The holiday season, and the rash of sales that goes with it, always inspires a simple question: “what purchases would make an improvement to my photography business?” But, the more pertinent question, far less often asked, is: “do I really need to make any purchases at all?”
One thing you should probably know about me upfront is that I have an acute case of a failure to leave well enough alone. In some ways, this refusal to settle has helped me significantly throughout my life. I severely doubt I would have the career I have today were I to have been willing to settle for the images I created at the beginning of my photography journey. It is precisely my complete inability to be satisfied with things that leaves me little choice but to continually try to improve, even if that trying to improve doesn’t always quite work out.
Of course, that drive to constantly be reworking things has a detrimental side as well. The old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” was created for a reason. And sometimes, tinkering with a good thing doesn’t result in a great thing, but instead in finding oneself back at square one. On a side note, I was going to write “find oneself chasing waterfalls” at first. But, as that would give readers like myself of a certain age immediate TLC flashbacks, I opted for far less musical phrasing.
But, back to our regularly scheduled programming. In my case, the failure to settle for what I have can often lead not only to a waste of time, but also a significant waste of money. This might not be so bad were I to have simply stuck with my career as a writer. After all, ink can only cost so much. But as a photographer, constantly trying to improve your gear can mean a constantly declining bank account.
Enter into our story the question posed in the title to this essay and the curious case of the Nikon D850. If you are a regular reader of my rather wordy columns, you will likely be well aware that I am a Nikonian. The Nikon D200 was the first digital camera I ever bought. And my career over the last 15 plus years has been largely a succession of the latest and greatest Nikon bodies. I work in commercial advertising photography, so my version of the latest and greatest usually means Nikon’s high-megapixel offering. At the moment, that is the D850, although I currently have a Z 7II on order as well. More on that in a minute.
I won’t go on too much about my personal business needs, but I’ll give you the broad strokes for context. The majority of my work is in commercial advertising with a handful of editorial assignments thrown in. I shoot mainly for activewear and fitness brands. So, I shoot athletes. I don’t shoot documentary style from the sideline. Thus, I don’t need a hyperspeed shooter like the D6. But my subjects do move a lot and usually at a rapid pace, so I do need a body with excellent autofocus tracking. A fast burst rate doesn’t hurt, but again, I’m not so much spraying and praying as I am usually in full control of my setups. So, if I were to miss due to a slow frame rate, I usually have the option of having the model repeat the action. Usually. Because the work I shoot is often used in print advertising of various sizes and is often cropped in multiple ways due to client needs, more resolution is better, hence why a camera in the 45-megapixel range is preferable to one in the 24-megapixel range for my use case.
If you read all of that and said to yourself that the Nikon D850 is the perfect camera for me, you may be right. In fact, you might even think the answer is obvious. Perhaps it is. I’ve had my D850 going on three years now. It has gone in and out of every kind of job imaginable. It has shot for both major and minor brands. The files it has produced have been used in print and on Instagram. The subjects before its lens have spanned celebrities to corporate cost accountants. I’ve used it for work and for play, capturing everything from street photography to wildlife. It has literally handled everything I have thrown at it without giving even a hint of not being up for a job.
If I’m being honest, it’s even been a more adept video camera than I often give it credit for. As the year comes to an end, I’ve been doing the usual update to my directing reel. It blends video footage from all the campaigns I’ve shot, including many of my favorite motion projects. The footage in my reel is a mix of all types of different camera systems depending on the needs of the production. But, as the person who shot that footage, it is impossible for me to deny that a significant amount of that footage was shot with my D850 as well. It may not have great autofocus for video, but manual and zone focusing have worked for years prior to the advent of mirrorless cameras, and I don’t see why they would stop working any time soon.
Of course, that’s not to say that the D850 is the most advanced hybrid still and video camera on the market. Nowadays, it’s not even the best video camera in the Nikon lineup. In fact, one of the motivating factors for me preordering my Z 7II was how much I found myself enjoying the Z 6 and Z 6II. Originally, the mirrorless cameras were picked up purely to serve as standalone video cameras. But the Z system has proven to have a lot of the same perks as the Nikon DSLRs I’ve held so many times in my hands over the years. I still prefer the sensation of using an optical viewfinder when shooting stills. I just feel more in touch with my subjects when shooting without a digital readout between us. But the eye detection and immediate video options of the Z system add unmistakable positives as well. Surprisingly, the things that have really appealed to me most about the Z system aren’t the camera bodies at all. It’s the lenses. I keep wishing there was some way to put the Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S onto my D850. But, alas, no such luck.
Of course, another thing happened around the time I was upgrading to the D850 three-plus years ago. Around that time, I was also rounding out my first year writing for Fstoppers. I can’t say that I was ever any more susceptible to gear acquisition syndrome than the next photographer prior to writing this column. My camera-buying decisions were fairly straightforward. Just buy the new Nikon high-resolution DSLR. Or, perhaps more specifically, buy every other version as I tended to skip a generation. I spent very little time reading about cameras and gear online. I was fully aware that other camera brands existed, but never gave much thought to whether or not a competitor had made an incremental improvement in one area or another. Those things tend to even out over time. And my camera served its purpose, which is all that mattered.
Of course, writing for a website centered around photography and with a very large amount of gear-related content, it was always going to be impossible for me not to learn more about the competitor’s offerings. And knowing more about the offerings, there was no way that knowledge wasn’t going to trigger my OCD and start me wondering whether or not I could improve on the gear that I already had.
Not that I’m blaming Fstoppers. You should read this site. Especially my column. I'm joking. Well, sort of. But I’ve definitely found myself doing a lot more tinkering to my gear bag over these last few years than might have been necessary. I’ve purchased some amazing cameras and products, to be sure. Some have even gone on to be incredible investments and have made a marked difference to my efficiency and even my aesthetic (usually the lighting purchases as opposed to the camera purchases). But that's a story for another day.
But despite the multitude of new camera systems I’ve bought into in the last couple of years, I do have to ask myself the question: “am I really any better off than I was a few years ago since I bought my D850?” I’m not talking about what I want, but what I actually need. I’m not talking purely specs. But, in day-to-day working practice, has all that money spent actually uncovered a more efficient camera for my unique needs? Have any of the new cameras helped me to achieve a result I couldn’t have achieved with my D850?
To be clear, these new cameras are amazing. I’m currently doing an in-depth review of the new Nikon Z 6II, and so far, it is truly awesome. I’m also presently checking B&H at least three times per minute as I eagerly await news that my Z 7II has shipped. This little waiting game Nikon seems to like to play with me by having their new releases always take a long time to ship is perhaps the only gripe I have with our marriage so far. Of course, I went through this same waiting game three years ago when I got my D850, and that proved to be worth the wait. So, this time around, I was sure to place my order within hours of the official release announcement. I figured that would do two things. One, it would hopefully bump up my position in line. And two, while I waited, it would give me ample time to change my mind in the event that I determined I didn’t really need to upgrade after all.
I’m still planning on getting the Z 7II, by the way. So, this isn’t an article about how I’m pulling out of my preorder or how I don’t think that camera will be worth the investment. But, as I wait for my own copy to ship and continue to use my D850, the sheer effectiveness of that camera continues to demand an answer. Clearly, there is no such thing as a perfect camera. Even if there was one, it would only be replaced by a more perfect camera in three months. Such is technology these days. But, if we accept that there is no such thing as a perfect camera, then might we do better to ask ourselves if the current camera in our possession might already be the best system for our needs?
I wish the D850 had the video capabilities of the Z system. I wish the Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S would mount to it. I wish it was a tad bit lighter. I wish it had eye detection. But, the simple fact of the matter is that, through years of professional use, it hasn’t let me down once. It’s suited up, game after game, and done its job. Performance-wise, even without the mirrorless perks, I continue to get just as many shots in focus, if not more, as with the newer cameras. 45 megapixels has proven to be a really solid sweet spot for me. Enough for my clients to have multiple cropping and printing options. Not so big that the files overwhelm my hard drive. Long story short, it does exactly the things that I need it to do, does them well, and fits my hand like a glove.
Of course, this isn’t really a story about the D850. I’m sure you probably have your own version of this story regardless of what camera system you are using, that one tool that simply provides everything you need. What this story is really about for me is appreciating the tools that you already have at your disposal. As they say, the grass is always greener on the other side of the road. But, more often than not, if you look at those gifts already present in your life, you might just realize that you already have what you’ve been looking for all along.