Today, I’ll share with you a few lessons I've learned after several years of taking cameras and other gear through their paces.
Let’s face it. You obsess over gear. Sure, you may outwardly say otherwise. But, a small portion of almost every photographer’s attention will at least occasionally find itself overly devoted to upcoming releases. This is hardly the pot calling the kettle black. I am no stranger to G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). Like you, I have spent too much time and way too much money purchasing gear over the years that I thought would “take my work to the next level.” That’s an absurd thought, which I’ll get to momentarily. But, as ridiculous a thought as it may be, such thinking still seems to work its way into my brain at least once a month.
To be fair, I didn’t always spend so much time thinking about gear. Sure, I would keep an eye out for the latest upgrade to my camera system. But, having bought into Nikon with my first digital camera, my searches never really extended much further than awaiting news that the next version of whatever Nikon I happened to be shooting with at that moment was on the way to market.
All that changed when I started writing for Fstoppers. Suddenly, I was not only aware of next to every product hitting the market, I was also often tasked with writing about the product to provide a full review. This necessitates me actually getting my hands on a new product to see if all the hoopla is justified. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn’t. But there is an unmistakable joy in discovering the answer for myself.
Now, it may sound like a dream scenario. Being aware of the pros and cons of every product is a requirement for someone who is writing about camera gear. And, putting the real thing through its paces, rather than just relying on someone else’s YouTube review, can definitely help to satiate some of the curiosity factor around new products. There have been plenty of pieces of kit that I’ve gone into my review thinking I might want to purchase for my business only to realize, after using the product, that it wouldn’t fit my needs. Then again, as they say, ignorance can be bliss because, unfortunately, for my wallet, there have been just as many times when I’ve reviewed a product I had no intention of purchasing only to fall in love with it and fuel my Gear Acquisition Syndrome even more. This wouldn’t be a problem were I to be independently wealthy. But, sadly, I am not. And my investments have to be made on an objective business use-case basis rather than on emotional attachment. This is easier said than done.
But this is no sob story. I’ve learned a lot from getting the opportunity to shoot with so many systems over the years. Not just the individual specs of each, but more fundamental truths about the value of gear and our choices overall. So, rather than try to re-review the specific kits I’ve had my hands on over the years, instead, here are a few abstract ideas that have proven themselves to be true over time.
Gear Is Important, but Not Nearly as Important as We Make It Out To Be
Here’s a little thought experiment. Consider for a moment your first camera. Actually, wait, let’s modify that as, depending on your age, your first camera could be anything from a film camera to a cell phone. Instead, assuming you’ve been shooting for a while, consider whatever camera was your main body three generations ago. No doubt, it’s less powerful than what you're shooting with today. No doubt it is missing a lot of the bells and whistles that are available on the current market. Objectively speaking, there’s a good chance that what you have in your hand today is far more powerful than what you had three generations ago.
Now, look at your portfolio. Look at the images you like to create and the quality of the images you are creating. Not quality in the sense of pixel-peeping. I mean quality in the sense of the subjective creative artistry involved.
Now, ask yourself a simple question. Is there anything in your current book that you absolutely positively could not have created with that camera you had three generations ago? Maybe you bought a new lens that helped you get closer to birds in flight. Or maybe you got a new strobe system with a shorter flash duration that helped you to better address motion blur. But, as an artist, has the camera itself had any effect on your creative voice? Perhaps your job is easier because your gear is lighter or the autofocus is marginally more effective. But, as a photographer, a person whose job it is to generate one of a kind images that only you can dream up and execute, are you fundamentally different? Probably not. Your imagination shouldn’t be affected by what camera you happen to be holding in your hand. And it’s that imagination that sets you apart from your clients. Not your megapixel count.
This is not to suggest that gear can’t make a difference. There are absolutely certain technical needs required to do our job. And perhaps, since buying that camera three generations ago, your work has shifted and you now need different features in a body than you had before. So, I’m not going to make a blanket statement that gear doesn’t matter.
But what I have found is that, with a little more elbow grease and a bit more legwork, capturing better images is less a function of having a better camera and more a function of expanding our own creativity and knowledge of our craft. There are lots of legitimate reasons to upgrade your camera system. But doing so because you think cameras equate to creativity is not one of the better ones.
There’s an Advantage to Trying Other Brands
I am a Nikon man. I started with them. I like them. And, despite the fact that I often shoot with other brands on the market for various projects, I still consider the Nikon system to be my home. That’s not to say that it’s superior. Only that their system feels the most comfortable for me. So, no matter how many other cameras I try, I usually tend to revert to them.
But, of course, I review all kinds of gear. And, as I mentioned earlier, I am no stranger to falling in love with the products I try. So, among the inhabitants of my gear case, you will see all kinds of different camera brands in residence. Nikon, Canon, Sony, RED, Arri, Fuji, and more. This is not always 100% practical. I’ll get to that in a second. But it does have its advantages.
The first rule of reviewing cameras is simple. There is no such thing as a perfect camera. There are some that come close. There can be one camera that is the best possible fit for what you do personally. But all cameras have their flaws. As photographers, we find ways to work around these flaws to achieve our end result. But, as life itself is often unfair, it too is unfair that usually the more a camera excels in one area, the more it is found lacking in another. Which, come to think of it, should be a rule with its own name. Like Murphy’s Law, there should be a known moniker for the fact that for every great thing a camera will give you, it will probably take something away.
In fact, one of the reasons I have so many cameras in my kit is that each camera excels at something different. One has great autofocus, but has some other problems. Another is pretty much great at everything, but is too expensive to have in multiples. Another has the best image quality but pretty much only works under very specific conditions. There’s always something.
The advantage of trying multiple brands is that you get a hands-on perspective for exactly how big a deal these problems will be for your actual workflow. Having multiple brands in my kit also allows me to have access to the tool that is best for a given project. So, I can decide whether, for example, it will be more crucial to have autofocus that can track a fast moving subject or an absurd number of megapixels for extreme detail. While having so many kits does lead to more gear having to travel to set, it also means that there are virtually no scenarios where I’ll be found wanting for the right tool.
In some cases, it’s not so much that I own multiple brands as it is that the gear selection is not under my control. For instance, I have a regular client who has their own studio and provides the gear. It’s a Canon house. Were I not to be able to know my way around a Canon camera, it might cause problems on set. So, getting a fair amount of hours under my belt with Canon cameras in hand helps prepare me to roll into their shoots without hesitation.
There’s an Advantage to Sticking With One Brand
Of course, owning multiple brands is not all upside. And, could I go back in time, I would likely prefer to get all my tools from the same basket. Yes, sticking with one brand might mean that you may not always have the latest and greatest technology. Technology goes in cycles. So, even though, if you wait long enough, your brand will probably catch up, there might be brief moments when your chosen brand lags behind the competition. As I mentioned earlier, there is a good chance that even if your gear lags generations behind the competition that you will still be able to create great art. But the market’s tendency to constantly remind you or your brand’s shortcomings can play tricks on our minds and lead us to think we have to have the best tech to be the best artist. This, of course, is not true.
In fact, there are demonstrable benefits to sticking with one brand that all the tech innovation in the world can’t match. The obvious benefit is financial. Acquiring different camera brands means acquiring different camera lenses and different camera accessories. These costs can add up fast.
And, on an even more practical level, sticking with the same brand can breed a certain level of familiarity. Like I said, I’ve been shooting with Nikons since the start of my career. I’ve had a lot of different models throughout those years, but I can pick up pretty much any Nikon made in the last 20 years and know my way around it almost instantly. Cameras have changed over that time, of course. But there’s a certain consistency in design that makes me feel right at home even if it’s the first time I’m picking up a particular piece of kit.
This might not be a technological innovation, but that familiarity means that I can work faster. Efficiency saves time. Time is money. Maybe I have to do a few more milliseconds of prep work to get the right result versus other brands' systems, but I will more than make up for that through added productivity derived from comfort with my gear.
The Gap Between Brands Is Never All It’s Cracked Up To Be
There are differences between camera brands. And, depending on when you are reading this, your chosen brand may be either the best or worst in the market in one aspect or another. But the differences between brands are almost always marginal. So feeling like you need to completely sell off your entire investment in cameras, lenses, and accessories just because your autofocus system, for example, is a millisecond slower than a competitor's autofocus system is only adding unnecessary stress to your life.
Yes, it is 100% true that certain brands excel in certain areas. And, if you are buying your very first camera, these are valuable things to take into account. But, if you’re like most people reading this article and are already invested in a one particular brand ecosystem, making a big shift to another brand is not always going to be worth the investment.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t switch brands. If your current brand is not able to meet your use-case, then, by all means, you should be on the lookout for the tool that will help you better perform your job. But having shot with pretty much every major camera manufacturer on the market, I can attest to the fact that, while there are legitimate differences, very rarely are those differences so great that it’s worth losing your current investment and reinvesting in a different brand just to access a specific feature. Again, there are absolutely reasons to switch. But, if, for example, your reason is simply that another brand currently has slightly faster autofocus or a handful more megapixels, you might be better off waiting as it’s quite likely that your own chosen brand will catch up soon. These brands leapfrog each other every few months. And always insisting on having the newest gear is a no-win situation. That’s not to say you shouldn’t switch. But you have to do the math on whether it is worth investing in an entirely different brand to have access to an advantage that is most likely temporary.
Of course, as I’ve said many times before, our choice of camera is as personal as our choice of a life partner. It won’t often make sense to our friends and family. Our mate is never perfect. Only perfect for us. And only you can know when you’ve found the right one.
I've used Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Sony cameras. They all have a different "feel" to each other, be that in terms of physical layout or menu layout/functionality/philosophy.
In my opinion, brand doesn't matter as much as the feel vs functionality relationship. For example, there were times that I looked at moving from Canon to Nikon but was held back by the feel of Nikon cameras - Everything feels wrong! Nothing wrong with their cameras, just for me they're too alien compared to how I think.
Completely understandable. I'm a mirrorless Nikon shooter and I picked up a Canon R5 two weeks ago... I could shoot just fine but trying to find a setting in the menu system... I felt like I was trying to decrypt an alien operating system on some intergalactic spaceship. In the end, just different ecosystem. Exact same experience you went though, just reversed.
You are so right about so much of this. Used to be that Nikon's cameras had better sensors with more dynamic range than Canon. Then Canon caught up. Just had to wait. Same with wireless flash - Nikon's CLS system ran circles around Canon, and then Canon went with radio transmission built-in and one-upped Nikon's infra-red based tech.
That said, because of my job, I've flopped between Nikon and Canon over the years and you're right, the differences are marginal. There aren't many, if any at all, photos that I could have gotten with one system over another, and the staple lenses - 16-35, 24-70-70-200, etc. all feel and operate about the same and produce the same image quality.
Years ago when I needed to make a decision between going all-in on Canon or Nikon, I had a weekend of portrait shoots and football photography lined up and shot Nikon D750 and 5D Mark IV side by side with equivalent lenses. My hit rate for autofocus, picture quality, etc. were all exactly the same, and so I went with the significantly cheaper D750 and Nikon setup and didn't regret it.
Life circumstances and some extended seat time through my job with the EOS R brought me back to the Canon system (especially with my own R6 and the wonderfully small 70-200mm lenses for the system) because at this point I value the weight/size savings and Canon seems to really get that with the new RF lens designs.
I will say though there is a significant difference to me in using a full frame mirrorless system vs. a Micro Four Thirds. I love my Olympus/Panasonic gear, but I only carry that when ultimate portability is paramount - there is definitely a hit in image quality and focusing speed with that system, but my back certainly thanks me.
Haha. My back was lost years ago :-)
Ask yourself this question the next time you find yourself lusting after the latest and greatest new toy: "Can you show me an image taken with this shiny-sparkling new toy that would have been impossible to make with my current outdated no-longer-shiny-sparkling old toy?" You'll save a ton of money.
"Impossible" is long, long gone. What new tech continues to improve upon every generation is making getting the shot easier, and more consistent. Cameras have just become more reliable in what they do, along with adding new features here and there. Excellent reason to upgrade for a working pro, who will push certain limits of what a camera can do. For enthusiasts, it all depends on if the bar has moved far enough in the lacking area to make the current upgrade worthwhile. If not, wait a generation. It should be ready then.
This question in a nutshell is why I'm still happily shooting my 5D Mk II. I'm as susceptible to marketing hype as the next guy (seriously pined for an R5 when they were announced). Then I saw sample images from the R5 within the genre that I generally shoot. They looked great. They did not look $3600 greater than my 5D Mk II.
Maybe the story would be different if I was shooting astrophotography, dimly lit concerts, or insisted on working handheld. But when I'm shooting nature photos, generally at 100 ISO on a tripod, and printing perhaps as large as 16x24... the "what would a new camera really improve for me" question gets really hard to answer with anything compelling.
Which I guess is also why some of the photos in my portfolio came from 80s ERA SLRs, 50s ERA TLRs, and my trusty 4x5 which is essentially a glorified wooden box.
What a well written article.
I fall into the "ignorance can be a blissing" category of shooters, as I only know one brand, and as you write; you learn to work with and around the limitations.
I think the main reason you come to the conclusion, that all cameras, in the end are equal, is that all the main component in a camera hasn't changed in a 100 years. Focal length (angle of view), ISO, shutter and aperture.
No matter what camera you shoot with, a perfect picture wil have the same ingredients, no matter the camera you use.
That is why we still see people win photo contests with cheap 10 year old cameras.
Good article. I bought my first dedicated camera in 2006. It was the Sony DSC-R1. Very good camera. What I was missing was a little bit more of zoom. Fourteen years after I went to the other edge. I bought a smaller sensor dedicated camera with much more zoom. The Nikon Coolpix P1000. What I have noticed as the main difference between this two cameras was the way I was seeing the environment around me. Before I was searching for spacious landscapes trying to show the greatness of the place my eyes were seeing. With the superzoom camera I was looking around me to find a bird,a passing plane or something that would attract my attention far. Of course you will say that this is because of the different lenses. I agree. But what I am trying to say is that these two different cameras changed my perspective of the scene. Thankfully I have still both cameras for different shots. Cause I don't have the luxury to buy a third modern camera to combine with my last one 😁.
Most amateur photographers never use their cameras to their full potential. I'm referring to the camera and not the photographer. I've found most cameras for the last at least 10 years are very capable machines. I seem to become a better photographer when I use my camera more often and in more different scenarios (at least in my mind). Professionals of course have a different take on what I'm writing about as they are using cameras for many more hours per week than amateurs. Good article that should be read by all G.A.S. folks.
I can't go back too far: my first camera was a Kodak Brownie and my second camera was a Speed Graphic. I then shot 35mm film cameras forever (Ricoh then Canon). I moved to Canon DSLRs when those came around.
I have been going back to my early DSLR images to see if I've improved as a photographer, versus the gear being better. It's mostly the former. That said, I just switched from Canon (xxD cameras) to Olympus -- the weight is the big issue at my age, but Olympus just works (for me) better at wildlife which is what I do.
Will my images improve? Maybe, a little, but the most important part of the camera is still the first twelve inches behind the eyepiece.
I hate changing camera systems and having to sell off all the old gear and buy all new. My first decent camera was a Panasonic GH3 and I got that mainly for video and some stills shooting. I got some very nice images with it. But then I wanted a camera with a bigger sensor to have less noise/better low light and better autofocus than Panny's contrast detect system, so I bought into Fujifilm's X-T3 system. I really liked that camera and the images I was able to get from it. And then Canon came out with the R6. ARRRRRRRGH. I changed systems again, kept the R6 for a while and now have an R5. I decided I'm not switching camera systems ever again, I'm going to stick with Canon come what may.
I see yesterday Fujifilm came out with the X-H2S and some nice new lenses for it.
I have the R6 and love it ... resolution aside, how do you feel about it compared to the R5?
I've collected a few bodies over the years...camera bodies that is...because I tend to buy secondhand mirrorless cameras and marry them up with vintage lenses. A different body for different purposes as the story describes. My Leica M9/M10 are for fun and making pretty pictures, my Sony A7Rii is for resolution when cropping is a likelihood, my Canon M50 when video recording and a Panasonic LX100ii to stick in my pocket on the go. Besides the Leicas (which are never economical), the other bodies collectively only cost me under 2K and the vintage lenses can be had for a great deal if the opportunity appears and if you don't mind shooting manual focus. One of these bodies could possibly cover all of my needs but when opportunity knocks and a bargain is staring you in the face...well? It may be challenging to say no at times.
My first camera was a Canon FTb, purchased in the late 1960s. It was good 35mm camera, comparable to the Honeywell Pentax of its time. Then my camera got stolen. Someone passed on a Minolta SRT [something] that I used until I got married and had kids. Then I bought a Nikon 8008s, then an N80. When it came time to go digital, I already had Nikon flashes and lenses, so I got an D90, and a few yrs. ago I got an D750. For this amateur, jumping around among brands is too expensive, particularly if you are spending after-tax $s, i.e., not tax deductible business expenses.
Still, I often scan old slides and 35mm negatives and play with them. Recently, I scanned an old slide of Lake Louise in Alberta that I could never get to work. However, with Photoshop I could use layers to separate the underexposed forest, water and rock and bring up the detail. The white snow was blown out, but I still got a decent photo. I used a faux oil painting texture to try to hide the blown details in the snow. The photo is attached. Probably won't win any awards, but it better than what I could afford to do with old film gear. Please comment.
Having taken photos for 50+ yrs., I have to say the biggest technology advances at present are not the cameras, but in the post-production software, such as Photoshop and Lightroom.. I confess that I have put a lot of lipstick on a few pig photos using post-production software. Having said that, my 70+ yr. old eyes have a heartfelt love for auto-focus in my current Nikons..
The one thing I never see mentioned about camera gear in reviews is the math or if you're English the maths. What do I mean by this? Well if you take brand X and work out the cost of a reasonable kit it might come to 10,000, look at brand Y and the cost could be 5,000, or 25,000 or even 50,000+
No gear review I've seen ever covers the full cost of a reasonable kit. Say for example covering lenses for macro, portrait, sports, and landscape, primes and zooms.
You can of course buy a camera with a kit lens but the kit lens is likely to be a jack of all trades and master of none.
If there were reviews that gave cost comparisons for ownership of a reasonable kit my guess is that specifications of bells and whistles would play second fiddle when it came to most choices.
Also no one ever mentions the fact that buying into a camera with a new lens mount from brand Z is the equivalent to giving brand Z an open cheque book, because brand Z can decide whether the mount system you've just bought into will be a 50,000 system or a 100,000 system.
It's not a bad idea to price out an entire kit if you're really sold on the idea of having all your gear from a single brand. That was certainly the default approach for many years. These days it's so easy to mix and match manufacturers for camera bodies, lenses, etc. Most of the time you're not even sacrificing autofocus anymore with adapters in their current state and mirrorless bodies using contrast-based focusing. A growing number of third parties produce really excellent lenses for several different mounts, but don't produce camera bodies (Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, Rokinon/Samyang, etc).
And even when you do have to make some tradeoffs, it's not necessarily a deal breaker. When I'm carrying my "full kit," it's a Canon DSLR and 7-8 primes at 24, 28, 35, 50, 85, 100, 200, and sometimes 300mm. Of that collection, 2 of the lenses are Canon. Several are older manual focus Olympus Zuiko glass with inexpensive Fotodiox adapters, and one is an ancient Agfa lens on a 3D printed tilt-shift adapter. The camera sensor can't tell the difference ;)
I think the approach of "price out a full kit" has merit, but if I was starting from zero, I'd pick a camera body that I liked with the assumption that any focal lengths I really wanted would be readily available from at least one major brand, and if I needed an adapter I could get one easily.
Really excellent article. For the past 5 or 6 years prior to the release of the R5, when Sony was the golden goose and Canon the redheaded stepchild in all the specs comparisons, I used to laugh at the people selling off all their Canon stuff so they could get an A7xx. For some of them that made them happy and they moved on with their lives. Others seemed to feel a constant need to justify their expensive decision by quoting specs at anyone who would listen. One friend hated the UX of his Sony so much he stopped taking pictures for years. And then the R5 came out and a significant portion of those who jumped ship for Sony came crawling back to Canon again.
Meanwhile, I shoot almost exclusively natural light landscape and nature photos. Generally at 100 ISO on a tripod. Sometimes I print as large as 16x24. When my 5D Mk II can’t do that anymore (likely when the shutter dies), maybe I’ll worry about upgrading. Realistically that will be to a 5D Mk IV. But who knows, when that day finally rolls around the R5 might be considered an antique that I could pick up for a few hundred bucks.
I have found something interesting throughout the decades of shooting....it never was or will be about the brand. It is more to do with how the equipment flows with you and you with it. Could be just one thing or several. I started out with Minolta film cameras. Then, after picking up a Nikon, I noticed a huge difference in the viewfinder brightness. And the Nikon just felt better in my hands and how the operations flowed with my brain and hand. All other 'features' put aside, this 'feel' just stuck with me. Other brands came close as well. Fuji is very similar and the feel and operations and modularity of Hasselblad speaks for itself (for me). Just a thought.