In an industry where every day seemingly brings the announcement of a new camera system promising to up your photography game while simultaneously depleting your bank account, it can be hard to know what is really worth the investment. So today, I’ll have a quick look at three areas where I’ve found you almost always get an appropriate level of bang for your buck.
In the investing world, there are stocks and bonds. Naturally, there is an infinite level of intricacy in between, but for purposes of our analogy, we will consider a couple of extremes. Stocks are short-term investments where you look to jump in when the price is low with the hopes that the value will go up exceedingly high exceedingly fast and you’ll get a quick return on your investment. Bonds, on the other hand, are longer-term investments. There is less risk involved, but it might take years before you see significant earnings on those investments. I realize there’s more to it than that, and there are all sorts of variations, but, since this is a photography essay as opposed to a financial one, I’ll just leave it at that for the point of this analysis.
When it comes to shopping for photo gear, cameras are like short-term stocks. They are exciting. They are high risk, high reward. Discussions of cameras tend to be the lead stories on all the interwebs. Getting your hands on the latest and greatest tech can feel like you’ve hit the jackpot. But, like buying into a short-term stock you’re hoping to quickly turn around, you’re never really sure if that camera is going to have the value you think it will. And, even if it does turn out to be a good buy, the shelf-life of the investment is relatively short-term compared to the hopeful length of your career.
But, like investing, a lot of times the better investments in photography are on items that aren’t likely to make the headlines, the type of items that will stoke exactly zero envy in the eyes of your friends and family. They won’t require their own special cases or Instagram posts. Many days, you’ll forget they are even there. But, like a long-term bond, they will be there, earning you money, day in and day out, and will prove their value over the course of years, if not decades.
Here are just a few to consider.
A lot of discussion is given to light fixtures. And lights can be one of the best investments you can make as a photographer — better than cameras, in my opinion. Bu,t we often overlook the value of those skinny and sometimes not so skinny posts that they sit atop of.
Case in point: when I first started out, like most people, my light stand collection consisted mainly of low-cost plastic options that either came in a kit or were easily obtainable off of Amazon. There’s nothing wrong with these stands. I still have several such stands in my gear closet today — the ones that have survived this long, at least. And that’s where the old adage “you get what you pay for” starts to come into play. Needing something a bit more sturdy as the size (and price) of the lights I was using started to increase, I then moved to C-stands for the majority of my lighting needs. C-stands are solid, versatile, and relatively inexpensive. They are built like tanks and can last your entire career with only a modicum of care.
Lately, I’ve found myself investing in even bigger and beefier Matthews rolling stands. These stands are definitely more expensive than your basic C-stand. They are also much heavier to carry to and from the set. But that added weight is a big part of their advantage. More weight at the base makes it harder for light to tip over. This allows for better support for your existing lights, but also allows you to mount significantly larger fixtures to them without worrying about them collapsing under the weight. I can’t imagine that trying to mount an M18 to the top of one of my original plastic light stands would end particularly well.
Also, from a pure safety standpoint, as the number of people on my set has increased over the years, the responsibility to not let any of my super cool lights do the uncool thing and fall on any of these people is a major priority. Even if you do fancy occasionally dropping a light on a bothersome client, I’m going to go out on a limb and say it would make far more financial sense to make sure that doesn’t happen. The value of that safety is far greater than the added cost of the sturdier stand.
Recently, I even went a step further and purchased a pair of Matthews MINIVATOR II geared stands. They have two of my favorite things. First, wheels. I think I’ve officially earned my stripes having to carry fully loaded C-stands with lighting fixtures attached across sets to have earned the right to simply roll them from now on. But, the reason why I went for that particular stand was far more practical. As someone with a torn rotator cuff who still can, but definitely should not keep trying to extend fully loaded lights up into the air, the ability to raise and lower my lights with the simple turn of a gear crank is as much a health issue as a photographic one. So, while talking about these metallic beasts is certainly not nearly as exciting as talking about megapixel counts and 8K, I can assure you that their arrival in the mail will be equally appreciated.
For people just learning about photography, the costs of high-end cameras can be a bit of a shock. When those same people learn that the lenses that attach to those cameras sometimes cost significantly more than the bodies themselves, jaws tend to hit the floor. But, if you’ve been a photographer for any amount of time, you will quickly realize that even the best camera on the market is only ever going to be as good as the glass that you put in front of it.
Now, this is not to say that you can’t take great pictures without spending your entire mortgage on glass. I’ve shot many of my favorite images with kit lenses, budget lenses, used lenses, and sometimes used budget kit lenses. So, while more expensive lenses do tend to be more expensive for a reason, your creativity and execution are always going to matter more than your gear.
What makes high-end lenses so valuable is their longevity. That longevity comes in two flavors. First, one thing that defines a high-end lens is that it can stand up to far more torture than its less expensive brethren. This is not to say that you should go around spending thousands of dollars of lenses, then throw them out of a speeding car to test their bounce ability. But, within reason, when you pay for a high-end lens, you are partly paying for their build quality and ability to take a licking and keep on ticking. If you are a professional whose gear simply has to keep going through oftentimes undesirable conditions, paying more for a more resilient tool is well worth the investment.
This brings us to part two of lens value. Unlike cameras, which, much like certain cars, lose the vast majority of their value as soon as you drive them off the lot, lenses can retain much of their value for years and years to come. This can benefit you on two ends. On the front end, you can often save a significant amount of money by buying lenses used on the secondhand market. Assuming you are dealing with a reputable dealer, high-quality lenses can be just as effective the second time around as they were fresh out of the original box. On the back end, if you ever decide that you wish to sell that lens in the future, you stand a good chance of getting back a good chunk of your initial investment. So, much like stocks, if you buy low and sell high, you can actually end up getting significant financial value as well as creating value from investing in what might at first seem like expensive glass.
I am a handheld kind of guy. There’s no technical reason for this. I’m simply too impatient to ever worry about futzing with tripods in the middle of a shoot. I get an idea and want to do it yesterday. So sometimes, taking the time to set up a tripod can feel like an extreme nuisance. But, even I have to admit that my investments in tripods have been some of the most surprisingly valuable investments I’ve made during my career.
I remember when I bought my first cinema camera, and I went into my local camera shop in search of accessories. I went looking for lenses, cages, shoulder mounts, and everything in between. The salesman then asked a pretty basic question: “What about a tripod?” As the salesman stressed, people are always worried about the camera and accessories, but rarely take the time to consider how they plan to stabilize them.
Sure, a lot of cameras have things like IBIS (In Body Image Stabilization) now. But there's no match for actual physical stability. Of course, there are times to handhold a camera or use a gimbal for creative effect. But, if you look at most high-end productions, you will find that those expensive camera systems are still going to spend the majority of their lives mounted on “sticks.” This is especially true as your projects and the size of your camera rigs start to grow.
Even if you're not a filmmaker, learning to use a tripod to compose and stabilize your still shots can offer you numerous advantages over a more run and gun approach. The improved stabilization can lead to sharper images with slower shutter speeds while, at the same time, giving your biceps a deserved break. And like high-quality lenses and sturdy light stands, the true value of a solid tripod is realized over time. I don’t always use a tripod on every shoot. But I almost always have one with me. And despite my initial reluctance, my tripods have ended up getting significant use over the years and have proven themselves to be well worth the investment.
The three areas I talked about today might not be nearly as exciting as shopping for a new camera, but each of them have items that can provide solid long-term value over the course of your career. Like most items, you can spend as little or as much as you want to. But when you look to invest in tools that will continue to return value for decades to come, those things tend to be well worth the price tag.