Good, bad and ugly purchasing decisions

If you talk to any photographer they will almost certainly tell you about the catalogue of bags, cases and pouches that they have bought thinking and hoping in equal part that their lives would be made better by owning and using the perfect holdall. We all know it’s a myth but we all keep buying in the hope that one day that elusive bag will be made and that it will (somehow) save our poor battered spines. Well that’s one kind of bad purchase that we will all own up to but I was put on the spot the other day by a young photographer and asked about my best and worst purchases of recent years. Hmmm…

My reply was that I had been pretty fortunate where cameras and lenses were concerned. I had made pretty good choices on the ‘big ticket’ items – my camera bag is full of the same kit that it was two years ago and (apart from getting newer versions of the same) I’m still happy with my gear. It’s the small things and the software where the good and bad choices seem to come – maybe because they are the nearest thing to impulse purchases that I make.

The Good, the bad and the ugly…

Software tops my list good purchases that I’ve made recently and at the very top is the invoicing software that I’ve been using since I went freelance again in 2008. I found BILLINGS as a ‘staff pick’ at the Apple Store on line and right from day one I have genuinely enjoyed using it and the development that has since taken place from version 2 to version 3 and the addition of an iPhone app has made a good package very good and there is nothing like getting your invoicing right to make you a happier photographer. My other good/great purchase was the iPhone itself. I had tried a Blackberry and I had used a Nokia smart phone but from day one the iPhone has proved itself. It seems as if I get a new ‘life enhancing’ app every week: from cinema bookings to a brilliant parking control app the iPhone becomes more and more important and having the back-up of Mobile Me really helps too.

Back to software – I have used Photo Mechanic for many, many years and I still love it. It is fast, intuitive and does exactly what I need it to do. One colleague refers to it as ‘old school’ and I’ve heard people say that it’s functions are available within newer programmes but I’m far from convinced. Workflow is completely central to the work that we do and so I’m a sucker for anything that is presented as a ‘better, faster, easier’ in the workflow area.

My first ‘bad’ purchase was Adobe Lightroom 3. There is nothing wrong with it. The RAW conversion is exactly the same in Photoshop CS5 but the rest of the file handling and workflow part of it’s capabilities require huge computing power and the patience of a saint. Out of the box it is set up to be thorough but that makes it really slow for the kind of work that I do. By working out the preferences you can decrease it’s thoroughness and speed it up quite a bit but it is still never going to replace Photo Mechanic in my life. That’s an expensive mistake to make but that’s life.

My next ‘bad’ purchase was Apple’s Aperture. Once it came down to just £45.00 in the App Store I was tempted and I gave in. Aperture was an attempt by Apple to take professional workflow, give it the Cupertino treatment and give us a workflow designed from scratch. From version 1 it was flawed and my first experiment with it left me feeling “if only” – in fact a whole list of “if onlys”. Version two came along and they had ticked a couple of boxes but left far too many questions to make it worth pursuing. I bought version 3.1 safe in the knowledge that several of my peers are using it, loving it and even teaching it. I wanted to love it. I tried for well over a month to get on with it but two weeks ago I finally admitted that it was never going to be. Aperture needs power – my Mac has plenty, a Core i5 processor and 8Gb of RAM, but it still never seemed enough. I think that the realisation that Aperture is only at it’s best when you have some expensive plug-ins was a turning point but I soldiered on.

You also need plenty of screen real estate to make the interface appear anything other than cluttered and I do half of my work on a 15″ laptop. I disliked the keyboard shortcuts to start with but got used to those but the reality check was that using Photo Mechanic plus Adobe Camera Raw just makes sense for me.

And here is the truth – what makes a ‘bad’ purchase for one photographer doesn’t mean that it was a bad product. I have owned an Canon 85mm f1.2L lens and sold it again because it didn’t suit me – it’s a hell of a lens, just not for me – I prefer the bargain 85mm f1.8.

So what about an ‘ugly’ purchase? I’m struggling to think of one in the software field. Had I actually bought version 1 of Aperture instead of doing the free trial, that would qualify but I didn’t. I cannot be bothered to list all of my ‘ugly’ camera bag mistakes and so I come to the countless times that I have bought cheap options and regretted them. If I’m shooting with Canon or Vivitar flash units on stands I use the bomb-proof Manfrotto Light-Tite adapters. I tried to use a couple of cheaper ones but they were rubbish and broke under heavy use.

Tripod heads are another way to spend money unwisely. When I left college in 1986 I bought a Manfrotto 155 tripod with a basic head. That got stolen and so I bought another one just the same. When I joined the staff on the newspaper they bought me a new tripod – exactly the same again but with a three-way pan and tilt head complete with a quick-release system and spirit levels. It was a good buy, it worked well and I still have it but I have always wanted an even easier to use tripod head and have bought and sold about half a dozen ball and socket, joystick, friction controlled and fluid heads. I did spend time watching eBay for a geared head at a good price – safe in the knowledge that it would be exactly what I didn’t need and I’ve abandoned the search.

My ugliest purchase ever was a Maxtor USB2 portable hard drive. It failed within days, having never really worked that well anyway. I took it back, they swapped it and the new one failed too. I didn’t lose any data and my only expense was two round trips to the shop to get drives replaced. After the second failure I got a LaCie Rugged drive which is still absolutely fine nearly four years on. I know that it will fail one day and I have duplicates and triplicates of the data stored on it but it has done it’s job.

Making purchasing decisions as a photographer is a tough job but when photography is your livelihood as well as your passion choosing when and what to buy becomes a really tough call. I have a basic kit and I have back-ups for most of it. I have rental accounts with four different companies and I have insurance that should cover my kit against loss, theft and breakages. But what about new, different or specialist gear? The more commercial work that I do, the more that I find myself needing to rent or borrow specialist kit. I have spent hundreds of pounds hiring Canon tilt and shift lenses over the last year or so. I need to seriously consider investing in one or two TSEs because the cost of renting might well be greater than buying, using and then selling on. If a lens costs £2000.00 to buy and it costs £50.00 a day to hire, how many days in a year should you hire before it becomes a better idea to buy? It isn’t 400 days because the lens can be sold. The depreciation on a £2000.00 lens would be somewhere between 1/3 and 1/4 over six months or between £500.00 and £700.00 which is only ten to fourteen days rental (if the days are not continuous) and maybe twenty to thirty days given that you would hire by the week from time to time.

To buy or not to buy, to rent or not to rent – a couple of big questions. One thing is for sure, had I ever been able to rent a Crumpler rucksack camera bag for a few days before lashing out £130.00 I would never, ever, have bought it!

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