In the days of film, photography was regarded as an expensive hobby – on top of the cost of cameras, lenses and other assorted pieces of equipment, there was the cost of buying film, processing and printing. It all added up. Digital photography does not seem to attract this stigma, mainly because you no longer need to buy film and you only print what you want to print.
However, if you start to look at it in a little more detail, you will find that it still remains an expensive hobby. When you bought a film camera, assuming you bought a decent brand, it would last you 10-20 years. There was no change in image quality because that was dictated by the film which was a few dollars a roll. In the digital era, there is a relentless march towards better, higher resolutions sensors and increasing amounts of features and modes. There is a pressure on photographers, brought on partly by the camera manufacturers and partly by peers, to always have the latest and greatest camera in the hope that it will improve your image quality. That pressure leads to some photographers renewing their kit every 2-3 years not every 10.
Recently I wrote an article about stepping up to a higher end camera, perhaps I should have done a little more research into what lower end cameras offer these days. There were many comments regarding the fact that, many of the things I had mentioned, were in fact present on even the cheapest DSLRs. Having worked with professional Nikons for most of my photographic life from the F4 through the F100, D200, D2X and D3 I had made an assumption that lower end cameras lacked a lot of features of high end cameras. I was wrong.
Based on the comments received, I started to evaluate my own photographic needs. I had a D3, a D200 and several pro lenses. I compared the features that the D3 had to Nikon’s D5100 and found there was, for my style of photography, very little missing in the D5100 that would cause me a problem. I also found that it had excellent low light capabilities – not as good as the D3 but still very acceptable and it had full 1080p video with a flip out screen that made video work much, much easier. In terms of normal photography the image quality was not far short or, if not on a par with the D3 and it had an extra 4 mega pixels.
With this in mind I started to look at the cost element. My D3, in the time I had it, had devalued by about 60% – ok I had made money from it but a 60% drop in value from such a large initial investment, is certainly something to be concerned about. Looking at the D5100 I realized that this too would drop 60-70% over its lifetime but from a much lower starting price. By buying a D5100, I would still be able to take all the images that my particular style of photography dictates, and as I already had a good investment in the pro lenses there would be no sacrifice to image quality. I would also be able to sell stock video as well as stock photography. With the price of a D5100 body being so reasonable I can update my kit on a regular basis as technology improves or as the camera starts to get old.
So based on all this, I sold the D3 and bought the D5100 and it has been a revelation. Yes there are certain things, I miss – the big bright viewfinder, the weather sealing etc but these are countered by things I didn't realize would find useful. My 14-24 has now become a 21-35 and gets much more use, 21mm is a much easier focal length to work with. The top end of my 70-300 is now 450mm giving me closer crops on wildlife. Most of all and most surprising to me is the flip out screen. Taking low level shots on a tripod with the D3 meant getting down low, often onto my injured knee. With the D5100 I can mount the camera as low as I want, flip out the lovely 3 inch screen and compose standing up, making me more relaxed and creative.
Whilst I appreciate downsizing may not be to everybody’s taste, but, in this age of austerity, it is good to know that you can buy a lower end camera and still maintain the quality of it’s more expensive kin.
Jason Row is a British born travel photographer now living in Ukraine. You can follow him on Facebook or visit his site, The Odessa Files. He also maintains a blog chronicling his exploits as an Expat in the former Soviet Union