Should I upgrade or shouldn’t I upgrade? It’s an age-old question. But perhaps the first question you should ask is: “can I buy?"
Photography is a very expensive hobby. And if you work hard enough and are so inclined to pursue it, it will ultimately become a very expensive business. The one consistent complaint, if you can call it a complaint, that I’ve had since the very first day I picked up a camera with profit in mind is that the photo industry as a whole seems far more designed to have photographers spend money than to make it. We’ll get to gear costs in a moment. But everything from paid portfolio reviews, to paid marketing efforts, to paid consulting, to fees that go to photo reps, to investing in test shoots to build your portfolio, too often needing to front the production funds for certain projects while clients are allowed to pay on 60- to 90-day terms. It all seems set up to make things easy for photographers to spend money in the chase of a dream rather than to get paid a fair wage for their work. While what I consider to be a fair wage for my work has changed drastically over the years, the feeling that the business structure of photography doesn’t always work in the photographer’s favor is not something I’ve ever quite been able to shake.
Of course, our biggest financial injury, often self-inflicted, is the crazy amount of money we often find ourselves spending to keep up with the latest and greatest gear. We live in the tech age. Everything from phones to toaster ovens seems to be getting monumentally better with each passing day. That high-tech device you bought last month has already been replaced twice over, and it’s hard to know when it’s time to upgrade. I inherited/borrowed and refused to give back my very first camera from my father, an old Canon film camera which he had bought in the 1960s on his way to being deployed to Vietnam. It's built like a metal tank with no electronics to speak of. It’s nearly 60 years old now, but the other day, I picked it up, loaded it in a roll of 35mm film, and took a few shots with it. Still works like a charm. As much as I love my new digital workhorses, I have a sneaking suspicion that very few of them will still be considered operational 60 years from now. We live in an age of disposability, in more ways than one. We live in an age where the only things people seem to think matter are those things that have happened during the most recent round of Twitter feuds.
Okay, old man rant over. But it does bring me to my core point today which is knowing when you should be willing to break the bank to upgrade your gear and when you might be wiser to hold onto your money. Of course, the fundamental question of whether a specific piece of gear is worth the investment to a specific photographer is not something that can be answered in one sweeping general response. We all have different needs, work in different genres, and with different clients, and so what you use as your upgrade criteria are going to be necessarily different from what the photographer standing beside you might deem important. But on a top level, not specific to any one particular product, there are a few questions that I think you might want to ask before making any new purchase.
Can I Afford This? Literally.
This is the most obvious question, so I think it requires the least amount of explanation. If you have $5,000 in the bank and put $10,000 on your credit card for a new camera, you might need to rethink your math. No matter how great a new product might seem, it’s unlikely to be worth you spending your last dollar to obtain it. As I said, nothing is impossible. But I think most would agree that going into debt to buy a piece of gear that may or may not provide a marginal improvement to your workflow isn’t usually the best idea. But then again, that does lead into point number two.
Who Is Paying for It?
Sure, it might be your credit card being run through the reader on the cashier’s counter, but who is paying for the gear you are buying? If you are a hobbyist, the answer is simple. You want a camera. You have the money for it. You can buy whatever you want. If you are making a living as a professional photographer, the thought process is quite different.
I’ve heard more than one vlogger remark that professional photographers can spend however much they want on a camera because they are professionals and can presumably afford it as part of the business. And while there is a certain truth to needing a certain level of tools as a professional that you might not need as a hobbyist, if you ask most professional photographers, the thought process behind how much to spend is unlikely to be characterized by always buying the most expensive option. If you are a hobbyist, you can spend what you can afford. There is no expectation that the gear itself will earn you money. A professional photographer, on the other hand, is in business to make money. Therefore, like any business owner, you want to maximize profit. You want to earn as much money as possible while keeping expenses to a minimum. New gear can be a worthwhile expense, but only if it directly correlates to profits and costs less to obtain than the value you will get in return.
For instance, I am a commercial photographer. I create still and motion advertising campaigns for clients. When I bill my clients, I am not only billing them for my day rate and usage fees, I am also billing them for expenses. Those expenses generally will include equipment fees. Not that I send my clients to the B&H website and tell them to buy me the red one. But, whatever gear I may have purchased (or rented) in advance of the shoot that I will be bringing to the set on their behalf will be charged to the production — not the entire cost of a camera, obviously, but whatever the market rate is to rent the gear. I am essentially renting my gear back to production. So, if you have enough clients and rent the gear on enough occasions, essentially, your clients are the ones paying for it. You pay upfront. But you are being refunded with actual business. Therefore, the amount of money you can spend on a piece of gear is easily calculable by multiplying the rental rate by the number of clients your project would be willing to pay for it. Thus, you break even on your investment or potentially even start to make a profit from your investment if you get enough business.
Of course, not all forms of photography work this way. Say, for instance, you have a thriving business shooting actors’ headshots. It’s unlikely that you are charging a kit fee as a line item to each of your clients. Most would likely be confused, as that’s not necessarily normal practice in that space. Knowing this in advance, you would do a different calculation for your investment. You would still ultimately need to find a way to pass off your investment to the customer. But you might need to make adjustments like investing less upfront, then building it into your rates to allow you to spread that investment over a larger number of individual clients to ultimately cover your upfront expenses. In that scenario, you are still taking into account your gear costs when billing a client. You just are working those costs into your overall package price rather than having a separate line item.
Knowing who is ultimately going to bear the brunt of the costs for your investment can help you figure out what is the right level of investment for you to make in new gear. If your research tells you that a new camera, regardless of how many advanced features it has, will just end up being an expense that won’t pay for itself within a reasonable period, then it might not be worth the money.
Then again, if you are not making money from your photography and have the funds to just buy whatever camera makes you happy, then, by all means, buy the one that you want.
Can I Afford Not To Buy This?
Every photographer, regardless of our experience, likes to play this game in our head where we try to convince ourselves that we need every piece of new gear that hits the market. We don’t need every new camera. But we are gearheads, and we like shiny new toys. So, we convince ourselves that things that we want are things that we need. 99% of the time, this is just our mind playing tricks on us. But to be fair, there are times when it could cost you more not to invest.
Let’s say, for example, you are a videographer. You have already built a reasonable client list and have several different customers who hire you and your gear to come to shoot projects for them. In our example, let’s say these are easy gigs. You just have to show up, shoot, then upload the footage at the end of the day. Nothing more is required. The only catch is that the majority of your clients want the footage delivered as ProRes 4:2:2, but your camera only shoots in a proprietary raw format. This works just fine for you when you are working solo and have the time to mull over all the footage personally and sit through whatever transcoding might be necessary. But, in our case, your client expects the footage all uploaded at the end of the day promptly. You can try to explain to your client that your footage requires special handling and that you will send it to them once all the transcoding is done processing. This requires your client to be patient with you. This also requires an additional investment of your time to do the added processing. But time costs money, and clients’ patience can run out. So, it might be a situation where you risk losing the business or losing your time simply because the gear you have is incapable of delivering what your client wants. So, assuming this is a big part of your business, this might be a case where you genuinely need to make an upgrade to a camera that shoots ProRes internally.
Likewise, perhaps you began your business in editorial photography and 24 megapixels was more than adequate for the assignments you were shooting. But, as your career grew, you found yourself shooting for more and more commercial clients who required 50-megapixel images to create the crops and ad layouts they were hiring you to shoot. Well, even though it’s expensive, you might find that upgrading to a new higher-resolution camera is now the money you can’t afford to not spend.
Is This The Right Time?
Of course, we have to be realistic with ourselves when answering these questions. For instance, if you don’t currently have clients that require a medium format camera, but one day hope to have such clients, do you need to buy that medium format camera right now? Or, would it be better to keep creating with the camera you already own as you work your way up to that point when you have the clients who both need medium format and who have the budget to pay for it? If you haven’t yet had a client ask you for more than a 1080p deliverable, is there an immediate justification for purchasing an 8K camera? It may be a worthwhile future investment, but do you need it right this instant when money might be tight or better used to bolster other areas of your business?
In the end, it can be difficult to decide when it makes sense to invest your hard-earned money into a new system. It’s not an exact science. I’ve invested in gear that I was sure was going to transform my business only to find that the gear wasn’t nearly as useful to my clients as I expected it to be. I’ve made other great purchases, almost by accident, that ended up delivering both profit and productivity beyond expectation. We are in an industry designed to not only make us money but get rich from us spending it. It’s important before making any buying decision that you take a look at all the factors to determine whether or not an upgrade is worth it to you.