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 D7100 and D300. 

The D7100 is the current model in a long line of iteration. It went D70 -> D70s -> D80 -> D90 -> D7000 -> D7100. There's no doubt that the D7100 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 D7100 is a huge leap because of that. 

But the D300 is an example of the failure of the camera companies to iterate to photographic purpose. The D300s is also the current model in a line of iteration. That went from D100 -> D200 -> D300 -> D300s. My problem with the D300 isn't the long amount of time that it's taking for a D400 to appear. It's that the D300/D300s are supposedly professional cameras, which implies that they should execute professional photographic purposes well. But at anything less than 70mm focal length (effective or real), the lens choices start to get 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. 

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. 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. 

A better example is the mid-range zoom for pro DX: Nikon's 17-55mm doesn't have VR, is very large, and is being outclassed by some more recent third party lenses. Now Sigma has an 18-35mm f/1.8 that's about the same size/weight and actually seems more fit to photographic purpose than the Nikkor. (Why did I write that last clause? Because DX sensors are about a stop behind FX in DOF usage by the time everything is made apples-to-apples, so if you're using a 24-70mm f/2.8 on FX, you'd really want a 16-45mm f/2 on DX. The Sigma gives up a little of the focal length, but more than matches the aperture need in the mid-range.)

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 D7100. 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 D7100, 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 D7100 solves over the D80. 

Now let's compare that to trading a D7100 for a D600. They're 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 D600 over a D7100. 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.
  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 the 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). 

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