Should Your Next Upgrade Be to a Seven Year Old Camera?

Should Your Next Upgrade Be to a Seven Year Old Camera?

You have a daily workhorse camera that gets used for all your run-of-the-mill jobs. Like most businesses you go with a five year replacement cycle, so why would you replace it with a seven year old camera?

Yes, I have just replaced my main camera with a seven year old one, however the route to this point has been somewhat circuitous. As I've written about before, there is a lot of photography that is light limited and so, for many photographers, a camera should try to balance the competing traits of sensor resolution and quantum efficiency. As a Nikon shooter, the following sensor review of the Z 6 from DxOMark caught my attention:

"With the introduction of the mirrorless Z 6, Nikon has adopted one of the best-performing full-frame 24 MP BSI-CMOS sensors. At base ISO, it has very good color and a wide dynamic range; additionally, the sensor has outstanding dynamic range at mid-ISO settings, and has particularly good low-light performance at high ISOs."

Now that's a great recommendation. Given the stellar low-light performance and reasonable resolution, it seemed like a good time to jump to the mirrorless bandwagon, particularly given Nikon's well regarded FTZ adapter. It was then that I saw DxOMark's follow-on comment:

the Z 6 is only slightly ahead of the sensor in the 2014 Nikon D750.

That made me sit up and look at DxOMark's dynamic range performance charts. These measure dynamic range ("the ratio between the maximum and minimum measurable light intensities") throughout the ISO range and give a good idea of how well the sensor performs in low-light at a range of ISO settings. They should also be used in conjunction with DxOMark's ISO rating which allows you to rank the sensor against others, but is less granular in the information it presents. If you compare the Z 6 to D750 then it performs marginally better.

The D750 remains a current camera in Nikon's line up, so it made me wonder, given the slight gain in sensor performance since 2014, what other cameras might fit the bill. The Nikon Df, also a current camera, dates from 2013 using the highly regarded 16MP sensor from the D4. The performance is on a par with the Z 6, although has a mid-ISO pickup. In short it also has great low-light performance and was class leading when it came out.

Following through with Nikon's current line up leads to the D850. Currently class leading, the low-light performance is on a par with the best competing cameras, however the resolution and dynamic range are highly rated. The downside? It's expensive at $3,300. The D850 is a relatively new model, with it's DNA founded upon the D800 and subsequent D800E and D810. An examination of DxOMark's reviews for the sensors in these cameras shows that there were marginal gains between models. The D800E canceled the anti-aliasing filter, whilst the D810 employed a new sensor design at the same resolution with the AA filter removed. Improvements were gradual.

In one of my previous articles I postulated that Sony had been developing a new marketing strategy based upon offering sensor variants of the same camera, and then continuing to sell older versions of the same model. Rather than cannibalizing their own sales, I believe they add to them at the expense of Nikon and Canon. If you can't afford an a7 III at $1,998, then why not an a7 at $798?

If Nikon had carried on manufacturing the D800, D800E, and D810, how much would they cost, as price now becomes the key differentiator between them? We can't know but the secondhand marketplace is a good proxy and the trade-off between age, condition, shutter count, and model strikes a balance with prices for well used models starting at around $700.

So my latest camera upgrade has been to a seven year old model in the form of the D800 whose resolution, dynamic range, and low light performance remains competitive (it does lack in other areas though, such as video, WiFi, Bluetooth, screen, and image stabilization to name a few!). This opens up three potential upgrade scenarios:

  1. Buy new and upgrade at the earliest opportunity, taking a competitive advantage that a new model offers;
  2. Buy new, but upgrade with a longer than five year lifecycle to make it cost effective;
  3. Buy secondhand to take advantage of someone else's depreciation and upgrade more often.

I've opted for three. How do you upgrade?

Parts of lead image in the Public Domain via Wikimedia.

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53 Comments

Steve Ridges's picture

#2 for me. Went from a D810 to a Z7. I always sell the old stuff to help fund the new because don't need multiple cameras and know I will never use the old once I have the new.

Andrew Lodge's picture

I own a Canon camera so anything would be an upgrade at this point.

Ryan Davis's picture

Wish there was a laugh emoji for this one. I'm in the same boat.

Andrew Lodge's picture

Whats funny is I bought a $50 Gh1 about a year ago and it performs just as good for stills as my $550 Rebel T6. For video the Gh1 wins hands down. The Gh-1 is from 2009, the rebel is from 2017...

Felix C's picture

For a second I thought you switched to a film camera when I saw the -E-. All well...

Andrew Almeida's picture

I recently "upgraded" my kit to a Nikon D800e and so far my clients love the results and could care less how old the camera is.

Scott Edwards's picture

some of the most beautiful images I have seen are w that body.

Tony Tumminello's picture

I'll stick with my old 5D and 5D Mark II and just keep upgrading the glass, I'd rather put my money there than fancy whiz-bang bodies with more features than I'll likely ever need.

michaeljin's picture

That's good in theory, except that mirrorless glass tends to be better than their DSLR counterparts both on Canon and Nikon so in reality you're upgrading your glass to stuff that's inferior to what's coming out. Even when you adapt the older glass on the newer bodies, the results are optically not as good as native glass simply due to the limitations of the design.

Tony Tumminello's picture

Well there's no 100-400mm to upgrade to in the mirrorless realm unless I go with Sony, so I'm a bit stuck in that regard as it's the lens that I'm currently eyeing. Considering I'd have to change systems to Sony and also pay the Sony lens tax to get their version, I'd rather just stick with the less expensive Canon EF-mount model and adapt it when I inevitably bite and get a mirrorless body. Plus there's so much used/refurbished DSLR glass out there now, it's easier on the wallet from that angle as well.

michaeljin's picture

I was mainly saying it as a general rule. I would agree that investing in glass is more important than investing in bodies, but we're in a weird time where the glass that you're investing in might be for a system that's going to be phased out and forces optically inferior designs. Obviously, if you need it now, then you don't really have a choice in the matter.

Ryan Davis's picture

You're right about the glass but (let me put my econ teacher hat on for a moment) you have to thing about the marginal cost vs the marginal benefit.

I'm still shooting the 5d mkii because every time I have an extra 1000 euros or so to buy gear with, I ask myself what's the most photography improving thing I can get with that money. It's usually some sort of glass that, while maybe not the best, is still the best technical improvement that I can get for $1000.

For example, I recently picked up a used 100-400 L, first generation, for $700. Upgrading to an EOS R with that 28-70 f2.0 might make "better" images (ignore the focal length issue for the moment, and my limitations as a photographer) but that setup costs around $5700 here in Germany from a reputable dealer like Calumet. That's 8 times the cost of a used first gen L lens. Is it 8 times better? This is particularly salient since the weakest link in my system is, frankly, me.

When you consider the sort of photo expedition you could go on with that money, it makes even less sense. I can either get the EOS R and the 28-70, or I can buy a 100-400 L lens and go on a Safari that costs around $5000. I'd rather have some very good photos of elephants in the wild than some photos of the local chemical plant that are 0.01% sharper.

For professionals there are other considerations of course. I've made some money from my images, but it isn't my main concern.

michaeljin's picture

Well if you're going for value, it's difficult to argue against DSLR equipment right now. For me, even if it's just a picture of my kid, the way I see it, every single moment is a singular opportunity to take a photo that you'll never get back. I'd rather take it with the best gear that I can afford because for me, it's as much about future-proofing your images as it is about anything else.

Michael Clark's picture

That's more true for wide angle, wide aperture lenses that benefit greatly from shorter registration distance than it is for telephoto lenses that already have all kinds of space in the back of the lens barrels. This is particularly the case for Canon, which has had a throat diameter of 54mm since 1987, compared to Nikon's 44mm throat diameter for the F-mount.

Spy Black's picture

I work with Mk IIs and Mk IIIs in studios, and all I can tell you is update! I haven't used one, but I've heard good things about the Mk IV. You're still stuck with Canon's miserable "color science" however. Really, anything but Canon when it comes to color. If you want to stick with the optics I would at least get a Mk IV.

Tony Tumminello's picture

My workplace has a 5D Mark IV that I use for pretty much everything (along with a nice collection of glass), but for my own personal work I don't absolutely need the capabilities that the newer body has. And if something comes up where I do need it, I'm allowed to rent out the Mark IV from work anytime I want.

One of the big reasons I still use an original 5D is for the limitations that it has: no video, no Live View, no Auto ISO, limited ISO range, megapixels on the lower end, low burst rate, etc. It's like a film camera that just so happens to spit out digital files instead, so when I'm in the mood for that kind of shooting and don't actually want to shoot film, it's what I bring with me.

Ted Mercede's picture

I was surprised to read that you believe that Canon's color science is miserable. I am sure that this is a highly subjective and opinionated subject, but I have always been impressed with Canon's color science. I have always felt that Canon is best with skin tones, much more realistic than Sony IMO from what I've seen. Also better than my Olympus EM1. Not saying that all the others are crap, I just like how natural the color is coming from my 5DSR over others.

Spy Black's picture

That's just it. Everybody always raves about the skin tones. Anyone who does fashion, portrait, wedding, etc. type shooting will tell you that, especially if they're not color experts. Those "great skin tones" come at the expense of everything else. Try matching product color for art, prints, jewelry, etc., you name it. Whole different ballgame.

Ted Mercede's picture

The only experience that I have had with "product" photography is that recently I had to shoot some $5k artwork made from cigar labels using my copy stand and the 5DSR to get digital images to the client. It looked great except that I had hell with the subtle color shifts with the blue/green ranges. I use the PA NEC monitors with everything calibrated, but it was a pain, with my getting it to probably 99% accurate in the end.
I bought in to X-Rite to help, and it has, but I have yet to use the copy stand since to find out if this resolved the issue.

Bottom line is that I can't argue your point, but for most of my work, the Canon color science suits me better.

Nate Reese's picture

IV is the one where they did make a progress .. sure DR and noise is not on Nikon or Sony level but it is still good camera (and image wise EOS R is the same) .. Canon just produces better image ... specialy for shooting people .. and that is comming from Nikon guy ;)

Spy Black's picture

"Canon just produces better image ... "

For you. ANYTHING produces a better image color than a Canon as far I've seen.

michaeljin's picture

The biggest benefit I'm noticing after switching to the Z7 is not in the body or sensor, but in the quality of the Z-mount lenses. It's pretty absurd how much better they are than their F-mount counterparts.

Stephen Holst's picture

Put me in the #2 camp. I like to take my time, get familiar with my camera and then enjoy taking the my photos without being distracted with the device. Oh and also, I don't have the funds to upgrade very often too, so there's that. ;-)

Paul Papanek's picture

Still shooting with a D810 as my primary body, and always brought along my trusty D700 as my backup. I was starting to feel that I needed to upgrade something, as the D700, while a wonderful camera in its time, was getting a bit long in the tooth. Just a few weeks ago, I upgraded the D700 to another D810. Mint condition, 26K clicks, clean as a whistle - for $1350 including 3 batteries and a Nikon MB-D12. Killer deal. And I love only having to take one kind of battery and charger with me!

I did think long and hard about spending a little more $$ for the Z6, but ultimately decided to spend less.

Anyone interested in a low-click D700 with an MB-D10?

Simon Patterson's picture

Still very happy with my d800, which I purchased new when it first came out. And, its raw files work with Photoshop CS6, so I don't need to rent post processing software either.

Dimon Dimon's picture

Lol! I tried to install cs6 on my mac and it’s throwing errors, won’t install and messed up my current installation. Which OS are you using?

Simon Patterson's picture

Windows 10. I've owned CS6 since it came out (and before that CS4), still very happy with it, it has worked on each computer and iteration of Windows since I got it.

Ted Mercede's picture

I am running the CS6 version (as well as also still having the CS5 package installed) and no issues on my Mac. If you have CC installed, I wouldn't be surprised if that is the issue. I never felt the need to go subscription based, so never loaded it to find out if it would affect the CS versions.

Mike Gillin's picture

I bought the D800 when it came out, and it was killer. Years later it's still a workhorse. While there are some nice features on newer cameras, the overall package is not exponentially better (at least for my shooting). While I would love something shiny, and new, it's hard to justify when you have something that works really well.

Nate Reese's picture

Heck even D700 is still great and working flawlessly after 9 years .. it has been replaced by D810 for resolution reasons but even today it is making money now an than ...

Jarrod McMatt's picture

I do not understand the numbers as this is the first time I have looked at DXO but I just picked up a secondhand D610. I needed a good, compact DSLR that would act as the companion to my F4. The D610 can take all of the lenses I use with the F4 and compared to the Z6 (if the numbers are to be believed), seems to hold its own. Sub $700 for a body that had around 4000 clicks. I am very happy with my decision.

Kiss of Light's picture

This is similar to what I did. The system I was using hit a dead-end road, and I finally decided to get a Nikon D610. Its compatibility opens a whole new world of options, and its image quality is great. I got an open box copy from a store, so the price was marginally cheaper than new, with a full warranty. I like it a lot, even though the actual design is "old". :-)

Duane Klipping's picture

I just jumped to full frame in dec and got a D800 from a camera store in Montana. At around $900 and 12k shutter accuations it is hardly broke in and should last me a decade and a bargin to me.

It is a lot like buying a new car or a 2 year old one. Let someone take the first hit on depreciation it is only brand new until you use it.

timgallo's picture

My D810 died on 40k+, and d800e died on less than that. So not sure about decade... but it all depends on your pace.

timgallo's picture

Lol. Its all numbers on papers in tests. It really might be all true if you shoot landscapes or stay in mid-iso range, not going higher than 540 f.ex. But again its not all about the sensor, right?
I owned all of the mention above till D850.d800e and d810 was basicaly identical, but camera perfomance was different slightly. d810 buffered better, felt somewhat more stable. also better af in low light.

I think dynamic range is a little bit over-rated, but D850 files are muuuch better compared to D800, especially when it comes to detailed retouching (i am talking about shooting humans). i am more concerned with color noise (is it included in dynamic range?)
on first glance might be not much different - but when you actually do retouching, there is a difference and become apparent the further you go.
its all very personal, but from my experience d850 sensor and files are so good i am thinking of getting rid of my sub a7r3 for z6 (dont start me on z7).

dont buy d800 second hand(d800e and d800 shutter dies pretty quickly - reason i upgraded to d850, both died just in time for d850 release). oh, you already did?

Tom Egel's picture

Fortunately we have so many great choices these days, you can hardly go wrong. For me, it’s all about downsizing for travel while maintaining functionality and quality. I typically buy used, but decided to take advantage of the recent trade in offer to pick up a Z6. I was lured by the size, IBIS and focus peaking. I’ve been able to hand hold with my old MF primes at insanely low shutter speeds (e.g. 105/2.5 @ 1/10sec). Couldn’t be happier with the purchase.

Larry Wynkoop's picture

So far I've been a combination of number 2 and number 3. I just did the trade up to Z program where I swapped a D5500 (which I had bought refurbished) for the Z6 (which I plan on sticking with for more than 5 years). I'll probably end up more in the number 2 camp, as that's generally how I handle any sort of large purchase, from appliances to cars, so why not cameras?

David Apeji's picture

I am still using a D800 too. In addition, I am using a D300 a lot more. I used to shoot entirely in raw, but now I find that shooting jpeg with a D300 is ideal for a lot of event work that I find myself doing.

Andrew Devereaux's picture

#3 is typically how I operate. Most recently in fact, I upgraded by adding a 1Dx in stellar condition as my primary and put my 5DM3 on the reserve list. My 5DM3 needed repair from CPS and I debated getting a new 5DM4. I think buying pre-owned has advantages, just like with vehicles, and allows you more cash liquidity in case your preferred brand releases something earth shattering that doesn't fit in your scheduled upgrade timeline.

Eddy Waddel's picture

Would luv to get my hands on the Nikon D700...one in excellent condition..Low light Beast..

Patrick Smith's picture

I just bought a D800E after reading this story and agreeing with it completely. I got a mint condition Nikon D800E with 80k shutter count for $800. I mainly use my two workhorse Nikon D4s bodies, but this camera will complement them very well. I don't see myself switching to mirrorless for many years to come, as Nikon has no Pro-level body yet and the autofocus tracking is lacking. I am a photojournalist who shoots sports and news stories and for me the Z camera's are just not there yet.

Mihnea Stoian's picture

There's a reason why older DSLR bodies are cheap - the lack of video capabilities. I'm not a pro or a DSLR shooter, but from what I see around me among photog friends who are still invested heavily in DSLR bodies and glass, it's just a matter of time before they'll all have to bite the bullet, sell their stuff at a huge discount and move to mirrorless. While there was hope that DSLR lenses will 'port' over to mirrorless bodies seamlessly, it just doesn't seem to be the case. And yes, I know you can shoot video with DSLR, results are just not as great as on new mirrorless cameras.

Ale Vidal's picture

So guys, really serious question for all of you.

I feel somehow the necessity of upgrading my stuff. I am (was) a Canon boy. I have 5D2 and 6D. Several lenses. In the last 4-5 years, I always used the cameras I found in the studios in which I was working and I didn't bother too much about upgrading my stuff.

At this point, the Canon boy will see in 5Div a good upgrade. But does it worth it? Apparently, Canon is lost somewhere and cannot catch up anymore with the other brands. Is this true?

Budget wise, I cannot afford any medium format. I work 90% of the time within a studio, the weather in London sucks :P

Tony Tumminello's picture

The 5DS R might be a better alternative over the 5D Mark IV if you're in the studio 90% of the time as you'll have control over the light so the lower dynamic range of the body compared to the competition won't be nearly as much of an issue. You get a nice high megapixel count without buying a medium format body, and they tend to be cheaper than the 5D Mark IV.

Ale Vidal's picture

Thanks Tony. What about shooting outdoor? Isn't the 5DS R not good enough? Does it have particular problems?

Tony Tumminello's picture

I'm personally of the opinion that if you can't get good results with anything in the past decade, then it's highly unlikely that the problem is the camera. I also use a 5D Mark II and an original 5D outdoors and don't have many complaints despite the age of the bodies, so for me they're good enough but if you're not happy from the bodies that you have then maybe a higher dynamic range camera is a better direction to go.

If you want high resolution and more dynamic range than what the 5DS R can provide, then the Nikon D800-series and Sony A7R-series are both better at base ISO when it comes to dynamic range, but once the ISO creeps up then the differences aren't nearly as pronounced. The Canon 5D Mark IV bests the 5DS R in terms of dynamic range, but you lose resolution so it just depends on what your priorities are.

Ale Vidal's picture

You might have misunderstood. I've never mentioned I can't get good results in fact, my cameras are more than fine for what I am usually doing. Plus, as I said, I mainly use the cameras that the studio in which I am working provides me.
At the same time though, I am working on some personal project and some clients require high res files. I never bothered too much about the size, because most of the time 4k pixels are enough, but I cannot reach 6000x4000 pixels (unless with composition, which is not possible if it's model).

In any case, I mainly work within 100-800 iso. So following what you said, I am quite disappointed with Canon. I used a lot the Nikon D800-810, and the quality is really impressive. I find Canon's interface and buttons more comfortable for me, but I might have to consider Nikon in my future. Is there any rumor regarding a decent Canon comeback?

Tony Tumminello's picture

Apologies, my comment regarding good results wasn't directed it at you in particular, rather it was intended to say that anything remotely modern these days is extremely capable and the differences in quality between brands isn't nearly as large as it's sometimes made out to be.

You mentioned working within ISO 100-800, and what's interesting is that the dynamic range of Canon is actually a small amount greater than the D810 starting at ISO400, and the 5D Mark IV is right up there with the D810 at pretty much every equivalent ISO although the D810 has the excellent ISO64 option which does set it apart: http://photonstophotos.net/Charts/PDR.htm#Canon%20EOS%205D%20Mark%20IV,C...

Even when putting those cameras up against the newer D850, the differences still aren't very large: http://photonstophotos.net/Charts/PDR.htm#Canon%20EOS%205D%20Mark%20IV,C...

So in my opinion: there's no "comeback" to really make for Canon. Their newer sensors are already more competitive than people make them out to be and the performance gap is generally only limited to base ISO.

Ale Vidal's picture

Also, I am not forced to stay in Canon. Even if, of course, changing brand means spending a lot of money

alberto cabrera's picture

I tried the D800 and didn't have much success in using it. I couldn't take a sharp picture with it to savee my life. So I sold that one and got a D4 and I LOVE it. I still use my D750, but the D4 is reserve for those moments that need that magical touch.

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