Tis the season for spending on camera gear and all the latest and greatest tools. But sometimes, the best investment isn’t always the most flashy.
I realize now that that opening paragraph may also be able to be viewed as a pun. Get it? Flashy. But, while I can’t claim that to be an intentional turn of phase, I do stand by the concept.
I should probably also mention before I begin that this will not be an article bashing mirrorless cameras or looking to stoke the somewhat unexplainable war between those who love traditional DSLRs and those who seem overly anxious to pronounce the format to be dead. Both types of camera are perfectly capable of creating a great photograph. And, just as there is still a market for film cameras, large format cameras, medium format cameras, Polaroid cameras, and so on, I see no reason why mirrorless and DSLR can’t coexist.
Sure, you are going to hear more about mirrorless cameras in the eternal hype machine known as the internet. They are the newer technology. Camera companies have long-term plans to consider, and mirrorless is clearly going to become the industry standard in the future (at least until it’s replaced by something else even better). Companies know they need to adapt to the future to survive, so it is in their interest to manufacture and actively promote their role in the new market. All these things are natural and to be expected.
But if you take a step back from asking what is hot now and start to ask what is the best tool for you personally to do the type of work you do, you’ll find an infinite number of camera options at your fingertips. For many, that may be a mirrorless camera. For others, the benefits of going with a DSLR may be surprisingly relevant.
Case in point: I just recently took advantage of the Black Friday sales to invest in a new camera. Like most Black Friday sales at the end of each year, pretty much every camera under the sun was on a steep discount. And while I didn’t need to buy a new primary camera, there was one glaring hole in my camera bag.
I have been a longtime Nikon shooter, beginning with the D200 and now doing the bulk of my professional work with the D850. As you would expect, over the years, I’ve built up a fair amount of F mount lens and other Nikon accessories to go along with the various bodies. I’ve always had two Nikon bodies in my bag. I would upgrade every other generation. So, my Nikon D850 was my primary camera, whereas my other D800 had been relegated to backup status.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, I don’t hate mirrorless cameras or deny certain technological advantages. To that end, I purchased the Fuji GFX 100 earlier this year with the intention of shifting the bulk of my work to that system. During that process, I ended up selling off my backup Nikon, the D800, to raise money for the new camera. Since the plan was to switch over completely, I didn’t feel as though I needed it.
I’ve spilled a great deal of ink over the GFX 100, so I won’t rehash my thoughts on that camera here. Long story short, it’s an awesome camera with the best image quality I’ve ever seen, but I’m finding that the Nikon’s efficiency and speed of use may actually be a better fit for the bulk of my workflow. I still have both cameras, with the D850 resuming its place as the starter and the Fuji GFX coming in to pinch-hit in situations that call for it.
Both are high megapixels and both can serve as backups to the other. But, I never really liked the idea of having my backup camera being a different brand with different color science and an entirely different set of lenses. Both these problems can be overcome. Color can be adjusted in Capture One. And having to carry two sets of lenses on every shoot is possible, even if the fraying straps on my camera bag might protest.
A backup camera is one of those necessary evils when you work in commercial photography. You simply can’t just call off a shoot midway through and send dozens of people home because your camera malfunctions. You need to be ready. In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t sold the D800. But there’s no use crying over spilled milk. Still, I needed a solution. And because it was only going to be my backup camera and not my primary camera, I wanted to spend as little money on it as possible.
The solution came in the form of a brand spanking new Nikon D750. No, that’s not a typo. I did say D750 and not D850. And while, yes, the D750 did first hit the market over five years ago, they are still being sold brand new. Specifically, they were selling brand new for $999. And while a thousand dollars isn’t nothing, it is also a really good price for a 24 MP full frame camera brand new. So, I went with it.
Why not the Nikon Z6 or Z7? Those cameras are, without question, technologically advanced. And they each would have certain benefits that I’ll mention later. But as the basic concept of running a business is the get the most value for every dollar spent based on your unique business objectives, there were a number of reasons why buying the “old” technology was the best bang for my buck.
Now, it should be said that the value of one camera versus another is entirely in the eyes of the person spending the money. What you see as valuable as a photographer is unlikely to be the same as what your neighbor sees as valuable. So, I can only use my own needs to highlight my point. As stated earlier, this would be a backup camera. As such, I didn’t want to spend more money than was absolutely necessary. So, I had to take a hard look at exactly what it was I absolutely needed in a backup camera rather than approach it from an angle of desire.
I’m a photographer, so step number one was to access image quality. Most of my primary cameras are high-megapixel beasts intended for clients who need to print the images large for various advertising purposes. Even when it’s not an assignment explicitly for that purpose, it’s not bad to have a bit of extra megapixels to play with in post. But, because this would be a backup camera, and I did, if absolutely necessary, already have two high-megapixel cameras, I didn’t necessarily need to have my backup Nikon be a high megapixel-beast. Doing a bit of calculations based on where the bulk of my non-poster-sized images have ended up in the past, I realized that 24 MP is a really good happy medium between file size and image quality. Some may even argue that having at least one lower-megapixel camera in the bag could actually be an image quality benefit for those rare times I’m called upon to shoot in particularly low-light situations. Passing on a few megapixels would also allow me to save money, which was objective number two.
When I purchase a camera, I need to make sure that the camera can pay for itself, either through being rented back to clients or by being low cost and high production. In other words, you spend very little on the camera but end up using it a lot. In the latter scenario, the less you spend up front, the better. To this end, my original thought was to try and purchase a used camera. I’ve got no qualms about buying used gear. If sourcing it from reputable dealers, preferably a dealer with a return policy, you can often get much more value for your money. Having already conceded on the megapixel count, I started looking into a used Nikon Z 6.
On a somewhat related note, I’m actually currently renting a Nikon Z 6 and can confirm that it is an awesome camera. It’s basically a mirrorless D750 with better video capabilities. I even found some used Z 6s for around $1,300. That’s more than $999, but not that much more. However, I noticed that the used camera didn’t come with the necessary F mount adapter, meaning I would need to purchase that separately and bring my total costs up to around $1,500. That’s still not a lot of a full frame camera. But relatively speaking, it would be an additional $500 on top of what the D750 would be brand new.
So, it would be a 50% increase in costs. What would I get for that increase? Video. The Z 6 is a terrific option for video and that, for me, is the one clear area where even the most basic mirrorless camera excels over even top of the line DSLRs. If you are a hybrid shooter or primarily a video shooter looking for a lightweight option, then mirrorless cameras are definitely the way to go. I shoot a lot of video myself, so this was a definite checkmark in favor of the Z 6.
I also, however, already have a number of dedicated video systems in place. So, it was unlikely, regardless of which camera I got, that it would end up being any more than a third string video camera at best. So, while I definitely love the video capabilities of the Z 6, did it make sense to spend the extra money for a feature I wouldn’t likely spend a great deal of time exploiting? Again, that’s not a statement that the Z 6 video capabilities aren’t superior. It’s just that, given my own circumstances, the benefit would fall into the category of nice to have instead of must have. And since money was a concern, I had to take this into consideration.
The final consideration is thoroughly subjective and will likely baffle many of your reading this essay. I genuinely prefer optical viewfinders.
It’s not that I don’t see the advantages of electronic viewfinders. Chief among those benefits would be exposure preview. The ability to use exposure preview and see what you’re actually shooting is definitely a great concept. But two things, one practical and one personal, make that less useful for me. On the practical front, I shoot with strobes a large amount of the time. Therefore, I always have to turn off the image preview anyway, since the combination of settings used for flash are unlikely to show me much more than a black frame. So, due simply to how I need to shoot, I don’t really get to use the feature very much. The same goes for the electronic shutter. Since it doesn’t work with flash, it’s not something I got into the habit of using.
Of course, when not using flash, the EVF would be able to show me what I’m shooting. Except that I’ve found from a 100% personal preference standpoint that I don’t always need to have a full representation of the final product in the viewfinder. It’s nice. But I’ve also been shooting for years without it and never had a problem with not knowing how the image was going to turn out without chimping or the EVF preview. I don’t say that to suggest that I am somehow so wise that I don’t like to see a preview. That’s not what I mean. Instead, it’s more intangible. Seeing a replica of what the final image will look like puts my brain in Photoshop mode. I’m already thinking about the end result, what I’ll need to retouch out, how I’ll need to shift shadows, highlights, etc. As a result, I shoot much more slowly and dwell more. These can all be good things.
But for me personally, it can trigger my O.C.D. and cause me to live so much in the future that it prevents me from just getting lost in the present. That real-time interaction with the human being in front of me. Not looking at a screen. But looking at the actual human being through a piece of glass. Being there. Connecting with them. You can absolutely get that same sensation with a mirrorless EVF. But, perhaps due to my age-induced hatred from looking at screens any more than I have to, I personally prefer to keep as little technology as possible between me and the subject.
As I said, I don’t expect that to make much sense to many readers. That is totally a matter of personal preference and not something I would expect to persuade you one way or another. But, for me, having an optical viewfinder is actually a benefit to the D750 despite it being an older technology.
So, in the end, I was left with two excellent options. Both had similar megapixel counts. Both use basically the same battery, although the Z 6 offers the ability to charge via USB. The Z 6 is lighter, although not as much lighter as I thought it would be once you mount a lens. Neither is particularly small or indiscreet like, for instance, a Fuji X-T3. The Z 6 has unquestionably better video, but since I wouldn’t need video for this specific purchase I was willing to sacrifice there. The D750 had the viewfinder that I prefer. It also had the same lens mount as my current camera, meaning I wouldn’t need to spend any more on adapters or lenses. I could legitimately just buy the camera body and toss it in my bag without worrying about hidden costs of having to buy additional accessories.
Essentially, they are the same camera, with the Z 6 having the advantage in two areas, video and EVF, which I wouldn’t necessarily use. I could also buy the D750 brand new for $500 less than what I would have spent on the Z 6 used. Keeping in mind that this camera is intended to be a backup, this was the right cost value analysis for my particular needs.
But, of course, there would be numerous other scenarios where I might have made a different decision. Were I, for instance, looking for a primary camera where I needed one body that would do everything, then spending $1,500 for the used Z 6 or even $1,700 for a new one would have been a great bargain.
Had the Z 6 come out about a year earlier, before I had completely built out my video setups with other brands, buying the Z 6 as my primary video camera would have been a very desirable option. In fact, the idea of getting one for that purpose and selling off my other video gear is still a realistic option in the future.
If I was just beginning in photography today and didn’t already have a small battalion of F mount lens and was starting fresh with native Z mount glass, it might make sense to invest in the mirrorless system. While I don’t agree with those who assume that Nikon is done producing DSLRs, there is no question that mirrorless cameras will be getting the bulk of research and development in the years to come. So, if you are just now getting started, that might be a really good place to be.
But if you, like me, have been at it for a while and are looking for a system that makes financial sense as an investment while fitting seamlessly into your existing workflow, there’s no reason you have to switch camera systems to keep up with the market. As I said earlier, one of the regrets I have from last year is having sold off my Nikon D800. That camera was released in 2012, but is still more than capable of producing the images I need in 2020. So, it’s reasonable to think that my D850 will be more than capable of producing the image quality I need well into the next decade.
While I’ve had clients casually ask me if I shoot Canon or Nikon, I’ve never lost a job based on my response. I’ve had jobs request a full frame camera. I’ve had jobs that required medium format cameras. But, I’ve never had a client refuse to work with me because I was using a DSLR instead of a mirrorless camera, and I don’t really see that happening anytime soon.
Even better, from a business standpoint, as mirrorless cameras are becoming more and more popular, the price on both new and used traditional DSLRs will continue to drop. Therefore, your investment will go further. True, you may not be able to brag to your friends that you have the hottest camera at Photo Plus. But, you will be lowering your cost of goods sold and thus increasing your bottom line.
101 decisions go into our camera choices, and choosing our camera can sometimes feel as personal as choosing one’s spouse. So, I would never make any broad proclamations about one camera or format being better than another for every shopper. But, whatever choice you make, you should take into account your own personal needs, your own personal budget, and your own personal shooting style. Then, go make the right decision for you, regardless of what camera is the most popular at the moment.