Decisions on photo equipment

I once asked a handyman friend what kind of power/electric saw I should get. I wanted one that does it all.

My buddy Chuck laughed. Right off, I knew I wasn’t going to like his answer.

He lobbed it right back at me as a question. “What kind of work do you plan to do with the saw?”

When buying lenses and other photo gear, it’s no different. Some lenses are specialty lenses. Others are general purpose. The trouble is when you’re a beginner, you just don’t know any better.

And there’s always someone who’s willing to sell you something you don’t need.

My first experience with this was in Singapore when I was still working in the airlines. Close to where I lived, there was a guy who owned a camera store named George’s Photo.

I was young, made a decent living and could afford to splurge and didn’t know any better. I also happened to have at least 6 friends who were also into photography.

Collectively all our film and processing made George a tidy profit. It also explains why George’s eyes lit up as dollar signs whenever we showed up. Our lust for photo gear made us his favorite customers.

Camera manufacturers are evil that way.

Their beautiful glossy brochures are so seductive.

One look at those pages and our knees weaken.

Never mind if you don’t even know what a Tilt-Shift lens does.

After seeing the picture of the building in the brochure,  you just want one. The sex appeal, for lack of a better word is just that strong. 😉

They’ll sell you macro lenses, bellows, extension tubes, ringflashes, camera remotes and everything you think you’ll need, even if your quarry is just a flower or a rose in your own garden.

In order not to be caught up in that arms race, ask yourself these questions.

1. How serious are you about photography?

Look in your closet. Do you have many hobbies? I don’t need to remind you that photography is one of the more expensive hobbies there is.

2. Do you own any lenses from your previous film cameras?

If you do, then it makes sense for you to stick with the manufacturer/brand that is compatible with your old lenses. Even if the lens is not autofocus, you might still be able to manually focus. And if you’re concerned about not having automatic exposure metering, you can figure that out by consulting the histogram on your LCD monitor after you take your picture, right? Nikon users, here’s a resource on Ken Rockwell’s website on lens compatibility in the Nikon system. Canon users don’t have that flexibility because Canon switched lens mounts completely when they made the switch to autofocus.

3. What will you be trying to capture?

If you love wildlife then it is inescapable that a long telephoto will be in your future. In that instance you would want to buy a body that has an APS sensor and not a full frame sensor. APS-C sensors have a 1.3 or 1.6 magnification factor extending the focal length of all your lenses. A 200 mm lens becomes a 320 mm.

By “finding subjects within reach of your lenses,” I mean lenses that are able to get you close so you can fill the frame with your subject. If you are thinking about capturing surfers, please be realistic and don’t show up with a 50 mm lens.

4. Are you the type that has to “look” good with a brand name or are you the practical sort?

I don’t have a top-of-the-line camera. In fact, some of my students have more expensive gear than I do.

The way the digital photography market is, a new body comes out every year. Each generation, for about the same price, you get a faster, bigger files sizes and more features. Invest in good lenses and buy used camera bodies if you are on a budget.

Used camera bodies are not a bad thing. They don’t cost as much. You’re better off spending on good quality lenses rather than splurging on the latest greatest camera body.

5. If there is no other way to get a picture and you need a certain lens or equipment, ask how often will you use it?

There’s no denying if someone asked you to shoot a wedding ceremony in the little gondola of a hot air balloon, you’ll need a superwide angle lens. But do you need to buy a lens just for that? You’re better off renting the lens.

6. How old is your computer?

You heard me. And you read this correctly. Your switch to digital means you are forever and ever tied to a computer. Some research on your computer’s operating system (Linux, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Mac OS 10.5 Leopard or 10.6 Snow Leopard etc) and whether it plays well with your photo editing software will save you a ton of grief in terms of time and cost to upgrade after your purchase. If you’re starting out, read my tips on  getting into digital photography.

7. How computer savvy are you?

Do you know how to work a computer beyond surfing the internet? All this figures a lot into your choice of platform. The more user friendly one is a Mac.  I am a Mac user, but often times, I have to teach on Windows. I have a bias towards Macs but it’s just a matter of preference, nothing more. Neither one is superior to the other. The computer, after all,  is just a tool.

Finally, understand the limitations of the gear you have and learn to work around them until such time you can justify the new purchase.

On a more practical note, all the gear in the camera store won’t do you any good if you don’t have reliable transportation.

In the short term, capturing great pictures depend on  coming up with ideas, planning, and successfully getting on location.

In the long run, nurturing a curiosity about the world around you and finding subjects that hold your interest is key. As a photographer you need to be out and about, if nothing else, so that you can meet potential subjects or even clients.

The luster of your gear will eventually wear off  much like the smell of a new car, so it’s just as important to put yourself in situations where you will get to use your camera.

That can mean joining a photography club, taking some workshops or starting a blog where you post a picture everyday.

Guys, listen up. Failure to heed all my advice, can cause the “general of the house” to declare all your toys “white elephants” suitable for auction on Ebay.

6 thoughts on “Decisions on photo equipment”

  1. “Camera manufacturers are evil that way.

    Their beautiful glossy brochures are so seductive.

    One look at those pages and our knees weaken.”

    Haha so true, so true; that part had me cracking up.
    I was out shopping yesterday looking for equipment; a sad face 🙁 – that’s all I can put for the salesman, it’s a good thing I new what I needed and how things work because if not he would have ripped me off so easily. He was convincing even with the bull$%^@ he tried to feed me.

    I will share this article as well nice post Pete!


    Dwayne D.C. Tucker II
    Nassau, Bahamas

  2. Teresa,
    You are absolutely right about folks who buy a top-of-the-line cameras then use it in point-and-shoot mode all the time. If equipment alone made a photographer, then those folks who own high performance cars would be professional race car drivers, right?

  3. I don’t have top of the line cameras either. More of a bottom of the line but most of my friends only buy the best and then they use it in point and shoot mode or don’t use it at all. Some see my photos and ask me what kind of a camera I use. LOL

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