Buying the right gear for you is not only a question of money. Sometimes the wisest decisions are made within a tight budget, while the stupidest choices may be made when finances are abundant. In this article I'd like to share with you my process of buying new gear for my photography and video projects.
Whether you are a beginner or an advanced visual story teller, you'll always face the dilemma of wondering if you need something new in your arsenal. I'm going to talk about a real need of equipment, not satisfying your desire for new tech toys. Those advices below are for significant purchases where it's not that easy to make a quick decision. For someone that's buying a white card for nailing the right white balance. For others, that's buying a backup cinema camera.
Step 1: What Is the Problem You Have to Solve?
The tools we buy have to solve the problems we face or those we are about to face. The easiest choice is for problems we currently have. There are times people buy new equipment because they think they might have better results with it. That's not the correct approach. If you don't know what the limitations of your current gear are, you haven't reached them, and you don't need any new equipment.
Let's say you shoot lots of portraits with a strobe using a 24 inch umbrella. Let's also say you like soft light. For close ups and medium shots the light quality is exactly what you want, but for full length portraits you have to move it further away and you loose its soft quality. You need a bigger light modifier such as a bigger umbrella or a big softbox.
Step 2: Can You Find a Workaround to the Problem Without Buying New Gear?
In this case you can use a bed sheet and shoot with the strobe through it. You will get the light quality you want, the light will be soft and will work not only for full length shots of on person, but will have a soft quality for small groups of people.
Step 3: If There's a Workaround, Is It Good Enough For You?
If you photograph friends and family, the workaround with the bed sheet may be perfectly fine. Nobody will care you used household items, because you've got the job done. Even if you are a professional you may go for such approach sometimes.
However, in this case there are some limitations. You need to set the bed sheet on a stand or have someone hold it for you. This requires at least one more light stand with a horizontal arm to hang the bed sheet on. Can you afford to carry one extra light stand? Do you want to have gear that looks professional when you are on a photoshoot? Is that important for you and for your clients?
Step 4: Research the Different Types of Gear That Solve Your Problem
For some reason the workaround may not suit you and you want to buy the real thing. In our example you decide to buy a bigger modifier. You have two common choices: a softbox or an umbrella of a bigger size.
One of the most important advices I can give you is: Do not start your research based on price. Look for functionality and quality first. After you know the good and bad sides of the different options, you can decide if they are worth paying for.
In this case, softboxes are more expensive, they are slow to set up, focus light well and are more durable. On the other hand umbrellas are cheaper, very quick to setup, and the reflective umbrella focuses light almost like a softbox. Wind is an issue more for umbrellas than softboxes. Different brands provide different types of materials and build quality.
Step 5: Get the Best You Can Afford
My sincere advice is to buy only what you can afford without getting into debt. Focus only on quality products. It is much better to get an old model of a high quality product, than a brand new cheap piece of trash.
Remember, there is always a product that's more expensive and can do the job better. Always. You don't need the best one on the market. You need the product that will help you get the job done. Do not be tricked by those extra perks a more expensive product has. Do you need them on a daily basis, or they are nice but you can still live without them?
Step 6: Do I Have Equipment For Sale?
You can sell old equipment so you can save some cash for that better product you want. Think about things laying around you that may open space for the new toys or help gather funds for their purchase.
Step 7: New or Used?
Many times I am stuck at a position where I realize I can't afford the right product for me. I have several options without getting into debt: I can wait for the moment I have the money or I can buy a used one.
For softboxes and umbrellas, buying used ones is a good option because most of the time you can see if they are broken even before putting them to work. You better buy a used reputable brand softbox than a cheap new big umbrella of low quality.
For electronics it's harder to decide on buying used equipment. It's up to you if you trust the seller.
Step 8: Think Twice
At that stage you have all the information about the purchase: brands, prices, quality, functionality. I know there's an excitement to spend the money on the right equipment, especially if you have the money, but ask yourself once again: Do I actually need it? Can I afford to wait for a better product? Do I put my finances at risk with this purchase? Is there anything else of higher priority at that moment?
Step 9: Discuss The Purchase With Someone
I find it very practical to share my thoughts on the purchase with people I trust. Talking with someone about the new piece of equipment, not just thinking about it, may open my eyes to options I've never thought about. A wise advice from another party can sometimes save you a lot of trouble. I had times when I had decided to postpone the purchase after I had shared my buying intentions with a friend.
There's no Step 10 as I don't want to make them 10 for the sake of being 10, haha.
My First Camera
When I bought my first camera I decided to get a higher class older model than a lower class more modern one. At that time my choice was a Canon 40D. I didn't want to get it with a 18-55 kit lens. I wanted to buy the lenses I would actually need for professional work. As the purchase together with the desired lens was over my budget I bought only the camera body. Several months after that I bought my first lens. I waited patiently with just a camera body in my hands.
This has been shot with my first camera and first lens using two small flash guns:
My First Large Light Modifier
I went for the softbox option. I bought a more expensive one that was quicker to set up as I work mostly on location. I didn't buy lots of lights or lots of modifiers. I bought just one modifier but it was an expensive one that worked for me. I rarely used more than two lights at the same time. Only one of them was into a softbox. The other was a standard reflector producing hard light. I used just one big light modifier for several years building a portfolio and a business. A couple of years later (yes, years) I bought several umbrellas so I had backup soft light modifier options. I rarely use them, but they are always with me.
My First Stabilizer For Video
Back in the day there were two general options for me: a slider and a steadicam. I decided to buy a steadicam first as it gives me more freedom to move and can somehow simulate, although far from perfect, a slider or a dolly movement. It was also a cheaper option at that time.
My First Video Software
I used the limited video capabilities of Photoshop CS6. I had already purchased the perpetual license and decided to test its limits. It's quite uncomfortable for video but it worked and if I haven't told you this was edited in Photoshop, you may have never noticed. I did one more project entirely in Photoshop. Soon after that I bought a dedicated video software for obvious reasons. Photoshop is not designed for serious video projects. I've had enough from the workaround solution.
Always remember that there will be a better product on the market with more extras, better quality, and of higher price. Get what you can afford and what works for you in your workflow. It's the end product that matters. Comfort and ease of use are a good reason to buy only if you can pay for them with your own money.
I hope those advices and personal insights may help you be wiser on your next equipment purchases.