Should I Update?

(commentary)

It happens every time I post a new review. Inevitably I get emails that go something along the line of this: “I own the [previous version], should I update to the [new version]?” 

My quick answer is no. 

A question formed this way indicates lack of self confidence; the person is afraid that they might have made a hasty or wrong decision or are missing something, but they don’t know why that might be true. 

Let me state something right up front. With Nikon DSLRs, we’ve had a long stream of “better” models. Even the D2h was better than the D1h. The D7200 that I just reviewed is indeed a better camera than the D7100, and it’s the seventh DSLR in that series. The D7200 ought to be better, as it comes two years after the D7100 but uses quite a bit of the previous camera’s parts and is patterned on something that’s lived on in the lineup for over a decade. Two years is a long time in the digital world to tweak things, add things, refine things, redesign things, and so on, especially when those are all “minor things.” Put another way, the D7200 is better than a D7100, but it’s not a leap forward in design or performance, it’s a small step. On the other hand, the D7200 is a huge leap forward from the camera that kicked off the series, the D70. 

If you go to my upgrade suggestion pages, you’ll find that I’m pretty consistent in my recommendations: a single model generation change is generally not enough for most people to consider an upgrade. Two generations, sure, consider it (that would be D7000 users upgrading to the D7200). Even then you’d still need something other than “it’s newer” to be driving your decision. 

Nikon and the other camera makers want all their existing customers to upgrade. They believe they locked you in with lenses, now they want you to keep upgrading the lock. If you’re serious about photography, there’s nothing wrong with doing just that on a regular basis, but every two years for a camera body? That’s probably pushing the upgrade urge too much. Each update tends to force you to relearn, readapt, and refresh, too. 

The good news with a D7200 is that it doesn’t make the lenses you liked on the D7100 look any worse. Yes, you can dig some additional image quality out of the deepest shadows or at the highest ISO values, but is that really what you need to do? Yes, the D7200’s buffer is deeper and less intrusive, but how often are you really hitting the buffer limitations of a D7100, and have you done everything you can to mitigate that?

What strikes me over and over again is that Nikon (and Canon as well as others) has this very well-oiled plan for iterating camera bodies. In the Nikon DSLR world we went from 2.5mp to 5mp to 6mp to 12mp to 16mp to 24mp in the DX line. We went from basic feature sets to deep and nuanced ones (at least in the lower end bodies; the high end bodies were always deeply featured). We’ve gone from five sensor AF to fifty-one, and much, much more. There’s been little to complain about in terms of Nikon’s body iteration in the bigger picture sense. 

But as well-oiled as the body iteration plan is, Nikon’s lens iteration plan is full of holes and miscues. That was nowhere more evident than in the 18-200mm DX lens, which looked like a winner in the 6mp world, a decent performer in the 12mp world, and fell flat as we pushed further with the bodies. Was it updated? Yes, but in a strange fashion: we got an 18-140mm that lived up to the 24mp sensors instead.

At the wide angle DX end, nothing’s really happened. We got a 12-24mm, a 10-24mm, and then the wide angle lens designers went on permanent vacation, apparently. Yet the iterated bodies demand better lenses. Moreover, if Nikon really wants us to keep iterating our DX bodies, we really want to feel like it’s a complete system, and it is not. This is a huge friction on whether you should update or not. After all, if the body is far better but the rest of what you have isn’t living up to that level and hasn’t been updated, then you’re kind of stuck. 

One imagines these days a giant political battle within Nikon. The CX, DX, and FX camps all want your money. From Nikon corporate standpoint, if they can get you to spend on FX, that’s best, because it simply costs more. Nikon therefore gets more money out of you, probably at the same or better margins. Thus, there’s internal political pressure on not making DX as good as it can (and should) be. And CX? Well, sometimes I think CX in the interchangeable lens camera family is a bit like a male hyena in a pack.

Given that everything seems to go on significant sale levels within a few months to a year these days, there’s also the choice of just waiting a bit to get a significant discount. It used to be that DSLRs never fell more than 25% in price over their entire life cycle. These days, we sometimes see that fairly early in the life cycle, and even higher discounts by the end. That’s especially true here in the US as long as the dollar stays strong against the yen.

So upgrade if you want to, but make sure you know why you’re upgrading now. 




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