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?