What’s the best camera for <insert your favourite genre or requirement here>? You have probably heard people respond to this with ‘the camera is just a tool’. But what does it mean when they say this?
A technique that is often used to demonstrate the point is two similar images taken with different cameras. Usually an entry level camera (like a Nikon D3400) vs a pro camera (like a Nikon D5). The challenge is to spot which image was taken with which camera. The point to be made here is that you usually can’t tell. Unless you pixel peep. But even then, it’s difficult.
The difference between cheaper cameras and the more expensive ones is not and actually never has been the image quality.
The problem with this challenge is it only considers the camera’s sensor. Obviously the lens plays a part. So to simplify my argument, I’m going to briefly compare two APS-C cameras, which means they both have access to identical glass.
D3400 Vs D7200
These cameras have nearly identical sensors, but very different price points. The difference between cheaper cameras and the more expensive ones is not and actually never has been the image quality.
For example; I have three 35mm film cameras in my drawer at home. Two Olympus OM2’s and an Olympus OM40. The latter was considered an ‘entry level’ camera. Which means the OM2 would have cost more. But I use the same film in both and can use all the same lenses. Which means I can capture identical images with both cameras.
So why the difference in price?
It’s all the additional bells and whistles. Faster auto-focus, more focus points, frame rate, and the ability to change all of these settings on the fly. To name a few. More expensive cameras will also be more robust and likely have weather sealing.
A sports photographer, for example, has a split second to capture that all important moment. A rugby player scoring the winning try of the Rugby World Cup final, A boxer landing a knockout punch or their opponent hitting the mat. These are all moments that happen in an instance before they’re gone forever. And it’s what the newspapers want to buy which in turn, pays the photographers bills.
For the same sports photographer that works outside, they can’t just pack up and go home if it starts raining. They need their camera to be able to cope in the pouring rain. It costs money to add that level of robustness to a camera and the manufacturers certainly aren’t going to give it away for free.
How many times do you see pro photographers with a camera hanging from their hip or slung across their shoulder? The camera needs to be solid enough to take the odd knock without breaking. This means that the photographer can take their mind off of worrying about that camera hanging off of them
Ease of use
I mentioned earlier ‘the ability to change settings on the fly’. What this means is not having to dive in to the menu and scroll through a myriad of options before finding the one you need. The ability to push a button and change a setting in an instant is of huge benefit to a professional photographer. They know where these buttons without having to even look up from the viewfinder, it’s instinctive. This is important because it can mean the difference between putting bread on the table and going hungry.
the D3400 has the potential to produce better images than a D5 due to a higher resolution sensor
Getting the shot
Again, you have to think about how you plan to use the camera, even as a pro. A professional landscape photographer shoots static subjects so doesn’t care about the speed of auto focus or burst rates. For a wildlife photographer, however, these features are a vital point of consideration. As I hinted earlier, it can be the difference between going back to the National Geographic Picture Editor and getting paid or never being hired by a top magazine ever again.
The contrast of the two examples above raises a good point. A Nikon D3400 is cheaper than the D5 (a lot cheaper), but technically speaking, the D3400 has the potential to produce better images than a D5 due to a higher resolution sensor. (24MP on D3400 vs 20MP on D5). But I can guarantee a pro sports photographer will pick the D5 over the D3400 every day.
Manufacturers know, so should you
Nikon know their target audience and that professional photographers will trade off some features against others. The D5 wasn’t built for making enormous prints, it was built to enable pro photographers to get the shot they can sell to online or print media services. Which means that image is only going to be seen on low resolution devices or take up a small section of tomorrow’s newspaper.
If moving subjects aren’t your thing, you’d do well to seriously consider a ‘cheap’ camera.