Nearly two years ago, I purchased my current camera: the Nikon D800E. For the first time since I made the move from film to digital capture more than 10 years ago, I made a camera purchase fully expecting to be (virtually) entirely satisfied with the product. The D800E was the fourth DSLR model I’ve purchased (D100 in 2003; D200 in 2006; D700 at the tail end of 2008; D800E in 2012) and, yes, on the previous three occasions I pulled the trigger feeling that I was making some kind of an imaging compromise at the time of sale. The compromise was typically one of image quality, usually because I was buying the optimal camera that I felt I could afford, not necessarily the best camera given what I was trying to do. (For instance, I would have much preferred to buy the D3X at the time I purchased the D700, but the $8000 (US) price tag was just a bit (okay, a lot) outside of my price range.
But when the D800 series was finally announced by Nikon a bit more than two years ago, and I read the specs on the camera, nothing about it sounded like a compromise to me. As the hands-on reviews began to appear in the spring of 2012, I was more and more convinced. I’d have to swallow hard to convince myself to fork over the cash (roughly $3300 US—the most I’ve ever paid for a camera by several hundreds of dollars), but I justified the expense to myself by saying that—again, for the very first time—I wasn’t going to be settling. I thought about it long and hard and I was as convinced as I could be that, this time, I would be getting the camera that would be in defiance of the digital age: a camera that I would very comfortably use for a very, very long time.
For those who go back to the film era, like myself, we’re not used to a specific camera body having much impact on the matter of image quality. Camera format, yes, but not different camera bodies within a given format. Once you bought a camera you were physically comfortable with, depending on the kinds of subjects you shot, there wasn’t much reason to consider upgrading when it came to image quality. (There are some exceptions to this principle; for instance, the introduction and improvement of autofocus in the 1980s was a very big deal for action photographers.)
That all changed in the digital age. The continuous improvement of digital sensors has meant a remarkably fast, steady improvement in image quality with each new generation released (hence my fairly regular upgrade of camera bodies since 2003). And the practical changes—in terms of the number of available pixels, in terms of the quality of those pixels (ostensibly in the reduction of noise with previously absurd ISO levels), in terms of dynamic range—have represented a true game-changing experience. (I can see the real world implications of all of this with my own images. The other day I had cause to rework an image I shot with the D100 back in late 2003 and technical distinction between a D800E image and a D100 shot is staggering in just about every sense.) The desire to upgrade from camera to camera, for a variety of reasons, was so compelling that it was extremely difficult to resist. At one point in the film era, I shot with the same camera for more than 20 years. With the onset of the digital age, I’ve owned four times as many camera bodies in half the time. I had jumped on the train to Upgradeville, and it was a local: it made an awful lot of stops on the way to a deliberately vague destination.
From my perspective, with regard to the incremental generation-to-generation improvements in terms of realizable image quality, we’ve reached a point of rapidly diminishing returns. Nikon has not, to date, announced a replacement to the D800 series of cameras (though rumors abound), but they will, sooner or later. Barring something I quite literally can’t foresee at this point, I would be shocked if I had anything beyond academic interest in said “upgrade.” I don’t need more pixels (I’ve already got more—36 MP—than I arguably need). I don’t need a higher ISO that’s clean (I quite literally have never performed a noise reduction pass on any of the images I’ve shot using the D800E in nearly two years); I guess I could always use a bit more dynamic range in principle, but I’ve already reached the point where, even in extremely high contrast situations, I seldom need to shoot more than one frame to realize my vision. Yes, the dynamic range of this camera really is that good.
So, when I concluded back in 2012 that the D800E would be my first “non-compromise” camera; when I determined that there wasn’t another DSLR on the market that I would have preferred to own (if only if I could afford it); when I told myself that this was a camera that I was highly unlikely to feel the desire to replace for a long time…well, I turned out to be right. And in so doing, I finally disembarked from the train to Upgradeville. My wallet is very happy.
So why am I telling you this? I used the example of the D800E because it was my stop on the Upgradeville train line, but you can replace “D800E” with your camera model of choice and it can be your final destination. (Here’s a dirty little secret: there’s at least a 50-50 chance you already own that camera model, even if you don’t know it.) And let me tell you something: once you get off the train, you’re likely to feel pretty good. I’m not a gear hound, by any means, but I know that for a lot of folks, the yearning for new equipment can really get in the way of doing the things that can truly help improve one’s art—like working on technique and gathering experience (to say nothing of the epiphany that the belief that a camera upgrade is the Rosetta Stone to photographic improvement is a mirage…because it almost always is).
If you’re still riding the rails, consider getting off the train…and reaping the benefits.
Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.