There is a ton of gear buying advice on the internet. It ranges from people telling you to spend thousands on gear, to people saying all you need is a stick and a brick. I try to be somewhere in between and buy gear based on factors such as return on investment, need versus want, and return on creativity.
Perhaps I am getting bored, but nowadays, there is really almost no gear or release that really excites me. I struggle to keep up with all the latest releases. If it’s a light, I am on it. If it isn’t, I will give it a thought. Nonetheless, I’m not here to tell you what gear I like and what gear I don’t. I am here to share some advice I got about upgrading equipment, which I think is very valid for many photographers.
Let’s face it, many of us are not full-time professionals, so knowing what you need and don’t in a camera is beneficial. For example, what I need in a camera is very different from what someone shooting sports will need. That’s why I don’t own a Canon 1D X, but a Canon 5DS.
I’m Not a Tech Guy, but 'New' Gear Excites Me
By now, you may have noticed that I’m not the go-to guy for camera buying advice. Other authors are far greater experts on those matters. Yet, when the box with the Canon 5DS showed up at my door, I was excited, not only because I wanted a high-resolution camera, but also because it would let me create higher-quality work. The camera would be used on a job straight away, and as far as return on investment went, it was a justified purchase. Ultimately, everyone gets excited over gear to one degree or another. That’s normal. After reflecting on my gear-purchasing habits, I noticed that I own far more in modifiers than I do in cameras and lenses together — just one Profoto Fresnel cost me a leg and a half to buy! Why is that? That is because of the return on creativity that I get from this gear.
Return on Creativity
This is the meat of this article. Return on creativity is simply a fancy way of saying: "this camera will help me make better photos.” As pretentious as that sounds, it is justifiable. Each lens, camera, light modifier, and so on has a particular emotion associated with it. It is an emotional purchase. Most modifiers in my arsenal didn’t see the light of commercial shoots. Yet, I still have them for creative work. They get me excited.
Very few people will see the fine difference between light from a Profoto and light from a Godox strobe. Frankly, light is light. At the same time, Profoto is infinitely more satisfying to use. The same applies to film cameras. There is no technological reason in this day and age to use a film camera. Digital is way more comfortable. Yet, the process, the look, and the feel of shooting film give a huge return on creativity, which in turn, gets you excited about photography.
I treat my cameras like workhorses. I don’t mind if they take a beating as long as they function. Yet, the pleasure with which I look through the viewfinder and see the image appear in front of my eyes is immense. So is the pleasure of hearing the shutter click. The feeling grows if I get a Phase One in my hands. Owning a medium format camera won’t make me a more skilled photographer, but it will make me a much happier photographer.
Return on Investment
The return on investment is the rational person’s measure of upgrading. In short, all you need to do is take the price of the gear you’re buying and see if the work you will get can pay for it. In basic terms. If you want to dive deeper, it is worth analyzing if you need to make the purchase based on the new work new gear will bring in. For example, by purchasing a 5DS camera, I knew that I would be able to do higher-resolution photography, which wasn’t possible before. The crops could get crazier and the amount of detail captured finer. Both of these were not possible before, and they helped me land some new jobs. Very few people noticed the difference between the 5D Mark IV and the 5DS straight away. The devil was in the details. So, the rational way of going about upgrading is asking if the new gear will bring you new jobs.
Creativity Versus Investment
Where is the perfect balance? That is a good question, and there is no right answer to it. If you see that you can afford new gear, and you can see the ways in which it will make you more excited to take images, you should buy it. Now, how much of that “return on creativity” is justifiable, is a different question. I try to be honest with myself and really quiz myself before spending the cash. For example, I rented the Fresnel before spending a fortune. Having used it, I fell in love and wanted one, so when there was a unit for sale, I bought it. It has not paid for itself. Frankly, I could do most commercials with a few softboxes and a Para 133. But I have used the Fresnel on many creative and ambitious shoots, which helped me have more fun as a creative, rather than an image-maker.
At the end of the day, to buy or not to buy is on you. If you are one of those people who want maximum return on investment, you should stay away from purchases unless they’re absolutely necessary. But if you want to shoot with style, go ahead! Just like with clothes, I am happy to pay a premium for some items if I feel that wearing them would bring me a lot of joy. No one said that your gear shouldn’t bring you joy! Have fun, enjoy, and create with the gear you want.