This is, if we may be so immodest, the only buyer’s guide you will ever need for anything photographic, ever. Well, alright. We’re kidding. Maybe. In all seriousness, though, whatever you’re buying, the dozen questions below will help you to make a better decision.
1. What do I want to buy? If it’s something that fills a need, continue down the rest of the list. If, on the other hand, you’ve got a grand or three burning a hole in your pocket and just want a new gadget, wait on it.
2. Are there aftermarket versions of this item (hereinafter referred to as “thing”), and are they any good? Branded stuff is generally going to be of higher quality, but there are aftermarket versions that can be every bit as good. If it’s something you need (or just want) badly enough, you may decide that you’re willing to make some tradeoffs to save a few bucks. Bear in mind, however, that a savings isn’t much of a savings if you change your mind and need to upgrade later. Buying right the first time means a short-term hit to the wallet, but can also mean a savings (somewhat paradoxically) down the road. For just one example of what I’m talking about, check out this post by Thom Hogan. There’s also my own take on buying OEM versus aftermarket.
3. Is there a substitute for “thing”? From time to time, I get it in my head that I’d like a fisheye lens, and then I remind myself that I can get the same effect in Photoshop; the fact that I’ve never actually bothered to convert any of my images to look like they came from a fisheye probably reinforces the wisdom of passing up the lens in the first place. If, on the other hand, you find yourself spending countless hours of postproduction time doing that very thing, it might be worth your while to just get the right tool for the job. This is also true of other low-budget fixes (i.e. closeup filters in place of macro lenses).
4. Are there other things I need to buy to go with “thing”? Photography is a lot like shaving. Just the same as Gillette will sell you a razor for around ten bucks and then charge you $75 bucks a pop for blades (I know, I’m exaggerating… but not that much), many photography-related purchases rely on other “stuff” to put them to best use. If the filter size on that new lens isn’t the same as your others, you may need a new polarizing filter; if you’re buying a new tripod, you may want an extra quick release plate; if you’re buying an SLR, you’ll need memory, batteries, and other doodads. Buying a printer? You’ll need something to calibrate your monitor (and a new monitor if the one you’ve got can’t be calibrated). Make sure you take those costs into account.
5. Does “thing” have recurring costs associated with it? You’ve decided to spring for a new printer for your photos since you’re sick of taking them to the drugstore to be printed. Congratulations! You can now pony up for paper and toner cartridges for the life of the printer. Decided that digital is passe and you’ll shoot film now? Well, that film adds up, to say nothing of developing costs (and/or the cost of chemicals and paper if you’re going to
roll develop your own).
6. What is the cost of “thing”, and is that money better spent elsewhere? Let’s be honest. This stuff doesn’t come cheap. Would I like a Leica M9 with one of those lovely Summicron lenses? You bet your ass I would. I’m also mindful of the fact that I could have about five more of everything in my current kit for that much money. The same logic applies to other, lower-priced gear as well. Comparing apples to apples, I know that there are tradeoffs between my 70-300mm and a fast 70-200mm, but I also know that if I’d bought the 70-200, it would’ve been the last of pretty much anything I’d bought for a very long time. Be practical, and understand that it doesn’t have to be the best (or most expensive) thing out there to be the best tool for right now.
7. What is the learning curve for “thing”, and is that time better spent elsewhere? Some equipment is pretty straightforward. A battery’s either charged or isn’t, and a memory card or camera bag’s either got space on/in it or hasn’t. But most of what you buy is going to require you to learn something about it if you want to get the most out of it. Lenses, software, camera bodies, hell, even tripods have a learning curve associated with them. The time spent mastering them can enrich your photography, but it can also frustrate the crap out of you if you decide you didn’t need the thing after all.
8. How often/for how long will I use “thing”? You’ve convinced yourself that you’ve missed one bird shot too many, and you now want a 500mm lens. After 625 trips to car shows and not a single one to an aviary, the last winged creature you saw was the hood ornament on a Thunderbird. How’s that lens looking now? Sometimes missing a certain kind of shot makes us want a certain kind of gear to remedy the problem, but if we don’t find ourselves in the kinds of situations that lead to those kinds of shots in the first place, it’s useful to reconsider.
9. Can I rent or borrow “thing”, and is that a good idea? Renting or borrowing (or, in the case of software, downloading a trial version) can be a great way to kick the tires before you buy, or to avoid buying altogether if you can’t foresee the next time you’ll need the thingy in question. Be careful, though; rentals don’t come cheap, and if you’re renting something often enough, the accumulated rental cost can rapidly add up to what it would’ve cost if you’d just purchased the darn thing, as Zack Arias points out in this post.
10. Might “thing” pay for itself (and if so, how soon)? Even if you’re not a professional photographer, there’s still a chance that the situations in which you use your camera might defray its cost (and if you’re a pro… well, duh). If the “thing” has the ability to earn its keep (here I’m thinking of product photography, real estate photography, and other circumstances in which someone who doesn’t consider themselves a photographer still needs to take pictures of something), that’s worth bearing in mind.
11. Do a lot of people use “thing”, and where can I find out what they have to say? Let’s say that you’ve considered all of the above, and darnit, you’ve just gotta have it. Narrow it down to two to three options; even if you’re dead set on one brand, make, and model, you don’t want buyer’s remorse later because you didn’t do your homework. Now, check out reviews from several sites, but don’t stop there. Get to your local camera shop and try out the different options. Sometimes the reviews (good or bad) are right, sometimes not. Your results may vary one way or the other, and you don’t want to find out the hard way.
12. Will “thing” make me a better photographer? The answer is a qualified “Of course not.” Good gear won’t save a bad photographer’s ass, and a good photographer will find ways to make even bad gear work for them; it’s your vision that drives the photo. With that said, having the right gear can sometimes make it much easier to translate your vision to a photo.* Just don’t mistake the gear for the vision, OK?
*Next time someone tells you gear absolutely doesn’t matter — and some people will, despite any evidence to the contrary — tell them to get a detailed shot of the surface of the moon with a disposable film camera.