It seems more and more common to see people who are obviously beginners to the field of photography walking around with top of the line, full-frame cameras. These are people with cameras costing $3000+ and often times, shooting on auto. Apart from the gear-envy on my part, it annoys me the attitude that results can be bought has become so ubiquitous. Not only common however, but grown more exaggerated in regards to just how much some are willing to spend on gear, without doing the personal development first.
I suppose it should come as no surprise, as the attitude that results, success, happiness – pretty much anything you could ask for – can be purchased pervades almost every aspect of modern advertising. Not only does the attitude, and the sense of entitlement and superiority that often accompanies it (check out a great post by Peter Coskun on this HERE) annoy me, but I also feel that it actually inhibits the growth of the photographer, and makes it harder to make better images.
But isn't it cheaper if I buy the best camera I can to begin with and never need to buy another one?
Now, there's something to be said from an economic perspective at least, that you might as well buy your last camera first. Todays top end cameras are capable of producing images far better than the average amateur - or even enthusiast - will ever require. So by buying your new Nikon 810, or Canon 5D first, in theory you should never need to buy another camera again, thus saving you money in the long run. I don't want get into analyzing the buying habits of someone who buys a top end camera with little or no experience too deeply; but I'm guessing that in 2 years time when the updated model is released and the photographer in question is still unhappy with their photographs, the new camera will be just the thing they need to take them to the next level – at least in their mind.
Personally, I believe that starting out with an entry level camera - whether that's a point and shoot with manual capability, a mirrorless, or a DSLR, - and working your way up to the more expensive, professional model, is not only better for developing your skill as a photographer, but is cheaper as well.
In my experience, both of these benefits are rooted in the same place, but let's take a look at the skill development first.
When I first made the jump into DSLR photography, I was pumped. Finally I had a tool that would allow me more control over my exposures, and allow me to (hopefully) create better images. Before I could get out shooting with confidence however, there was the issue of understanding my new tool. Now, at this point I had never had a camera with manual capability, let alone the number of buttons, dials and menus as my new Nikon D5100. Yeah, I know, layout and control-wise the D5100 is a pretty simplistic camera, but coming in with absolutely no experience, there was a steep learning curve required to understand and eventually master the operation of my camera.
Even with this relatively simplistic camera, the learning process was at times daunting. I read and re-read the manual, spent hours in my room trying out different functions, checking the manual every so often. There were many times where I would go out shooting with my camera and miss the shot entirely as I didn't have a grasp on the controls and was unable to efficiently adjust my settings to where they should have been for a given shot.
Now, to my thinking, given that a camera as simple as the D5100 comes with frustrations such as these, I can only imagine that trying to jump into photography with a professional grade camera would not only be difficult, it might be downright discouraging to some users. Maybe there's a reason you see people shooting with their full-frames on auto mode...
The second aspect of skill development relating to starting with an entry-level camera is this: Every truly professional photographer, musician, painter, or artist of any kind will tell you that it's not your tools that matter, but the knowledge, intention, skill, and mind behind them. If you can upgrade your skill set and knowledge to the point where you can make great images with any camera you pick up, especially an entry level camera, you are well on your way to being an outstanding photographer. When other photographers see your work and ask you what camera you use, their reaction should be something along the lines of, “You're lying, you made this image, with that (insert your entry-level camera here)?!?!? When your images elicit responses such as these, then, and only then should you consider upgrading your body, with the intention of improving your craft. At this point however, you may realize you may not need that $3000 camera you thought you wanted, which brings us to why beginning with an entry-level camera may actually be cheaper in the long run.
So here you are, you're wowing people with your work, other photographers are stumped with how such a primitive camera as yours is able to produce work of such beauty. You realize that it truly isn't the camera, but your skill and knowledge that translate into better images. You've started to look into upgrading to a professional kit to take your already solid base of experience and build on it. At this point you begin to wonder though, “What's my ROI on a $3000+ camera, when I can already create these stunning photos?” Sure, you could probably achieve better image quality with a professional camera, but what is the end goal? Are the people who ultimately view and admire your photos discerning enough to know the difference? And if they are scrutinizing the quality of your images, rather than appreciating the composition, lighting, depth and story, what does that say about the photos themselves?
Time to Upgrade?
If you're looking to start taking on clients and take a run at photography as a profession, whether part-time or full-time, when you get to the skill level cited in the above paragraphs, go for it. Buy that high-end camera and enjoy every minute of it. You may or may not need it, but you're in a position now to appreciate and make use of it. You've earned it.
The other situation which I think serves as an indicator as to when it's time to upgrade camera bodies, is when you become frustrated with the actual operation of your camera while shooting. Even entry and mid level cameras are capable of truly impressive image quality, especially given that the end goal of the average person is to post their photos to Facebook and other social media platforms for their friends and family to view. The biggest drawback to these lower-tier models, at least in my mind, is the ease of operation, and the efficiency with which you can dial in your settings when the pressure is on. This however, only really becomes apparent when you have been shooting for a while already. As I mentioned above, when you first start out in DSLR photography, even an entry-level model comes equipped with a steep learning curve to get started.
This was the reason I eventually upgraded from my D5100 to the D7100, a camera with the same sensor, the same image quality, but a vastly expanded set of operational features. I had reached the point where navigating the D5100s menus was taking me out of the moment, and I wanted a more intuitive, one-touch experience while shooting, where I didn't have to take my eyes off the scene to dial in my settings. To date, I've taken most of my favourite images with my D5100, and if my photography has improved at all since I upgraded cameras, it's for no other reason than that I have upgraded myself along with it.
Now, this philosophy is I believe extremely applicable to camera bodies specifically. Next week, I'm going to look at some of the situations where it might actually be better to buy high quality gear early on. Specifically, why investing in high quality lenses is a good idea.