Why Camera Specs Probably Don't Matter as Much as You Think They Do

Why Camera Specs Probably Don't Matter as Much as You Think They Do

After a string of gear-related articles extolling the benefits and/or drawbacks of buying a particular camera system, and before launching into another such series in the weeks to come, I wanted to step back for a moment and re-evaluate a question larger than whether or not any particular camera is worthy of its place in your camera bag.

Now, since a certain segment of the population will undoubtedly read the headline of this article and skip ahead to lighting up the comment section before having read the essay, allow me to make clear up front that I am not saying that there is no objective difference between different cameras. 50 megapixels is objectively a larger resolution than 25 megapixels. Certain cameras have objectively faster autofocus than others. And for your personal type of work and shooting style, there is any number of quantifiable camera statistics that could legitimately be considered a requirement to do your job effectively.

So, I’m not saying that a camera's specifications don’t have an effect on outcomes. But, with that said, I would still argue that prior to spending a single moment diving into the stated capabilities of one system or another, there is a far more important conversation you should be having. Simply put, what is your use case?

Whenever I give my opinion on technology, I am always quick to explain the basis of my reaction. In usually one long-winded way or another, I will talk about my business, my shooting style, and my clients. Some may see this as me trying to brag or center myself in the story. But, in actuality, what I am trying to do is establish the basis for my evaluation.  

I remember when I was a kid. I walked into a clothing store at the heels of my mother and looked up and saw a sign atop one of the racks. “One size fits all,” it exclaimed. They were baseball hats. And I remember being incredibly confused at how one hat could fit both my own rather bulbous noggin as well as my much smaller friend’s pinhead. In the case of that particular hat, the answer was that it would fit me by basically cutting the circulation off in my forehead and then draping so far down over my friend’s face as to block the edges of his spectacles and make running into a nearby wall a distinct possibility. But, I guess, technically, the claim was true, and no one else seemed to be as perplexed by this notion as I was. So, I moved on.

Now, several decades later, I often read gear reviews or watch videos that flatly declare one camera to be the greatest camera on the planet and the others pure rubbish in comparison. But one thing I’ve learned over the years, mostly by listening to too many of these reviews and making bad purchasing decisions, is that when it comes to technology, there is no such thing as one size fits all.

We all like to debate the merits of 8K or how many frames per second our cameras are capable of rattling off. But as I moved from a photo hobbyist to someone whose living depends on running a successful business, it became painfully clear that prior to asking what kind of camera you want, you should first ask what kind of camera you need.

Just so we have a point of comparison, let’s have a look at the four current flagship cameras for Sony, Canon, Nikon, and Fuji. 

Sony recently released the Sony s1. 50 megapixels. Stacked sensor. 30fps still shooting. 8K up to 30p and 4K up to 120p.10-bit 4:2:2. On paper, at least, I mean, wow. That camera comes in at almost $6,500 as of this writing. 

Of course, that camera only came after the release of Canon’s EOS R5. One of the first mirrorless cameras to make a splash in the 8K world, that camera has a 45-megapixel sensor. 12 fps mechanical shutter or 20 fps electronic. A whole host of video options and autofocus that is reportedly out of this world. That camera sells for $3,900. 

Nikon’s current flagship mirrorless camera, the Z 7II also sports 45 megapixels. But it is the first on our list not to have 8K. Also, in comparison to the first two, it only boasts a burst speed of 10 fps. Then again, it also only sports a price tag of just shy of $3,000, making it $900 less than the Canon and actually less than half the price of the Sony. 

The Fuji GFX 100S doubles the Nikon’s price tag, landing it at $6,000. But, in exchange, it’s the only camera in this list that trades in the full frame sensor in favor of a larger medium format one. Oh, and there’s the simple matter of having 102 MP in a DSLR-sized body.

I realize that this entire article is about how stats are less important than we presume, but I wanted to throw a handful of them out there so we would have a baseline. There are obviously all kinds of other manufacturers on the market, so we are just selecting these four as an example. And, this discussion is not meant to resolve the issue of which of those cameras is objectively better than the others. I’ll let you battle that out in the comments.

Truth be told, all four of those cameras are amazing feats of technology. And all four of those cameras are the perfect camera for someone. So, rather than starting your camera search with the rather expensive question of which camera has the best stats on the market and can you afford it, why not instead start with a free, even if more boring question. What do you personally need from your camera?

Let’s say John is a landscape photographer. He travels the world to take pictures of the most scenic locations on the planet and runs a successful fine art business selling large prints. He shoots video, but he’s not a filmmaker per se. He cares about image quality and takes his time to get it. John is a professional with a successful business and money is not a driving factor. Which camera should he invest in?

In my own opinion, I would probably point him in the direction of the Fuji GFX 100S. He’s going to get both the most megapixels and the largest sensor to be able to reproduce the biggest and most detailed prints for his customers. Landscapes don’t move like Olympic sprinters, so the GFX 100S having the slowest shooting speed of the above-mentioned foursome shouldn’t really be a problem. And while $6,000 is a lot to spend on any camera, it’s not so much when compared to other medium format systems on the market.

On the other hand, the GFX 100S would be a terrible choice for Jeanne. She is an adventure photographer and spends the bulk of her time bouncing around between frigid locations shooting skiers and other winter lifestyle imagery. Her work is fast-paced and spontaneous. Video is of growing importance to her as she also often makes short films and commercials for her clients that need to be of the highest quality. Because she does her shoots in hard to reach places, weight is also a factor for her as she’ll most likely have to schlep her own gear up the side of the mountain without the aid of assistants. Which camera is best for her?

I would say probably either Sony or Canon would fit the bill. The faster frame rates would do a good job of catching the perfect moment of the skiers flying through the air during their jumps. I can imagine what an epic 8K image of a skier flying down the mountain in an endless mountain range might look like. And, even if she’s unlikely to export in 8K, the unpredictability of her subjects might benefit from being able to crop the 8K footage when things move too fast for her to get it exactly perfect at the moment.

Then, let’s take Jessica. She has a passion for fashion. She loves nothing more than to photograph the bright colors and edgy new looks of her models in the studio and on location. She likes to work quickly, but generally has the opportunity to ask for a second take. A lot of her work is in the editorial world and in the lookbook market. Mostly, the images end up on e-commerce sites with a handful of them making it into print. She also produces fashion films to show on her client’s websites and social media channels. She likes 4K, but the majority of her clients ask for final delivery in 1080p. Her work is glamorous, but the fees can vary, so money is a bit of an issue. Which camera would you recommend?

In my opinion, Jessica would be perfectly suited for the Nikon Z 7II. She doesn’t need the faster frame rate of the Sony or Canon. The 100 megapixels of the Fuji GFX 100S is a treat for anyone, but her work is rarely printed, making the effect of the added resolution somewhat less beneficial. She also has second thoughts about how much time she really wants to spend in Photoshop retouching a 102-megapixel beauty shot that will show every single pore of her model’s skin. Then, there’s the money issue. Something like the Sony might have the best specs of the full frame bunch. But, is it really worth twice the price of the Z 7II, especially considering that she doesn’t need 8K and the Z 7II autofocus is plenty to keep her models tack sharp? For the price of just the a1 body, she could buy a Z 7II and two high-quality Z lenses to complete her kit. The camera might not have all the quantifiable specs, but the value proposition, in Jessica’s case, would be immense.

In my experience, starting your camera search with a plan to buy the best specs you can afford may very well get you the camera with the best objective numbers, but might not get you the most value for your money. To get the most value, you have to decide what exactly it is that is of real value to you personally.

How often do you actually print your work versus how much of it is only ever going to live online and on social media? This will help you decide how much you should be willing to pay for megapixels. How fast do your subjects move? In Jeanne’s case, it makes sense to pay more for a camera with better autofocus and a faster frame rate. She’s shooting downhill skiers soaring by her at amazing speeds. In John’s case, 30 fps versus 5 fps makes no difference to him at all, so paying more for a higher frame rate wouldn’t lead to any actual benefit. Are you going to shoot a lot of videos? Do you really need 8K? There are legitimate applications for 8K shooting. But since the vast majority of television broadcasts are still released in 1080 and the vast majority of commercial clients are asking for 1080 as a deliverable, do you really need to pay more for 8K?  Perhaps you do. I’m not saying there isn’t a use case. But before getting excited about a camera because it can produce a specific spec, you would do yourself and your wallet a favor by doing a quick survey of your recent client requests and seeing if the added features will actually add value to the product you are offering the end-user.

Next week, I’ll be back with another series of articles digging in deep into a specific camera and the pros and cons of its operation. But among all the fun discussion of bits and bytes, it’s important to remember that whatever camera you decide to buy, it is but a means to an end. It’s a tool that allows you to realize the vision in your head. Images aren’t good because of the stats of the camera used to shoot them. They are good because of your ability to apply your creativity to their making. Pick the right tool for your process and you’ll be far happier than chasing the elusive goal of finding the perfect camera that is one size fits all.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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long article with a lot of open doors (no offence :-)) I think every photographer especially the starting ones are blinded by the marketed specs and desire to lift their photography to the next level by buying this awesome new camera, lens, flash or accessory. I have been there as well. Last year I started selling off my excessive gear and I'm still left with more then I really need. I followed with interest the release of the Sony A7S3 and recently the A1 and even though I'm impressed by their capabilties, I don't see the need to own them. I ask myself the question, would I rent one of those for a certain assignment and if so how often? If the answer is no and/or rarely then I won't buy.

Still, there can be a lot of fun in acquiring new gear. And some items you just have to try to know if they are 'keepers' (for example I still love my Sony RX1). Yet I'm happy with being able to suppress the desire.

I look at my collection of SLRs ranging from 1967 (Praktica Nova 1) to 2000 (Nikon F100). Across those 33 years, the rate of innovation was gentle. At the beginning of the curve was the interchangeable lens, the system camera; through-the-lens metering; copal square shutter; auto-focus; the introduction of the microchip and, with it, auto exposure.

Nikon would replace its flagship F series every 8-10 years. Professionals would work their cameras until they were ready for the knacker's yard, then they’d replace them. The purpose of the camera was better understood in those days; to put an image taken at a moment it time onto a piece of film. It had no other purpose. If you weren't keen on the result, you'd try another make of film or another lens.

There was never the mad scramble to acquire the latest piece of kit. Sure, just like today, there was the ‘all the gear, no idea’ enthusiast who wanted the biggest, brightest and best, just because they could. The expensive camera as a retirement gift-to-self was an aspiration - along with the Rolex. But in the main, there was a more mature relationship between the pro user and their equipment.

Today it all seems to be about 'gear'. What started off as a gentle development curve is now a near-vertiginous cliff face. Pros write articles encapsulating; three months shooting with X camera; six months filming with Y camera; how does camera A stack up against camera B?; five things you need to know about camera Z; what I disliked about camera Y. Product cycles now seem to be measured in nanoseconds, not years.

But if you stand back and take a breath; nothing has changed. It's still about nothing more than capturing a single image at a specific moment in time.

I have a D850. No future body will improve image quality in a way that will ever be meaningful to me. There is no market in which the IQ of the D850 will be unacceptable. Likewise with the D800, before. A future upgrade may provide a greater confection of choices; offer a more hybrid use, have a gazillion MP sensor and shoot FF 200 fps, but it won't make my D850 images any less worthy or acceptable.

In terms of what the essence of photography is all about; the quest to capture a specific moment in time at an acceptable quality, we arrived some time ago. The rest is just froth.

Sony S1 ? Was that released on Mars ?. Here on Earth Sony released A1 !!! Obviously you dont care about Camera specs including the name ...!

Good article. I was about to buy a Canon R5, to replace my aging Canon 5D3, but I thought hard about it and I decided to buy a new Canon 5DS for $1100 on Amazon and put the difference into the stock market. I am extremely happy with quality and features on the 5DS and I know the camera more than meets my needs for a long time, and as a bonus, my stocks have grown 334% since. I've made $8000 on the difference. Invest wisely.

I got into photography because of a need to capture pictures of show flowers bred by florists competing in competitions. One of the problems with capturing those images is that being newly bred and shown, some of the colours are slightly unusual. For example one of the types of flowers shown doesn't produce a true blue flower, but there is a show category for blue flowers..
At the first show I photographed I used a Canon, an Olympus and Samsung mobile phone.
The Canon captured the most colours as close to what the eye saw them as, except for some of the pinks to reds, which looked a bit washed out, the Olympus was better at capturing those pinks to reds. Both the Canon and Olympus struggled with those plants classified as Blue flowered. The Samsung mobile phone captured those plants classified a Blue in the nearest way to which the eye is fooled into seeing them as Blue..
So long before speed of auto focus, video performance and all the other cool features, I'm aware that in order to satisfy the growers and showers of those plants I need to use different cameras.
There could be nothing worse than to produce a picture of the best 'New plant' in show and have the colour renditioning called into question by the person who bred it.
Before anyone mentions colour calibration of monitors and printers I feel I should point out that one of the most succesful Blue flowering plants was only classified as Blue after much heated debate at an AGM of the Florists.
Also during the last show year we had, before Covid, there was some uproar, when a plant usually classified in the category 'any other colour' won the best 'Red' section. It was in fairness the best Red, and the plant had reacted to it's growing medium to display as a true Red.
The flower shows are very quickly over and the plants are scattered the length and breadth of the country so revisiting the final image to the actual plant can only be done by chimping from the cameras LCD screen.
Of course I could enhance the Blue of a Blue flowering plant in post production, but I wouldn't be thanked for doing that as some of the Florists are aiming to breed a better Blue every year.

Have you ever tried using the X-rite Color Checker to calibrate your cameras' color profiles? If you are not familiar, it comes with a reference color target and a software plugin for Lightroom and Photoshop (probably other programs as well, but I use LR and PS). You photograph the color target in different light conditions, the software plugin calculates color modification to get the images to true color reference. The result is a camera profile that can be applied in LR to correct the raw camera image to true color. I have several Canon cameras and an Olympus, and i can take the same picture with all my cameras and the colors are indistinguishable and appear to be quite accurate. One can set up LR to automatically apply the profile to any new image uploaded, based on the individual camera. You can also handle odd lighting situations by photographing the color target in the unique light and generate a camera color calibration for that particular shoot.

Thanks for the suggestion much appreciated, I'm now researching this for use with Affinity Photo.

You are welcome. Hope you can figure out how to use it with Affinity Photo.

No matter what your pictures will still look the same because of how you edit them and more so tend to shoot.

The majority of my work is done with an original Canon 5D, which has been my main shooter since 2011, and is still when I use for 99% of my portrait gigs. Of course if I need video or much higher resolution images I could rent, but this camera has always exceeded my expectations and I've had no reason to switch to another camera (although the shutter count is well above it's expected lifespan, so I suppose I'll be forced to replace it soon enough). Specific needs aside, I agree that the camera specs matter very little, and it really comes down to the skill of it's user instead.

Some specs are important, some are not

I recall a trip to Europe. As part of a tour, I became known for lugging a DSLR with me and providing more answers than I wanted to information seekers. One day, someone was having a camera problem and another traveler directed her to me. She owned a mid-range Nikon that probably cost in the 2000-2500 region. The camera, she said, was making funny sounds and taking too long to shoot the picture. So, I asked her to go through the motions and quickly realized the self timer was accidentally set - she said she didn't even know the camera had that feature!! Her decision to purchase was solely based on the salesperson.

After talking it over, she asked what she should have bought instead of the brute she obviously didn't need. So I reached into my pocket and pulled out an S100. When she heard the price, she became agitated. But she agreed it would have given her what she wanted.

Taught me a few things: do people know how to assess their needs, as Chris outlined; do they really do enough research that's easily accessible before buying (like the owners manual for the prospective camera); are they patient in waiting for the inevitable sale that will arrive, if they know what they need, and; are they purchasing on the basis of emotion (kinda like the iphone line up craze). Come to think of it, a lot of people would be quite happy if they simply mastered their cell phone camera.

People do purchase on the basis of emotion and often want the best their money can buy. I travelled a lot in the past and saw so many tourists carrying around a Canon 5d with 24-70 2.8 or Nikon equivalent, set on full auto.
For that matter the 'maturing' of the smartphone camera did two major things. 1) making compact cameras all but obsolete 2) making people realize that they don't need an expensive SLR combo to take decent pictures (and that carrying around expensive and heavy equipment is no fun)