The Reasons To Buy A Camera

I see a huge sampling of "buying a camera" questions every day. I've slowly come to categorize these into a few categories:

  • Photographic Purpose — The buying choice is provoked by having a true photographic need. More often than not the actual photographic need is dictated by a lens decision, which is one of the reasons why I'm so critical of Nikon's DX (and Canon's APS) lens lineups. Some true photographic purposes are perspective, DOF, light collection, data integrity, focus accuracy and speed, and only a handful of other things.
  • Buying the Latest/Greatest — More pixels, more ISO choices, more controls, more menu options, more retouch options, more bit depth, more buffer space, more fps, more video options, more iteration. Notice the common denominator? More. And its cousin: new. 
  • Nostalgia — That 50mm f/1.2 AI sitting in the closet has as much to do with the purchase decision as anything. The user grew up with a Nikon, so a Nikon is what they're going to get now that they want an SLR-type camera again. 

Can you guess the order in which I see those three things in my In Box? Yep: buying the latest/greatest is by far the number one reason I'm given, with Nostalgia being a distant second. I'm amazed at how often the actual photographic purpose isn't the primary reason to buy a new camera (or lens). 

Some of this has to do with the way the Japanese camera makers work: they iterate. They hope they iterate enough that they can compel you to upgrade every now and again. That's not to knock the things that they've been doing at making cameras better over time, but I believe they've lost the thread. 

A good case in point is the D7200 and D500. 

The D7200 is the current model in a long line of iteration. It went D70 -> D70s -> D80 -> D90 -> D7000 -> D7100->D7200. There's no doubt that the D7200 performs in ways that the predecessor models don't. Each iteration up the ladder bumped some specification or performance aspect upwards. Going from a D70 to a D7200 is a huge leap because of that. 

But the D500 is an example of the failure of the camera companies to iterate to a non-changing photographic purpose. The D500 is also the current model in a line of iteration. That went from D100 -> D200 -> D300 -> D300s -> D500. My problem with the D500 isn't the long amount of time it took to appear, it’s that it narrowed the purpose of this camera (mostly by removing the built-in flash). It's that the D500 is supposedly a professional camera, which implies that it should execute all professional photographic purposes well. But at anything less than 70mm focal length (effective or real), the lens choices start to go wrong. Given that quite a few pictures tend to get taken in that focal length range, the lack of appropriate lenses has crippled the photographic purpose of these cameras over time. 

Every time I write about the lack of appropriate DX lenses I get the same feedback: "But Thom, I can just slap FX lenses on the camera." Yes you can. But here's the thing: below 70mm they're not the choices you'd expect or want. If the DX pro camera is scaled in size and price, you don't expect to use other things that aren't scaled in size and price with it. Moreover, the focal lengths get all discombobulated. The 14-24mm works just fine on a D300 type body, but it's effective 21-36mm, costs more than the camera, Is far bigger and heavier than you'd want to be using for a wide angle zoom for DX. 

At least Nikon partly fixed the main mid-range zoom for the DX (16-80mm f/2.8-4). We finally have VR when we need it, and the aperture range, while not perfect, is close enough.

I've drifted off into lenses rather than cameras, but I still think it serves a purpose here. People look at the new offerings (and read my reviews of them) and they don't always get the priorities straight. I listed the three reasons in the proper order, above. 

Let's say that you're considering trading in your D80 for a D7200. First and foremost, is there a photographic reason why you should do so? In this particular case, yes. The D80 had some of the worst low level pixel integrity I've seen in a Nikon DSLR. If you're trying to get the best possible results out of anything other than Sunny 16, the D80's sensor starts to have impacts the further you get away from that. The D7200, just the opposite: it's perfectly well suited to low light, long exposure, as well as Sunny 16 shots. Of course, if you don't shoot long exposures or in low light, maybe you don't have the need the D7200 solves over the D80. 

Now let's compare that to trading a D7200 for a D610. They’re nearly the identical camera (with very few small differences) except one is DX and the other is FX. What's the photographic purpose that requires you have a D600? Note that there can be one, but most people just come at this as "bigger must be better." I'd argue that most people can't find a photographic purpose to justify buying a D610 over a D7200. Some can, but most can't. 

While another article in this section gives you my "upgrade" suggestions, I hope that you temper that with the advice here: 

  1. Is there a photographic justification for making the switch? Great, you're good to go.
  2. No clear photographic justification? Then are you buying merely on latest/greatest? If so, be a little cautious. There will be a new latest/greatest in the same category as you're considering very soon now. Buying every new generation is not a good financial choice, IMHO. Wait until there's a photographic justification, and then the latest/greatest reasons just add icing on the cake and you're again good to go. Rule of thumb is that most people will find a photographic justification every other camera generation.
  3. How much are you into nostalgia? This is a very tricky issue for some. Let's say they've been using a DX DSLR with the kit lens, and most of their shots are at the wide end of the kit lens. Hmm, do you think maybe something like the old Coolpix A might be a better, more convenient choice? If this particular user never changes lenses and mostly shoots wide, why do they need a DX DSLR? It actually isn't built to the photographic purpose they have chosen! The Sony RX1 is another fine choice for some. Maybe the Fujifilm X100s. Nostalgia rarely gets you to the right photographic buying decision (one exception might be the Leica M, where if you liked it back in the 60's for film, you can get a "digital version" that's very much what you expect today, and solves the same photographic purposes the same way). 


© Thom Hogan 2016 / All Rights Reserved
Portions © 1999-2015 Thom Hogan / All Rights Reserved
bythom.com  @bythom #bythom