Amateur and semi-pro photographers who own one or more digital cameras will often look at what they have, what new cameras are being marketed, and find their own equipment lacking.

One concern I see a lot these days, and I’ve had that concern myself, is from amateur photographers who want something smaller to replace or use in addition to their bulky DSLR. There’s a lot of appeal in the idea of a compact camera that you can take with you anywhere, throw in any handbag or small backpack — especially when such cameras are starting to show DSLR-level image quality, with “expert compacts”, micro-four-thirds and all the cameras in that (fairly high) price range.

Let me address that concern:

Don’t buy a new camera. Use the one you already have instead.

This is a rule of thumb that I’ve used for myself at times1. Don’t buy a new camera. Instead you should write down everything you would do with that new camera that you’re not currently doing. “I would have a camera with me all of the time and be able to capture that serenpidithing.” Or “I would go on walks in the city and do street photography.” Great. Make the list. And then, take each thing in your list and do it for real, now, with your current camera.

Let’s say you own a bulky DSLR: unless it’s a professional full-frame camera it’s probably not that bulky. I used to carry around my D300 almost every day, with one small (or small enough) lens, such as a 24mm, 35mm or 50mm. I would fit along with my laptop it in my all-purpose (and reasonably big) handbag. Just the camera; no camera bag, as they take too much space. Or you could carry around your usual stuff plus the camera in a small camera bag. Whatever works, even if it works badly.

Take your camera, and make the pictures you said you would if you had that new one.

If your problem is low-light shooting, learn how to use every single option your current camera offers to mitigate the issue. If you can do 1600 ISO (whatever amount of grain that brings to your pictures), you already have everything you need. If you have a DSLR, perhaps get a cheap f/2.8 or f/1.8 lens on the used market. Learn manual exposure. Take photographs at 1/15th or even 1/8th of a second, and learn what kind of results you can get doing that. It’s okay if many of your shots are blurry, if you know why and still manage to get decent or great ones once in a while.

A quick reminder of things that do not magically make your photographs “good”:

  • Sharpness
  • Absence of digital noise
  • Shallow depth of field (aka blurry backgrounds or bokeh)

You might want to take pictures with a simple background that doesn’t distract the viewer from your subject. That’s a good thing to look for in your pictures. But the best way to achieve that is not shallow depth of field, it’s framing your subject so that there’s a clean background behind it. Likewise, when shooting in low light, the best way to have enough light on your subject is to focus your attention on which subjects are actually hit by strong enough, contrasted or interesting light. Or add some light. Or ask people to actually pose for you, and take them to that part of the room which has interesting light and a clean or interesting background.

The right camera is the one you have.

So take your list of “I would do X with that new camera”, and do it for real with your current camera2. Do it at least a few times, or for a few months or maybe even a full year. And then, by all means buy whatever new gear you still want.

  1. I can’t say that I’ve followed this advice most of the time. I haven’t. But I’ve done it some times and it was worthwhile. 

  2. This advice doesn’t apply to underwater photography, unless your current gear is already waterproof.