Upgrading to used gear and why I did. Should you?
Updated: May 27, 2019
It's no secret that photography is an expensive hobby and profession. Every time you need something new, the cost is always in the hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars. So when it's time to upgrade is it better to go new or used? With the new you generally pay more but get all of the latest and greatest largely untested tech. With used, you can find cameras that are well established and liked in the industry, hold their own against the newest stuff, but can found at a fraction of the cost.
My first DSLR was a $100 hand-me-down Canon Rebel XS that my sister got started with. With the exception of the frequent battery errors, it was an okay camera that allowed me to get my feet wet. After a couple of months (and some luck trading cryptocurrency), I was able to afford a meager $600 upgrade to a new Rebel - the T6i. Better resolution, more dependable, in-camera WiFi, and an articulating touchscreen. While the resolution of the photos got better, my work was still very much amateur.
I spent the next year and a half using the camera, and taking courses and workshops. I was exploring the art and trying to figure out what direction I should I go with it. I tried just about everything - portraits, weddings, birthdays, products, events, headshots, and even fashion. I bought more equipment and tried more things. It took a while but I figured out that I don't care much for portraiture, fashion, or editorial type of photography. I do enjoy working with people and really enjoy the work others do in those fields, but for me I don't care much for creating staged images. I found the most enjoyment working events because I was capturing a moment and telling a story through the images.
This type of work is usually indoors and anything outdoors has variable lighting that requires extreme adaptability. Often in these types of events flash photography is a nuisance, so having a versatile camera that can hold its own in variable lighting conditions is important. I used my T6i for many of these events with mixed results. Part of the problem was the sensor size of the camera. It uses an APS-C or "cropped" sensor which means it has a smaller area to capture light and record a scene. The next size up is the full-frame sensor which is the equivalent size of 35mm film. Remember those? The sensors do get even bigger - medium format and large format, but the cameras are super expensive and are best used in situations where you plan on making really large prints. For anything else, they are overkill. The full-frame sized sensor is the best all-around form factor that many professionals use.
Here's a good diagram that shows the size difference.
During the last couple of years of learning the trade and nuances of photography (with still much more to learn) upgrading to a more professional kit was my goal. I'd spend hours upon hours online researching cameras even though I knew I couldn't afford it. The cheapest entry-level full-frame camera system would easily set me back at least $2,000 for Canon's 6D MK II or mirrorless RP. So, I started saving and continued my research which answered a lot of questions and even created a few more.
I studied the work of others and took note of the cameras and equipment that they used and I started narrowing my list of options. I was torn. Even though I really like the color reproduction of Sony's cameras and in-body image stabilization, all of my current gear was Canon so fiscally, it made sense to stick with it. I posed the question to all of my photographer friends and they responded with mostly pitches for me to buy their used equipment.
One of the offers was Canon's 5d MkIII. The 5D line is one that I had coveted for awhile. And while the MK III isn't the latest in the line and was originally released in 2012 (a lifetime in technology - not so much in the camera industry with its slower release interval), it was better than my Rebel in a lot of ways. The megapixel rating was slightly lower (22.1 MP vs 24 MP which wouldn't be noticeable), however it had much better low-light sensitivity, offered auto-focus point adjustment through the viewfinder, and included a weather sealed body which is great for working outdoors in the Pacific Northwest.
It lacked some of the newer features like built-in WiFi and an articulating touchscreen. When comparing features of new cameras I would take things like that into account, but why? I rarely used them in the camera that I had now. In the end what really had my attention was the price point at which it is was offered and included two professional lenses. Generally, I don't like the idea of buying used equipment because you sometimes end up inheriting other peoples problems, but I knew this photographer took care of his equipment. He offered me a two-week money back guarantee so I could try it out, so I jumped on the opportunity immediately.
The first thing I noticed was how it felt in my hand. It's a bigger camera with a grip that was comfortable and easy to hold on to. The viewfinder had a much larger magnified viewing area, which made framing and focusing shots so much easier. I always hated my T6i for the tiny viewfinder. I was always squinting and found it barely good enough to frame shots, but not good to confidently verify focus especially if I were in a situation where I had to do it manually. I relied heavily on the auto focus.
There was a definitive 'ka-chunk' to the shutter release that I really liked too. Unlike the T6i, it didn't rattle or sound hollow. This camera sounded and felt really solid. The shutter speed was quick and snappy, especially in burst mode. What I really needed now was a good field test.
The next day I had my chance. I was invited t to the Willamette National Cemetery outside of Portland to to take pictures of the Lewis and Clark Young Marines and local Boy Scouts planting flags on the memorial markers in preparation for Memorial Day. The gorgeous 200+ acre site sits on a hill that overlooks much of Portland. The event was late in the day but it was bright and sunny with few clouds, which meant plenty of light in places but also plenty of harsh shadows as the sun cut through the trees. It would allow me to see how well it would adapt to the variable lighting conditions and it offered me a chance to get some really creative shots. It was a perfect test.
At the beginning of the event, we were in a large open area with plenty of light which made for easy shots. As the volunteers split up and began planting flags, I found myself in the shadows of trees and often subjects were backlit and I didn't bring a flash. I was concerned because my old camera wouldn't do well in this situation. When using the Rebel I would never push my ISO (light sensitivity) settings past 400 because the images became too grainy. The results from 5D MKIII, was vastly different. I was able to go beyond 1000 with no real noticeable difference which allowed me a great deal of flexibility as the scene and lighting changed.
The pictures turned out AWESOME. Yeah, it was so good it required all caps. The color and light range that it captured were far superior to what I had previously been accustomed to. Shadows and highlights were more easily recovered in post production and again, the colors. They were so much more vibrant and true-to-life than the T6i.
Since there were so many people involved that would want to see pictures of their kids, I uploaded about 150 shots to an album on my Facebook page.
In closing, if you want to upgrade your gear and you are on a limited budget like most of us, seriously consider buying used. Previous years professional cameras can still hold their own. Outside of improved sensor technology or in-body stabilization (that every manufacture has now except Canon), many new features are somewhat gimmicky and not needed to take good photos.
If you are interested in seeing more of my photography work, please go to www.JoeStonePhoto.com.