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

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Giovanni Bernardo's picture

Sorru but I do not agree at all in the conclusions of this article. I have been shooting, post producing and printing with D5000 (12 Mpixel very good entry level camera) and now with D800 (36 Mpixel excellent for professional use). The differences are very big! The way to intervene in post prodction is completely different between the two camera and with a file prepared for prints I can see the differences starting from 13x18 cm print, A4 prints are completely differents. When post producing landscape I see an abyss due to extended dynamic range of D800 and possibility to work on shadows to recover them with no noise at all! I expect that, a parte of the professional body of D3, the final file produced is similar as the D5000.

Daris Fox's picture

This is why I don't upgrade my camera every time a new one comes out, I went from a 10D to a 30D then to a 5DII and the only real reason for me to upgrade the 5DII is for a better AF system. Clients are happy with the quality of the images, and I know many pro wedding photographers who still use this camera.

This incessant demand to upgrade to the newest body is fostered by the camera manufacturers. The price of developing these cameras is astronomical and if they have a duff release cycle then that has untold ramifications down the line. In the old days manufacturers didn't worry about a duff cycle as it was all mechanical and not as much R&D was required. Whilst some people do benefit from upgrading every cycle, most people would be bettered served to learn their camera and leverage it's full potential as many people I see upgrading isn't because the camera has reached EOL but more to compensate for their weakness and sloppy techniques.

Terry Henson's picture

Although I agree that more megapixels isn't always better, just so we are clear.....A used D3 is about $1000 more expensive than a used d800. Nevertheless I enjoy your posts.

Hans Rosemond's picture

You're buying used gear from the wrong site. The D3 can be had easily for $1200. The D800 used regularly goes for between $1500 and $1700

Chris Adval's picture

You'd recommend ebay, amazon? I know B&H/Adorama would charge much more than ebay or amazon would.

Hans Rosemond's picture

I don't want to endorse anyone in particular, but I did a quick google search of "Used Nikon D3" and quite a few reasonable options pulled up on the first page

The other factor (d800 vs d40x) could be an ISO performance.

Akeem Casey's picture

I think the "bang for your buck" on more expensive bodies comes with high ISO performance, build quality, and functionality. Under great conditions such as outdoor with strobes i would would expect such results. Take both bodies inside in a somewhat dim location with no strobes/speedlights the difference would be more stark probably.

Hans Rosemond's picture

It seems that a lot of folks are kind of missing the point of the article(s). They are for focused on beginners and enthusiasts. That's not to say that pros can't take something away from it, but I'd like to think that a pro would understand their needs and know what they do and don't need out of their gear, whether that be lenses, bodies, lighting, etc. For those learning, however, get something affordable to learn on. It may come as a shock, but people used to take photographs in low light before these low light monsters came out. They problem solved, used supplemental lighting, and used their environment to their advantage. I'd argue that they became better photographers that weren't so gear dependent because of it. If you're learning, the worst thing to do is get a camera that does all the heavy lifting for you. That's no way to learn.

Kian McKellar's picture

I don't think I agree. If you a pro with a bad camera you can take a good picture. If you are an amateur with a bad camera you are most likely going to take really bad pictures and stop doing photography because you think you have no eye. Sometimes pro equipment gives newbies the enthusiasm and quality to continue long enough to develop their eye. I know I spent years buying new glass and learning how they changed how I can shoot. Now that I have a lot of gear I can slim down to what I really use and want. God I wish I had bought a higher end camera earlier.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Cheap does not equal bad. I guess we'll have to disagree on the other points. I think teaching a person to become gear dependent early is a mistake. I think you take bad pictures because you're new, not because of what you're shooting with. I've seen plenty of new people take bad pictures with great cameras, then start the incessant hunt for the next lens, and the next, and the next to get that look they want rather than working on their skill levels first. It's putting the cart before the horse.

Kian McKellar's picture

Being gear dependent isn't good but being frugal and spending all your time trying to get a camera which gives you the right bang for you bucks seems to take just as much time. I've spend countless hours fixing cheap when I should have spent money to get reliability and quality. Saying it isn't the gear the matters seems like another way of mocking beginners for taking bad pictures because they are beginners and don't know how to make a good picture with little.

Hans Rosemond's picture

again, it isn't about being frugal...it's about getting the right camera for you at a price you can afford. You seem to be stuck on cheap being somehow of lesser quality. That just isn't the case. Cameras have gotten so good the past ten years that you can get real bargains for some high quality equipment. The last thing I would do is mock a beginner for learning. I've been doing this a while now and I still take bad pictures sometimes. In my opinion, if you can't take a good picture on a 5D, then you still can't take a picture on a 5D mark III. It's that simple. Newer gear doesn't make a better photographer.

Kian McKellar's picture

I don't think new gear makes you a good photographer but it does make you a better photographer. If I was shooting a wedding I would get more keepers with the higher buffer and low light sensitivity in the 5D mark III than the 5D. it also gives me the extra megapixels to crop out Uncle Fred who is scowling directly at the camera. If I was choosing a camera to shoot in absolutely ideal conditions than I could skate by with a 5D. Newer gear makes me a better photographer because I can concentrate on doing my job instead of making sure my camera will be just enough.

Hans Rosemond's picture

right. and as a professional, that's a decision you can make based on your needs. However, this article is aimed at beginners and enthusiasts...so...

Kian McKellar's picture

Yeah which is why I wish there was more writing about the cons of your camera choice. How that camera body might limit what you are able to shoot well. A more balanced article instead of rehashing the whole belief that good gear isn't important. Of course it is important. It just one of the important things.

Hans Rosemond's picture

ok, I'll have to leave this here. You seem to be stuck on semantics. Cheap does not = low quality. No one said anything about good gear not being important. This whole time I've been talking about getting good gear at a reasonable price, used. Which is exactly what the D3 is FOR ME. This isn't a camera review. I'm not endorsing a particular brand/camera/gear/lens. So going into the ins and outs of the D3 is silly. My choice in camera is just me evaluating my needs. Yours will be different, as will the beginners and enthusiasts that this article is aimed at.

Kian McKellar's picture

Fair enough. Cheap doesn't mean low quality but I want people to understand that cheap does come with its trade offs and I feel that your article only talks about the pros of your switch. I think it is very limited in its scope because of that and I wanted to push you to write more in depth articles in the future.

Kian McKellar's picture

I'd love to see some camera tests where you point out when and why you would choose a specific camera. For instance take a beginner canon rebel camera and shoot some action sports and than compare it to the 7D mark II to show what you are missing. Perhaps while also comparing how close they are in things like taking portraits like you did above.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Something seems to get lost in translation here. If you know you want to shoot action sports, and you're a beginner on a budget pick up a 40D. If you have a bit more to spend, grab a 7D. More? 7D Mark II. A lot? 1DX, and so on...

Sean Shimmel's picture

I compliment and comment so late in the game. Still, what an immediately intriguing experiment. Keep up the editorial vision.

Still, as others have observed, that dynamic range is a coveted feature all its own... and the reason I'm so loyal to my D800. Here's a peek at my thoughts on it's dyamic range:

http://lifeascinema.blogspot.com/2013/04/helga-in-suburbs.html

The secret's out used equipment is good enough for most shooters!I have recently purchased a used D3 and it was a bargain.I have just started buying used lenses to experiment with from 45 years ago and if handled correctly turn out fine results for most shooters.Some people rquire good equipment for what they do commercially,the rest of us could do with a lot less.

Patryk M's picture

Good read. Thank You! My work horse for every wedding is my Nikon D3s and my backup is D750. Even though the new Nikon D750 has insane auto focus and low light performance. It simply can not provide the speed and usability of the D3s. All my buttons and functions are buttons I can see and press. As a wedding photographer this is key to not missing shots. I love my D750...but needing to press a button and than cycle through what I need....well its just that 1.5 seconds I lost NOT paying attention to the wedding.

I have attached one of my images from last weeks wedding. Nikon D3s

Wayne Carey's picture

I understand the post completely but... When was the last time you congratulated a chef for his meal and told him that he must have the finest stove and cookware available? Equipment is important but its not the only thing to conduct business.

Chris Adval's picture

I did the same thing. I started on the Canon T2i (still use it for 2nd camera at weddings/events), then got another camera as my hotshoe broke off and cost of repairs was cost for another used camera so I got a canon 20D, then the AF motor was on its last legs then I got a Canon XSi which now is my primary 2nd camera for weddings/events and backup for other stuff. Then I felt I needed better AF so I got the Canon 6D. I'm much happier with that, but its not perfect to my style as I tend to shoot on the edges and the camera does lack edge focus points, and since I shoot wide open I cant recompose as I'll lose focus. If anyone asked me what camera I'd recommend to start it would be any DSLR entry level and advise them to keep costs very low to the DSLR than the lens very high. I got my first L lens 2 years after I started, and it was my first huge purchase larger than my kit for my T2i. Never regretted it! Been using my 24-70 2.8L for 3 years without issue and tackt sharp images from the T2i and my other cameras. Do I plan to still get a 5DMK3? But primarily for the focus honestly. I don't plan on getting it though for at least 2-3 years.

Neo Racer's picture

Thats all well and good but dont agencies/magazines check the Exif data and wont entertain you unless you use a "Pro" camera..thats just what I heard anyway.

Hans Rosemond's picture

That hasn't been the case in my experience. In every meeting with an art director I've ever had, the subject of gear has never come up. Creatives at magazines just don't usually have time for that sort of thing. I'm sure there are some out there who do have stringent requirements, but getting your foot in the door to even have that conversation is the first step. Magazines are usually up front about their needs. If you're shooting commercial and they need a higher resolution image, just rent a camera.

By the time you are shooting for magazines, you are probably well beyond the "amateur" stage of photography.

Great piece but I can almost hear the thousands of newbies (and many not so newbies), singing LALALALALALA with their hands over their ears. Almost every pro (at least the ones not currently working for a camera manufacturer) has some form of this message in their repertoire and nobody really wants to hear it. That's too bad because it's a very valuable piece of advice. I wish I would have figured it out sooner. I spent years reading camera magazines instead of looking at photography. I spent a lot of time sitting around the house while saving up for my next camera rather than shooting with whatever I had.

I have walked away from photography twice. Both times it was just after buying an expensive camera I had lusted after for months or years. There is nothing like heading out with an expensive new piece of gear and coming home with pretty much the same results you were getting from your old gear.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Thanks, I appreciate it. I'll see what I can do with that article idea. Anyone got a profoto set I can borrow? haha

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