Buying new cameras, lenses and accessories is a perpetual temptation for photographers. Whether you call it GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) or you are always eyeing the latest and greatest, it's important to understand when upgrading your photo gear really matters.
Want advice for when to upgrade cameras or upgrade lenses? Here's a breakdown for looking at when and how to upgrade gear in a meaningful way, and suggestions when it's important and when to skip the urge.
This advice is overall geared toward professionals. If you're a hobbyist making images for pleasure, many of these same principles still apply. But without the need to view photography as a business, the lines are a lot more blurred.
Upgrade when new gear solves problems
Generally speaking, the best time to take the leap to buy new gear is when it will solve problems for you in a meaningful way. Not just incremental upgrades, but leaps in performance that directly translate into solving existing problems.
One example of this might be upgrading to mirrorless for a 100% silent shutter if you're working on documentary photography or unit stills photography on set. Here, a silent shutter solves the problem of working unobtrusively with zero sound from the camera. For me, upgrading to the Nikon Z 9 with the completely silent electronic shutter was essential for my work.
Another example might be when you have a hard technical spec like needing 4k video, or regularly require a telephoto lens for a festivals or large concerts as a music photographer. These are the relatively easy upgrades because it's clear when you need the solution.
Ultimately, most of the very best reasons for upgrading your gear fall into this rationale of problem solving. We'll look at a few more specific examples of what gear solving problems means for buying new photography gear.
Upgrade when new gear will make you more money
From a business standpoint, the best time to buy new gear is when the expense will make you more money. Think about cameras and lenses that will enable you to either book entirely new clients or charge more to your existing clients.
Examples of this are lenses like an ultra wide angle or a super telephoto that enable you to create new types of images and increase your offerings to clients. Or even better, to book entirely new types of work.
My purchase of the Nikon 400mm f/4.5 gives me a compact super telephoto and lets me create images that aren't possible with my conventional kit. In addition, I can charge this specialty gear cost to my clients, so the lens pays for itself and becomes a source of revenue.
Another example would be investing in proper studio lighting that elevates your portrait game — again, letting you book new or at least a higher tier of paying clients. Here, upgrading solves a business problem by increasing opportunities to make money. Easy.
Upgrade when new gear is a meaningful leap in performance or utility
Another great time to upgrade or invest in gear is when that new gear represents a meaningful leap in performance. For example, if you're photographing with a kit lens with a variable f/3.5-5.6 , upgrading to a 24-70mm f/2.8 is going to represent a huge jump in quality and performance.
Here, the faster, constant aperture as well as optical performance are a massive difference that present multiple stops of improvement.
Another example for meaningful jumps in performance would be upgrading from an APS-C sensor to a full-frame sensor. This is not just due to the 1 stop improvement in high ISO image quality, but in access to more professional features, lens choices and more that typically accompany moving from a brand's crop to full frame options.
In contrast, there are times when new gear is only an incremental upgrade. For example, upgrading from a f/1.8 lens to an f/1.4 is going to represent diminishing returns. This is especially true of new mirrorless glass where even the modest f/1.8 are stunning performers.
While there may be some aesthetic advantages to a wider aperture lens, at 2/3 stop difference, realistically there are very few images you couldn't make with the more modest f/1.8 that would have a real world difference, particularly when it comes to paid client work.
Upgrade when you new gear makes work easier
We know that the best tools make work easier. While this is a much more fuzzy factor, upgrading photography gear when it makes your work easier or faster in a meaningful way can be hugely important.
Upgrading to a new laptop that exports a batch of RAW files four times as fast is great example of making work easier. Another example would be upgrading from a DSLR to mirrorless if the advanced eye and face detection AF modes benefit your work.
Both of these examples might not let you make new images or book new clients directly, but they can improve productivity and ease of use to the degree that they are important points of upgrade.
Ultimately, what is easy and “worth it” are entirely dependent on your business and photography needs.
While this is the fuzziest category for deciding on a worthy upgrade, thankfully it's also the one with no wrong answers, too.
When not to buy new gear
So, when shouldn't you buy new photography gear? There are few scenarios where upgrading often isn't essential.
Lateral “upgrades” and diminishing returns
Upgrades that offer offer the same features, range or general specifications are often lateral moves rather than an actual upgrade. This might be trading in an older 70-200mm f/2.8 for the newer version. The new lens may well boast optical improvements, better vibration reduction or similar. That said, for most uses, the differences may not mean much to the paying client — only pixel peepers.
Single generation upgrades
With regard to cameras, upgrading a single generation model often comes with many enhancements. These might be incremental improvements to image quality, resolution, AF performance or speed. However, these are rarely so impactful that it's worth upgrading every one or two years of a product cycle, at least from a business standpoint.
The exception would be when there are longer product cycles, and the model in question would see a remarkable upgrade due to advancements in tech.
When it doesn't truly matter
The honest truth of photography is that the best tools make the work feel effortless. They make photography easier in terms of removing or minimizing constraints or freeing you up to focus on essentials like composition and timing rather than purely technical aspects.
We probably all know photographers who create incredible images with modest gear. Cameras several generations old, a kit lens, you name it. We all intrinsically know that the gear doesn't make the photographer, but it does make the work easier.
Upgrading your photo should gear should always have a purpose. Outside of collecting gear or just trying new lenses or cameras, many of us require our gear purchases to serve a more utilitarian goals. Hopefully this article has given you a few rationales for deciding what is most important to you as you upgrade or buy new cameras and lenses.