Gear Purchasing Advice  *** Under Construction***

Buying dive or photography gear is simplest only if you fall into one category: Price is all that matters. Now all you have to concentrate on is finding the cheapest (or most expensive?) list price on your widget and then locating a vendor. In dive gear and high-end photo equipment, there are usually not many deep discounts. Do a price scan on the internet (see this warning) and buy away, or just visit your local shop. Be aware that most manufacturers now have price controls in place (thanks to the internet). Deep discounts usually violate their vendor agreements.

If you are like the rest of us, the gear purchase angst overwhelms you because you want to balance price and performance according to your own individual tastes. If feature X really worth another $50? Or, I want the "best" possible widget for my $500. This kind of circular exercise can consume vast quantities of time and effort. Here are some of the guidelines that I have settled on by chasing my own tail over equipment decisions. There are very few "best" pieces of gear. It all depends on what you are doing with it and what is your tolerance for complexity and price.

First, some hard won realizations that are crucial to keep in mind:

  1. Gear is Disposable: Yes, disposable. It can wear out relatively quickly (like gloves) or last "forever" like tanks, but even all these can be lost, damaged beyond repair or stolen. Electronics these days quickly go out of production. Life cycle of some digi-cams is less than 18 months. Recognize and accept that you will not be making a permanent choice.
  2. Disposable Gear Means Disposable Accessories: Be aware that replacing some items often triggers the need to replace accessories as well. Get a new underwater housing and it won't fit in your old travel case. So, the dollar drain sometimes doesn't end with the item replacement.
  3. If You Can't Afford To Replace It, Don't Buy It: If you are thinking "I can afford to buy the camera body, but I could never afford to replace it", then step down in price. You may have to replace it.
  4. Few Purchases Turn Out 100% Happy: I, for one, am always wondering should I have spent the extra dollars and gotten the Super Deluxe model, or did I buy too much. Try and convince yourself that once the purchase is complete, you'll stop fretting.

Gear Buying Philosophy: The purpose of this list is to assist in weaving your way through the sometimes overwhelming price/feature combinations available in diving and photography equipment.

  1. Gear Is An Investment: Think of it as a medium term investment. "I will do 250 dives in this wetsuit, that's $1 a dive." This attitude also makes buying better equipment a little more palatable. Don't think of it as, "I have to pay $250 to get in the water next weekend."
  2. First, Decide What Basic Goals You Have: Do you want to be warmer during a dive? Do you want to photograph skittish wildlife? If the first thing you do is to dive into the long list of features, it is easy to get lost and succumb to the marketing ploys. The more precise your goals, the better.
  3. Decide If The Basic Features Are Affordable: First, the market sets the prices for items, not you. You can't decide that a 600mm lens is "worth" a couple hundred bucks. You have to live within in the bounds of the prices of the market. Let's take diving in a drysuit as an example. Diving dry will cost you between $1,000 and $4,000. Is this price range on your RADAR screen? If it is not worth the low-end of the spectrum, you're done. Game over. Get this clear in your mind before you start shopping. Sounds obvious, right? It is obvious, but too many people skip over this step and start fretting over the prices without admitting to themselves that it is out of their price range.
  4. Advanced Features Bring Convenience: Here's where the price you pay insidiously creeps upward. I have met many divers who proudly claim that their new Vytec dive computer is a three gas computer. "Oh, you are a technical diver, huh". "No", they say, "...but the Vytec is a three gas computer." Be sure you really need the extra features and resist the urge to buy upward if you don't need or can't use the features. Better gear DOES NOT make a better diver or photographer.
  5. Overall, Shop Benefits, not Features:
  6. Look To The Future: Leave room in your decision for expansion. I have seen many people say, "I'll never dive nitrox", only to regret not spending a few extras dollars to get a nitrox computer.

Photography Equipment

Choosing of cameras and lenses is typically a tough thing to do simply because you are doing so without a lot of reliable data. There are five basic sources:

  1. Personal Experience - you just borrowed, rented, or went out and bought it (hoping the stated return policy is true).
  2. Personal Referral - from some known, hopefully experienced, source.
  3. Internet Review Sites - These are generally well done, but they do not typically compare across classes, for example comparing 5 MP cameras with 8 MP cameras. They also can not tell you which camera is the "best" for you.
  4. Discussion Groups - take them with a grain of salt. The temptation is to say that these are "real" users with "real" experience. But , there are many blow hards, and it is hard sort them out. If you had enough experience to sort it all out, then you wouldn't need to consult them, would you.
  5. Bigger is Better - just buy the most expensive or highest numerical value - like megapixels (MP), resolution, focal length, etc. This is usually doomed to failure and later self-recriminations.

The other thing that I have learned in buying, being disappointed, and sometimes returning photo equipment is that photographers (and here come the howls) often split hairs over things that don't matter. I recently bought a highly recommended Nikon lens for around $1,600. Sharp beyond compare, supposedly. Out performs anything on the market (this came from several pro photographer's). When I did a controlled test against a $500 Nikon lens under the kinds of outdoor light I shoot in, the $1,600 was indeed sharper - barely. The $1,600 lens was also more color neutral - barely. I returned the lens. There was not $1,100 worth of improvement. I showed people examples from both lenses and no one could see a difference either.

People want to give weight to the "better" equipment without evaluating whether or not it really is better. They also believe it is a "badge of professionalism" if: 1) they own professional gear and 2) they say"Well... I can tell the difference." This same scenario has played out many times in my engineering career - in medical devices and aerospace systems. Nothing shuts them up faster than a double blind test. All protested that they could tell the difference, until the test results came in. Oops!

What does this mean to the equipment shopper? Just be wary. When someone says that a lens A is significantly sharper than lens B, the actual difference may be small. All of these judgments are subjective.

There are some objective tests being done on lenses. However, as an engineer with 20+ years of experience, I can also tell you that individual numbers (like the number of pixels) do not tell the whole story in a complex system.