What Lens Should I Buy?

Hand holding a digital camer with copy space to add text

If you are a photographer of any kind of tenure or success, at some point you will be asked this question. Most of us really want to be helpful, but many times we end up doing the wrong thing in our desire to help. I try not to make this mistake any longer, but certainly did in the past. Some of that comes from having worked in a camera store where the A priority was rarely what the customer actually needed and partly because I failed to understand that what I liked had a strong probability of being completely inappropriate to the buyer’s needs. If you are the person seeking the recommendation, you are most likely to approach knowledgeable friends or family or if you have the good fortune to know and trust a professional in a camera store, you may go there.

It’s the human condition that we mostly all like some form of validation of a choice. That could come in the form of a recommendation, a published review, or ratings on a web or seller’s site. The challenge is that used improperly, bad answers get given and folks then make poor decisions and end up frustrated or angry. This is certainly not unique to photography, but let’s explore it here.

For the Buyer

Before seeking a recommendation, it’s imperative that you do some homework so you can help your chosen recommender offer you good guidance.

  1. Identify what you cannot do with the equipment that you have, that would make your experience more fulfilling if you could. Write it down.

  2. Identify a budget that you would consider fair if such a spend would help you achieve your desired experience.

  3. Think carefully about how often you require this experience. If it’s going to be an integral and ongoing part of your photographic journey, you may allocate more budget and be more discerning than if it is a casual interest. Simply, how much will you use the item?

  4. Are you sure that your query is about doing something for yourself rather than to try to impress someone else?

  5. Is this something that you intend to keep for an extended period of time or plan to resell at some point?

  6. Remember Heinlein’s Law of Value - There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch aka TANSTAFFL. In most cases you do get what you pay for and something that promises the sun, moon and stars for the investment of an earthworm probably will not deliver. Remember the other side as well, that a proven brand has a price premium that may not be required to serve your use cases.

For the Recommender

Before offering a recommendation, it’s imperative that you make some pretty strong efforts

  1. Forget entirely about how you would approach the problem presented, because you would do so based on your own use cases. That’s right for you, but irrelevant to someone else whose use cases do not match yours.

  2. Be willing not to recommend if the requester cannot articulate their needs and their budget. You cannot win at this point and anything you recommend is likely to be incorrect.

  3. Be understanding that the requester may have asked others, or read the miasma of BS on the Internet and may have been already misled. Help to focus the person back on his or her specific use cases.

  4. If you don’t have enough experience yourself to offer a balanced recommendation, it’s both ok and preferred to say so and not get caught up in a process where you could be the recipient of blame if something goes wrong.

  5. I don’t know enough to make a balanced recommendation is a fair answer. You know that someone with less knowledge will make a bad recommendation regardless so emphasizing the requirement for knowledge is the best that you can do here.

  6. Reiterate your understanding of the requester’s use cases in conjunction with your recommendation rationale. Take this into account when thinking about a budget. A requester may actually ask you to propose a solution for songbird photography from enormous distance in crap light. The right practical answer might be that $20K 800mm f/5.6 that needs its own sherpa. But the budget is unlikely to be acceptable, so “you cannot get where you want to go, for what you are willing or able to pay.” This is a better answer than a partial recommendation as time has proven that the requester only hears the good part of the recommendation. And you will wear the bad part.

The Right Answer

The only right answer is the one that addresses the specific use cases and needs / wants of the requester, even if the answer is “not possible”. Brand alliances are a ridiculous level of prejudice and neither party should engage in them. If for example, the use case demands a Nikon mount, this does not necessarily mean a Nikon branded lens, but it very well could. The information in the requester’s specs will help define the best answer for both.

By heeding these guidances both requester and recommender have better chances of doing the right thing. Or either could just be swayed by the pretty advertisement. Whatever one chooses is a choice.


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I'm Ross Chevalier, thanks for reading, watching and listening and until next time, peace.