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Choosing a Digital Camera: Do You Really Need the Latest, Most Expensive Model?

Updated on April 22, 2013
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Some people are fiends for the latest gadgets. You know the people - the ones that buy a new cell phone every year and stand in line to make sure that they don't miss out.

This is increasingly becoming a possibility with digital cameras as well. Canon and Nikon have bumped up the release schedule for their entry level dSLRs, and both manufacturers put out a new camera about once a year. The Canon t1i, t2i, t3i, t4i, and t5i have all followed each other in rapid succession, as have the Nikon D5000, D5100, and D5200.

This begs the question - are these rapid releases actually improvements or are they just marketing ploys to undermine the used camera market and keep people buying new cameras?

Constant Improvements in Computers and Cell Phones

There are certainly times when electronics progress at a rapid pace.

In the 1990s to 2000s, computers were continuously increasing in speed and power. According to Moore's Law, the number of transistors that manufacturers can place on a circuit will continue to double every two years. Each successive improvement in circuits and chips led to vast improvements in clock speed for home computers.

In 1998, I bought a Pentium III with a clock speed of 450 mhz. Two years later, I bought a new desktop with a clock speed of 1 ghz - double the speed of my earlier one. At that time, increasing clock speeds made computers obsolete within a year or two if you wanted to be anywhere near the cutting edge and play video games.

Likewise, phones are going through a period of rapid development. Manufacturers are incorporating increasingly fast processors in smartphones, and the useful lifespan of a smartphone is only two to three years.

However, part of what drives the need for constant improvement - and the constant obsolescence of your old hardware - is new software. As new hardware is created that can process things more quickly or efficiently, new software is created to take advantage of that hardware.

Today's operating systems, like Windows 7 and Windows 8, simply won't work on a computer from a decade ago. Likewise, modern apps and modern versions of Android simply won't work on the first Android phone.

Hardware and software improvements work symbiotically to force people to upgrade to the latest hardware, and it makes sense to keep up to date with computers and cell phones.

How Digital Cameras Are Different

Here's the problem. The symbiotic relationship between software and hardware doesn't exist for cameras.

A decade ago, when digital cameras were new, there were rapid improvements in terms of resolution and ISO sensitivity. Both of these are important features of digital cameras that are controlled more or less strictly by hardware. Improving these require new image sensors and new image processors. The first digital cameras had depressingly low resolutions, and camera manufacturers invested in rapidly increasing their size the way that computer manufacturers invested in rapidly increasing the clock speed of early computers.

The problem is that after a while, there's really not a whole lot of benefit in more megapixels. Modern point and shoot cameras shoot around 12 megapixels, while entry level dSLRs shoot at 18 to 22 megapixels. Whether you're printing an image or displaying it on a screen, all those extra pixels are just going to go to waste.

Likewise, the low light capabilities of cameras have increased a lot in the last few years. However, entry level dSLRs like the Canon t4i are now capable of shooting at an impressive 12,800 ISO. While there's more to be gained from higher ISOs than higher megapixels at this point, we're still at the point that improvements are overkill and, often, unnecessary.

So Does It Make Sense to Get the Latest Camera?

Well, let's take a look at a couple examples.

Last year, Canon released the Canon t4i / 650D about a year after it had released the Canon t3i / 600D. According this comparison of the Canon t4i and Canon t3i, there are some pretty minimal improvements.

The Canon t4i introduced a new image processor, which increased the effective ISO (from 6,400 to 12,800) and the continuous mode framerate (up to 5.0 fps). The newer camera included a touch screen, and it introduced a new autofocus system that could focus while taking video. These are significant improvements, for some people, but they hardly make the Canon t3i obsolete.

Fast forward a year, and Canon released the Canon t5i / 700D in April of 2013. According to this comparison of the Canon t5i and the Canon t4i, there's hardly a difference at all.

In fact, it's a struggle to even find something to describe as an "upgrade" on the Canon t5i. It's user interface was modified slightly, it had a new finish on the body, and it had a digital zoom.

It's also a clear sign that camera manufacturers are struggling to find ways to "upgrade" their cameras. It seems much more like a marketing gimmick designed to get people to buy and upgrade cameras, the way they do phones, rather than holding on to perfectly useful dSLR cameras.

From 2005 to 2013, Canon has released eight "upgrades" to its entry leve line of dSLRs (the Canon 350D to Canon 700D). In that same time frame, it has released only three upgrades to it's professional grade dSLR - the 1Ds Mark II, 1Ds Mark III, and 1D X.

So what's the takeaway? Don't assume that you need the latest camera on the market. Don't assume that you need to sell your camera and buy a new one when one is released.

Look very carefully at the camera specs and decide whether there's actually anything that justifies buying a newer, more expensive camera. In the context of Canon's line-up, there's just about no need to buy a Canon t5i - the Canon t3i and Canon t4i are both great cameras.

Don't fall for the marketing hype. Buy the camera you need, not the one that Canon or Nikon want to sell.

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