Money does make you a better photographer

Money does make you a better photographer
Straw on a thatched roof

Copyright notice: all images in this article were taken by the author, all rights are reserved.

As with so many hobbies there are a horde of people that will tell you spending money on photography equipment won't make you a better photographer. I'm here to say bullshit. Sure there's photography kit you can waste money on, but speaking from personal experience, that entry level DSLR you found new for $600 isn't going to produce images anywhere near the quality of something costing a few thousand dollars. There are at least 2 reasons I've identified from my own personal experience owning both Canon and Nikon's entry level DSLRs at different times.

In this article (rant? you decide) I'm talking specifically about cameras with interchangeable lenses. While compacts and fixed lens cameras have their place and can be great for a variety of venues, having a camera that you can change the lens on greatly increases the flexibility, allowing you to use it for everything from close up macro photography out to long range telephoto work, as long as you have the lenses.

Entry level DSLRs have for the last couple of decades promised to give you high quality photos at a reasonable price with the ability to select lenses. I've been nothing but disappointed. I can't put this down to this solely down to the camera body, the lenses play a role too. Mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses are now becoming much more popular and available. My claims apply to them just as much as DSLRs and I personally have moved to Sony's Alpha range of mirrorless cameras. They're excellent.

If you want to check out the difference in quality between various cameras for yourself, a great tool is Digital Photography Review's Studio Scene. They've taken hundreds of photos of a standardized scene with a range of cameras, enabling you to directly compare the quality of the images they produce.


First up, paying more money for anything should get you more features. In the case of camera bodies and lenses, this is almost entirely what justifies the price.

Firstly, your entry level camera is likely an APS-C format, where as 35mm full frame sensors appear further up the price range. This is changing, maybe in a few more years the APS-C format will disappear. What's the actualy effect of this? The smaller sensor captures a smaller area of the image passing through the lens. While the science says it doesn't actually increase the focal length of the lens, this is still the easiest way to think about it. The ratio is about 1.5x, so a 200mm lens mounted on an APS-C format body, captures approximately the same image that a 300mm (200 x 1.5) lens would on a 35mm full frame sensor. Effectively the APS-C is more "zoomed in" with the same lens.

Staying on the topic of sensors, I've found entry level Nikon sensors are simply noisy. I don't know how else to put it. Pull up that Studio Scene I linked above and compare something like the Nikon D3400 to the Nikon D5. The quality of the D3400 is visibly much worse even though it has 20% more pixels (24MP vs the D5's 20MP) crammed into a smaller APS-C format sensor. On paper it should be a much more detailed image. So whatever Nikon is doing, it appears more money  buys you a better sensor.

I've owned a Nikon D3400 for years now and I wish I'd never wasted my money on it. Every image I've taken looks to my eye like it has a layer of static hidden in it. Maybe you can see it too in the below shot, look at the clouds in the top left in particular. To me there's a sharp fuzziness to them that sets my teeth on edge.

The Golden Gate Bridge looking back towards San Francisco

Faster continuous shooting and higher resolution and framerate video also come with a cost. Entry level and cheaper cameras tend to have low rates of continuous shooting and may not support 4k recording. Canon's EOS Rebel T7, coming in around $400, manages just 3 frames per second in continuous shooting, and can only record "Full HD up to 30 fps." Jumping up to their EOS 5D at around $2500, we get 7 fps continuous and it can handle 4k at 30fps. If we go all the way to the top of Canon's range with the EOS 1D X Mark III, coming in at a whopping $6500, it can shoot up to 20fps continuous, or record 4k at 60 fps.

A favourite feature of mine, that from my anecdotal experience, starts to turn up around the $2000 mark is image stabilization in the body. If you do a lot of photography sans tripod or other physical stabilization, having image stabilization in the body allows you to use a wider range of lenses (because only some, often more expensive lenses, have image stabilization) and can help you achieve exceptionally sharp photos.

There are many more features and technical differences one could pick out between the entry level end of the spectrum, and the professional grade cameras. The point is that money buys you additional features, some of which enable you to do things you simply can't do with a cheaper camera. Faster continuous shooting for example may not immediately seem like something that makes you a better photographer, but if you want to use image stacking to produce a composite image of an athlete in motion? A 3 fps framerate makes that nigh impossible. A 20 fps framerate on the other hand will produce almost 7x the number of photos for the same time period, from which you can pick those that produce the most impactful result.


This one should be kind of obvious, but cheap lenses for the most part aren't as good as expensive lenses. I've yet to see a kit lens on an entry level camera that anyone says is great. There are less expensive lenses you can get from 3rd parties like Tamron or Sigma. However they're simply less expensive for a given type of lens, not cheap. Paying more for a lens gets you additional and more carefully manufactured glass. If you have a camera brand and mount you intend to stick with, you can also use the lenses for a long time as you upgrade the body they attach to, so they really are worth sinking some extra money in to.

My own experience of having owned both Canon and Nikon equipment is that the cheap lenses, not just kit lenses but I've had some of the cheaper zoom lenses from both, are built to a pretty poor standard. Nikon's lenses seemed to have a lot of play in them. When using autofocus this seemed to come out in almost all my images being not quite in focus. Canon's were much better on that front, but you could feel the cheap plastic barrels grinding over each other. I don't own any particularly high end Canon or Nikon lenses, mine cap out around $300, but I've handled some and the quality is markedly better as the price goes up.

Recently I've been shooting on a Sony a7c with their "FE 90mm F2.8 Macro G OSS" lens. The build quality is exceptional and the movement of the focus ring is absolutely smooth, feeling almost hydraulic. The lens is producing some of the best images I've ever taken.

There are also certain effects that are essentially impossible to achieve with cheap lenses. We've all seen those portraits that have beautiful soft out of focus backgrounds with the subject sharply in focus. That soft background is called "bokeh." You're simply never going to get an image like that with that 18-55mm kit lens. There's a reason professional portrait photographers spend upwards of $1000 for a 50mm lens.

Having a wide aperture range can let you play with the bokeh and depth of field even more. I loved how this photo I took at Stonehenge came out. The skull is in sharp focus, while the text is just out of focus enough to not distract from the main subject, while still being readable. A more expensive lens often gives you a wider maximum aperture, allowing you to play with shallower depths of field.

A skeleton on display at Stonehenge.

It's worth noting there's a great second hand market for lenses, so you can both find some great discounts, and often get a significant chunk of your money out of a lens should you want to sell it (and assuming you've looked after it).


OK, this is probably the area where you can spend loads of money that won't make you a better photographer. Sure there are useful things out there for specific situational types of photography. If you love taking portraits, go ahead and get some lighting. If you spend all your time taking video while moving around, maybe get a gimbal. If you're a "gear head," try to be a bit less so, if you want to? I don't care, it's your money.

For most of us though, buy what you know you need and don't spend a fortune on it. Unless you can really justify needing a tripod with a load capacity in excess of 50 lbs, the $40 one will likely serve you just as well as the $1500 one. It weighs a 3rd of the amount too, which you'll thank me for when you're lugging it around.

Just don't buy a tripod with 4 legs.

I wrote that sentence then had to google whether such a thing exists (obviously it's not a tripod). I'm disappointed to say it does...  Seriously, don't buy one, it's a fucking dumb idea. You know why 3 legs are good? The best even? 3 legs will always stand stably without rocking. I guarantee 100% you've never sat at a 3 legged table, or on a 3 legged stool, that rocked, it's basic mechanics. Rocking requires 4 or more legs...

A little plug for one of my favourite accessories while we're here. I love Carry Speed straps. I'm in no way affiliated. I own one of their original straps and I paid full retail price for it. Giving them a shoutout because they deserve it.


Can you take bad photos with expensive equiptment? Yes absolutely. At that same time though, expensive equipment is going to give you more tools to leverage, it's going to give you more aids, and you're going to get better optical quality and manufacturing. I'm increasingly of the opinion that "entry level" equipment in pretty much any context should be treated as "for people that want to play at X." If you actually want good results and not to simply feel like a pro, look further up the market and try to reach for the lower end of the professional kit.

If budget is constraining you to still get an entry level camera, my suggestion would be to buy the body only, work out what type of photography you'll be doing, and buy one expensive lens for that purpose. If you're enjoying the hobby and want to upgrade, replacing a camera body after a few years is to be expected so you haven't lost out there. However having a bad lens may put you off simply because you're not getting the picture quality you want, and then you've wasted all your money.

If you buy a high quality lens and still decide you don't want to stay in the hobby, your losses on selling a well looked after lens will probably be pretty close to the cost of the cheap lens you could have bought, but might struggle to resell.

All that's to say, you'll have a better experience with a high quality lens, and at the end of the day, the costs vs a cheap lens will be similar if you look after it. If you stay in the hobby you'll actually have saved money by not shelling out for a cheap lens initially that you can't get rid of.

On the other hand, if you were going to buy an entry level interchangeable lens camera because you think it's a step up from your fixed lens, do some more research. Unless you have a specific reason to need interchangeable lenses, or to be able to use a specific type of lens, you may be disappointed. Some of the fixed lens all in one cameras pack in an awful lot of features for one hell of a good price.

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