Photography Gear – How Would You Spend $10,000?
- By: Steven McConnell
The Internet is full of nonsensical photography gear reviews. Just type in any camera model plus the word “review” into Google and you’ll end up with pages of opinions, technical specifications, field tests and so on. I think the biggest problem with camera reviews of that kind is that they ultimately try to answer the following question:
“Which camera is the best?” Or something to that effect.
And that’s the first thing to address here – that question is pretty useless for anyone in the actual business (or hobby) of taking photos.
“Best” is a very vague term and is typically obsessed over by gear heads who spend more time pouring over data sheets – and having strong opinions about pixels per square inch or whatever – than actually taking photos.
No serious photographer evaluates a camera as a standalone piece of machinery. Usually, a comparison is made not only against other cameras, but other equipment that the budget allows (or doesn’t allow) to buy. Then there are implications on the rest of the business to consider, which I’ll go into later.
I’m lucky enough to shoot with some pretty incredible gear – and I don’t actually own any of it. I didn’t have much startup funds (in fact, I had lots of debts) when setting up my family portrait photography business, so I created a business model where for the first 2 years of operation I’d be renting the equipment.
Sure, the overheads have been high, but the risk has been low. But I’ve now come to a milestone in this photography business where things are looking steady – i.e. I probably won’t go bankrupt tomorrow – and I’m comfortable with the idea of actually spending $10K or so to finance MY OWN equipment.
That presents some interesting choices. It’s not simply a decision in which camera to buy, but rather – which combination of gear?
To make things more complex, the choices are not limited to just camera gear. A computer is very much a contemporary photographic darkroom. I’m using an aging 13″ Macbook Pro to edit photoshoots, and it’s slowing me down considerably. Sure, I’m saving money by not spending on a new computer but I’m probably losing a lot more by wasting my most depreciating asset – time.
However, together with a tablet, a decent size and quality monitor, a suite of decent photo editing software and enough backup storage space, it’s not hard to blow $10,000 on just a new computer alone.
So, while keeping within the $10K budget, how should I spend the $10K? And, if you were an emerging photographer ready to invest into some tech, how would you split that budget?
THE MAIN CHOICES.
For the purposes of this discussion I’m assuming that you, like me, are either a wedding/family/event photographer. And we’re assuming – for the purposes of this discussion – that you don’t need studio equipment/strobes/etc (or we’d need much more than $10K).
Which presents us with some main options to consider:
- Buy a high-end camera body (e.g. a D4/1DX) plus a couple of lenses. And you’ll have some change left over for a new reflector and some bits and pieces.
- Buy a cheaper body (D800/5DMKIII) plus a slightly bigger selection of lenses. And a competent computer plus some bits and pieces.
- Buy a second-hand D700/5DMKII with all the lenses you could ever want from a retired photographer. That leaves lots of money left for computer and bits. You’ll still probably have money left over for a decent holiday! Or you could invest it in your business – by buying advertising, for example.
Now we have some interesting choices. Llooking at these choices highlights that cameras are never purchased in a vacuum – there are always other factors – personal, business and financial to consider.
When a photographer buys a new camera body, he is rarely just thinking about that item – he is essentially redesigning the way his business works, changing the processes, adjusting financial models, personal preferences and is planning for at least a few years ahead. He might also be adjusting his shooting style and the way his photos look.
And if he is not, than he should be.
Now, let’s take a closer look at our options.
For me personally, high-end cameras have always seemed like an exercise in excessive indulgence. Until I started using them – and using them to their full potential.
I’ve been shooting most often with a Nikon D4 and I began to take it for granted – until one week I had to use a D800. And I do realise that I sound like a spoiled brat here – it’s like someone saying that they’ve been dating Angelina Jolie and had to downgrade to Nicole Kidman for a week.
The D800 is a very respectable camera in its own right, but I began to miss the D4 as soon as the subjects in front of me started moving.
There were two reasons for it – the autofocus and the frame rate.
The D4′s autofocus tracks moving subjects like a heat-seeking missile. It’s sure-footed and not easily confused. With the D800 there’s a mild sense of “let’s cross our fingers and hope for the best”. And, mind you, the D800 does come through the tribulations most of the time and keeps track of yours subjects very well – but it just doesn’t inspire confidence the way the D4 does.
Then there’s the frame rate.
I really do not like the feeling of waiting for my equipment to catch up with me. The D800′s frame rate, although respectably quick on paper, feels like an eternity in real life. Something heavy clunks over inside the camera just a tat too slow and obscures my vision for just a tad too long. I don’t like it.
For studio photography the D800′s frame rate would be more than adequate, but for photographing small kids who are high on sugar, I need my equipment to be super-quick.
For those two main reasons, I think that if you’re either a wedding/family/event photographer, the D4 is the way to go – even if it’s almost twice the price. Which also means I’ve just blown over half ($5,300) of my budget.
This is a matter of intense preference. It depends on your photographic style, your subjects and your ability to be quick on your feet.
I’ve toyed with just about all lenses. I’ve tried to like the 24-70mm f/2.8 plus 70-200mm f/2.8 combo. And I almost liked it for its convenience, but it all just felt too compromised. Too much fiddling with zoom and too much glass moving in front of my sensor.
The combination I’ve come to favour is very simple – a 50mm f/1.4 and an 85mm f1.4. If I have money left over, I’ll also grab Nikon’s 14-24mm f/2.8 for some weird wide angle shots.
By the way, I’ve gravitated towards Nikon in the past year, so this article is leaning towards Nikon equipment, but If you shoot Canon, you’ll find a very similar equipment line-up in their range as well.
Using only primes might not work for you – especially if you’re a wedding photographer, you’ll probably want to hang on to your zooms as well. But there’s just something about fast primes that makes me come back to them.
I love their simplicity, I love the way the photos look, I love that they don’t look big and intimidating on the camera (have you seen a D4 with a 70-200 and a hood – looks like a bloody sniper rifle!) and I love using my feet to zoom.
So for now, I’m sticking with the nifty fifty ($400) and the 85mm 1.4. ($1,500). Which means I have about $2,800 left to spend.
THE DIGITAL DARKROOM.
A new iMac ($2,000). ‘Nuff said. If I needed the mobility, I’d consider a MacBook Pro, but I don’t – and I prefer to have the bigger screen. Add a colour calibration gadget ($200) and a tablet ($400). The external hard drive backup solution can wait for another 6 months.
Software-wise, it’s a choice between Aperture ($80) (when is version 4 coming, by the way?) or Lightroom ($79-$149, depending on whether you’re buying or upgrading). Plus Photoshop ($49-$699, depending on how you package it and which version you already have).
BITS AND PIECES.
I use a reflector A LOT and the Sunbounce Mini ($250) is the current preferred choice. More spare cards ($200) and a hard Pelican camera case ($200) for all the gear are on this little list.
Since I already have most of the software (I’d only upgrade Photoshop from my current vintage PS3 – $199), I’ve overshot the budget by only about $649.
And, of course, the prices will vary depending on where in the world you’re located, whether you can find a good deal (hey, you are spending $10K – you should be able to negotiate) and how far it’s getting delivered.
To calculate prices I’ve used averages of Ebay retailers based in USA and Hong Kong. If you are planning to buy in old-school camera shops in your country, I suppose you can expect to pay about 20% more.
For my money, I’d get:
- Nikon D4
- Nilkkor 50mm 1.4G
- Nikkor 85mm 1.4G
- Apple iMac with all necessary software plus a tablet and a colour calibration tool.
- California Sunbounce Mini
- Pelican hard case for travel
- Spare CF/XQD cards.
And yes, I’ve kind of failed this challenge – the total of this bill is closer to $11K. Which means I better I stop writing and go create some good photos.
But, before we all go, how would you spend the $11K?