Almost everyone goes through times when the belt need to be tightened because money just isn’t abundant. During these times when income dips, we need to take care to avoid spending as much as possible. Photography, however, is an expensive vocation that seems to be an endless drain on the bank account. It becomes increasingly helpful to avoid having to replace gear you already own due to wear or damage.
1. Intelligently Pack Your Gear for Travel
Regardless of if you are traveling a few miles or to another country, traveling is a tumultuous event for photography gear. Personally, I have had more gear become damaged during travel than I ever have while using it.
Pack densely: It doesn’t matter if your favorite lens is in a fully padded compartment, if the lens isn’t held firmly in place so that it doesn’t bounce around every time you pick up the bag, then it is likely to eventually suffer some damage. Don’t be afraid to stuff a sock or two into compartments to make sure the gear inside them isn’t loose.
Pack minimally: The reality is simple: more gear means more burden, which means an increased chance of an accident. Photographers, as a group, often like to bring everything, including the kitchen sink. Don’t. Be realistic about what you will need to achieve your objective, include redundancy in case of gear failure, and that's it.
Pack logically: Being able to find the gear you want when you want it, without having to dig through every pocket and slot in each bag actually can go a long way towards protecting your gear. During the heat of a shoot, you are usually in a rush. The first thing that goes out the window is being careful, so having to tear through all your bags looking for something creates a huge opportunity for an expensive “oopsie.”
2. Clean Your Gear
Photo gear has seams, which means given enough time, something will always manage to get inside. Weather-sealing is a great thing, but it isn’t impregnable. Take the time to clean your gear thoroughly after shoots. Be especially mindful of dust or moisture building up in any of the cracks. A few seconds with a Q-Tip may save you a hefty repair or replacement bill later.
3. Don’t Unnecessarily Test The Limits of Your Gear
If you need to climb upside-down on a cliff above a river in a torrential downpour to take that perfect picture, so be it, but do it intelligently. Take every step you can to minimize risk. Neck straps are annoying; replacing a camera and lens because you didn’t use one when hanging over a cliff is worse. Covering your camera to shield it from the rain is a burden; cracking out the wallet to fix a water-damaged camera is even more of a burden. Carrying sandbags for your stands is tiring; swimming after your favorite softbox as it floats away down the river is exhausting. Don’t let fear of hurting your gear stop you from making great photos, but certainly do make an effort to protect your gear when you do it.
4. Buy Gear That Is Reliable
Sometimes, buying the cheapest gear isn’t the best way to save money. Equipment that will reliably last and stand up to rigorous use can save a ton of cash in the long run, even if it costs a bit more to begin with. Having to buy the same item several times because it keeps breaking adds up in price rapidly and will quickly overtake the cost of buying the more reliable option to begin with.
I made this mistake last year. I’m paying for it right now. Luckily, the cost wasn’t too extreme, but I won’t be buying the budget version again.
5. Get Plenty of Rest
Human error is an annoying thing. We all make mistakes, and those mistakes can sometimes lead to broken equipment. One of the best ways to limit the number of mistakes that you make is by being well-rested and alert during your shoot. Tired photographers are lazy photographers, lazy photographers are careless photographers, careless photographers make mistakes. Maybe spending that extra hour editing deep into the night isn't worth it. Covet your time to sleep, and use it to maximize your effectiveness while you are awake.
6. Show Everyone Who Is Handling Your Gear How to Protect It
This is actually my number one cause of gear breakage. Someone that doesn’t really understand the gear does something with it that they think is ok, but ends up damaging it in the process. A good example was several years ago when a friend asked to borrow my studio strobes. I assumed she knew how to pack strobes after use. Rather than putting the shipping caps back on and placing them carefully in their bags. She unscrewed the model lights and just placed the naked strobes in a large case haphazardly. She had no idea those round tube things were actually the lights. She could have been more careful. I could have spent more time showing her exactly what to do. I only have direct control over one of those things.
Bonus: Don’t Lend Your Gear Out
As an extension of the example in the previous entry, I would also add in that if you fear your gear getting damaged, simply don’t lend it out. No one will treat your gear better than you do. Personally, I’ve almost completely stopped lending gear out, even for a rental fee, because I’m tired of having to convince people that “no, that damage wasn’t on the item before I gave it to you.” As a result, I simply don't lend out my gear anymore, and this has gone a long way to keeping it in good condition longer.
7. Insure Your Gear
Insurance is often the first thing that is overlooked when the belt needs to be tightened, but it also is, unfortunately, one of the most crucial. I’ve had two instances over the last decade where having insurance has been a lifesaver. The monthly cost certainly seems very wasteful in the moment, but when a check comes in the mail after a severe accident, it becomes one less stress when stress is at its highest.
Lowering the cost of doing business can be a huge stepping stone to making your venture successful. By keeping maintenance costs at a low, you can keep wasteful expenditures at an absolute minimum. With that in mind, though, don’t let a phobia for breaking delicate equipment stop you from creating great photos. Shoot what you will. Be smart about it. Have fun!