Photography Equipment Upgrade Philosophy

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Here I sit just a few days before the New Year and I feel as though the artistic side of my hobby has been put on hold for the holidays.  Snapshots of the kids opening their holiday presents have somewhat become the focus of my workflow.  That’s not a bad thing, they are surely memories that I will hold near and dear for years to come, but that does leave my blog a little stagnant.  So as I sit here anxiously awaiting a new lens, courtesy of a gift card from my father (more on the lens in a later post), I thought it would be wise to share my own upgrade philosophies.  After all, like many of you, my dear readers, I am not a professional photographer and I do not have a lot of cash to spend on this expensive hobby.  As a father of two in a family of four with only a single income, extra spending cash doesn’t really exist.  So I save up my pennies and ask for gift cards for holidays and one day, I pray, I can upgrade slowly.  It requires discipline, a lot of research and some sacrifice.  It also requires a well thought plan.

Regular readers will have heard a few of my beliefs many times, so I apologize if I seem a little redundant in some areas.  Generally, I have a few rules that I follow when it comes to an upgrade.  Below, I will list each rule and discuss the specifics of each.  As always, feel free to comment and post your own thoughts and suggestions so that myself and all of my readers will benefit.

The Rules

  1. Choose a Path – If you’re primary interest is portraits, there’s no reason for you to spend your cash on a 300mm lens.  Look at what you’re doing now and what you’d like to be doing, and make sure you upgrade equipment that will help you either improve what you’re already doing or help you to move in the right direction.  using the portrait photography as an example, you may want to save for a prime lens with a large aperture in the 50-85mm range.  Pick a course and stick to it.
  2. Create a Wishlist – It’s a great idea to create a wishlist of all the items you could ever want to have.  It should be a flexible list in which you can prioritize and re-prioritize as your skills grow.  Things will be added, things will drop off the list.  But the point is that this will help you to focus your research and compare items on the list.  B&H Photo, Amazon.com and many other sites offer such a wishlist service that also make it easy to purchase such items once you are ready.
  3. Research – With photography equipment, or any sort of technology, you should know every little detail about an item you might consider buying.  You should know all the features, know which features you will and will not use and you should know about the quality of the product.  Many stores have product reviews from users right on their site.  There are also several product reviews all over the web such as Digital Camera Review and Photozone (for lenses).  Just keep in mind, most satisfied product owners likely won’t post any thoughts – its usually the disgruntled owners that post things, so take consumer reviews with a grain of salt.
  4. Get the Biggest Bang for Your Dollar – Thanks to your research (rule #3 above), you should be able to compare all of the items on your wishlist and definitively determine which products will be most useful to you at your current skill level. You should be able to evaluate each product based on their costs and determine which will give you the biggest bang for your buck.  I’ll use my latest purchase as an example.  I was really torn between an off-camera flash and a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens.  Both were marginally within the same cost range, but I ended up getting the lens.  Why?  Because I feel that I can do a lot more with the lens at this time if only because of the larger aperture (my current lens only opens up to f/3.4).  While I could probably do some better lighting with the flash, most of my photography is outdoors with ample amount of light – assuming I had a wide aperture.  So, the lens won the Best Value award and the flash will have to wait until my next upgrade.
  5. Buy Within Your Means – Need I remind you that this is a hobby, not a job.  You shouldn’t purchase upgrades on credit unless you have a plan to pay it off quickly.  There is no use going into debt for a hobby.
  6. Expect to Upgrade Later – As true with any technology devices, things change.  With that in mind, you shouldn’t be afraid to get a mid-range product instead of the top of the line products if it’s going to save you a lot of cash.  For example, it would really be nice to get an SB-800 (Nikon) flash that can act as an infrared controller, but your Nikon camera can trigger a mid-range flash like the SB-600 (Nikon) with your on-camera flash.  There’s a $150 difference between those flashes.  That’s at least a few filters, a chaper prime-lens or even savings that can be used for a future upgrade.  And when you do get around to going infrared, the SB-600 will accept IR commands from the SB-800, so nothing is lost or wasted.  But even if you ended up completely replacing hardware down the line, you’ll be that much better prepared for the top-of-the-line equipment when you can get it plus you can always sell your older stuff for more money than you would expect.
  7. Rule For Beginners:  Buy a System, Not a Camera – This last rule won’t apply to those who already have a nice DSLR setup; this is specifically for those of you who are looking to get into the SLR/DSLR market.  You really need to look at the camera system as a whole.  For most of you, it will be really hard not to compare the Canon bodies to the Sony bodies to the Nikon bodies.  In reality, you should also be looking at the lenses available, the average costs of the equipment, the average ratings, the feel, the add-ons, and so on.  Because once you get into a specific system, it will be really hard and really expensive to give up all your lenses, flashes and add-ons in favor of another brand.  After all, you will find one day that your best lens may still be worth twice that of your camera body.

Bringing It All Together

So there you have it, my rules that I live by when choosing upgrades.  My new 50mm f/1.8 lens will be here very soon and I will absolutely love having it.  I would have liked to have bought myself an off-camera flash, but alas it was a compromize that has many benefits.  I spent a lot of time researching and learning how to use both devices and the reality is that I truly feel I will improve my photography more with the lens at this point.  The flash will now be at the top of my list for the next upgrade.  I am confident that I made the most cost effective and the most justified decision.  I hope my list and my own experiences have and will help you in your own upgrade decisions.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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