When I first started in photography there were two important things with regard to cameras; glass and film. Everything else was just opening a hole for an amount of time. Camera features were not superfluous as such, but more icing on the cake; they weren’t necessary to take good pictures – they made it easier.
Range of shutter speeds, double exposure, DoF preview, exposure assistance etc. were good things to have but with skill you could take very good pictures without them.
So if you were buying an SLR you went for a camera that could provide you with access to the best lenses. For the most part, at least in 35mm, that was Nikon (IMHO). I should say at this point, that I never owned a Nikon or any lenses by them – I was not in that end of the market. The camera back then was and, to some extent is still now, less important than the lens system; you invested in lenses and upgraded your camera-back when and if needed.
Back then the image was made on film and there was good film and not so good. But the film was a consumable and you could switch between expensive film stock and cheaper depending on what you were doing on a daily basis. So, if you had good glass and good film and you were able to stand in the right place, point your camera in the right direction, control your exposure, you would get a good picture; the best that probably anyone could take standing in the same place at the same time – ignoring developing and printing that negative which is where at least half of the magic is. Film improvements happened and assuming it was the same format (e.g. 35mm) you could immediately access that with the camera you had and get even better picture quality.
With the onset of digital, things changed, the camera became the film and so you had to choose the best camera that you could and that then also determined the quality (at least in terms of definition) of the picture you could take. Glass was still important but people (at least those entering photography) seemed to consider it less. The technology war began, it’s all about megapixels and write speeds and ISO etc. And every week new cameras are released with a few more of this or that. Manufacturing technology is driving consumers in the same way as with TVs a few years ago. (I remember when broadcast pictures never changed and you could get any TV to play any TV signal and people rarely bought new ones; but then we got HD, 3D, 4k and 10k and now people upgrade their TVs all the time – one wonders when it will stop.)
I said earlier that Nikon was king and their glass probably still does have the edge in many areas, but Canon never that far behind and now technology is involved. In my opinion Canon’s cameras have better technology and put them ahead; they were much further forward in terms of features; for example, such as adding video. I had this exact conversation with a friend when they were looking at buying a new dSLR and wanted my opinion on whether to go Nikon or Canon. I also said that they are so close you really need to just go hold one, think about what you want to do with it and try it out, it probably comes more down to whether it feels right in your hands. Now others are way up there too, like Fujifilm, Sony and Olympus. With the right technology you can make very good cameras.
But I still think glass is important, if you are new into photography now and want an interchangeable lens camera, I would say invest in good glass, and if that means you can’t afford the best camera, so be it, buy a used higher level camera of a few years old – you may get a better result for the same money against lots more pixels and poor glass. Upgrade later when you can.
There is a relevant philosophy which I have always tried to bare in mind with cycling, because there is a similar mentality prevalent of upgrade get faster/better. This is “only upgrade when you have proved that the equipment is your limiting factor”. Which means if you want to go faster make sure you have addressed all the other areas like weight, training, riding position etc. before looking at the bike and saying I need a better one. This is the right way to think but if I am honest it can be annoying because I can never find a good reason to justify upgrading my bike and get a fancy new one 🙂
The same goes for the camera, invest in the glass, keep it as it’s unlikely that lenses will change significantly over time and upgrade the camera when you reach it’s limit. When you are taking pictures that the camera features don’t allow you to do; take a long look at what you are doing and make sure it’s the camera’s fault not yours.