A few days ago I asked whether new gear you acquired made your photography better. Today I'm going to answer that question (at least partially) for myself.
I've been in digital photography for 20 years now. Along the way I've encountered and used hundreds of digital cameras. So what I'm going to do today is tell you about the cameras that did make my photography better, and why.
Surprisingly, virtually nothing really did make my digital photographs "better" in ways that were meaningful until about 2002. Even though I was using a D1x at the time, it was clear to me that the D100 did something that the D1x didn't: keep shadow integrity from blocking up. That was a big, big move forward for me, as in my personal work I tend to take photos that are dark, with deep shadows. That's true even of landscapes, where I prefer the pre-sunrise and post sunset times. The D100 didn't break any of the things I liked about the Nikon DSLRs, but its sensor was clearly better than the D1x I was using for the things that were important to me in the image. Even today I still marvel at how well the D100 managed a number of very tough situations I threw at it, and some of my favorite digital images were taken with that camera.
Many might say the D70 (and eventual D70s update) were the cameras that did that for them, but that's really more a price thing than an image quality thing. The D70 never took a better photo than my D100, it just did so in a lighter, less expensive body with some additional zip to storing images on the card.
To me the next cameras that moved me forward were really the D3/D300 combo. The D300 extended all those good things about the D100, but with more pixels. To some degree, the D2x had already done that, but only at base ISO, so it was a limited move forward for me. The D3, on the other hand, made me start returning to doing some sports photography. The ability to shoot in low light venues and get great images was a huge step forward, and one of the reasons why I had been avoiding doing that type of work with previous digital cameras.
There's only been one other camera that I consider having truly impacted the image quality results of my photography: the D800E. I'd tend to say that it's the best all-around DSLR yet. Here we are almost two years later and I still marvel at what I can coax out of its sensor.
Note that I said "image quality" in the last paragraph. That's because there's been one other camera that's changed the way I shoot and has gotten me better results: the Olympus OM-D E-M5. In some ways, it's a step backwards, as as good as the 16mp sensor in it is, when you push the print sizes up it's not really matching what I can do with even any of Nikon's 16mp or 24mp DX DSLRs paired with excellent lenses.
But that's the thing: when you put a great lens on a Nikon DX DSLR, you're usually carrying four pounds or more just in camera+lens. At my age and shape, long walks into the backcountry just don't happen if I'm loaded down with 20 pounds of photography and survival gear. Even just getting down to 10-12 pounds makes a huge difference in how far I can go and still be thinking and moving clearly. Thus, I'm willing to give up a small bit of image quality to just get the shot in the first place.
Which brings me to my last entrant: the Sony RX100 (now RX100II). I've tended to always carry a camera with me, but it's either been a huge compromise in image quality or a huge neck weight and bulk. The Sony made the image quality compromise far lower, and it is pocketable, so not a burden at all. I've been doing more spontaneous and impromptu shooting lately because of this camera, and the more shooting you do, the better you get. So if for no reason other than it prompted me to shoot more, the RX100 has to get my acknowledgement of a camera that made my work better.
So in 20 years, only 6 out of hundreds of cameras actually truly impacted my work for the better.
Your story will be a bit different than mine, as what you value and the thing that bettered your photography will be a little different. But I'll bet you've acquired more cameras over the years than ones that made you a better photographer.
This is a time of year when we should be contemplating both the past and the future. You can learn things from the past (e.g. not every piece of gear I buy betters my photography), and you can apply them to the future (e.g. I don't always need to buy the latest and greatest piece of gear).
Will there be new gear in the future that makes my photography even better? I sure hope so. But if not, I've got three cameras today that can do most of my work and keep me happy: D800E, OM-D E-M5, and RX100II.
Extra Credit: after applying the same analysis to your own camera journey, now think about the lenses that made your photography better, then the accessories.