a few more autofocus sensors, a new-and-improved Processor 4 that is faster than your Processor 3, and a new strap with “Mk. IV” proudly embroidered on it. Is it time to grab your Payboo card and upgrade your Mk. III to the Mk. IV?
Before we dive into this subject, it is important to mention that if you are using an older digital camera with the original kit lenses that it came with, and you feel like your image quality can be better, I would skip a further discussion on upgrading your camera and, instead, upgrade your lens or lenses.
If you already have great glass, and you are debating whether you should get the new Mk. IV, then keep on reading….
When to Upgrade Your Camera
Question: “When should I upgrade my digital camera?”
Answer: “When the camera you own is no longer doing what you require it to do.”
While that answer seems simple and straightforward, let’s dive into some nuances of the debate.
(Probably the worst phrase I could choose for the header of this section, but, ironically, an industry term…)
In the heyday of SLR film photography, there were significant gaps between the rollout of new cameras. A top-of-the-line flagship professional SLR camera had a lifespan to which today’s digital cameras cannot be compared—some production runs spanned two decades! Back then, if you had been shooting your SLR Mk. II for 15 years and the SLR Mk. III came out, you could likely justify an upgrade to the new camera—especially if all of your lenses were compatible with it.
Enter the digital era, and the production cycles of DSLR and mirrorless cameras are much, much shorter than those of their film ancestors. Even with the faster “obsolescence” of digital, camera companies give customers a fair amount of time before they introduce a new model in a particular line. And some of these companies are relatively consistent when it comes to the interval between models so you can use the power of the Internet to predict when the next version will arrive.
Other companies, one in particular, barely lets the paint dry on its latest version before the company rolls out something new with the tag “game changer” applied to it.
With the predictable and well-spaced arrivals, you can probably justify replacing your Mk. III with a Mk. IV—especially if you got that Mk. III when it was just released. With a more hyperactive release schedule, you could probably skip a generation in the name of saving some money.
Did you forget you still own a Favorite Camera Mk. II? Yep, it is the one that you are using as décor on your office bookshelf. But guess what? It can still take the same amazing photos it took 10 years ago!
“Obsolescence” in the digital world does not always mean “inoperable.”
This leads us to the next section…
I have a 14-year-old 12MP digital camera that still works perfectly fine, and I can make what I feel are great photographs with it when I couple it to good lenses. Compared to my 3-year-old digital camera, it does leave a bit to be desired in the color department and a lot to be desired in the digital noise department. Fourteen years ago, when I got the camera, I was blown away (sometimes) by the images I was making, and the camera is still working just fine today.
My point is that a digital camera with a good lens that took fantastic photos a decade ago can still take fantastic photos.
What about mechanical aging? This is a consideration. Manufacturers torture-test their shutters—the tests range from 50,000 cycles for entry-level cameras to nearly 10x that amount for flagship models. Even at the low end of the testing, 50,000 cycles give you a lot of cycles—just under 14 photos per day for 10 years straight. However, if you are approaching that number of shutter cycles, your camera might be on borrowed time.
Cosmetic aging is a thing, as well. Old rangefinders are cool with the paint worn off the brass, but when rubberized grips and buttons start to come off of modern cameras, it can be a bit inconvenient.
One of the main draws of a new camera is usually an increase in resolution.
In the past, when asked, “How many megapixels do I need?” my answer would be: “Six.”
For years, the world’s top professional photographers wielded 6MP cameras (or fewer). In the early days of digital, National Geographic required a minimum of 6MP images from its photographers. “Good enough for NatGeo? Good enough for snapshots of your family gatherings,” I would tell friends and family members asking for my advice. With those 6MP cameras, photographers documented amazing moments, professionals landed lucrative commercial contracts and made beautiful portraits, and large-sized prints were created. Those cameras are still capable of doing the same exact thing today, but photographers have moved on in pursuit of more resolution, faster processing, and less digital noise.
So, why do photographers seem to always chase the megapixel rabbit? That is a good question for which I do not have a good answer. Personally, I would prefer a 12-to-16MP camera with extremely good high ISO noise performance than the 24MP resolution I currently get from my camera, but that is just me.
While more megapixels are good for larger prints, we are, today, well past the number of pixels needed to make incredibly large prints, yet photographers continue to clamor for the newest cameras with more and more megapixels. Yes, 24MP (or more) makes it really fun to zoom in on an image on your computer screen, but always keep in mind that the pixel-peeping fun does not translate to prints (or even normal viewing on a computer screen).
(A word of caution: Today’s very-high megapixel sensors can supersede the resolving power of older lenses—especially those designed for film. If you are considering a big jump in megapixels, you may have to also consider upgrading to the latest lenses, too, a huge financial consideration.)
Computers and Storage
This is another consideration directly related to “Resolution” in the previous section, but upgrading to a camera with more megapixels might put a hurt on your laptop or desktop computer as it is forced to process and store much larger files. If your current computer and camera are working and playing well together, it might be a good idea not to introduce a new high-maintenance partner into the relationship.
Back to my 14-year-old camera… The camera’s 12MP are still plenty sufficient to make large prints and, let me tell you, when I go back to move those 12MP files or re-post-process them, the computer feels like it has been turbocharged. Need I mention the insane computer performance I get when I re-process images from my 5.47MP days?
Your Needs and Demands
This is where things get a bit stickier. If you are pushing the technical performance envelope (sorry to use the aviation term) of your camera—autofocus, resolution, ISO noise, dynamic range, etc.—then an older camera might not perform as well as you need it to.
As veteran photographers have grown up through evolving digital systems, they have been pushing the technology by expanding their photography to meet the capabilities of the new cameras. While photographers might think that older cameras held them back, the proof is in the fact that amazing images were taken in the early days of digital photography.
All digital cameras have limitations to their performance, just as film had its own limitations. As an artist in a technically based art, you need to recognize the limitations of your camera and/or lens and work inside those limits. As technology removes, expands, or adjusts those limitations, you may then expand your art.
As a real-world example, I regularly create long-exposure astronomical photographs with my 4-year-old camera at ISOs that I would never even attempt with my 12-year-old camera. Because it performs better with high ISO noise, I know I can “safely” operate at those higher ISO settings.
Time to Upgrade?
If you are a professional doing paid shoots and needing the latest technological advantage due to the complexity of the images you are creating, by all means, upgrade your camera with each iteration if you can.
If you are not pushing up against the technical limitations of your current camera, then you will have little use for what the new technology provides. Your money would likely be better spent on upgrading your lenses. So, click here to read about why you should upgrade your lenses first!
What are your thoughts or questions about upgrading your camera? Let us know in the Comments section, below!