Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Do I Need New Camera or New Lens?

Yet another favorite question for beginners - and not only. Many advanced amateurs or even professional photographers as well, often feel overwhelmed with the options. New lenses, new cameras, they all promise better photos, more easily. And since most of us have a budget and try to make reasonable decisions, it is often impossible to buy the latest and greatest every time these appear. A decision has to be made, and the prospective buyer has to evaluate how is her or his photography best served. With a new camera, with a new lens, or with neither?
I think this was the very first photo I took with a digital camera (the Nikon D40). Not knowing my camera - or much about photography even - I simply took a photo at ISO 1600 expecting it to be flawless. Can you imagine someone immediately thinking "It's noisy, I didn't expect this. I need an other camera after all"?

Leaving emotional issues aside ("I just want to buy a new 'toy' so badly"), there are some very logical steps which show the way to a reasonable and informed decision. Consider the following list a "buyer's cheat sheet"; a list of questions and statements that you should ponder on before you buy anything, whether a camera, or a lens

  • What is it that I am missing? Why am I unhappy with my current equipment?
If you cannot answer this question in a detailed, analytic way, there is no point buying anything new. I can tell you already, that if you don't know what it is you're missing but you still want to buy something, you don't need it. You simply want a new toy.

If your answer is something generic, such as "my current camera/lens does not allow me to take good photos", that's still not good enough. It simply is impossible for any camera and any lens today, no matter what their brand or their quality, to not allow you to take good photos. If you are unhappy with your photos in general, I am sorry to tell you that it's not the camera that is to blame. It means you have not developed your technique yet, or you are a bit inexperienced. Work on recognizing why you don't like your photos, then work to solve the problem in your technique.

  • Is it so that my current equipment makes it very hard for me to take successful photos of a certain kind?
OK, now we are getting somewhere. If you are after closeups of small insects, perhaps your lens is not getting you close enough. and you need a macro lens. Or, if you need distorted perspectives and depth that your 18mm- kit lens cannot give you, you need an ultra-wide. But chances are, if you are experienced enough to identify these issues, probably you know how to solve them, too.Based on my experience, photographers often misidentify the problem:

  • My camera is very noisy in low light. Should I buy a newer one?
This is as classic as it gets with these dilemmas. People buy a camera, then - much like with mobile phones and tablets - 6 months or a year later, a new model appears, which promises even greater noise handling, even better dynamic range. The buyer feels cheated, and thinks s/he has no chance to produce anything good with the existing camera. And here comes the fallacy...

If you believe your camera doesn't let you take good photos in low light, let me remind you that multi-awarded photographers have been using films to capture grainy but truly memorable masterpieces. Don't make the mistake to think that technicalities such as noise have much - if anything - to do with capturing a great photo. If all else is spectacular, it can be grainy. The less you focus on diagrams and charts, the more you will focus on learning how to take great photos.

  • But some things are just impossible with certain cameras or lenses. Isn't that right?
"Impossible" is a very strong word. I have taken indoor sports photos with a Nikon D40 and a manual focus Nikkor 50mm f/2. It certainly is possible. It's also frustrating beyond description. But it can be done. And now we go back to the original question: why am I unhappy with my current equipment. Let's use my example above to clarify things a bit.

Indoor sports with a manual focus lens - 50mm f/2. A missed shot, due to my inability to successfully follow action. But there are (more) successful ones, too. I went around the problem by keeping focus on the net (where most of the action in volleyball is anyway)

The inner dialogue could've been something like this:
- I am unhappy with the D40 and 50mm f/2 combo for indoor sports
- Why? In which way it failed you?
- The manual focus lens is very difficult to use for sports.
- Do you have another lens, an autofocus lens which you can use?
- I don't. My kit lens is too slow, it's only f/5.6 at the long end. In theory I could use it, if I could buy a new camera, with better high ISO capabilities.
- Which would give you the most benefit for the least money?
- A new lens. I could get a 50mm f/1.8 or an 85mm f/1.8. That would give me over 3 stops advantage over the kit lens.
- That's a lot. It can't even be compared, no new camera could cover that difference, no matter how much better high ISO capabilities it would have

And that's how all decisions should be made. Would I want a Nikon D4 and the new Nikkor AF-S 85mm f/1.4? Well, of course I would want that. Can I afford them? No. But I don't let that paralyze me or interfere with my photography. Photography should be about going around problems to reach to the shot. Not keep complaining about what our current equipment can't do.

If you absolutely need new equipment, having identified your needs like in the example above, go ahead and get what you need. Just remember, new cameras and new lenses are not supposed to make us take better photos. They make us take the photos we would've taken anyway, with a bit more ease!

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