We all love the idea of upgrading our camera kit, and even more experienced photographers can be drawn to new equipment and get a sense of excitement at the thought of the image opportunities it might open up, although enthusiast and professional photographers tend to look at an upgrade in a far more practical sense than beginners.
Most of us start our photographic journey with one camera and a single lens (or perhaps a standard lens and one additional zoom optic, in a kit). We often crave more gear, thinking this will redefine our photography and enable us to achieve all of the images we seek.
We might then accumulate new items as we progress, sometimes duplicating particular focal length ranges, or camera features, as we replace older kit. Then, as we start to get more ambitious and perhaps even take on professional jobs, we start to re-access our priorities.
For pros in particular, it’s with a certain sense of irony that what they often aspire to when thinking about their ideal gear setup is being able to shoot everything with one camera and one lens. This is largely unattainable of course, due to practical restrictions of not having a backup if something goes wrong on a job. However, such a simple setup would allow the pro to focus on getting the essential shots, free of time-consuming gear decisions and compatibility issues. In the pro arena time is money, so simplicity can mean streamlined assignments, greater job turnover and more revenue.
While it’s sometimes unavoidable that we should need to upgrade from time to time, or bolster our kit bag with new items, it’s important to make sensible, informed decisions. Sometimes a sideways move is best, while on other occasions a big step up may be the best approach. Here we’ve put together a simple guide that will help you to find the ideal upgrade route to achieve your perfect setup.
ROUTE 1: APS-C TO APS-C
A bigger sensor isn’t always the answer
A larger sensor area will almost always have advantages for potential image quality. We’ll further explore the reasons later on, but it’s safe to say that most photographers see a move from an APS-C format camera to a full-frame model as one to aspire to. This is understandable, but we’d be missing out on many desirable qualities if we were to disregard buying another model with the same sensor format, without consideration.
Total resolution and low-light performance are only one part of a much bigger picture when it comes to buying a camera. The APS (Advanced Photo System) was originally devised in the film days, to offer additional features to amateur photographers while also allowing lens design to be more compact and lightweight. There were several types, including ‘H’, ‘C’ and ‘P’, and while APS-H digital cameras did exist – notably the Canon EOS 1D range – it’s APS-C (‘Classic’) that has become the standard.
The APS-C format allows for reduced camera body dimensions, while the smaller image circle enables lenses to have a more compact design than the full-frame versions, a benefit that can be seen in wider-aperture optics such as 70-20mm f/2.8 zooms. On a full-frame camera such a lens can be a weighty piece of kit, and may take up the most of a camera rucksack when mounted on a pro body. Meanwhile, a 50-150mm f/2.8 APS-C dedicated lens can come in at almost half the weight and two-thirds the length, while offering the same effective focal length range. This in turn can enable ultra-fast focusing systems, as less power is required to move the smaller glass elements over a shorter travel distance within the lens barrel.
So while a move to full-frame can be considered a big upward step, don’t forget to check out the higher-end ‘cropped frame’ cameras in your manufacturer’s range. APS-C is no longer considered a budget alternative to full-frame, and over the page we’ll examine the best options.
Another reason to stay with one sensor format is that for pros in particular a second body is essential, and being able to swap lenses without compatibility issues is a huge time-saver. Multiple formats introduce complexity and stress.
Four reasons why sticking with a smaller sensor may be the right decision
PORTABILITY (MORE KIT/AGILITY)
As a simple matter of geometry, a smaller sensor takes up less physical space within a camera body, and also requires smaller lenses. This makes an APS-C setup more portable and lightweight, and therefore great for travel.
The smaller form factor makes APS-C or Micro Four Thirds cameras ideal for street photography, since they’re less obviously ‘professional’ looking, and so attract less unwanted attention from potential subjects and would-be thieves.
The biggest advantage of smaller-than full-frame sensors is the crop factor. This might be a disadvantage at the wide end, but for wildlife and sports photography it gives you greater magnification from your telephoto lenses.
DEPTH OF FIELD AND EFL
The change in depth of field and effective focal lengths between APS-C/MFT and full-frame is quite pronounced, often requiring significant workflow adjustment. This can be an unwelcome additional concern when on a time-sensitive shoot.
Go small and stylish with a retro-inspired design
While this design philosophy is not specific to APS-C, it’s where you get the smallest camera dimensions, while maintaining high specification. Several manufacturers offer this type of camera, but Fujifilm has arguably embraced the form factor more than any other, and has created some true professional options. They might not be true ‘rangefinders’, but the slim form body and minimalist layout make them as collectable as they are portable.
High specification/size balance Reduced dimensions Inconspicuous for street shooting
Handling challenges Smaller viewfinder
Brands such as Fujifilm have embraced the APS-C format. The X-E4 is a pro performer, made using the same sensor and processor as Fujifilm’s flagship X Series cameras
UPGRADE CASE STUDY
Here’s an example of a sideways camera switch within the Nikon APS-C format
This represents a switch many photographers will consider – the move from DSLR to mirrorless. Here we have a popular Nikon entry-level DSLR, with a similar specification to many cameras in its price bracket, and a good mirrorless alternative. We’ve also included some options that users of similar models might want to look at.
Still considered entry-level, the Z50 will also make a suitable backup body for more experienced users. It offers a lower resolution of 20.9MP, but 11fps and a top ISO of 51,200. The 100% viewfinder is a big advantage over the DSLR, as well as 4K video. Also consider: Fujifilm X-T30, Canon EOS M50 Mark II, Sony A6400
ROUTE 2: APS-C TO FULL-FRAME
Follow this common upgrade path to enjoy the advantages of a larger sensor and even more advanced features
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