Is It Better To Buy a New Entry-Level Camera or a High-End Old Camera?

Here’s an interesting thought exercise: Given the same amount of money, is it better to buy a low-end new camera, or a high-end old camera?

Photographer and YouTuber Hyun Ralph Jeong takes the thought out of the exercise by answering that question for viewers, comparing a 2020-era entry level camera, the Canon EOS M50 Mark II, with another Mark II model, the 5D Mark II from 2008.

Right off the bat, it’s a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison. The newer camera is a mirrorless, APS-C sensor camera, while the 5D Mark II is a classic DSLR form factor with a full frame sensor. But at the end of the day, both of these are image-making machines. So, which one offers better bang for the buck? It depends on what kind of shooter you are, Jeong says.

While sheer image quality of the full-frame sensor is “better” in that it has less noise and retains better highlight detail than its newer APS-C counterpart, the shadows are harder to work with and dynamic range isn’t up to modern standards. Basically, if you need some margin of error or latitude of editing, you’ll get much more of that from a modern sensor than the one in the 5D Mark II.

But beyond that, you’ll also get some of the modern creature comforts that are often overlooked when purchasing older cameras. The M50 Mark II nets you a touchscreen, (incredibly fast) autofocus, Wi-Fi capability, 4K video, and an overall smaller form factor.

I really notice these ease-of-use features when I’m teaching, especially with autofocus. Teaching students how to track a subject with non-touch screen older DSLRs, where you set it to servo mode, pick a point, and hang on for dear life is a vastly different experience than say, an EOS R, where you can just tap the subject and let the camera do all the work — same results, just made much easier by modern technology.

So, is it better to buy the old camera and get the higher-end body and pro features from back in the day or get a modern camera that on paper might not have the specs of a higher-end body but in practice will make the job easier?

I guess that depends on whether you like driving the sports car of yesteryear that doesn’t have air conditioning or Apple Carplay versus a new compact car that has both of those things and more; both approaches have their own merits.

Which one would you choose? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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30 Comments

Jerome Brill's picture

I think it depends on how old the nighend camera is and what your skill level is. Some of us may take an older camera because we know how to work around it's limitations. A new camera may have a few new bells and whistles but it may also be missing some critical options you may really need to get the most out of it.

If the new camera has a really good autofocus system, I'd say the newer camera. If it doesn't than I'd rather have an older camera. Sensor performance can be worked around on either camera. Not getting the shot can't.

Greg Edwards's picture

This. If you do t need the lastest bleeding edge technology, there’s substantial savings to made buying the previous generation. It will still do pretty much everything you need it to do. The same holds true for most other devices such as phones, tablets, TVs etc. Heck, even cars. I hardly buy any tech brand new these days and I’m quite happy with my Eos M5, iPhone 11 and iPad Pro 2018 all of which I bought in the last year.

Nate Jones's picture

Spend on lenses.

Tony Clark's picture

The highest level that you can afford, put your priorities on lenses since you’ll own them the longest.

Kurt Schuster's picture

Sage advice to be sure, and while I don't disagree, it may be useful to note that Canon is already starting to discontinue EF-Series lenses. There will always be adapters and a second-hand market but when scarcity makes certain pieces collectors items, be prepared to pay a premium.

Christopher Lloyd's picture

I think it depends on the features and what sort of photography you do. I use Olympus gear for travel and landscape/nature while hillwalking. Just moved up from EM-1 to the mk II - 2nd hand for less than any of the newest 5/10 models. From my perspective, build quality and weather sealing are more important than the latest features - but that's me. I'm sure it's different for others.

Rob Davis's picture

Would’ve been a lot cooler with two cameras and the same lens.

Tom Reichner's picture

Comparing an M50 to a 5D2 is not a viable comparison. They don't even take the same lenses, for Pete's sake.

There are so many more viable comparisons that Hyun could have used. I mean, at least compare a DSLR with another DSLR, a mirrorless with another mirrorless, an EF/EF-S mount with another EF/EF-S mount, and an M mount with another M mount.

A worthwhile apples-to-apples comparison would be a Canon EOS Rebel SL3 DSLR vs. a Canon 1D Mark 4.

Both are in the $600 range.

Both take EF lenses (note that the Rebel will also accept EF-S lenses).

Both are DSLRs.

OR, we could compare a Canon 5D Mark 4 (current DSLR) with a Canon 1DX Mark 1 (old, discontinued DSLR). Both are roughly in the same ballpark, price wise. Both take EF lenses. Both are full frame.

To compare two completely different cameras that have nothing at all in common is just strange, and doesn't help Hyun to make whatever point he was trying to make in his video.

Morris Erickson's picture

The Canon mount adapter EF-EOS M will allow you to use any EF/EF-S lens on an “M” mount camera. I like to use a Zeiss Distagon 2.8/21 ZE lens on an M6 MkII. A tad lighter, a 32 MEG sensor, and manual focus peaking. The Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM lens with the M6 makes a good wildlife/hiking combo.

N A's picture

If you're patient, wait for a higher end camera to reach end of sale. Not sure about Nikon or Sony but Canon steeply discounts their bodies when the replacements are announced. The 5D4 new was a low as $1899 USD just before the R5 was announced. If you can work with a previous generation body it's good way to get more camera for your money.

Frank Landry's picture

Right now its a catch 22. Mirrorless cameras have a limited number of lenses available. Yes you can get the adapter to use your old lenses. But their is no guarantee that they will work properly.

Older cameras have a lot of lenses available. But for how long? Canon has already started cutting back. Nikon is planning on to support their lenses for awhile!

I have an older camera. Im holding onto it. I have all the lenses, i need!

Todd Bryant's picture

New camera all the way. I just went out shooting astrophotography with my cousin and the processing time associated her full frame took forever. It was night and day. I also shoot action shots and you can't match the speed of a mirror less camera with a DSLR. Autofocus is also a beast.

Jan Holler's picture

" you can't match the speed of a mirror less camera with a DSLR" Please take a Nikon D780, D850, D4(S), D5, D6 into consideration.
An older D800(E) is still up to date an it is available in mint state for less than $800.

Tom Reichner's picture

Todd,

You are mistaken when you say that a DSLR cannot match the focusing speed of a mirrorless camera. Which mirrorless camera? And which DSLR?

If we make a comparison of a new mirrorless camera and a similarly priced old DSLR, I bet the old discontinued DSLR beats the new mirrorless camera when it comes to speed and focusing.

An old, used, discontinued Canon 1D Mark 4 is now about $700. What new $700 mirrorless camera can come anywhere close to the 1D Mark 4 in either frame rate or focusing speed? None can. Absolutely freaking none. They all suck, compared to the 11 year old Canon 1D Mark 4 DSLR.

How about we compare $1200 cameras? A new $1200 mirrorless camera against an old discontinued DSLR that is now around $1200. The old Canon 1DX fits the bill. What new mirrorless camera can you get for $1200 that can keep up with the speed and focusing of the 1DX? I'll tell you - NONO! No $1200 mirrorless can even come close to the speed of the original 1DX, which is now 9 years old.

What you said leads me to believe that you never even shot with a high end DSLR. And if that is the case, then you aren't even qualified to comment about these DSLRs. Don't put something down if you've never even used it.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I have owned both a 1D Mark IV and a EOS-1D X, both great cameras but most mid-level mirrorless cameras have caught up in terms of speed and focusing, and have certainly surpassed both of those cameras in image quality and ISO performance.

Don't get me wrong, I loved, loved loved both of those cameras but I'd still take an EOS R today which can frequently be found $1500 on the refurb side of the Canon site. What it gives up in terms of sheer FPS, it makes up for in focus accuracy.

Francisc Adamovici's picture

For landscape the autofocus performance is useless, better buy an old generation camera and spend more money on a pro lens, filters and a good tripod.

christian thompson's picture

Its amazing how spoilt we have become expecting new features every year . Features that so frequently actually never get used.
Back in the old days of silver halide progress was slow, especially in terms of image quality or lens sharpness. The only real path was to get a bigger camera with bigger film in it.
A canon ds mkii or iii offers quality and power us old pros would have given an arm or a leg for. And they are still amazing image making machines today. Forget about mpixel counts. Those older pro cameras deliver in spades and cost €400 ... personally the 5dmkii was a disappointment for me. Maybe too much hype at the time.... what??? Video??mmm.... but i found it too compromised and dysfunctional.
I would recommend any beginner to get a nikon 2d or 3d or canon d2 or 3... and use it in manual for 2 years.. Learn the basics and get amazing quality results with a proper solid machine. I wonder if these older cameras will increase in value one day?
I also love my olympus em5 mkii... amazing camera. Image stabilization is the revolution!

Wasim Ahmad's picture

My Nikon D2H has not aged well. I'd start at the D3 and go on up from there. I have vague memories of using a Canon 1D Mark IIN in grad school but I can't really remember how I felt about that camera.

Joseph Balson's picture

That's funny you mention the D2H.
I actually loved the D2H despite suffering the D2H curse: I owned 3. The first just died for no obvous reason, the second, a D2Hs, drowned, and the last one was stolen. These cameras were my workhorses and took some crazy beating.
When I look back at the photos today up to 16x20 prints, I wouldn't say it didn't age well. The photos are as good as they were 20 years ago.
I especially don't think any modern camera could survive what survived these D2H, desert, mud, monsoon, heat, cold, not being babyed...

considering lots of "photographers" today mostly don't print and only post on social media, 4MP is plenty enough.

I still wouldn't recommend anyone to buy one, but for 150 bucks, why not?the AF is good and it's crazy fast. the trouble would be finding one in good condition, the prices are going up steadily for a couple years.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I mean, technically you aren't wrong. There's a bus driving around Stony Brook University wrapped with photos I took from a Nikon D2H and I'm still amazed that they enlarged that well.

Stephen Strangways's picture

Given the same amount of money? in Toronto, I haven't seen a used M50 Mark II, and the new ones sell for more than twice what a used 5D Mark II sells for. Start considering lens availability and cost, or the cost of an adapter for the M50, and the 5D definitely seems like the better bargain.

Stephen reef's picture

Don't buy a Canon DSLR. They've abandoned their DSLR clients.

regan albertson's picture

Entry level new vs full framed old for stills? get the old one. For video, yeah, the new would be better. The tanks built in the last dozen years still make great images, when correctly deployed. It's not the brush, it's the artist.

regan albertson's picture

Some research; A D700 in great shape goes for $300 or so. A medium zoom and a nifty-50 used might add $200. The only thing missing is the dial with AUTO on it. If this newbie is into learning photography, the AUTO can be dispensed with.

Rodolfo Farinas's picture

A more advanced camera may push you to better understand and master all the features and advanced settings, on the other hand, a newer entry level may only give you a slight advantage of more speed and or connectivity features that in the end, are not all that necessary to get good pictures. If you get used to work with and handle a more advanced camera, then an entry level camera will be much easier to use. Older advanced verás may give you exceptional Dynamic Range and ISO performance while remaining compatible with older lenses and equipment, And it can also save you some money. But in the end, this is a hobby or profession, that once you get into it, you will always crave the newer stuff, until you reach some level of maturity where you understand that there's a lot more to photography than just the camera body.

Jonathan Ziegler's picture

I like both the 5D Mark II & III. I like them because you can get 4k raw video from the mark 3 with magic lantern and raw video (2.5k) from the mark 2. Magic Lantern is one of the main reasons I still buy old t2i and t3i camera bodies (and 5d/6d when available) - I can greatly extend the features and capabilities of these cameras. I first discovered it with the t2i which uses the same sensor as the 7D and has more features than the 7D with ML.
https://magiclantern.fm/

D Smith's picture

I am always amused by these "beginner" (their words not mine) recommendations where it involves dropping +$1000 just to get started, let alone adding a few full frame lenses possibly 3x or 4x'ing the price (used) to cover wide to zoom. When I think of a "beginner", I think of someone who has never operated or carried (for hours) an interchangeable lens camera system. Nor have they found their photographic calling (landscape, macro, birds, portrait, etc.)

I would highly recommend to any "beginner" reading this post, go buy the least expensive interchangeable camera system for under $200 with a kit lens. If you cannot take beautiful photos with this camera/lens combo, you have no business dropping thousands, your expensive equipment will not save you. My old T1i could still take beautiful photo's before giving it away to another budding photographer. Everyone needs to remember, beginners use Instagram et.al. yea 1080x1080 resolution. If after spending $200, if you don't like the hobby, you can sell it for what you paid for it.

Once you, the beginner, get to a point where you've discovered your calling and you feel your equipment is holding you back (you'll know when that time is), then and only then do you INVEST into a camera system. My advice will save you thousands while not having this expensive kit sitting in a drawer somewhere.

Shawn W's picture

Wrong title and bias comparison. It should be named "13 year old high end full frame DSLR vs 0 year old crop censor mirrorless camera".

I bought a 5D iii in mint condition at $1000 CAD recently. A used 5D ii can be had at $500 CAD. Just checked the price of the M50 mark ii, $899 plus tax. It makes more sense to compare a 5D iii with M50 ii. Then I'd prefer 5D iii.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Yeah, there was a huge difference between 5D2 and 5D3 (I owned both for a long time) - enough to swing me in a comparison with the M50 II (which I haven't owned but I had a lot of seat time with its kissing cousin, the M5).

Eriol Brumel's picture

With today's technology, photography is probably 80% the skill of the photographer and 20% the performance of his hardware. I have been shooting digitally since 2004 and have the impression that - quite subjectively and only referring to myself - since 2014 the technology of DSLRs has matured quite a bit. So I wouldn't buy an old camera from 2008, since the sensors and image processors in particular have still improved noticeably. But for cameras since 2014, that's totally different ...

I would prefer a "professional" DSLR from 2014/2015 to any top modern entry-level camera, because - quite subjectively - I could not take better photos with the new entry-level camera. And I wouldn't have any more fun with it either. I only take photos through a viewfinder, and I value natural color reproduction (which I can change myself during subsequent photo processing). Professional cameras usually have a better haptics and feel and allow quick settings without having to take the camera off your face.

I don't need a touchscreen or a swiveling 5" display on my DSLR. However, I always have a good photo smartphone with me for special purposes in certain situations.