Should I upgrade my DSLR? - Gear Vs Photographer. The Great Debate!

15th April 2018
During photography workshops and courses I’m often asked by clients, “do I need to upgrade my camera/lenses” etc. So, I'd like to set out my take on the great debate around what’s more important, the Photographer or the Gear. But im more interested in listening to some other perspectives and hearing your experiences. Most importantly, I’d love to see some images you’ve taken with older DSLR’s etc that would be considered to be outdated in comparison with today’s gear!

Nine times out of ten, I’d recommend to someone that upgrading their kit isn’t going to be the thing that makes a significant difference to their photography. Rather, I suggest that mastering the fundamentals and spending more time developing their composition skills will have a much greater impact.

Despite this, having spent years shooting with full frame cameras (Nikon D700 & Nikon D810) I’d started to wonder how I’d fare with just a basic camera and my skills as a photographer? A while back, I took a short trip to Dublin for a catch up with friends but had decided not to take my ‘big’ camera (Nikon D810). This wasn’t a photography trip and I was travelling with just hand luggage, but I was still keen to grab some shots in-between drinking Guinness. It occurred to me, this would be a great opportunity to put myself to the test!

I still have a ten year old entry level DSLR, the Nikon D60 which now mainly sits in a drawer, only coming out when a client needs to borrow a camera for a workshop. It’s small, light and something I wouldn’t worry about carrying around in a city environment.
Given its rudimentary spec in comparison with its cousins of today, it could be considered something of a dinosaur, even approaching obsolete. Even back in 2008, the Nikon D60 was an entry level DSLR with 10.2-megapixel and an ISO range of 100-1600 (3200 as ‘High ISO’). Mine came with the basic 18-55mm kit lens.

Despite this, I know from experience that cameras such as these are still perfectly capable of taking decent pictures when used well. I’ve just browsed an auction site, and you can pick up a body and kit lens for around £100 so this is super cheap DSLR photography! Along with the camera and lens, the only other kit I took on my trip was a polarising filter; a mini gorilla tripod and a lens cloth – that’s it.

The images I managed to get are presented at the bottom of this article, alongside their respective metadata. They are a mixture of street photography, landscape and architecture. All were captured as RAW files in order to squeeze out as much info as I could, then processed in Photoshop back at home.

When younger, I tried to play golf but was pretty hopeless. In the search for improvement, I’d buy a new putter, wedge, driver… the hope/expectation that this new kit would see my scores tumbling – it didn’t. After a few years of flailing around, I took some golf lessons when I moved close to a golf course. It turns out I was swinging the club in a technically incorrect way and I’d never achieve consistent results, regardless of what club I had in my hand and the same applies to photography. Improving yourself, before improving your gear is likely to be the most effective way to take and create better images.

Obviously, this message isn’t going to be a winner at a manufacturers marketing brainstorming session. Their business relies on regular roll-out of products with new features and better spec in order to sway customers into buying the latest kit.

Composition, Aperture, Shutter Speed and focusing are the fundamentals that make the biggest contribution to the images I produce. Undoubtedly though, having a camera with a full frame sensor and high resolution enables me to produce a higher level of technical image quality than on an old D60. Yet, there’s a ton of menus and little features on my camera that I don’t know about and the manual is 530 pages long! Is my photography poorer for that, I don’t think so? I want to be thinking about small tweaks in the composition of an image, not small tweaks is how one of the auto systems can be recalibrated.

I won’t be packing my full frame cameras into the drawer and wouldn’t pretend that one camera isn’t ‘better’ than another across a myriad of technical features and applications. For example, using the D60 in low-light conditions won’t cut the mustard when compared with the D810. If you’re producing very large prints, a camera with less resolution is going to be a limiting factor. Taking sports/action shots with the D60 with its low shooting rate and slow autofocus system is going to feel agricultural when compared with one of today’s DSLR’s.

BUT, taking pictures with even a decade old, entry level camera can produce surprisingly good results when you’re able to use it to its full potential. How much difference would I have seen had I used one of today’s leading DSLR’s? In respect of the type of images that I was creating, I’d suggest there’d be very little material difference.

What is unquestionable is that even with the latest/best DSLR available today, had I been sloppy with my image creation, the results would have been poor in comparison. The fastest auto-focus in the world wouldn’t have helped capture ‘decisive moments’ had my photography brain not been fully engaged. If you’re a gear lover and enjoy getting the latest ‘thing’ that’s fine. Just don’t think that it will transform your photography, it won’t.

Anyway, that's enough from me. I'd love to hear your take on the great debate, and more importantly, see what you've managed to capture on "old gear" long past its sell by date!

Cheers, Rod

55mm, f5.6, 1/40th sec, ISO 200, handheld

55mm, f7.1, 1/80th sec, ISO 100, handheld

34mm, f8, 1/200th sec, ISO 100, handheld

18mm, f3.5, 1/13th sec, ISO 100, handheld (wedged against wall)

50mm, f8, 1/1600th sec, ISO 100, -1 exp comp, handheld

18mm, f11, 6sec, ISO 100, Gorillapod on lampost

46mm, f14, 1/13th sec, ISO 200, handheld (held on top of street furniture)

26mm, f5.6, 1/125th sec, ISO 400

31mm, f8, 1/250th sec, ISO 100

46mm, f5.3, 1/60th sec, ISO 200

55mm, f8, 1/200th sec, ISO 100

32mm, f5.6, 1/80th sec, ISO 100

55mm, f8, 1/200th sec, ISO 100

55mm, f5.6, 1/80th sec, ISO 100

38mm, f5.6, 1/40th sec, ISO 400

55mm, f5.6, 1/200th sec, ISO 400

55mm, f14, 1/250th sec, ISO 200

34mm, f5, 1/60th sec, ISO 400

55mm, f5.6, 1/30th sec, ISO 400

55mm, f7.1, 1/320th sec, ISO 200

38mm, f8, 1/250th sec, ISO 100

18mm, f10, 1/15th sec, ISO 100 (placed on floor looking upwards)


Photo comment By David: I work full time as a tog and am still using Canon 5D mk2s. I work mainly with landscape and editorial news and am sold on the mirrorless model for landscapes at least. The only things that entice me to upgrade are dynamic range, 4K video and being able to shoot at higher iso. The latter would certainly help with news. I do get occasional snidy comments about my kit from some full time togs, but I still get my work in print every week. If Canon would bring out a full frame mirrorless I may spend some cash :-)

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