My camera can beat up your camera (and other photography myths)

Redbud, Merced River Canyon

Redbud, Merced River Canyon
Canon EOS 10D
2/3 second
F/32 (the only way I could get the shutter speed I wanted)
ISO 100
80 mm

The difference between a pro and an amateur photographer
Want to know how to tell a pro landscape photographer from an amateur? Here are a few telltale indicators:
  • The pro photographer has no emotional attachment to her camera and refuses to invest any energy in the “My camera can beat up your camera” debate
  • The pro photographer is the one with duct tape on his tripod and camera bag
  • The pro photographer is the one pointing her camera in the opposite direction from all the other photographers
  • The pro photographer is the one using the garbage bag to protect her camera from the rain
  • When you ask the pro photographer for his business card, he takes longer than .5 nanoseconds to produce it, and when (if) he finds it, it resembles a used napkin
  • The pro photographer never asks, “How many megapixels is that camera?”
The megapixel myth

For me the last point, this megapixel thing, is a particular irritation, because until we all get wise to the reality that megapixels are not a measure of image quality (they’re merely a measure of image size), the camera manufacturers will continue shoving megapixels down our throats rather than giving us something of real value, like wider dynamic range or clean high ISO performance. And consider this: All things equal (identical technology), the more megapixels on a sensor, the lower the image quality. That’s because increasing the megapixel count requires smaller and/or more densely packed photosites, both of which reduce image quality.

How much resolution do you need? While there’s no absolute answer, consider that many of my most successful images are jpegs captured many years ago with my six megapixel Canon 10D. The riverside redbud image at the top of this post is one of my top sellers, an image that I still sell at 24×36 without apology.

Here are few more of my 6mp 10D jpeg favorites (all images I have no problem enlarging to 24×36 or larger):

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite

Champagne Glass Poppies, Merced River Canyon

Poppy and Surf, Point Reyes National Seashore

Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

What does all this mean?
It’s hard to deny that digital cameras have improved. A lot. But the new technology is greatly underutilized by most photographers, the majority of whom display primarily online and rarely print larger than 12×18. Granted, more megapixels increase the margin for error (ability to crop a usable image from the original image) of any frame. And improved technology give newer cameras better dynamic range and high ISO performance than their predecessors. But most of these improvements are of limited value to the vast majority of photographers.

Of course photography needs to be a source of pleasure. So if it makes you happy to have the newest, fanciest, and most expensive equipment, by all means go for it. But understand that the latest camera is not a shortcut to professional success. If better photography is your goal, and you have a less than unlimited budget for camera gear, increased resolution should be toward the bottom of the dollar priority list, far below essential equipment that will make a tangible difference in your images and serve you for many years, additions like the highest quality lenses possible and a sturdy tripod that’s easy to carry and use.

Added 3/2/12: I’ve been shooting with the same camera since 2008. In that time I’ve purchased lenses, tripods, four new computers (two desktops, two laptops), a new printer, and lots of processing software upgrades. Each of these purchases has made a tangible difference in my results. And while I’ll probably be replacing my four-plus year-old camera this year, it won’t be to add resolution. It will be because the new technology finally gives me significantly better dynamic range and high ISO performance.

Added 3/8/14: I’ve now been using my 5DIII for two years. Is it better than my 10D? Absolutely, not even close. But I’d say that for at least 80 percent of my images, the differences between my 10D and 5DIII images make virtually no practical difference. So three years after this post, I still say that unless you have an unlimited photography budget, if you already have a DSLR of any vintage, you’re much better off spending your money on the best lenses and tripods (and maybe even a workshop or two).

37 Comments on “My camera can beat up your camera (and other photography myths)

  1. Great article…and so true! It’s not the camera…it’s the person behind the camera, and the willingness to get up at 4am to capture a sunrise, or, as you said, to turn the other way and look for a new way to capture a moment. Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. Thanks Gary. Great stuff to consider while I shop for a new camera.
    I’ve got a lot of praise for this blog but I’m off to find my roll of duct tape to apply to my camera bag (which doesn’t need it!)
    Can duct tape fix an “err” message on my Nikon D70?

  3. Great advise Gary. I fell victim to the megapixel myth when I bought my 5D Mark II, but I must admit that I love it. It along with my collection of L glass. Keep up the good work and thanks for sharing your imagry and expertise.

    • That’s a great camera, Jeffery, which I’m afraid leaves you with no excuse if your images are anything less than fabulous. 🙂

  4. Le temps de pose de la première image a transformé cette cascade en un bel abstrait qui me fait penser à une peinture. J’aime beaucoup.

  5. I have a 6 year old Pentax K100d as my photographic tool that I dearly love. Its not the camera that makes the picture its only a recording device. The picture is made 2 inches behind the camera…….

  6. Thanks for the great information. I love your pictures and you are right, it really doesn’t matter what you used to produce them – most important is your feel for whatever camera you use, and your feel for nature, and the artistic. Keep shooting…..

  7. Great post Gary! I get asked the “how many megapixels?” question all the time and I still don’t know the answer! I have always been a big believer in spend your money on lenses, not bodies.

  8. Gary – excellent post. Was wondering what service you use to get a good enlargement (especially the 24 X 36 size) with those size images. Could you share?

  9. Greetings Gary,

    This is not only a wonderful post but one that pieces the truth between the differences, along with bringing about a giant smile.

    Thank you,

  10. Oh, geeze, Gary – that is waaaaaaay too easy!! LOL. Now I gotta go buy CS5!!!!

  11. Oooo, but I *do* value the high megapix… because I can crop the hell outta the image! 😉

  12. Awesome truth, even if it is hard for us amateurs to swallow the painful truth that spending more money won’t improve our images! Very nice.

  13. Thanks Gary appreciate your Honesty and Useful advice here! I Love these nuggets of information. I am taking your advice when I met you in Nevada City during the Christmas time Art show. Bought a decent Nikon, however investing more in lenses! Thanks, Michelle

  14. For a while I used a 6 mp Panasonic FZ7. I loved the pictures I made with it, and got many compliments on some of them when I put them online. Then I got a Nikon D60, 10 mps. On my computer, I could hardly tell the difference in the photos from the 2 cameras. In fact, when I used them to photograph the same subject, I often had trouble telling which was shot with which camera and which was better. I gave the FZ7 to my son, and now have a Panasonic FZ40. It has 14 mp, but I usually use it at 10 mp. Now I use the Nikon or the Panasonic interchangeably, depending on which is better for whatever I want to do at the time I’m shooting. I’ve often wished I still had the old FZ7 too.

  15. Agreed. My best shots so far were with my SonyA100 10 megapixel. Only recently upgraded to the A55 for the new features.

  16. I would also add to the list the best advise I ever received about photography: The professional photographer has the larger trash can.

  17. Agreed with you, Gary (and also with Ulrich above)! I’m still shooting with my 6mpx Pentax K100dSuper, and still regularly selling shots. My tattered pack is held together with zip-ties. I re-use my only optek rain sleeve. My 26 year old tripod had 19 super-glue repairs before it completely fell apart and I got a new one. My filter holder cost me $7 on eeBay. My flash’s battery door is held on by black duck-tape. I suppose, by your outline, I’m a “pro”!! Hahaha! Really like your articles Gary, and your shots even more.

  18. Great article!! I can only agree on all points. If you´re going to invest in new equipment spend it on glass before pixels. But even there you can save some money, I took some of my best pics with a realy old vivitar macro lens that I got of ebay for less then 70$.
    Most people think lots of pixels = good camara. If that was true, then we should leave the “real one” at home and just use our smartphone, it`s so easy to cary…

  19. This is so true…..I can stand next to my cousin Tracy, her with her $90 point and shoot and me with my Nikon DSLR…we can point at the same thing and shoot the same picture…hers will be art, mine will be a snapshot.

  20. Nice article ! You right about it, megapixels are not a measure of image quality.

  21. However, the larger pixel capacity does provide enlargement to a larger print without obvious pixelation…..

    • Undeniably, though if you read the post, you’ll see that one of the points I make is that this capability is vastly overrated for most photographers. The images in the post have two things in common: each was captured with a 6 megapixel sensor, and each has been printed (and sold) at 24×36 or larger. Granted, I’ll reach the pixelation threshold with these image sooner than I will with my 20+ megapixel images, but how many people buying cameras for their resolution (the vast majority) regularly print larger than 24×36 (virtually none)?

  22. So true but so many people just will not listen. Look at the new microsoft camera phone………. something like 42 mega pixels. LOL. and they will sell so many phones because of that ridiculous promotion.

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