How to Choose Upgrades for Your Photography System

Photographic capabilities, like the equipment suitable to many other hobbies and occupations, can sometimes be improved through spending more money - sometimes a lot of money. Yet, that shouldn't be a reason to put you off upgrading your photography system. There are ways of ensuring that you upgrade effectively within a budget. This article presents some principles and specific examples for spending your photography career or hobby budget wisely.

Note: Similar principles outlined in this article apply to choosing all kinds of complex equipment for any hobby, but equipment of doubtful quality is best restricted to applications where failure would cost at most the money and a few days' simple inconvenience in getting a replacement.


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    Be aware of what is really important in terms of photography equipment. Several largely independent factors are necessary to a good photo:
    • Lighting, for pleasingly-defined shapes and colors. (You can compensate for tint and intensity.)
    • Focus (You may need special equipment for very close "macro" photos. Some autofocus systems don't work well for moving subjects or low light).
    • Speed of operation. Close-up photos of unpredictable moving objects requires fast autofocus. Fast-cycling exposure and flash are helpful to capturing a "critical moment" in action photography. Automatic or at least metered focus and exposure, and a zoom lens to avoid swapping too often, help avoid frustrating the subject and operator.
    • Adequate lens angle of view, for getting enough into the photo and interesting front-to-back perspective. (Often, you can compensate by backing up.)
    • Adequate magnification, the reverse of adequate angle of view. If too much is in the picture, and everything else is not just perfect for extreme resolution, there will not be much to crop and enlarge.
    • Proper depth of field. Large depth of field is rarely difficult unless it needs to go along with extreme picture quality (just set a small aperture and use adequately fast film or ISO setting); small depth of field requires a wide aperture or long focal length.
    • Adequate sensitivity, for photos involving motion or where a tripod is unavailable (including due to inconvenience or neglect). Sensitivity is better than aperture to upgrade for low-light photos where depth of field is desirable. Image stabilization helps too as a substitute for a tripod without reducing depth of field.
    • Adequate shutter speed (this is rarely a problem with an adjustable camera; speeds over 1/500 second are more for using wide apertures in daylight for small depth of field; high flash-sync speeds are mostly for using fill-flash of modest power in daylight by limiting the amount of ambient light against which the very fast electric flash must balance).
    • Freedom from excessive lens distortion. This is annoying in pictures of objects with straight lines, and can be fixed on a computer or automatically by some digital cameras. Distortion primarily affects zoom lenses that can cover a wide angle (including wide-to-tele zooms, going away and reversing direction toward the middle of the zoom range). Note that markedly stretched appearance of objects in wide-angle pictures is not considered distortion but merely an essentially unavoidable by-product of projecting the three-dimensional world onto a rectangle. It is interesting with objects, but generally just weird with people – unless a special effect is desired avoid close-ups and people near the edge of the frame with wide-angle lenses.
    • Sensitivity, resolution, and "dynamic range". A sensor (such as a film, or a digital sensor system – or, basically, its amplification of reduced light it collects – so adjusted) with high sensitivity will function with few photons, allowing a small aperture and/or high shutter speed in relatively low light. Film has great "dynamic range", which is the ability to have detail rather than pure white or black in highlights and shadows. More expensive and more recent digital cameras generally are better for dynamic range; check reviews.
      • "High dynamic range" software, such as Luminance HDR and some cameras' built-in software, can take multiple photos taken with different exposures in quick succession and merge them for very great dynamic range, often with arguably-attractive distorting "tonemapping" to display this range in apparently correct relation on the limited brightness range of a monitor or paper. Some cameras' built-in software, such as that on Pentax, combines the images automatically and stretches them to compensate for a little camera movement so a tripod is unnecessary. HDR exposures are generally not compatible with moving subjects. (Some point-and-shoots can use different sensitivity for alternating pixels and merge them for reduced-resolution HDR images from single exposures.)
    • Lens quality. This is generally the least important factor. A cheap lens properly used will smear fine details by at most a few pixels or a few film-grains, or create subtle though often annoying color fringes (largely correctable on a computer or automatically by some digital cameras) or flare when the sun is in the picture. Poor lighting gives a bad picture to begin with. Lack of adequate angle of view makes it impossible to fit that picture into the camera (aside from stitching and other generally poor substitutes). Poor focus speed misses an action photo entirely. Poor focus, depth of field, inadequate shutter speed, or grossly inadequate magnification will smear out a photo by many, many pixels. Stopped down to f/8 or so, a decent lens will give as good image quality as a great lens (better than either wide open), and a poor lens will give image quality more than acceptable for snapshots.
    • Clear or "UV" filters are good for protecting lenses, but uncoated ones can cause horrible ghosting and flare spots. Since the 1950s, all good camera lenses have been coated or, a little better, multi-coated to much reduce creating these within themselves. You need not buy an expensive brand of filter but make sure it is at least single-coated and preferably multi-coated and that the threads engage smoothly rather than chewing up the lens threads. Protect the rear elements when the lenses are not in use with a rear lens cap.
    • Lens cleanliness is not critical – a few bits of dirt or smudges won't be in focus and will only block and scatter an insignificant amount of light. Scratches from cleaning them wrong can scatter light more, but more relevantly will bother you and lower their resale value with their presence. Clean your lenses only properly with first a blower then cleaner solution and tissue if necessary. Or, best, keep UV filters on them and don't clean them; replace the filter if it becomes grossly damaged. Some recommend uncoated filters for ease of cleaning, but even a coating slightly damaged from repeated cleaning with paper towels, a breath and a sleeve, etc., is much more effective in reducing flare than a lack of coating.
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    Consider what situations you subject your photography equipment to. Some kinds of photos require additional factors:
    • Weather, water, abrasion, or drop-proofing to avoid likely or certain damage from rough environments.
    • A hot car can do all kinds of bad things to cameras. Keeping them in a cooler (with no ice, but maybe bottles of water to moderate temperature) in the trunk may protect them.
    • Marine environments can cause water and salt damage; dry-bags and water resistant or waterproof cases are useful additions to prolong the life of the camera.
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    When considering the number of photos over which a purchase is likely to be amortized, bear in mind that some photos require contrasting factors:
    • Modest appearance to avoid damage (to camera or photographer) from rough people. Try protecting them with a bag that though padded, does not look like a camera bag – for instance, some coolers including soft-sided ones. The bag should not look like trash, to avoid nice people throwing it away inadvertently.
    • Modest size for extensive carrying and for candid photography and reducing stress on subjects. The weight of equipment suited to extreme conditions does not go away on a sunny day.
    • Modest cost in case something happens to the camera at any time.
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    Look for compensatory possibilities. Some of these factors can compensate for one another such that the quality of photos depends, and can best be increased by spending money on, the weakest link in the chain. For instance, in sports photography, if night or indoor pictures are blurred, they can be fixed basically for free by taking them with a fast shutter speed and moderate aperture during outdoor day games instead (which involves a different game, and less background blur), by increasing the film or sensor ISO at the cost of a little more grain and noise (and perhaps a few dollars more per roll or a few hundred dollars more on the camera to mitigate that with a better film or sensor), or by upgrading the maximum aperture of the lens for thousands of dollars.
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    Consider inter-compatibility. Some equipment works with a wide range of other equipment (such as a tripod and flashes with manual and built-in non-TTL automatic modes); others are inherently somewhat limited (such as compact, inexpensive lenses for small-sensor digital cameras only), or limited through a lack of care or deliberate rent-seeking ("misfeatures") for instance through incompatible lens mounts (not too serious in a versatile system), incompatible flash-triggering and autofocus systems within a brand, and obstruction of compatibility of one's digital files with third-party editing software.
    • In-body image stabilization is one nice feature that can be purchased once and give a benefit with a lot of other equipment (whatever other lenses are attached).
    • Some digital camera features require substantially more money to make, such as super-high-quality sensors, and others such as mirror lockup or distortion correction don't (the parts of the camera are electronically controlled so they can operate in whatever sequence one chooses, and the algorithms for many kinds of processing are very simple). Consider whether a camera maker tends to deliberately cripple its products to extract more money, and whether they should be encouraged to do that, when choosing a brand of automatic cameras and lenses. Pentax enables many, many features on even its cheaper cameras; free third-party software has been developed to enable more features on Canon point-and-shoots.
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    Don't generally consider camera equipment an investment, though lenses and, in particular, non-automated lenses (being a mature technology with less to become incompatible over time) do tend to retain much of their value. More conventional investments are much less troublesome to sell at a good price and less likely to break. Buy what seems likely to pay itself off through income or enjoyment over a few years at most.
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    Judge the value of the equipment by its returns relevant to your needs. Much equipment has diminishing though still worthwhile returns, and a point of greatly diminishing returns. Unless there is an extremely good reason to, buy something coming before that point. For instance, an average photographer might reasonably spend $200 on an off-brand 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom lens weighing a pound, a rich or particularly enthusiastic one might reasonably spend $1000 on a brand-name 70-200mm f/2.8 lens weighing three pounds, but a 300mm f/2.8 lens costing $3000 and weighing several pounds would for most be a "white elephant." Similarly, an f/1.8 or f/2 normal lens is cheap; an f/1.4 normal lens is moderately priced, and an f/1.2 or 1.0 normal lens is extremely expensive though only marginally better for some things. (With digital, sensor size helps increase maximum usable ISO, and decreases depth of field for a given angle of view, at an often-moderate price. A moderately-wide-aperture lens on an APS-C or full-frame DSLR is often more cost-effective than an ultra-fast lens on a smaller-sensor digital camera).
    • One reason for this is that if something is unlikely to be producible in quantity to sell at a price likely to appeal to many, it has to be sold at a much higher price to a few to amortize development and production costs and with reduced often-desirable features not easily adapted from other systems (such as a lack of autofocus on medium and large-format cameras) to keep this phenomenon from making the price even more disproportionately high. It follows that mass-market or "enthusiast" level products are generally the best value by far.
    • Exotic equipment whose market has shrunk is often enjoyable by hobbyists for cheap prices. For instance, fancy medium-format equipment that professionals have replaced with high-end digital for greater cost effectiveness in high-volume use.
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    Think about economy of scale. For some items, increasing effectiveness largely involves increasing size. For instance, a flash basically makes a burst of light, consistent to within a third as much or so (only relatively large changes in overall exposure being noticeable) for other equipment to deal with. This is cheap and even may involve an economy of scale (for instance, only one case to make and device for the salesman to explain). For instance, a big flash. For others, increasing effectiveness largely involves increasing design and precision. This tends to be expensive and involve costs largely allocatable to only the one unusual item. For expensive, a very wide-aperture lens with good quality.
    • It follows that in this example, adding a flash (perhaps with bounce capability or diffuser) is often a better way than upgrading a lens to improve low-light and action photography.
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    Given the foregoing information, here is a suggested upgrade path:
    • Start with moderately-priced compact digital camera with some manual setting capability. This enables learning from mistakes for free and will always be available as a backup. Some are ruggedized and waterproofed, at a much lower marginal cost than other digital cameras.
    • Next choose a brand of digital SLR. You might choose one that shares lenses with film SLRs, such as Canon, Nikon or Pentax. These have much better low-light performance and faster operation than compact cameras. If you are already an experienced photographer feel free to get only the film SLR, but the digital camera greatly speeds up the learning-from-mistakes process. (If you don't care about film compatibility, and want to avoid vendor-lock-in, choose a Four-Thirds or Micro-Four-Thirds camera, but check reviews for adequate focusing speed because some of them use a greatly – though not always sufficiently – improved version of the "contrast" focusing system common in point and shoots rather than the "phase detection" system common in SLRs.)
      • Some cameras, such as Canon, can control multiple flashes at variable ratios from the camera with a very high degree of automation, often with accessories required. This is nice if you contemplate doing a lot of studio-style photography.
    • The mid-range zoom lens sold with the DSLR is not only adequate for most situations but actually superior due to lightness and cheapness (enabling the camera to be taken out more due to lack of fear of its loss or damage). Buy a cheap but multi-coated UV filter for it (Vivitar Series 1 is a good variety), and a polarizing filter, also coated or multi-coated, for better colors in sunlight and avoiding or accentuating glare from it on glass and water (a "circular" polarizer is needed for heavily electronic cameras and is most common; one good variety is Vivitar Series 1 CPL). Make sure it has a lens cap and a lens cap leash so that the cap is likely to be used. The best lens caps are the pinch type with a little hole so that a lens cap leash string can be tied through it. The best leashes are compatible with this tying-on and cling to the lens body (don't put them on a part that moves, so as not to stress it) with elastic.
    • A flash, particularly one that can be adjusted for bounce flash, greatly improves lighting in many situations by filling in shadows enough to show some detail but not enough to obscure form. One that works with the camera's TTL flash system and exposure compensation is very convenient; one with basic "thyristor" automation can serve the same purpose less conveniently for very little money (for fill-flash, set the camera to aperture priority, check that the shutter speed is not too slow or too fast for flash sync, and set the flash to automatically expose for an aperture or two larger than that being used. Bounce flash wastes most of the light so in that case make sure you are well within the maximum automatic flash distance specified for the aperture.)
    • A tripod is essential for sharp very-low-light photography (as is subject non-motion). Use a self-timer or remote control to avoid bumping the camera. Feel free to use a small aperture and low ISO for good quality. (If using film, avoid settings that would require exposures of more than a few seconds or give a stop or two extra exposure for – or up how to best adjust for--"reciprocity failure".)
    • If you often can't back up enough, or like dramatic stretched perspective or broad background views, buy an ultra-wide-angle lens. The widest of these have an angle of view that is rarely filled with something interesting, so there is rarely a need for those with bulging, easily damaged front elements that can't take a filter. (Everything, including lens scratches, is basically somewhat in focus with these, so scratches are not only more likely but more problematic). Protect all your lenses with a UV filter, cap and leash, but polarizers are often not so relevant for wide-angle lenses because the angle of polarization changes across the sky and will give it an odd mottled appearance, and not great for telephoto lenses because they block a lot of light and a high shutter speed is critical for sharpness.
    • If you often can't get nearly close enough, as is common with sports and wildlife, get a telephoto lens. Focusing speed is important with these subjects and quite variable; check reviews. An extreme telephoto basically requires a tripod for any better sharpness than one would get cropping from a moderate telephoto (since camera shake is magnified); consider whether you want to carry one about before buying.
    • If you regularly take photos in low light, buy a wide-aperture lens. 50mm f/1.8 lenses are very inexpensive (and good as a "portrait" lens on DSLRs); 35mm f/1.8 lenses for crop-sensor DSLRs only are not very expensive; Sigma makes some wider-angle wide-aperture lenses that are not very expensive. If you haven't done so already, buy a flash. Low light is often also such that it leaves a lot of shadows. Also, a flash matched to your camera system will generally have an focus-assist beam built in (it basically projects a red or infrared grid on the subject before the exposure).
    • If you regularly take photos where extreme detail is important, and are unsatisfied with your DSLR using a decent lens, moderate aperture, and tripod, use a slow film in a film SLR compatible with your lenses, or get a full-frame DSLR or medium-format camera. (If your technique is smearing the DSLR picture by even a single pixel's width, the fancier camera will not improve the picture.) Extreme detail is actually undesirable in pictures of people (they pay a lot to obscure the wrinkles), not very important in most photos due to the type of subject or its overall form and layout being interesting, but nice for subjects such as landscapes where there is both a lot of fine detail, such as leaves, and the detail is pleasurable to look at.
    • Whatever else you determine to cost-effectively address a recurring deficiency that can't otherwise practically be fixed well enough.
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  • Time spent learning about photography is often more effective than money spent on equipment. The information is free on the Internet and libraries, or inexpensive in books.
  • This guide is written primarily with 35mm and 35mm-lens-type-compatible digital cameras in mind but the principles largely apply to medium format cameras as well.
    • Because most of a 35mm-type camera is controls, rather than the film or sensor itself, a 6x4.5 or 6x6 medium-format camera, most of which is the film holding area, lens, etc, is not drastically bigger. 6x7 and beyond are relatively huge and inconvenient.
  • Free software such as the GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) can offer an excellent upgrade path in image processing -- forever-free upgrades with whatever you and others in the photo and programming community contribute, to which your knowledge of how to do things will continually apply.
  • Before buying a new and expensive kind of equipment, try out a cheap substitute (such as an old 20mm or 24mm lens on a film camera before buying a modern ultra-wide zoom lens) to see if it does basically what you had in mind but not quite as well as you would like, or rent one for an occasion it can be tried out heavily (but make sure you're protected against or can afford damage or loss).
  • Feel free to change camera systems if the upgrades for yours are seriously overpriced. Don't throw good money after bad.

Things You'll Need

  • Equipment as outlined above
  • Price comparison sites and information
  • List of favorite online photography sites to remain up-to-date about innovations, etc.

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