Given the choice, most of us would probably buy the latest and greatest camera bodies as soon as they came out, because hey, new toys are cool, right? But most of us don't have unlimited budgets, so it's important to know when you really need to upgrade and when it's just a case of gear lust. Here's what to consider when you're wondering if it's time to buy a new camera.
Is Your Camera the Most Needed Upgrade?
Photography equipment includes a whole range of items, only one of which is the camera. I always say I'd rather have an older camera with stellar glass on it than a new camera with mediocre glass. Perhaps you're running out of storage and need a new hard drive. Don't overlook the improvement a new computer or a professional monitor can have on your workflow. Perhaps you haven't started to explore artificial lighting yet. The camera is only one part of a complex equation, so make sure it's the one that truly needs the most attention.
Are You Missing Crucial Shots Because of Your Current Camera's Limitations?
Can you point out a specific shooting situation in which you're missing shots because of a specific deficiency in your current camera? The more specific you can be, the better. For example, if you're a bird or sports photographer, if your autofocus tracking is just not keeping up with subjects, that's a valid reason to seriously consider an upgrade. If you're a wedding photographer and your camera puts out terrible files above ISO 800, that can be a serious obstruction in your work. Before you make the decision that it's the camera holding you back, be sure that your technique is completely sound and you've thoroughly investigated all the settings of your current camera, particularly with something like autofocus, which can often be highly customized to improve performance in specific situations. Be sure the shots you're missing are ones you consistently need and take, not just the once in a great while ISO 51,200 shot.
Will It Increase Your Efficiency?
For example, say you shoot sports and you're constantly dealing with color issues from flickering artificial lights. Recent Canon bodies contain an anti-flicker feature that subtly modifies the timing of the shutter to obviate this issue, thereby ensuring consistent color and exposure across all your images. This could obviously save significant time when you're editing large sets of photos. If you're a landscape photographer and you constantly have to bracket and blend your photos because of an older sensor, a newer model with better dynamic range could save you a lot of time editing. Time is money, particularly when you're running your own business, and if a new camera can contribute to significant time savings, it can pay for itself from that alone.
Will It Do Something to Increase Your Income?
If there's a specific genre you're working in or looking to get into that your current camera equipment isn't adequate for, it might be time to upgrade. It's important to note the order of this need, though: be careful that you truly want to expand your photographic pursuits and the need for an upgrade is a consequence of that, not that you're trying to convince yourself you're interested in it simply to justify buying that shiny new camera. For example, if you sell fine art prints and your current camera has a 12-megapixel sensor, upgrading to a high-resolution model with 30-50 megapixels will you give you vastly more printing options and the ability to move into selling lucrative large prints.
Do You Need Those Capabilities?
It's really cool that that flagship model shoots 14 fps, but if you're a landscape photographer, are you really going to take advantage of that? (Side note: if you're a landscape photographer and you're shooting 14-fps bursts, we need to talk.) It's easy when you're looking at cameras to get caught up in the flashy and impressive specs, but make sure you're focusing on those that matter to what you shoot. Don't end up overpaying for a higher-end model that you don't actually need.
Is Your Current Camera Failing or on the Verge of It?
If you're just a hobbyist, it's probably not a big deal if your current camera gives up the ghost after 10 years and you're without one for a week. On the other hand, if you're a professional and you're relying on it for work, don't play with fire by continuing to take a camera that's limping along to shoots with no backup. See about having the old camera repaired, and if the cost is too great for its performance, consider buying a new one. A great option is to then keep the old one as a backup or second body if you need one.
Can Your Computer Handle It?
In the past few years, it seems that 25-30 megapixels has become the new standard for bread and butter cameras like the Canon 5D Mark IV and the Nikon D750, while high-resolution cameras sit near 50 megapixels. All those extra pixels can really bog down a computer, so make sure you're ready to handle them so your workflow doesn't become frustratingly slow. On the same token, make sure you've got enough storage for all those files.
Is It Actually for Fun?
Yes, I just spent several hundred words admonishing you to make sure you have a legitimate professional reason for purchasing a new camera. At the same time, though, photography is supposed to be fun, so if you have the disposable income and just want to enjoy playing with that nifty gadget that takes pictures, by all means, feed your passion. Just remember that it's not going to make you a better photographer; only you can do that.
At the end of the day, I think the best rule to go by is this: be able to articulate a specific and significant need in your work that your current camera is incapable of filling before you decide to buy a new model. If your technique is sound and the need is there, by all means, upgrade your camera.
Lead image by Zukiman Mohamad, used under Creative Commons.