The Upgrade Path

The ideal upgrade path involves the following:

  1. Select a system
  2. Purchase decent quality equipment within that system to meet your immediate needs
  3. Become familiar with that equipment before purchasing more equipment
  4. Perceive a need prior to purchasing more equipment
  5. When you upgrade, keep the old equipment as a backup
  6. Camera bodies will probably become obsolete before they wear out

Selecting the brand of the system

I’m going to start with a caveat, here. I am not sponsored, and no company pays for me to write about this. It’s my opinion. After you select a system brand, you won’t pay much attention to other systems, unless something earth-shattering happens. I won’t say “never change systems,” but understand that after you’ve gotten beyond entry level, changing systems is expensive.

I don’t pay attention to brands other than Canon, Nikon and Sony. There are other brands that make good products, including Pentax, Fuji, Olympus, Leica and Hasselblad. I don’t see them in the wild, much. When I’m shooting sports, I see Canon and Nikon, with Sony making serious inroads with the younger set and video shooters. When I’m teaching classes, I see Canon and Nikon, with a few Sony and a different brand every five or ten classes.

If you go with Canon or Nikon, you are in the mainstream. If you go with Sony, you are close to the mainstream. If you go with another brand, you are going off the beaten path. The system may work well for you, but you will have to hunt more for parts, accessories and repair services. With Canon and Nikon, the brands are so popular that they can manufacture them in high enough quantities that they can keep the prices lower. Third party manufacturers make equipment specifically designed for these two camera brands. This is important, because overall DSLR sales are falling, as cell phone cameras eat away at the low end of the market.

The lens mount and internal electronics keep you within a system. While Canon, Nikon and Sony obviously don’t like the idea of you purchasing a competing brand lens to work with your system, they also use electronics for the flash, camera and lens to communicate. Each manufacturer will make sure their equipment works with their lenses and flash units. They don’t care if they make an upgrade that breaks the electronic communication with a third party lens or flash.

Canon has some of the best values on lenses, but their cameras tend to be on the high cost side for cost/features. Their cameras are reliable and tough, but for the company that popularized DSLR video, they’re starting to get passed up by Nikon and Sony in camera features and performance.

Nikon tends to make cameras that have a better price to performance ratio. Their lenses are excellent, but tend to the high side on cost. As of this writing, they are ahead of Canon on features and performance in camera systems.

Although Sony has been in the digital camera game since digital cameras became a thing, unlike Canon and Nikon, they do not have a film history to speak of. As such, they’re more experimental than the other two. Where Canon and Nikon cameras reach back to their film legacy, Sony cameras are digital from the ground up. This makes them a hard system to peg. For years, the mechanical systems that made 35 mm film cameras so effective have been fused into the Canon and Nikon systems. Sony went towards the system from the perspective of a camcorder manufacturer, and their solutions are different. For years, they were hobbled by the fact that the electronics hadn’t caught up with the mechanical systems that had been used and refined since the 1930s. The electronic shutter was laggy. The camera used more electrical power, so battery life was short. It took longer to wake up from sleep mode. As the computerization improved, those problems began to disappear, and in some instances, the Sony started exceeding the capabilities of the competing Canon and Nikon cameras. Sony’s lens and accessory ecosystem is still behind the other two, and because there are fewer third party manufacturers making Sony mount lenses, the options are even less. However, Sony has developed a basic infrastructure of lenses that will suit the majority of photographers, and they’re working hard to catch up in the telephoto area. Super specialty lenses, like tilt shift, are on the far distant horizon, if at all.

So, which system? Canon and Nikon are the safe choices for now. Sony MAY be the future.