If you’re like me and most other keen photographers, you’ll be making a series of potentially expensive choices as you acquire gear to help you grow in your photographic endeavors. Most of us have made some decisions that haven’t made the best use of our money; in fact, at times we’ve just wasted it away with purchases we later come to regret. I’d like to offer some structure that may help you avoid these mistakes – the same mistakes I’ve made. Whether you’re just starting out with photography as a hobby or you’re an established photographer, you should be able to glean some insights worth considering that might save you some time, frustration, and a whole lot of money.
Perhaps you have some gear in your collection right now that’s representative of some waste. I have a couple of cheap aluminum tripods in my closet that I bought many years ago when I was first getting going with photography. I knew I needed something to help with long exposures and gave little thought to the basics of a tripod or the results I could expect in my photography from using one. I mean, who would know that a well-made tripod could make such a difference in the quality of images. So I bought one for $30 or so at my local camera store. I’m sure they were happy to make the sale, and it seemed that it would be good enough. As I came to know more about my craft it became clear that I could do better, a lot better. But that old aluminum tripod still sits in my closet as a reminder of mistakes I’ve made and money I’ve wasted. It’s not my most expensive bad decision, but I think most photographers might be able to relate to it. I’ve also bought some lenses I thought I needed but later realized they didn’t meet my growing performance or quality expectations. Thankfully, lenses hold their value relatively well, so I was able to recover some of my poor lens investments.
Any aspiring photographer with limited resources ultimately comes face to face with a financial wall. Let’s face it; photography can be an expensive hobby depending on where you want to take it.
You’ve probably heard that it’s not the gear, it’s the photographer who ultimately produces good or great photographs. While that’s true, most established photographers have capable gear to help them get the best images possible. You can do great things with a point and shoot and even a smartphone camera. Just look at some of the iPhone photos being posted to Flickr nowadays; some of them are pretty amazing. But if you aspire to own a digital SLR with a capable set of lenses and accessories, what can you do to get the stuff you want at the lowest cost?
Understanding Your Financial Situation and the “Spouse Factor”
Some personal perspective and capable planning will help map out your goals. The first is to take a good hard look at your current financial situation. The basic question you should ask yourself is, “What can I afford?” Keep in mind your other life priorities including the needs of those who depend on you. This is a good time to involve your better half in the discussion. You’ve embarked on a path that could require a significant amount of money. How does that sit with your partner? What sacrifices might they have to make if any? This is the most vital step. There is nothing worse than setting out to spend significant amounts of family resources without having a full and open discussion with those who might be affected by money going out the door without their knowledge or input. So have that discussion early, well before you start out. If you’re single, you only have to have that discussion with yourself!
Then… Set Your Photographic Goals
You need to have a clear statement of your photographic goals. Where do you want to take your hobby? Are you a passive hobbyist or a zealot who wants to be an advanced amateur working within the constraints of your day job? Or do you eventually aspire to be a professional? Your goals will dictate your needs. But you’ll also want to think about a schedule around your goals. How long do you think it will take to meet these goals? Are you looking at meeting goals within the next six months or is this a five-year plan? You may choose not to structure your goals around a timeline. That’s fine, but a timeline will help match your planned expenses to your resources. Cost and schedule planning is key for those who might be thinking of eventually making photography a career, and a full-fledged business plan is essential for aspiring pros.
Relate the Gear to Personal Goals
So after some careful thought, you probably have a pretty good idea of where you want to take your photography – what now? Do some deep research. Read one of the many excellent blogs of photographers who share your interests and reflect your goals. What gear do they use? What other photographers use that gear? What do they have to say about their experiences with it? Also, read some of the great sources for reviews of equipment you’re interested in. Amazon is a good place to start; you’ll see a variety of opinions on gear there. In all cases, look for validation of reviews from as many sources as you can. Equipment that’s more expensive warrants wider and deeper research.
Map your gear acquisition strategy to your timeline, keeping in mind the associated expense and your available finances. Create a timeline and account for your new gear as you buy it. You can keep this fairly basic or you can go all out, it’s up to you. At first, I recommend you start out with something simple and straightforward. Making it harder might just be a mental block to moving ahead.
A timeline that represents your situation and goals is a good start. Do you have a one-year plan or a five-year plan? Whatever it is, map it out in a worksheet. Microsoft’s Excel is a good tool, or if you’re on a Mac, try Apple’s Numbers program.
Now lay in your gear acquisition plan. Let’s say in month three you plan to buy a new camera body. Enter a cost estimate in month three that seems reasonably in-line with your thoughts of a camera body that might fit your needs. In other months, build on your strategy to add other things you will need. How about lenses? You can put generic prices and estimates based on your early research and then update them as you get closer to the purchase date. By adding in all the items that will provide a suitable full kit for your needs, you’ll get a good idea of the costs you’re going to incur and you’ll also see where you need to gather some money to buy what you need. Keep your other expenses in mind too to make sure your priorities are in order.
Some gear to consider as you build your requirements might include, not necessarily in this order:
- Camera Body
- Camera bag
- Fixed prime lens
- Wide angle lens
- Short telephoto lens
- Long telephoto lens
- Macro lens
- External Flash
- Computer software like Adobe Photoshop’s Lightroom, Apple Aperture, Photoshop, etc.
- Camera filters
- Remote shutter release
- Lighting equipment, umbrellas, softboxes, reflectors
It all seems so fundamental. It is pretty basic, but most of the time some of us will embark on impulsive buying sprees without regard to where that purchase might fit with our needs at that moment. We’ve all done it and sometimes later on we’ll think on it with buyer’s remorse as we remember something else that’s a higher priority but now we don’t have the money for it.
Stick With Your Plan
A good plan will really help you focus on your needs along with your available and future resources. Like any plan, you should allow for it to be flexible and change over time. There will be inevitable changes; progress in technology, and new tools may become available, which might cause your plan to shift – that’s okay. Being flexible will help you stay committed, will help you prioritize your needs, and will force you to think about the gear that will move you towards your well thought out strategic goals.
Developing a solid plan will also allow you to focus on the basic things first before the gear that can wait till later. A camera body is much more fundamental and important at the beginning of your plan than a GPS receiver for example. A good plan will help to question your need for gear and help avoid impulse buying based on the latest technology being blasted at you from your peers and the media. You’ll be continuously tempted to stray from your plan, and there may be circumstances that validate a change in plans – that’s okay. But you’ll be prepared to question your change, which will help you continually move towards your goals. If you find yourself deviating all the time, you need to question your commitment to your plan and the reasons for the deviations. If necessary, take another hard look at what’s on the horizon and make adjustments. Most importantly, realize that a well thought out strategy that’s poorly executed isn’t a plan at all. Stick with your goals as much as you can. Your personal plan, properly considered, will map a path to help you focus on the right gear for your needs at the right time as you build your skills and capabilities to become the photographer you aspire to be. Good luck and keep on shooting!