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…
D7000 = 13.9 EV
D7500 = 14.0 EV
Difference 0.1 EV, likely not noticeable for most people
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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