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How to save money when upgrading

There is a boat load of of great photography gear coming out all the time. Some of it is genuine technical advancement, some is cynical marketing and some is just cool stuff you have to have.

But when should you upgrade and what should you buy?

I can’t give you the answer, certainly not one that fits everybody that has asked me. What I can do is share my philosophy on upgrading gear.

Let’s get the inconvenient truth out in the open before we go on. That new camera (or lens, flash, tripod or other gadget) will not make your photography any better. If you think it will, you are trying to justify spending thousands or convince yourself the the reason you aren’t happy with your images is simply because you don’t have the same gear that your favourite celebrity photographer has.

Don’t get me wrong, gear is great! We all love it and we all need it. What we don’t need is to be constantly chasing the next thing. We need to be pushing the limits of our current kit before we get the credit card out.

I am not suggesting my way is the only way, but this is how I have approached upgrading.

I began with an Olympus C900 Zoom point and shoot, quickly realised I quite liked this photography thing and bought myself a Fuji S5000. It was a prosumer bridge camera but it had manual controls and looked like one of the expensive DSLRs I really wanted but couldn’t afford.

My First Cameras

I shot with the Fuji for 18 months taking what can best be describe as terrible photos. Not due to the camera, but due to my lack of skills. By the end I was getting better, I knew I wanted to keep doing this and decided to take the plunge and buy a DSLR.

I spent too long on sites like DPReview and Fred Miranda looking at 100% crops of images at ISO800 and deciding whether to replace the kit lens with something better. Don’t pay too much heed to this kind of review or you’ll get bogged down by analysis paralysis and never actually buy anything. Eventually I went for a Canon 30D kit. Then, not long after, a 40D. Yes, I fell into the trap. It had a bigger number in its name, two more megapixels and 14 bit RAW. I was sold! That was the last time I bought anything photography related without knowing exactly what it was going to do for me.

Two years later the shutter assembly in it died just before I was due to shoot the Bristol Balloon Fiesta and I sent it off to be fixed. I knew it wouldn’t be back from repair in time and I didn’t have a spare so I made the jump to a full frame 5D MkII (with a 24-105mm f4 L kit lens) a little sooner than I had planned.

Canon 5D Mark II

That body got some use! It was put to work in warm dry studios, next to freezing cold lakes, and trackside. It wasn’t the best sports camera, with it’s hopeless focusing and slow frame rate but I loved it and it taught me the importance of knowing what your kit can’t do. During the time I had it, I sold the 24-105mm and bought a used 24-70mm but I managed to avoid the temptation of the 1D and 7D.  They didn’t offer anything I needed.

But when it finally came, the 5DMkIII did. Better focusing and a higher frame rate – the limits I’d been struggling with for 2 years. And then Canon announced the 1D X. What a camera! I had a play with it at Focus on Imaging and I immediately wanted it. I had the cash and I had to have it! It was a 1 series body, it had that beefy built in grip, loads of customisable buttons and it would instantly make me a better photographer!

Then I had a word with myself.

The 1D X did nothing beyond what the 5D Mark III did that I actually needed and somehow I managed to resist. It’s so easy to get carried away and I still want one, but until I need one I’ll stick with the 5D MkIII.

And my 7D.

5D and 7D

If you are making any income from photography there are more factors to consider. Things like resale value and reliability play a part. Two things came together that caused me to sell the MarkII and buy a 7D. Firstly, I wanted a bit more reach from my 70-200mm lens for my motorsport photography and wasn’t convinced by expensive teleconverters. Secondly, my old 5D was knocking on a bit, still had all the same flaws, and was losing value all the time.

So I sold the MarkII and made enough to buy a new 7D killing both birds. I’d taken an ailing camera out of my bag and replaced it with a brand new, warrantied crop body which would give me 1.6 times more reach on my lenses. That’s a business decision I am still very happy with.

To wrap up then, if you are doing this for the love, don’t feel like you have to have the latest, best kit. Work with what you have until you are held back by it’s limits, then upgrade. You’ll learn so much more that way and be able to really use what you buy next. If you are making money from photography, only buy what you really need, not what you want and keep an eye on resale values of your old kit and the cost of what you plan to replace it with.

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