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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Upgrade Path - Where To Spend your Money

There are oodles of new bits of kit hitting the market at the moment and it’s likely to only get more exciting as Photokina pops up on the near horizon. Wow, all the new toys. Which leads to the usual round of “should I upgrade”? To be entirely honest I have been in a similar quandary over the last few weeks. The announcement of the new Fujifilm XT-2 has had me practically salivating at the prospect of shooting with it. However, a careful look at the work that I shoot made me reappraise my longing for the small Fujifilm and think more carefully about needs vs. wants. A discussion with the Durban photographer Graham Carruthers, who is also very much entrenched in the Fujifilm camp, further cemented my thoughts on the so-called upgrade path.

Every single time a new camera hits the market, the used market is flooded with exceptionally good cameras. Take a look at the classifieds right now and you will find a veritable treasure trove of Nikon D800’s and Canon 5Dmkiii’s. Not to forget of course the odd Sony A99 and A77. If you look hard enough there are a decent number of low actuation Nikon D4’s and Canon 1Dx’s also floating about. This is all because amateur photographers everywhere are upgrading to the 1Dxmkii, the D5 and D500 cameras. Several D810's are also for sale as photographers prepare for a potential upgrade that hasn’t actually hit the rumour mill just yet. If you are into image quality sans the latest firmware and focus, now’s the time to go bargain hunting for those pro bodies.

Cost conscious enthusiasts are having a field day, but are they doing the right thing by buying a body? Herein lies the conversation I had with Graham. DON’T buy the body! Get a flash. The thing that differentiates photographers isn’t the camera body that they use. Sure, having an extra frame per second might help get a bird’s wing beat at the right position, but so too would simply timing it carefully. From a technical point of view the thing that differentiates photographers is the use of lighting and lenses.

A typical upgrade path for an enthusiast is entry level DSLR with kit zoom to semi-pro body while keeping the original lens set. A far better approach would be to upgrade the lens set first, then the body. The current crop of entry level cameras from Nikon, Canon and Sony have extraordinarily good image quality. Arguably the IQ is as good as the semi-pro to pro level camera bodies (the Nikon D8xx and Canon 5D series excluded). As an example Nikon’s D3300 shoots a very impressive albeit compressed RAW file of 24mp with a DXOMark published dynamic range of 12.8 EVs. Similarly the Canon 750D also sports a 24mp sensor with a dynamic range of 12 EVs. The 760D even has dual controls (separate dial for shutter speed and aperture) making it even better as a serious fast paced camera!

“Ah, but the focus on the newer pro-level cameras is better”, is the argument I then hear to justify the leap to a new camera body. Not really. The focus only improves markedly if the lenses in use are the current state-of-the-art pro lenses. There would be a greater improvement in focus with a new lens on the entry level camera than with a new body and the original entry-level lens (usually the ubiquitous 18-55mm f3.5-5.6). Investing in better glass in the form of f1.8 and 1.4 primes or a f2.8 zoom is going to vastly improve autofocus. As an added bonus these lenses will be ready for the eventual upgrade to a pro level body.

There is no standard upgrade path in any case. Let’s start with a base camera being a Nikon D3200 or a Canon 700D (so not current, but a likely scenario). Both camera kits are often sold with a 18-55mm lens (mentioned above) and a 55-200 or 300mm f4-f5.6 telephoto zoom (both appallingly made and literally held together with 3M tape). If you are prepared to upgrade to a new model, here are the possibilities with the same money for sport/wildlife, landscape and people photography.


If you happen to shoot sport or wildlife it would be a better bet to invest in a faster telephoto lens, possibly a 70-200mm f2.8 or 300mm f4. If you look for a used 70-200mm you could probably add a 1.4 teleconverter and get a decent 280mm f4 lens out of it for equal to or less than the cost of a semi-pro body (the Nikon D7200 or Canon 70D and significantly less than the Nikon D500 and Canon 7Dmkii). In fact, if you shoot Wildlife, the new Nikon 80-400mm (which is a wonderful lens) is not that much more expensive than a new D7200, and Canon’s 100-400mm Mkii is a truly superb upgrade while the older version can be had for less than the 80D costs).


A decent wide angle lens and a good tripod should actually go on the same shopping list as they are both needed for landscape photography. Keeping within the cost parameter of an upgraded body, the Tokina 11-16mm or 12-24mm lenses are exceptional value for money and excellent optical performers. Find them secondhand and there will be enough leftover for a new Carbon Fibre Sirui tripod with ball head (a decent one with 15kg load weight for when you do have a heavier body).

If you decide to plump for more, investing in a good filter kit (such as that by Lee Filters) is money well spent in my opinion. If you are just dipping your toes into all that is landscape you can also experiment with filters by buying the inexpensive Hitech (Fomatt) ‘P’ series filters and holders which work perfectly well on APS-C sensors and the old manual focus full frame lenses.

Portrait and People

In a word, lighting. The thing that differentiates photographers in this genre is the ability to effectively use lighting. The poor excuse for a flash that pops out of the camera is next to useless for portrait and people photography. A cheap 50mm f1.8 lens (Canon’s extraordinarily cheap 50mm often comes bundled in the entry-level kit alongside the 18-55 and 55-200 lenses) works well as a large aperture portrait lens.

If you want to elevate your photography in this genre invest in decent lights. They don’t have to be particularly expensive either. Zack Arias has expounded at length on the advantages of cheap manual flashes like the Yongnuo YN560’s. If you are in the States or Europe you also have access to the incredibly dependable LumoPro flashes. If you rely on cheap brands, the quality has gotten extraordinarily good in the last 5 years (I personally use a Godox AD360 head and battery pack which feels bomb-proof and to date has been amazingly reliable - more so than my European made Elinchroms). 

The amount spent on a discounted new D7200 or 80D will easily cover two manual hot shoe flashes (Phottix, Godox, Yongnuo, LumoPro or Nissin) along with reflectors, light-stands, soft boxes and gels. Or, you could opt for an Elinchrom 200/200Ws ‘to go’ kit which includes two 200Ws studio lights, stands and small soft boxes. Shop around second hand and that can be changed to the excellent 500BRXi two head setup. Or, save money and go Chinese again and get a Menik, or Falcon Eyes or any number of other off-brand studio lights that are available.

The important point about lighting is that if you spend wisely the lights will last you the rest of your photographic career. There are still studio lights that have only two settings - on and off - that are being used daily in professional studios around the world. For all the fancy wireless triggering and control in the new lights, at the end of the day most serious photographers rely on manual flashes. Lights last far longer than any other piece of equipment (so long as you look after them). They are also the biggest differentiation between photographers. One light is going to do a lot more for your photography than a new camera body.


I am not immune to Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) by any means. In fact, I have literally just picked up a secondhand D800e and backed a Kickstarter programme for the seemingly incredible Laowa 12mm f2.8 (there will probably be a review of this unique little lens once I get it in my hands). The temptation to upgrade bodies can be overwhelmingly strong. The important caveat in my current purchase of a body is that it isn’t an upgrade. I already have a D800 and need a like for like backup in terms of handling, sensor, size and batteries. On the argument above if I had spent the money on the much lusted for Fujifilm XT-2; that would have been money unwisely spent. Similarly, the Laowa lens does things I cannot do with my current equipment without stitching or using very high ISO. It, rather than a current body, has the potential to differentiate some of my images from the crowd so to speak (note: if used properly and creatively).

Replacing a camera body with a newer, more professional version doesn’t change your photography. Investing in new lenses and lighting potentially can (and often does). This isn’t to say that one shouldn’t buy the latest and greatest. If you can afford it, and enjoy having the newest equipment, then why not? Just don’t confuse the reasoning as camera bodies and sensors only record the light that they are presented. Lenses and flashes fashion and mould the light. They are what make images unique.

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