When is a new camera worth it? How to escape the constant upgrade cycle

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When it comes to large and expensive purchases such as cameras, lenses, and other photography equipment, buyers want to feel certain they’ve made the right choice. Reassurance, however, can be hard to come by when advertising talks about better models coming next year, and even a new product’s packaging documents show off newer accessories and discuss future improvements..

This constant release of “new and improved” is enough to make even the best photographers question whether their camera is in need of an upgrade. In reality, while some new features may prove worth the exchange, there are often diminishing returns in what new hardware can deliver when it comes to improving one’s craft.

Read on to learn what to watch for when purchasing a new camera, and how to differentiate between what’s worth it — and what’s only a drain on your wallet.

What is planned obsolescence?

Planned obsolescence is a common business strategy in which an organization takes deliberate steps to ensure a product becomes out of date or useless within a certain period of time.

A great example of planned obsolescence in action is the smartphone in your pocket. Every year the top brands release the newest model with “updates” and “improved features.” As friends and family discuss these new capabilities, you may start to feel like your smartphone is a little out of date or not as good as others. Without even consciously realizing it, you’ve set your current smartphone model on the path to becoming dated. The issue isn’t just a matter of perception. Devices often lose functionality just in time for the release of a new version, either through new software that refuses to cooperate with old hardware, or hardware that was intentionally designed to fail after a certain period of time.

Companies use planned obsolescence for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the first and most obvious is to increase demand, which increases profits. Yet not all of a company’s motives are self-serving. Many businesses use planned obsolescence as quality control to help ensure consumers have positive experiences with their products. For example, with fewer older models in use, repair technicians can become experts on a small number of models instead of trying to learn how to fix 30 different devices. Yearly product updates also tend to correct common problems found in previous models, which can mean fewer customer issues and less frustration while using their device.

When do you need a new camera?

While there are customer benefits to planned obsolescence, it can still be difficult to know when you’re feeling the pressure of a well-timed business strategy versus when you’re really in need of an upgraded product.

One of the best ways to combat the effects of planned obsolescence is to distinguish between your wants and your needs. Ask yourself the following questions:

If your camera is operating correctly and capable of doing everything you need it to, then your feelings to upgrade are most likely stemming from a place of want, not need. “Wants” aren’t bad, but being able to separate them from your needs is essential when making big financial decisions — like deciding to drop several thousand dollars on a new camera or lens.

Alternatives to buying a new camera

Buying a new camera isn’t the only way to give your photography chops an upgrade. There are several, lower-cost alternatives that can often be just as effective at helping you produce spectacular photos.

Use software

Investing in high-quality photo editing software like Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop can improve the quality of your images for a much lower price than the cost of a brand-new camera. Professional photographer Rick Carpenter explains that every image goes through three stages:

“That middle portion, where the photo is manipulated, that’s where we have choices,” says Carpenter. “We can either let the camera do it internally, or we can do it ourselves using software or computers. With software, I can take an older camera, process my images through Photoshop, and have 98 percent of all the capabilities that the latest and greatest camera on the market has. That's the beautiful thing about software. It closes the gap.”

Buy add-ons for your phone

Many amateur photographers think they have to own a standalone camera in order to be successful in the industry. But most of today’s smartphones already feature a high-quality digital camera that’s small enough to take with you everywhere you go. The development of photo editing apps like Adobe Express have made it easier than ever to start taking high-quality images without needing to buy a camera first.

If you’re enjoying the niche market of smartphone photography, then your money may be much better spent improving the equipment and tools you’re most familiar with rather than buying a whole new piece of equipment. Smartphone add-ons that can help you take better pictures include tripods, lenses, and lights.

Optimize your images

In a digital-first world, you can’t discount the value of learning how to optimize your images for the web. Being able to reduce the file size of your images without reducing their quality will increase the versatility of your images and improve the user experience by reducing load time.

Creating less lag-time between pages makes visitors more inclined to browse through your portfolio and return frequently to show others the images that appealed to them. Proper optimization techniques can also improve your SEO rankings, which will help increase website traffic and ultimately grow your reputation as a photographer. Putting some work into getting your name and your photos out to the world may prove more beneficial much more quickly, compared to buying the latest camera model.

“It’s not about your equipment,” says Carpenter. “Gear doesn’t make someone a good photographer. It’s about your ability to see creatively and compose images. It’s about your ability to get out there. With the right post-processing, you don't need to spend thousands of dollars to have amazing photos.”