Thoughts on ‘progress’ and loyalty and contemporary cameras

One of the (to my mind) coherent arguments against digital cameras is that in the longer-term they cost more than film cameras.  The idea behind this is that with a film camera, once you achieve a certain quality of body/lens, there is only limited additional quality that can be achieved by replacing the body.  So whilst it might make sense to buy new lenses periodically (that is another argument entirely that I will perhaps return to another time), there is generally little point in replacing a body unless you’re a professional who needs a faster autofocus, motorwinder or whatever.  But for most of us, we can buy a decent film camera body and be done with it, just spending our hard-earned money on occasional lenses.  Then we can direct our attention towards actually taking photographs with all this expensive stuff we’ve bought.

With digital, it’s been a whole other issue, as bodies have improved remarkably over time.  Ken Rockwell describes this rather memorably as ‘digital rot‘, and Bruce Percy and many others have also made similar points in the past: people who buy digital cameras will tend to want to buy new digital cameras when ‘the next model’ comes out.  In the longer-term, therefore, digital shooting costs more than film shooting, even taking into account developing and printing costs, because you buy new bodies every few years.  With digital cameras, the manufacturers keep telling us, there is a marked difference in newer models: better metering and white balancing to make sure the images are better exposed, Active-D Lighting to deal with light/dark differentials (which is what Nikon calls it, I’m sure Canon will offer an equivalent though I don’t know what it is called), more megapixels, greater dynamic range, and so on…

And yes, to be sure, there is a huge difference in Nikon’s early digital cameras and more modern ones (for example, the professional level D1H that was discontinued in 2006 had a 2.66 megapixel sensor, compared to the 12 in my D90).  However, I am increasingly unconvinced that all this is changing as rapidly in contemporary times as it did in the past.  I write this as the ‘replacement’ for the D90 is hitting the shops, Nikon’s D7000.  Yes, it looks very good, and I’m sure many people will buy it, and some of those people will make absolutely stunning images with it.  But is it really so-o-o-o much better than the D90 that I should feel the need to go out and buy one?

But… but… the pixel-counter-nutheads will say, how can you ask that?  Surely it’s newer, it’s better, it has more megapixels (16, as opposed to the D90’s 12… as if that really mattered! – see below), it can shot 6fps instead of ‘just’ 4.5fps, it puts the milk on your cornflakes for you and makes your tea… ok, probably not those last two.

For all practical purposes, in the DX camera range (Nikon’s cropped sensor cameras), the D90 has , until now, probably been Nikon’s most user-friendly digital camera producing better images than anything else in this price range.  It perhaps even surpasses the D300, as this is heavier (though made of metal and therefore sturdier), with less easily accessible options (though they do shoot a little faster and have one or two additional imaging features).  Unless you’re a professional taking hundreds of images every day, this is no better than the D90, as to all intents and purposes they use the same sensor and processor.

Now the D7000 has come along.  It is an improvement on the D90, but I don’t feel that it gives me that much more than the D90 has given me already.  To be sure, if I was now looking to upgrade from the D40 as I did a year ago (Nikon only list the D40x on their website – the D40 was much the same with a 6mp sensor), I would seriously consider a D7000 as well as the D90, but having the D90 now doesn’t make me want to move to the D7000.

I think we need to get away from the mentality that just because the camera manufacturers tell us that something is new and better, we believe them!  They cynically presume an inherent disloyalty to the products they themselves sell us: we are no longer supposed to feel so attached to our cameras, instead willing to give them up for something ‘better’ just because it fits their marketing cycles.  What we really have are fantastic machines that 10 years ago would have been way beyond anyone’s imagination, and I for one, feel I barely scratch the surface of what my camera can do.  I have taken about 10,000 shots with my D90, but know that I am continually learning how to use it better.  The early great photographers always said, ‘know your camera so that it becomes second-nature to use it’.  I’m quite happy to admit that only after the first 2-3,000 or so shots did I feel I was beginning to really understand what my camera was doing and what I could expect of it.  Getting to that point opens me up to using it more creatively, to experimenting with some of the capabilities that lie hidden in the menus or the way it interacts with particular lenses – and only once I’ve got all that sorted out, can I engage with it much more intuitively and create images that centre on the key themes of lighting, composition, visualisation and so on.  Buying a new camera gets in the way of that, at least for me – I found it initially quite difficult to move from the D40 to the D90, as certain things kept not happening that I was expecting to happen, and other things did happen that I hadn’t expected!

The only real upgrade at this time, I think, is in format.  If I was going to change from the D90, the DX sensor D7000 is not where I’d go.  If money was not an issue, I would be interested in the full-sized sensor D700 or D3x – but that would in turn necessitate other lenses…

So if you’re anything like me, don’t fall for the camera manufacturers’ hype.  If you have a great camera that you like (and most cameras can be great cameras in the hands of those who know how to use them properly), then stick with it – show it loyalty, and it’ll reward you with images that emerge from your intuitive abilities and interests.  And you’ll be doing the environment a favour too…!

PS The difference in the D7000’s 16 megapixels and the D90’s 12 is as follows:
D7000: 4,928 x 3,264 – D90: 4,288 x 2,848
This means 640 x 416 pixels more, crammed into the same sized sensor (which brings its own problems, as I understand it…) – if my maths is right, this is about a 13% increase in image size.  In practical terms, unless printing huge advertising hoardings, this is totally irrelevant.  In fact, even for advertising hoardings, it’s probably irrelevant since you’d never look at the image closely enough to see the individual dots that make up the image.  If you want proof of this, the next time you see an advertisement for shampoo at a bus stop, go right up to the image and look very closely at the model’s face and hair to see all the little pixels that make up her ‘smooth’ skin and even ‘smoother’ hair – they are anything but smooth when viewed closeup!  But we don’t normally do that, and that is what makes these small differences so unimportant in large prints.  Get over the megapixel mania and think about how you produce sharper images using the light you have and the lenses you use – it’s about art, not pixel-counts!

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4 thoughts on “Thoughts on ‘progress’ and loyalty and contemporary cameras

  1. phillyswirl

    I like your take on the whole D7000 vs D90 debate. The one thing that doesn’t apply to you (as you mentioned) but does apply to me, is that since I don’t have a DSLR, I don’t know whether to go with the D7000 as a camera that will give me more room to grow, or a D90 that will provide me a solid start, but I may be more inclined to upgrade sooner than with the D7000

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  3. cdubman

    So what are your thoughts for someone that doesn’t own a D90 already? Would you recommend I go with the D7000 because of the advantages and potential longevity? Thanks.

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Of course, I haven’t got a D7000 and I don’t know what you photograph, so I have difficulty answering in detail.

      But the D90 is a fantastic camera, and as far as I can tell, works just as well with as many Nikon lenses as the D7000 (including most older ones). If money is no object, then perhaps just go for the D7000, but otherwise, buy a D90 and use the money you’ve saved to buy more lenses – they’ll last you for far longer than the D90 or D7000! The 18-105mm kit lens that is often sold with the D90 in the UK is very nice (I passed mine on to a friend and she is delighted with it), but I’m heading more towards primes which offer better colour rendition and more easily correctable distortion, and I’d rather invest in those. For much day-to-day use, a D90 body with a 35mm/f1.8 or 50mm/f1.4 lens will cover most things (these are the lenses I use most frequently).

      I hope this helps!

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