Understanding Yourself Can Help You Make Better Photography Buying Decisions

Knowing what gear you need versus what gear you want can both save your money and save your sanity. Knowing why you want it can help you maximize your investment.

The other day I came to a realization. I had officially covered all my bases. When it comes to photography and video material, I could, with a straight face, claim to have at least one tool to do every aspect of my job. Of course, this realization came at the end of one of those long weekends where my lack of impulse control got the better of me and I found myself pressing the order button on B&H repeatedly. I should probably go ahead and bake the FedEx guy a plate of cookies, because he and I will be spending a lot of time together next week.

I can’t say that I’m totally proud of myself. After several years of spending out of control, I did a much better job this year of keeping things under control. A few reasons for this. First, since I got the Nikon Z9, I can finally stop obsessing over every new camera that hits the market. The last few years trying to decide when or even if to go mirrorless has led me to make more than one disappointing camera purchase in an effort to improve my photo/gaming hybrid. Many cameras have come and gone that had started strong out of the gate only to turn out to be missing one way or another. After almost a year with the Z9, it’s clear that this is the only camera I’ll need for at least the next two years. After getting a backup Z9 earlier this year, I can say that as far as camera bodies go, I’m ready. So my gear allowance was freed up to tackle other areas.

The second reason why my spending has improved this year is that I have budgeted very accurately and created a spreadsheet that helps me account for every dollar I have spent. No more random purchases that I forgot I made. Now everything is clearly listed and my budget countdown lets me know when I’m close to my annual limit.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I haven’t spent any money. But the usefulness of my purchases has increased significantly. Much less money spent on cameras, which will be obsolete in 2-3 years. Much more money spent on less sexy but more practical items like lights, stands, grip gear, camera support, etc. that will last for decades. The type of stuff that doesn’t make the headlines, but, in truth, is far more essential to getting the final image than having the latest and greatest camera body.

So that’s what led me to the conclusion the other day that I had officially completed my list. In virtually every category needed for the type of work I do, I had a capable starter. Fixed Camera, Motion Camera, Fixed Strobes, Small Flashes, Constant Fresnel Lights, Constant LED Panels, Small LEDs, Portable LEDs. Flags, scrims and silks in 8×8, 6×6, 4×4 and smaller orientations. Reflective panels. Large stands, small stands, rolling stands, crank stands. You get the picture. The only areas that might still need an update would be replacing my 70-200mm F-mount with the Z-mount version. And, as someone who spends more than half of his working life as a director and director photography, you’d think I’d own my own movie camera. But, as the projects I shoot grow, it becomes clear that the movie cameras I want to own are the type of cameras that make the most sense to rent. Unless, of course, you win the lottery. The Z9’s video capabilities are more than enough for any small film project, home movie project or client work where an Arri Alexa isn’t in the budget. So, for now, I’m content with owning everything I need to make my film projects, except for the film camera itself, which I can rent on a project-by-project basis.

So, with all the tools needed to make pretty much any movie or obsession I have in my head a reality, why do I still have to fight the urge to spend even more?

There are certainly practical reasons. The more things you photograph, the more blind spots you identify. How many times have you made a purchase directly after a shoot because you realized you needed a particular kit to solve a specific problem? Not all purchases are impulse purchases. And one needs to spend time to achieve a specific goal.

Personally, I think my own tendency to spend occasionally comes down to two factors. First, I have a touch of OCD, which keeps me from thinking about anything once the bee is in my hood. Once my mind identifies a problem, for example, if it takes me too long to complete a particular task, my brain will not rest until the problem is resolved and eradicated. Even though this is not an urgent issue and could easily be put off until later, I find it hard to let go. I have to fix the problem now or I won’t be able to shift my brain to anything else. It’s not a compliment. But that’s how my brain works.

The other factor is also part of my personality, but I suspect it is shared by many of you who may be reading this article. If I were to look back over my spending over the past few years, I would notice that most of it tends to take place at two times: when I’m extremely happy or when I’m depressed. Not necessarily a dramatic call for depression help. But the slow, quivering kind that happens in the background when everything seems fine on the surface, but you always want more. I tend to do two things when I have reached this state of mind. Eat too much or buy too much.

I do not mean that this article is a therapy session. I am well aware of these traits within me and have been for as long as I can remember. But what makes them relevant to the expense control discussion is that I think this pattern is key to why so many of us are obsessed with gear, even though it’s to our financial detriment.

Aside from the literal functionality of the gear we buy, buying stuff gives us a rush. The dopamine hit is unmistakable. Think of the joy you get when your new gear arrives and you carefully open the box. Think of the rush of possibilities you feel when you spend weeks researching a kit and then finally make the purchase. Purchasing equipment is and should be a business decision. But, we’d be wrong to deny that there’s a bit of adrenaline that kicks it around with every new acquisition. It’s just human nature. It’s the same impulse we had when kids saw presents under a Christmas tree or went shopping at the mall for a new pair of yarn. Getting new things feels good.

The difference, of course, is that photography is a rather expensive activity. I also have a problem when it comes to buying shoes. I’ve never come across a shoe sale that I didn’t like. But buying multiple pairs of Converse on impulse leaves a significantly smaller dent in my financial situation than buying multiple cameras. Both can provide a similar short-term boost to my dopamine levels. But indulging in one risks overloading my shoe rack, while the other risks putting me out of business.

I use myself and my own motivations for spending in this article simply as an example. After all, my point of view is the only point of view that I can share with 100% accuracy. I constantly question my own decisions and the root of those decisions because this knowledge can help me be a smarter consumer. To know when I’m making a purchase based on a want rather than a need. To help establish a specific spending plan that helps me keep some of my lower instincts in check while empowering me with the tools to create the art that truly gives my life meaning.

But, of course, to keep doing this art, I have to keep a close eye on both what I’m spending my money on and why I’m spending it. I mentioned some of my non-practical reasons for spending in this essay. But that’s just me. What are some of the reasons that aren’t strictly business reasons you find yourself spending money on gear? How do you keep yourself in check?

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