‘Investing’ in equipment

_8B34298 copy

By strict definition, an investment is something that is expected to appreciate in value over time, or deliver some sort of tangible return that together with the underlying asset value is grater than the initial amount spent. One of my pet bugbears when it comes to photographic discussions are the two inevitable questions: “is X worth it?” and “should I invest in X?” The problem is, if you replace X with any other depreciating mid-term consumable such as, I don’t know, frozen peas, you’ll instantly realise the whole question makes no sense whatsoever. But replace X with a camera or lens model, and it seems common sense goes out of the window. You wouldn’t put your savings into something that has no hope of making any financial return. Why should this be any different? My aim is by the end of this article, you’ll suffer from far less frequent confusion and buyers’ remorse (if any at all).

The first underlying premise that’s causing problems here isn’t the fact that returns are expected: it’s that most people confuse tangible/quantitative with intangible/emotional. There’s one more layer to this: if you’re a pro, then you actually are expecting a tangible financial return. Fortunately, that simplifies things dramatically so we can dispense with this scenario completely: can you complete the job with what you’ve already got? If not, what do you need that will let you get things done in an efficient and professional manner? Do you expect to do the same kinds of jobs again? How many jobs do you need to do to pay off the equipment before it starts generating profit? If the answer to those suggests that the purchase is necessary and will be paid off by the job that requires it (or you can price the job such that it covers the cost of the hardware, be it rent or buy) – then no matter what the purchase price, you should make the ‘investment’*. In this case the value proposition is clear: return is greater than outlay.

*The only small gotcha here is you shouldn’t wait for a job to begin to familiarise yourself with new hardware, or it may well result in your not being able to do the job at all. But I’m also not advocating buying something ‘just in case’, because inevitably not only does that particular envisioned scenario never materialise, but by the time it does – your approach and skill level is so different that you need something else. Unfortunately, I happen to speak from experience here.

If you’re not a pro, then things get significantly more complicated.

Financial considerations aside – I firmly believe one should never buy a distraction they cannot fully afford as it only digs you deeper into a hole requiring ever larger distractions in turn – the place where most people get tied up is confusing what they want with what they actually need. Even the concept of ‘need’ is relative since the objective is one of personal satisfaction rather than something strictly quantitative. As they say, the first step to addressing psychiatric problems is to admit you have a problem…admitting something is a ‘want’ is perfectly fine so long as it is’t going to incur material pain later on disposal. A need happens when you encounter shooting conditions that you find your current equipment cannot deal with and lands up causing you frustration in turn. Basically: you want to do something you can’t currently do. Note: it’s also very important to separate equipment limitations from ones of personal skill.

The ‘return on investment’ in both cases is the intangible satisfaction or happiness associated with being able to produce the images you envision. Be warned, though: as with every dopamine-producing activity, you’re going to need a bigger and bigger hit to keep the same high, and if left untreated, will result in micro four thirds turning into large format scanning backs.

I tend to look at my personal equipment purchases in two ways – the professional argument is an easy one, and I have enough experience that the familiarisation time with new hardware is short enough that I can purchase something only once the assignment (and need) are confirmed. And the longer you stay in business, the less gear you need to buy year on year – inevitably, you’ve already bought that bit of hardware some time ago, and it’s already sitting in inventory. Most of this hardware is not the kind of thing I’d want to carry with me all the time, both due to liability/risk and physical weight/bulk. It also requires the kind of meticulousness that isn’t always suited to spontaneous captures when you see something but don’t happen to have photography as your primary objective at the time.

Personal purchases are much harder, and I get sucked in just as much as the next guy – I’ll freely admit there’s quite a bit of irrational want and ensuing buyers’ remorse. It still happens even now; you think your experience can overcome known limitations with the hardware, or that it’ll be somehow different to the last time you bought and soon after sold something very similar. I also very much believe that if you like your gear you’re more likely tow aunt to use it, and in turn go out and consciously make images with it, which in turn leads to more shooting opportunities and better images – even if this is only very slightly incremental. It’s probably worse because I tend to be drawn to compact things under the romantic notions of pocketability, opportunism and am inevitably reminded of the hard reality: there is no free lunch with system formats, and once you’re used to bigger – things have to be very, very much more convenient to justify keeping in the arsenal and using over the safe knowns.

There are a couple of ‘safety factors’ we can consider to try to minimise mistakes. After going through probably hundreds of cameras at this point – the ‘keeper threshold’ for me seems to reside around the 3,000-4,000 image mark. If I use a camera beyond that, it’ll stay with me until there’s a clear replacement. The number is somewhat arbitrary but seems to suggest there are repeat occasions which I took it out and decided to use it, and was happy enough with the results to do so again. If I have the chance to try a camera before buying it, and it passes this mark – I’ll buy one. If not, move on. Or you can buy a used one and take a far smaller depreciation hit on resale (especially since of late the secondary market for camera gear seems to have slumped a little). Thresholds are a little lower for specialised hardware (some lenses I’ve only used a couple of dozen times, but there’s not really a substitute for a 19mm shift lens when you really need it), but the same principle applies. Conversely: if you really like something (focal length, format, etc) – then you’ll actually do well to buy the best you can. Top level equipment tends to have a much longer usable lifespan than consumer gear – both because it’s designed with a bit more ruggedness from the beginning, and because the feature set is much beyond what 99% of situations require. At least that’s what I tell myself…MT

__________________

Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop videos, and the individual Email School of Photography. You can also support the site by purchasing from B&H and Amazon – thanks!

We are also on Facebook and there is a curated reader Flickr pool.

Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. There really are some pieces of gear that are similar to an investment, although, the investment has a far better return in other avenues. But I dn’t look at it that way – it’s very nice to buy a piece of gear, get full use of it and find it has doubled in value over the last few years and while those instances are rare, I tend to look for those sorts of pieces of hardware. Why spend and loose thousands when you can actually gain in value?

  2. Another option to consider (in the USA?) is buying used cameras and lenses from outlets such as KEH or from B&H’s or Adorama’s used inventory, trusting their ratings systems. The financial savings are substantial but the trade-off arises with how much one values the security and confidence of buying new, pristine hardware.

    • If you have the ability to examine beforehand or return if a dud, this helps a lot. Most camera gear tends to be binary: either it works or it doesn’t.

    • Yves Simon says:

      I wouldn’t trust them as much as the best ebay sellers, and I bought many, many used lenses.

    • While I’ve never actually sold anything to KEH, nor bought anything more than a lens cap from them, the instant quote system on their Web site is a fantastic resource for those of us looking to justify our “investments”:

      “A two-week rental will actually cost *more* than buying this used copy and reselling it.”

      Never mind the fact that I only needed the lens for a weekend, predictably never used it again afterwards, never got around to selling it — again quite predictably — and eventually gave it to a friend who [hopefully!] will use it, because it’s a shame to have such a nice lens just sitting around in my cabinet when someone could be shooting with it.

      Besides, I needed room in the cabinet for my latest “investment”, because lab scans of all the film I hope to shoot in the next couple years will actually cost *more* than what I just paid for a NOS Coolscan V on eBay…

  3. stanislaw zolczynski says:

    Cool text but the picture of Hassie. Either my monitor is desquared or I need correction lenses. The camera looks more like vertical 6×4.5, I mean squeezed.

  4. Ironically, my large format gear has increased in value. I shot many contracts with that equipment.

  5. Although very much a non-pro I still feel the need to quantify my “investment”. I realize I will almost never recover the monetary value of what I paid (I sometimes sell old gear on ebay and lose only a little, however, because I usually buy internationally from the cheapest market available). But I try to count the cost against the photos I get from the equipment – if I burn USD 1,000 on a camera or lens and get 1,000 shots that I am happy with, I consider that break even. (I make it a little more complicated by scoring based on stars, but for the most part 1 “good” shot = 1 US dollar.)
    So then I have a measure for a) did I make the right decision buying this equipment, and b) if I’m considering a new purchase, do I think I’ll “get my money’s worth” in good photos?
    This method doesn’t suit everyone, but for me it’s a good way to avoid purchasing speciality equipment I don’t really need (no matter how “cheap” it seems), whilst justifying something that might be quite expensive in dollar terms, but that I will use 10 times a month for 3 years….

  6. L. Ron Hubbard says:

    I paid $1600 for my Fujifilm GF670. I have turned down offers of $1800 and $2200 for this camera. That’s an investment.

  7. Dear Ming, your last two posts have been very provocative!

    Most non business savvy people I know call “investment” to any “significant expense.” Some of my lenses like the 12-24 DX zoom and the 16- or 18-35 FX zooms really have paid for themselves many times over and, looking back, they really were investments. Were newer and newer camera bodies an investment? This is hard to tell as website and print product use normally can be satisfied with surprisingly few megapixels and most images do not need a huge native dynamic range. I guess the return on most “Camera Investments” is just the pleasure in handling a fantastic product.

    Some ways to rationalize “Investments” I have used (do not read if you suffer from GAS):
    My reason to get FX (D810) was getting a bigger viewfinder image, more subject-background separation and some little things here and here. As of today, my Z7 is on its way and what I expect to get from it is an always bright viewfinder image and the chance of a full frame view when using DX crop: eyesight doesn’t get any better with age! Lotsa megapixels are certainly an added bonus… Who ever said that the MP war was over???

    Will I get a return on this “investment”? Most certainly not: I have yet to see a Photo Exhibit customer choosing a print based on its resolution or camera model.

    • Think of it as a call to common sense: I’ve been getting far too many irrational emails these days. I think people are really losing sight of the big (i.e. photographic, idea-based) picture.

      Customers may not choose an image based on resolution directly, but if you don’t have enough resolution and you see the lack of it or lack of transparency first which in turn affects the idea of the image, then yes, you are handicapping yourself…

      • You’re right! What I might add is that one must have technical skills good enough for satisfying your peers, and this includes appropriate equipment, but the work should have enough emotion and content to make your customers want it. Are you your toughest critic? I am sure you are. This is something we should all aspire to.
        A change in equipment should only happen when this will lead to an improvement beyond your technical capabilities.

        • I think you have to be your toughest critic. Else somebody else will be, and that might land up disastrous…

          • Going back to the main topic: It’s been a while since you stopped writing about equipment. And then there was Photokina… Hopefully the wave of marketing induced frenzy will subside. Good luck Ming! Don’t stop doing professional reviews. They do a lot of good.

            • Stopped writing? Don’t you mean the opposite…?

              Reviews: I only do them if time permits and the hardware is interesting enough. I don’t get loaners so I have to buy; it has to be very interesting indeed. And not reviewing says just as much as reviewing…

  8. William Lollis says:

    Excellent article. You could probably write a book on the subject. One chapter could explore the relationship between want/need and the subject of another of your discourses: sufficiency. As an example, a wedding could be photographed successfully with rather inexpensive equipment, but would a professional find that equipment sufficient to create an image of being a “pro” rather than an amateur? Also, is the object itself more important as a kind of thing, that is, what it symbolizes, than its functional ability? There are functional equivalents to Leica and Rolex at far lower prices, but I think most people would rather be seen in public with the prestige brands. Not to mention run their fingers over them.

    • I’d flip this around: would a client see you as being ‘pro’ enough with cheap gear, and would they pay as much even if the results were just as good? Reality says no, sadly; even if practically there is little difference most of the time.

  9. gary bliss says:

    Ming —
    Thoughtful, as ever; thank you.
    For most of my career i have been concerned with defense economics where equipment acquisition and replacement strategies are principle issues. There are several strong similarities to photographic gear too: often a portfolio of inter-operating gear is needed to achieve a mission; functionality, durability in harsh conditions, and upgradeability are important considerations; “training”/human factors matter a lot, etc.
    In my own case i tend to think in terms of photographic “mission sets” and, actually, i pack bags that way ahead of time. Shoot a church group in an interior? Grab the bag with the multiple flashes & 14mm f2.8 along with the d810 (always with the 24-70 f2.8). Light travel? Grab the small bag with the Oly PL7 and few primes already packed. Fall leaves? Bag with a few f1.8 primes, filters and maybe the telezoom along with d810. I even group the d810’s presets by those groupings.
    Gear acquisition is tied to this context. When i have a weak lens i really want to replace it if i see the flaws in the images. It surprises me that so many of my GAS photo colleagues do not think as crisply about precisely how their potential buying maps into capability, yet they argue endlessly about it on the forums.
    Finally i note that acquisition of the d810 raised the bar, optically, across the board for me in this context. Flaws that were not seen with 24mp sensors, became so with the d810.
    Forgive me for rambling on, but my point is that acquisitions for me are tied to particular “use cases” in which i can see flaws.

    • I work much the same way – you need to have consistency and a known envelope, so upgrades tend to go in groups for this to happen. Except once balance is achieved, it’s generally a bad idea to keep poking at the stack of cards lest everything fall down and not play nice with each other anymore…

  10. Agree with everything you said. I did find it interesting that your cover image was a Hasselblad film camera. I have a couple of Rolleiflexes and Hasselblads. I use them occasionally, but just enjoy looking at them as well. To me they are works of industrial art and even if they stop working, I wouldn’t give them up. Somehow I don’t see that happening with a digital camera.

    • It’s much easier to see value in a long-lasting and pong-serving purchase, hence the cover image. I have no doubt it’ll keep working for another 50 years if we’ll maintained…can’t say the same for digital even after five.

    • Film camera but with a CFV-50c digital back ~_o

      • But easy to go back to film if you choose, or a future back…

        • Oh absolutely. I love my 203FE and XPan etc. Actually, last week B&H had a bundle special of basically $10K worth of GFX50R with 3 lens for 40% off (!!) and I could have probably buy it if I sell the 203FE kit. In the end, it’s not worth it for me. I have way too much fun seeing through the large Hasselblad ground glass.

          • The 203FE will probably still be working and hold the same value ten years from now; if the GFX is 40% off a year after release, that doesn’t exactly bode well for the future…

  11. A really refreshing approch to the nonsense wording “I made an investment” when in reality you have only indulged in a shopping spree (nonsensical if you in really have other means of income that cover your bills including your paeudo-investments in photography).
    This perspective can be applied to al lot of things we spend money on: cars, watches etc. etc.. Why not just admit, that you buy for your personal pleasure? It frees the mind to really enjoy your purchase and accept the fact that this is the main and also legitimate motivation for an acquisition. Such honesty also reduces the riskof remorse and bad conscience.

    • Pretty much – but for whatever reason there’s this odd social guilt which prevents people from doing so. Unless of course you do actually need the specific capabilities for an assignment…

  12. Hi Ming, yes, something that is relevant in this day and age, where the trappings of ever-shortening technological updates appears to be setting a trend for short-term turn-around of equipment…

    I tried to think about what is it that keeps me from buyer’s remorse. Is it that I have loads of spare money; that I have a knack of convincing myself that anything in life is worth doing, if nothing more than expanding my experiences; because I have psychological ability to remain positive in the midst of apparent doom and disaster; or just the unfailing ability to forgive myself for the dumb things I do in life? Well, apart from item one, probably all of the above.

    However, if we talk photography, I recently sold off $30,000 of Nikon and Fuji equipment, leaving myself with one tiny Fuji X-E3 and 3 tiny lenses. In terms of money investment, I lost more than half of what I spent, but, I feel no remorse. And here is why, or so I believe, allowing myself to buy of that gear only if it satisfied three out of the following criteria: –

    I always fully checked out the item characteristics, never buying on a whim – research
    The item allowed me to either do something that I couldn’t do already, or do it better – utilisation
    Buying the item did not put me into debt and I did not need the money for anything else – cashflow
    The item would last years and years without replacement – robustness
    Using it, no matter how little, just felt awesome – satisfaction

    I am now considering which system I might buy into for the next period of life, perhaps keeping it a little leaner than my previous years 😉

    • It’s impossible to put a price or value on satisfaction or creative enablement; fortunately for us pros it’s simpler – ROI has to be positive, and yes the depreciation is still painful. The higher end, the greater the pain…

  13. Hi Ming,
    As “personal purchases”, have the Pen-F and LeicaQ passed your “keeper threshold” factor ?
    I consider both systems for “everyday life” situations, keeping my D750 for specific situations.
    Regards,
    Emmanuel

Trackbacks

  1. […] via ‘Investing’ in equipment — Ming Thein | Photographer […]

Thoughts? Leave a comment here and I'll get back to you.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: