What I Look for and What I Avoid in Buying Gear

What I Look for and What I Avoid in Buying Gear

One experience that every photographer shares, regardless of level of experience or style, is the inevitable experience of looking for new gear.

When you’re looking into getting gear new (to you), you’ll find that new gear fits into one of two categories: pieces that will just be an addition to your collection and pieces that will replace something you already have. Personally, when I’m considering getting something new, I think through which of the two kinds of gear it will be. The considerations I make before pulling the trigger are heavily based on which category it’s in. 

Just to preface everything below, many of the thoughts are based on being a film photographer, where most gear is generally considerably less expensive compared with its digital counterpart. While many digital photographers may not regularly consider buying additional cameras for the sake of it, I believe the below information is still relevant to lenses. If you’re a film photographer, you may well experience buying cameras more than lenses alone. In addition, these thoughts are from the perspective of someone whose primary job is not that of a photographer. As such, those that buy backup cameras out of necessity won’t find the below information all that informative. 

Replacement Gear

If you’re replacing broken (or lost or stolen) gear, decision-making is not particularly difficult. If you really enjoyed what you're replacing, you can either get the same thing or a newer model. Depending on how long you’ve had your gear, you may not be able to get the same thing again new. Even if you can, it may have been replaced by newer models making yours even less expensive. At that point, the question is whether or not you’re willing to spend the same money to get the newer model or whether you want to save your money and go back with the same model you had before. 

The other side to this is replacing gear that doesn’t meet all of your needs. That is, you intend to get something new and sell what you currently have. I find that this is more often than not the case. This can be for any number of reasons. Most generally, something else out there would be far better for what you need, or in unfortunate circumstances, your gear does not meet your expectations and you need to move on to something that does. Regardless of the reason, identifying what you need and what would best meet those needs within your budget is the only factor of importance. If you’re considering trading in at the time you pick up your new gear, please read my previous article on buying used gear for some considerations.

Additional Gear

If I’m in the market to buy a new camera or lens that isn’t taking the place of another piece of gear, what matters most of all is the reason I want that piece of gear and how damaging it would be to my finances. If it’s something additional that I want just for the sake of it and money was no object, then I would just buy gear indiscriminately. That said, I’ve not yet been in that situation. I try to make sure everything I buy serves a purpose, and I try to make fiscally responsible decisions, which means I have to consider cost. As such, I, along with the overwhelming majority of photographers I know, consider the value of the new gear relative to the other gear I already to be of the utmost importance.

To assess value, the two most important considerations are price and utility. That may seem pretty obvious, but it can be difficult to make an objective decision around something that you want. Why, you ask? Because what can make someone want something may not have anything to do with the utility of a piece of gear and more to do with the cache associated with the individual piece of gear. For example, a brand new Leica M-P, which costs more than $5,000, looks great and is a beautiful photographic instrument. Does it at all serve a utilitarian purpose if you already have one or more 35mm cameras even if you don’t already have a rangefinder? Absolutely not. 

For a digital camera, important factors are almost exclusively based on the technology offered, that is, the resolution of the sensor, whether or not the camera has internal stabilization, low-light performance, etc. For a film camera, the questions that I personally care about most are the format (35mm, 645, etc.), whether the camera offers aperture priority mode, and the quality of the lens selection. For me to assess the value of a lens, the first question I have is about which system it fits with. Secondly, the focal length is very important. Some of my favorite lenses are only used when I am on vacation, but when I take them out, they’re the only ones that would work. Be it considerations for a camera or lens, there are other factors, of course, but they are minor enough to not be a big contributing factor to any of my decision-making. 

For me, I don’t know that I will buy another 35mm camera unless one of mine breaks or if I get a pretty incredible deal on something that I could not pass up. That said, I cannot imagine what camera would be so much nicer or how inexpensive the camera would have to be to buy it unnecessarily. Similarly, for the 645 format, I don’t think there are any cameras I would want. I would love a more travel-friendly 6x7 or a 6x9 setup. 

Things I Try to Avoid

First and foremost, I try to avoid redundancies. That is, I don’t need nor want to own multiple pieces of gear that serve the exact same purpose. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t buy another F100 if I found one for $75. It’d be a price I couldn't afford to pass on and a camera I want to always have with me. Instead, it’s to say that I personally don’t want a lot of 35mm cameras, multiple digital cameras, etc… I have my own checklist of things I look for in my photographic equipment, and I try to avoid gear that doesn’t check those boxes or checks the same boxes in the same way for the same type of camera.

Secondly, I avoid like the plague any gear with deficiencies. Take, for instance, a lens with a chip in the front element or fogging or fungus in the rear element. That lens may perform just as well for all intents and purposes, but others may not be as considerate as you, and I expect the resale value would be terrible. There are so many little things that add up over time that can really work against your ability to resell the gear. 

What about you? What do you look for when you're getting a piece of gear? 

James Madison's picture

Madison is a mathematician turned statistician based out of Columbus, OH. He fell back in love with film years ago while living in Charleston, SC and hasn't looked back since. In early 2019 he started a website about film photography.

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"First and foremost, I try to avoid redundancies. That is, I don’t need nor want to own multiple pieces of gear that serve the exact same purpose."

I suppose it depends on what you do with your photography. If you're the person who wanders around with a camera for fun and personal enjoyment, yeah, redundancy is probably pointless. However I would posit that any wedding photographer who calls themselves a "pro" will have all kinds of redundancies.

Though I'm not a wedding photographer my system is full of redundancies; lights, triggers, camera bodies, memory cards, batteries, etc. Murphy is alive and well in this world. WHEN something breaks while doing a shoot, I want redundancy so that I can keep shooting.

Maybe, two identical camera bodies for a wedding photographer is essential business continuity planning. That and fast primes being overlapped by an almost as fast zoom. Having a third or fourth, or even another completely different brand name setup up to backup the main camera ecosystem would be redundancy?

In this context: "the inclusion of extra components which are not strictly necessary to functioning, in case of failure in other components."

Personally, for shoots, I have two bodies, two tether cords, spare batteries, cards, etc. If I'm shooting in studio, there is plenty of redundancy regarding lights by just being in the studio - location shoots are a whole different thing.

For professional photographers of some genres, I think some redundancy--duplicate gear that serves the exact same purpose--is essential.

It‘s a good point that some redundancy is necessary. But I would probably go for two slightly different body types (say if we were in Fuji land a XT and an Xpro and a set of primes and the standard zooms). In case one breaks down I can continue the shoot albeit with a bit of compromise. However the two different body types and the difference between zooms and primes would broaden the horizons of my shooting capabilities...

I prefer almost pristine equipment but if I can save a chunk of money for minor scratches, I do it, but never on the lens glass. That's simply unacceptable to me

Oh yeah, I understand all of this. For my film cameras, it depends. I like the older Nikon cameras, but if I want a later model then it must have at least Manual and Aperture modes. Don't really care about the others. Now that you talked about 'redundancies', I have found that I am collecting more than I need to. This is my fault, but damn it, I just love the stuff. Now I am struggling with whether or not I should complete my collection of Nikon's Flagship cameras. I have every one except the original F and the F6. I can see myself getting an F ftn, but the price of the F6 is just not warranted. And thank goodness too. My wife is keeping a very close eye on me. As for medium format, I am quite pleased and comfortable with the Hasselblad 500 CM with 3 lensed and the Fuji GX680 with 2 lenses, but would also like a more 'portable' camera. Like maybe the Mamiya 6 or 7 or something similar or, especially, the Leica S2. BUT.......don't tell my wife. She will beat me up....again. She beautiful and a wonderful Russian woman, but she does watch the money and is frugal. I appreciate that. As for lenses, it is a must to look for top quality glass. This is the heart of the system. Anyway, thank you for this article. Maybe I can calm down now about my purchases.

Depends on whether you're a professional, or hobbyist.
For a professional, it's always a fine balancing act between improving your capabilities and keeping within budget.
If it's not going to provide a near immediate return on the investment, why do I need it?
Photography is a competitive business.
Those who last, generally, are also very good at managing their budget.

there is also upgrading.. a better 85 for the one you presently have... and another consideration of mine is resell factor.. I might be fine with the old 85, but if I can get a deal on the new one.. and it will retain it's value longer - I'll take that change. I always have 'worst case' in the back of my head - so I'm always trying to get the stuff with best resale value in case it all goes to hell and I have to liquidate quick