There are a seemingly endless number of things to consider before buying photography gear. Digital photography has been a fast-growing discipline for years now, and with that increasing popularity comes an abundance of gear for photographers to choose from. While getting to choose between many options when buying a piece of gear to add to your bag means you can hopefully find something that perfectly fits your needs, sifting through a long list of options can be daunting, especially if you haven’t yet been able to identify what your needs are.
Even as I sit here writing this, the overwhelming task of buying a new tripod and ball head is lurking in the back of my mind. (In fact, after writing that last sentence I clicked over to my internet browser to Google a few options.) Not only is the market saturated with gear options, but photography is an expensive field to get involved in. Every time I pack for a trip I look down at my overflowing photography bag and think to myself “Someone really should have been supervising me when I went to buy all this gear.” Some of that gear is completely warranted based on what I do now with my photography, but some of it sits in a corner of my closet because I did not buy correctly the first time around. With that said, here are a few things I wish I had known before buying my photography gear.
1.) What Are My Photography Needs?
This is easily the most important thing to know before buying photography gear, and, especially for newer photographers, the hardest thing to figure out. When I bought my first camera, I basically guessed at which one would be best for me. I knew I wanted to be able to manipulate settings so that I could play around with astrophotography, and I knew I wanted to go relatively cheap in case my interest in photography faded and I moved on to another hobby. I eventually landed on a Canon Rebel XS—the cheapest DSLR available at the time—and fit my needs while I learned the basics of photography.
As I got more serious with my photography and settled on landscapes and astrophotography as my focus, I upgraded to a Canon 6D without first sitting down and considering which features would improve my photography the most and save me the most time when post-processing. I eventually realized that Canon’s sensors were limiting my photography and making post-processing more difficult, so I made the switch to a Nikon D750. That switch was not before spending $1,000 more than if I had just bought a Nikon D750 in the first place, however.
While it may not be possible to determine the exact path you will take in photography, those who are still early on in the journey may have an idea of where their interests are most likely to be. Are you more interested in landscapes or portraits? Will your subject be slow-moving or fast-moving? Will your subjects be close to you or far away? Will you use the light available or “make” your own? These are all broad questions, but ones that beginners can potentially answer in a way that can determine how to invest their money, or how much to invest for now.
2.) If You Buy Cheap, You Might Be Skimping On Quality
Throughout my time as a photographer I have tried to buy photography gear based on the principle that you do not need expensive gear to create a great photo. I stand by that principle to this day, but after years of trying to buy inexpensive gear, I will concede that for every successful value purchase I have made, there have been more that have caused frustration and limitation that in retrospect may not have been worth the money I saved. Either that, or the flaws in the inexpensive equipment were bad enough that I wasted money because, after months or years of struggling, I ended up giving up and buying the more expensive piece of gear anyway.
My best example of this idea came with a Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens (aka Samyang or Bower) I purchased for Milky Way photography. I bought the lens after hearing astrophotographers rave about its value and sharpness, even while also hearing many more complaints about its poor build quality. Knowing I would much rather spend $300 on a lens than $1,000 or more, I blissfully ignored the warnings of Rokinon and bought one as my go-to lens for night sky shots. After several underwhelming experiences with Rokinon’s customer service and three different copies of the lens—all of which were de-centered and none of which could focus properly—I eventually came to the realization that saving that money was useless to me if the lens was never working properly when I needed it.
I don’t mean to say that you can’t find good value in less expensive photography gear. Many third-party lens companies like Tamron and Sigma are making lenses that equal or even surpass their “name-brand” competitors. (In fact, my new lens for Milky Way shots, the Tamron 15-30mm, is an amazing lens.) Others in the Improve Photography community rave about Yongnuo flashes as fantastic alternatives to more expensive lighting. However, many of these value purchases may come with compromises such as manual focus instead autofocus, and many more may result in the straps of your camera backpack ripping off because you weren’t willing to spend another $50 on the better product with adequate build quality, which I’m not fully willing to admit is something that happened to me.
Alright, fine, that happened to me. Twice.
In summary, do your research. If that research yields warnings of poor quality or durability, chances are you won’t be immune from having the same experience. Digital photography is expensive, and if you are planning to get serious about it, one way or another you will eventually find yourself paying for your gear.
3.) Step-Up Rings Exist
Step-up rings are an unbelievably simple way to help minimize the amount of expensive gear you have to buy, and I really wish I had known they existed when I bought lens filters in the past. Step-up rings are a simple concept. They act as an adapter between your lens and your filter by screwing onto the front of a lens with one diameter and widening at the other end to accept filters with a larger diameter, allowing you to buy one size of a filter and have it fit all of your lenses.
Are you in the market for a neutral density filter for your lens that has a 77mm filter thread? Before you buy, consider if you have any lenses that accept filters with a different diameter. Or looking into the future, do you have your eye on a lens that may have a filter thread of 82mm or 95mm? If so, instead of buying an ND filter to fit each of those lenses, you can save a lot of money simply buying a step-up ring that fits each of your lenses and the filter size you choose to by.
As an example, buying a B+W 77mm circular polarizing filter, a B+W 82mm circular polarizing filter, and a B+W 95mm circular polarizing filter could run you a total of $425 at the time of this writing on B&H Photo. You could also just buy the 95mm circular polarizing filter for $185 and buy a 77mm to 82mm and a 77mm to 95mm step-up ring for a total of as little as $17.
There are two caveats here to keep in mind when it comes to step-up rings. First, as we mentioned above, quality is still something to consider. The cheaper step-up rings may be more prone to having your filter get stuck, so paying for the $35 step-up ring instead of the $9 step-up ring may be worthwhile, especially if you are a photographer that cannot afford to lose the use of a filter at the worst possible moment (i.e. During a contracted shoot). Second, a step-up ring will likely prevent you from using a lens hood, as it will be wide enough that the hood won’t fit past the oversized filter. If that isn’t a deal breaker for you, step-up rings may be a great way to save money on your gear purchase, and I really wish I knew about them before.
4.) Which Technical Specs Are Important For My Photography?
When I bought my first camera, I really had no idea what technical specifications were important to me. The guy behind the counter at my local camera store tried to up-sell me to a more expensive DSLR model, and I can confidently say that I had no idea how that more expensive camera would have improved my photos. Now that I have settled on landscape and night sky photography, I have learned which features are what I should spend my money on: dynamic range and ISO invariance.
Simply put, the dynamic range if your camera’s sensor determines the brightest highlights and darkest shadows your camera can capture in one file without losing data. For landscape photographers, this means the difference between being able to capture a scene in one photo and having to bracket and combine exposure later in post-processing. ISO invariance, one the other hand, refers to the camera’s ability to underexposure a photo and later allow the exposure of that file to be raised in post-processing without having image quality greatly suffer.
When I graduated from my first Canon Rebel to a full-frame camera (the Canon 6D), I didn’t realize dynamic range and ISO invariance would be important to me. The 6D had a huge dynamic range advantage over my old camera, but lagged behind some other cameras on the market at the time. Similarly, the 6D is not ISO invariant, unlike many of the cameras that had recently been release at the time. Had I known what I know now, I would have chosen a Nikon camera like the D750 I eventually switched to and saved the money I initially spent on the 6D.
If you know what type of photography you plan to get heavily involved in, try to pinpoint the areas to most effectively spend your money. For portrait or product photographers, money is better spent on lenses or lighting. For a sport photographers, a camera’s ability to autofocus quickly and capture a high number of frames per second may outweigh the need for a high dynamic range. If you aren’t sure what you need, reach out to other more experienced photographers and tell them what you are interested in for some guidance before you buy.
5.) What Do I Need In A Tripod?
Like many photographers, I bought my first tripod without much thought. It was basically a $25 plastic and aluminum toy from my local electronics store. I quickly realized it wasn’t terribly versatile, was only somewhat stable, and definitely wasn’t durable. My next two tripods are still two that I use today. One of those tripods is a bulky aluminum tripod with a 3-way pan and tilt head that, through some sort of inexplicable design flaw, cannot be panned up or down when in portrait orientation. The other is a lightweight travel tripod that serves me well when I have to pack small, but has is still imperfect enough that I’m in the market for a do-it-all tripod. In total, I’ve spent about $220 on tripods in my life because I balked at the idea of getting one that I considered to be too expensive. I’m soon going to spend that money anyway because that first $220 doesn’t fit my needs.
It would be wrong to say that I can’t take good photos with any of my first three tripods—I have and I could continue to if I needed to. However, as I advance with my photography, having to fight with an unstable tripod could mean I miss the good light I planned and work hard to find. Having a heavy tripod could mean that my low-quality knees and I don’t hike as far to the best vantage point. Choosing between one tripod or another that each fit different needs could mean I need the one I did not bring with me on a trip.
The tripod market is saturated. With many similar options available, I personally find it tough to sift through all of them. The only way I can do so is determining which features are important to me, some of which I didn’t know about when I first bought a tripod.
For landscape photography, weight is important to me since I hike to many of my locations. Using a ball head is my preference since it is versatile takes up less space in a pack. Acra-Swiss, which is a commonly used quick-release plate system, is also important so that I can buy tripod accessories such as an L-plate that fit my tripod, but could also be used on other support systems that are also Arca-Swiss compatible. A bubble level on the tripod legs or the base of the ball head is also important because it allows me to quickly level my tripod for better panoramas.
While all of these factors help determine which tripod is right for me, when I was first starting out with photography I never considered weight or Acra-Swiss compatibility in my purchase. On top of that, I didn’t even know L-plates existed. If you are in the market for a tripod, consider it as seriously as you would a camera or a lens.
6.) Sometimes It’s the Little Things
As much as it is important to focus on the major details when purchasing gear, sometimes it’s the small features that really make a piece of gear shine. I’m normally a simple, no bells and whistles kind of guy, so I rarely concerned myself with considering small features on a camera that didn’t directly affect aperture, ISO, and sharpness. After trying out different pieces of gear over the years, however, I can tell you that there are some bells and whistles I would greatly miss if I didn’t have them.
The small features that top the list as my favorites, without question, have to be an in-camera electronic level and an articulating screen. While both are becoming fairly common in digital cameras, they are two things I would always confirm were present in a camera I was about to buy from now on. The electronic level means my horizon will always be straight with little effort, and the articulating screen means that I can set up my tripod low to the ground or hold my camera high above my head and still easily catch a glimpse of the LCD. They may sound like simple features, but the amount of time and frustration they save me cannot be understated.
When buying your photography gear, try not to overlook the smaller features that don’t show up in the main technical specifications. They may not be the first things you consider when you sift through gear options, but they may be the thing that tips the scales of your decision one way or another.
Unfortunately, there is no crystal ball that can tell you exactly where your photography will take you and which gear will be perfect for that path. Personally, I have taken a path that has led me predominantly into landscape and night sky photography, and I’ll most likely keep it that way for the foreseeable future. However, interests can change, and new challenges are always enticing, so I very well may shift gears down the road and dive into some other type of discipline associated with photography.
If you find yourself lost or with a tough decision to make, try reaching out to photographers that focus on the same type of shots you hope to take or that you take already. Take a look at in-depth gear reviews and recommended gear pages like the one on Improve Photography to give you ideas of what other photographers like and why they may or may not work for your needs. When in doubt, rent your gear before you buy to see if it really does fit your needs. And most of all, before buying a piece of gear, ask yourself how that gear will improve your photos, and answer yourself honestly. Good luck!