When should you upgrade gear?

You’ve probably asked yourself this question already, and I’m sure it will come up again as your photography career continues. With new equipment being introduced every year at the very least, you could spend all your time and money investigating new equipment. But you need to do what makes the most sense for your resources and needs, and for producing the very best photos.

Here’s one situation when I addressed this problem based on my needs: I began shooting international fencing championships in 2003 with a fast Canon EOS film camera along with a 10D dSLR. With the Olympic Games coming the next year, I very quickly determined that film was out of the question for me, and that the 10D was too slow to do the job. I was using fast lenses — the 24-70mm f/2.8L series and 70-200mm f/2.8L series — so that side was sufficient. The 1D Mark II had just been announced, and I managed to get an early unit in time to become familiar with it before heading to Greece for the Olympics. So I took it with me, using the 10D as an emergency backup and occasional snapshot camera.

The next year, the 1D Mark IIn came out, and it had enough innovations useful to me (especially the larger LCD and increased frame buffer) that I decided to buy it and relegate my 1D Mark II to being a backup. At that point, I had realized that the 10D was insufficient as a backup to shoot ultrafast, world-class fencing should my 1D MarkII suffer an accident. So the 10D went into proverbial mothballs — at least for world travels. Today I use it for teaching photography and it’s a great teaching camera. My wife, also a photographer who focuses on portraiture and commercial work, uses the full-frame and lighter-weight 5D with a 20D as a backup. So there are multiple generations of cameras in our studio (figure 11-1).

Figure 11-1. Multiple generations and a range of sophistication of Canon cameras and lenses. When is the right time to make an equipment move? All these cameras, from those used in photography classes to ones I've taken on world shoots, have a useful function in the studio.

Now I am faced with a similar issue as I gear up for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. The 1D Mark III has been introduced and, yet again, offers some innovations I would love to use, such as the even larger LCD, a faster frames per second (fps) rate, a larger megapixel size, an improved full-coverage viewfinder, and a greatly enhanced ability to shoot low-noise images in diminished light. So my thoughts currently are to sell my 1D Mark II and make the 1D Mark IIn the backup — and also sell a lens or two that I don’t need or use to cover the price.

If you’ve been a photographer for a few years, you might find that this thought process and equipment wrangling rings true in the context of your own experience. For you, upgrading will likely consist of multiple factors you’ll need to consider; here are a few:

What types of images are you photographing, and what specific equipment needs do they require?

  • Lenses: fast, wide, long, macro, special?
  • Cameras: large megapixel, full-frame, fast fps, wide ISO range?
  • Flashes: powerful, range of features (for example, stroboscopic, master/slave, and so on), additional external flashes or studio lights, battery packs?
  • Accessories: filters, wireless capabilities, tripods/monopods, weather/water protection, battery grips, remote switches?

What are your resources?

  • What is your budget to acquire new equipment that you either must have or that would make your work significantly easier?
  • How can you prioritize your equipment needs against your resources? For example, a new flash may be really tempting, but if you’ve been doing without an important type of lens that can produce revenue shots, the priority is clear.
  • What do you have that you can sell? What is it worth? What can you do without in order to have something you absolutely need?
  • Are your computer technology and camera equipment needs competing for your resources? What’s more important: the ability to acquire the images at the best-possible quality or the ability to process them faster and better?
  • Are there different types of equipment that you perhaps use only on occasion that you could more easily and affordably rent instead of buy?
  • If you are buying equipment, do you have to have it new, or can you buy it used?

What types of equipment are currently available or have recently been announced?

  • Is there new equipment that significantly improves or enhances your work?
  • If you upgrade to new gear, what will you do with your current equipment?
  • What will you lose by trading up to new gear in terms of money as well as the time it will take to become proficient if you’ll need to learn new features?
  • Is the equipment you will keep compatible with the new gear you’ll get?

The answer to equipment upgrades ultimately is that it is up to you to decide what makes the most sense for your situation. Unless your resources are unlimited, the launch of a new camera or lens, as tempting as it might be, shouldn’t be the only reason that you’re ordering new gear or jettisoning your existing cameras, lenses, and other tools.

Category: FAQ

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