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How to Know If You Need to Buy a Better DSLR Camera

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Read Time: 13 min

Everyone loves a good maxim: do this and you’ll be successful, do that and your images will look great, always buy better lenses before better cameras. Unfortunately (or maybe not so unfortunately), photography resists hard and fast rules.

Take investing in lenses before cameras. Most of the time it’s the right idea: lenses last longer, don’t go out of date and are an important a part of making the image. In this tutorial we'll look at why, with digital cameras, camera bodies are more important than lenses, and how to know when it's the right time to purchase a new camera body.

The Case For Buying Better Cameras

In perfect circumstances—think shooting a portrait in a well appointed photo studio, on a nicely overcast day or with gorgeous window light—the line between an entry level camera body and a professional camera body is very thin. Both are tools in their element. In ideal circumstances, the skill of the photographer and the quality of lens is going is the real determiner of which image turns out better.

Problems come up when you start to work in less than perfect circumstances. As I write this tutorial, the Olympics are on. The vast majority of sports photographers working their are using Canon’s top of the line 1DX Mark II. Why? Because they need every bit of camera they can get to capture the kind of shots they need. They’re working in a situation they can’t control and need a camera that can handle anything.

Obviously, the vast majority of our readers aren’t shooting at the Olympics this week (kudos if you are, now get back to work!), but the same idea holds true. Sometimes an entry level camera isn’t the tool you need. Sometimes you just need a better camera. But how much camera do you really need? Do you need a top-of-the-line speed machine, or is it megapixels that matter?

The key to understanding when you need a new camera is understanding what a more expensive camera actually does better than an entry level camera. Both take pictures when you press the shutter button! It’s the other bits where things can be different. Perhaps the best way to break it down is into five areas: bigger and better sensors, faster processors, more accurate autofocus, higher build quality, and more customisability and control.

Bigger Sensors

The most obvious, though not necessarily the most important, difference between consumer and professional cameras is normally the sensor. Every major manufacturer’s entry level cameras uses a smaller "crop" sensor while professional bodies, with the exception of specialty cameras like the Canon 7D, use a full-frame sensor. 

A full-frame sensor, which matches the size of 35mm film, has a couple of advantages over crop sensors. Because it’s larger, each photo-site on a full-frame sensor can be bigger, which creates higher quality images and better low light performance. There’s a growing trend to cram on as many photo-sites as possible on to the sensor; you could never fit the Canon 5DS’s 50.6 megapixels on a crop sensor. Full-frame sensors also give a shallow depth of field with a wider field of view, which is a benefit in many ways.

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This image show's a lot of a full frame camera's advantages: great low light performance and a wider field of view with a shallow depth of field.

Faster Processors

A camera’s processor is responsible for how fast it can shoot images and how it handles higher ISOs. Higher-end cameras have better processors, which means they can shoot more images in a row and better record better low light images. For news, sports and wedding photographers, for example, these two things are key.

Faster, More Accurate Autofocus

Professional cameras also have faster, more accurate autofocus with a greater number of “points” to choose from. Again, this is something that doesn’t matter in perfect circumstances, but when you are shooting unpredictable or fast moving objects having a camera that can keep the subject locked down is incredibly important.

Tougher Materials

One of the easiest way for manufacturers to save money on entry level cameras is to use cheaper materials. A metal body just costs more to make than a plastic body. Metal bodies, however, are much more durable. They can also be weather sealed so the camera won’t break if it gets rained on. If you’re going to look after your camera, this won’t make much of a difference to you. It’s a precious possession, you’re not going to drop it! But if you are planning to take your camera into difficult situations the more durable it is the better.

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All the extra buttons and modes make a real difference. Image: Canon.

Easier Operation

Finally, one of the often forgotten areas where professional cameras leave consumer cameras on the floor is customisability, ergonomics and ease of control. My Canon 650D has one dial that controls both aperture and shutter speed. You have to hold down a button to toggle between the two settings. My 5D III on the other hand has two separate dials, one for each setting. This might sound like a small thing but it makes changing settings far faster and easier to do without looking. The 5D III also has three custom modes where I can save settings. This means you can quickly swap between a street shooting mode and a portrait or sport mode. For hobbyists, this level of control just isn’t necessary. For professionals, however, it can be the difference between a missed shot and a $10,000 payday, or between a cramped hand and a 14-hour workday.

The Case Against Buying Better Lenses

There are basically two kinds of lenses: lenses for accuracy, and lenses for quality. The kind of lenses you own and the kind of images you value will determine how important it is to upgrade your camera, and which kind of camera you might want to upgrade to.

Lenses for Accuracy

Lenses for accuracy are, by far, the most common type of lens available today. For any given price, these lenses are optimized to produce the best-possible resolution, colour rendition and contrast in the widest range of conditions. They are meant to produce the most faithful recording of the world in front of them as they can.

Aided by lens profiling and calibration, we can make technically perfect (or close to it) images even with the most inexpensive plastic lenses. We can measure all the faults of just about any modern lens and correct those faults automatically. These corrections are built into the process every time you take a picture with your smartphone and every time you open up an image in Lightroom.

Of course digital cameras work terrifically with this kind of lens. As calibration and correction programs improve the less and less incentive there is to upgrade your glass. In general, the higher the resolution of your sensor the more effective the correction you can make, and the more perfect the image you can produce.

Lenses for Quality

The goal with lenses for quality, on the other hand, is to produce an aesthetically pleasing image. Some people feel that the accuracy type of lenses are too "clinical", and instead they prefer older, manual focus lenses of simpler designs.

Lenses like this are highly valued by artists, who use the imperfections for creative effect. Modern lenses in this line, like the Zeiss Loxia, are more or less imperfect by design. Some older lenses have a dedicated cult following, like the Soviet Russian Helios 44 58mm lens with it's "swirly bokeh" (a favourite of the Tuts+ editors).

Upgrading your camera is still a smart choice if you're into this kind of lens. The better the camera, the higher the quality of the sensor, and the more you can get out of esoteric and expressive lenses. The key with this type of lens is the subjective quality of the sensor you pair it with, not megapixels. Look for sensors that prioritize colour fidelity, bit depth and dynamic range over resolution. 12-16 megapixels seems to be the current sweet spot. Of current cameras on the market, the Sony α7S II, Nikon Df and Nikon D4 are solid choices for this style of photography.

Digital Interpretation Changes Everything

What is a better image? Some of our ideas about images themselves are a bit outdated.

In a film camera, light passes through the lens and strikes the film, causing the atoms in little grains of silver to pick up energy. Then, when you're ready, the film is dunked into chemicals to convert the grains of light-exposed silver into black grains of silver, and the excess is wiped away. Voila, you have an picture, and at this point it's pretty much final. The relationship between light and image is innately physical (and a little bit chemical) the whole way through.

Superficially, digital imaging seems to make pictures in a similar (though less messy) way. Fundamentally, though, there are some very important differences. Light passes through the lens. Then it hits photo sites on the sensor, causing an electrical charge to jump across many thousands of a tiny transistors. So far so good, but that's where the similarity ends. At this point the sensors in your camera transmit those thousands of tiny electrical signals, and a processor encodes them to a memory chip, in order. This is what we call a "raw" image file. Then a computer program, either in your camera or on your computer, decodes, or interprets, those saved electrical signals to create an image.

Although it was possible, in a rudimentary way, it was never really practical to calibrate film cameras and lenses. What was possible with analog photography was changing films stocks. There were many to choose from, but because they were all a standard format you could but the same high-quality professional film in your second-hand Pentax that the pros used in their Nikons and Canons. That meant lenses were the first, and most important, link in a chain of decisions about how to capture an image. Their characteristics determined the characteristics of everything that came after them.

Now those lens characteristics are open to interpretation. Digital cameras make calibration easy. You can't swap out sensors, but we can accurately measure and, more importantly, correct, every part of the imaging chain. We can completely re-interpret the characteristics of lenses after the fact.

That makes the camera body, as the recorder of the information, the most important part of the equation to invest in. Ultimately, all images are an expression not just of the world but of the equipment that made them. With digital images it all comes back to the quality and characteristics of the sensor, not the lenses.

How To Know When You Need a Better Camera

Now that you understand what a high end camera body brings to the table, you should begin to have some idea as to what sort of situations they’re useful in and when they won’t make a difference. Most people don’t need a professional body—they’re called “professional” for a reason!—but some people genuinely do. Let’s look at a few situations where you should consider upgrading your camera.

Going "Pro"

Are you missing shots? If your technique is sound but you still feel like your camera is working against you, well, it might be time to upgrade.

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You just can't take an entry level camera into this sort of situation.

A couple obvious examples where cameras are a limiting factor are sports and wildlife photography. Here, a better camera body will make more difference than better glass. At 300 mm, even an aperture of f/4 creates plenty of background separation. Instead, you need a camera that can track fast moving subjects and shoot enough frames quickly to give you your best chance of getting a great image. If you’re serious about either field, consider upgrading your camera body.

For me, the biggest reason I invested in a professional camera was the durability. If you’re taking your camera skiing or mountain climbing, it’s going to fall or get wet at some point. All the other features are nice when you’ve got them, but having a camera I don’t have to worry about when I’m outdoors? That was the decider. If you spend a lot of time hiking, rock climbing, sailing or otherwise doing things where your camera could get kicked, dropped, soaked or take any kind of abuse, a more durable body could save you quite a bit in replacement costs.

Another area where all the extra features of professional bodies come in handy is low light photography. The larger sensor, faster processor and better autofocus just make them flat out better for low light than consumer cameras. Night is one of the few times you will see a marked difference between images shot with consumer and professional cameras. It doesn’t mean you have to rush out and upgrade, but if you’re trying to take your photography to the next level it might help.

High end cameras work better in low light than consumer bodies.

Lastly, if you’ve already invested in great glass and have some money to spend, a better camera is the obvious investment. Far better to upgrade and get all the nice extra features like customisability and full-frame quality than buy a random lens that you won’t use very often. Most photographers vastly overestimate how many lenses they need, or can carry with them. You will definitely get more use out of a new camera then a fisheye lens.

These obviously aren’t an exclusive list of situations when you should upgrade your camera. You just need to look at what sort of work you’re doing and consider what benefits a better body would bring. In lots of situations you won’t be able to justify it, but there are plenty where you can.

Get Comfortable With Your Camera

The quality of your gear does matter. Professional photographers use expensive gear because they need to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they can rely on their equipment to perform. Everyone needs to know their camera is going to work because, in order to take pictures, you really need to be able to focus. You can't be stuck with the nagging doubt about your gear in the back of your mind. That kind of doubt ruins one's ability to stay in the moment and see good pictures.

However, don't get sucked into comparing your equipment to other people's. You don't need the best camera; you just need the gear that works best for your needs at a price you can afford. The minimum viable camera for your needs is the camera that disappears, the camera that feels so comfortable that you can focus completely on experiencing the moment around you.

The good news is that you can get a lot of the benefits of high end gear without some of the sticker shock. A full frame body that’s a few years old will still be much better than most consumer cameras, and won’t cost a lot more. You can also invest in more specialist gear: a Canon 7D II costs a lot less than a Canon 1DX II but it’s almost as good for sports and wildlife photography; it’s actually better than the more expensive multipurpose Canon 5D III. For professional photographers, a new body is a tax deductible investment. For hobbyists, it’s a harder call to make. Think about the kind of photograph that you do and the features in a camera that are actually important for your work.

Finally, if you only need a better camera for a one-off event, rent it. Videographers and film makers do it all the time. There’s no reason photographers shouldn’t follow their lead!

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