Why buying a DSLR body is probably a mistake.

Ok, help me help you not waste your money, and take better pictures. A bit of related entertainment first, then a story.

We all know one of those guys :)  Anyway, before getting to the story, a brief but necessary reminder. If you read that blog, you know what's my approach: I like photography because I like pictures. The process of taking them, looking at them, and hearing people telling me they feel something special when looking at them, relationship with the subject (I mostly do portraits) etc. A good image is a subject in a given light, an effort to put yourself in the right place, and that moment when your imagination meets the situation, and bam ! You just took a great shot. Cameras are accessories to all of that, they can be sexy, do amazing stuff, but they are not what matters. I still use a Nikon FE, a Mamiya RZ most of the time, it does the job great, interfering little in that above described process, and those are decades old cameras. I have this blog for many reasons, one of them being education of customers, so that they make more sense of their camera purchase, and save money to go on a trip where they can actually take pictures :)

But let's move ahead with the story. Important note, this is addressing mostly the casual shooter, not so much the advanced and savvy photographer...although....well I'll let you judge.

I was on a vacation in Tuscani (that's a lovely region of Italy), and some must-see cities are of course suffering a much expected tourists infestation. Can't blame them, I am one of them.
So it's been about 10 years since the first amateurs have been shooting around with DSLR cameras. You would also expect some sort of correlation between ownership of an DSLR system, income and intellectual abilities. You would expect that someone who spends 1k to 5k in a camera system would at least read the manual, or actually link the value of the product to their investment in learning how to use it, to their passion in the matter. Well it seems like it isn't the case. About 50% of all DSLR users I saw during my break were using the kit zoom, in full auto, with the flash blazing at every picture.

I just love that scene, always the same:
  1. holding the camera like a pro, with confidence, telling the wife how to pose, moving like a reporter. 
  2. hitting the shutter and....ZAAAAAP ! flash pops up and goes on.
  3. looking at the camera like a kitten who just got surprised by a jumping object, thinking "why did the flash go off? Was it my even from my camera?"

I would get it if this is your first DSLR, or your very first camera, and you just got it before the trip; but there's no way that's the case at this scale. I see around me people owning SLRs for years and still incapable of using more that 10% of the camera's capabilities. Not that they are stupid, they are just kinda lazy, or mostly they bought it for the wrong reasons and don't actually want those features. It take 10 min on Google to find a few good posts on how to play with depth of field, pick the lenses that you really need, or use manual and semi manual features to be in control of your images. It takes 1 hour to go thru them with your camera in your hand. That doesn't seem like much when you just spent 2 grands. I really believe SLRs offer functions that, if you don't need them, are a burden more than anything. I'll get to that later.

On the other hand, it is true that manufacturers did everything they could to make you want one for all the wrong reasons. Claiming that you'll take better pictures, stimulating that awful pixel peeping habit that makes you want to take pictures of newspapers to see how sharp it remains when you zoom in, and much more in that same vein.

So here we are, I've seen hundreds of tourists with a DSLR walking the streets, a vast majority having no clue what to do with it. It is even worst of a money waste when you realize that a significant proportion among those have upgraded from a good compact, or an older yet very capable SLR. Why? No seriously why upgrading to a semi-pro or pro piece of gear if 1- you don't want to learn how it works 2- since you were not using 25% of you previous camera's abilities, your limitations surely don't come from the gear in the first place.

What happens is the following. It'll sound mean, but I know that process because well... I've done it too. So take it as shared wisdom from past experiences:
  • We love taking images, it's just cool, a tad bit magic, fun and nice for memories. In other words, we'll have to get a camera at some point.
  • We start looking at cameras, and if we have a little cash sleeping at the bank, we quickly get excited by the nicer ones. 
  • We start thinking that those features are necessary. Technical terms with letters and numbers, we barely understand what they mean (or not at all), but we have our mind made up: we need ISO 25600 and 1/16 000 speed and cross matrix alpha 34 sensor BS3000.
  • Camera manufacturers need you to replace equipment every 2 years max. If you realize a good camera can do 10 years or even much more, they are screwed. They'll do everything they can to convince you that the camera makes the picture. And you kinda want to hear that, you are a bit bored with life lately, so you want to get excited about a new product, and suddenly your old camera is full of flaws, or even broken (thank you kitty / dog / 1yo baby, you come in handy on this).
  • It's done, you ordered a expensive DSLR. It's totally justified because you've always loved photography (as the zero photo exhibits you've ever been to, or the absence of any photos of your walls can attest). You secretly want people to see you as a cool arty guy who'll go read Hemingway in a dodgy bar after capturing a few streets moments (mostly homeless dudes).
Rings a bell? I know, I'm sorry :)

So what's my point? Indeed I won't just make you feel bad about your purchase for no reason, that'd just be sadistic. I want to make you aware that whatever camera you own, unless it's a very entry level compact or very first generation digital, you probably have a huge margin for improvement without spending a dime, and you can achieve that by learning how to use it.

You have an DSLR, you want a newer one? 
You probably could do a lot by learning how to use yours, and at best get a lens that corresponds to your needs. A premium SLR does nothing better in regards to image quality. Lenses do. A premium SLR is weather sealed, super fast, includes productivity features for pros....but try taking the same pictures in the same conditions, it'll 99% similar results. Going Nikon D90 from years ago to a D600 will make no difference whatsoever, especially if you never shoot in anything else that P or full auto modes. If you already master you DSLR, what you probably need is better lenses. If not, you need to open the manual.

You have a compact and you want an SLR? 
What do you use it for? Vacation pictures? Then no you don't want an SLR. It's bulky & cumbersome, consumes batteries and memory cards like crazy, requires its own backpack. I only own cameras that I chose for a single purpose: professional quality for a specific purpose. SLRs are for people shooting war, lions, sports on the side of a football pitch. I got a DSLR because I owned premium prime lenses from old Nikon 35mm cameras, but if Nikon had been making a compact full frame body, I'd have bought that over an SLR a million times. 

So when do you probably really need a new camera as a casual user?
  • Yours is so old that the sensor is crap over 400 iso. For casual use, being able to shoot in low light is pretty nice: restaurant pics, children running inside the house etc. It's a must have for a digital camera. Nowadays, most compacts are very clean up until 3200 iso and sometimes even 6400.
  • It's so old that the shutter react 1 second after you press it. That sucks, get a modern compact or mirror-less. You just can't keep missing the moment.
  • You have a compact with a built in zoom, and you really love shooting portraits. You then need a prime fast lens. In that case, you probably should look into good mirror-less systems, not in SLRs. Sony Nex, Fuji X-whatever and else are a better bet. The fact that they are small is a blessing, image quality is the same as a non full frame DSLR (try proving me wrong on this, I'll quizz you on identical shots taken with both, you'll be wrong 50% of the time).
  • You have a non-full frame SLR that took more that 100 000 frames. You should start budgeting for a new one, it might start dying soon. Or you might want to pick a mirror-less if you realized an SLR is not really what you needed.
In any other case, you probably should be doing this instead of buying an SLR body:
  • Ask yourself if there is a gap between the kind of pictures you do, and the kind of pictures that you'd like to be able to take. If yes, figure out why. It's very likely to be a matter of framing, composition, depth of field. All of this can be learned in 1 hour, even on this blog !
  • Once you've done that, if you realize that your camera doesn't allow those manipulations, you might want to consider replacing it. In that case, and remember I assume you are a casual shooter, I strongly recommend you pick an advanced compact or mirror-less over a DSLR. Keep one thing in mind: manufacturers also realized that DSLR are not what people really need. They'll keep selling them for as long as the can, so that you commit to a system with expensive lenses, but they are also rushing on producing premium compact and mirror-less systems. Those often include full auto options that allow some pretty cool stuff, probably what you really want as a casual shooter.
Finally, you'll never look like an idiot anymore with your cheap kit lens (since the cost of the SLR body consumed your entire budget) and your flash popping up in a sunny Italian summer day. You might not be excited by pictures as much as I am, but surely you'd like to honor your family and friend with better images, and avoid wasting your money.