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Once upon a time the camera body of an SLR system would last you several decades, and then some. Technology made advancements, but for the most part you won't see any groundbreaking advancements from the late 60's to early 80's when the autofocus system came out, at which point camera bodies started a fast track and then digital came to market about 12 years ago.
With the digital age, technology advances very rapidly and our needs and wants from our hardware have continued to grow with each passing day. The major manufactures are putting out new bodies anywhere from 8-16 months right now. That means the model you buy today will be surpassed by a newer version in the next 8-16 months. The trouble is, if you continue to wait till the next newest model to buy, you'll be waiting forever. Complicating matters, you may not need to upgrade your current camera body yet.
To examine whether or not you are really ready to upgrade a camera body, lets break down what features are most important to photographers, as this will help determine if an upgrade is needed. This article assumes you already own a DSLR body and it isn't your first purchase.
- Frames per second
- ISO sensitivity
- Cropped / full-frame sensor
- Physical size
While many other features are important, these five are generally what will sway someone, along with price, to upgrade. Breaking them all down will help you determine if it's time for an upgrade.
Megapixels. It's apparent that the megapixel race is all but over, most DSLR's are falling between the 10 and 24 megapixel range. If you're shooting a DSLR that is below 10mp and you routinely make prints 20×30 or larger, or do heavy cropping, the added resolution will without a doubt help. If you rarely make enlargements or prints at all, and 99% of your work shows up on the web, having more megapixels just means you'll fill memory cards and hard drives faster.
Frames per second. This is an important one for sports shooters or shutter button happy parents. While most entry level cameras shoot about 3 frames per second, that's hardly fast enough to keep up with running kids in the back yard, or professional level sports. Most high end cameras are 9-10 seconds, but just as important is the buffer size, or the number of photos you can capture before the camera needs some time to finish writing the data to the card. If you're often finding yourself in a need to shoot bursts of photos and not getting the frames you need, an upgrade might be due. On the other hand, if you're a more methodical shooter, say of landscapes or still life and work on a tripod, a fast frames per second camera has no real value to you.
ISO sensitivity. Perhaps one of the greatest improvements over the last few years in DSLR bodies is the ISO sensitivity and noise reduction. Not only do new cameras go insanely high in the ISO range allowing you to shoot in darker situations without the use of a flash than ever before, the quality of lower ISO ranges and near total reduction in noise is amazing. If your camera is more than three years old and you shoot at 400ISO or higher on a regular basis, consider an upgrade. The detail and quality in the shadows from newer camera's equipped with better sensors is amazing.
Cropped / full frame sensors. This really only applies to Canon and Nikon shooters, but there is something to be said about each one of these types of cameras. If you're currently on a cropped sensor body, that means there is a magnification factor for each of your lenses. On Canon, depending on the model you will have either a 1.3x or 1.6x crop, Nikon has a 1.5x crop on many of their models. That means a 100mm lens is either 130 or 160mm of actual focal distance, as a direct relation to the sensor size. If you're a wildlife or sports shooter on telephoto lenses, shooting a cropped sensor is like extending your existing lenses a little longer, for free. On the other hand, if you're a portrait shooter or doing indoor architecture, it will mean you'll need to buy specially designed lenses to get you wide enough to fit within the confines of your working space. Upgrading bodies from cropped to full frame, or visa verse both have options that need to be weighed.
Physical size. The size of your DSLR and how you use it can make a huge difference. For example, pro level bodies like the Canon 1Ds series or the Nikon D3 series have integrated vertical grips, they are great for most kinds of photography that require a vertical composition but horrible for someone who does panoramas on a tripod. Likewise, Olympus offers the Pen, a super sub-compact DSLR body that was designed to be taken everywhere without looking or feeling overly cumbersome. Having a body that fits in your hands properly and fits the needs and style of your photography is key.
A few other factors come into play when considering an upgrade, but these are the majority of them. Obviously price, amount of use, wear and tear and what your intentions are for the camera are all considerations too. Since we've already covered how you shouldn't get hung up on your gear, make sure you've exhausted all possibilities with your current setup and reached its limits before investing in more gear.