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.
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 Even if you can, it may have been replaced by newer models making yours even less expensive.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.
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?