Camera Upgrades and Associated Dilemma

I’m partly writing this because I’m bored…and partly so that Neil will remember what happened in what order 2 years from now when he needs to know for whatever reason he has then…and partly so that you can see that when you’re quarantined by the corona with nothing else to do how easy it is to send yourself right down the old rathole.

So…ever since we went on the road with the RV in 2012…we’ve had what are called crop sensor or APS-C size sensor cameras…they’ve always been digital single lens reflex (DSLR) type which means that there’s a mirror assembly that reflects the light from the lens up to the viewfinder…and when you press the shutter button the mirror flops up and out of the way and the shutter behind it and over the sensor opens for whatever the amount of time the shutter speed specifies to put light onto the shutter and eventually onto the memory card. The DSLR came about when the original SLR which has been around since the 1960s…essentially the film canister was replaced by a light sensitive digital sensor, a memory card, and some associated electronics. The original SLRs used 35mm film since that was what was used the rangefinder still cameras that preceded SLR development, and the rangefinder cameras used 35mm film since that’s what movie cameras used. However…when DSLRs came around they were pretty expensive and one of the major reasons for that was the cost of the sensor…so the APS-C or crop sensor was invented…with a smaller and cheaper sensor which also enabled a smaller, lighter, and cheaper body and the lenses to go along with it. Back in the early days…there were also full frame DSLRs which used the same 24x36mm frame size of the traditional film SLR as opposed to the 16x24mm size of the crop sensor cameras. Early digital cameras started out at something less than 10 megapixels in total resolution.

So time rolls on and sensor tech gets better so cameras get more megapixels up to a point…which for crop sensor bodies is around 20-24 megapixels…where you can’t pack the pixels any closer together while for full frame sensors you can not get up to 60 megapixels…which means that you could build a crop sensor of around 30 megapixels if you were a camera company and chose to do so.

There are some advantages to the full frame sensors…particularly if you stay down in the mid 30 megapixel range instead of going the densely packed 60 range…better low light sensitivity and low noise being the main two…with the result that for very large prints you’ll end up with a better output if you have a full frame sensor…since it simply gathers more data in the initial taking the image phase. However…the vast majority of images are viewed on a screen of some sort these days…which seriously narrows the image quality difference between the two sizes.

The next big leap in camera technology came about when mirrorless cameras were introduced some years back…they’re so named because they don’t have the mirror that an SLR or DSLR uses and they don’t have an optical viewfinder. Instead…they have an electronic viewfinder that shows you the image as it is currently seen by the sensor itself. Removal of the mirror and it’s associated mirror box and mechanical hardware to move it means you can make a simpler mechanical camera body that’s smaller than it used to be. In addition…the electronic viewfinder has some advantages over the optical one, particularly in low light or for showing you the exact exposure you’ll get in tricky lighting situations…things that the optical viewfinder can’t do. There are some drawbacks to the mirrorless…particularly in the very fast action area.

So as I said we’ve been using a series of DLSR bodies…all from Nikon…along with an assortment of Nikon and third party (i.e., cheaper) lenses because for most of our purposes the lower priced lenses that are at least theoretically not as high quality optically were just fine. Connie’s body was about 6 years old and Neil’s almost 4 so we got to talking about possibly getting an upgrade. Connie has also had a longstanding issue with the short focal length lens she used…she’s not really big into carrying a bunch of heavy lenses with her and thus had a single wide angle to normal range lens…meaning no ability for telephoto shots of elk cross the way or birds in flight. That was her choice when she started carrying her own camera because she didn’t want the weight.

Neil decided to upgrade her for Christmas…and got her a Nikon Z50 which is a crop sensor mirrorless body…along with the 2 lens kit. This gives her lens range from wide angle through telephoto with 2 lenses and a body that weigh almost a pound less than her previous body and single lens…so she thought it was a win/win thing…she gets more lens reach and lighter weight.

He considered getting a second Z50 for himself but since he does a lot of wildlife and birds in flight shots he wanted a more fully featured body. At the current time there’s only the single mirrorless Nikon crop sensor body…the alternative is to upgrade to a full frame mirrorless body that weighs the same as his current crop sensor body but with more features and more megapixels. The trouble with that is that mirrorless bodies have a different lens mount and while old lenses can be adapted there are some performance penalties and the new mount lenses have better optical quality because of the wider opening in the lens mount.

Since new lenses might be part of the issue…he decided it was smart to possibly consider other brands…so he took a look at Canon and Sony…and came to the conclusion that (a) nobody wants to front him the $20K it would take to get a complete system, (b) he’s used to the way Nikon menus and ergonomics work, and (c) while theoretically some of the higher end Sony and Canon bodies produce better results it all comes back to what he uses his images for and where they’re displayed. On a screen…most of the advantages of the high priced new systems…for Nikon as well as the other two…just aren’t there in sufficient amount to make it worth spending that much.

He read a whole bunch of various smart camera industry folk…and almost all of them say that if you want to improve your photography…improve your techniques and skills first, then buy better lenses, then buy better bodies but only if your current body doesn’t do something you need/want it to do.

He has to admit there’s a lot of good ideas in that last paragraph. His skills are what they are and while they’re pretty good he’s always trying to improve. So the next up would be better lenses…but wait, there’s more.

There’s good evidence that 3 more new Nikon mirrorless bodies will be released this year or early next year…and at least one is supposed to be a more fully featured crop sensor body…which as noted before is plenty adequate for what we do with our shots.

Add in all of that…along with the “we’re not traveling much this year anyway”…and he’s changed his mind more than a woman over the past couple of months…and yes I know that’s somewhat of a stereotype but there’s a reason that stereotypes exist.

His original plan was to buy a full frame high end Nikon body with a single all in one zoom lens so that it would work for travel and use his existing bird lens on either that body or his crop sensor DSLR body for distant shots and potentially get a better bird lens later…but given all of the above and the buy better lenses before better bodies argument he went ahead and ordered himself a new bird lens.

His old bird lens is a Tamron zoom with a focal length of 150-600mm…and it’s almost always used at the long end. Since it’s a zoom lens it inherently has lower optical image quality than a fixed length lens. The new one is a Nikon brand 500mm lens with a teleconverter to go along with it that extends the length to 720mm…but at higher quality output in a smaller (3 inches shorter) and lighter (over a pound lighter at 2.something instead of almost 4 pounds)…which means that handholding and maneuvering in the woods is much easier. He’s going to wait on the full frame body and see if the new lens on the old crop sensor body provides adequate capabilities or if those provided by the more expensive full frame body are worth it…and to see if the rumored full featured crop sensor body comes about. If it does…that will be the sweet spot for him because of the size and weight compared to his current setup…and if he ends up with the full frame body he’ll probably get another Z50 like Connie’s for traveling as the size and weight reduction are very nice to have on trips when photography isn’t the primary interest. 

I’ll get him to post some comparison shots of the new lens when it gets here next week…and maybe I’ll be able to get him to do some side by side comparisons for ya.

About Gunther

The full time RV travels and experiences of Gunther the Bear and Kara the Dog…along with their human staff neil and Connie.
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