Many photographers have experienced lens-lust or gear envy, and know the thrill of playing with a new piece of camera gear. But gear can be expensive, and choosing the wrong equipment can be a costly mistake. So how do you know you are purchasing the correct gear, and ensuring that it won’t end up in a cupboard collecting dust?
Here are five tips to help you choose and buy camera gear wisely, and maybe save a little bit of money at the same time.
1. What do you really need?
I always advocate working with your current gear until you start to feel its limitations. This way you will have a clearer idea of what specifications or items will help you grow further as a photographer.
If you feel that you’ve reached these limits, but are still confused about which piece of equipment you should buy as your first priority, try taking a few notes during your next shoot. Where do you get stuck? What frustrates you? What would make your photography life easier? What will you be photographing? And what is your next goal? Asking yourself these questions will help refine exactly what you need from your next purchase.
For example, do you wish that your lens would shoot wider, or zoom in closer? Perhaps you really want to try macro photography, or need a tripod to try slow shutter speed waterscapes?
If you shoot a lot of landscapes or architecture, a wide angle lens will be more useful than a telephoto lens. Alternatively, if you photograph families, children, or events, a zoom lens may make it easier to respond quicker to impromptu moments, rather than a prime fixed-focal length lens.
Also, will you fully understand and use all the wonderful aspects of the new equipment? Will it be beneficial to your photography, or will it be so complex that it will frustrate you?
For example, should you spend a lot of money on a professional level lens that shoots at f/2.8 if you do not know anything about depth of field? Do you like the effect of f/2.8? Will you use it regularly? Or would a less expensive lens that goes to f/5.6 do everything you need it to?
Similarly, if you’ve only been shooting on auto-modes, purchasing a camera that has mostly manual options may not be the best choice. Instead, consider a mid-range camera that offers both auto and manual modes, so you can try more advanced techniques, as well as take it out just for fun.
Make a decision about what you really need from your gear, and remember – it’s okay to stick with the equipment you currently own until you are 100% sure of your choice.
2. Know your budget
Unfortunately we do not all have limitless bank accounts, and will have to make decision on how much we can spend. It is a balancing act between deciding on your budget, and researching the actual cost of items. You could choose to spend a bit more now on one item that will fulfil your needs for the long term, or spend less on an entry-level option to build up your experience.
Sometimes however what you really want is simply too expensive, so you can choose to wait for the next big sale or look at alternatives, and that’s perfectly okay too. Another option would be to buy the absolute necessities now, while saving for the next items. If you discover you need it sooner, and have not saved enough yet, you can choose to rent gear as needed.
Many stores now also offer payment plans that allow you to take the gear home and pay it off in weekly instalments. This can certainly help with cash flow, but always read the small print, and check the interest rate to see if it will suit your situation.
3. Do your research
The images above were shot with two different 50mm lenses, using their largest apertures. Do you think you would notice the difference in your own shots? Is it worth the price difference? Flickr can also be a great way to see examples of images taken using specific equipment.
There are so many opinions and reviews posted online that it is easier than ever to do your research. Read personal opinions, website reviews, as well as manufacturers’ specifications, to give you a well rounded opinion and compare them to what you are looking at purchasing. YouTube is a great resource for tutorials, reviews, and box openings. Flickr is also be a good place to find images that have been tagged as being shot with a specific lens or camera – it is a great way to see real-life results.
Your local camera store should not be overlooked either. Go in for a browse, play with the items, listen to advice, and go back a few times if you’re unsure and want to become more familiar with the item before buying it. You want to ensure you are comfortable with the gear you are purchasing, and that it does exactly what you want it to.
Editor’s note: Canon has three 50mm lenses: The f/1.8 version at $125 (shown above right), the f/1.4 version at about $349 (not pictured), and the f/1.2 monster (above left) which will run you a whopping $1349.
If you’re trying out new lenses or a flash, take your camera into the store with a fresh battery and memory card, attach the lens/flash and take a few photos. Test it out in store, see how it works, then go home and review the images. If you’re looking at a new camera body, take your favourite lens and a memory card and do the same. All gear has an adjustment period for becoming familiar with settings and button locations, so this will give you a head start, and an idea of the weight and shape of the item, something you can’t experience by online shopping.
Helpful and knowledgeable salespeople are also invaluable. Many camera store staff on a commission-based pay structure can often be motivated to make a higher-priced sale, so may push you toward the more expensive option. There are those, however, who will provide good advice and non-pushy service, with the hope you will come back to them when you’re ready to buy. If the price is right, it is always good to support your friendly local camera store, as they can be an invaluable resource, especially if something goes wrong.
4. Consider renting
Did you know you can rent equipment such as lenses and camera bodies, as well as studio flash kits? Many professional photography stores offer this service, and there are several online camera rental services as well.
This option is great for when you are considering professional level gear, or something for a special technical application. You have the opportunity to rent the gear for a day, weekend, or a week, which is a great way to try before you buy.
It is not only a good option for researching a new purchase, but you can hire specialist equipment needed for one-off jobs (like a macro or tilt-shift lens for example), without the cost of purchasing it outright, and with the added advantage of claiming the hire expense as a business expense. A security bond is usually charged, so be sure to read the fine print for the rental terms and conditions.
5. Look for the less expensive option
If you cannot afford your preferred brand or wish-list item, try searching for a less expensive option. This could mean waiting for a camera sale, purchasing second-hand, a lesser-known brand, or even an alternative method to achieve the same result. These options can be a great way to expand the gear in your camera bag and try new techniques, without spending quite as much money.
For example, we all agree that an f/1.2 lens is drool-worthy, but would the f/1.4 version do almost as good a job? Or instead of purchasing a special macro lens, would close-up filters work instead? Generic, or lesser known brands, are another less expensive option, although they may not have the same quality or life expectancy as the branded versions.
Purchasing second hand equipment may be risky, but with some research, and by asking the right questions, you can often find a bargain. Always consider how much wear and tear the item has had, who has owned it before, and how much life is still left in it. A wedding photographer, for example, will often upgrade their gear and sell off their old cameras. While it might look like a great deal, it’s worth keeping in mind that their gear may have been subject to a lot of wear and tear.
Scratches and marks can be forgiven, provided they do not affect proper function, while some items have a limited lifetime. When considering a second-hand camera, ask about its shutter actuation, or shutter count, and then compare it to the camera’s life expectancy. This will give you an idea of how many more photos the camera can capture, before the shutter may fail. If photography is your hobby it may take you years to reach this limit, whereas if you’re shooting weddings every week you will reach this number sooner. Shutters are replaceable but it can be expensive, and often camera replacement is more cost effective.
Many of these alternative options are available to purchase in your local camera store, or online. In regards purchasing of second hand equipment, it is worth being cautious: ask lots of questions, request photographs, ask about any return policy, and if you do go ahead, purchasing insurance on postage.
Hopefully these tips will assist you in choosing your next purchase wisely, one that suits your needs perfectly, and may even help you save a little bit of money too – who knows, maybe just enough to afford that other item you want?
The most important thing, however, is that you use your new gear and enjoy your continuing journey in photography.