Lessons I've Learned the Hard Way When Buying Cameras Over the Years

Lessons I've Learned the Hard Way When Buying Cameras Over the Years

On the never-ending camera buyer’s merry-go-round? Here are a few lessons I’ve learned along the way.

It is finally gone! I won’t specify what it is. I will say that it is a camera. I won’t say which camera (it's none of those pictured in this article) because the point of this article isn’t to disparage any particular brand or camera. But let's just say that a few years ago, I purchased a very expensive camera that I envisioned completely transforming the way I work. Yet, over the years, after trying repeatedly to find it a place in my workflow, sadly it only ended up coming up short time and time again at doing what I needed. As a result, it has spent the vast majority of its lifespan sitting in a camera case collecting dust while I silently simmered at the large chuck it took out of my bank account. Then, I simmered some more as I had to buy even more cameras to address the issues that it was meant to address. The only reason it’s taken me this long to sell it is that I was holding out false hope that I could recoup more of my initial investment. But, just last week, after a minuscule bump in trade-in value, I finally decided to cut bait and take what I could get. While I’m not happy to have lost money on the investment and incurred such a self-inflicted wound, I will say there is at least a bit of catharsis from closing that chapter in my gear journey.

As I packaged the camera up and shipped it out to the buyer, I made a realization. I’m done buying new gear. Well, for the foreseeable future, that is. I don’t mean to say I’ll never buy a new camera again in my career. If I’m fortunate, I still have a while to go in my working life, and 10 years from now, it’s likely that some technology will have emerged that my pea-sized brain is currently incapable of imagining. So, never say never.

Also, my bold declaration that I am done buying new gear for the foreseeable future only comes after the last five years of spending far more than is logically sensible as I fought a losing battle against my lack of willpower and overhauled everything in my arsenal from cameras to light stands. So part of me saying I don’t need to buy anything else is because I truly don’t need to buy anything else. And when I say that I’m sharing lessons learned about buying gear, believe me when I say that many of those lessons were learned the hard way.

Most of this camera carousel was instigated by the industry's shift from DSLR to mirrorless in the last half decade. While I made the shift begrudgingly, I eventually did go fully mirrorless, less for the photography benefits and more to accommodate changes in my career path which have made filmmaking a larger and larger portion of my annual billings. For larger film projects, I still rent video-centric cinema camera systems as opposed to dropping six figures to own my own top-level cinema cameras, which are still, ahem, well beyond my financial reach. But I did want an in-house camera capable of shooting anything at any moment for projects without a rental budget or more modest ambitions. Trying to find which mirrorless camera system would be the right fit for both my unique preferences as a photographer and my technical needs as a filmmaker while not breaking my budget has been far more difficult than I imagined. Let the manufacturers tell it: all you need to do is keep buying whatever camera they released last and you will always have “the perfect camera.” Of course, this is nonsense. Instead, my attempts to find a one-size-fits-all camera for my needs resulted in a number of near misses and eventually a small collection of cameras that all did part of the process well while falling short in others.

Eventually, I landed on the Nikon Z9. This is not an article about why you should buy the Z9. So, all I will say is that, after all these years of looking, I’ve finally found a camera that threads the needle for the majority of my everyday needs and gives me the confidence that, whatever new cameras are coming down the line, my own camera needs should be satisfied for some time to come. I bought two, sold off all my other cameras, put away the credit card, and am greatly looking forward to not having to go camera shopping again until one of the Z9 bodies gives up the ghost.

So, what did I learn from an endless cycle of buying high and selling low on my camera gear before eventually finding the right system for me? Here are just a few things I wish I had told myself at the beginning.

Don’t Go Down the YouTube Rabbit Hole of Camera Reviews

This is not to say that you shouldn’t watch a camera review of something you are considering buying. I write camera reviews, so it would be hypocritical of me to suggest that there was something wrong with wanting to be informed on the latest and greatest. But the absolute deluge of easily digestible photo-related content on the internet makes it incredibly easy to find oneself falling down an endless rabbit hole filled with camera envy. These reviews, as entertaining as they may be, are likely doing you no favors.

Here’s what I mean. Speaking from personal experience, many of my camera purchases have gone like this. I hear about a new camera on the market on one of the rumor sites. Seeing as though I write for Fstoppers, I may not even have to go that far. Then, I hear one of my favorite YouTubers talking about this rumor for months before the announcement, thus building anticipation. Then, the camera is announced, and it inevitably has better specs than whatever I currently have since technology is ever improving. Then, the YouTube algorithm feeds me similar videos from other reviews who also repeat these amazing new specs, a few of whom might have actually gotten to test the product and will more than likely make videos raving about how good it is because that’s what gets clicks. Next thing I know, I’ve spent hours of my life watching content about a particular camera product that I really don’t need, but have convinced myself that I do simply as a result of hearing its name repeated so many times in a condensed period. This is nothing nefarious on the part of the YouTubers or the manufacturers. This is Marketing 101. Convincing a buyer that something they just want is something that they actually need. Works every time. And, with my obsessive nature and inability to move on once I have a bee in my bonnet, I find myself incredibly susceptible.  

For that reason, I’ve made an express point of being less knowledgeable about new cameras on the market. I have a couple favorite channels that I watch more for enjoyment of their personality than as a source of information. But I actively try to watch less about upcoming products. Instead of asking myself what can this new camera do for me, I ask what isn’t my current camera doing for me. The odds are that whatever camera you currently have is doing just fine by you. And, while the newer version will undoubtedly have more bells and whistles, there is likely no reason why you can’t accomplish all your artistic tasks with what you already have in hand.

Buy Used

Newer isn’t always better, especially when it comes to value for money.  

I wasn’t completely honest earlier. I do have one more camera in the arsenal in addition to my Z9s. While the Z9s handle 100% of my professional still work and a large portion of the video work, there is one area where the camera isn’t the best fit: street photography. Not that it can’t do it. Its fast focus and durability make it perfect for documentary work. But if I just want to go for a walk with a friend or take some vacation photos just for fun, a smaller, less feature-rich body is more what the doctor ordered. So, to that end, I just bought a steeply discounted used camera body to serve my personal photography needs. I’ll have an article on that camera coming soon, so I won’t go into detail here. But, suffice to say, one of the key things that inspired me to pick it up was the value proposition.

Buying used gear is cheaper than buying new gear. It’s not rocket science. And just because a camera might arrive with a few scuff marks or a less-than-virginal shutter doesn’t mean that it can’t get the job done. I was just talking about a purchase of a personal camera, but the exact same rules apply for professional equipment. As long as you do your homework and take care to buy from a reputable dealer, you can get peak performance for half the cost. So, if you are in the business of photography to make a profit or just an amateur looking for the best bang for your buck, buying used should be a consideration in every purchasing decision.

Personally, I always opt for used when I have the chance. This is made even easier if you can refrain from always chasing the new releases. There is just something that feels better about a purchase when you know you’ve addressed your need at the best possible price. Even more so when you consider the next point.

You Don’t Always Need the New Model

As fun as it might be to gorge ourselves on new technology, photography is an art form, not a computer equation. Sure, fancy new features can make our lives as photographers easier than ever. But photographers have been creating amazing imagery for over a century. The majority of it captured without such creature comforts as eye detection, IBIS, or whatever in-camera computational photography is coming down the line.

What you need to be a photographer is a camera capable of capturing images. Depending on your field, you might need a minimum level of megapixels. Depending on your field you may need to be able to shoot a certain number of frames per second. But, for the vast majority of photographers, almost any decent camera manufactured in the last decade is capable of doing most of the work that needs to be done and will be for some time to come.

Sure, there’s always going to be a reason to want to upgrade. But ask yourself. Is there any image in your head right now that you want to capture that your current camera prevents you from capturing? Of course, the new model might make it easier. And, if it improves efficiency, that could be a unit of value in itself. But, honestly, just between you and me, couldn’t you accomplish the same task just by doing a teeny bit more work with the system you already have? And, if you can, is it really worth it to spend thousands of dollars to upgrade or overhaul your system just to say that you have the latest and greatest? If you could still accomplish the same task by spending less money, either by purchasing used equipment or by not upgrading at all, then why wouldn’t you do so? 

Again, there are always exceptions. As I mentioned, my move to mirrorless was driven primarily by video capabilities as opposed to still photography functionality. I do enjoy having eye detection and end-to-end focusing points. But, with that said, it’s not like I couldn’t keep things in focus before mirrorless. So, it would be hard for me to justify using those focusing improvements as a need to do my job.  

Just the other day, I was wondering if the smart move was even to go to mirrorless at all. Perhaps in my own use case, purely from a value perspective, the smarter move might have been to stay with DSLRs, save a boatload of money, use them for 100% of my still photography, and invest all those savings into a dedicated cinema body rather than trying to have one camera that can do both. As it turns out, now that I have the Z9, I’m completely happy with the course I took. But I could make a strong argument to take the opposite approach as well.

One’s perception of value is wholly dependent on one’s own personal needs and resources. I can’t make any proclamations about how you should proceed with your purchases without knowing your circumstances. As I mentioned, my own satisfaction with my current setup has only come after years of trial and error in filling out the system. And, other than the unnamed camera I mentioned at the top of this article, the vast majority of investments have paid off handsomely. The supporting gear like lenses, stands, and lights perhaps more than the cameras themselves. So, I’m not here to tell you to stop buying new equipment.

Rather, I wanted to share a bit of the lessons I’ve learned along the way. Some of them obvious. But, obvious or not, they bear repeating. Even if it’s just me repeating these lessons to myself to focus my intention on the art and not the technology.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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"You Don’t Always Need the New Model" - I think that is the biggest trap for most people!

Personally, I hold my cameras for five+ years before making a switch, and it's usually because I am beginning to question the reliability of my current equipment, not to chase some new feature!

That being said, if some new feature becomes available that would make my life much easier, I could be coaxed into making that investment, but it would have to be something very useful and specific to my photography business.

My last camera purchase was two years ago, and cameras of that generation are so amazing, I can't imagine a true need to purchase another until my current gear has started to show signs of reliability issues.

Well, as I like to say, pretty much all of the camera makers make really good gear these days and if you can't get good looking photos from what's on the market today, then photography isn't for you. Just research a brand (or two) you like and go with them and get good glass and learn the craft and you'll be OK.

I totally agree with the article, I’ve been a freelancer for twenty-nine years and have only bought a handful of new cameras. I’ve usually been one generation behind and never missed out on new features. My first new DSLR’s were 5DIV’s, they’re still going strong and I don’t foresee replacing them anytime soon. Don’t even get me started on lighting gear either.

On another site an apparent gear chaser stated "Pros are going against other Pros with the same ability, the only thing that separate them, advances in technology." I just have to shake my head. Nope, not even close. What separates them is vision, imagination, marketing, sales, efficiency, etc. etc. Hoping gear is going to win you the game is a fools errand. Sure there are some things that aren't possible with some older equipment BUT light is light and artificial lighting is what it is. Even in sports photography I'll put my money on the seasoned pro that doesn't have to sort though thousands of images on a shoot vs. the spray and pray shooter who tried to get lucky with the very best autofocus and fps.

I still use my old Canon (second hand) 5D MKII and get great shots, but still I almost think every once a month to buy a new camera... I bought the Fujifilm GFX 50s, but didn't like the menu and the button layout and send it back. Always thinking if there is a new Canon comes out, I will buy the next one. I don't know why, it's a strange habit. 🤔

One advantage of buying behind the curve and buying used that hardly gets mentioned are the firmware updates.
Invariably a brand newly launched camera will recieve some firmware updates as users find annoyances, so buying behind the curve gives you a more stable platform.
Interestingly the camera brand devotee reviewers will hail all the latest firmware updates as though they're the best thing ever to happen to that camera.
It's also remarkable how few of them pointed out the annoyance(s) the firmware fixes before the firmware is launched..
The tale of the Emperor's new clothes always springs to mind.

Oh so true.

"It's finally gone!"

Hmm... Probably the Fuji GFX100?

... "A few years ago I bought a very expensive camera that I envisioned completely transforming the way I work" ... Hmmm... Yeah, pretty likely the Fuji GFX100.

OK, now let me read the full article to see if my hunch is right.


If you're a careful shopper, you can even make money on used!

All it takes is mostly patience, plus a few tools.

When I want a new capability, I set up "page change monitors" on all The Usual Suspects (KEH, Henry's, etc.). When the page changes, you get an email or text update. Then pounce!

As any successful stock investor can tell you, the time to buy is when everyone else starts to sell. I've had some real bargains from lens rental outlets, when something in particular goes out-of-style. The lens rental places are better than eBay for high-end stuff. That's how I scored Olympus E-System SHQ lenses for half of what they currently fetch on eBay.

Another strategy is to stick with one brand. I've been an Olympus shooter since the 1970s! This means that, when it comes time to get or sell something, you already know all about it, and you don't have to spend any time coming up to speed.

Don't overlook swap-meets! They've fallen out-of-favour, but if you have a good one within a few hours drive, you can come home with a couple grand in less time than it would take to shoot eBay photos of the gear. This is another plug for one-system use: I've sold lots to people who come up to me, saying, "Hey, that guy over there said you were THE Olympus guy!"

Finally, when you're setting up your page-change monitors, don't forget your local Craigs List and other local online sales places. There are real bargains to be had from those who don't want to mess with eBay charges and shipping.


Christopher Malcolm asked,

"Is there any image in your head right now that you want to capture that your current camera prevents you from capturing? Of course, the new model might make it easier. And, if it improves efficiency, that could be a unit of value in itself. But, honestly, just between you and me, couldn’t you accomplish the same task just by doing a teeny bit more work with the system you already have?"

These questions are right on the money.

I do not like camera gear. It is kind of a necessary evil - just a tool to get a job done. A camera means no more to me as a photographer than a pipe wrench meant to me as a plumber. Gear is not interesting or fun. Photos themselves, and the things that we photograph, are the things that are interesting and fun. Any feelings that people have to the contrary baffle my mind and I cannot relate to them.

Hence, the ONLY reason for me to ever buy another camera body or lens is to enable me to capture images that I currently fail to capture with my current gear.

My current gear fails to capture many images that I have in my mind's eye, but I still don't upgrade much. Why? Because I would much rather use the money on travel for more photography trips. I get more satisfying photos by spending money on travel to wildlife destinations than I do by spending the money on new gear. So I usually don't upgrade until my gear is really far behind the latest advancements. Yes I miss a lot of shots that I would like to take, but I would miss even more shots if I didn't take so many trips.



One very important point you mentioned, is the difference between a "professional camera" and a "personal camera". Your Z9, or my D780 might be wonderful for a lot of uses, but if I'm just going for a walk, it's more "camera" than I want hanging around my neck. For me, that need is somewhat satisfied with my Df, and fully satisfied with my Fuji X100f. Small, light weight, quiet, and wonderful images.

That's why I love the top-of-the-line Micro Four Thirds models — high performance, *and* light weight!

Great Article and agreed 100% on buying USED. And selfless plug as founder of Gear Focus, I'm a bit biased, I believe for good reasons. https://www.gearfocus.com

I'm gonna click on the link you provided. I hope to find a GOOD price on a Sony A74, because I have searched high and low and still not found a price on a used one that is commensurate with used prices on other Sony bodies. I hope that what I find on your site does not disappoint me.

This graph shows why I am reasonable in expecting to find a used Sony A74 for $1,600 or less:

Gear Focus says they have two Sony A74 cameras, and that the prices on them range from $1,086 to $3,200. "Good", I think, "I'll buy the one that's $1,086"

Then I click on the results and see that there is NOT any A74 for $1,086. In fact, I have no idea where that price came from because the two bodies they have are not $3,200 and $1,086, but rather $3,200 and $2,290. What the heck is that about? Why say $1,086 if there isn't one for that price?????

That is just a price range for ones that sold. Not necessarily current. But new master product pages showing all listings like this is coming. For now just watch for new listings to pop up. I know an A7IV just sold for a reasonable price of around $1850