Can a 6-year-old DSLR Keep Up With Modern Cameras?

Can a 6-year-old DSLR Keep Up With Modern Cameras?

Now the camera market has gone full swing into the new mirrorless market, does an old DSLR keep up with the new tech on the block? Can it still produce professional quality images that rival even the latest cameras, or does it fall short?

These are all the sorts of questions we ask ourselves when looking for a new camera. For those with tight budgets, we need to weigh up whether we can get away with using slightly older but comparatively less expensive kit, or if we need to save more and invest in the latest gear. But for others who can afford to splash the cash, a purchase may come down to what features it has to aid the user or whether it produces better quality photographs.

Does a New Camera Mean Better Photos?

I can hear some readers groaning already. "No!" some of you may exclaim. Proposing that a photograph is all down to the photographer. To some extent I agree. Give a beginner the latest flagship camera, and Annie Leibovitz an old point-and-shoot, and it's highly likely that Annie will be outshooting the newcomer despite the huge difference in technology.

Z 6 sunset shot

Sunset scene taken on a Nikon Z 6. The image is sharp and devoid of glare but is this down to the modernity of the camera system?

But what about two photographers of equal skill, one with an old beaten-up DSLR and the other with the latest mirrorless? Well, that's where I think the new tech has an advantage. Similar to other tech-reliant endeavors such as Formula 1 racing, the equipment is becoming ultra smart and can close the gap when it comes to shooting a better photo.

For example, ask photographer A to shoot sports with a manual focus lens, and photographer B to capture with an autofocus lens and it's pretty obvious which one will have more in-focus action shots. So modern cameras with improved features do contribute to better photos in some way.

What Features Can You Afford to Miss?

Depending on what kind of photography you're interested in means you may not need the latest 15 FPS burst speed if portraits is your focus. Face or eye-tracking might be superfluous if you're going into architectural photography. Electronic viewfinders may help astro-shooters compose their scene, but will it make much difference if you're a daytime landscape photographer? 

Tech in hand

The latest gear is nice to have, but there's a reason the saying 'all the gear and no idea' exists

While there are plenty of new features on cameras that make things easier, a lot of the bells and whistles are just that. Shiny toys that are included to entice customers, and beat competition in the market. It makes sense because the more things your camera does, the more desirable it is against the competition, but it doesn't necessarily help you take better photos. Generally speaking, the older high level and pro cameras worked for the pros just a few years ago, so why wouldn't they be good enough for the rest of us now?

Is Image Quality Actually Any Better?

Yes. Almost always the latest image sensor technology will be an improvement on the last. So in this respect the newer gear wins out, in my opinion. Higher dynamic range, extended ISO capacity, and reduced noise are just a few of the things that improve photo quality in newer cameras. But these improvements are usually incremental. I believe that changing cameras every 5-6 years is more than enough for the average photographer to really see a jump in quality while saving money. 

Hands framing face

Using off-camera lighting techniques and compositional techniques photographers can achieve a lot with old kit

Unless you're a professional or working in a creative field that studies photos zoomed in at 100%, I doubt you'll notice much difference between a 6-year-old camera and a modern day equivalent shot with the same settings under the same lighting conditions.

Summary

Overall, a newer camera might speed up the shooting process, and objectively deliver better quality images, but I'm not convinced that most of us need the newest camera. I've noticed this myself when comparing images from a Nikon D750 to a Nikon Z 7. I managed to shoot a bit quicker with the Z 7, and the images were a bit sharper. But on the whole, if I'd given it to a magazine to put on their front cover, they wouldn't turn their nose up at my D750 shot. I know that, because it's happened to me. 

So as long as you're willing to live with fewer features, and take a little longer setting things up, I'm confident that 6-year-old camera is more than enough for the best of us. Especially if we hone our craft by improving lighting, composition, and subject choice.

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39 Comments

Michael Rocktaeschel's picture

Totally agree. I'm shooting my pictures on an old Canon EOS 650D but instead of spending my time in researching for the next gear I spend the time shooting, retouching and reading fstoppers ;-). The dynamic range of this camera is so bad that I had to learn how to cope with this limitations and just started to shoot bracketed and used luminosity masks. So it even helped my creativity that my camera limited me in some way. Same with resolution. I think it was here on fstoppers that I read about the Brenizer Method and what shall I say. Who needs high MP cams if you can stitch the hell out of your old one :-)
I will however consider changing to a new Canon R6 as eye AF, 4K Video and much improved dynamic range certainly would be helpful...

Deleted Account's picture

I believe a better question is "can a new camera do anything my current camera cannot do? And if so, do I *need* that functionality?"

dean wilson's picture

That is the exact reason I upgraded my EOS Rebel T-3 (1100D) to my EOS R.

David Love's picture

Considering the amount of post work that goes into most images I would say as long as it's not noisy or pixelated as hell because of the camera you don't need dog af. When I look at the resale value on the 5D mark 3 I gasp cause it's still more camera than most would ever need and the value has dropped because it's not a feather light, stabilized, auto focus device. Who cares? Millions of pics have been created without the crutches.

Zsolt Könczey's picture

If we are talking about only, pure photography, than Absolutely yes, the results from my Nikon D610/D750 can’t be any better, not even from a D780 :) ...

Gary Williams's picture

At what seems a long time ago now a local photography shop owner once told me the best camera on the market is the one you carry with you. This advice came true when i captured a great shot with an old nikon D50! In raw mode and later tweeked in photoshop. Oh, and i entered it in a competition and came second!!!!!!

00rob00 Rob00Rob's picture

"Yes. Almost always the latest image sensor technology will be an improvement on the last. So in this respect the newer gear wins out, in my opinion".... Keep point there... In your opinion. For many newer cameras seem to lack certain charm, imagine quality aesthetic (CCD) and character. Also despite the new camera many people end result still look the same as with the previous, how many are actually utilizing the supposed increase dynamic range and so forth.

Jan Holler's picture

Make it eight instead of six years and the answer to the question is still: Yes. My brother has a D850, I still shoot with my 2012 D800E. There is no difference visible. The D4 is my fast low light camera, would not trade it against a D5 (but maybe a D4S).

Sam David's picture

"Mirrorless" was the camera industry's way to try and keep itself alive -- nothing more. The great hype machine -- assisted by the now largely defunct photography magazines desperate for advertising dollars -- tried to convince amateurs to dump their DSLRs for "the new thing." The new thing did the same thing the old thing did -- and only because it was new did anyone think it was better. Anyone beat Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Avedon or Weegee lately? Nachtwey's work in Africa? Sally Mann? Diane Arbus? It's all about the vision and the light - not the sensor.

Spy Black's picture

I don't delude myself like that. Mirrorless is the natural evolution of the digital camera. In retrospect, the DSLR was just a transitory stage of the mirrorless camera, and now that stage is over and we move on.

As someone who's worked with the SLR design since the 70s, the switch doesn't bother me. I still have my DSLRs which I've relegated to the studio, and now for the most part pretty much everything else gets shot on mirrorless.

Time marches on. In a few years DSLRs will be a thing of the past, just like the film SLR is now.

Jason Rafael's picture

"I don't delude myself like that."

Proceeds to explain how he's deluded like that. "It's just evolution" is a deluded reason to get sucked into the next product.

The R5 is an upgrade from the 5D mark IV because of its 4k capabilities (who really needs 8k right now, very few people), its silent shooting mode (for me shooting set stills at least, which, realistically, DSLRs should be able to do when using the screen to shoot), and its better low light sensitivity due to its upgraded sensor..

It is NOT an upgrade just because its mirrorless and "that's evolution".

Evolution is not a good thing, in and of itself, just because something changed. Evolution is good when something is improved, like the features I mentioned above.

Spy Black's picture

You'll see. In 5 years or so nobody's going to care anymore. It'll be obvious that mirrorless design will just overtake DSLR, just like the DSLR overtook film SLRs.

Ed Sanford's picture

Well stated... it's the photographer and he skill that makes the most difference....

Christian Berens's picture

Yea it goes to the old cliche, "it's whats behind the camera"

I have a buddy that buys all the latest gear when it's fresh and I have my old D800 from 2012 and I feel i outshoot him even though we've both been in to photography for the same time

However, latest tech does make things easier, moving from my D80 to the D800 was a world of change, but it was also different levels of bodies

jim blair's picture

The only latest tech needed is post processing software and how to edit. Plenty of old gear that works great, especially lens.

Paul Scharff's picture

As a dedicated Canon shooter, I regret that at least up until a year ago with the possible exception of the 5D4, a six year old Canon wasn't all that different from a new Canon.

It looks like that's starting to change and it is most welcome.

David Purton's picture

Surely the question here is do "more pixels" make for a better picture. Obviously not! 6 years old? Some of my cameras are 50 years old. It's the photographer that takes the picture.

There would be some validity if the question was do more pixels make for a bigger picture...yes, pixel dimensions divided by ppi. Good glass can certainly be more than 6 years old. AF?..Still waiting for a dslr to keep up with my F100. DR? 6 years ago dslr's hit around 13f stops...so may be some improvement relative to pixel count recently. So what? How many print 30" x 20" from native resolution, in fact, how many print at all.

Bailey's exhibition a few years back demonstrated my points...galleries with prints from mobile phone, dslr, slr, 6x6, 10x8 sheet film...the camera is a tool, different cameras are different tools, but how good are you at using those tools?

Fred Pinkerton's picture

A newer camera may make the shooter feel better, but any digital camera over 10-12 mpixels can produce an image that will capture attention. Historically, if the content was interesting, an image on 400 iso film pushed to 1600 iso would still be printed. Technical image quality only gets you so far. There's a reason Cartier-Bresson describes the "decisive moment" and not "the best resolution".

Zsolt Könczey's picture

Exactly, can’t agree more!

Olivier M. Mischon's picture

Owned a couple of Nikon DSLR for the past 20 years. The 600 was just dam heavy so I kept shooting my 7100 and still do. Mostly astroscape and high luminosity scapes here in Hi.

Most of my good pics are made with my phones..because it's always on.. The old Nokia/MS phones worked really well and so does my 4 year old Essential with it's dedicated b/w sensor and decent HDR, 4k and open camera app. I use my GoPro for freediving and shoot 4k reel for many years and every other day. I do not bring a large cam with me. There is NO place for big and bulky.

I want something like an Alpa platecam with an upgradeable sensor in an intermediate box and my phone as camera back to match up usability, connectivity with big lenses.

Most bodies are generations behind my phones processing power and cam app design. They suck. Small Bayer sensors are very limited, the bigger ones slightly better. That line of engineering needs to be rethought. As it is...the 7100 won't get updated and I think we need to let Nikon, Canon etc bite the dust. Phase one, Alpa, Kinevision, BMP, GoPro and Essential show how it's done...merging dedicated and limited features into usability and that translates to quality images instead of having to deal with a monster sized ML with beginner features I don't want and am not willing to pay for. I want the big glass only.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Newer gear can certainly make the capture easier - I can't disagree with that. I always have a bit of hard time switching back to an optical viewfinder after using an EVF. I'm not saying I don't enjoy the optical finder.
BUT - I still get jobs based on images taken with my 20D. What does that say about the advancement of camera systems?

Jorge Cevallos's picture

Of course, we don't need new gear. I still use my Kodak Brownie from 1900. A little slow, but it has made me a better photographer.

James Lane's picture

I use cameras that are up to 85 years old. Get good images no matter the age. It's not the camera but the photographer and their choice of medium and lens

octav cado's picture

Totally agree with you, all my portfolio - https://bali.octavcado.com/ was created via Canon 6D and it's more than enough for provide good result. I've changed camera for more modern just because need to get 4k and auto focus via eyaes, but it's not give something more. A lot of people don't understand this because marketing in out time is agressive

Mark Weber's picture

New camera's are exciting. In many ways that is the real advantage as it gets you motivated more than it's so much technically better. But a camera is just a tool. The right tool with the right vision is what matters. I was reminded of this when picking out a guitar the first time. An experienced musician made the difference, not the instrument. It saved me thousands of dollars. I can still create award winning images with my 12 MP D3, my Polaroid SX-70 and even an old iPhone.

Hursh Zap's picture

SX-70 Nice 😁👍

John Pleau's picture

I am a big fan of waiting 1-2 years after a camera (or lens) is released and purchasing a factory refurbished unit for much less. This allows me to change cameras every 3 years or so without a huge hit. For example, I recently purchased a Nikon factory refurbished D7500 for about $600 from Nikon.

john strand's picture

Just looking at the photo of the author up top it was easy to predict the conclusion.

Brian Allan's picture

Probably a better title would be, "Can a Pro with an old camera out shoot a six year old with a smart phone?"

Hursh Zap's picture

Great article, I’m still rocking a 5D MK2 that was bought new and it still keeps up with the new gear, sharp as they come too...but to be fair I am using the latest glass though 👍 there are some features I would like, especially in the video space but it really does come down to skill in the end.

You should be able to take a good shot on new, old or even film cameras, but If you rely on features and post production to take a good photo then are you really a photographer?

I have a few friends that have “thought” they were good at taking photos on the iPhone, so they have gone out and bought SLR/mirrorless cameras and are really frustrated they can’t take a good shot....then shelved the camera and back to the smartphone 🙄

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