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.