When to Buy a New Camera or Lens, and What to Look For
One of my friends just got a new DSLR camera, and asked me what lens he should get next. The camera came with a wide-angle zoom lens, and he had just ordered a prime lens (aka, non-zoom) that is a newer version of one I have and adore. He had a kit that could work in almost any setting, and yet he had a case of what photography nerds on the internet call G.A.S.: Gear Acquisition Syndrome.
GAS is super common among photographers. I think almost all photographers are nerds (that is to say, obsessed with learning about the gear and technology and gadgets), and there is a tremendous amount of toys to play with. There is always some new update in the war between Canon and Nikon, with some slick advanced feature on the Sony, but all the more compact on Fuji, and an underdog triumph at a great price from Sigma. Even Leica occasionally enters the fray to release an exotic new body or a lens that is astoundingly sharp and sets the bar ever higher, which had been set by the last version they released.
When I was starting out, I was constantly checking updates on tech blogs and camera forums, looking for insights on what would be superior (Nikon’s bodies are better! But Canon’s lenses are better!), or what would be almost as good for a fraction of the price. But the truth is, that only matters when you need to buy something new… but how do you decide when that is?
If you have friends who are into cars, you may have noticed a pattern. Some people are constantly interested in how to tweak or improve their car (whether or not they actually do), others buy or lease a new car every couple of years, and the rest get what they can and use that as long as they need. Sometimes you could really use a big pickup truck with a huge engine… but is it worth replacing that sedan that’s already paid off?
The primary consideration, with cars or cameras, is whether you have a need that is currently difficult or impossible to fulfill. When I got my first digital SLR, I picked up the classic fantastic plastic nifty-fifty 50mm f1.8 lens from Canon. It cost about $100 and felt like a toy, but it was a solid upgrade from the lens that came with the camera, letting me take portraits with blurred backgrounds and shoot in low light. Eventually, as I developed as a photographer, I noticed that its focus wasn’t as accurate as I would like, and after a few photo sessions in which I lost several great photos due to the focus being off I decided to get the more expensive version, the 50mm f1.4 lens. That lens served me well, and I have it to this day. Meanwhile, that first camera body was well used, and by the time the shutter finally gave out I was ready for a camera with a full-frame sensor. Again, I have that replacement, a Canon 5D Mark II, even to this day. You may be surprised to know that second body and that second lens created one of the most highly regarded photos on my site— good luck telling it apart from the others.
Of course, I did buy more bodies and lenses, eventually picking up my Leica kit. One of my favorite things about it is that since the lenses are mechanical and manual focus, they may continue working for many decades to come, and are about as sharp as I will ever need. With care, I may never need to buy another lens in my life.
I was lucky though, I found my niche of what lenses work for me pretty quickly, but in some cases, such as when I was hired to photograph a high school musical theater production, it would have really helped to have super fast autofocus with face tracking like some newer cameras do. The key is to understand what you need, and decide if you need it occasionally and can rent the equipment, or if you will be better off owning it.
Now, I’d like to offer my thoughts on buying used equipment. If you are buying something new, you have a warranty guarantee— if you are starting out with a new system, or an autofocus lens, this is very useful. You never know if the previous owner dropped the camera, or what. However, if you don’t mind buying used (and almost all cameras made in the last 5 years are just fantastic), then you can pick up some amazing gear at very affordable prices.
I recommend meeting the seller in person so you can get a feel for the person (if they are suspicious or you get a bad feeling, leave), and check out the gear. If they are a professional photographer, it is more likely that the gear was heavily used, but if they are a casual hobbyist, it’s more likely that the camera has been babied, kept carefully in a protective case and rarely used. For instance, that Canon 5D MKII’s original owner had taken around 3,000 photos with it in the three or four years before he sold it to me… but in the last three and a half years, I have taken about 46,000 photographs with my cameras. While professionals certainly take care of their equipment, a used camera from a hobbyist may be practically new in comparison. The counter-case is older photographic equipment— anything much older than 20 years needs occasional use and service to stay in working order, and a camera that gets regular use and occasional maintenance will be in much better shape than one that has sat on a bookshelf in the sun for 40 years.
Make sure you are prepared to inspect and test the camera. If its a film camera, test all the settings especially the film advance, shutter release and shutter speed at both high speeds and slow speeds (With practice, you can tell if the shutter speeds are working properly by the sound they make), and you may want to also make sure the meter is working. If you are getting your first film camera, it may help to bring an experienced friend who knows what to look for. Foam and rubber light seals should be in good condition, and hopefully the battery compartment isn’t corroded beyond repair. For a lens, bring a flashlight to inspect the lens for cloudy mold or heavy scratches from rough cleaning. Small scratches or tiny bits of dust are normal and won’t make an impact on the final photo.
For digital, make sure all buttons, knobs, and dials work. I didn’t do a thorough enough job on my 5dII, and missed a sticky dial, which makes it kind of twitchy when I need to adjust the shutter speed… Its not the end of the world, and doesn’t affect the photos, but if it was my main work camera it would be a nuisance worthy of repair or replacement. If you plan on shooting tethered, bring a laptop and cables to test the data connectors. You will also want to test the lens thoroughly, and may want to bring your own memory card and a laptop so you can inspect the focus in full resolution. This is because if the lens has been dropped and is out of alignment, you might not notice if you just rely on the screen on the camera.
That’s the basics, in time this will all be second nature to you. Once you figure out what you need, and find gear that fits your needs, you’ll be set, and ready to focus on … you know… actually making photographs. If you are obsessed with gear, thats cool, but don’t feel like your gear is holding you back from expressing yourself: even iPhones can take great images, and a bit of fine tuning can be almost indistinguishable from professional cameras when viewed online.
Thanks for reading! I hope this gave you some insight on when to buy a new camera or lens, and how. Let me know if this helped you, I’d love to hear from you.
By the way, here’s one of my favorite songs, which photographers tend to dig even if they don’t know a word of Portuguese.