As a fairly established photographer, many beginners ask me what camera to buy to get started. What’s more important: body or lenses? Or is it the brand? My standard advice has always been to buy a cheap, used body and save your money for quality lenses. A beginner just doesn't need a high-end camera. That’s easy to say, of course, when you shoot on a Nikon D800 with some pretty nice glass. Perhaps it was time to do a little experimenting of my own to see what, if any, difference there was between a top end camera and something cheap.
“Wow, what a great picture! That’s a really nice camera.” That phrase is one of the most annoying statements that the layperson can make when complementing a photographer. What we want to yell at the top of our lungs while shaking our would-be complimenter is, “It’s not the camera that’s good. It’s me!” After all, nobody wants to believe our work is the result of technology rather than skill.
Nikon D800 vs. Nikon D40x
Why a Nikon D800? It’s what I shoot with. Why a Nikon D40x? Honestly, it’s because there was no way I was going to go out and buy a cheap body for one article and my friend was nice enough to let me use his camera. The body is perfect though. It came out in 2007, is 10.2-megapixels of fun, and can be readily bought used for less than $150. This is the kind of camera I recommend to those just starting out.
Now what lenses to use for the comparison? I settled on a Nikon 70-200mm f/4, one of Nikon’s sharpest zooms and one of my favorite lenses to shoot with on my D800. This goes right along with my advice to buy cheap bodies and good glass.
So out I went with one of my model friends who was patient enough to let me experiment, switching bodies mid-setup.
We headed out in bright sunshine at about 3 p.m. using a simple setup of a strobe, fired remotely with PocketWizards, modified by a Photek Softlighter. I didn’t want to change up my workflow to accommodate one camera or another. The point of the article was to see if the D40x could hang. Could an 8-year-old, $150, cropped sensor camera compete with a 36-megapixel beast, known for exceedingly good image quality? Yes and no.
First and foremost, I want to say that the point of this article is not to say whether or not the D40x is as good of a camera as the D800. It isn’t. Not even close. The D800 is more customizable, delivers far better image quality and resolution, is much more versatile in low light, has more bells and whistles than you can shake a stick at, blah blah blah… The point is not to pixel peep. That’s why I’m not showing raw files, 100 percent crops, etc. I want to keep this as real to life as possible. No industry professional will be opening an email from you and checking your images for pixel level sharpness. Either they like the photos or they don’t. End of story.
But will the D40x do in a pinch? Will it deliver image quality that will enable a beginner to make images that they can be proud of? Perhaps even sell? Yes. Yes it will.
I brought the images into Capture One — my raw converter of choice — and did a few basic color edits, outputted to Photoshop, retouched blemishes, resized, saved for web, and done.
Two Parts To The Story
After showing the images to a few people (not photographers), not one person could distinguish the $150 camera from the $2,000 camera. Not one. Can you? Web-sized photos are small though, and it’s hard to discern quality from such a small image. But it’s exactly these small images that will get you the meeting from buyers to show some prints. Which brings me to the next part of the story.
Of course, this result was obtained in a completely unscientific way and only covers one shoot with digital viewing. In the next part of this experiment I’ll be dealing with prints from the two different cameras. My lab is currently printing 12x18 inch samples of the shots that I will be taking to various industry professionals around town. I’m avoiding photographers for the most part because they pixel-peep! I’ll let the buyers, agents, and laypeople decide and report back with the results.
So far, though, David is standing up to Goliath just fine.
By the way, the images are: