Used to be pretty good

A brief conversation the other day sparked this post idea, which I suppose is better than getting them from sitcoms or a random phrase generator, but the margin may be slim. It could be that I’ve already posted most of my really deep stuff and used up all the good ideas.

Anyway, our topic today is used equipment, and I feel especially qualified to write on this since very little of my camera schtuff, from the moment that I started shooting some four decades ago, has been new. The primary reason for this is due to my own outlook and financial situations combined, but the results have presented more justification for the approach than the primary reasons.

Let’s start by looking at the new equipment that I’ve purchased. It’s not a long list:

In the mid nineties, I got my first ‘serious’ camera outfit, a Canon Elan IIe, a Sigma 28-105 f2.6-4, and a Canon 75-300 II 3.5-5.6. Plus a Canon 380EX flash unit and the RC-1 remote of course.

In the late nineties when I was probably making the most money relative to living expenses, I got my Sigma 170-500 f4.5-6.3, a Manfrotto 3401 tripod with a ballhead that I can’t recall right now, Sigma 105 f2.8 macro, and extension tubes.

In 2000 or 2001, I purchased a 2x teleconverter and my first film scanner, the Minolta Dimage Scan Dual I, SCSI interface! (That may not even make any sense to half of the people reading.)

In 2006 I believe, I purchased a Giottos MH1001 ballhead and a selection of quick-release plates. Probably about the same time I got the Dimage Scan Dual IV, this time with a USB interface.

And right at the moment, I have a new ballhead on its way. There’s probably a couple of items that I’m forgetting, but really, it hasn’t been much, especially in comparison to what I’ve used over the years and what I now own.

In a minute, we’ll talk about their fates. Right now, we’ll address how many, perhaps most, people seem to view new equipment. The most-common attitudes seem to be split among two main bodies of thought:

1) That new equipment is less likely to be prone to problems and will last the longest before needing to be replaced, and,

2) That new equipment has the greatest advances or technology, and will produce the best results.

It is this latter one that many people seem to adhere to, necessitating the need to ‘upgrade’ their equipment routinely, and believe me, I can’t count the number of people that I’ve known that are obsessive about this. Listen, whatever floats your boat; if you feel better doing something and it harms no one else, knock yourself out. But if you’re into critical thinking and sound financial decisions, don’t try to justify purchases with weak rationales. And seriously, that’s what so much of the equipment-chasing mentality boils down to. In far too many cases, people think it’s a reflection of their success if something that they have isn’t the newest and bestest, as if any purchases that one makes should be judged against what other people think about them. You’re the one using the equipment, and very bluntly, it’s not at all the equipment that gets the photo, it’s the photographer – the equipment, at best, provides an edge and that’s it.

[I will sideline here for a moment to reflect on how often someone sees my camera and says something like, “Wow, you have a good camera there!” Know what makes a good camera in their eyes? The battery grip, and a mounted lenshood. Seriously. They say this about camera bodies that had been discontinued at least eight years previously. Too few people actually know how to tell any of them apart, so don’t bother chasing their opinions. And for those few at the serious level of photography, if they’re judging you on your equipment and not your results, they’re not very focused on what’s important either, so dismiss them too.]

But note, too, that it kind of contradicts the first point, especially the longevity thing; if you’re always buying the newest version of something, who cares how long it actually lasts, as long as it lasts to the newest version? About the only thing that you might be concerned about it trade-in/resale value, and that rarely approaches even 75% of the cost of a new item no matter what.

Personally, I started out with no disposable income, so photography equipment purchases came sporadically and often after saving up a bit, and I was always looking for the best deals. But even as I could afford better or newer purchases, the frugality remained, enhanced by the simple knowledge that too much of the field is overpriced specifically because many people feel that cost=quality – this is actually a common trait in marketing. But I also developed a little guideline in my endeavors: new equipment should be funded by income from my photography. While I do not always follow this idea, and have purchased items due to desire or frustration, it remains tempered by the idea that it should still pay for itself, and not simply be a vanity or acquisitive thing. Purchases of equipment often wait, giving me time to consider how much I might use or need them, and are balanced against how much they might improve my sales.

All of these mean that damn near every image you see on the site (not just the blog) has been shot with used, outdated, often discontinued equipment – I throw that out there to let you judge on your own. Meanwhile, here’s the outcome of some of that new equipment:

The Canon Elan IIe body was still going strong after about 10 years when I retired it in favor of the much-more-capable EOS 3, but I’d used it to shoot weddings and all outings within that time, so good news there. The same with the 75-300 lens purchased at the same time, which The Girlfriend used until I got her a superzoom. She still has the 380EX flash too, after all my wedding use – it had to undergo a repair to the flash tube after I fumbled it in Savannah, but worked just fine following that. The RC-1 is still in occasional use.

The Sigma 28-105 failed back in 2004 – broken flex cable that the model was prone to. It remains in use, however, as my extreme macro lens – not a paean to its longevity, really, but a nice bonus from the performance of the glass anyway.

The Sigma 105 macro failed sometime in 2007, I believe – probably the same issue as above. While considering repairing it, I switched over to two other options, one of which was the Mamiya 80mm macro that was probably about 20 years old then, and is still in routine use. Granted, it’s a manual lens so there’s not a lot to fail on it – which is not a detrimental trait unless you’re really married to autofocus and auto-aperture, and I’m not. I can’t fault its performance.

The Sigma 170-500 was recently retired when I purchased a used upgrade, but was getting balky in autofocus, and had been in for a repair which I don’t think they did very well, also not packing it adequately so the front objective lens was cracked/chipped along the edge in shipping. Did not improve my views of lens repair.

The Scan Dual I did fine, and probably still works, but the SCSI interface was obsolete within a few years. The Scan Dual IV, however, had buggy software that the manufacturer never fixed, Minolta soon selling their scanner division out to Konica who had no intention of retaining it. Very problematic to use. I picked up a Scan Dual III, however, and have been using that for the past few years. I also have a used Nikon Coolscan III, I think, considered one of the top-of-the-line film scanners, and never liked the results (it’s available if you want it.)

The original Bogen ballhead was not designed well and was a little fussy to use, so I eventually sold it. The Giottos was better, but still not capable of fully tightening with a heavy load on (too much settling,) so that’s being replaced as we type/read.

How about the used equipment? I’m not even going to try and list it all, but I’ll feature a few representative highlights:

I’m still using a Canon 30D purchased 7 or so years ago, the shutter count in my possession being over 50,000 – who knows how much was on it before I got it. The same could be said for the Digital Rebel that I used before that, which also hit over 50,000 frames before I retired it. The second camera is a Rebel T2i, used mostly for video but also as a backup or lightweight carryaround – much lower shutter count on that. A 40D that I picked up damaged and repaired myself is now starting to do duty as my main macro body.

The T2i came with a Canon 17-85 f4-5.6 IS USM, which soon developed problems – I later found that the model is prone to these, and is discontinued by Canon (evidence that name-brand and higher cost does not always equal better quality or longevity.) Nonetheless, I repaired it, and it’s presently in use. I picked up both body and lens for a very decent price, it must be noted.

Another little find is the Canon 100-300 f5.6 L lens, probably at least 20 years old (long discontinued.) Somewhat slow and noisy autofocus, but that’s a model trait that even the new ones had; moreover, it doesn’t look or feel like a quality lens. Yet the results are astounding – remarkably sharp for a lightweight carryaround telephoto.

I have two main flashes right now: the Metz 40MZ-3i, superb options and performance, and an obscure Sunpak Auto322 for macro work, also possibly 20 years old. I’ve used both extensively, and loved them both enough to pick up replacements for their eventual demise. I also managed to find the AC adapter for the Sunpak, which saves batteries when I’m close enough to an outlet to use it.

While in Florida, I was given an old Olympus OM-10, and had a selection of lenses from a previous iteration that eventually failed, and used that as a carryaround and for esoteric experiments – it could remain loaded with monochrome film while I used the Elan IIe for weddings and such. That eventually went to The Girlfriend’s Sprog for her film class many years ago, and to the best of my knowledge still works fine. This camera dates from the eighties.

I could go on, but here’s the main takeaway: Spending more, or buying new, guarantees nothing. And while it’s true enough that buying used may mean that you’re buying someone else’s problem or abuse, that’s not a rule, or even an accurate guideline. It’s usually pretty easy to tell who takes care of their equipment, and a few simple tests can reveal most hidden issues. Bear in mind that, if you’re using a camera for a few months or longer, it has now entered that ‘used’ status that you might feel is prone to problems – yet when buying it new, you would have expected to get several years at least of trouble-free use from it. Meanwhile, I refer back to that point above about the price drop on resale. In other words, you might pick up a piece of equipment that has 90% of its longevity left while paying 75% (or much less) of the new price. A little careful examination and questioning is all that’s really required.

Overall, the money that I’ve saved buying used is easily in the thousands of dollars – though granted, in some cases I never would have bought the new version anyway; I got a used bit of equipment simply because I had an idle interest and the price was right. In other cases, I couldn’t even stomach the idea of paying what was asked for something, and made do with a ‘lesser’ item or even made it myself (we’re not talking lenses, here, but mounts and rigs, mostly macro stuff.)

I can’t let the weird idea of ‘upgraded’ equipment go by untouched. In far too many cases, a new model is brought out mostly because a manufacturer feels obligated to do so, and counts on that portion of the populace that is obsessed with that kind of thing, while the improvements are trivial at best – software is especially notorious for this, one of the biggest ripoffs out there (Adobe and Microsoft, I’m looking at you.) And sure, a flip-out LCD is an improvement over a fixed one – an actual issue that I’ve dealt with regarding the T2i and video work – but in a very real sense, it’s putting a price on convenience, and oftentimes a very high one. This says nothing of the idiocy of chasing megapixels when someone is still using consumer lenses and never printing their stuff larger than an 11×14, much less bothering to think about what makes an image compelling.

[Another side note: I corrected the stationary LCD problem, not with another body, but with an external viewfinder, which also allowed mounting away from the camera at any angle, using a eyecup to shield glare, and was capable of adjusting brightness, contrast, and color register – all for far less than a new, or even used, body.]

Finally, there’s the distinct issue of new model blues, the large number of failures, quality-control issues, software bugs, and the like that often appear in a new version, of anything, really – there’s a common adage about not buying the introductory model of any car. Waiting a bit to let the manufacturer iron out all the kinks, as well as hearing consumer feedback, can mean a lot less frustration – and remember, that new model might have been purchased to avoid the frustrations caused by the old model, so it probably works better to know that you’re not simply exchanging annoyances. People tend to think that buying used is a gamble, and it certainly is, but buying new doesn’t guarantee that you’re not gambling; any equipment you purchase is a gamble. You just pay a lot more to reduce the odds by an unknown degree.

Again, you do what suits you best, and what you feel most comfortable with. Just bear in mind that the impression isn’t always the reality, and if you have other things that you might want or need to spend that money on, well…