Buying Criteria Changes

A recent comment from one of our readers (thank you Lewsh!) caused me to ponder if our buying criteria for camera gear is changing, and if so, why. It wasn’t that many years ago that it was reasonably common for photographers (especially enthusiasts) to upgrade their camera bodies frequently. Perhaps not with each new model generation, but many folks would upgrade with every second successive model. That often worked out to a new camera body every 3 years or so depending on the brand.

I don’t have any research about camera buying criteria so this article is based on anecdotal observations over the past few years.

Longer replacement cycles

As the price of new camera gear has continued to escalate over the past number of years it appears to me that longer replacement cycles have become more common in the camera market. While there are still photographers out there who upgrade their camera bodies frequently, they seem to comprise a much smaller percentage. When I am out and about, I am observing a higher percentage of photographers using camera bodies that are 4 years old, or older.

Perhaps some of this is being driven by major manufacturers like Canon and Nikon moving into new, mirrorless products, and their customers taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude.

Sensor performance stagnation

About 8-10 years ago it was very common to hear photographers discuss new sensor technologies, sensor density, and improvements with dynamic range.

Some photographers were more than willing to change out camera bodies primarily to acquire better sensor performance. I don’t hear about very many people today changing camera bodies based primarily on sensor issues if they stay within the same sensor size camera category.

I think some of the reason for this is that sensor performance hasn’t improved dramatically over the past number of years. In many cases a current model APS-C or full frame camera today, doesn’t perform noticeably better than a similar body from 5 years ago.

Obviously there are photographers who are moving from cropped sensor cameras into full frame, or full frame into medium format. In these instances sensor considerations are still very important to them.

Some photographers remain sensor phobic. For example, I find it fascinating that one of the common criticisms of the Olympus OM-D E-M1X was its use of a perceived ‘old’ M4/3 sensor. From my perspective, the specific sensor that is in a camera body today isn’t nearly as important now as it was a decade ago.

Impact of post processing software

As post processing software programs have improved, they have impacted camera buying criteria. One of the most common shifts that I’ve observed is photographers being less concerned about initial noise in their images, and using higher ISO values. “I can easily address noise in post”, is something that I hear far more often now, than I did even 3-4 years ago.

Computer hardware considerations

Some photographers are including the impact that buying a new camera will have on their computer hardware in terms of needing larger hard drives.  Some folks are becoming more concerned about the time spent on processing their images in post. While small in number, some photographers have told me that they considered cameras with high pixel density sensors then ruled them out because of the related costs of upgrading their computers to handle the larger file sizes.

Storage media costs

Many new cameras require more expensive storage media. The type of memory card required by a specific camera is becoming a more important part of the overall buying criteria, as it directly impacts the overall investment required.

Appreciation of computational photography and AI

While still not a primary buying criteria for many photographers, it appears that the appreciation of computational photography and AI (artificial intelligence) is growing to some extent. Much of this is being driven by some of the incredible technology that is appearing in cellphones.

Those advancements are shifting our expectations of what performance we should be able to get from our dedicated cameras. As modern cameras fail to keep pace with computational photography features in cellphones, they disappoint more people. This causes more buyers to exit the dedicated camera market and use cellphones instead.

It amazes me how prevalent thinking focused purely on sensor performance still is today. Cellphones have decimated the lower end of the camera market and used quite small sensors in the process.

On a personal basis I really couldn’t care less that my E-M1X uses a  M4/3 sensor that is perceived as ‘old’ in some circles. What I do care about are some of the computational photography and AI advancements that my E-M1X delivers.  Features that provide me with new, better and easier ways to create images. Pro Capture, Live ND and Handheld Hi Res mode, all come immediately to mind.

As far as buying criteria go, I believe that firmware and the photographic capabilities it creates will be far more important than hardware in the years ahead.

AI Subject Tracking is a harbinger of things to come. This incredible technology is really about software, not hardware. The fact that Bird Subject Recognition is scheduled to be available later this year for my E-M1X will transform my camera into a ‘new model’ without me having to spend a penny more.

In the years to come, photographers may be more concerned about what the firmware in their cameras can deliver, than what hardware is inside the body. The value of hardware will only be relevant to the degree that it enables photographic features created through firmware.

Increasing importance of lenses

No doubt the availability of lenses has always been an important buying criteria for many photographers. I sense that these considerations are increasing in importance. I hear far more photographers discuss lens quality and selection than I did in the past. There also seems to be more time being spent before a lens purchase is finalized. Rising prices, and an increased number of options, are likely impacting decision making deliberations.

Anecdotally, it seems to me that the folks who used to buy a DSLR with a kit zoom lens and perhaps one additional consumer zoom, represent a much smaller percentage of the dedicated camera market today, than they did in the past. Many of these buyers have left dedicated cameras behind and now use cell phones.

Increasing average age of camera users

One of the challenges facing most camera clubs today is the increasing average age of their members. Younger people (i.e. 30 years old or younger) just aren’t as interested in dedicated cameras as this age group was in the past. The current generation of these folks grew up with cellphones and are highly skewed to this technology.

When I do presentations for camera clubs there typically are very few, if any, young people in the audience (i.e. 30 or under).

The increasing average age of camera users seems to be impacting the camera market in divergent ways. Some camera users are interested in larger sensor cameras, perhaps to achieve better image quality in absolute terms (i.e. increased dynamic range, colour depth and low light performance). Buyers in this category are sometimes fulfilling a long-held ambition to own a full frame (or larger) sensor camera.

Other older photographers are finding it more difficult to use large, heavy camera gear and are looking towards smaller, lighter camera systems. Anecdotally, I’m aware of a number of readers of this photography blog that have sold their full frame cameras and moved to smaller sensor systems, primarily APS-C and M4/3.

Shifting price/quality perspectives

A decade ago it was quite common for a non-professional photographer to buy less expensive camera equipment, especially lenses, with the intent of upgrading in future years. This does not seem to be as prevalent today.

I receive a higher percentage of emails from photographers who are holding off camera equipment purchases until they have enough money to buy better quality lenses. Some of the underlying logic has to do with added photographic capability. Like buying a constant aperture f/2.8 zoom rather than a slower, variable aperture one.

Quite a few photographers seem to be more concerned about the potential service life of their equipment than in the past. Discussions about about overall construction quality, durability, and weatherproofing are more common than they were a decade ago.

Last major purchase mentality

Perhaps as a function of increasing age, I’ve observed more photographers taking a ‘last major purchase mentality’ approach with their next planned camera equipment purchase. This trend transcends brand or camera format considerations and is affecting buying criteria. I certainly fell into this category when I bought my Olympus camera gear in 2019.

I’m in the twilight of my professional career and may not be doing much client work 5 years down the road. So, it was very important to me to buy camera gear that I assessed as having a high degree of durability and reliability. I wanted to buy gear that I could realistically still be using at least 10 years down the road.

While there were many other factors that went into me deciding on the Olympus OM-D E-M1X, durability was a significant issue. For example, IPX1 weatherproofing (and testing to IPX3 standards) was important to me.

I was willing to pay more for a camera with a mechanical shutter rated to 400,000 actuations. Having a camera body with a built-in heat pipe to help dissipate operating heat and thus extend the life of internal circuitry appealed to me. Using a camera with an integrated grip was something that I viewed as being more durable than using an add-on grip. I wanted a camera with advanced dust reduction technology.

When I bought a second body to back-up my client video business I decided on another E-M1X. Some of that was due to features… but most of that decision was about durability and ergonomics.

Taking a ‘last major purchase’ perspective meant that I was willing to pay more for fast aperture PRO grade M.Zuiko lenses. Rather than buying less expensive off-brand flashes, I opted for Olympus models that offered me the same level of weatherproofing as my camera bodies and lenses.

It seems that when many photographers get into their senior years they are more willing to spend some additional money when they realize the gear they are buying is likely going to be the last major camera equipment purchase they’ll ever make.

Future Compatibility

A few more photographers seem to concerned about the future compatibility of the equipment that they are buying. Some of this is driven by changes in camera mounts, and the necessity to use adapters down the road.

Other photographers… like me… would not consider ‘off brand’ or third party lenses because of concerns that future computational photography features with their camera body may not work with those lenses.

As computational photography becomes more ingrained in the camera industry, I think more manufacturers will program their firmware to eliminate, or reduce, the compatibility of ‘off brand’ and third party lenses with their camera bodies… and thus shift buying criteria.

In the future, this may be one of the primary ways that manufacturers try to ensure integrated camera/lens system purchases by their customers. This would help manufacturers offset shrinking interchangeable lens purchase volumes by discouraging the use of third party equipment.

That’s not to say that everyday types of photography will not still be able to be done by mixing camera and lens brands. I think that basic compatibility will continue in the future. If photographers want extended IBIS performance, and some of the specialized computational photography features that are driven by their camera body’s firmware, they may have to use same brand lenses.

What’s your perspective?

Have you been changing your buying criteria when it comes to camera equipment? What changes in buying criteria have you noticed, if any, with other photographers you know?

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5 thoughts on “Buying Criteria Changes”

  1. DSLR’s are now the domain of the specialist scratching out a living. Cellphone photography is excellent for the vast majority of people who can get an upgraded camera when they upgrade their phones. People who use their cameras to make money are going to be less enthusiastic about upgrading unless it will give them a competitive edge, make their lives a lot easier, or their equipment breaks. And with the stagnation of technology, there is usually no good reason to upgrade. The Nikon D700 can still deliver excellent results twelve years later. How many other cameras out there can do the same?

    1. Thanks for adding to the discussion Edward!

      I’ve never used a D700 but know a couple of photographers who have in the past and they both really liked that camera. I agree that older camera gear like your D700 is still capable of producing excellent results… especially when you consider its solid build quality.


  2. Tom,

    I’d like to chime in with my inputs, if you don’t mind. DPR ran a recent article that piqued my curiosity and interest — along the lines of whether Vlogging can influence one’s next camera purchase/choice.

    I’m not really a vlogger or inclined to use video but I would like to believe that quite a lot of people have tuned into their inner-vloggers especially during this pandemic. A segment of Youtube’s content creators (mainly reaction videos or what I call “talk-videos” that replace “talk radio” of yesteryears) do use dedicated vlogging cameras, if I base it on video quality (bokeh, a bit more tech on the production values, etc.).

    Your post pointed out some things that are becoming apparent. With the advances of computational photography, it’s becoming de rigeur, borrowing heavily from smartphone development. On the other hand (and extreme), more serious camera buyers are relying more on lens quality to optically achieve image quality without resorting to much post-processing OR achieving the highest-possible quality for better rendering for readying for post-processing.

    With the way the global economy is going, it’s anyone guess which way the photography industry will go. Maybe, Sigma has a good point in introducing its FP modular camera (though it’s admittedly more video-oriented). Perhaps, there’s a future market for mix-and-match parts, where the user can tailor his/her camera makeup depending on his/her purpose (add a higher res eyepiece for video; add a speedlight for stills; add a dedicated light for video; replace sensor with a newer gen/higher res one; and so on). Or could it be wishful thinking? Just food for thought I guess in a world wracked with pandemic, a downturn market, among other things.

    PS: One more thing — the good thing that Sony did was open up to third-party lens makers (unlike Nikon where Sigma, Tamron, et al, have to do reverse engineering) as well as make docks available for lens upgrading/calibration.


    1. Hi Oggie,

      Thanks for adding some additional perspectives to the discussion… great stuff!

      As you pointed out, there are a lot of ways that the photography industry could go. We’ll have to see where consumer demand takes the industry.

      It will be interesting to see if Sony maintains an ‘open attitude’ in terms of working with third party lens manufacturers. I think it was a really solid strategy when Sony did not have many lenses of their own. I imagine that having a good selection of third party lenses helped Sony cameras gain some market acceptance. We’ll have to see if Sony changes its approach in an attempt to protect its own line up of lenses in the future.


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