There are few pursuits that will empty your wallet more quickly than photography. Everything about photographic gear, for instance, is expensive. I mean everything, from $30 (US) bubble levels to exotic prime telephoto lenses that exceed $10,000. In the digital age, cameras are essentially treated as disposable commodities, accompanied by the explicit notion that of course you’re going to upgrade to the latest model every few years. And as the bubble level reference above suggests, cameras and lenses are merely part of the equation. Bags for your equipment, tripods and heads, filters and other accessories…the list is seemingly never-ending, and all the items on it are costly. At the very least, the informal definition of “photographic equipment” has extended all the way to computer hardware and software ever since the digital darkroom became a realistic option more than a decade ago.
Two recent announcements reminded me of the truism expressed by the above paragraph. The first is Adobe’s decision to end its perpetual license software offerings for the world’s image editing flagship program, Photoshop. Whatever you think of the decision, one aspect of it is undeniable: the price of ongoing full-time access to Photoshop jumped for any standalone user. The other notable release was Canon’s announcement of the impending availability of its long-awaited 200-400/f4 zoom lens, along with the price—just under $12,000. By themselves, these announcements don’t mean all that much; they are, however, emblematic of a larger point: photography is an expensive endeavor and it’s not getting any less costly.
While it’s probably wise to accept the fact that you’re going to have to drop some cash to be involved in photography, you don’t have to bankrupt yourself. You certainly can spend tens of thousands of (insert your currency of choice here) to outfit yourself and begin a lifelong journey on the upgrade carousel, but this isn’t necessary. Even if you aspire to a kit populated with high end gear, you need not take out a second mortgage on your home. Here are some suggestions for ways to keep photography-related purchases from consuming more of your budget than is desirable.
1) With each piece of gear you’re contemplating buying, ask yourself whether it’s something that will truly further a tangible photographic/artistic goal. There’s an almost infinite amount of “stuff” available for purchase out there that’s directly or indirectly related to photography. It’s remarkable, however, how little of it is really necessary, by just about any definition of the term. For instance, there are some awfully interesting filters on the market, but the only ones I own are a single polarizer and a pair of neutral density filters; I haven’t spent a dime on filters in the last five years, and have no intention of doing so in the foreseeable future.
2) Shoot with an older camera. If you buy used or new-but-older camera bodies, you can often cut your purchase prices in half. While the camera manufacturers would have you believe that anything isn’t the latest model is obsolete, that is rarely the case. Acquiring a camera that is one generation behind current model lines will save you a tremendous amount of money without, in most cases, compromising quality or function in any meaningful way. And yes, I have done this myself, more than once.
3) Buy used lenses and/or space out your purchases. This is something else I’ve done, multiple times. As long as the components and optics are in good shape, when it comes to image making, a used lens is 100% of a new one. This is a great way to save a significant amount of cash, particularly considering the fact that a good lens can last you a lifetime. And once you’ve put your kit completely together, stop shopping around. I’ve been assembling my current lens outfit for the past eight years. By purchasing one lens at a time, and putting a year or two between purchases, I’ve slowly been able to piece together a high end kit that meets my needs. One more lens—which almost certainly won’t be purchased until some time next year, if then—and I’ll be done.
Of course, if you don’t need an interchangeable lens camera system, you can avoid this problem entirely.
4) Keep software purchases to a minimum. There’s so much photography-related software out there these days, I can’t keep track of it all (and I wouldn’t want to try). Much of it is either redundant, or is designed to be used as a means to make other software “easier to use.” I know people who seem to buy every set of Photoshop plug-ins that come down the pike. (Many of these people spend far more on add-ons than they did on Photoshop itself!) While many of these offerings are quite useful, few if any of them are truly necessary. Furthermore, the more of these packages you have, the harder it is to master any of them.
5) Take care of your gear. By taking decent care of your equipment, it can last a long, long time, thereby saving you a lot of money down the road. And don’t misunderstand—I’m not suggesting foregoing use of your equipment. I certainly don’t eschew use of my gear. But I’ve been using the same photo backpack and tripod/ballhead for 10 years and counting, and see no need to replace any of this gear for the foreseeable future.
6) Consider any and all successive upgrades and consider whether they’re worth the trouble. One of the dirty little secrets of photography is the fact that the camera you were so hot to update brought with it a whole host of needed ancillary updates. For instance, let’s say I move from a 12 MP camera to a 36 MP camera (as I in fact did, last year). All that extra resolution sounds great…and it is. But it probably means getting new larger (and more expensive) flash cards to handle the threefold increase in file size. It may also mean getting faster cards, since the larger files will take significantly longer, all other things equal, to write to your cards. You may find that your lenses may be outresolved by your new camera’s sensor. If that’s not enough, the upgrade may also mean an update to your digital storage system (e.g. larger hard drives). There’s also a good chance that your entire computer system will no longer be able to adequately process the files you need—an entire computer upgrade may be in the offing. In short, the cost of your camera update may triple once you’ve added in the secondary and tertiary costs involved in supporting the update. Caveat emptor.
In sum, photography is expensive, but you can keep your expenses within manageable limits by applying a bit of restraint and common sense. You need not empty your bank account to enjoyably engage in photography.
Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.