Diminishing returns – the new photo equipment question
How much better are cameras and printers getting?
Are the reasons to upgrade your camera kit getting less and less?
I’m very lucky to have a job that I enjoy, as a professional photographer, and via the articles I write here, having the opportunity to try out new equipment and software.
Anyone who’s seen my previous career knows that I’ve had a long involvement with various aspects of science and technology. Indeed I find that writing the reviews and articles here is one of the best ways I have for learning new photographic techniques. I can’t write about a subject until I understand it in depth, and when I understand it in depth, I can then (almost) ignore the technology in my photography, until I really need it (my article about using tilt with lenses is one of my favourite examples of this).
The more I study new cameras and printers, the more I see that some of the fundamental visible image quality criteria are not changing that rapidly any more.
I’m generally looking at fairly high end kit, so if you’re on a budget, then for the time being this means that what you get for your money is still getting better, but the slowdown affects all levels over time.
There is an excellent (long) article on the Luminous Landscape site that looks at historic DxO Mark testing data for cameras and how different aspects have changed over time. It does a great job in dispelling some of the common myths regarding pixel density and noise, as well as addressing some of the factors that affect sensor size choices (i.e. digital MF needs big lenses to get the full benefit from those bigger sensors)
I’ll just pick one example with regard to my own camera choices. The jump in DxO Mark scores is quite noticeable from my old  Canon 1Ds to my  Canon 1Ds mark 3. I skipped a generation (the 2004 1Ds Mk2) and the improvement is noticeable (although I have numerous fine black and white 1Ds prints on the wall at ~25″x15″). The scores for the 1D X are indeed mostly better than the 1Ds3 (so I should hope for against a camera from 2007) but not that much different – enough so that I’ve decided to skip this round in the update cycle (and expect the 1ds3 to work fine until at least 2014-15). [2016: it did!]
We’re still at the stage where new cameras can make a difference in some areas of work, so the fast AF and high ISO of the 1D X will be important to some, but before long these will tail off in increments too.
It might be hoped that some new disruptive technology will come along and massively boost camera performance – Foveon is the example many think of, even if it was never quite as great as many wished it could be.
OK, but in what noticeable ways will this wonder technology improve image quality – will it diminish the amount of ‘less than optimal images’ published on social media networks? Will it take better photos?
Of course not, that takes interest and dare I say it, some practice .
Yes, I do know that most people taking photos and posting them are not interested in the merits of the images from a photographic point of view, but I’m talking of the stuff I see specifically posted as examples of people’s photography that gets uncritically praised to the heavens, especially the big name internet photographers that seem ‘famous’ for… sorry I’m not quite sure why they are famous at all?
Cameras are undoubtedly getting better in basic image quality over the years, but unless you’re investing in good lenses, the differences are going to get ever smaller. Of course, there will be more whistles and bells added (GPS, WiFi, software, video) but the fundamental image quality improvements will soon be invisible to the majority of people buying the cameras, even if the pixelpeepers on the forums continue to show 100% crops of coloured pencils.
In many ways, this is a great time for lens design. Computerised design methods and new glass types and coatings are allowing for lens performance figures that put many older lenses to shame. There is a reason why a lot of old lenses are practically worthless, particularly zooms.
Of course most photographers can’t justify £2000 lenses, but the benefits are being seen in the much improved ‘kit lenses’ now found with many DSLRs and the expanding range of shorter back focus designs appearing for various mirrorless cameras.
There will always be products for the expensive third party primes’ fan, even if their overall workflow from lens to print has weaknesses that probably outweigh any benefits of the good glass (see also an older article of mine where I wondered about the ‘Emperor’s new clothes effect’ for 3rd party prime users ;-)
As with sensor improvement, the proportion of people really producing prints that show the benefits of the ‘latest bestest’ glass is perhaps not as many as might like to think.
I make large prints and have a printer that will take 44″ width roll paper – some of my prints really do push the limits of what I can get from my 1Ds3, but the majority of my commercial work only ever needs to be able to make an A4 page (sometimes a double page spread) – most clients do not need nor want any more detail.
When it comes to printing, I’ve a Canon iPF8300 large format printer – we obtained it after I’d reviewed the smaller iPF6300, which I deemed to be a useful (although modest) improvement over the older iPF6100 I’d previously reviewed.
Well, now there is an iPF6400 and I hope to look at it in the new year – will this make me replace the 8300 with an 8400?
Very unlikely, since the print quality improvements are likely to be almost un-noticeable to most people. That’s not to say that the 6400 won’t be better in a number of ways, but not obviously so in the one area that matters most to me.
At the more affordable end, desktop printers are getting better and easier to use, during a recent review of Canon’s PRO-1 I wondered just how many more ink cartridges we would see, beyond the 12 it packs?
In terms of print quality there really is little difference between the new PRO-1 and say the Epson 3880.
Sure, there are numerous feature differences, but how many people are going to look at an A3 print and see that it’s from one compared to the other?
Most people printing on one of these current generation printers would gain far more by learning about; composition, understanding their camera, RAW processing, print sharpening and the basics of colour management, than by wondering about upgrades in the near future. Indeed after giving a few lectures recently I did write up a few ideas about better photography without so much expense
Pity the poor marketing departments that have to come up with more and more features to convince you to upgrade ;-)
Expect ever more features to differentiate products in what are, all too often, essentially meaningless ways…
Next time you look at a camera or printer advert, just ask yourself whether the photo used could have just as well been taken on a different make of camera, or printed on another printer – almost certainly.
From my own (business) point of view it’s great that good photography is used to market products – buy the new model X DSLR and instantly your images will look like these from a great photographer. Like my photos? then you too only need the same camera/software/printer I use.
All you need to do is spend some money – all that tedious learning of skills is so last century… ;-)
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