Travis North is a Landscape Architect and freelance fine art Photographer out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with over eighteen years of experience. He is the founder and editor of Shutter Photo Magazine, which has been a source of photography inspiration and wisdom since 2008. Follow him on Twitter.
Photography as a medium can be described a great number of ways. It’s a creative release, inspiring and emotional. For many, it’s a source of income or a private business where you are your own boss. And Photography is expensive. It doesn’t matter how you cut it down, by the time you add up the cost of all your equipment – and let’s not forget the accessories right down to the camera strap – the bill would make your accountant cringe. Now it’s one thing if you’re been lucky enough to make a substantial income from your art. But every photographer I know (even the most successful) is always talking about the next product they’re thinking about buying. If money wasn’t the object, there would not be “thinking”, you would already have that new $1,400 USD lens. So in this article I’d like to focus on a very businessman’s term: ROI, or Return On Investment. Worry not, we’re not going to talk strict numbers – we’re going to talk gear. We’ll talk about where you get the biggest returns and what gear is ultimately important. But most of all, we’re going to talk about where you can cut corners for the sake of ROI.
Focusing on the Deliverable
When it comes down to determining the value of something, you ultimately need to focus on what is expected in the end: What is the deliverable? If you are working as a fashion photographer and your works are expected to be posted on billboards throughout the urban landscape, then you might have a case for buying yourself a high-end medium format camera. But if photography is more of a hobby and your supplemental income is in the form of post card sales, that would be the opposite end of the spectrum. Now I’m not trying to simplify the context too much, but the end product ultimately drives what type of equipment you have and use. It’s a simple philosophy, really: Use only the tools that you need to use.
There’s an interesting story about the space race back in the 1960’s. The problem was that a traditional ink pen does not write in zero gravity, and so NASA allegedly spent thousands, if not millions, of dollars researching and developing a pen that can write in zero gravity. In contrast, the Russians used a pencil. Now the story may not be true, but it makes the point: The simplest tool that does the job is the one you ultimately should use. On a personal note, I use a Nikon D80. It is not the best camera on the market. And to be fair, it’s not the best camera that I could be using for the type of photos that I create. But photography is not my primary income and so I have to weigh the ROI vs. my gear lust, and I couldn’t justify spending the money on the camera I really wanted. Instead, I took the money I saved and funneled it into gear that gave me the better ROI; like better flashes, better tripods and better lenses. Of course as my income from photography increases – or if my photography business moves in a direction that warrants it – then I may revisit the camera body upgrade down the line. But my current deliverable demands do not require such an upgrade at this time.
Planning for Upgrades
The hopes are, of course, that your work and your scope will evolve. Your client base will grow larger, your income from photography – be it primary or secondary – would increase and then you will be able to revisit the ROI considerations again a year from now or two years from now. Ultimately, the hope is that you will be looking to upgrade your photography equipment down the line. You’ll need an upgrade plan. You probably have some idea of where you would like to go with your photography, and you should create your upgrade plan to compliment your photography goals. You can expect that the plan will change as you evolve or as new products come to market. But every upgrade, every accessory, needs to be thought of in advanced. I have three simple rules when considering gear upgrades:
1) Avoid proprietary features that would channelize my upgrade path.
2) Quality is worth extra cost, but it must be justifiable.
3) I must have immediate and continued use for the product.
These three rules apply to every product I consider, from the camera body all the way to my camera bag.
The first rule is the most abstract, so let's speak on that briefly. Basically, I don't want to be locked into any single proprietary format, nor do I want to limit my options down the line. The exception is camera systems because that's unavoidable. There’s a very strong reason why I most often recommend Canon or Nikon products: Between the two companies, they control more than 70% of the market. Both manufacturers make great products, and they tend to be neck-and-neck in terms of advancement. In short, you couldn’t go wrong with either brand. But the real reason I suggest those brands more than any other is the simple fact that every other photography-related company on the planet wants to tap into Canon and Nikon’s market. That means that you can find compatible products – from remote triggers to lenses – for either brand. Not only does that yield a massive amount of options, but when companies compete, you and your ROI win.
So let's talk about where you get the biggest bang for the buck. The answer could be different for each photographer. A photographer specializing in landscape photography may want to look at a more premium, full-frame camera to take advantage of wide-angle lenses. Sports photographers are going to want to spend their money on lenses. Macro photographers may be interested in bellows systems or extension tubes. Personally, I shoot a lot of ruins and work indoors very often. While I would love to have a camera body with better high-ISO support, the reality is that the best investment for me happened to be off-camera flashes and accessories. Your case will be unique to your own style of photography. So you'll need to evaluate and weight your options to determine where's the best place to spend your money.
Quality vs. Cost: Taking Advantage Of Small Margins To Save Costs
The most innovative and best products are not always from one of the big brands. And even if they are, the cost difference is in many cases beyond the point of diminishing returns. In other words: If the quality differences between two products is not discernible without the use of a testing lab, go for the more economically priced product. Because the truth of the matter is that if you can’t tell the difference, your client certainly won’t be able to either. To illustrate my point, let's talk about lenses.
It’s at this point that I would like to remind everyone that Ansel Adams was working with lens technology far inferior to whatever you’re using right now. With the advancements in lens technology over the past twenty years, the quality comparisons have gotten so tight that the margins aren’t even measurable without adding extra decimal places. We fixate on these tiny details and make exaggerated claims that one lens’s sharpness is “far superior” to another when in truth, we’re arguing about a 0.1% difference. Is it really worth it? No. And it certainly isn’t worth the cost difference.
Twenty years ago, when Canon and Nikon were the clear front-runners in the lens market, third party lenses weren’t a consideration to pros. Third party lenses were a consumer product. They weren’t built as well and the image quality wasn’t strong. But they were significantly cheaper. Pros could justify the cost, but a consumer could not. Fast forward to 2013. In my opinion, some of the strongest innovation comes from the third party lens manufacturers, and their still carry a significantly more economical price tag. My favorite comparison is the Sigma 24-70mm F/2.8 vs the Nikon or Canon version. On paper, they are all essentially the same lens. All have great image quality, all yield the same amount of distortion at the wide end and all are built very well. The images created with either lens are interchangeable. The quality differences between them is immeasurable outside of the lab. The primary difference between these two lenses is not image quality, it’s price. The Nikon (about $1,700 USD) and the Canon (about $1900 USD) are each more than twice the cost of the Sigma (about $825 USD). And so I ask, is the Nikon or the Canon worth the extra cost? The cost difference is simply beyond the point of diminishing returns. Is that fraction of a percent in image quality worth twice the cost? I would say no. Not even for the full-time professional.
And the discussion could go into any topic, from remote triggers (Pocket Wizards vs. Radio Popper) to Tripods (Gitzo vs. Manfrotto – they’re even under the same parent company) or hot-shoe flashes (Nikon vs. Nissin or better yet, Nikon SB-950 vs. a used Nikon SB-60). But if you can keep that point of diminishing returns in focus, and if you can clearly keep an eye on how tight the quality margin is between two products, you have an advantage. You don’t need to buy the Nikon 24-70mm or a Gitzo tripod when the Sigma and Manfrotto versions will serve you just as well at half the cost. Simply knowing about what options are out – and knowing that the ROI is going to be much greater – could really change your gear upgrade plan a great deal. Heck, you may even be inclined to start with a different camera body from the start.
Of course the purpose of this article is not to take business away from the giants, nor do I intend to promote specific third-party brands. My hope is that this article got you thinking about justifying your equipment purchases. I would encourage you consider my three rules every time you contemplate product purchases. Ultimately, what I really want for you is to have a better return on your investment. And that starts with buying smarter. So continue to analyze your options beyond a reasonable doubt because, let’s face it, we’re all gear nerds. We find joy in reviewing such data. But keep the quality differences in perspective with your ROI and buy the product that makes the most sense for your needs and budget. Good purchasing habits will only help you and your business.