The Proper Way to Grow

In a discussion with someone looking into buying their first sophisticated camera, we quickly got to a crux that everyone needs to understand. Simply put: once you’ve completed your purchase will you then begin growing into something or will you be slowly growing out of something? Don’t dismiss this simple thought: it’s the key to long-term satisfaction.

Back in 2003 when I wrote my seminal Tripod article, my Maxim #2 was essentially that you can buy right the first time or you can end up spending much more money over time by working your way up to the right product. This is essentially true for any big ticket purchase that you hope will last you a considerable time: you want to grow into it, not out of it. It’s true of tripods, cameras, cars, homes, and many other costly items you might desire. 

Of course, constant and invasive marketing messages are designed to make you want something today (or delivered overnight), and you only have a limited amount of money available today to spend. Thus, the less expensive products start to look mighty tempting. The only way some people have to get a top level choice that they’ll truly grow into is to go into debt or to wait until they’ve accumulated the cash for it, neither of which is a perfect solution when they just have to have it now.

I’ve watched a lot of folk grow out of something due to their first mirrorless purchase being bought too early or too low (e.g. first generation, or first generation on sale after a new generation appears). I’ve also seen a perplexing number of people buy a Z9 that was so sophisticated beyond their capabilities that they’ll have a hard time growing into it. 

I've mentioned Goldilocks before, and that’s what you’re really looking for: buying “just right.” 

"Just right" to me means that the new camera (car, house, etc.) will serve your current needs while allowing you to easily grow into its full capability over time. For each photographer, new or established, that’s a slightly different point in the available gear, which is why a full lineup of product is necessary to adequately serve all comers. 

A new-to-sophisticated-cameras user (e.g. a young buyer making a transition from smartphone only) is served best probably not by the lowest product in a lineup (e.g. Canon R50), but more likely by something more sophisticated (e.g. Canon R8 or R10). Why? Because then they’ll be growing into the product for a longer period of time. With the bottom model, they may quickly hit a limit on something and suddenly be looking to move up. Moving up quickly means spending more money. Money they might not have had in the first place.

This brings up one alternative consideration: you don’t know if you are really going to be need a big ticket item or not. You may eventually decide you don’t need a sophisticated camera because it just sits in your closet while you mostly just use your smartphone, for instance. This argues for buying the lowest model as a sampling experiment (but only the lowest model). If based upon this sampling you quickly decide that yes, you need a camera, car, house, etc., then you’re right back in my “grow into versus grow out of” construct, and should be buying significantly higher than you currently absolutely need.

Again, a lot of the early mirrorless buying was just that type of sampling: spend the least amount of money to determine if there really was an advantage to you for mirrorless over your older film/DSLR. If that was your first move, your second move should then have been to either (1) jettison the mirrorless sample and double down on the last of the DSLRs; or (2) jettison the DSLR and buy a higher-end mirrorless camera that you could grow into over time. 

Too many people are just iterating at the front edge of whatever the camera companies are hawking at the time (e.g. bought an A7 when it first came out, then bought an A7 Mark II when it was introduced, then bought an A7 Mark III immediately when announced, and so on). Those folks are wasting money. To their defense, an A7 was really their only full frame mirrorless choice at one point, but these folk are so plastered to the bleeding edge of technology that I hope they have a lot of disposable income, because they’re going to be using it ;~).

Today it should be clear to everyone that if they want to keep photographing with dedicated cameras, they need to be making one of the following decisions:

  1. Use what you have. I’m pretty sure that many of you reading this haven’t actually fully grown into the gear you already have. Spend time rather than money. Time to fully learn and master what you already have. That should still be enjoyable. It should still produce excellent photos. Remember, I first wrote “if you can’t produce excellent prints at the maximum size of a desktop printer with any current camera, it isn’t the camera that’s the problem” over 15 years ago. Is your camera over 15 years old? ;~)
  2. Buy higher in what you’ve got. This mostly pertains to the many Canon and Nikon DSLR users. They currently still have choices of cameras and lenses that are more capable than what they perhaps bought five to ten years ago. If you really want to maximize your grow-into possibilities, you should be buying at the top of the current DSLR range. For Nikon DSLRs, that would be either a D850 or D6. Both are still excellent cameras. (This point sometimes also applies to those that bought early in the mirrorless cycle and haven’t moved up yet. Someone who early on bought a Sony A7 and didn’t upgrade, should now be looking at an A7 Mark IV or A7R Mark V.)
  3. Buy high enough in the new world to grow with. Because mirrorless is a new world for those of you coming from film/DSLR, the temptation is to buy low because you’re not sure whether you’ll like it or not. Let me say this: I’ve been working with quite a few pros over the past decade who were making that same transition, and none of them are looking back wishing they hadn’t sold their old cameras. Some are still growing into what they can now do. Canon and Nikon are entering their third generation of mirrorless, while OMDS, Panasonic, and Sony are further along. (I’m not sure how to characterize Fujifilm, as they’ve followed a meandering path.) It’s more than possible today to buy high enough into any of the mirrorless systems so that you’ll have growing capability for some time to come, so don’t cheap out. 

Finally, a word about lenses: this, too, is a place where a lot of folk make the “I’ll sample my way up” mistake. Some kit lenses are decidedly things you’ll grow out of quickly (the Nikkor 24-70mm f/4 being the least likely you’d grow out of quickly, the Canon 24-50mm f/4.5-6.3 IS being one you’re much more likely to grow out of fast). 

The problem, of course, is that good lenses are expensive. So when you couple one or more lenses you can grow into with a camera you can grow into, you end up talking about many thousands of dollars. Yep, quality that will last you awhile is not inexpensive. But I’ll still argue that constantly trying to iterate yourself upwards with new gear is more expensive in the long run. 

The person who triggered my thoughts in this article was initially hesitant about buying higher than they thought they should. Within weeks, however, they realized that my pushing them towards something they could grow into was the right choice. 

Face it, every camera on the market has an “all automatic” mode you can select. That’s like riding a bike with training wheels. As you grow into your new camera you start taking those training wheels off, one by one, and eventually you’ll be a sophisticated user. One who doesn’t need to buy a new camera every year ;~).

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