Photography is a tech-heavy job. Camera companies do a great job of hyping up new gear and creating a fear of missing out. However, very few professionals that I know actually go and splurge on the latest and greatest equipment.
Professional Use and Abuse
Let’s first consider how professional photographers use their gear. Wildlife photographers, for example, may travel to some of the most remote locations on this planet to capture what can only be described as breathtaking photos of our wonderful world. Their cameras and lenses end up in the snow, dirt, and rocks.
Speaking of lenses, a proper wildlife lens carries a proper price. A wildlife photographer may buy a primary telephoto lens only a small number of times throughout their whole career. That lens may be used until it breaks or the photographer makes an unreasonably expensive switch from one brand to another.
As for camera bodies, the story is a little different because of the fact that a new camera may be significantly better than the previous model, and therefore the photographer may choose to upgrade. That said, there are wildlife photographers out there still using gear from over a decade ago and creating incredible work.
The same applies to sports photographers. Sure, many in this niche likely use the latest tech, such as the Canon R3 or the 1D X Mark III, but they are still in a pool of many others using older cameras.
A prime example where photography really hasn’t changed since 2009 is fashion and still life. My own portfolio has images shot on the Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 5DS, iPhone 12 Pro Max, and Kodak 35mm film. Viewers generally can’t tell the difference between a good 5D Mark II file and a good 5DS file. The only times you can is when I crop the 5D Mark II or have really bad light on the 5Ds.
In terms of still life photography, the difference is even less apparent. Take for example old and new medium format cameras. There are plenty of still-life photographers working with old Phase One P+ backs (released in 2008) or even P (released in 2005). Technology-wise, the older backs are relatively terrible, but that’s not a big problem for some full-time photographers who continue to produce high-end work with somewhat dated gear.
So the first reason pros don’t own the latest and greatest gear is because the cost of upgrading often is not necessary and because their old gear is still holding up well despite being beaten up through use.
Upgrading Camera Gear. When and Why?
So when do professional photographers upgrade gear? What causes someone to switch systems or buy a new camera? What I noticed is that photographers often buy two or more identical camera bodies and then use them till the shutter mechanisms die. If there is nothing better on the market to upgrade to, the photographer has the shutter gets replaced for a fraction of what it would cost to buy a new camera, and the repaired camera continues to serve as a workhorse.
This cycle can pretty much go on indefinitely — in certain photography niches, at least — until it makes more financial sense to invest in a new system.
For many, the cost of upgrading is directly associated with the question of “will it make me more money?” For example, I would never buy a Profoto C1 Plus studio light for smartphone photography. But when I won one, I ended up using it every day. I love it, but I would probably never spend money on it.
It’s the same for why I personally haven’t upgraded my DSLR gear to mirrorless equipment yet. It is great tech, I don’t doubt that some photographs need that tech. Many, however, don’t, and that includes me.
So the second reason some professional photographers may not own the latest and greatest camera gear is therefore that there’s no good financial justification for an upgrade when their existing gear is still doing the job well.
Old Gear Is Not Bad Gear
Camera technology has reached a point where sensors are not improving as dramatically with each new generation as they did back in the early years of digital photography. Back in the day, the clients were pushing for more resolution, but the megapixel wars have since somewhat died down.
The mediums for which photographers are producing images have not changed. In digital. it’s all mobile or online use. For print, the billboard is still pretty much the largest use around. There hasn’t been a novel technological advancement requiring working photographers to create images in a new way. There is only diversification of the online and print media that exist. For that reason, there haven’t really been “bad” cameras for over a decade now. No matter the brand, they are generally all capable of producing high-end, quality, commercial work.
So if that’s the case, why do I use a 5D Mark IV and a 5Ds? Well, I use the 5D Mark IV for the ISO range as well as autofocus; it tends to come out on location and general-purpose shooting. As for the 5DS, I use it mainly in a studio or when I know I might need to crop. I prefer shooting with the 5DS, honestly. There is something about it that forces me to slow down, think, and approach image-making more carefully.
The cost of owning a camera consists of many factors. One of them is the depreciation rate. For example, the moment you buy a new camera and pay for it, a good chunk of that cost is burned in depreciation, just like when a new car rolls off the lot. The moment you open that box and take the camera out, you burn a little more of its resale value.
Generally, buying the same product used will cost half as much and be equally as good. The longer you own a camera, the more it depreciates, but tech tends to dramatically lose value in the first few years from release (and even more when the tech becomes outdated with newer features and specs).
Suppose a professional bought a new camera each time one is released. Many photographers may only use their cameras once or twice a week (this may vary depending on their niche, of course), so upgrading to a new body every two or three years after using a camera 100 or 200 times would likely not make good financial sense.
In summary, professional photographers tend to own equipment that makes financial sense to own. That equipment should be sufficient to not limit the creativity of the artist or the quality of the delivered product, but as long as it does not, the photographer would likely benefit from focusing more on upgrading their product rather than upgrading their tools.