There’s a pervasive insecurity amongst a lot of photographers when it comes to their gear. Some of it grows out of their inexperience and frustration with their inability to make photos as good as some of those they see online. But, I feel a lot of it is due to the marketing and perception that upgrading to the “latest and greatest” equipment will miraculously improve their photos overnight.
Photographers that have DX or APS-C Digital SLR bodies often ask me if I think they should upgrade to a full-frame DSLR but there is no easy or single answer to this question. The answer varies a lot depending on what the photographer photographs (or wants to photograph), which lenses they already own, and how much they can spend.
But is it the right question to ask?
I must also first explain that it might not be the question that one should be asking yet.
More experienced photographers will always tell you that it’s smarter to first invest in fast lenses, and more importantly, a good tripod before upgrading to the “latest and greatest” body. Everyone that ignores this advice regrets doing so once they’ve futility upgraded their bodies a few times and saw they never realized any significant benefit from it. It’s a costly mistake that the camera companies love photographers to make.
A well-rounded set of fast lenses makes it far easier to capture many more photographs, many of which you might not be able to capture properly with your current lens or lenses. The advantages of fast lenses over kit lenses are immediately noticeable and significant. From being able to focus and capture better and clearer photos in low light to flattening backgrounds behind your subject, or getting more reach, it’ll profoundly change the quality and impressiveness of your photographs. Additionally, fast lenses last a lot longer and when new versions are released (typically once every 10 years) there’s still little reason or desire to upgrade. So a DSLR body upgrade, no matter how much perceived or real improvement it has, it just can’t compete with the practicality of investing in a good set of lenses first.
Often forgotten or brushed aside by novices is the importance of tripods. Sturdy and light tripods are fun to use and won’t be left behind in your car. In fact, the more you use one, it’ll train you to pre-visualize better and also help you to be more deliberate and thoughtful while making photographs. It’s really amazing how profoundly a good tripod improves a photographer’s skills and photographs.
Now, don’t confuse a good tripod with the dreadfull quality GARBAGE you find in strip mall camera shops. Good tripods are made with lighter but strong materials, support heavier gear, are sturdier and more stable and most importantly built to last a lifetime. While good ones might even cost more than your camera, it’s a good idea to invest in a good one once because you’ll never need to replace it and won’t ever hesitate using it because of weight concerns. Without a doubt, a good tripod gives you the best bang for your buck!
Back to the question
If you already have a decent set of lenses and a tripod (which you don’t hesitate to use) then you’re ready to start thinking about upgrading your DSLR body.
Lets say you have an entry level DSLR body like the Nikon D5300. It’s a great body and still very modern. The differences between it and let’s say the Nikon D7100 are really not that great. The key differences are the improved auto-focusing system, the number of frames per second it can fire, weather/dust sealing, and the improved shutter life and durability. Theres strong arguments why each of those features are worth having but they really won’t impact the quality of your photos that significantly. So is the cost of the upgrade justifiable? That solely depends on the individual but again, I’d strongly urge you to invest in fast lenses and a good tripod first.
If you have an older entry level DSLR it might pay to upgrade to something like the Nikon D7100 but I’d hesitate to give a definitive yes unless it was at least 3-years old and only after carefully weighing the differences between the cameras and how much they can truly impact your photos.
The important lesson here is to only upgrade if you actually NEED the improvements. Don’t upgrade just out of insecurity or the perception that your cameras is “amateurish.” I’ve seen many talented pros make jaw-dropping and drool worthy photos with simple bottom of the barrel consumer cameras, even point and shoots and cellphones, and many more novices make lousy photos with “latest and greatest” $8,000+ body. Even with it pre-set to the right manual settings (or in auto mode,) it isn’t going to make someone that’s inexperienced any better.
What about switching to full-frame?
The biggest advantage to upgrading to full-frame bodies like the Nikon D800 or Nikon D4s is the higher/cleaner ISO, low light sensitivity, and ability to make ultra wide angle photographs.
How important are these improvements? Will they have a meaningful impact on your photographs? Again it depends but as always, it’s still better to invest in fast lenses and a good tripod first.
If you have an older DSLR (over 3-years old) like the Nikon D300 and already own a f/2.8 24-70mm and 70-200mm then moving to a full-frame body would be a smart upgrade. But, if you don’t or only have DX lenses then you won’t see much benefit from it.
I don’t feel switching from a crop sensor to full-frame is a worthwhile upgrade unless you need to shoot ultra-wide angle or have a definitive need for the increased ISO or frame rate.
It’s important to point out that the Nikon D700 is likely to be updated by the end of the year, if not sooner during the summer. If you were to go that route I’d strongly consider waiting for the announcement so you can get a better deal on a used one. Also beware that if you should upgrade to full-frame that you’ll quickly want an ultra-wide angle lens like the 14-24mm f/2.8 or 16-35mm f/4 to take full advantage of the full-frame sensor.