A number of my friends dream of the day they will save enough money to own an expensive, full-frame DSLR. One friend has gone so far as to abandon his point-and-shoot and swear off photography. For him, it’s either full-frame or nothing.
As I often point out, for most people, gear will only make a few percent (under 10%) difference in the end result. An eye for a good shot, proper lighting and technical knowledge is what essentially makes or breaks a photo. It is rarely the camera or lens.
Check out this video where the photographer compares an $800 beginner kit with a $5400 professional one:
(Canon Rebel T5i with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 lens vs Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II lens)
You can see that the difference in the images taken is negligible. The budget kit actually gives a slightly warmer and better result straight out of the camera (SOOC). As he points out, a camera gear six times more expensive will not give you six times better results. Not that you could easily quantify the latter.
Why buy a professional full-frame DSLR?
Now you may ask why people would even go for an expensive kit if the difference is so small. Why do professionals spend so much on their kits? Indeed, why did I put all my savings (and more) into high priced lenses and a pro body? Because there are certain types of shots and conditions where a budget camera simply won’t perform. Frankly, few people have the eye or the stomach required to take such photos.
High-end cameras and lenses include weather sealing that is essential if you are shooting in the great outdoors. Their durability is legendary. My Mark III has been hit on rocks and been covered in snow quite a few times, but the thing is unstoppable. In contrast, a cheap kit can be easily damaged or even destroyed by the elements. Dust, rain, snow and heat should not be taken lightly.
Another major advantage is in very low-light conditions. In bright daylight, even your mobile phone camera will give pretty decent results. Similarly, a budget DSLR will perform nicely with studio lighting. But try mounting it on a tripod for a long-exposure night shot. The heat generated by the sensor will cause significantly more noise. Don’t even bother trying to shoot handheld in such lighting conditions. Do it if you simply aim to preserve memories.
That said, some of the newer mid-range cameras now offer impressive low-light performance. It can be close to or even surpassing that of a full-frame DSLR.
Let us come to lenses. A high-end lens will include climate protection and a tougher body. The buttons, the mount and the focus/zoom rings have seals which will keep out dust and moisture. Even the front glass will likely have a scratch resistant coating.
And the main feature one usually pays for is a bigger aperture (f/2.0 vs f/4.0, for example). This is useful for getting amazing depth-of-field (DOF) shots, but more commonly, is really useful in low-light. Without a f/2.8 lens, my Milky Way photos would probably have come out less than interesting. It is easier to capture live performances at a theater or a tiger stalking its prey at night.
Other advantages include sharper and less distorted images.
These last few statements may have convinced you to do exactly the opposite of what I had initially intended. However, be aware that current consumer cameras have improved by leaps and bounds. They offer features and resolutions that are comparable to, or even surpass, the top models. Remember that things such as composition, location, lighting and timing matter a lot more than gear.
Some mid-range DSLRs, like the Canon 7D Mark II, even include a certain amount of weather sealing. It may not be sufficient for extreme conditions, but will be just fine in a light drizzle. Lens distortion and lack of sharpness can also be corrected in post.
Then there are the not so obvious advantages. A pro body or lens stands out. People become more alert, wary and in some cases, hostile. A point-and-shoot or beginner DSLR are discreet and will likely go unnoticed.
Instead of throwing money away on expensive gear, think about accessories you could add to your kit. Intervalometers, filters, a good tripod etc. Spend your money to get to an exotic place. You will get you much better shots than sitting at home with a better camera or lens. And usually for a lot less.
And unless you plan to use your photos professionally, just crank up the ISO in low light. A little noise won’t hurt.