I recently wrote an article that compared the Fujifilm X-T4 and X-T3. Released just a year-and-half after the X-T3, the X-T4 isn’t a full replacement to its predecessor, but it does include some enticing upgrades. Upgrades that look even more enticing if your current camera is even older, like my now ancient-feeling X-T2.
Four years have passed since the X-T2 was released. That’s a long time in the tech industry. And after the release of the X-T4 in April, I felt an overwhelming pressure to upgrade. But is that really necessary?
A photographic arms race
Today’s camera industry has become overwhelmingly competitive. The rise of the smartphone — while it wiped out point-and-shoot camera sales — got more people interested in photography, while YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok have given people platforms to display their work. These photographers, videographers, and creators are wanting to move beyond the camera in their pocket and up to something that will let them stand out on these new platforms.
To attract these customers, camera manufacturers are constantly working to create the next best thing. It’s now common for a camera to have a 2-year lifespan before a new, supposedly improved, model is introduced.
Fujifilm gave the X-T3 just 19 months. Granted, the X-T4 did bring the biggest changes we’ve seen in the camera since the X-T line first came to life in 2014. In-body image stabilization (IBIS) was finally introduced, as well as a fully-articulating screen, faster continuous shooting, and a more potent battery. Digital Trends’ Daven Mathies said it was the closest he’s seen to the perfect camera. That’s a huge claim in our world.
But the X-T4 is a fluke (and its main upgrade just replaced what was missing — other manufacturers had IBIS in their competing cameras for generations now). Most new cameras don’t come with major quality-of-life improvements.
As for quality? It hardly improves and, in my ways, it has reached practical limits. Digital image quality matured years ago. The X-T4 uses the same sensor as the X-T3, which itself only brought marginal improvements over the X-T2 (and, in the case of high-ISO noise, was actually slightly worse).
Even in products with longer life cycles, we’re not always seeing image quality improvements. Nikon’s new D780 DSLR shoots pictures that are all but indistinguishable from those of its 5-year-older predecessor. In 2018, Canon’s then-new 6D Mark II barely edged out the original 6D in objective tests, despite over four years of development time and using an entirely new sensor.
What we are seeing is a big push into advanced video functions on high-end models, like the upcoming Canon EOS R5 that will introduce RAW 8K video. But this is just a problem in the opposite direction. The upgrade isn’t too small that nobody will notice, but rather so big that few people will be able to use it.
Better sensors, more megapixels, and higher video resolution look great on a product’s spec sheet, but it’s often compressed down to an Instagram photo or 1080p YouTube video.
This is the world we live in — and photography certainly isn’t alone. Consumer technology is built on an upgrade culture that causes us to lose appreciation for what we have, and instead look covetously at what’s coming next.
Have my needs advanced so much in two years that only the latest camera will allow me to create great photographs? Of course not.
I’m not suggesting camera manufacturers should go back to the film days, when an SLR might stay on store shelves for a decade or two — that’s not sustainable today. But as a photographer, the reality is that the current state of upgrade culture is not built on the foundations of what I need, but rather what I’m led to believe I need by marketing departments, opinionated YouTubers, and impassioned forum users.
Making the right investments
For the photographer with deep pockets, there’s no problem splashing the cash every two years in order to have the latest bit of gear in your hand. And I have no argument with the camera geeks who enjoy buying and collecting gear just for the sake of it.
But as someone deeply involved in the photo industry, I know this type of person is an exception to the rule. I see all too often peers of mine selling the camera they only bought in the last 24 months in order to finance a newer model. They begin to convince themselves that their cameras no longer have the ability to allow them to do what they want.
But the fact is, great photographers, not great cameras, take great photographs.
It would be wrong for me to suggest the tech doesn’t influence one’s ability to capture a quality image, but the changes made to a spec sheet don’t always show up when you look at the photo. I was personally forced to face this when I found myself unexpectedly stuck in Columbia in the middle of a pandemic lockdown. Unable to rely on my usual setup, I had to fall back to the camera on a Palm smartphone.
If you have money burning a hole in your pocket, there are more beneficial ways to spend it than a new camera. Invest in a new lens, which can possibly last a lifetime. Great glass is where you’ll really start to see significant improvements to your image quality. Lighting is another excellent investment and something that can change the look of your photos far more than a new camera.
The most important investment a photographer can make, however, is in honing their skills. How you spend your time is even more important than how you spend your money. Instead of jumping on YouTube for the latest gear rant, watch a posing tutorial, a lighting tutorial, or a Photoshop tutorial.
A better camera doesn’t make a better photographer
Many of the best photographs in history were snapped with cameras far inferior to what we have today. Nobody complained about noise in an image, a lack of detail, or imperfect focus. Instead, they appreciated the technique, the vision, the composition, the emotion, and the meaning — all of which comes from the photographer, not the camera.
I’ll stick with my Fujifilm X-T2. We’ve created a lot of memories together, and so long as it continues to let me do what I love the most, I see no reason to drop the cash on something that won’t make me a better photographer.
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