Buying Photographic Equipment
by William Lulow
Just commented on a Linked In discussion about buying equipment. It reminded me that today’s digital equipment has gotten incredibly expensive for high-end professional gear and has made me think twice about buying a piece of equipment that I will only use once or twice. I have a motto when it comes to camera gear: “Don’t buy it unless the job will pay for it and you can use it at least ten times more!” These days, there are quite a few rental houses that will lease equipment that you need for a specific assignment. In the past, Canon used to have a professional loan program. Back when I was covering golf tournaments for the LPGA, I “borrowed” a Canon 600mm telephoto lens. I used it for several events and that was it. I never had a use for it again. Now, I have Canon 60D cameras and only three lenses: the workhorse 20mm f/2.8, the 60mm f/2.8 macro (for products and close ups), and an 85mm f/1.8 for portraits. I’m thinking about adding the 135mm f/2 as well. I have decided to go with all prime lenses after a couple of years of using a zoom (17-55mm f/2.8). I have found that the primes are just a bit sharper and easier to use. Sometimes, if I have a wedding to shoot or some event where I need to get close up images from a distance, I will rent the 70-200mm f/2.8 Canon zoom lens. But I have found that even that lens, as good as it is, is sometimes difficult to hand-hold.
I used to own Hasselblad equipment for medium format portraits and view cameras for table tops. Today, the digital version of the Hasselblad costs anywhere from $20,000 to over $30,000. It registers around 40 to 50 MP per shot. By comparison, the Canon 60D is around $1000 and has an 18MP sensor. So, if you have a business that generates well over $300,000 per year, perhaps the Hasselblad is warranted and would have paid for itself. Personally, I’m not sure that the image quality is better enough to warrant the expense, unless you are constantly shooting ads that will be displayed on the sides of buildings. I get tack-sharp images that have been used on magazine covers and websites.
I will say that I always preferred the square, medium format over the 35mm format. There is something about seeing the image on a ground glass that is easier to look at than through the viewfinder of a 35mm-style camera. But, with good quality LCD’s, these days it’s almost a moot point. (Incidentally, there was actually a physical difference between the emulsions for 2 ¼ films and those for 35mm that I think, made the medium format better).
When it comes to lighting equipment, some units are better than others, easier to use, more safety features, etc. But, light is light! As long as you know how to use it, whether it’s old or new, light or heavy, it really doesn’t matter all that much. It does have to be in good shape, no frayed wires, tight connections, etc. I’ve been using my old Dynalites for over twenty years now and they work like they were new. I maintain them regularly, plug them in and run electricity through the capacitors and replace flash tubes when necessary. If properly maintained, they should last a long time. Some of the new units have more safety features and are easier to use with built-in radio receivers and the like. But, again, if you don’t need to upgrade, it’s probably not worth the expense.
I have added some equipment recently – a set of autopoles that take away the need for light stands in the back of the studio, more apple boxes and stools that make posing individuals and groups easier – things like that. These are items that periodically need replacing and are not expensive.
So, if you have jobs that will pay for the highest quality digital equipment, great! Do it. For most of us in the business, you should never go into hock for photo gear just as you should never re-mortgage a paid-off house for the sake of a business. It’s just too risky. The quality of equipment these days is still excellent for almost all levels.