The Difficulty With Knowing When to Upgrade Photography Gear

The Difficulty With Knowing When to Upgrade Photography Gear

With a seemingly endless stream of new camera gear announcements rolling out on what seems like a daily basis, it can be difficult to separate what features you need from those that just sound good on a spec sheet. So, how do you know when to pull out your hard-earned money?

Well, the first thing to know is that you don’t need to buy or upgrade anything. Sure, the latest and greatest camera or lighting kit may objectively be better than your current one, but if you’ve been doing just fine with what you already have, buying a new piece of equipment is not going to make you an innately better artist. Gear can make your job easier. But it’s not going to make you more creative.

The other day, my father told me he was excited at the prospect of getting an 8K television. Why does he feel he needs an 8K television? That’s a whole separate conversation. I did my best to talk him out of the idea, realizing that, at best it would be used to watch endless reruns of British TV comedies from the 1980s and an unhealthy dose of cable news. Hardly a good investment. I reminded him that, despite the first 4K video camera having been introduced in 2003, nearly 20 years ago, the vast majority of broadcast television is still delivered in 1080p. If anything, lower resolution formats like 720p or 480p are more widely used due to the influx of content being viewed on mobile devices. So, why spend a small fortune on something that sounds great on paper, but that he would hardly ever put to full use?

Not that the apple falls far from the tree. A couple years ago, I upended much of my gear collection, convinced that I couldn’t call myself a serious filmmaker if I was still shooting in 1080p. I sold off my older gear and made investments in newer systems with 4K. And the transition has had its benefits. I don’t want this to sound like a diatribe trying to dissuade you from shooting in 4K or getting excited about 8K. It’s simply that, despite me justifying the investment by saying it was being made on behalf of my clients, the vast majority of my clients still want their final deliverables in 1080p. So, was it even worth the investment?

It makes my job easier. The main advantage of 4K I’ve found is that I maximize my footage. By maximize my footage, I mean that my wide shot can suddenly double for a medium shot just by punching in during post-production. Since the final product is being delivered in 1080p, there’s very little drop off in quality. So, for example, you can shoot a wide shot of an interview subject with just one camera, then punch in for closeups in post and give the impression that you shot with two cameras. Likewise, I can add pans, tilts, and other camera movements after the fact that can add a sense of scale to the production that may not have been present on set. Being able to do this is a legitimate benefit and could be a legitimate benefit for a working filmmaker, making the investment worthwhile. But while it made capturing two angles simultaneously easier, buying into the system didn’t make me any better at knowing where to put the camera in the first place. And, if the reality is that my clients are asking for 1080p deliverables, then could I not have saved a little money and simply shot the interview with two far less expensive 1080p cameras?

I’m not arguing that sticking with 1080p would have been the right decision. Despite its tendency to eat up my storage drives, I have enjoyed the benefits of shooting in 4K. I’m simply using this as an example to answer the larger question of when you should or should not upgrade your equipment.

Of course, that question used to be far easier to answer. I shot the highest resolution Nikon full frame DSLR. Since the upgrades in megapixels were relatively minimal, and since it generally takes a pretty significant jump in megapixels to really feel the difference, my general rule was that I would buy the new Nikon every other cycle. So, for example, I bought the D800, but then skipped the D810 before purchasing the D850. The D800 then became my backup camera. And I sold off my previous backup camera, the D700 (although I still miss that camera). Video was not a major part of the equation at the time, and mirrorless cameras were still something of a novelty.

But nowadays, my job demands moving images at the same rate as the still ones. And while I am on the record as someone who still prefers shooting still images with an optical viewfinder, there is simply no denying the benefits of mirrorless when it comes to video production. To make matters worse for those looking to make a wise purchasing decision, the pace of technological innovation in the mirrorless space far outpaces the pace at which older cameras were improved. So, whereas I used to only be tempted to change my DSLR every 3-5 years, with mirrorless, your new camera’s technological advantages will likely be surpassed within 3-5 months. If you were to try to keep up and always have the latest and greatest camera, you would quickly find yourself with a great camera and an empty bank account.

But, do you really need to constantly upgrade your camera at all? I wrote an article not too long ago about my decision to purchase a five-year-old Nikon D750 during the 2019 Christmas season. To be fair, it wasn’t a used camera, just a deeply discounted new one that was on sale to clear the shelves in advance of the, at the time, still unannounced D780. But, I had a gap in my camera bag that needed filling, so I purchased one.

As a matter of sheer coincidence, the camera arrived at the same time that I was renting a Nikon Z 6 for a few weeks. That camera is also amazing, by the way, so you won’t hear me make any disparaging remarks about it here. But over the course of the rental period, I still found myself reaching for the D750 far more often when it came to taking stills. For video, the Nikon Z 6 had a clear advantage. It wasn’t even close. But in terms of shooting stills, the two cameras had the same megapixel count and interchangeable image quality. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, I’m one of those strange people who greatly prefers optical viewfinders to electronic ones, so unless I was doing something video focused, I still found myself wanting to use the D750. In essence, I could deliver my clients the same product using either tool, and I still enjoyed using the older tool more. So why would I, given my own personal preferences and shooting style, need to upgrade?

That is, of course, a highly subjective situation. Were I to have been in “content creation” mode as opposed to “still” mode, I might have leaned the other way. And your situation is going to be different and completely unique to your own shooting preferences and client needs. The point I’m trying to make is that when you should upgrade your camera should be driven first by your photographic and business needs and almost never by new developments in the marketplace.

While everyone these days, including myself, suffer from F.O.M.O. (Fear of Missing Out), it’s important not to rush into an investment because you think you have to do so in order to keep up. If your clients are asking for video and you don’t have a video camera at all, okay, then maybe it’s time for an upgrade. But, if your clients are asking for 1080p and you have 1080p, then your time would be better spent figuring out the best way to use what you already have rather than spending money to upgrade just because your friend has 4K.

I started off writing this article trying to identify the best way to know when it is time to upgrade your gear. But that’s an impossible question to answer definitively, because we are all different photographers with different needs. The one thing I can tell you is that as good as it feels to get a new camera, it feels far worse when three months later, you realize you could have continued to make the great art you’ve been making with your old system and saved thousands of dollars in the process.

The only way to do that is to take a patient and objective approach to accessing what you really need versus what you really want and identifying the best investment. Well, that’s easier said than done.

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14 Comments

LA M's picture

Easy.

Never, unless it breaks or something comes along with features you want/need.

Robert Simpson's picture

My recent upgrade was after 20 months. Before that it had been 5 to 7 years. The reason is that I needed faster processing and, more accurate and faster focusing for some new things i was photographing, Otherwise, I would still be using the previous camera.

Robert Simpson's picture

Let me put this another way, I upgraded for focusing and processing speed, not resolution.

g coll's picture

Finally upgrading my 5dmkiii wedding kit. It still works fine but since ive introduced snippets of video into my service im looking forward to the R5. Initially will purchase the RF 24-70 and RF 70-200. The R6 would be a great second body too if the rumours are to go by.

T Van's picture

If you are shrewd financially, you plan on replacing your gear when you first purchase it and create an Amortization schedule.
https://fstoppers.com/originals/tax-guide-photographers-3703

Ashley Hoff's picture

Thanks for sharing this link. This will be my first year filing taxes for my photography business. I kept good records, but I'm thinking maybe I should get a pro, at least for this first year.

Robert Feliciano's picture

Simple, when your client asks you to do something that your current gear cannot.

Ted Mercede's picture

Exactly, my rule as well.
When my gear limits me from doing what I need to achieve, its time to look at what tools are out there that will allow me to do my job. Otherwise I keep what I have, which goes to my other rule. Learn your gear, know what it can do and not do. If you are changing all of the time, its hard to do this.

Joe Vahling's picture

I've been wanting to jump to full frame after shooting with APS-C for so long. With the mirrorless options out right now, I plan on that being my first Full Frame camera. Mainly for the technology offered in mirrorless over their DSLR counterparts. Since i'll be needing to get full frame lenses, the option to switch brands is also on the table.

sam dasso's picture

Simple. If photography/videography is your hobby and you are financially stable, buy whatever you want any time you want it. If it is a business, make a business decision depending how successful you are and if you can write off your purchase as a cost of doing business.

Ashley Hoff's picture

As a newer photographer, this question looms pretty large. I have a Canon Rebel T6i, and three lenses: Canon EF 70-300mm f 4.5-6, Sigma 35mm f 1.4, and a Sigma 8-16mm f 4.5-6. I hope I've built a decent starter kit, although I worry that using such an entry level body will make me seem like an amateur when I'm finally able to get paid work. I tried to take the advice of various articles and put a little more into my lenses and I think I've done alright. Subject wise, I'm still trying to find my niche, though I love cosplay and nature/wildlife, but am still very much trying to figure out where to go professionally. I'm always grateful for critique and advice.

Joe Berkeley's picture

I like to have a discussion with a new piece of gear. Are you a hard worker? Or a poser? Are you going to do your job? Or be a pain in my backside? I like gear that earns its keep. I do not like gear that just sits around or comes up short. I shoot Canon 5D mark iv and 1DX mark ii. When the R and the RP came out, neither camera caught my eye. But the R5 seems like a great leap forward. I may buy the R5 and one RF lens and see how it goes. That said, I prefer to book a job then buy the new piece of kit rather than buy it and hope I will book a job. When it's all said and done, the most reliable kit in my bag works the hardest and it's what I reach for when I know I need to deliver.

Simon Patterson's picture

A camera is simply a tool.

Step 1 is to forget the concept of "upgrade", it isn't helpful. All that matters is having the appropriate tool(s) for the tasks at hand.

So step 2 is to decide whether the existing tools we have are sufficient to achieve what we need to.

Only go past step 2 if the existing tools are inadequate. Step 3 is to find the options that achieve what's required, and weigh up the relative pros and cons.

Wise people take step 4 very rarely, which is to buy a new tool or new tools, if the other steps provide a compelling reason to.