When to upgrade DSLR?

DSLRs are changing very fast. Every-time I return from a long trip and connect to internet, there are a whole lot of new camera models available. All of them claiming to be better than the others. It seems that the camera manufacturers are innovating, working hard and burning their midnight oil. What does this lead to? The Gear Acquisition Syndrome! Every once in a while, someone I know gets affected by it. Sometimes even I drool over all the new gear available in the market.


(Even after purchasing a camera with good performance at high ISOs, I prefer to keep the ISO as low as possible. This was captured at 100 ISO)


Identifying the needs

This is the first step to camera upgrade. Ask the question – what exactly is required for my present camera to be perfect? Last time I upgraded, my requirement was improved performance at high ISOs and longing for a more logically placed controls. My last upgrade was from an eight year old model.

First and foremost, do you really need to upgrade? Management gurus teach us the difference between needs and wants. Everyone of us wants to upgrade. I dream of owning a Leica rangefinder and a Hasselblad medium format setup. The question is – do I need it? No, I don’t. My present gear is perfect for the kind of photography that I do, including the professional assignments. So, identify the need.

What is it that you need from your camera? Is it better performance at higher ISOs or faster autofocusing? Do you require more dedicated buttons?


Time to upgrade

There’s no golden rule specifying the correct time duration for upgrade. There are a few things that I always point out.

Do not be the first one to buy a new model. Let a camera model get a little old. The first few thousand users are usually the ones who end up identifying problems which might not have been obvious in the factory. There have been instances where the new breed of cameras have had issues of lubricating oil leaking on to the shutter, battery heating, camera freezing up when some specific set of functions are used and sometimes even reduced overall performance than the earlier model. So, wait before your upgrade. Let the people with deep pockets try out the latest models. Let the first comers go ahead and dirty their hands. Wait for online reviews to appear. Wait some more time and then take the leap.

The very next model may not be a good upgrade. From what I have observed over the last many years, the consecutive models released by any manufacturer are usually not worth the upgrade. Nikon’s D7500 is not a worthy upgrade to the two year older sibling D7200 but it is definitely a good upgrade over D90. Nikon’s latest D850 though looks good on paper, is also not a worthy upgrade over the earlier D810 / D810A. Same goes for Canon or any other manufacturer you are fond of. Sometimes skipping even two or three generations of models is required to see the improvements in real world. Imagine a hypothetical camera company with models 3,4,5,6… and so on. If you have camera model 5 released in 2015. The company then released a model 6 in 2016. In such a scenario do not buy the camera model 6. Wait for the next model and then go for camera model 7 if it seems fine.

Have you used the present camera well? For photographers who click photographs once in a while, my suggestion is not to upgrade the camera before hitting at least the 10,000 clicks mark. This is the most controversial statement in this article. For some 5,000 photographs may take years to click, and for photographers using high fps modes, 20,000 is easily crossed even before they get to know their camera properly. Another of my observations – Professionals on the other hand, who earn their daily bread from their cameras, usually like to squeeze out even the last bit of performance from their gear and they usually upgrade when a camera fails or develops some problems.


Croton Leaves

(Photographed with a Nikon D200, when it was 5 years old and still working fine)


The falsehoods

Change of sensor size. Going from a APS-C sensor size to 35mm sensor size is not an upgrade. It is a change. Unfortunately, the camera manufactures like to call the 35mm as full frame since it matches the size of 35mm film’s frame and the smaller APS-C sensor as a crop sensor since the image appears to be cropped when compared to a full frame. (Full Frame or Crop Sensor?). The problem with this naming is that the consumers at large, feel that by buying a crop sensor they are loosing out something in comparison to the full frame. Is it something to do with a full sub sandwich or a half sub sandwich? Frame size is…. well just the frame size. Going from APS-C to 35mm or the other way round is not an upgrade. It is change and not always a good change at that.

Expensive camera is not an upgrade. Just because a camera is marked high up on the price list, doesn’t always make it worth an upgrade. Going back to the Nikon scenario, the Nikon D7200 is not a worthy upgrade over D5500, both of which were launched in 2015 but aimed at different requirements of photographers.

Camera upgrade and improved photography. This is the grand-master of all falsehoods. Upgrading a camera will not make one a better photographer. That is it! No matter how expensive or advanced the camera, it is the photographer who makes the photographs. No amount of upgrading the gear will improve that.


The ideal upgrade

Keep this points in mind and then when you have identified a camera body that fulfills these criterion, then the camera is close to being an ideal upgrade –

  • The camera model you are planning to upgrade should not be the very next camera model release. How many generations later than your present camera, has the new model been released?
  • List out at least 3 technical improvements in the new camera which actually impact the image quality. Less than 3 improvements are not worth an upgrade. Some improvements might count more than once if the difference is significant. In my last upgrade, which happened after 8 years of the other camera, the leap in high ISO performance was very significant. That itself was worth the upgrade.
  • Now list out at least 3 improvements that do not contribute directly to the image quality but make the camera worthwhile. These could be improvements in battery life, more dedicated buttons, spare memory card slot or maybe a more ergonomic grip!

If you have the answers to all of the above and have enough funds for the camera, go ahead and upgrade. How you convince your family is your next challenge!


Further Reading –
Buying your first DSLR
Next lens to buy?

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