In this article, I will be responding to a detailed email from one of our readers, John D, who had a bad experience moving up from a CX to a DX camera. John started out with the Nikon 1 J1, then with hopes that he would get better results, tried out a Nikon D3300. After facing a number of issues listed below, he ended up returning the D3300. Since this type of a situation often happens to many photographers, whether they move from a cropped sensor camera to full-frame, from a mirrorless camera to a DSLR or the other way around, I thought it would be useful to share my thoughts on the matter with our readers.
Here is John’s detailed account of the experience:
I have been interested in photography for many years and went through phases of desire when I was younger to get a nice camera. Eventually, after doing much research, I found that a Nikon 1 J1 would be the best camera I could get for the money I had at the time. I was able to get one with a 10-30mm lens for less than $250 for my birthday, and eventually, I got a 30-110mm refurbished lens for $90. This was my entry into photography, and what a start it was! I could finally capture the world around me!
I discovered RAW processing!
You may find that I am not quite as accomplished as the other contributors on this site, and I’m okay with that. I’ve been really interested in photography for less than two years at this time, so I’ve still got a lot to learn. Also, I have partial color-blindness, so if some pictures are over-saturated or have improper color, I might not be able to tell.
I’ve had my J1 for about a year and a half, and recently I decided that I’d like to upgrade to a DSLR. I wanted to join the mirror club! I wanted better, bigger bokeh! I wanted more dynamic range and color depth! I wanted a bigger sensor and more megapixels! However, my budget was low and college and other future plans were in the way, so I did not want to spend much money on a new camera.
I spent a lot of time browsing the web looking through forums and articles about cameras so I could find the best new camera for me. I read about low pass filters, pixel size, crop factor, and all the other specifications that cameras have. Now I see that I was suffering from all of the diseases in some form that Bob Vishneski pointed out in his article.
The fateful day came when I was browsing Amazon, after longingly deciding that I wanted to jump to a DSLR camera. I found that a company, Beach Camera, was selling a supposed factory refurbished Nikon D3300 for $479! This shouted out to me to buy it, but I waited and thought a bit. I thought it through with a T-chart listing pros and cons. Though in the end I think the cons outweighed the pros, I went against my better intellectual judgment and bought it because the unreasonable side of me badly wanted it.
It took some time to arrive because it was third-party from amazon, so I had much anticipation. Each day was long and dreary at school in hopes that the camera would come. Then, one day, it did! After pulling it out and taking many pictures with it, I found that there were some definite improvements over my J1, but also some issues that confused me.
- 24 megapixels! Sharpness! Detail!
- Much more dynamic range and color depth!
- Manual focus ring!
- More buttons! Back-button focusing!
- ISO 800 on the D3300 looked like 400 on my J1!
- PSAM Dial!
It was so fantastic! However, there were serious annoyances:
- What do you mean there is no built in interval timer shooting? No time lapses?
- This is heavy!
- Wide open won’t produce the sharpest images?
- More buttons?! What do they do?
- Different menu system?
- Only ONE dial? (J1 has a ring and lever on the back)
- Focusing is loud
- Much less depth of field; more can be out of focus
- I have to remove my glasses because the viewfinder is too small to see all the information without getting very close to it. The diopter did not quite reach my prescription, either
These are just some of the pros and cons of the camera, but none of these annoyances would have been enough reason to return the product until I noticed something peculiar. I spent many shutter actuations testing the camera for the issue that I suspected and found that it was the problem. The camera had back focusing! ACK!
The camera was set to focus on the middle focus point. As you can see, the middle is not in focus, but the bush on the right is. How disappointing! All of my anticipation and glee gone to waste! I was hoping that there would be some way to fix it, but alas, I have no idea how to do that. I thought that buying refurbished would be okay because my second lens works perfectly fine, but now I have a bit of a sour taste in my mouth toward that market. Here is a 100% crop of an area that was supposed to be in focus:
This problem drove me over the edge, so I contacted Nikon about it, then Amazon to return the product. I went to a local UPS stop and sent off the package. It was really quite depressing.
Though I’m disappointed, that won’t stop me from continuing my photography with my J1. It helps me remember that I don’t need to have a D810A to create good photographs.
Maybe there are still some things I need to learn from my J1 before I take the jump to DX. Maybe in a future part two of this I can tell you of a positive experience I will have upgrading!
The Importance of Camera Gear
John, first of all, thank you for sharing your experience. It is unfortunate that you’ve gone through such a frustrating upgrade process. I know how hard it can be to go through this, particularly when the hopes of a new tool making a huge difference are so high. Sadly, many photographers fall into the same trap as you have, believing that their camera is the limitation, that by moving up to something better they can instantly start producing one masterpiece after another. I myself used to think that way when I started my journey into the world of photography, so I can certainly relate.
My first time was when I upgraded from a Nikon D80 to a D300. My photos were nothing more than terrible snapshots and instead of learning the craft, I spent my time looking at technical features and specifications of cameras. When I purchased the D300, I had to justify the cost and convince myself that I made the right choice (one of the symptoms of the Gear Acquisition Syndrome, a.k.a. “GAS”). What did I do next? I took a bunch of pictures of a shelf with the two cameras at different ISOs, as shown in this article. Funny to look at it now, but at the time, I really thought that my test was properly conducted. It is pretty obvious that the image from the D80 was out of focus when compared to the D300, but that actually worked out to my advantage, as it was enough to convince myself that the D300 was worth the $1,800 I shelled out on it! Can you imagine the pain I would have endured if I actually conducted that test properly? I remember when pixel-peeping at those images, I called my wife Lola to see my screen and witness just how awesome the D300 was compared to my then terrible D80! And guess how long I had the D80, my very first DSLR, at the time this all happened? Less than 6 months. I practically bought the D80, then convinced myself that it was not good enough and spent a lot more money to buy the D300. The person who bought the D80 from me probably thought of me as an idiot (and rightfully so), since the camera was practically brand new, with no more than a couple of thousand actuations. That’s what happens when you don’t use your brain and let GAS take over!
Did I learn from this mistake? Of course not! Because my next stupidity came into play when one of the most famous bloggers at the time convinced me that my Nikon 18-135mm lens was absolute trash, that the Nikon 18-200mm VR would liberate me from ever having to own another lens, giving me exceptionally beautiful images that I could never obtain with any other piece of equipment. Of course the 18-135mm did not last – I sold it after purchasing the 18-200mm VR, which I had to wait 6 months to get. Crazy how much that lens was in demand at the time! I guess there were many more folks like me out there, who fell into the same trap :) Of course the disappointment was huge when I started shooting with the 18-200mm VR and realized that my images did not look any better. That’s when it hit me, and I finally realized that perhaps I was the one who knew nothing about photography in the first place. I started to read books and learn, but my buying impulse did not get any better for a while. I am sure many other readers would relate to this…
Why am I telling you my story? Because I see quite a bit of similarity here – you decided to move up to a different camera, thinking that it would make a world of a difference. And when you found out that the camera you tried to upgrade to was faulty (more on this later), it was the buyer’s remorse that stopped you from keeping it. Imagine what would have happened if the D3300 looked better in every way. I am sure you would have been shooting with it now, as you would have had your justification for keeping it. See the pattern now? :)
It is a good thing that all this happened now and not a few years later, as it did for many of us. Your camera is just a tool. Every modern camera made in the last 5 years is capable of creating beautiful images. Stop worrying about gear and start learning photography. You have a lot to learn: exposure, light, composition, decisive moment, focusing, camera modes, metering and so much more! These are far more important to master, than obtaining yet another camera that has its ISO 800 looking better than your ISO 400. Seriously, who cares! Nobody is going to be looking at your images and trying to guess what ISO they were taken at!
Your Nikon J1 is a great camera. I have used it in the past and you can check out my Nikon 1 J1 review on this site. And if you are wondering if this camera is capable of producing beautiful images, just take a look at Thomas Stirr’s work, who pretty much exclusively shoots with Nikon 1 CX cameras.
I look at your images and I see snapshots. I don’t see beautiful light. I don’t see composition. I don’t see solid post-processing. I don’t see images that instantly capture my attention. But don’t be discouraged by my words – I am not trying to criticize or put you down by any means. At the time I made those stupid mistakes I pointed out above, I was far worse than where you are at today! We all go through this at different stages of our lives and it is perfectly normal. We all have to start somewhere right?
I did not have any guidance, but you do. This is why I created this website in the first place – I did not want others to go through the same pain. And now we have a team of writers and contributors, who share this vision and goal with me, which is awesome!
When to Upgrade
There will be a time in the future when an upgrade will be justified. How do you know when is the right time to move up? When your gear becomes the limitation, but not your knowledge. Once you master your camera and learn everything you need to learn to make beautiful images, you will know what you will need out of your gear. That’s when it will be time to upgrade. For now, visit our Photography Tips for Beginners section and start digesting all the information there. And if you don’t want to go through all the written material, consider investing in a photography course like our Level 1 Photography Course, or perhaps a one-to-one workshop with someone who can help to move you in the right direction. Remember, knowledge first, gear last.
CX to DX Experience
Now let me address some of the concerns that you’ve brought up when moving from CX to DX.
- What do you mean there is no built in interval timer shooting? No time lapses? Every camera is different and the technology manufacturers put in DSLRs often differs from what we see on mirrorless or point and shoot cameras. On DSLRs that don’t come with built-in intervalometers, you can use external remotes that have that capability.
- This is heavy. Of course, and it should be. Moving up in sensor size always translates to not only bigger cameras, but also bigger and heavier lenses. In addition, you were moving up from a mirrorless camera to a DSLR, so it is expected to see weight differences between the two.
- Wide open won’t produce the sharpest images? It will, but you have to have a lens that can resolve enough detail at the widest aperture and have the skill to nail focus. Once you increase sensor size and resolution, lens quality and focusing technique play a much bigger role.
- More buttons?! What do they do? RTFM – Read The Friendly Manual and learn what those extra buttons do. Every camera is different, so it is expected to spend some time understanding all the functions and features provided.
- Different menu system? With all the different feature-sets, menus might also be different, which is quite normal. Although Nikon tries to stick to the same or similar menu system across many cameras, menus will differ drastically between mirrorless, entry-level and pro-level cameras. And this is not just Nikon doing it.
- Only ONE dial? (J1 has a ring and lever on the back). All entry-level Nikon DSLRs have a single rotary dial. When shooting in specific modes like Manual mode, you can press the Exposure Compensation button on top of the camera to engage the secondary dial function.
- Focusing is loud. Very normal when DSLRs are compared to smaller mirrorless cameras. Smaller and potentially older focus motors, different focusing systems, focus by wire vs mechanical focus, etc – those will all impact noise levels.
- Much less depth of field; more can be out of focus. That’s expected with a bigger sensor. In fact, that’s what people often want when moving up in sensor size. Prime lenses are typically more affordable and you get better subject isolation capabilities, since you don’t have to move away from your subject as much. You’ve pointed out “Bokeh” as one of the pros :)
- I have to remove my glasses because the viewfinder is too small to see all the information without getting very close to it. The diopter did not quite reach my prescription, either. This can surely be a problem. DX cameras often have tiny viewfinders, making it hard to see the focused area. There is no way to zoom in and fine-tune autofocus, unless you are OK with firing up live view on the LCD, then focusing that way.
As for the focusing issue with the D3300, it is impossible to tell looking at the provided images what focusing method was used. My guess is that dynamic focusing was active, which caused the camera to focus on the bush to the right of the image. When performing such tests, you need to make sure that you not only select the center focus point, but you also switch to Single-Point AF-Area Mode, so that your camera only uses that one focus point. See my in-depth DSLR Focusing Modes article to understand this in detail.
There are several ways to test the accuracy of the phase detection AF system. First, see my article on how phase detection focusing works, then read my article on calibrating lenses. A word of caution: doing this is surely painful for a mirrorless user – potential focusing deltas between contrast detect AF and phase detect AF are only seen on DSLR cameras. Mirrorless cameras are immune to this problem, since phase detection pixels are located right on the camera sensor.
Hope this helps John and everyone else who is in the same boat! If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section below!