“Should I Upgrade?”

“You cannot buy mastery. You have to earn it.” ~James Yeager of Tactical Response

This image of Squaw Flat Campground, Canyonlands National Park, was made at midday with a modern digital SLR camera.
This image of Squaw Flat Campground, Canyonlands National Park, was made at midday with a modern digital SLR camera.

James is talking about guns, which is all he ever discusses. In spite of his advocation, it is advice we can expand to all areas of our lives, particularly photography.

I know I harp on this a lot, but I still think it’s a key issue in photography. If you are considering upgrading, you are either a professional who has outgrown his equipment, or an amateur who has more money than talent. An odd twist to this assessment is that a real professional photographer can do more with a $1 garage sale camera than a rich amateur can with a $6000 DSLR.

I keep coming back to this subject because “Should I upgrade?” is the number one topic on photography forums on the web, even in an era in which we should know better. Not, “Is this light too contrasty?” or “Should my model brush her hair a different way?” or “What time of day is best for shooting Antelope Canyon?” These are the real questions of photography. The essence.

Buying things is a distraction. To quote webizen Ken Rockwell, “A camera’s job is to get out of your way.”

A fellow photographer turned her nose up at me recently when she observed that I was shooting with the Nikon D2H, a camera of 2003 vintage. I smiled and kept shooting. My audience isn’t other photographers, it is the reader of our newspaper, our magazine, and my web site. A new camera might make my job easier, but it wouldn’t really make my product better. Nor would it have made my 2010 and 2012 Oklahoma Press Association’s First Place in Photography awards, which the other photographer has never won despite her $6000 camera, any more or less meaningful.

I know. That last sentence seemed like bragging. The point of it was, of course, that once again, you can’t buy mastery, you have to earn it.

Another paraphrase of Yeager: ” ‘What can I do to my camera to make it shoot better?’ Wear it out.”

This image of Squaw Flat was made at first light with a $200 Olympus point-and-shoot camera.
This image of Squaw Flat was made at first light with a $200 Olympus point-and-shoot camera.


  1. “I know. That last sentence seemed like bragging.”

    Wasn’t it Bear Bryant who said it ain’t bragging if it’s true? 😉

    For what it’s worth, my only OPA photography award was for a month, not a year. It was for an image recorded on a 4-megapixel Olympus C750UZ. I never won an award after buying DSLRs and continuing to shoot for the newspaper for another five years.

    However, the OPA did reprint one of my images — taken with the cheapest kit lens that Canon’s ever offered.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that the whole “upgrade” question is out of hand, partially driven by the market cycles of gear-makers, but also partly because Americans tend to be upgrade-crazy regardless of genre.

    Many people I know (not me) buy a new car every three to four years. A new one! Every time a new iPhone comes out, everyone seems to upgrade to it, even if their current phone works just fine. People are the same way about computers, TVs, and even houses.

    I’ve often told people in forums: If you can name specific limitations of your current gear that the new gear would overcome, then it might be worth considering an upgrade.

    (For example, the ISO1600 limitation of my Canon 400D had frustrated me almost daily for three years, eventually overcome by my 60D purchase.)

  2. On our trip to the Maze a couple of years back, you paid me some sort of compliment on my photography. I don’t even remember what you said, but I remember my response: “Thanks, I take that as a compliment.” I immediately realized that sounded asinine. Of course it was a compliment, but coming from you it was more than that to me. I’ve never felt compelled to upgrade my equipment, and reading your post only reinforces my stance. I don’t even know if I have a point to make in responding to this post, other than to say that I agree equipment can only take one so far. Photography has been done well for more years than I’ve been alive, so presumably new technology from the past 40 years doesn’t necessarily make THE difference.

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