Reasons we overspend on camera gear

During a rather brisk walk this afternoon my brain was rattling around in my skull and it occurred to me that I’ve overspent on camera gear a few times in my life. I figured it was logical for me to assume that other folks likely have as well. I began to muse about the reasons we overspend on camera gear which led to this article.

While I’ll touch on a number of factors, they all ultimately fall into the same general category: emotions/state of emotional arousal.

Many years ago a friend penned a rather insightful essay in which he eloquently discussed how our ability to make a rational decision is inversely proportional to our state of emotional arousal. He went on to explain that we make some of the worst decisions in our lives when that level of emotional arousal is at its peak – either from a positive or negative perspective.

I doubt whether any of us have made one of the ‘worst decisions of our life’ when buying camera gear, but if you’re like me you have made some mistakes.

Excitement with technology
This falls under the emotional arousal category. As recently as last summer I made a gear acquisition mistake because of this exact reason. I allowed myself to become completely enthralled with the notion of producing 4K videos and rationalized buying a Panasonic GH4 and a pair of f/2.8 Panasonic zoom lenses.

It was, of course, a stupid decision on my part. I didn’t have any clients asking for 4K video and based on my core business of producing safety videos, they likely would not have a need for that technology for quite a few years to come.

Luckily a good friend rather bluntly pointed out the mistake I had made, and I was able to return the gear for the cost of a modest restocking charge. If I would have vacillated about returning it for even an additional week I likely would have been stuck with my mistake.

The risk posed by excitement over technology should not be underestimated. I almost fell prey to it again towards the end of 2015 when I contemplated buying a Nikon 1 J5 because of the new 20.8 MP BSI sensor. After putting pen to paper I could not find any hard rationale of how that investment would generate additional revenue for our business. Logic prevailed and I scrapped the idea of buying a J5.

Buying into the rationale of others
Sometimes friends or associates we trust are so effusive with their praise of a particular camera or format we lose sight of our real needs and we buy into their rationale. That’s how I allowed myself to get sucked into the ‘full frame trap’.

It was followed by a couple of years of investing many thousands of dollars in full frame bodies and building up a collection of FX Nikkor lenses (and a Tamron thrown in for good measure). It took a while before I finally came to my senses. Not only did I finally realize that I didn’t need full frame gear for my business…I didn’t even like using it!

Knowing that I would need good low light shooting capability for my youngest son’s wedding I did keep it long enough to shoot his ceremony and reception in July. My D800 was sold the next day and all eight of my FX lenses followed over the next 10 days or so.

Fixating on insignificant improvements
I’ve found that after reading a lot of camera or lens reviews I could become fixated on some specific attribute of a camera or lens. It may be something as small as an upgraded auto-focus system, a deeper buffer, or a minor increase in sharpness.

While in a state of emotional arousal about some of these minor improvements they would become larger and larger in my mind. If I wasn’t careful it was very easy to convince myself that the business absolutely needed the improvement(s).

Upon closer examination, and with dissipated emotions, it was clear that none of these differences would make any real improvement to the level of service I could provide clients. When I looked at it rationally I concluded that none of my clients would notice any material difference in the quality of the work that I produced for them. Small incremental improvements are simply not worth the investment.

Confusion about our real needs
When we are unclear about our real needs we can be influenced into buying gear that isn’t a good fit for us. I find that self-reflection is invaluable during these times. I find I ask myself a lot of direct questions and try my best not to allow my self to go into a self-rationalizing loop.

Some of these could sound like…
– Do I really need a weather-sealed body?
– How many times would I have actually used it?
– Does another solution like a rain sleeve give me the capability I need at lower cost?
– Do I really care that a particular brand of camera has an extensive array of prime lenses available when I know that I prefer shooting with zoom lenses?
– Do I really need that more expensive constant aperture zoom and spend twice the money over the variable aperture lens?
– How many times would I actually have shot at f/2.8 rather than at f/5.6?
– Is that constant aperture lens actually better in terms of image quality than the variable aperture one?
– What evidence exists to prove that?
– Even if it is sharper will my clients actually notice the difference?

Bringing a potential purchase decision back from the emotional brink into the bright light of logic is always helpful.

Feeding pride and ego
A lot of expensive camera gear is purchased simply as a statement of financial capability and/or ego, much the same as buying a Rolex watch or an expensive car.

Most of us have been out capturing some images in the presence of a group of other photographers when someone arrives with some really exotic, expensive gear. How do most of us react? Do we think “Man look at that cool gear!” Or do we take an alternative view and think “Boy… there’s an ego that needs feeding.”

That’s not to say that top-flight professional photographers shouldn’t invest in exotic gear if they truly need it for their business. Even then I sometimes really wonder how much of that gear is purchased to try to impress clients, or stroke a photographer’s ego, as opposed to being actually needed.

Back in 2011 I remember reading a “What’s in my bag” article by Bob Krist, a world-renowned travel and documentary photographer. He regularly does assignments for National Geographic, Traveler, Smithsonian, and Islands.

I remember being stunned to learn that, at that time, his incredible work was being done with a pair of Nikon D7000’s, a DX Nikkor 16-85, an FX Nikkor 70-300, an 11-16 Tokina, as well as one prime and a macro.

It certainly makes a person think what kind of gear even a renowned pro really needs to produce amazing work. Mr. Krist is now doing video work as well as still photography and has switched to Sony. He started out with an A5000, moved to an A6000, and now shoots with the A7s.

As human beings we can’t help but be impacted by our emotions. When it comes to making the best decisions we can when buying camera gear learning to temper our emotions will lead to more prudent equipment investments.

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Article and all images Copyright Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use, duplication of any kind, or adaptation is allowed without written consent.

24 thoughts on “Reasons we overspend on camera gear”

  1. Very good timing right before CES and all their news. Was that intentional Tom?

    I purchased (with the wife’s indulgent blessing!) a D7100 + Tamron 150-600 after my fun weekend rental of a D7200 + Nikon 200-500. It’s been great fun and thanks to the holiday deals, I purchased the set for a fantastic price. No, I didn’t NEED any of it, but it’s great fun to have when I see something as unusual as a Great Blue Heron in my neighboorhood, or catching a snow goose hanging out with Canadian geese. But there was a lot of thought going into it, as well as the knowledge that I can recoup the huge majority of my purchase if I decide to sell the set.

    But what have I been doing since CES? Drooling over the m4/3 100-400 and 300 f/4, of course! Silly me. I think that stuff sounds like fun rentals but that won’t be cheap. Better to spend the time learning my current gear.

    I gave up waiting on Nikon 1 V4 with a better sensor, and I still spent less (probably MUCH less) on the D7100 + Tammy than I would on the Nikon 1 V4 + CX 70-300.

    1. Hi Sean,
      CES often has a lot of new gear announcements – but the article wasn’t timed specifically for that event. Sometimes articles just hit me at a particular time and they just come out. The D7100 is a great camera and it should work very well with the Tamron 150-600 – no doubt you’ll have a lot of fun with that combo for quite some time to come!
      Tom

    1. Hi Ian,
      I almost bought a J5 last month…but pulled back and decided a V4 would be a better fit for my overall needs (assuming of course they we actually see a V4 in the future). Speaking of something being as ‘cheap as chips’…I couldn’t resist buying a J4 kit and the WP-N3 underwater housing for it…bought both at very attractive prices. With any luck I hope to put them to the test sometime in January. I really enjoyed the J5 when I shot with it for a few weeks doing my field work for its review.
      Tom

  2. Interesting article. I am recovering from a major bout of gearitis. Just spent 3 months reading gear reviews and watching youtube videos. Currently shooting with a pair of V1s. It was fun but a complete waste of time.

    In the end, I have only purchased a CX 70-300 lens and a new laptop to replace the 5 year old laptop I have been using to edit photos. I have convinced myself to work on workflow and improving my DXO optics and Photoshop/ lightroom skills.

    In the spring, I will look at the gear again (Don’t tell my wife. I have driven her crazy talking about it). May purchase the new V4 and/or a J5. If Nikon abandons the N1 line, I will probably abandon them.

    1. Hi Paul,

      You have purchased my favourite Nikon 1 lens – I’ll bet you are enjoying it immensely! I just posted a new article a few minutes ago about my lens selection to create a Nikon 1 Holy Trinity. I hope this helps and doesn’t hinder future deliberations for you!

      Tom

  3. I agree with you to a certain degree. However, for me the appearance of the first full frame cameras that were affordable was a dream come true.

    I think a lot of people were looking forward to the day where they could afford a digital full frame camera, which could be a complete replacement for their equipment used in the film era.

    It was just incredible, that it was now possible to get exceptional good quality from a digital full frame camera and without having to buy film and having it developed while still being able to use the lenses and flashes from their old cameras.

    At least I thought the Nikon D700 was a pretty amazing piece of gear (which it still is).

    Of course time has changed a bit and it is now possible to get really good images out of cameras with smaller sensors, which I can attest to as I bought the J1 when it was released. I can also say that I got a lot of very good images with that camera, because it was so much fun to use.

    I later got the J5, which I don’t regret at all, because the colors and dynamic range has been improved a lot, making the images much nicer to look at. Also the shooting experience is so much nicer with the articulated touch screen.

    Besides the J5 I also own a Nikon D810 which my spouse and I use for all kinds of photography including low light sports photography like tennis and dog agility where it really excels.

    I could probably live without the D810, but sometimes it is just fun to shoot with and the image quality can be pretty amazing.

    1. Hi Anders,

      Thanks for adding to the discussion – always great to hear from you! Sounds like the combination of full frame and CX is working really well for you! Different folks need different gear to meet their needs and its great you have the combination you need!

      Tom

      1. You are most welcome Tom and thanks a lot for your articles and great images. You really show what can be achieved with the Nikon 1 system.

  4. chasing technology can just plain wear a person out, can’t it?

    I’ve often felt that the want versus need equation was very similar to the one involving lust and love. if good judgement doesn’t prevail you can be in for a hell of a ride.

    sometimes it works out…others not so much.

    remind me to tell you someday about a five thousand dollar bamboo fly rod and the twelve hundred dollar reel that with it.

    obsession can be a powerful thing.

  5. Mr Tomas Stirr

    In this article there’s a lot of good information. Probably some of the best advices about photo gear (extensive to other areas too).

    But I was wondering…
    Are you tired of living?
    Are you looking for trouble?
    Did you take your medicine before write this stuff?
    I’ll bet all the cameras/gizmo’s manufactures are joining a task force to take you down Sir. You will be sued until the 3rd generation… LOL LOL

    Thanks for toking the time to share and write this piece of good common sense/ good practices!
    And
    Have a happy and wonderful New Year full of great projects and at least “12 stunning/breathtaking” photographs!
    All the best

    António

    1. Thank you for your supportive comment Antonio – much appreciated!

      To answer your questions…
      Am I tired of living? Heck no! I’m doing my best to make it to 100!
      Are you looking for trouble? No, but sometimes speaking one’s mind has a way of attracting differences of opinion!
      Did you take your medicine before write this stuff? Unfortunately I can’t blame medication, or the lack thereof, for the strange thoughts that come out of my brain!

      I will do my best to rise to the challenge you pose of capturing ‘at least 12 stunning/breathtaking photographs’…

      Tom

  6. Hi Tom
    I am always very happy to read you
    GAS: the disease that affects everybody . I would include to this the need to buy and upgrade our cars, home appliances, or our need for a new kitchen or bathroom, or expensive trips. I remember our parents were buying a house and they were raising all their kids with the same bathrooms & kitchen, up to the time they were retiring in a condo. They had money in the bank, no debts after the mortgage was completed, no credit cards, no stress with money compared to the younger generations. This way of life was making them more financially secure than ours.
    Coming back to photography gear, here is a list of questions I feel everybody should validate before jumping to buy new gears.
    1-Have you check on the net what other owners of your existing equipment have to show in term of pic quality, and artistic qualities?
    The images you will find can be disturbing showing you your lack of knowledge, and your need for more training (basic, artistic, post-processing) and not new gears.
    I have seen images taken by a pro photographer with a mobile telephone that were astounding.
    2- Do you print large images or just display them on screen ?
    3- Do you crop your image a lot , and if yes what is the reason, and can you avoid to do it or reduce it (less megapixels required)?.
    Finally Tom your analysis of this destructive behavior is dead on…. but who will be smart enough to put your analysis to work for him ?
    regards
    Luc

    1. Hi Luc,

      Thanks for sharing perspectives and practices from the generation before us – great reinforcement for all of us who seek a financially stable and stress-free future! Looking at what is capable of being produced with the gear that each of us own is always a great reality check and can serve as some motivation for each of us. Your point about how images are used afterwards is very sound. Many folks buy gear far beyond what is required for their actual needs. Cropping my be an indication that a prudent investment in longer glass is needed.

      As far as the destructive behaviour and each of us being smart enough to follow through…I think the bigger challenge is keeping in touch with our emotions and reigning them in. When we are able to do that logic has at least a fighting chance!

      Always great to hear from you!

      Tom

  7. I must admit, getting new goodies is pretty fun. Getting the bills isn’t quite as fun. LOL! There is a very interesting emotional attachment to shopping and “stuff”.

    My wife – hates to shop, really does not enjoy buying stuff. She is COMPLETELY practical. I am the one that has to be watched! However, we are at a stage in life where I can splurge a bit, we still have kids in College, so I can’t go too hog wild.

    It is nice to get a treat, maybe even one we really don’t “need” once in a while!

    Mike

    1. Hi Mike,

      Yeah…we all can use a treat from time to time! Santa told me I could have been a much better boy this year so I had to settle on some really low-ball deals on a couple of pieces of Nikon 1 gear. That will need to suffice for some time to come.

      Tom

  8. Talk about a well-written and logical article, Tom!
    Good for me to hear, though I’ve been a relatively ‘good boy’ when it comes to G.A.S. (gear acquisition syndrome). I did come very close to laying out many thousands of hard-earned dollars on Nikon’s 500mm f4 for my amature birding photography, but I forced myself to think clearly about the whole matter and decided that it was not a good investment, despite the drool factor, lol.

    I have owned a D7000 for 5 years now and still enjoy it. I also purchased a D600 from a friend who wasn’t using it, and got a crazy good price on it. I’ve had it over a year and love it.

    Still dreaming and waiting for the mythical D400 to appear, though I’m afraid that ship has sailed long ago…

    Hope you had a wonderful Christmas and may you have a blessed New Year on 2016!

    Terry

    1. Hi Terry,

      Thank you very much for the well wishes – our best to you and those you love for the New Year!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article – after making my fair share of mistakes I thought it would be good to share them with readers so hopefully others can avoid making some of the mistakes I’ve made in the past. Buying used gear is something that I have also done from time to time and it can be a cost effective way to acquire the additional shooting capability needed.

      I know what you mean about ‘drool factor’…lol…I have a few shirts with saliva stains on them! In a way having my business forces me to be a bit more disciplined with my gear purchases since I don’t get my cash back for quite a few years when I add gear for the business because of depreciation schedules.

      Tom

  9. At least you have business revenue to justify the equipment. Since I lost my house (35 years) in Poudre Canyon CO, I have been back and forth about all my gear, never settling really on what I am doing. One mistake I have been making is to just consider one advantage, instead of looking holistically. When I was shooting film, the choices were relatively simple. But now…

  10. You would publish this piece the day after I bought the new Fuji 35mm f/2 lens for my Xe2. In my defense, I traded in a Fuji lens that I never used and the trade paid for most of the new lens. I’ve no clients but myself, so I lack that discipline. As an amateur, part of the unquenchable emotion is the (fallacious) belief that the next piece of equipment will turn the corner on photographic genius.

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