Hands-On Photography Psychology With Ken Rockwell — “The More Expensive Camera Only Costs More and Weighs You Down More”

Divine post by Ken Rockwell that’s more about psychology than photography. Even if you would test the Canon 1D X ($6,799) against the cheapo Canon SL1 ($599), world’s most compact DSLR, if you make the images the same size for a valid comparison = the complete, uncroppped images look completely identical, says Rockwell.

Quite a statement by someone who has an unfair share of critics among photography forum punters. Nevertheless, I have to wholeheartedly agree with Rockwell — less because his is no scientific comparison, but because we all shoot the best we can; some with expensive, some with less expensive gear. And whatever gear you’re using: for most shooters, the difference between cropped cheaper sensors and the ultimate full-frame experience is not as large as we may wish.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. We’re not getting into a moot debate about the validity of the f-stop used, shadow noise and equivalence. Just have a look at Rockwell’s Resolution and High ISO Comparison. Below are resized images, on his site Rockwell posts additional ones and crops. Now what’s that noise worth?

Yes, the 5D Mark III has less noise, but is it really worth the effort to haul the 5D Mark III and its larger lenses all day...
Yes, the 5D Mark III has less noise, but is it really worth the effort to haul the 5D Mark III and its larger lenses…
... just for the one or two shots you might have to make in the dark?
… all day just for the one or two shots you might have to make in the dark?

Rockwell’s prosaic summary and analysis:

As far as I’m concerned, I see no significant difference between the two. Remember, these are extreme blow-ups from prints many feet wide. If I showed the complete, uncroppped images (which I don’t here) or showed them at a more reasonable size more like the sizes at which people actually print, they would be completely identical.

Therefore as I always say, the more expensive camera only costs more and weighs you down more. Sure, I can force differences under unreasonable circumstances for the sake of spicing up my reviews, but for actual shooting, it doesn’t matter what camera you use.

Sure there is more to it than what meets they eye. Of course the 5D Mark III outperforms the SL1. The latter gives you no blazing AF speed, worse noise, etc., etc. But let’s be honest, for many photographers such performance differences are not so critical that they have the right to be entitled to worry so obsessively about such stuff.

Post-processing can easily clean up noise, for a fraction of the potential gear cost. Unless you shoot at high ISO, track fast moving stuff, need huge prints, do magazine work and are ready to spend much more money to carry the bulkier camera over the tiny SL1, well then the bulkier camera doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

The difference between the “pro” and average shooter might be not as large as we think. The difference between talents and experience is, but if you can’t deliver with an SL1 you’re unlikely to perform with a 5D Mark III.

But, and that’s a major but, the SL1’s limits of quality and the range of conditions that great photos can be produced in are quite restricted.

Not that the SL1 is good enough for most. But maybe some photographers are not that talented enough for gear they assume is what they really need and what they’re really capable of.

I love my shiny toys as you do. Image quality is only one aspect. The feel and mojo of gear is at least as important.

But imaging technology — even down at the level of smartphones — is so advanced these days, are some of the many photography enthusiasts handed on a plate to camera marketing campaigns?

Not really helpful to refer to such nihilism on THEME. I really appreciate each and every gear purchase made via this site. Thanks everyone. The small fee we get keeps THEME going and growing. This post is not for the sake of controversy. I’m also not blindly praising gear for the sake of pushing gear sales. But nothing’s easier than sticking to what one likes by turning a blind eye to what challenges long cherished assumptions. Think of THEME as a synonym for transparency, thinking independently, etc., and not fanboyism, not brand loyalty, not foregone conclusions.

  • Drazen B

    I’m sorry, is this the same Ken Rockwell who stated in his D800 review:

    “36 MP is worse than 24 MP. No pro I know shoots above 10 MP; above 10
    MP, all it does is slow your workflow so you can’t get anything done.
    For most of my own work, I shoot at 6 MP.”

    But as you say, on topic of SL1 vs 5D MKIII image quality for an ordinary shooter and weekend warrior folk, yeah…for change and as a surprise to the most of us – his statement makes sense.

  • Don’t think Rockwell is an attention grabber.

    On the contrary there’s something pragmatic and down to earth to some of his posts; a sometimes fresh breeze amongst the generally prevailing pixel peeping fanaticism.

    I wonder — especially for Web publishing — if anyone could tell the difference between a resized 36MP and 6MP shot.

    Not defending minimalism or lack of aiming for the “best,” but having the option between great gear and good photos and good gear and good photos, I’d spend the money on a great trip to put that gear to good use.

  • Passageways

    “the complete, un-croppped images look completely identical, says Rockwell.”

    I have argued this point many times. I suggest the difference in image quality between one camera worth thousands and thousands of dollars and the less expensive ones is negligible for at least 99% of all people who take photographs.

    Add to the mix two more points:

    1) By the time people go through post processing the difference between a mega-buck mega-megapixel camera and its smaller models approaches the border of meaningless.

    2) If you really think about how many MB an image has, film negatives can be scanned at HUGE resolution to the point that anyone saying the size of the image matters more than other criteria should consider returning to film.

    Ken Rockwell is funny, fickle at times and rarely loyal. But he is a fun read and I think many who disparage him probably sometimes read him in secret anyway.

    PS When i mentioned 99% I could have written 99.9% but know there is 1% of photographers who will argue until they are blue in the face to justify their constant upgrading and expenses.

  • callibrator

    “On the contrary there’s something pragmatic and down to earth to some of his posts…”

    Hmm…no, not really!

  • There’s a reason for not having Ken Rockwell in THEME’s Live News RSS feed. Or shall I?

    And BTW, if anyone’s reading it, sorry for the always outdated and unrelated Olympus Live Industry Feed. Oly’s the only camera and lens manufacturer without a working RSS feed…

  • Marko Pilich

    “…There’s a reason for not having Ken Rockwell in THEME’s Live News RSS feed. Or shall I?..”

    Please for the sake of your readership – don’t!

  • Dwaine Dibbly

    If small is good, then smaller is better. He makes a great case for m4/3.

  • Bengt Nyman

    If you are going to buy your first camera, listen to Ken Rockwell. But when it is time to upgrade, don’t get stuck in first grade.

  • Reaper

    Well, all I know is that is review of the Nikon FE was spot on.

  • Robert Mark

    There is a 20 x 24 inch print in my home that won multiple awards in 2004. It was shot on a 6MP Canon 10D. Ken’s right.

  • Diz

    I for one would welcome KR in the live feed. Why must we always listen to convention? I must agree that KR is a refreshing read from time to time. Smart readers will know what to take away from his musings.

  • The issue with Ken Rockwell’s feed are the many special offers and deals. They make up more than half of his RSS feed items.


    I prefer sites in the live News Feed that provide real content and stories.

  • Diz

    Fair enough. It does require a fair amount of navigating his site to find the info, and the live feed is exactly how you mentioned.