Used camera gear, different creative path

Back in the days of film (“in the long, long ago”), every photographer talked camera systems. I learned to shoot on my dad’s Minolta system using his SRT-201 and stayed Minolta throughout most of high school. My photographic friends used different systems: one was a Canon and the other was an Olympus guy. We couldn’t share glass, so each one of us specialized in some kind of shooting style. Sports photography became my thing as I had dad’s telephoto lens, but he used it a lot for his own work. The time had come to pick a system for myself and I made the shift (with support from my parents) to Nikon, which I steadfastly invested in for about 20 years.

For the first decade, I only bought new gear — until a week before my first trip to Europe and my trusty Nikon N2000 body began to misbehave. I had already picked up a new compact superzoom for the trip, but didn’t have the cash to buy a new body. Faced with few options, I took a chance and picked up a used FE2 from a trusted camera shop in Chicago. I immediately shot a couple of rolls, checked the prints and put my faith into the FE2. When I returned from Europe and looked at prints, I found that while the body was great, I didn’t like the look of images captured by my new superzoom. The prime shots were fantastic, but the superzoom images were visually strange. I put my faith in the used FE2 and it worked like a charm; I assumed that the new lens would give me what I wanted and it fell short.

As a result of that trip, I became fascinated by the “look” of different systems and lens brands. Leica and Contax popped in a way that Nikon didn’t, and yet Nikon had a particular quality when compared to Canon, Pentax and Olympus. Third party lens brands such as Voigtlander, Tokina, Tamron and Sigma all had signature looks as well, but I was a Nikon guy and if the lens I wanted didn’t have an F-mount, I just had to dream…

… until I shifted to mirrorless.

Today, I have over 25 lenses that I adapt to my Sony A6500, six of which were purchased new, and only one is a Sony system lens. Each lens in my collection has a “look” and I factor that in to my creative process. If I’m feeling cinematic, I use my Tokina 28-70mm f2.6-2.8. If I’m in the mood for tack sharp with punchy colors, I pull out my Contax G 45mm f/2. And if I want to walk around at an event, I use my Nikon 16-55mm f/2.8 to take quick autofocus shots.

Because I select a piece of gear based on its creative potential in my hands, I care most about how it works over collectable aesthetics. When buying used gear online you can get a good sense of the aesthetics, but can’t take a a close look at the lens, body or component yourself — you have to trust someone else’s opinion that it works as it should.

It is important to remember that someone let go of that used item you want for a reason, which is — for example — why I’ve come to trust KEH’s grading system as it eliminates previous owner bias. The independent inspection of used gear against a defined criteria lets me know the quality I’m going to get for that particular piece of kit before I buy. Because I know that anything bargain or better will suit my creative needs, I can make an informed purchasing decision without actually looking at the item myself.

Creativity aside, my set of lenses is a working collection that I could have never bought new. The breadth and range of options would have been cost prohibitive as in the past, each lens would have meant investing in another system. For the way I like to shoot, used gear allows me to explore options at a fraction of the investment. And when I’m feeling like building my own lens, I can find something very affordable that can be sacrificed if something goes horribly awry.

That reminds me, I should get back to tinkering with through-the-viewfinder photography. The recently purchased bargain DA-2 action viewfinder for my F3 is calling me…