Photography is a gear and gadget lover’s dream. When it comes to new technologies, gadgets and accessories, the photography industry is packed full of better-than-yesterday’s stuff. If money were no object, we’d all have that awesomely crazy-rediculous Sigma 200-500mm zoom lens (at $32,000 USD, it’s a steal, really). Unfortunately, money is a limited commodity and your photography has to share it’s spot at the table along side things like marketing, operating costs and food, and it rarely gets a large percentage of the winnings. Truth be told, if you had the willpower to pull a Gandhi-like fast, you could get that new camera you wanted. For the rest of us, we must cut corners, and sometimes we cut the wrong ones. You can probably save some money on your camera strap. Even a more economical memory card – assuming its speed is up to par – is a safe way to eliminate a few bucks. But there are five places where you absolutely should put your frugality aside and pay the price. In order from most-to-least important, I shall highlight the five splurge product categories.
While we often get caught up in the features of our camera bodies – the size of the sensor, the Signal-to-Noise ratios, the continuous shooting speed – lenses sometimes become an afterthought. Truth is that the quality of your lens has far more impact on the quality of your photo than your camera body may have. A great lens can easily make up the difference for a mediocre camera body. Now I’m not saying you should skimp on the body in favor of your lenses, but I do feel that you should budget more for the lenses than the body itself. If you’re building a system from scratch, I would recommend – even to beginner shooters – buying the camera body without a lens. This gives you the freedom to get something other than the kit lens. And if you’re looking to upgrade down the line, look to see if you can improve your lens set before considering the body upgrade. If you get sticker shock over the price of the higher end lenses – many of which cost more than even some of the pro bodies – think of it as an investment. Three years from now, you may no longer have that camera body, but you’ll likely still have the lens. I still have, and regularly use, my 50mm f/1.2 lens from 1984. So do yourself a favor and spend the money on the lenses. You’ll thank me for it.
2. Lens Filters
Anything you put between your lens and your subject is going to impact the quality of the photo. Cheap lens filters can introduce a number of problems including, but not limited to, ghosting, decreased sharpness, aberrations, desaturation, noise and color inaccuracies. The best filters are multi-coated with special polymers and agents that reduce these problems. These are especially a necessity when shooting outdoors as the sun can only make these problems worse. Unfortunately, high quality lens filters can be quite expensive. A good quality Circular Polarizer can set you back close to $200 USD. A Variable Neutral Density filter could be more. But the price is absolutely worth it. Not convinced? Compare UV filters. You can get ones as low as $20 USD, but you will notice ghosting and even edge sharpness issues . Even a good UV filter can cost as much as $100. The good news is that these days, thanks to digital editing, there aren’t too many filters you would need anymore. You don’t need three or four shades of red, blue or yellow filters anymore, so that will save you some money. But if you’re in need of Circular Polarizers, Neutral Density or otherwise, do yourself a favor – spend the money so that your filter does not become the proverbial pimple on your work.
3. Camera Bags
A pet peeve of mine is when someone goes out and buys $3,000 worth of camera equipment and then they complain about the cost of a good camera bag. There are two major considerations (and a fair share of minor ones) when it comes to selecting a camera bag: Comfort and Protection. A good camera bag must protect your gear without fail. A cheaper camera bag may look like it will do the job, but if the partitioning system or if the enclosures aren’t top notch, your gear could be bouncing around inside like a rock tumbler; not good for your gear. As for comfort, I am a firm believer that comfort is a major factor in anything photography related, and the bag is no exception. If it’s not comfortable, you’re less inclined to use it or at least you won’t be efficient in your work. And if you’re not comfortable with your bag, you might as well not own a camera, because any nuisance that gets in the way of your shooting is a problem that needs to be corrected. Unfortunately, many of the comfort features – shock loops on chest straps, padded handles, ventilated back plates, and so on – are considered luxury items. They are cost-adders to the price of the bag. This means that a good camera bag with all the comforts you could ask for could set you back a couple of hundred dollars (USD). But for something designed to protect that expensive gear, I would recommend that you should control your gag reflex when you see the price.
4. Tripods & Monopods
When it comes to tripods and monopods, it’s fair to say that there is an incredibly vast market spanning all sorts of price ranges. Setting a price point where you should be spending your money isn’t so black & white when it comes to these products, and the most expensive could very easily be more than you need. But in general terms, I will say that there are certain features worth having in your tripod that will set it apart from other tripods, even in the same brand. Of course you want the most rigid and sturdy tripod you can afford. Having a replaceable head is a must: The after-market tripod heads are often better quality and better suit your needs over the built-in heads. Carbon Fiber – or other sturdy lightweight solutions – are also worth the cost. I speak from experience here: My tripods are all aluminum. They are all very solid; don’t move or shake, but they are cumbersome to move around. This is one area where I plan to upgrade in the future. In the long run, I’ll end up spending more money correcting the issue than I would have in the first place. And to think that the difference in cost was only about $40 USD. So I feel that it’s absolutely worth spending the money on a good tripod.
Your editing software is the bread and butter of your post-processing. You’d be lying to yourself if you believe you can capture your best work direct from the camera. Your software is your dark room, and the art is attributed as much to the dark room as it is to the camera. In other words, there will always be something to tweak – color balance, duo-tone, contrast, curves – to achieve your vision. Post-processing is just part of the work scope. Suffice to say that the software is pretty much essential, so you should make sure you have something that fits your workflow. You have dozens of options at all sorts of price points. I’m not going to try to lead you towards one product or another, but software like Aperture and Lightroom aren’t all that expensive. At least it’s not expensive enough for you to have an excuse for cutting this corner. But I don’t want to talk you out of a cheap solution, if it fits your needs. But at least consider your options ignorant of price, and consider what your time is worth. Again I come back to the comfort – if the software is not comfortable for you to use, you’re not going to get the most out of it. In my opinion, the difference between one software over another ultimately comes down to preference and your needs. After you have carefully considered your options, the price for such software – regardless of how expensive – will be money well spent.
If you’re only a hobbyist, you may have some excuse for cutting some of these corners. Maybe the aluminum tripod, as clunky as it may be, is good enough because you also need a good flash at the same time. And I can’t fault you for that, because this isn’t a source of an income for you. However, if this is your business – or at least providing some sort of income – then any amount of equipment you purchase could be an investment. You’ll need to weigh your costs against benefits: Even if you could have use for that Sigma lens, you probably will never get a return. Besides, you can rent some of that really expensive stuff and write it into your proposal. In the end, your gear is an extension of your work. You best make sure you’re happy with all of it.