Do I need the latest greatest camera

to take good photographs?!

Back in the good old days I was a 35mm (full frame) Canon SLR film camera user, a member of the Bureau of Freelance photographers, had my own dark room, etc, but eventually I got fed up of carrying around a selection of large heavy lenses which ended up more often than not being left at home unless I was going on a specific photo shoot. As well as my full frame Canon DSLR I have been using small Micro Four Thirds (MFT or M4/3) sensor mirrorless equipment so ultimate image quality won't theoretically be as high as the larger (APS-C or full frame) sensor cameras especially at higher ISO settings but the smaller size and lower weight of the camera and lenses makes it easier to carry around and therefore less likely to be left behind to miss that once in a lifetime shot!

In fact, despite the smaller sensor, my Panasonic G9 actually had higher dynamic range than the Canon 5D MKIII full frame Pro camera at moderate ISO and the G9 could do many incredible things I appreciate that the 5D3 is incapable of, like pre-burst mode where it can take 30 photos immediately before you press the shutter enabling you to capture sudden fast action, not to mention having the incredible 5 axis image stabilisation built in (one of the best systems in the world) allowing slower than normal shutter speeds for static subjects which in turn means you can use lower film speeds (ISO) which can negate the sensor noise disadvantage.

Reading the various camera forums it is easy to think that only the best and latest systems with the biggest sensors will do but I think it is very easy to get carried away and lose perspective. On photography forums (Fora?) you see endless, often quite heated, arguments claiming that you need the biggest sensor to avoid digital noise and that brand A is far better than brand B which must be rubbish and can't possibly take a good photograph.  I sometimes wonder if these people ever actually take any real photos or just spend all their time reading camera specification sheets and arguing on forums, like some sort of "Top Trumps" game.  Yes, all things being equal, a larger sensor with lower pixel density, will potentially, in low light situations, give you a "cleaner" looking photo.  And yes, if you need a camera for specialised photos like fast sports or photographing Birds In Flight (BIF - One of the most difficult subjects to photograph) then cameras with faster frame rates and better "Tracking" focussing capabilities will be a distinct advantage. 

However the most important element is actually the photographer and the most important thing to do is to actually just take photos and learn to get the best out of whichever camera you currently use. Strangely enough the more you practice and experiment the better your camera will get!  Even the lowliest enthusiast level camera these days can produce images technically better than the top multi thousand pound/dollar professional digital cameras of only 15 years ago which still seemed to produce cover photo quality images OK back then.  In truth, for most people, almost any modern enthusiast level digital camera is capable of producing images of more than adequate resolution/quality even for large poster size prints let alone for on-line use for which they are actually over kill and will need to be reduced in size.  I have a photo I took of a sheep 50 yards away with my Panasonic G80 camera (a generation before my G9) using the small 14-140mm Zoom lens which came as a kit lens with my older Panasonic G6 (which is a good lens but not regarded as being as high quality as my Leica lenses).  When you zoom right into that photo down to pixel level you can actually read the serial number on the sheep's ear tag, detail you would never even see in a 10"x8" print, so how high a resolution do you really need?!  Now I am not going to deny that I also love my 51 megapixel Canon 5DsR DSLR and there are some situations where it's faster more accurate focussing on things like Birds In Flight (BIF) and ability to crop in on far distant objects and retain detail because of it's huge pixel count have enabled me to capture photos I wouldn't have otherwise been able to BUT it, especially with the Sigma 150-600mm C lens, is a large and heavy thing to carry about so often times I don't take it with me especially if going for a casual walk whereas my Panasonic GX80 and tiny 12-32mm lens can effectively always be with me in my pocket.

If you look at my flickr gallery even my old Panasonic G6, which technology wise is four generations older than my current G9 and can be picked up on ebay now for little more than £100, produced some nice looking images e.g. the Arisaig sunsets or the Fladda Island Lighthouse. Even my  2003 4 megapixel Canon Ixus point and shoot camera still produces nice photos!  In an art gallery when you see a nice water colour picture do you stand a couple of feet away and admire the artistry as it should be viewed or do you push your nose up against the picture and criticise the fact that you can see brush marks or bare paper through the paint?  As a bonus, the current trend for moving towards mirrorless cameras has meant that there has been a glut of high quality DSLR cameras hitting the secondhand market at extremely affordable prices and these still take photos as good as they ever did putting high quality equipment within the reach of many more people, I certainly couldn't have afforded my Canon 5DsR at the original price. 

Even more recently I picked up an old MK 1 Canon 7D DSLR in very good condition for under £100.  That Camera still produces just as good a photo as it did back in 2009 when it was regarded as Canon's semi-pro flagship APS-C Sensor camera and cost nearer £1,500.  It has exceptionally good/robust build quality with weather sealing and a solid Magnesium shell (built like a tank, and weighs it!) and despite "Only" having an 18 Megapixel sensor and, by modern standards, poor low light/high ISO capabilities it produces photos with a lovely colour and smooth ethereal quality to them.  On top of that despite having a relatively limited number of focus points and few tracking capabilities it actually seems better at focussing on birds in flight than my Panasonic G9!  Looking at the photo quality I wonder if some of the modern cameras can sometimes be "too sharp" to the detriment of the final photograph!  I actually bought it as a "disposable" camera to use in my kayak when I didn't want to risk ruining my "good" cameras but it is so nice I don't want to risk the 7D either now!  It goes to show though if you can get over the obsession with needing the latest greatesty gear you can take up more "advanced" photography reasonably cheaply. With a cheap secondhand "Nifty Fifty" (Canon 50mm f/1.8) you could have an outfit for little more than £100 and a Canon 55mm-250mm Zoom you could have a decent versatile outfit from portraits to short range wildlife for under £200.  As another bonus I was able to load the free "Magic Lantern" software onto it to give it new features/capabilities which Canon never gave it from new.

In the real world, away from the camera forums, people look and just see a "nice" picture or an artistic image, they don't sit there enlarging a photo to 100% and pixel peeping. So don't be put off, get out there and take photos, even if it is only with a compact camera or your phone!

If your camera is capable of saving photos in RAW format as well as the normal JPEG format then please read my article on using RAW format and how, with post processing, it can unleash the full capabilities of your camera sensor. Even if you don't use RAW format now I would strongly advise you to save RAW format files anyway because if/when you do discover the power of RAW and the astonishing results you can get with post processing you can re-visit some of your old photos and may discover hidden gems you had otherwise overlooked (I know I have!).  For me the improvements I got using RAW format and post processing was actually the equivalent of me buying a new upgraded camera the difference was that dramatic and opened up a whole new level of creativity. In addition much of the post processing software available today has very effective digital "noise" reduction built in (I use DXO Photolab Elite 7) which can dramatically decrease the appearance of digital "noise" in photos allowing even older cameras with less efficient sensors to perform in low light/high ISO conditions better than they could when they were first released.

Update: Purely because of my frustration with the capabilities of my Panasonic G9 to reliably focus on birds in flight( It was brilliant at everything else - and the newly released Panasonic G9 MK II may now have fixed the focus problems but came out too late for me) I traded in almost all of my Panasonic Micro Four Thirds equipment for a Canon R7 APS-C mirrorless camera which despite a larger sensor made a smaller lighter package when coupled with the Canon RF 100-400mm lens than my G9 did with the PL 100-400mm which obviated many of the size/weight advantages of the M43 system (and was cheaper too!) and the increased pixel count/resolution of the sensor more than made up for the difference in reach/crop factor.  I am very happy with the Canon R7 and the autofocus/tracking works like magic compared to the original Panasonic G9. It has also allowed me to consolidate to a reduced set of lenses most of which, with an adapter, I can now use with both my 5DsR and R7 (and now the 7D too!).


Hickling Broad at Dawn Canon Ixus 400 4mpixel 2003

A misty dawn on Hickling Broad.

I still like this photo taken in 2003 on my first ever digital camera, a simple 4 megapixel Canon Ixus 400 point and shoot compact camera I bought a month earlier. 

The digital noise in the low light from the old small sensor just added to the atmosphere.

I still have this fully working camera today (2024 - 21 years later!).  These cameras sell now on ebay for less than £10 including postage!