Is 'Buy Cheap, Buy Twice' Still True for Photography?

Is 'Buy Cheap, Buy Twice' Still True for Photography?

The age-old adage has served me well in most areas of my life, with cheap alternatives to products being short-lived and inferior. But one domain that I have noticed a shift is in photography, and I'm starting to wonder if it's even good advice for photographers anymore.

When I bought my first camera, a secondhand Canon 350D, thanks for asking, I learned the hard way that buying cheap often meant buying twice. Like many new photographers, I was trapped between desire and either a lack of funds or a lack of justification for using the funds. It was a new hobby. and while I was obsessed with macro photography, a dedicated lens and flash for it would have seen me part ways with the best part of $2,000, which wasn't possible for a guy at university. So, I had to find ways around the problem, which took me down a path that taught me a number of lessons; lessons which may or may not be relevant anymore, for the most part at least.

My first example of buying cheap and buying twice was indeed a flash for macro. I wanted the Canon Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX (which in retrospect, has more than lasted the test of time and might have been a worthy investment after all), but it was out of my budget. I can't recall a Canon macro ring flash at that time, but if there was, it too was out of my price range. So, I went on eBay, and I bought an unknown brand's ring flash. It looked as if it could do the job, but in actuality, it was useless. Its maximum power was tepid at best, its model lamp could barely light its own diffuser, and its fastest sync speed was pitiful. I ended up having to buy a well-reviewed ring flash for many times the price of the rubbish I bought before.

The next few years were filled with more or less the same story. I bought ND32 filters that were so green and made the image so soft I binned them (though I believe I ended up cutting some welding glass, which did a better job), I bought cheap tripods that ended up having the stability of a tired drunk, and I bought camera bags that were neither good at holding equipment nor looking good while doing it. The amount of money I spent as foreplay for buying something more substantial makes my toes curl. There were occasions in which buying a cheaper option was probably the right move (camera batteries, lens hoods, and other basics), but generally, it was a fruitless endeavor. 

The Seismic Shift in Value

There was a time when venturing away from the fundamental brands for damn-near anything was a false economy. One of the first areas to change happened to be one of the most important, though: lenses. Those brands which either didn't manufacture cameras, or didn't manufacture them very often, were creating lenses that were fast encroaching on the quality of lenses from the Canons, Nikons, and Sonys of the world. Not only that, but to compete in the area, they knew they had to do it at a lower cost, and that's where their niche was: create products as close to the best available for a significantly lower cost.

Even as recently as 10 to 15 years ago, off-brand lenses were cheaper but showed it. Even if the optical quality was more or less on par, the build quality was not. My first lenses that weren't Canon had flimsy, plastic barrels, and they'd scuff and rattle too easily. Now, in many instances, I struggle to justify Canon or Sony lenses. The problem for the big brands is that while the ceiling for camera lenses has barely moved in the last decade, the floor has risen continuously. The gains at the highest end of lens production and innovation have suffered from diminishing returns, whereas processes at the bottom have gotten cheaper, faster, and more efficient. Let's look at the modern example.

The Chasm Is Now More of a Crevasse

There are lots of examples of the diminishing gap between the S tier lenses produced by the camera manufacturers and the peripheral brands. One I have intimate knowledge of, however, is the 24-70mm (or thereabouts) offerings for Sony. When I switched to Sony, I needed a mid-range zoom lens. For my macro work, I went with Sony, but justifying that move with a zoom lens, which tends to be more expensive due to the universality, is expensive. As I saw it, I had three main options: the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 Di III RXD (left in the above image), the Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 DG DN Art (middle in the above image), or the Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM (right in the above image). Well, I didn't, actually. When I was making the decision, the Sigma was just on the roadmap and wasn't released or even near release. I know about it simply because I did a lot of comparisons when it was finally released 11 months ago.

There are myriad comparisons and I'd recommend Gerald Undone's if you find yourself in the position where you wish to buy one of the three. The results of tests pitting the three zooms against one another seem more or less uniform, however. Optically, there's very little to separate the three, and that's the key metric. Autofocus performance is also incredibly balanced, though Sony does edge it, so if it's important to you, that will lead you towards that lens, though there isn't a huge difference. For me, though, two issues decided the outcome. The first was about as niche as it gets: I need a close minimum focus distance for some of the work I do for clients. The Tamron had 19 cm, while the Sony had a minimum focus distance of twice that, at 38 cm (interestingly, the Sigma has an 18 cm MFD and would be the lens I would buy today between the three). The second issue was, predictably, the price. The Tamron is $879, the Sony is $1,998. The question — even if I were to discount the MFD — quickly became: "is the Sony lens twice the Tamron?" The answer is an unambiguous "no."

The Sigma Art lens (and their Art range really is superb and a great case for answering the title of this article with a "no") is pitched up between the cheap Tamron and the expensive Sony glass, but much closer to the former with a price of $1,099. It does also find itself between the two on another key metric of lenses: build quality. The Tamron (and I have owned one for over two years) does feel reasonably cheap. It's light and a little flimsy feeling, but let me be clear, it hasn't once let me down for a moment and hasn't broken or been damaged in that time. The Sigma is said to be much better, but still not quite to the degree of Sony.

This tends to be the story for almost all discussions over expensive versus cheaper options in photography. There are benefits to be had, but do they warrant the price difference? For me, rarely.

What Conclusions Can We Draw?

So, where does that leave us? Well, not buying the cheap option isn't always a poor move by any stretch. I have found with lighting in particular that spending a bit more and aiming around the middle or even the upper-middle usually is the best practice, for example. Cheap lights have broken for me or underperformed many times over. But even then, the cheaper brands have improved exponentially over the last few years, and as long as you don't go for the cheapest out there, you'll probably still be better off than buying the big names.

The floor has definitely risen at a much faster rate than the ceiling, which has left cheaper options to big brands being more than viable; in fact, they're often the sensible purchase. I think buying the cheapest option will always mean you have to buy twice, but buying the cheaper alternative to the lens, tripod, or light (and so on) might be the best move for value for money. If the advice of buying cheap means buying twice is taken by new photographers to mean they need to stick to their camera's brand for lenses, for example, then I think it's now nowhere near true or necessary to do.

What do you think?

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15 Comments

Ivan Lantsov's picture

when film I use close pins many use steel. I get 100 for price of 2 steel! cheap BETTER!

Rick Rizza's picture

My first cam is a Canon EOS5 that I bought new in 1997. Then I bought EF100-400 in 1999 after I sold my father's Rolex. It was the best decision ever. The 100-400 still works fine.
Go top notch lens even with shit body. Lens is investment but body are technology driven

Ivan Lantsov's picture

bought rolex in 1986 - 1500, now worth 41 thousand - what you s5 worth? ничего

Rick Rizza's picture

Hahaha, young stupid me.

John Pavan's picture

I'm using a canon body 80D, now R5 with mostly Sigma lenses. I actually prefer the Sigma global vision (Art and Sport) lines to Canon's L-series. The only canon lens I still have is the 180mm F/3.5L macro (mostly b/c there doesn't seem to be a good replacement for it).

Overall, I feel like the Sigma Sport (and art) lenses are optically better (but very similar) to the equivalent Canon (EF) lenses, but at a lower cost. The main thing the Canon lenses have over the Sigmas is weight. I am tempted by the Canon RF glass though...

Troy Phillips's picture

From many years of competition archery and high end bow hunting whitetail deer in Illinois I learned this game the hard way fast .
Your equipment does matter no matter the skill level period. This doesn’t mean you have to buy the most expensive or even the best . But learning to know when to get what but most of all learning to know quality and how to get it at the lowest price . There is the best bang for the buck products .
So when getting into photography I started right off reading many reviews and learning the build quality of the products and also the mtf charts . Then learning that mtf just tells you resolution and contrast but not performance. There is so so much to learn to buy once then it still doesn’t always work.
Buy wise grasshopper

Patrick Rosenbalm's picture

Go to Lensrentals.com and read their blogs and tear downs and lens tests. Then you will know what you need to know.

Led Henderson's picture

When I started photography.
I bought a Brain Paxette and thought it the greatest thing since sliced bread.
I drooled over a friends Pentax.
That was the 1960’s.
There was very for us to choose or gain knowlegde from in those days

Be thankful for what is available these days.
Goodluck.

Robert Teague's picture

I've got two Irix lenses (15mm and 150mm Macro) and find the build quality to be wonderful; they feel solid in the hand and handle nicely. Before that my only non Nikon lens (other than a Kiron 30 years ago) was a Sigma Art 24mm 1.4, which I also found to be a great lens. I no longer use the Sigma or the Irix 15mm, as I've moved into the Nikon Z7 and have a full range of Nikon Z lenses. The only adapted lens that I use now is the Irix 150 (for it's macro), as I just don't care to use adapters.

Karim Hosein's picture

Buying inexpensive and buying cheap are two different things. I buy Pentax. For the price of the Canikony flagship and one of the Holy Trinity, I can get the Pentax flagship and all of the Trinity (plus a battery grip).

Olympus buyers know what I am talking about.

Simon Miller's picture

Ive been a pro for 35 yrs - I must have bought 50-60 hi end cameras in that time - never bought a new camera, lens or accessory - few filters - maybe - current camera Phase One XF with 5 Blue Ring lenses, and a 150MPX Achromatic- yep all S/H -

Malcolm Wright's picture

The buy cheap buy twice mantra only comes into play if you stick with using the equipment long term. .
There are many people who start a hobby, be it photography or whatever, and then move on from it, into something else.
It is therefore sensible to start cheap. If you end up being bitten by that hobbies bug, then the mantra comes into play.
Luckily there is a brilliant secondhand market out there for cameras and equipment, so cheap doesn't always equate to bad.
If most of us didn't start out this way, there would be no chance of us justifying the outlay on a top brand item, be it camera equipment, cars, fashion, and so on.
As a ludicrous example most of us wouldn't usually buy a new Rolls Royce car in the hope that we would learn to drive.

Paul Casey's picture

I totally agree with the feeling expressed having junked so much cheap kit and found that buying used is a much better way to go (for me). I get the kit I want for a fraction of new as long as you buy from a reputable dealer and have yet to be disappointed.