Cheap Camera Versus Expensive Camera, Part 2: The Prints

Cheap Camera Versus Expensive Camera, Part 2: The Prints

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article pitting the venerable Nikon D800 against a lowly Nikon D40x in a portrait shoot. The purpose of the article wasn’t to see if the D40x was as good as the D800 (it obviously isn’t), but to ascertain whether a beginner would be better off getting something cheap to start out with than starting with a behemoth of a camera.

I suspected that for web purposes, the D40x would be more than adequate. I was right. Of course the elephant in the room was, “Wouldn’t the D40x fall apart when it came to comparing prints?” I was truly shocked at the answer.

It was a resounding “meh.”

Prints of D800 versus D40x cameras

I printed out the six shots used to compare the cameras at 12"x18" using my printer of choice, ProDPI. I figured at that size I should be able to see the difference. Also, for my needs — magazine covers, headshots, model portfolios, weddings, and engagements — that size would cover 90 percent of my gigs. For the odd blown up wedding portrait, I knew that a 10-megapixel image would stand up just fine.

In a completely unscientific way, I showed the images to about 20 random people. Not one of them could say with certainly which print belonged to which camera. Most got one right, and statistically speaking that was bound to happen. By and large, though, when it came time to make their choices, most people just guessed.

What about an industry professional?

For that I turned to my colleague, Georgia Benjou. Benjou has worked in the fashion industry for almost 20 years, starting as a buyer and merchandiser for Hermes, Dolce & Gabbana, Christian Dior, and Chanel. She’s styled campaigns for Hyde Park Jewelers, The Brown Palace Hotel, and American Crew among others. She’s also the fashion editor for 5280 Magazine, one of the top five city publications in the country. Hundreds of images go through her on a weekly basis. She also receives many, many submissions every month for consideration in the magazine.

She couldn’t tell the difference.

And, here’s the important part: she didn’t care. The images were so close at that size that any difference was insignificant.

So what does this all mean? Get the camera that’s right for your budget. Don’t feel the need to save up for the be-all and end-all of cameras when you’re starting out. It just isn’t needed.

Aftermath

Nikon D3, bought after D800 versus D40x challenge

I really was surprised by these results. After all, the D800 was my camera. What should I do about it? I put my money where my mouth is: I sold the D800. I found a used Nikon D3 with low mileage on it, snapped it up, and haven’t looked back. My workflow has sped up, battery life is stupidly good, each file is 85 percent smaller, the camera is ridiculously fast, and I’m not choking trying to keep up with hard drive space. Life is good. If, for whatever reason, I need an ultra high megapixel camera, I’ll rent it. But for my day-to-day shooting, a 12-megapixel workhorse will do me just fine, thank you very much.

Perhaps more people need to evaluate their needs and determine if the camera they're using is really necessary. It wasn’t for me.

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64 Comments

Zach Sutton's picture

I admire your ambition for these posts, Hans.

Keep up the good work!

Hans Rosemond's picture

Thanks man! I appreciate it.

I shoot 90% of my work with Canon 5D bodies. Not MK II, not MK III. They are ancient by digital standards. And they are dead reliable. About 6 months ago, I bought a 6D, and finally started using it more recently. Last night, I checked the shutter count on my two year old 60D. A whopping 1706 actuations. Clearly, I prefer familiarity over pixel count.

In other words, I agree. We used to say that a camera was just a box for exposing film. Learn the craft first. All those features can get in the way. You don't need 20MP to post images on the web. But don't skimp on glass.

And for Canon fans, some lens porn shot with the everyman camera, my phone.

It still is. I continue to shoot film with my Canon A-1 that I bought new in 1980; I don't know how many shutter actuations that it's had, but I shoot over 60 rolls of film in 2012. I also bought another film SLR and a DSLR in 2013.

Justabeginner photographer's picture

I'm a beginner which you can tell by looking at my profile picture but I sincerely disagree. The pixel count and MP make a huge difference even on the web. I was fortunate enough to get hold of a raw file of one of my favorite photographers and he uses a Nikon d800 and even the file resized for web is 100x sharper without any sharpening applied than my pictures EDITED. I'm usig an old rebelt2i body by the way. If you shoot in natural light only you need the dynamic range the contrast and the richness a better camera produces. For instance my Rebel body doesn't focus as soon as there is a little change in contrast and the dynamic range is shitty meaning pictures in bad lighting are a pain in the ass because you get a lot of noise with higher ISO's ( even 200 is too much ). Also when taking pictures at night ( cityscapes etc.) you get a lot of color noise. Comparing my raw files with the raw files of a better camera clearly shows a difference.

Tom Lew's picture

Sh**. I've been thinking of selling the D800 for a D3 for this exact reason. Maybe now is the time.

Joel Cleare's picture

Another article worth reading. Thank you.

Ryan Cooper's picture

For me, the biggest factor that makes those newer "behemoths" worth it is how much better dynamic range they have. I remember when moving from a D90 to a D700 and then to a D800 the final images didn't really change all that much in terms of output quality, after all it was the same guy using the camera. But what did change was how much freedom I had to recover shadows and highlights as well as how well the camera handled high ISO situations.

(That said I wouldn't suggest any new photographer jump into a D800 out of the gate)

Craig Marshall's picture

Agree with you totally. I need dynamic range more than anything else. I used to print images up to 40 inches on the D1X so know you can get great results on the D40X, but the dynamic range on modern cameras is so much better for image quality.

Hans Rosemond's picture

absolutely. Like I said to a later commenter, it's the one thing I miss about the D800. The dynamic range was phenomenal. But I'll use it as an excuse to tighten up my technique so I'm not so dependent on software.

Matt Rennells's picture

One other big thing with the D800 is crop ability. Don't have the perfect focal length lens with you, or can't get in just the right spot to frame the photo perfectly? Step back and crop it in post. Yes, makes you a little lazy as a photographer, but when you can crop high res online size headshots out of a full length shot, it allows a bunch of flexibility.

I also agree with the DR too. I had a shoot where my lights wouldn't fire consistently no matter what I did (strong backlight situation). Expose for the sky/background, underexpose subject and bring up in post (roughly 2 stops).

My D800 has saved my rear many a times with the ability to fix something I wasn't absolutely perfect on in post. I do my best not to rely on it, but it's nice to have it as a worst case option.

Chad Andreo's picture

Awesome Post!
I would say the focus system, dynamic range and editing latitude from using newer bodies(especially Canon) are better reasons to upgrade than MP count.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Honestly, that's the one thing I miss about the D800: the dynamic range. I do have to be a bit more careful with my lights because I can't recover as much should I goof up. But hey, that's just another excuse to tighten up my technique! Thanks for reading

Paul Tucker's picture

Perhaps one of the first "you don't need all the gear to produce quality workmanship" articles that has been worth the read. Very solid, sir.

You did not mention how many PPI you chose before sending the image to be printed, or did you resample to make them both 300 ppi?

Hans Rosemond's picture

yes, both at 300

Bicubic smoother in photoshop? Or did you use something else?

Hans Rosemond's picture

Nope. Just uploaded the full resolution files to my printer

Dan Howell's picture

You have made interesting decisions based on your scope of work. I'm glad that it is working for you. Personally I don't think I would have made that same switch for my work. I have changed main digital cameras for my work three times in 15 years. Each time I added resolution, but that wasn't always the driving factor. I went from D1X to Hasselblad/Leaf to D3X to D810. I'm actually happy with each transition. The cost of the bodies relative to the rest of my business expenses is actually fairly low. I weigh that against the cost of having a camera go down when I really need one.

Hans Rosemond's picture

It's great that you're making calculated decisions based on your needs. That's what I'm trying to encourage here. You obviously have a well established business. For my needs, the D3 is fine. If I start landing more commercial work, I'll have to reevaluate, but it's working great for me now.

I can chime in as a very amateur photographer. I bought a d3100 about 2 years ago. I have recently been looking at possibly upgrading. One reason is I'm not a fan of the crop sensor. But I always wondered if perhaps getting a d800 would really make that much of a difference...and articles like this lead me to believe "not that much".
I can certainly see why buying the D8x is a great thing for a professional who can really use and recognize the difference, but for someone like me, it probably won't do much.

So I'm still looking to upgrade, but don't think I need to jump to a d800. On the flip side, I'm going to spend a chunk of the money I would save on the camera upgrade, and buy my first professional lens (which I am thinking will make a noticeable difference in my pictures).

To summarize - it is great to hear from professionals that while there is undoubtedly SOME difference, for someone like me, it is unlikely it is worth the price jump.

The D3x00 series blows, I had a D3200 for a bit - I bought it as an 'upgrade' for my aging Canon 10D for better DR more than anything, but compared to the Canon, the image quality sucked. I ended up going back to the Canon and using that until I bought my 6D a few months later. I chalked it up to the fact that the 10D was a ~$2500 camera when new, and the D3200 was ~$500 new....differing quality levels. If you're looking at entry/pro-sumer level Nikons, look at the D7000 or D7100....don't waste your time with anything lower (D3x00 or D5x00 series). On top of better image quality, you'll also gain the focusing drive in the body and will have a wider lens selection to use with AF than with a 3k or 5k series (focus drive is in the lens, so any lenses other than G-series can't AF). Probably the only downside of the 7k series bodies compared to the D800, etc. is that those are FF sensors, and the 7k is still a crop sensor.

Our ideas differ on what "amateur" is. I'm not looking to spend $2,500 on a camera...

Michael Comeau's picture

I applaud your common sense!

I have an original Canon 5D and it produces amazing images. You can't do much shadow/highlight recovery but beyond that, IQ is spectacular.

Cameras don't go obsolete until they break.

Hans Rosemond's picture

one of my favorite cameras! This was taken with the original 5D. My camera at the time (The Mark II) was on the fritz and I borrowed it from a friend.

No argument here - my old Canon 10D still takes fantastic photos....as long as there's plenty of light...lol. That camera though, is a whopping 6.3MP...

This is such a sensible article! It's true, cameras 1-2 generation back is enough for a lot of the work in the market. Having said this, I am not saying photographers should stop spending and that older or lower end cameras can cover it all. By all means if you can afford it, if experimenting all sorts of camera is your joy and of course other jobs will require higher end cameras. But this article encourages the rest to make practical decisions.

jon snow's picture

Just gave up my canon 20d for a 100d but still keeping my FF beauty canon 1 ds mark 1, 12 years old and still going strong.

John Harambasic's picture

I want a 16mp sensor in the D810 body.

Matt Rennells's picture

That's easy, just activate DX crop mode - bam! 16MP (and more reach from your lenses too!). J/K