Let’s face it, almost all photographers have a healthy dose of geek in them; in the digital age even more so. We’ve always loved our cameras and lighting and couldn’t wait to get our hands on the latest photo gadget. Digital photography has exacerbated this for many reasons. The top two that come to my mind are the fast evolution of this relatively new technology and the tight intertwining of photography and computers.

While writing a term paper in college, I came across the tidbit that if flight would have evolved as fast as the computer did, man would have set foot on the moon 9 years after Kitty Hawk (that’s 1928 for the non-history buffs). Digital photography has taken a similar fast track. With every camera manufacturer releasing updates regularly with the latest features it won’t be hard to imagine the 5D ‘Mark II’ to start looking like the latest Super Bowl designation–5D Mark XLV.

I rented a 5D MkII and Profoto ring flash for this portrait of Phoenix artist Kyle Jordre.

Unless you are lucky (and good) enough to be so busy you’re turning work away or have a trust fund to decimate, you’re going to have trouble keeping up with the latest “must have” gear. So, how do you determine when the right time to buy new gear has come? There are several answers.

The easy answer is: when you can afford it. It is hard enough to make a living as a photographer without going into debt from the start. Aspiring photographers can turn an uphill climb into an impossible Himalayan ascent by maxing out their credit cards outfitting themselves with all the latest gear right from the start.

I was listening to Zack Arias talk about his path on the Depth of Field podcast. Like me, he is on his second go-around in photography. The first time, he went into debt buying gear and ended up having to sell it all to try to get even. On his second go around he has taken the frugal approach to the extreme. He is known as the master of one-light photography because he forced himself to work with what he had (which was… you guessed it, a single light). He has more lights now, but refuses to go into debt to buy any equipment. I share this philosophy.

Another answer is a little more complicated and requires a little self-honesty. You have to ask yourself “Do I really need this to do the job effectively?” (which also presupposes you have worked out the difference between ‘want’ and ‘need’). If the answer is yes, the next question is “Is it just for this job or will I use it regularly?” If you can afford it and will use it regularly, let’s go shopping. If you can’t afford it and/or won’t be using it regularly, renting gear is a great way to go.

There are so many advantages to renting gear, from being able to write it off to including it as a line item in your invoice to your client. And, of course, saving you from having to buy expensive gear you may only use once or twice a year. Renting is ridiculously easy in larger cities and even people in remote areas have online options like borrowlenses.com. It is also a great way to test out new gear to make sure it’s something you want to buy.

A fashion image I made with the same rented 5D MkII and Profoto ring flash.

For my situation, I am still shooting with my first digital camera (Canon 20D). It is past time for an update. Since this is something I will use every shoot and I have a couple of good jobs confirmed, I am getting ready to buy a 5D Mark II. I have rented it several times because I needed it but couldn’t afford to buy it at the time. I have also rented a Profoto ring flash several times. I love shooting with it but I know it’s something I use infrequently so it is not worth shelling out $6000 so I can get my greedy little hands on it anytime I want.

Like anything in life, we need to find a balance. Between what we want and what we need and what we can afford and what we should just rent. Of course that last part doesn’t really work in all areas of life, but in this case, we’ll go with it.