Ultimately, Only You Are the Judge


I really enjoyed the camera until I started going into forums and found some folks there seemed to downgrade it for one reason or another.” --from an email I received. 

Ah, the Internet. Home ground for anonymous fan boys, trolls, measurebators, pixel peepers, perpetual argumenters, and more. And no one knows which of those posters are actually dogs instead of humans ;~).

Let me first start off in the field of psychology. Admittedly not my specialty at all. But even I can see that people’s self esteem is being lowered by exposing themselves to random opinions from others and then somehow deciding that their own opinion isn’t worthy. That’s exactly what’s happening in the quote at the start of this article.

So let me repeat the headline: ultimately, only you are the judge. 

I’ve written before that we buy cameras (and other things) because we either want them, or we need them. So if a product fulfills your wants, great: don’t worry, be happy. If it doesn’t, then you need to figure out why it doesn’t fulfill your wants, then look for one that does. The same exact thing applies to needs. The “why” doesn’t come from people posting on the Internet. It comes from your own observations.

Only you know what you want or need. Sure, seek out advice from others, but don’t let them control your decisions. Some data you’ll encounter is bad data, some data is irrelevant data, and yes, some data is good data. I try real hard on this site to use my 30+ year experience in designing and marketing technology, in running a national publication that was a big consumer of high quality imaging, as well as my professional photography to give out information and opinions that are (I hope) useful to those seeking out the best gear. But they’re my opinions. You have to process them.


D2h or D4s: Better or Worse? The Internet fora have an answer, but is it the right answer for you? 

I need to re-emphasize that last bit. My preference (bias, if you will), is towards the best possible quality you can produce photographically. When I write that the D810 is the best all-around DSLR at the moment, some of that is because the D750 has a couple of downsides, most particularly if you suddenly have the need for the reach of DX, where you’ll be down to only 10mp. Likewise, achieving the full acuity some lenses can achieve is tougher with the D750 than the D810. When I write "All-around best” that means optimal in as many tasks as possible, not best possible compromise, especially when considering price. (I’ll have more on this when I post my D750 and D810 reviews shortly, because it’s a very tricky point. Both cameras are probably better than most people need, so picking between them becomes even more difficult than usual. Get used to that, as it’s going to be the norm for awhile; at least until the next disruptive event happens with DSLRs.)

The camera makers want to sell you a new camera. I can tell you right now that if you have any DSLR made in the last 10 years, you have a very competent camera already. Thus, it’s incumbent upon the camera makers to tell you why you need that new camera over the one you’ve got. As I’ve written many times recently, we’re deep into incremental iterations of DSLRs (and for that matter, most other dedicated cameras). Yes, the new stuff is better than the old stuff, but only incrementally so. 

Which brings me back to the Internet postings. One thing I see an awful lot of on the Internet is “justification.” Even from the pros. Often what you find them writing is something that helps them prove to themselves that they got something useful by buying the new gear and trading in their old. Yet you know what? I saw great landscape photos in the 80’s, 90’s, 00’s, and now the 10’s from whatever gear was available then. I saw great portraits, sports, news, wedding, event, and other photos in those decades, too. Photography isn’t all about gear.

Often you’ll see something like “let’s me shoot at higher ISO values” or “let’s me shoot longer sequences” or something along those lines. Often, those assertions are not only vague, but purely anecdotal and self-serving. Let me explain.

I shot ISO 3200 with DSLRs in 2001. I shoot at ISO 3200 today. Is the data I’m dealing with better today than 13 years ago? Yes, and I have more of it (more pixels, deeper bit storage). But note that I shot at ISO 3200 over a decade ago. Are those images bad? Not at all. I did have to spend more time in post processing dealing with the impacts of shooting at ISO 3200 in 2001 than I do today. 

So let’s advance forward a bit. Lots of people have been posting about how much better the D750 is than the D610 at high ISO values. Uh, not really. In JPEGs, yes, I see a difference, and that difference is in how Nikon is processing the data. There’s more and more subtle noise reduction going on, and the Picture Controls now have some slight twists to them, too. That comes with a tiny loss in color separation, amongst other things. With raw files, I’m just not seeing any meaningful difference between the two cameras. Yet that’s one of the repeated memes now about the D750: far better at high ISO. 

I’m betting that some of that is self-justification. Spending US$2300 for another new camera body over what you’ve got means you can only write one of two things: (1) I was a fool to spend that much money to replace something that worked fine; or (2) I got something that justifies the money I spent. 

I see a lot of #2 and very little #1. So either the camera makers are doing a near perfect job with updates, or there’s a lot of justification posing as fact out there. 

We’re deep in the buying season right now. For the next few days B&H dangles a US$300 (9%) discount on the DSLR I consider the all-around best (D810). I’m telling you it’s a great camera, lots of Internet posts are telling you how great it is, it’s on sale, what more could you want? Buy, buy, buy. 

Or better yet: Don’t. Don’t buy unless you can really make the judgment that you’ll be better off with the new gear than you are with your old gear. If you’re not unhappy with the images you’re getting out of your old camera, why would you even need a new one? If you are unhappy, is it the camera’s problem or yours? Did you spend enough time to actually master what it can do? Does the new thing even take care of the problem you find most annoying?

Admit it, you haven’t taken your camera out of the default settings. Or perhaps you saw someone else’s “suggested settings” and dialed them in. There’s a reason why there are so many options in the higher end cameras, folks. The answer to whatever problems you think you have may already be within the camera you own. 

Typical comment: "the images from my Nikon DSLR are soft." Yes, they often are if you’re shooting JPEGs. The default setting for a D750 is Standard Picture Control with a Sharpening value of 3 (it can be set as high as 9) and a Clarity setting of +1 (it can be set as high as 5). This is actually “more sharp” than previous Nikon DSLR defaults, but it’s still pretty benign in terms of promoting edges. (Note also that as you bump ISO, Sharpening interacts with what the High ISO NR setting is doing, so it wouldn’t be unusual to change your Picture Control settings with ISO. Yet I see almost no one doing that.) 

I just spent a day with the B&H folk in New York City and they’re probably going to wail at me for even suggesting that you don’t need a new camera, but all I’m trying to point out is that you’re the only one that can judge whether you do or not. And in trying to come to that decision, here are two important questions you need to ask yourself:

  1. Are other people’s opinions changing my own observations? e.g. Do I think less of my camera because of what someone else wrote?
  2. Have I fully explored what the camera I have can do? e.g. Am I just using default settings expecting perfection?

If you answer yes to the first or no to the second, you’re probably not ready for a new camera yet. All you’re going to do is trade in your old camera for a new one and as soon as the next camera is announced, you’ll be going through the same process all over again. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll take every advance that a camera maker can squeeze out. But that’s also been an exhausting path for me, as literally every few months I’m having to fully re-explore everything to exploit those gains (settings, workflow, post processing adjustments, lighting, you name it). Moreover, the gains are getting smaller and smaller. 

Still, I try to be an optimal shooter. As Ansel Adams did with exposure and the darkroom, I’m constantly exploring what more I can extract from my gear. You’re probably not in need of being an optimal shooter. You’d need a bigger gain to justify the big expense of a new camera is my guess. So first and foremost, you need to know that there’s a gain, and that this gain is one you need.  

Finally, as I’ve written before, ask yourself these three important questions:

  1. Do I want a new camera or do I need a new camera? You have a lot of flexibility in when and what to buy if the former; you’re probably locked in if the latter.
  2. What problem(s) does the new camera solve for me? You also need to make sure that they will actually solve those problems, by the way.
  3. What problem(s) will the new camera generate for me? Are the gains you get (e.g. the D810’s great 36mp files) worth the problems you have to solve (e.g. upgrading cards, computer, memory, storage, to deal with those large files)? 

If you can answer those three questions and justify the answers to yourself, you’re ready to buy. If you can’t, sit back and watch the Internet fora for entertainment value, but don’t let that erode your confidence in the gear you’ve got. 

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