Should I Upgrade My Camera Equipment?

Should I Upgrade My Camera Equipment?

Being a professional photographer is an expensive game. Even really basic equipment is hard on the pocket. A lot of us (myself included) get this nagging doubt that our current kit is holding us back. I'm also guilty of getting gear envy when I see other photographers behind the scenes shots on instagram. However, professional photography is a business just like any other and it needs to make a profit, meaning spending on kit needs to be proportionate to your profit. 

Firstly, we should acknowledge that photography fees span (in the UK) from £50 for an evening taking photos in a small town nightclub through to £100,000 commissions for major brands during ongoing ad campaigns - plus everything in between. Nevertheless, the principles for selecting equipment remain the same. 

I haven’t purchased any new photography equipment since 2012. My last purchase was a lens I needed for low light documentary work. I purchased a 35mm 1.4 and it has been used weekly since then. The image below was shot with this lens and it comes out on almost every job for either the main image or behind the scenes work.

Making this purchase was a well thought out decision. Having the money in my account alone was not a big enough reason to purchase it. The lovely images it produces also didn’t tempt me to buy it. The deciding factor was that I simply couldn't fulfill a fair few bookings I had coming up without this particular lens. Then there was the future volume of work it would help me complete and the associated payment in return. In short, it was a sound business decision because it was essential to my work and also gave a good return on investment. 

This is my thought process for photography purchases, upgrades, and rentals.

1. How Often Will I Use It?

The first thing I ask myself is “How much am I going to use this lens.” If the frequency is low, I tend to rent the lens rather than having a depreciating asset sat in my studio. I apply this rule to a lot of purchases in my professional and personal life. Think of it as cost per use. And this isn't just about cameras and lenses - this is about the other stuff that helps me to work effectively. For example, I spend a lot on shoes because I'm on my feet every day; being comfortable is important for my work. So spending £300 or more on a pair makes sense. The cost per use is between just 50p - £1 per day. 

2. How Much More Money Will I Make by Purchasing the Equipment?

If the frequency is high enough to justify the purchase, will it allow me to make more money by buying the equipment? If the answer is yes, then I purchase the gear.

3. Does My Client Care?

I am sure a lot of you can tell the difference between the Canon 85mm 1.8 and the Canon 85mm 1.2. There was a time when I was considering upgrading to the Canon 85mm f1.2 lens. It is a beautiful lens, well built and produces amazing images. However, after renting it and doing some blind tests with some friends and clients I realized no one could tell the difference in image quality. Spending the extra money on this lens just didn’t make commercial sense for me. I wasn’t going to make any more money by owning it, so I left it in the shop. When I have really high-end jobs where I shoot Canon, I often rent it to be safe, but for day to day shooting the 85mm 1.8 is more than sufficient and has been in my kit bag for seven years. The portraits below were taken with the cheaper 85mm lens.

4. How Long Will it Last?

There are a lot of false economies in photography. If you heavily use your equipment, then buying the higher end gear can sometimes save you money in the long run. Although the Canon 85mm 1.8 has been a great lens for me, taking well over 100,000 frames without ever needing a service, the Canon 50mm 1.4 was a nightmare. I went through three before I realized that it was better to spend a bit more money on a higher quality piece of glass. I resent buying cheap and buying twice. Whenever possible I try to make sure I purchase high-end equipment that will take the punishment of daily and often heavy use. 

5. Will it Save Me Time?

There comes a point in your professional life when your time is more valuable to you than the saving achieved by working with sub standard kit. For example, spending an extra two hours a day waiting on a slow computer is a nightmare. It adds up to an extra day a week being wasted. This is a day I might be able to spend working for a client (making me money), working on a personal project (fulfilling me creatively), or just sleeping/seeing my family/drinking beer (making me very happy). So time saved is a factor that's important to me.

The equipment you need to be a professional varies so much that it is almost impossible to advise anyone what to buy through an online article, but the thought process behind the decisions can be deployed to almost any field. All of the equipment in my kit bag is there for a reason. Some of it was very expensive, other bits are more budget purchases. Treating your camera equipment as a business purchase is a big change for a lot of us who came into the profession through a passionate hobby where nice new toys were fun. Now a new lens is the difference between going on holiday or not over the summer.  

What was your last upgrade?

Scott Choucino's picture

Food Photographer from the UK. Not at all tech savvy and knows very little about gear news and rumours.

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Last upgrade Nikon 70-200 2.8E, had been renting the G for a number of years when I needed it, but decided to make the plunge when I found myself spending and enormous amount of time (and money) renting the lens that I would rather be spending shooting and frankly anything else. Also found myself wishing I had it with me while travelling which pushed me over the edge.

Scott: Very good advice. I haven't bought a new piece of equipment since 2015. There are a few items I would like to buy, but they just don't meet the 5 tests above - yet.

Your post makes sense is a direct mathematical way however I feel it is missing something in the same way that eliminating the expense of a team member of the year award would benefit a companies bottom line.

For me personally I find that it often makes sense for me to purchase equipment on a speculative basis. It's a little harder to fit something like that onto a spreadsheet but If I don't know what something does and I think It'll improve my photography I'll try to buy it. I often find that the process of discovery can lead to epiphanies that revolutionize the way I photograph things which in turn allow me to charge more and get more clients. For example years ago I bought a fresnel based on the vague statement that it creates better texture. I absolutely realize that buying something based on that little information is questionable however in the process of learning about that and what that meant not only did I find a modifier I loved and would never have bought based on a strict mathematical calculation such as the one outlined above but I also discovered things about light that changed the way I shot everything. Even unrelated things. Could they tell I was using a fresnel? Maybe? Probably not... could people tell that my photography had improved by a full order of magnitude over the course of about 60 days? Yes.

In addition to what I previously mentioned I find that I am less likely to do something the difficult way If I can do it faster and easier some other way even if the result isn't quite as good. I know that sounds like laziness but I like to think of it as expedience. If something literally takes me half the time It usually makes sense to do it that way. This unfortunately mixed with cold calculation can lead to a systemic problem. If for example I purchased alien bees because they are an amazing deal... and they are. I would be less likely to use overhead lights because adjustments are very difficult. I'd either have to use a ladder or I'd have to take it down and put it back up for every tweak. I'd be even less likely to use an overhead out on a boom for the same reason and in addition to that now weight problems would now factor in. My workflow would develop around this limitation/difficulty and the only way I could break it would be to buy equipment based on a guess that it might vaguely improve my photography. On the other hand I had started out using a pack and head system I'd use a more optimal lighting scenario in many cases by default. This sort of thing is the result of an indirect effect of my equipment and isn't really covered by the math presented above. In a second example I bought a light meter. I can and could at the time guess and check my lights pretty quickly based on my lcd. No need for a light meter. I discovered later that I was able to replicate entire lighting setups quickly and easily by using one in combination with a tape measure. In a third instance I discovered that I was able to integrate motion freezing into my work... long story short but I was able to do something my clients didn't ask for and didn't know they wanted because one day I was messing around with my equipment which was more expensive and more capable than I strictly needed and as a result I was able to offer something none of my competition could and suddenly people wanted it and if I had been purchasing strictly based on what I knew I needed that would have never have happened.

I find your logic unintentionally limiting. Take what I've said as you will.

Ditto to this. There are upgrades and there are "upgrades." Some things can actually expand your art or artistic vision. After over three years with with my last Nikon DSLR, I only just bought a new one—not for more megapixels or features, but because the old one was wearing out. However, I also bought a Leica and a TLR to literally change the way I worked, and they honestly did just that. I also bought a couple of Flashpoint lights recently, because they eliminate cords, receivers, and big batteries, so they save me a little setup time, but what they really do is make me want to haul them out a lot more, especially when I don't have an extra set of hands helping me out.

Looking back, the two most significant upgrades in my life were, first, the Yashicamat 124 TLR I bought in 1972. That was my first camera that could take easily enlargeable portraits and weddings. It paid for itself in just a a couple of months. The second purchase so significant was the 5D I bought in 2006. It enabled me to retire my Mamiya RZ so I could shoot easily enlargeable digital pictures with any subject (not just the ones I had to presume would be worthwhile to shoot with the RZ). That camera, too, paid for itself in just a couple of months. Hardly anything else I've bought has paid for itself as quickly as those two cameras.

I'm not a professional, but I got the kit lens Canon EF 24-105 f4L lens with my Canon 5D III. My next lens purchase will be the EF 70-300mm f4.5-5.6L lens since the length of the lens will let me get into college sports venues without a press pass. I've rented the EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L and EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L II lens for two different years of the practice round of The Masters golf tournament (2014 was rained out). I rented the EF 300mm f4L for the total solar eclipse last week. I want to experiment with tilt/shift lenses and fisheye, so those will be rentals.

Finally a common sense article!

I just shoot for fun. My last purchase was another Manfrotto Light Stand, Speedlight and some Color Gels. Last major purchase was Panasonic G81 + 12-35 + 42,5 + 60 last year. Sold my Canon 24-70 2.8 II to pay for it.

Agreed the gear purchased needs to earn its keep.

The last item I upgraded was my Canon EF 35mm F2. Killed the first one,, bought another 2nd hand and then started to do wedding and event work. Needed faster than F2 quite often so eventually upgraded to the 35 F1.4 L II. Both great lenses but the F1.4 means ISO 3200 instead of 6400 which is huge on my 5D Mark II's.

The only thing I will purchase in the next 12 months is 2 more studio heads to replace the ones I have had on long term loan.

I admit that I have looked at the recent 5D bodies but thankfully have not done anything stupid yet. The 5D II's have plenty of life in them yet.