How to Know if You Should Upgrade Your Equipment or if You Just Have Gear Lust

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Gear lust – it’s out there and is bound to bite you sooner or later. Whether photography is a business or a hobby for you, gear lust is a natural part of the consumer cycle. But there is a sane way to approach your desires and check if they are ruling you or you are ruling them. So here are some tips to help you know if you should upgrade or it’s just gear lust.

How to Know if You Should Upgrade Your Equipment or if You Just Have Gear Lust

New Photo Equipment Flowchart

Follow this flowchart to see where you land. Only if you end up at a green bubble should you consider upgrading or buying more camera gear.

How to Know if You Should Upgrade Your Equipment or if You Just Have Gear Lust - infographic

Click to view the chart in a new tab or print it out.

Do you shoot for profit?

The first question on the chart is the most defining, “Are you going to make money from this lens?” Whether photography is a hobby or profession for you makes a big difference in the purchase decision. I believe both groups should look at the choice through different eyes, so let’s start down the hobby side of things first.

Skip down to below the hobby section to find the questions for profitable shooters.

How to Know if You Should Upgrade Your Equipment or if You Just Have Gear Lust

Hobby: What can’t you currently do with your gear?

If you can’t answer this question truthfully, then you have textbook gear lust. If you answer it and that answer is, “Nothing,” you too have gear lust. That’s not a bad thing! I just want to help you recognize it so you can make your choice with a little more clarity.

But, if there is a technique or style you have tried to replicate over and over again with your current equipment, such as parallel lines in architectural photography or a ten-minute exposure when your camera has no Blub mode, you’re one step closer to justifying an outlay of cash. So let’s take a look at your next question.

Hobby: Should you buy pro equipment?

This question is usually related to lenses but can be adapted to camera bodies, lighting equipment, printers, and more.

If you’re in this photography game for the long haul, it’s in your best interest to purchase higher quality equipment. Lenses specifically will last through a number of camera bodies over the years, while camera bodies tend to make reasonable improvements every 3-5 years.

How to Know if You Should Upgrade Your Equipment or if You Just Have Gear Lust

I usually suggest intermediate or pro-quality equipment to anyone who has been using their gear for a couple of years and continually hits the limit for its abilities. Then we need to ask the next critical question…

Hobby: Can you afford it?

If you can’t afford the higher quality equipment, and you can still justify the need to upgrade, I would suggest looking for used equipment in the style you want or possibly renting it for a short-term project. This is an excellent idea for trips abroad, for instance.

If you have come this far and can afford the purchase without going broke, hungry or breaking up a relationship to do so, I say go for it! It might be wise to do a quick cost/benefit analysis (e.g. I’d rather spend $1500 on travel than on a new lens). That might point you to a cheaper option to balance the scales, which tends to be a wise choice for hobbies. Or you might find bliss in your Gear Lust (this time) and will revel in the joy of new shooting opportunities.

Profit: Should you get pro equipment?

How to Know if You Should Upgrade Your Equipment or if You Just Have Gear Lust

If you are making a profit or looking to do so with your equipment, you’re going to want to look at this decision through money-making glasses. That equipment won’t do you any good if it just sits on a shelf. It needs to be making you money!

To answer the pro equipment question for profit-seekers, let’s look at how this lens will be used. Make no mistake; it’s easy for pros to justify business-related purchases right away when they are really just gear lust in disguise.

Real Life Lesson: I bought a drone on the chance that I’d get a gig where I’d use it heavily. The client ended up canceling the project, but I bought the drone before the contract was signed, because of my gear lust. I made up a reason to justify it when I had no concrete payback schedule. Now I use the drone mostly as a hobby and it dented my pocketbook unnecessarily.

Should you get pro equipment? Let’s ask first if the photos are mission critical.

Profit: Are your photos mission critical?

Relating another analogy from my recent past, I bought a nice Sigma 150-600mm Sport Lens because I recently got into birding. I ‘”needed” (heavy emphasis on the quotes) a longer lens to capture those small or far away birds. That’s bad, expensive gear lust and I didn’t ask myself the “Mission Critical” question.

On the other side of the coin, I also shoot weddings and portraits, so buying a new 24-105mm lens would easily be justified, because the lens will pay for itself over time. Those photos are mission critical and pay my bills. Photos of bird, currently, do not. “Maybe I’ll sell some photos in the future,” is not the best business decision to make and the purchase of said item should be put off until it can be afforded as a hobby.

Profit: Will the equipment increase profits?

These new photos you will take with this new equipment, will those photos increase your profits? Really?

How to Know if You Should Upgrade Your Equipment or if You Just Have Gear Lust

Dig deep with this one, because you need to look at this as a business decision. Do you have work lined up that will pay for most, if not all, of the new equipment purchase? If so, skip to the last question. If not, continue.

Profit: Is the new equipment replacing old equipment?

If you’ve answered no this far, this no is your last. It’s gear lust, plain and simple.

How to Know if You Should Upgrade Your Equipment or if You Just Have Gear Lust

If you are replacing old gear, the purchase can likely be justified. Especially if you can offload your old equipment or use it as a much-needed backup. But I have one last question for you before you click the “Buy Now” button.

Profit: Can your old equipment be repaired?

I felt gear lust strong and clear when my 28-300mm L lens started having problems. A new one, not all scratched up, would be so nice. Then I asked Canon about fixing it. They said it would cost me $300. Once I compared that to the $2700 cost of buying a new lens, my decision was clear.

This choice can be made more difficult if the manufacturer has upgraded your camera or lens to a Mark II or III version. If your old equipment is simply aged beyond your capabilities, or it can’t be repaired, it’s time to buy new gear. But if it can be repaired and you can get a few more years of use out of it, then save your profits for expanding your business rather than giving in to gear lust.

Profit: At what photo business stage are you?

You’ve made your way through the chart and are going to buy that new piece of equipment. Congratulations on being clearheaded!

There is one last thing to consider: What stage are you at in your business development?

Beginner

How to Know if You Should Upgrade Your Equipment or if You Just Have Gear Lust

If you’re just beginning, I would consider some lower cost options for equipment. This might mean getting a mid-level camera body instead of the $8000 pro-version that gear lust is drawing you toward. Spending $6500 more than you need to on a camera body won’t make you that much more profit. Investing it in advertising has a better chance of bringing in more clients and hence more profits.

If you have a specific project to shoot for a client and you’re not sure if you’ll use that equipment afterward, renting can be a viable option to keep your profits up.

You’re getting some paid gigs

If the money is coming in steady enough, but it’s not your main source of income yet, then it’s likely a good time to upgrade to better gear. Especially if you have made a case for how you can increase profits or ease workflow (e.g. replacing a 6-year old computer will vastly improve your editing speed and leave more time for finding and shooting new gigs).

Be honest with yourself here. If paid work is sporadic and you can do other types of jobs to make cash, hold off on spending profits until the volume is up and more regular.

Also, I highly suggest upgrading your lenses before your bodies, all things being equal. While getting a new body that has GPS or one extra frame per second in high-speed mode might seem tempting, a faster and sharper lens will improve your end product in a more profitable way.

You make regular income with photography

If the dough is rolling in regularly and you can see the next three years being this way, pull the trigger and buy that new gear. You’re in this for the long-haul and can write off the new equipment as a business expense over its useful life.

Hint: If a new purchase would put your balance sheet far into the red for the year, you’re not making enough regular income.

How to Know if You Should Upgrade Your Equipment or if You Just Have Gear Lust

Conclusion

Gear lust happens to us all and it can be a struggle. I’ve suffered from it more than once and made bad choices more than once – thus the reason for this flowchart.

I hope it helps you find your way to photo-taking bliss. Remember, that’s why we own all this stuff: to take amazing photos. Don’t let the gear lust pull you away from that goal.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Morocco, Seattle, Los Angeles and more. He is also the creator of 31 Days to Better Photography & 31 Days of Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

  • KC

    My “gear lust” seems to be working in reverse these days. I’m picking up cameras I had and enjoyed, but let go. It’s pure nostalgia. They’re not meant to be primary cameras. They’re also a point of perspective, a reminder, that I did some heady stuff with such simple cameras.

    After a whole lot of years and money I’ve come to realize there’s no perfect camera or lens (singular). “Just in case” doesn’t happen often enough. I can rent what I need or buy used. Of course, there are cameras that made strong impressions on me. Sure, I want them, but don’t have enough reason to own them.

    I’m a minimalist when it comes to equipment. I don’t “specialize”. I also don’t want to carry or transport a lot of gear. I’m long past the point where the camera is a prop for marketing (look at that camera, he must be a pro!) In fact, I get a kick out of “you made that image with that?”

  • Tom Cooper

    Hobby: I’ve been using my current camera for almost 8-1/2 years. While a lot has changed in that time, it does everything I want. However, that does not mean upgrading old equipment is not a legitimate thing to do. Upgrading a 9-year-old camera that still works isn’t gear lust.

  • WillyPs

    Gear lust is a good thing… it’s why you find like-new equipment on E-Bay for half the cost of new.

  • KC

    Bravo!

  • Vivek Varghese

    I started printing my photos and the gear lust simply evaporated

  • Peter West Carey

    But tell me, didn’t you want a better printer? 😉

  • Peter West Carey

    If there is one fable from all the photography Gear Lust stories, ” “Just in case” doesn’t happen often enough. ” is it! Thanks for that.

  • Vivek Varghese

    But I get prints from HP Indigo Press, so I dont think there is any point in wanting a better printer

  • Peter West Carey

    Good point!

  • Tim Riddle

    I mostly heartedly agree with this article. Well Done! I would ask two questions on the right side.

    Does the new gear do something you need, that the old camera does not? By this I mean two things. Let me explain them with an example. Do you need to do something specific? I shoot Santa photos. Some spaces are too small to shoot with a crop sensor and portrait lens. Use a wider lens? That brings up the other question. Do you want to improve your quality? A crop sensor with a wide lens can’t give the perspective you need. Too much background outside of your backdrop, or too little backdrop due to cropping. Either one means losing a client for next year.

    That being said, “the person behind the camera” cannot turn rocks into gold. you must have equipment capable of the task. I started shooting concerts a few years ago. What did I learn? Technique improvements can make any shooting situation to give useable results, only if you have control over the environment. Can I add lights? Sure, that will fix most anything. Can I get the action to freeze? Easy fix.

    Let me soapbox for a minute. I keep hearing phrases like “zoom with your feet” and “paste in a backgroundin photoshop”. Sorry, this is trading one type of poor image quality for another “cropping for perspective” or photography for graphic design. If you shoot an event, the customer does not want to see fked images. They aren’t portrais used for ads. They want to see Billy and Granny in the actual back yard, the way it was.

    I suppose this is for the person who knows what they need to do, not just learn to take pictures. OK, enough of my rant.

    Again, well done!

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