A few weeks back, I wrote about the dilemma many photographers face: The decision whether or not to upgrade their gear (To Upgrade or Not to Upgrade, That is the Question). In my quest to find the “right” camera that I always carry, I’ve spent a lot of time scouring thousands of reviews on what seems like hundreds of Web sites. So far, one thing has become clear: Nearly all the cameras purchased were selected without ever touching it.

This got me thinking: Why are people making a significant purchase without taking the camera or lens out for a test drive? Think about it: you test drive a car before purchasing it. You probably try on clothing before walking to the register with it. The same goes for a house or apartment – would you buy it without at least a walk through? Huh? You would? You’re nuts!!

But I digress – over the last three weeks, I’ve rented three cameras to the tune of a couple hundred bucks. So far, it’s some of the best money I’ve spent, and one helluvan education. To wit: looking at the specifications of the Canon SX50HS, it’s a photographer’s dream, RAW capture, a 24-1200mm lens range, 8 fps shooting, etc. But giving the camera a true field test shows softness in the edges of the image, clunky zooming, and anything of ISO 100 nets digital noise. It’s a Jack of all trades, and a master of none.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad camera – in fact, it’s great for an amateur shooter that wants to have an all-in-one for traveling or capturing the kids at a soccer game. But if you’re expecting make sharp 40X60 prints of a fabulous sunset, you’ll be disappointed. Trust me, I know.

I then turned to lensrentals.com, and ordered a Canon G15 for a week. Canon’s latest “G” is by far the best to date. The images are incredibly sharp, due in part to the f/2.8 lens. This was the first G camera where I was truly impressed, having the ability to open up to 2.8 and throw the background into oblivion, or stop down to f/20 and keep the entire scene tack sharp. With nearly all the bells and whistles you would find on a DSLR, I was quickly making fantastic images.

For my style of shooting, I was on the right track, but there was a fly in the ointment: the 28mm effective wide angle wasn’t as wide as I’d like. True, for an additional fifty bucks, you can get an adapter and attach a wide angle filter, but image quality is compromised. And shooting with a split ND filter exposes an interesting dilemma, confusing the meter and throwing exposure to the wind as it tries to adjust for the filter’s light compensation.

By this time, I was beyond frustrated. Would I ever find a camera that I could continually carry with me, and allow me to capture the images I wanted to get, that’s a small package? The answer turned to be yes and no.

Leave it to my wife to quietly watch the trials and tribulations, and pose a suggestion that turned out to be the perfect solution:

“If you can’t find the right new camera to carry with you, do you have one you’re thinking of replacing? Why not use the old camera as the carry-around?”

Yes, I married a genius.

My Canon 1D MARK III has been showing its age, its “odometer” showing a bit over 140K shutter actuations and the focusing not nearly as quick or accurate as my 5D Mark III. While it isn’t my first choice of camera to grab when running out of the studio, it is still a great camera for grab shots, or for this particular need. It’s a stalwart, that’s netted me thousands of incredible Humpback Whale images. Plus, it’s the Timex of Canon’s lineup: It’s seen about as much salt spray as a merchant mariner, been dropped or banged around the deck and it’s still working like a champ – I couldn’t just retire it. Besides, its “trade in” value is a mere 5% of what I originally paid for it, so it makes financial sense to keep using it until it kicks the bucket.

So not I have a Canon 7D in my “whale pack.” It’s a couple frames-per-second slower, but the metering and focusing systems area a marked improvement over my 1D-M-tres. Coupled with my Sigma 70-200 f/2.8, my image “kill ratio” has more than doubled – especially in rough seas where quick and accurate focusing is critical.

Now, the 1D MARK III resides in a Lowepro bag, and wherever I go, it goes with me. It still doesn’t get used very much, but whenever I see something magnificent, I no longer mutter the George Carlin Nasty Seven under my breath and wish I had a camera with me. Instead, I pull out my Trusty 1D MARK III and shoot away.

I wonder what other great ideas my wife has?