If I Were To Switch...

I continue to see a lot of people saying: "I'm going to switch to X." Indeed, many just do it before performing any thoughtful analysis. I often see those same folk back with their original system at a later date, as the switch didn't exactly work out as planned. In many cases, those folks got caught in the Internet Amplification Engine, which sequences through various products being "best" based upon who's doing the best marketing at any given time.

So let me work you through a thought experiment and show you how to correctly evaluate whether it's worth it to switch to another system or not. 

I'm going to use myself as an example here, but please don't interpret this as me contemplating switching to another system. Those of you who know anything about my shooting should already know that while I lean heavily on Nikon DSLR gear, I'm actually quite promiscuous, mostly because I'm trying to keep my knowledge level high for all systems in support of my DSLR and mirrorless Web sites.

I'm going to use as my evaluation a possible switch from Nikon DSLR to Sony A7/A9 mirrorless. But the same steps I outline here apply no matter whether you're just changing sensor size (e.g. DX to FX), changing vendors (e.g. Nikon DSLR to Canon DSLR), changing types of system (e.g. DSLR to mirrorless), or even downsizing (e.g. Nikon DSLR to all-in-one 1" camera).

1. Tally Up What You Have
This seems a little on the obvious side, but you'd be surprised at how many people not only don't do this, but also manage to leave out or overlook things when they do. That's a recipe for disaster. If you do nothing else, make sure you perform this step. 

Another mistake is that people will assume that they'll just use their existing system as a backup to the new one, which reduces the cost of switching, as they don't have to buy backup gear. This rarely works. First, there's the cognitive dissonance of trying to work with two different sets of UI and controls. But more importantly, it means that to travel with your backup, you end up traveling with way too much gear. So you don't travel with your backup, something bad happens, and then you're without a camera to use. Those of you who shoot semi-professionally or professionally, or go on long, extended trips (e.g. safari), need to pay careful attention to this. 

Be sure you tally everything. Cameras, lenses, flashes, cables, chargers, batteries, mounting plates, grips, and anything else that is specific to your current system.

So what do I have left in my gear lockup of Nikon DSLR products after my recent purge? Here's the abbreviated list (I'll leave off the accessories for brevity):

  • D5, D500, D850, D7500 bodies
  • 14-24mm, 16-80mm, 24-85mm, 50-100mm, 70-200mm, 70-300mm zooms
  • 19mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 105mm (2), 200mm, 300mm, 400mm primes
  • Three Speedlights

If there's something I can't do with that core set in nature, landscape, wildlife, sports, or event shooting, I could always rent something. But I'd judge that to be unlikely. Technically, I could purge further and remove the DX and some other overlapping gear, but supporting my Nikon Complete Guides and my dslrbodies Web site really keeps me from doing that. 

2. Note What You Don't Have
By this, I don't mean "what components of System X you never bought." I mean what things can't you do with the system you've got even if you bought all the lenses and accessories? Here we're going to step outside just products and examine features and performance of products.

Here's the thing: for the DSLR duopoly, there's not much you can put on this list in terms of cameras and lenses and accessories. You're most likely going to point to a feature, a control, or some performance aspect. Thus, the things you might put on this don't-have list are things that might get fixed in the future by your current system. 

For example, I hear a lot of Canon DSLR folk lament about the dynamic range of their image sensors. They don't have 14 stops! Oh my. Some of the Nikon/Sony sensors supposedly do (more on that in another article ;~). This becomes what I call an Envy Point. 

Envy Points are a bit different than something completely missing. Why? Because there's that possibility that the maker you're currently committed to will address them in the future. I'll have more to say about leap-frogging later in this article, but let's ignore that potential for the moment.

So, using my proposed Nikon DSLR->Sony mirrorless switch as an example, what is it that I don't currently have?

  • Live View and video autofocus performance
  • A truly small, light competent body
  • Eye detect focus
  • Stabilization everywhere (e.g. sensor IS)
  • Consolidated customization
  • Multi-axis tilt LCD
  • Programmability
  • True monochrome option
  • Appropriate DX lenses (oh Nikon, are you getting tired of buzz buzz yet?)

Remember, this is my list, not yours. You very well might put other things on that list. Note what's conspicuously missing from my list: much in the way of actual products. 

Both Canon and Nikon DSLR users are likely to find the same thing: these systems have been added to for decades, thus for the most part they're very complete in terms of products. It's more likely that it's features and performance where you'll find things you don't currently have available to you.

Some of you are already plowing way ahead of me and have probably guessed that a switch to Sony might net me the first four, but not really the next four. My list is actually longer than I present here, but these are the biggest items on my list. 

3. Tally Up The Gear You'd Have After a Switch
Another step that a lot of people don't do. Many systems are relatively full of options now, so they just overlook this step thinking that they'll find what they need.

Another problem is that some people will change their list. Let's say they can't actually find a 14-24mm f/2.8 in their new choice of system. That's okay, they'll reason, I'll just substitute a 12-24mm f/4 or a 16-35mm f/2.8. Okay, but realize that's not the same thing. You might want to analyze your use of your current lens (Lightroom is great for that if you've got all your images in that program and you don't mind some geeky database work). If you're shooting that 14-24mm at f/2.8 a lot, then the f/4 lens you decided is "equal" really isn't. 

This gets tricky, as you're going to spend a lot of time trying to self justify a switch (confirmation bias of a sort). You're your own worst enemy here. You'll talk yourself into "equivalence" when it doesn't actually happen. So at some point you're going to want to bounce your Step 1 and Step 3 lists off someone else, along with your Step 2 and Step 5 analysis as well. 

I get a lot of emails documenting an intended switch that fall prey to the non-equivalence problem. When I challenge those folk on that, they either self-justify or they admit that they aren't getting an equivalent new system. 

So, assuming I made the switch to Sony and tried to duplicate what I currently have (Step 1), what would that new list of gear look like. Probably something like this:

  • A9, A7Rm3, A7500 bodies (note the latter doesn't exist yet)
  • 12-24mm, 16-70mm, 24-105mm, 70-200mm, 100-400mm zooms
  • 21mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 90mm, 400mm primes
  • Three Remote lights (HVL flash, or maybe something else)

Astute readers will note that I no longer have a wide tilt-shift lens or several telephoto primes. Yes, I could drop a Sigma 105mm f/1.4 in to replace my Nikkor f/1.4. But I don't evaluate those the same, thus haven't. I've also opted for some slower zooms, though I did pick up a very competent 400mm in the zoom side of the kit. I made some very specific choices here based upon my shooting, and that resulting in slightly different choices.  But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's move on.

4. Document All the Minuses You See With the Proposed System
This step is fraught with peril. In fact, it's the step that is most likely to trigger a failure with any switch. 

Why? Because you don't know what you don't know. 

I find that most people are riffing off what they see in the Internet Amplification Engine here. They make assumptions about how great the new system will be based upon how positive all the reviews, blogs, vlogs, and forum chatter is. 

Indeed, this is the thing I get challenged on all the time on the Internet—some say I'm just a grumpy old man—because I spend a lot of time pointing out problems and deficiencies of new products. No, I'm a perfectionist: I want products to be perfect. Moreover, I want you to understand what problems you might run into if you should switch.

So approach this step with some discipline. The "bad news" on any given system/product is out there if you look hard enough. For example, setting up a new Olympus system from scratch without having been a recent and regular Olympus user is pretty much guaranteed to give you a headache. I'm not the only one that's written that. Plenty of positive reviews of Olympus m4/3 gear have at least mentioned the menu/nomenclature problem in the Olympus cameras, but many have gone further and described the headache they get trying to get their new camera set up right. 

You're looking for some consistency of evidence here. If almost every review mentions a "getting the camera set up" issue, even if only in passing, then that's a real minus you need to be aware of. If you see people dismissing potential issues ("isn't that bad at high ISO") or using vague and imprecise language, that's something you want to start tallying up, as it could be another minus in disguise. 

I'm not sure how to advise you here other than to be fastidious. Be on the lookout for the negatives of the system you're thinking of switching to, and when you hear of one, see if others are writing the same thing about it.

Okay, I lied. There is one sure way of learning the negatives: handle the products in question. If you're seriously considering switching, I'd say consider renting a subset of what you're going to buy from my friends at LensRentals for a weekend, or finding a store that will let you walk around the block checking out things in some actual shooting conditions. Actually evaluate the performance and handling.

Okay, so what are the minuses in my switch to Sony? (I can cheat here, because I've been using Sony mirrorless cameras side-by-side with Nikon DSLR gear for years now; indeed, on one recent trip I took a Sony A7Rm3 and a Nikon D850 and alternated which one I shot with on a daily basis).

  • The Sony ergonomics suck compared to the Nikon ergonomics. No other way to say it. Smaller, harder to find buttons that you slip off of in humid or misty conditions and won't find with gloves are a starter. Actually, a non-starter for me.
  • The dual slot configuration on both cameras is problematic, but it's slightly worse on the Sony as it impacts buffer more when you press it.
  • No tilt-shift lens for the Sony.
  • Rear LCD is worse on the Sony.
  • No optical view of the world (some may not find that a problem, but EVFs still have that tiny bit of lag and are prone to misdescribe contrast/gamma to you).
  • File size was enormous on the Sony to avoid their compressed NEF artifacts.
  • Just a smaller buffer to start with if you're going to push the buffer.

Actually, my list of grievances with the Sony was fairly small. A couple of years ago, we'd have a long list of missing lenses, but not now. Some are still missing, but the MIA list is getting shorter.

5. Evaluate What You Gained and Lost
It's not that people don't actually perform this step, it's that they tend to just overlook what it tells them. They suddenly make snap judgments such as "I can live without that." In essence, they're trying to justify their switch, rather than evaluate it. 

Let me be clear: evaluation tells you whether something is justified. I can't begin to tell you how many people go through all aspects of their life violating that little rule and then wondering what the hell happened. What happened is you skipped an important step.

So how do I evaluate my proposed switch? Here are some of the things I decided:

  • I'd be switching from a very mature and organized system to a more immature and disorganized one. This shows up in things like the menu system, controls, nomenclature, and even reliability. Loss
  • My file sizes would increase because I'd opt for uncompressed raw on the Sony cameras to avoid artifacts. Also: my buffer would reduce and my transfer times would increase. Loss
  • The monetary cost of switching would be high. Nikon used values have been dropping, so I'd get less for my existing gear, while Sony pricing is fairly high even with the rotating discounts, at least for new gear. I can put an exact number of this, by the way, though I won't report that here as it could change even by the time you read this. It's important you know what that number is, though, for your proposed switch. If you're rich enough that money isn't an issue, you can do anything on a whim, I suppose. But for the rest of us, count the pennies! Make sure you get a penny or more of value for every penny you spend. Loss
  • For event type shooting and video work, I'd gain arguably better autofocus (e.g. eye detect for events). Gain (For wildlife/sports work, I'd get slightly worse autofocus; Loss).

6. Make a Stay/Go Decision
Step 5 was the important one here, and the one that a lot of people just short-circuit. They just make assumptions, ignore things, misinterpret something, or jump to a conclusion without evaluation. 

For example, I could assume that Sony will create tilt-shift lenses and come out with a 200mm f/2. The latter is more likely than the former, I'd venture. But how long would I go without those things? I don't know. I'm not going to make an assumption about that. Switching would mean giving up 200mm f/2. I could, I suppose, assume that I could use an adapter to continue using my Nikon tilt-shift lenses on the Sony FE system until Sony came out with the lenses I wanted, but I discovered in Step 5 that Nikon F to Sony FE adapters aren't all that great (did I forget to mention that? ;~). 

I could ignore the fact that I'd have trouble with the small buttons in winter with gloves on. I could misinterpret performance differences by not actually doing apples-to-apples comparisons and putting myself on the "good enough" train. I could just go for it without worrying about anything. 

I'd argue that a majority of you readers are going to stop your switching contemplations if you actually did all the steps up to this point. In particular, there's that assumption bit. If you're assuming that Company X will do something, you could just as easily assume Company Y—the company whose products you're already using—will do something, too. 

Indeed, even though we've only had digital ILC for 18 years now, that short history already tells us that the primary players are always leapfrogging one another and later catching up when they get jumped. It might take a year, two years, or even four years, but those that are jumped will eventually become jumpers. 

You need to be very careful of becoming a leapfrogger across systems yourself, as it can get expensive. I know of several pros who've switched three times already (and that's not counting whether they switched brands when they transitioned from film to digital). Pros have a unique trait, though: here in the US they can write off (expense) such switches, so it doesn't take as much presumed change (or preservation) in income to justify upgrading/switching. Still, it's a cost. 

Switching is a monetary cost, it's a training cost, it's a time sink cost, and at times it can be a "lost shot" cost if you didn't do your homework. Yet for pros it can also be a new income source. That's particularly true of the folk that live at the Ambassador/Explorer/Artisan level, but it's also true for active bloggers who simply follow the buying trends and amplify them.

So, let's sum your problem up in a song. If you don't know the Clash, look 'em up, cause you'll be singing to their only number one hit:

Thom you got to let me know/
Should I stay or should I go?
If you say to spend my dime/
I'll be with it til the end of time.
So you got to let me know/
Should I stay or should I go?

If I go there will be trouble/
An' if I stay it will be double.
So come on and let me know
Should I stay or should I go?

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Addendum: Nikon DSLR users might be contemplating a switch to Nikon mirrorless. Canon DSLR users might be contemplating a switch to Canon mirrorless. The nice thing about both of these possibilities is that, using an adapter, your lenses basically come along with you. Moreover, most of your accessories (remotes, flashes, etc.) do, too. Thus, it may seem like you can shortcut the above analysis. I'd suggest that you don't. Do the full six-step program, and be ruthless. Make sure there's positive value today (you can always do such a switch six months, a year, two years down the line). As I write this, Nikon is trying to get you to do things sooner rather than later by dangling an extra rebate for trading in your body. That's of obvious value to Nikon. Make sure it's also of value today to you. 

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