This is not an article on Noetics or the latest wonder pill promising to turn you into the next Albert Einstein. We are talking about the elusive "image quality" we all crave for our pictures and the most rational current methods to achieve it.
If one reflects on online discussions, it seems that G.A.S. is a chronic disease with digital era photographers. The problem is always lack of the latest camera body (e.g. "I've got to have Full Frame"®) or the next wonder lens that will resolve about a million lpm, because how else can you obtain the sharpness you crave?
We all know, deep in our hearts, that the problem is really second-rate technique, but we like to fool ourselves that, in fact, the technical inadequacy is with the gear, not ourselves.
That said, in the digital environment, there is indeed a sometimes overlooked parameter that can help in soothing the "not enough IQ" woes; and possibly play well with our bank account too.
It's called "software".
I've spend most of my adult life as a software engineer, and learned early on that, optimizing a few lines of code can lead to a ten-fold improvement in operation speed, whereas you'd need at least two generations of hardware upgrades to accomplish the same. This is true both for user-installed as well as system software; in the case of our gear, firmware.
Starting with RAW converters: It's already known that different applications produce varied results with different camera systems. One example is with the dreaded Olympus Viewer, the official Olympus converters/post processing software. In most cases, it does a much better job in retaining detail and optimizing noise signatures. It gets even more critical where demosaicing a non-standard sensor is the case. For example I've seen different results with Fuji X-Trans sensor output through several RAW converters.
Whether results are "better" or "worse" may be a matter of taste and application. In any case, it's a splendid idea to research a little in what's available and try a few on your own files. It may be that a specific RAW converter is perfectly suited to your needs, and the improvement can be significant from the get go.
Post processing software is the second stage in this quest. First of all, be sure to upgrade to the latest stable release version available. I find it really mind-blowing when I sometimes re-process files from Canon DSLRs I used to work with about 3 years ago, using the newest releases. In some examples, results are day and night; and we are talking just one "major" (e.g. version 4.xx to 5.xx) software upgrade. Latest versions may have better de-noising algorithms, they may do a much more efficient job at sharpening, and possibly have more involved color profiles for your camera. They may also include more up to date profiles for lenses, an often underated factor which can make a world of difference.
Which leads us to the obvious: always invest in learning how to use your applications. More often than not, it's user lack of knowledge that leads to crappy results. Invest in a book or even a series of free online lessons of which there are dozens available. Post processing software is our darkroom and photo lab, we can't afford to be mediocre in using it.
Using software is, in a number of cases, possible to even equalize the output from a average lens to that of a good, or even, state of the art one. There are plugins that can convincingly add microcontrast which lesser lenses lack, and the finalized picture will be practically equally effective, in normal viewing media. Even depth of field and "bokeh" can be manipulated and, if one is careful, results can range from satisfactory to awesome. It's a decision between spending a lot of money vs spending some more time processing images.
And let's be somewhat unashamed regarding this: have a look at DxOMark lens measurements and comparisons. A difference in a couple of "effective Mp" (whatever they mean by that) between two lenses, is easily matched by better technique and the aid of modest post processing manipulations.
Software upgrades are not limited to computers; camera firmware updates are critical too. It's very well known that the exact same sensor may produce significantly better results in a different camera system. An example of this is Nikon managing to squeeze better results from Sony sensors than Sony itself. Part of this is down to better designed hardware pipelines, but software code plays a major role. Several times we've witnessed major progress in IQ by having better processing. Until recently one had to purchase the next body upgrade to obtain it. But this is bound to change, I believe.
An example of the critical nature of software can be seen with the Lytro field camera. Lytro is, for the time being, something of an oddity in the photographic world, but my guess is it illustrates the path photographic technology will evolve. There are also other, more conservative examples like the new NX1 camera from Samsung.
This is from a Samsung interview with Imaging Resource, following presentation of the NX1:
What we have here is, in effect, the ability to "re-program" the image processor at a deep level, introducing processing methodologies not available in the first place. This can significantly expand actual hardware upgrade cycles and can also represent a protection of investment in hardware.
Taking advantage of all the factors referenced in this article, I'm convinced one can see considerable improvements in ones work, without having to worry about investing in the absolute latest camera body or lens. Something to have in mind, when the next G.A.S. attack strikes.