Buying a Digital Camera – Don't Forget About the Photos


Throughout every technical revolution in photography one thing has always remained a constant: It’s all about the photograph.

Features, everybody thinks they need them, the more the better. The latest buzzwords, the latest showpieces in the eternal struggle to “keep up“ with technology. Yet how often do we ask ourselves if these features we’re clamoring for so desperately actually help with taking pictures?

“What features should I look for?“ Is a question asked often, in person and all over the internet. Whenever I see the question asked I cringe. I cringe because one more person has been convinced that technology makes their 24-month old gear obsolete. But more importantly, I cringe because once again I’m dealing with the realization that no matter how hard I try, I simply am incapable of effectively communicating why a camera should not be shopped for that way. I have a feeling I’m not alone. It’s something that comes with time, the shift from it being a technical craft to it being an artistic and emotive one. At some point, the camera becomes an enabling tool, it becomes invisible until it hinders me. And until it hinders me, I tend to not think about it too often. At that point, I identify the problem area and start researching ways to surmount it. This state is liberating, because it keeps me from making the same mistake the person asking the features question is making. It keeps me from looking to technology and money to improve my photographs. This is a state that is very important to be in early on, and it’s also the most difficult thing to explain to someone who isn’t there yet.

Beyond the trite adage of “It’s the photographer, not the camera“ and all the other “wisdom“ passed down by those of us who think we have half a clue, the most important question to remember whenever shopping for ANY piece of gear is this:

What do I need it to do?

At the most basic level, even the most inexperienced person is aware that the bare minimum requirement is taking decent pictures. However, they get lost in the sea of acronyms, technologies, bad advice from salespeople and heavy advertising by companies clamoring for their money. So the budding photographer starts to believe it’s the technology that creates the images and starts trying to research the latest advances that will give them the edge. In this skewed world of advertising and misunderstanding, that is totally reasonable. It’s also completely misguided. Proof is only so far as the incredible work coming out of people with nothing but the most basic P&S cameras, and the utter garbage coming from folks with gear costing more than a small car.

Where’s the disconnect?

It’s simply experience. The longer you shoot, the longer you live with the gear day in and day out, the more you realize that year after year, cameras change very little. Manufacturers would prefer that you think otherwise, and you can’t blame them, they need to make money. But the simple truth is that most of these annual revolutionary developments, well, really aren’t all that revolutionary.

For example…

The difference between ISO 1600 and 3200 is only one stop. If your shutter speed is 1/2 of a second, going to 1/4 won’t help you much.
Image Stabilization doesn’t stop the subject, only slightly steadies your shaky hand.
There’s no way a kit lens can get a full-frame shot of a receiver at a football game. ESPECIALLY from the stands.
Beautiful 8x10s were made with 3 megapixel cameras. Just how large will you be printing?
Be honest now, how may times do you turn the dial on your current camera away from the green box? The green box on the new camera isn’t much different.
A larger pixel always beats a smaller pixel. That 10 megapixel cam you’re eyeing will never give you twice the detail of your current five megapixel due to all the noise it has to remove, and along with it the fine detail. Physics. It’s the law.
In the hands of a good photographer, RAW and JPG will look identical.

Those things are obvious to someone that has done this for a while. But to someone that has only read about RAW on the side of a camera box, or worse, on some internet forums, it might be the fix for their exposure problems. Of course, it isn’t, the only fix for exposure problems is knowing how to expose.

When considering an “upgrade“ we all really need to consider our needs. But needs are boring, utilitarian, they lack the sex appeal of a shiny new gadget with acronyms and standards stamped on its sides. And that, I think is an even bigger problem: Experience has terrible PR.

If you’re shopping for a camera because the noise level is too high and you’d like cleaner files, then by all means do so. You’ve identified a problem and know the solution. But if you think it’s “just time” for a new camera or want to get something new just because you “heard” that stabilization makes the tripod obsolete and you want to take pictures of your dog at night, then stop and just sleep on it. And when you do come to someone looking for advice, start by telling them two things: 1) what you want to accomplish and 2) what’s preventing you from accomplishing it. Often you’ll find that the advice will be much more helpful, and no matter if it steers you towards new gear or not, it will allow you to make a much more educated investment of your hard-earned dollars. Because nothing sours the joy of a brand new toy more than buyer’s remorse.

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