Budgets usually have tighter limits than wish lists. What strategies can be used to avoid wasting money on equipment?

By "wasting", I mean spending on an expensive item of photography equipment to solve a problem and then finding it frequently fail at solving well the problem it was supposed to tackle. The inability should be attributable to the product's design, not breakage of a specific item or inexperience with such gear.

I felt a recently closed question about useless accessories had some potential for taming the widely spread constant need for new equipment and bringing out some marketing hype, so I'll try to ask a similar question in a more constructive way.

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    How is this not a form of (from the FAQ) "avoid asking subjective questions where … every answer is equally valid: “What’s your (not) favorite ______?”"
    – rfusca
    Jun 20, 2011 at 6:18
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    I'd argue that sometimes those type of questions have validity. For example, the questions which have lists of recommended books and podcasts seem to be useful for folks (although it does make sense to make these types of questions community wiki).
    – ahockley
    Jun 20, 2011 at 7:01
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    @rfusca edited to make it clear only the worst cases are expected as answers, so it's more in line with apparently well-accepted questions "What are the best techniques for ...". The actual problem here is that my wish list is much longer than my available budget, so any experiences helping to avoid common traps are warmly welcome. I think Jerry Coffin's answer about long lenses or Thom Hogan's article on avoiding unstable tripods are excellent examples of good answers to this question.
    – Imre
    Jun 20, 2011 at 7:20
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    @jwenting "wasting" is better defined in my question text - the item fails to solve well the problem it was bought/rented to solve.
    – Imre
    Jun 20, 2011 at 7:37
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    Just like the linked question that was closed (and now deleted), I don't really think this question has brought anything of value to the table. Most of the answers are rather anecdotal, quite general and at least or bordering on common knowledge. We don't really need or want anecdotes here...we need something more concrete. I'd prefer to delete this question, and if it MUST be asked, then craft the question properly so that we don't get a bunch of anecdotal answers while it is reiterated and refined.
    – jrista
    Jun 21, 2011 at 0:20

5 Answers 5


I don't have a personal tale of great gear disappointment, but I offer some general advice.

Be clear what problem you are trying to solve

Are you buying a new body in order to become a better photographer? That's probably not going to happen. On the other hand, buying a new body to get improved noise at high ISOs may well work out nicely for you.


The internets are full of reviews, even for pretty esoteric bits of kit. Find a review of the specific item you're considering. 10 minutes doing this might save you from disappointment.

(Update inspired by @jwenting and @imre - see comments):
Consider how credible reviews are. Finding several reviews on different websites may help to work out which are reliable. Amazon is a good place for reviews because you can often get several opinions together.

eBay is a Gamble

Buying second-hand is a great way to save money, but sometimes it will backfire on you. It's just the law of averages. If you accept that it's a gamble, then you can save some heartache.

... Just a few thoughts.

  • 1) at some point you may run into the limitations of your gear, but that point is likely some way off. 2) beware of reviews as many reviewers have an agenda to either push or damage a product's reputation, and thus many reviews aren't to be trusted. 3) too true.
    – jwenting
    Jun 20, 2011 at 10:38
  • +1 fir the eBay is a gamble. "The Internets" LOL! A Stephen Colbert fan? Jun 20, 2011 at 13:30
  • The first point here is the key. Only buy something addressed at solving a specific problem you have.
    – Itai
    Jun 20, 2011 at 13:45
  • With reviews, I'd say it's important to look for context of the reviewer. If it's missing or much different than yours, there are certainly aspects of usage important for you but not covered in the review. In any case, relying on a single review should be avoided in favor of a more thorough research.
    – Imre
    Jun 20, 2011 at 16:25
  • @jwenting, @imre, good points about reviews. I will update.
    – AJ Finch
    Jun 21, 2011 at 11:55

best way to avoid waste is to never buy anything on impulse. Avoiding stores unless you have already made up your mind as to at least the category of gear you want (if not the specific item) is a good way to do that (and that includes webshops and sites running advertising for gear).
NAS is a nasty affliction any Nikon users ends up with sooner or later, and only complete abstinence from any and all means to purchase more Nikon gear will suppress at least the symptoms, if not the causes. Users of other brands probably have similar things afflicting them.
So know what functionality you want before you start looking for things that can provide you with that functionality, then singlemindedly steer towards that target without letting yourself get sidetracked into shopping sprees. There is no other way, really (though a strict spending limit on your creditcard can help).

  • What is NAS? (in 15+ characters) Jun 20, 2011 at 15:57
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    @Billy NAS is "Nikon Acquisition Syndrome", a progressive disease starting with an itchy wallet that makes its victim collect more Nikon gear than reasonable for the amount and variety of photos the victim takes.
    – Imre
    Jun 20, 2011 at 16:43
  • yup. Must start looking for another piece of gear soon, been a while... Maybe another D200 or D300 as a backup :)
    – jwenting
    Jun 21, 2011 at 5:21

Play with the equipment first. If you're dealing with a lens, there are lots of places around that will rent lenses on a weekly basis. You can go take real photos with the lens, and then buy it if you feel it's worth it. For the case of a SLR body, you can usually get a good enough feel for one if you try it out in any decent camera store.

  • While this is good advice, I think its far too general to answer "What expensive item of photography equipment have you experienced to frequently fail solving well the problem it was supposed to tackle" - you've effectively said, 'everything'. And reading Imre's comments, he would apparently like to avoid wasteful rents as well.
    – rfusca
    Jun 20, 2011 at 8:54
  • @rfusca: Fair enough. Just figured at least one person had to put the "no-brainer" answer down :) Jun 20, 2011 at 15:32
  • +1 for renting on a weekly basis - a day or two might not be enough for learning how to use new gear efficiently.
    – Imre
    Jun 20, 2011 at 16:20

I understand you are asking about "expensive item of photography equipment" but I just thought I would mention to avoid cheap tripods that can render your "expensive" equipment useless. Being cheap, I recently purchase a cheap tripod (from a reputable dealer mind you) and was astounded how cheaply it was made. I took it out once and returned the next day because i felt my camera and lens were in danger of falling off the tripod. At one point i picked it up and the thing actually came apart. Same goes for Camera bags. Do not cheap out on these or your lenses may go flying out.

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    As Thom Hogan suggests, cost of several inadequate tripods bought as upgrades for each other would get you a nice lens.
    – Imre
    Jun 20, 2011 at 16:15
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    +1 for cheap tripods - BUT - Thom Hogan's article is only applicable if you're already rich. Most of us in the real world don't need a thousand dollar tripod (and can't afford one). And you can make exact same argument for any piece of equipment. Why do any of us buy entry level equipment if its clearly inferior to pro level. We should just all buy D3's and 5D's and $10k worth of lenses so that we 'save' all that money in trading up. (Note, I'm all for good tripods, but a $1000 doesn't save money for most of us, despite his math. There's such thing as good enough).
    – rfusca
    Jun 20, 2011 at 16:55
  • @rfusca actually, he also suggests a $600+ "almost as good" package near the end of article. Perhaps the takeaway idea in @Jakub's answer is "Don't expect to use something cheap and get away with it". IMHO for any piece of equipment, we can make the argument that if it's significantly cheaper than all competing products at the generally accepted "good enough" level, it is also clearly inferior to that "good enough" level in some important way.
    – Imre
    Jun 20, 2011 at 22:57
  • @Imre I think you're vastly over complicating the ol' adage 'You get what you pay for." Which is, for the most part, true - I'm just suggesting there are alternatives available where what you get for what you pay for, is still acceptable for many users at a mark shorter than the article suggests. I'm most definitely not suggesting the mark is a 'cheap tripod', but somewhere between those $30 walmart POSs and what the article suggests is good enough for many folks.
    – rfusca
    Jun 20, 2011 at 23:13
  • no need to buy a $1000 tripod when a $900 one is good enough, rfusca :) Of course you could always buy 2, and have one each with a ballhead and 3-way so there's no need to switch heads ;)
    – jwenting
    Jun 21, 2011 at 5:23

I would say there is not silver bullet... but:

1. Know what you need

If you are trying to solve a specific problem an it it only solvable with a new piece of kit... but that's rare, at least in the digital world. Before you rush out and by X try to mimic the results you expect with digital post-processing. Most of the time this will be cheaper and if you really like the results then pursue the 'in-camera' option.

2. Rent or Borrow

Most equipment can be rented or borrowed to test before you drop big bucks on the actual kit.

3. Research/Take your time

This goes with 1 & 2. Don't impuse but as @jwenting said. Take your time and understand what you are buying and why.

4. Be honest

Don't buy just because -- be honest with yourself as to why you want the new kit. Is it something you will use everyday or is it something that can be borrowed or rented for special events? Is it going to do something your current kit is unable to do or that you want to do 'in-camera' that you are currently doing post-processes?

Remember learning to use the kit you have better will almost always produce better results than buying the new hot lens or body or accessory. Be honest sounds like a joke but really that new toy will not make you a better photographer... practice and knowledge will make you better then almost any equipment.

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