Buying Gear. Needs vs Wants…

One thing I get a lot of questions about, whether in one of my workshops, regular classes or even just via social media is about buying gear.  Not necessarily how to buy it; we’ve all been in a store or shopped online before and I’m a big fan of buying local, specifically at Roberts Camera. The question I get is how I determine the difference between Needs and Wants as it comes to photo gear.  Sure everybody wants a D5, or 600mmF4 lens but you can’t always afford those things; especially when just starting out.  Between renting a lens one-off, buying something you need, or making a case to buy something you would need to do the work you want to do; it can get confusing.   While I’m not an expert decision maker (lots of childhood stories here) I think I can help a little.

So wants and needs.  To talk about my decision-making process a bit I am going to tell the story of a big decision I had to make early in my full-time freelance career, and how I went about making it.  Everyone has a different opinion, budget, and set of requirements for gear that they buy, just rent or think they need.  This is just the story of one decision I had to make.  Not saying it’s right, not saying it’s wrong it’s just what I did and how it turned out.

When I parted ways with the Indianapolis Star newspaper group I had almost everything in my kit that I needed to start freelancing again (which is what I did before the star).  It was far from a complete kit of all the lenses out there; there were plenty of things it did not have, and there were plenty of things I did not have the ‘Best’ of.  Everybody’s kit is different though, and the kit I had at the time was what worked for me.  More importantly, it was what I could afford at that point.  The one big thing that my kit did not have though was long glass.  I had everything I needed to get by from 18mm-200mm, but I had nothing longer with a constant aperture or that didn’t require a teleconverter.   Like I said, everybody’s kit is different, just like their needs.  Some photographers don’t need 300mm or 400mm, but I felt like I did in order to get the kind of jobs that I wanted to get.

(Nikon D4, 4500ISO, Nikon 200-400F4@320mm.  1/1000th@F5.6)

If you want to shoot any kind of sports or work for any sort of wire service you need to be able to reach out to 400mm.  (I thoroughly enjoyed shooting sports and still do, so this was obviously of interest to me).  This is so much a requirement that some places either ask you for a gear list during the initial sign on, or they ask you specifically if and how you can get to 400mm.  I think we can all agree 300mm is probably more versatile, but 400mm was the number I was aiming for.  I wanted to get to 400mm, but I at least needed to get to 300mm.  (Now for about $1900 Nikon makes a 300F4 PF that is smaller than a 24-70, is stupid fast and is awesome; not ot mention much more affordable than my options years ago).  By budget I needed to make just one purchase that would do as much for me in freelance as possible towards shooting sports.

(Nikon D750, 2500ISO, Nikon 200-400F4VR@400mm, 1/640th@F4)

So to make a long story even longer, I had to choose between Nikon’s  200F2 with extenders, 400mm F2.8, 200-400F4VR, and 300mm F2.8 with extenders. So it was down to one of those either new or used. (It’s also worth noting that these links are for the newest model lenses at the time of this writing.  All of these have been updated at least once since I had to buy the lens I am writing about, and these newest ones are more expensive.)  I also had to make the purchase on a budget because….well…self-employed so I was going to buy used.  In the end the 400F2.8 was out because it was too expensive.  I also decided against anything with an extender which broke my heart because let’s face it the 200F2 is a dream lens for lots of people.  After that, I landed on the 200-400F4 because even though it was F4, it was less than half the price of the 400F2.8 at the time and it meant I had a 200mm, 300mm, and 400mm all in one package.  I bought it used off of Ebay because Robert’s did not have one in their used department at the time.  I paid $3600 for a VR1 vs the newest VR2 copy in what was listed as just ‘good’ shape.  It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but it fit all the things I needed at the time.    That said, the lens I got in the mail was significantly better than just ‘Good’ shape.  The thing looked like it had never been mounted to a camera before.  I was elated. I was probably super lucky I actually got such a good lens and not just a box of used crayons or something.

(Nikon D4, 1000ISO, Nikon 200-400F4@400mm. 1/1600th@F4).

On numerous occasions people have told me I should just “buy the big one” or, “its a business expense so it doesn’t matter what you spend.”  You have to have money to spend it and sometimes usually having an extra eleventy thousand dollars in the account to buy all the things you want doesn’t happen.  Every time I buy something for photography, whether a want or a need, I always try to justify it with the work I use it for after the fact (not to mention the mental thoughts before the buy to justify dropping the coin in the first place).  Despite really wanting the “better” 400F2.8 or 200F2, that 200-400F4 ended up being one of my most valuable lenses.  I use or have used that darn thing everyplace.  Football, basketball, Air races, events of all kinds, and even once at a wedding over the last few years.  If I am ever going to someplace where I ‘might’ need something longer than 200 it goes in the car, and I’d say about 3 out of every 5 times I end up using it.

(Nikon D4, 5000ISO, Nikon 200-400F4VR with Nikon TC14 zoomed to 440mm. 1/160th@F5.6)


Would I have loved to have spent the $9500 on a 400F2.8 back then ($11k+ now)?  Absolutely, but that’s enough money to be a car payment and a car payment to buy a lens is not what I needed when starting a freelance career.  Just because you cannot afford something, doesn’t mean you should give up.  You’ll still always want “the big one”.  Nothing shameful about getting what you can afford until its time to get what you really want.

(Nikon D5, 5000ISO, Nikon 400mmF2.8VR, 1/1250@F2.8)

I guess my point is that when shopping around you should carefully consider your options, to which you will all mentally say “well duh”.  Lots of folks don’t do that though, and they rush out to buy something that is either more than they can afford or the complete opposite and buy a  ‘quick fix’.  If I was only planning to shoot one football game every other year I’d have rented a 400mm and been done with it. ( Roberts rents gear too).  Having worked at the newspaper I knew the advantages and uses of getting to 300mm in every day shooting for me, but I also knew I wanted to shoot sports and could only make one purchase.  Weigh what you WANT, weight what you NEED and then weigh what you think you need for the future.  That way you don’t overspend or so you can buy one thing that does a lot for you.  Get the most for your hard-earned money. Thing is that I wanted to shoot more than just one football game and to do that I needed to have the appropriate equipment.  So I took the plunge and got the best option I could afford in that 200-400F4.  Sometimes that lens you only buy because it’s what you can afford ends up being the best thing you ever bought.

(Nikon D4s, 1600ISO, Nikon 200F2VR1, 1/3200@F2)

As a full-time pro, I would love to trade my D4s for a second D5, but I can only physically use one camera at a time and that second body is darn expensive.  Plus all the cameras I have are phenomenal. That’s a want, not a need.  I do just fine as I am with the 1 D5.  That $12,000 600mmF4 may look like it’ll give you all the best photos you could ever want of the birds in your backyard, but remember the Sigma 150-600C costs $1,000 NEW and if it’s all you can afford you never know; it may be the best thing you ever buy.  You’ll still always want that 600mmF4, but you can get shooting and shooting is without a doubt better than not shooting.  Remember the saying goes that “the grass is always greener on the other side”.  I believe it was Neil Barringham (or any homeowner) who said; “The grass is greenest where you water it”.  I shot my first several football games with a 70-300 3.5-5.6 Nikon lens before buying a 70-200F2.8.  I shot several football games and other sporting events with those before buying my next longest personal lens 9 years later with that 200-400F4 because I needed something longer and it’s all I could afford.  9 years later.  I still have it.  Even now owning both the 400F2.8VR and that 200F2VR2 I wanted so badly, I still use that 200-400F4 an absolute ton.  All the time.  Aren’t sure what might be best for you?  Just ask for advice.  For me the Folks at Roberts Camera have always been good at pushing me in the right direction, even if it means spending less than I had intended.  You can always ask other photographers too.  You aren’t the first one to not have a lens you need in your bag so get opinions.  No shame in asking questions. More Soon.