The airwaves and Internet are full of opinions on the value of brand name equipment for photographers. There are opinions on cameras and lenses, lighting, accessories to support both brand names and competitors. There are even opinions on small niche providers who build products to make a photographer’s life easier (bags, stands, organizing systems, even online services). And of course, lots of stories on saving money by making due with what’s on location or in the environment around you. You don’t always need to buy. So how do you choose when it comes time for a new investment in gear?
I’ve long held the view that a professional should buy the best equipment they can afford. Through experience, inside and outside photography, I’ve found that brand names typically are better designed, better built, work together seamlessly and tend to perform as expected. But I’ve also found that at least a portion of the premium paid for name brands is for the name – it’s often hard to explain the range of prices strictly by looking at quality and function.
It’s also true that the more successful you are, the more you will tend to invest in name brands and accessories. When you’ve got to get the shot or make the deadline otherwise your hard won reputation goes down the toilet, the more likely it is you will spend to do so. But by the time you reach this point, the costs are borne by the business, not by you, and often not even by the business, as manufacturers seek out endorsements from known professionals by fully equipping them with everything they need.
I shoot Canon, and have invested in brand lenses and accessories until now, for the reasons outlined above. No complaints, no surprises. But recently, when I started looking into options for a 70-200 fast lens, I was pulled in another direction simply because I could not justify the cost of Canon’s version of this lens, at least not their best version of the lens, the EF 70-200 f2.8L IS II USM. Canon makes a fantastic product, don’t get me wrong. And they have provided options for the more cost-conscious user – versions with fewer features or with earlier versions of features.
Fewer features didn’t sit right with me, so I started looking around. What I found surprised me.
Both Sigma and Tamron make versions of 70-200 F2.8 image-stabilized lenses. Both Sigma and Tamron have added features that rival the big boys. Side by side comparisons for the most part show equal image quality with a few extra points to Canon only in specific tests like fully zoomed, wide open or extremely low light or odd lighting situations. The biggest difference appears to be in durability of construction and weather-tightness. So if you shoot in weird weather or bang your gear around a lot, the more expensive lens might be your choice. I don’t.
In the end, I purchased a SIGMA OS 70-200MM F2.8 EX DG HSM CANON, with hypersonic motor for quick focus and optical stabilization for improved handheld shooting. At approximately half the cost of the Canon lens, it was a fantastic balance, not compromise, between product features, product quality and cost. And oddly, in Canada, it comes with a manufacturer’s warranty that is 7 times the length of that for Canon. What’s up with that?
So what questions should you ask yourself as you consider the next big purchase?
- What need am I trying to fill?
- How important are the top of the line features?
- How important is durability?
- What risk am I willing to take?
- Can I afford the time to learn to work with something less familiar?
- Do I need this to work seamlessly with everything else I have?
- Is the best case scenario good enough – maybe getting comparable but not equal quality/function?
- Is the worst case scenario something I can live with – possibly less durable, less functional?
- Is there really no other choice financially?