Saturday, March 18, 2006

Get Off the Upgrade Cycle!

The camera companies would love it if you would keep on giving them your hard-earned cash. So, to keep you paying, they upgrade their cameras all the time. The camera you bought just 6 months ago has already likely been surpassed, upgraded, or replaced by a newer model. Sometimes, the upgrades are simply cosmetic, i.e. a new color to the exterior or moving a button around, and sometimes the upgrades are minor, i.e. improved battery life or upgraded firmware. And about once a year, it's a complete replacement--bigger LCD screens, more megapixels, faster responses, etc.

Keeping up with the camera companies is expensive! And worse yet, it makes a user feel ripped off for buying a digital camera when he or she did--when your neighbor waits 6 months and gets a better camera for less than you paid, you can't help but feel like you got ripped off by the camera company.

So when should you get off the upgrade cycle? How do you get off the upgrade cycle? When is good enough...good enough?

In my opinion, there are two things you need to evaluate when it comes to getting off the circle of camera lust. One is your individual needs--i.e. what do you do or intend to do with the digital camera. The other is your budget. If you're fantastically rich and can indulge your whims without penalty, then why should you care if you're dumping a working camera and getting the latest and greatest?

For purposes of this discussion, I'm going to break photographers down into 4 groups--the snapshooter, the enthusiast, the semi-pro, and the professional.

For most people, who I would classify as snapshooters, a point and shoot digital camera will meet their needs. For typical snapshots, 4 or 5 megapixels is plenty of resolution, as these resolutions will produce fine 8 x 10 enlargements. Very, very few people ever enlarge more than that. Most cameras offer some kind of optical zoom, typically 3x. A typical user isn't going to want to carry a camera with more zoom power, as this requires a heavier camera with a bigger lens. The only reason for this user to upgrade or replace his or her camera is because the first camera stopped working.

Another group of users, the enthusiasts, is likely to use bigger, heavier cameras with stronger zoom lenses, like 10x or 12x zooms. This group of users is lured by the call of more megapixels and stronger zoom lenses. They get on the upgrade cycle because camera companies keep increasing the megapixel numbers of their cameras and because the companies have convinced enthusiast users that if they don't have more resolution, the photos they are currently taking are somehow worse. Enthusiasts are exactly the kind of people camera companies love, because enthusiasts will upgrade and buy profitable, more expensive cameras. It's more difficult for the photo enthusiast to get off the upgrade cycle, because they are so highly targeted in advertising. To break this cycle, the best thing an enthusiast can do is to get the best camera he or she can afford right from the start. The worst thing an enthusiast can do is to compromise in the beginning--because the enthusiast will subsequently end up buying another camera to "upgrade" to what they should have gotten to begin with.

Finally, there's the semi-pros and pros. Generally, these two groups tend to use digital SLRs, and both groups are also highly targeted in advertising, both for lenses and camera bodies.

For professionals, who are worried about having a competitive edge, upgrading has become almost a way of life. With film cameras, there wasn't the need to upgrade as often--but digital has changed the equation. In cruising through online forums, it's apparent that many pros now upgrade with each new generation of digital SLRs, i.e. an upgrade cycle of 12 to 24 months. That's to be expected, as the cameras are used to generate income. There's no reason for the pro to get out of the cycle, as long as they are making money. But for the semi-pro, a photographer who doesn't make a living out of photography but who practices photography at a level about that of the enthusiast, upgrading with each new generation is a costly proposition of questionable value.

The semi-pro is going to have the hardest time getting off the upgrade cycle. First of all, a semi-pro is likely to suffer from "lens lust"--the overwhelming desire to get better and better lenses at great expense. Second, a semi-pro is also susceptible to camera company hype over increased megapixels. And finally a "semi-pro" who actually is a "snapshooter" may come to believe that equipment is more important than the photographer--resulting in purchases for a neverending quest to improve shots, instead of acquiring skills that would make a bigger difference. For this type of photographer, what you'll see is a lot of expensive gear and lots of mediocre or even lousy photos.

For a semi-pro to jump off the upgrade cycle, they need to look critically at needs, results, and budget. If the semi-pro is getting the results, having needs met, and doesn't have the cash, upgrading makes little sense. If the results are lacking, further evaluation as to why needs to be done--it may be an issue of skills as opposed to equipment. Money may then be spent more wisely on training, rather than gear.

The best reason for a semi-pro (or really anyone) to upgrade is because a particular piece of equipment doesn't meet his/her needs while a newer piece of equipment does. Some examples--a landscape photographer who needs wider angle lenses or thephotographer who wants a camera with a faster flash sync speed because they find themselves shooting outdoors a lot.

The Bottom Line: Get off the upgrade cycle and save your money! Only buy when your needs aren't being met or when your gear dies. Don't fall for senseless hype about camera features if you are already getting good results with your gear.


At 5:14 PM, Anonymous Mark Abraham said...

Quite an excellent Blog... very good and solid info, keep up the great work!


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