Stuff I Wish I’d Never Bought

Published January 23, 2011

When I wrote about stuff I would buy with my own money it got me thinking about all of the buyer’s remorse I’ve had over the years, both with personal gear I’ve bought, and with things I’ve bought for Lensrentals.

I’m a gearhead, so this isn’t about “things that weren’t profitable”. Our accountants would have a somewhat different article. This is about lessons I’ve learned buying bad stuff, buying overhyped stuff, and buying stuff I didn’t really want. My definition of “bad” is stuff that just doesn’t do what I expected it to do. Either it’s not up to the task, it doesn’t hold up well enough to use for the task, or, in a few cases there really is no task for it to do.

Lesson 1: Just Because It Does Something Cool, Doesn’t Mean It Does Something Useful.

A friend sent me a blurb about 3D technology that basically said “Finally, the technological difficulties holding back 3D have been overcome. Within a few years all movies will be made in 3D.” The only thing interesting about the blurb was it was written in 1954, during the second golden age of 3D images (the first being stereoscopic photography, which was all the rage for a while before the turn of the century). Makes me wonder if history is repeating itself.

But, yeah, I saw Avatar and immediately bought everything 3D I could get my hands on. It started with the Fuji 3D W3, a 3D point-and-shoot. Great idea, except the only place you can view the images is on the camera’s LCD unless you have a compatible 3D television or computer. It’s the camera that answers the question “If you take a picture no one else can see, what have you accomplished?”

Not one to learn a lesson easily, I followed that up by doubling down on the Panasonic SDT-750 the camcorder that would let us all shoot 3D video. In my excitement I neglected the fact that hardly anyone had the software to edit it, or the screens to play it on. Or, what is most unforgiveable, that the quality of the lens is poor and the images are adequate, at best. Want one? We’ve got lots in stock. And honestly that’s the best place for them.

I totally bought the “We’ve got to have it” hype surrounding 3D without considering that the technology isn’t anywhere near finalized. Even if a 3D camera is great, reality is the formats are completely fluid. It’s as likely as not that in a couple of years today’s great 3D format will be tomorrow’s Betamax tape. You won’t have anywhere to play it. Lesson (hopefully) learned.

But probably not. This wasn’t my first time to buy the hype. Several years ago the Astrovision Night Vision Converter was also too cool to pass up. You attached it between lens and camera and every lens in your bag was a Night Vision device. Who wouldn’t want that? Well, anyone who read the fine print that the resolution was 1 megapixel passed on to the camera – you could make a very nice 1 inch by 1 inch print from the images. That was about it.

The VIO Helmetcam was another one of these mistakes. How cool! A video camera that attaches to your helmet with a remote control on your wrist. How Spiderman is that! Except it was an SD resolution camera in an HD world and the footage wasn’t suitable for much this side of YouTube. But it looked like a great idea in the catalogue.

Lesson 2: Don’t Buy First Generation Technology

There are a lot of these mistakes for me to chose from. I’ll use the Olympus EP-1 as an example. Not because it was a bad camera – on the contrary it was a groundbreaking camera. Cool enough to fit the Lesson 1 criteria above (I was about berserk to get them weeks before they were released) except it wasn’t all hype. It really was what it said it would be: a point-and-shoot size camera that used interchangeable lenses and had an SLR-size sensor. It was awesome.

For a few months it was awesome. Then its shortcomings became apparent – the first time out with it left me impressed with what it could do in such a tiny package. The second and third time left me frustrated with all that it couldn’t do. Then newer mirrorless cameras from Panasonic eclipsed it, the EP-2 followed quickly behind the EP-1 and eclipsed it. Another round of Panasonic cameras double-secret eclipsed it. Four months after the first EP-1 arrived was the last time anyone (working here or renting) used one.

Even with the second generation mirrorless cameras (Olympus, Panasonic, Sony NEX – it doesn’t matter) we’re faced with yet another dilemma. The cameras are getting pretty good, but there’s still not much in the way of decent lenses for them (there are a few for the Micro 4/3 now, still nothing for the NEX). So we’re left shooting other sized lenses on adapters because the lenses available for the cameras are mostly dung. (The few excellent Micro 4/3 lenses are not enough to make a complete kit by any means.) A tiny camera loses something with a 5 inch long lens and a 1 inch long adapter attached to it.

My worst mistake in the “First Generation” series isn’t any of the mirrorless SLRs, though. It’s more recent, proving I didn’t learn my lesson from the above. And it could also qualify under Lesson 1: Just Because It Does Something Cool, Doesn’t Mean It Does It Well. So I guess I didn’t learn that lesson either.

The Sony NEX 10 video camera sounded like exactly what we’d been waiting for: an SLR-sensor camera in a video body. Plus it looked rather like an enemy ship in one of the Star Trek movies.

It’s not a bad camera actually, but I failed to do my homework. Already knowing the other NEX lenses were awful, I assumed for some unknown reason I can’t seem remember now, that the 10X zoom that came with the NEX would be good. Of course that lens is awful, too, and the adapters needed to shoot decent lenses on the NEX10 are only now, months after release, readily available. Even then, the nested-menus-instead-of-switches preclude serious video work. And with a good lens mounted on an adapter, the camera is difficult to balance because it’s so front heavy.

Lesson 3: Don’t Be an Early Adopter

I don’t have any choice. We have to have the latest and greatest right now because everyone wants it. But, since I’m being honest, I’d probably be an early adapter anyway. I buy into the ‘best-lens-ever-is-soon-to-be-released’ hype as badly as anyone. (Unless it’s a Canon lens, then I know it’s best-lens-ever-is-recently-announced-but-won’t-be-available-for-months-and-months.) But the times I’ve taken a beating by being first to the plate swinging at a newly released item are TNTC (too numerous to count).

I’ll give just a few of the worst examples. Lets start with the Sigma 50-500 OS lenses. Got one, tested it, fell in love, ordered 30 copies.

Then it was announced that the autofocus chips were defective and they were all going to fail. Someday. Maybe next week. Maybe in three months. A fix was available, but you couldn’t send the lens in to be fixed until it failed. So here I sit with 30 lenses no one wants to rent or buy because they’re going to break. From a company that won’t fix them until they’ve broken.

Before that was the Tamron 70-200 f2.8. Tried it out and it was very sharp. Slow to autofocus, but still a decent lens. Bought a bunch. Half of them broke by the third month, which is about when reports started leaking in about them not being very reliable. Repairs took forever and we eventually just dropped it.

Its not just third party items, either. Who can forget the Canon 1D Mk III that had to have the autofocus assembly replaced on every copy (and guess who had the first copy available from 6 different camera stores). Or the Canon 24-105 that had the strange light streaks until the baffle was added later. (But kudos, Canon, you manned-up and fixed it eventually, unlike Brand S).

And of course there’s the never-admitted-but-somehow-disappears problems that early copies have that later copies don’t seem affected by, like I talked about in This Lens is Soft and Other Facts. The sticking zooms in early copies of the Nikon 24-70s that don’t stick in later copies; or the metal shavings in early Nikon 70-200 f2.8 VR II barrels that aren’t there in later copies. Sigma 150-500s and 120-400s that all seemed to break the first year after release, but that seem fairly reliable now.

The list is long. Very long. Long enough that if I had one piece of advice to give it would be “don’t buy anything for the first 6 months after release”. Let others discover the problems and wait for them to be fixed. Yeah, I’d give that advice. But I probably wouldn’t follow it.

Lesson 4: You Can’t Make a Silk Purse Out of a Sow’s Ear

I like a bargain as well as the next person, I promise. But I’ve wasted more money trying to achieve “cheap and good enough” than on anything else I’ve done. Mostly with lenses, that attempt to get “good enough at a great price” has bitten me in the rear.

The Sigma 18-50 f2.8 and Sigma 24-60 f2.8 (this is not the Sigma 24-70 f2.8 that’s a completely different lens) lenses are good examples. They’re f2.8 fixed aperture lenses, how bad can they be? Well, at f2.8, they can be pretty bad. Not so bad at f5.6, but then neither are most 18-55 kit lenses. We’ve dropped them all now, but I still have the words of one of our technicians to remember these by – “We aren’t certain if this copy needs repair, but it does seem somewhat more awful than the other copies”.

In both of those cases, I didn’t do my homework. I read a few reports of “I love mine” but didn’t read extensively because, well, it was a cheap price for an f2.8 lens. How bad could it be?

Lesson 5: The Non Upgrade

This is another one I have little choice about. We have to stock the newest upgrade, whether it’s better or not, because that’s what people want. But this one lesson I’m comfortable I really have learned. Show me the improvement, not just the Version II slapped on the side, if you want my money.

Here’s one I totally regret. When Tamron released the 17-50 f2.8 VC I assumed it would be a Vibration Controlled version of the excellent Tamron 17-50 f2.8 lens. So we sold all the old ones and stocked all the VCs. But I didn’t really look into it. Same really good lens, now with Vibration Control, I assumed. I’m supposed to be the ultimate gearhead and I never looked at the construction of the lens before buying it.

Construction Diagram of the Tamron 17-50 f2.8 and the Tamron 17-50 f2.8 VC

If I had, it would have been readily apparent that they changed the optics in the lens, it wasn’t just the same lens with VC. And unfortunately, it’s just not as sharp as the older version was. I’d rather have the old optics and no VC, but the change has been made.

But generally this is a lesson I’ve learned well. When Nikon released the new II versions of its supertelephoto lenses I got pretty amused by people wanting to know when the latest and greatest of each would arrive because they just had to have it. We have to stock the new ones, of course, but as an individual I would never have made the switch. And even for Lensrentals, I’m keeping the old ones until their two years is up: they’re perfectly great and cheaper to rent.

Lets look closely at that upgrade, shall we? A new coating on a lens that already had excellent coatings. A better Vibration Control unit, probably worth a stop. (They claim 2 stops, they might be right, although I don’t get that much. But then, I drink a lot of coffee.) Exactly the same optics, same minimum focusing distance, same autofocus system, same MTF. Let me ask you – if Nikon offered to upgrade your VC unit for $1,500 how many of you would be rushing off to do that?

Look at the lens diagram and MTF charts below to see the remarkable Version II differences.

Optical diagram and MTF charts of the Nikon 300f2.8 AF-S (left) and Version II (right)

And for comparison lets look at the difference with a real Version II, this time the Nikon 70-200 f2.8 VR II. Its obvious from just the lens diagram that this lens is completely redesigned and optically different. Its a true Version II.

So here’s one lesson I’ve really learned: avoid the nonupgrade.

And just to stop the emails before they start: I’ve already heard from a couple of people who upgraded their Nikon Supertelephoto and say they can see a difference. We’ve got 6 to 12 of each version in each focal length and everyone who works here has made the comparison and we can’t tell a difference even testing resolution with optical charts, much less in the real world. The only people I know who can tell the difference have invested a couple of grand in being able to tell the difference. I don’t care how many people are going on about the finery: The Emperor has No Clothes.

Lesson 6: The Specialty Tool for the General Photographer

Want to know the most expensive “Roger’s Folly” we’ve got? Without question it’s the Leica S2

Incredible resolution? Check. Amazingly sharp lenses? Check. Pretty nice interface and fairly easy to use? Check. Now then. What exactly do you do with it? Well, studio work for full-page magazine ads, I guess. I’m really not sure. Its a marvelous tool, but too limited to be an everyday camera. And the specialists who might use it are generally happier with true medium format.

All of us have shot with it once or twice, gone “ooh” and “ahh” over the amazing images, and then put it back in the cabinet never to pick it up again. Not many other people have either. Only the fact that I’ll have to admit to the accounting department that I’ve made a $25,000 mistake has kept me from selling it and closing the line out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure its the perfect camera for someone. It just isn’t for me and wasn’t for us. A general practice photographer just doesn’t need a subspecialty camera and lens set.

So there you have it folks: the ultimate “Don’t do what I do. Learn from my mistakes.” article I can write. I could go on for another two or three pages, but it would just be repetitive.

By the way, someone emailed about some of my negative “Roger’s takes” and the question they asked “Why do you say things that keep people from renting a product?” is pertinent to this article. The answer’s pretty simple. If an item doesn’t perform as our customer expects, they aren’t happy with us. If they aren’t happy they aren’t likely to come back. It’s just good business for us to let everyone know exactly how a given piece of equipment will perform on the front end, rather than to make apologies after the rental is over.

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Equipment
  • Stu

    Ohhhh, been there repeatedly. Superb piece! You did not mention the fluff associated with crop cameras as pro tools. I bought one once. It was not good enough to even ride shotgun in my bag. My well used and highly regarded 1DMkIV is a daily tool, one that I recognize the limitations of and work around. Lenses? No more “bargains”. The L glass delivers regardless of conditions. I fail to see the cheap mentality as valid. Don’t you depreciate these items on you taxes?

  • Mark Gholson

    Thanks for this great article.

    For 20 years I dragged my Nikon F2s around the world with 3 non-AI prime lenses. It never broke down and served me well.

    The best decision I made was trading a nice 45mm GN f2.8 for a beat up 10.5cm F2.5. The GN was always at home in the box, but the 10.5cm was always on the camera. I made a lot of panoramas with that lens because the distortion was so low.

    Now, with my “new” D1x, my old non-AI primes (slightly modified) are back in service. They are razor sharp compared to the newer AF lenses and I still get spot and center metering.

    I’ll bet this beat up D1x will last as long as the F2s did.

  • Love your candor – in this article and across the website in general. Should I ever have a rental need, I will come to you guys. Keep up the good work.

  • Karl Riek

    Nice article, Roger. Made me laugh because I’ve suffered from similar traits over time too; nice to know I’m not alone.

    Much like computers, newer isn’t always better. And, as with Window OS platforms, never ever buy the first release.

  • “Why do you say things that keep people from renting a product?”

    I think that makes me think you’re a person who treats customers as he would treat himself. That doesn’t alienate me from renting with you, au contraire, makes me not even wanna check the competition based on your honesty.

    Now that I know you guys ship to FedEx site with no deposit, I’m gonna rent something from you once I come up to Vegas for a summer trip…now, the problem is deciding which lens?!

  • Thanks so much for this article! I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the gear I’ve bought that ended up in the bin (or on the shelf collecting dust). Great lessons here, and it’s really great to hear them from someone who has the means to buy and try all of the latest equipment. Thanks!

  • Thanks for writing this! It made me feel better about all the crap I bought that just didn’t work out. Seems everybody does it sooner or later. I have stopped chasing the newer and better, fantasy. I settled in with a 2 cameras and a set of lenses that work for me and just work on getting better images. I do use some of the mistakes from time to time which serves to remind me to stay the course. Someday I’ll buy again…..
    But I am going to rent for a test drive before I do.

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