Yesterday morning, I wrote about how a desire to return to South Africa for a second round at a safari was the driving force that began our recent round-the-world trip. My wife and I love experiencing different cities and cultures around the world, but nothing has excited us like seeing African wildlife. Of course, it’s hard to imagine such an experience in the modern world that isn’t caught frame-by-frame. The beauty of digital photography is that anyone can snap a few thousand photos and likely get a couple of decent pictures. After getting some of our favorite travel photos ever on our first safari using just a simple DSLR and a couple of very basic lenses, I wanted to go bigger. I had decided before this year’s trip that I would like to bring a lens with a bit more reach so that I could capture wildlife that we spotted from a distance — and hopefully get a couple of pictures that we could print and put on the wall.
Camera Equipment is Expensive
Of course, I’m not a photographer. I don’t even have a particularly expensive camera — I use a Canon T3i DSLR that I’ve had for several years. It provides me just enough customization to play with some of the features and feel like a photographer while still being forgiving enough to make up for some of my poor choices with regard to lighting, composition, etc. But as anyone who has gotten beyond the basic kit lens of a DSLR knows, the body of the camera can quickly become one of the least expensive pieces of gear you own (or want). Lenses are downright expensive. As someone who does not get paid to take photos, it’s hard for me to justify owning a lens worth more than a couple hundred dollars. Yet the animal lover in me wanted to capture my National Geographic moments — and so I started looking into online lens rental. There are a number of websites that allow you to rent a wide range of camera equipment, which has always seemed like a great way to play around without getting too fully invested (though I’ve never tried it).
You can rent for time periods from days to weeks. The lens in the center of the image above — the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary for Canon — seemed like a good option to me. My Canon T3i DSLR is what is known as a “crop sensor” camera as it has a smaller sensor than a professional full-frame camera, so paired with this lens it would give the impression of a bit more reach than the 600mm maximum focal distance. Furthermore, the lens was well-reviewed online. Clicking on the page for that lens, I could pull up the pricing chart (without optional insurances):
Renting didn’t seem like a bad deal. However, with my trip scheduled to last for more than 6 weeks, I was a bit nervous about carrying a borrowed lens from country to country considering the possibility of either damage or theft. On top of that, the expense would add up if I kept the rental for the entire trip. I briefly considered shipping it home after the safari to have a family member return it, but that didn’t seem any safer than carrying it.
Why rent when you can buy?
Then it dawned on me: why rent it when I could buy it? After all, camera lenses tend to hold value pretty well. If I paid full price and sold it after the trip, I’d probably be out less money than the cost of the rental. I’ve done that kind of thing before — on the first safari, we arrived under-prepared. We hadn’t packed binoculars! We bought two pairs on a whim after looking up the Amazon prices at home and figuring we could get at least 75% of the money back after the trip, and that worked out. We’ve done similar things with walkie-talkies for a family trip, an underwater camera for a snorkeling trip, etc. Buying and then reselling can be a great way to get the perfect travel gadget/accessory for your trip without committing to an expensive long-term purchase. While the GoPro deal at MR PORTER that we posted the other day is no longer in stock, that would have been a perfect example of catching something on sale cheaply enough that it may have been possible to buy it, bring it on vacation, and then sell it for about as much money as you had into it — leaving yourself ready to buy the GoPro 6 as a “rental” for next year’s vacation.
Furthermore, buying the lens outright could solve my concern about loss or theft. If I paid with a card with the right protections, I might have insurance sort of built-in. In the end, I decided to buy with my Amex Business Platinum card as it would cover the lens if it was stolen, damaged, or lost within 90 days. That gave me additional peace of mind. You can read more about Amex purchase protection for various cards here.
Getting a deal
If possible, I obviously didn’t want to pay full price. After all, if I could get the lens on sale, it would reduce the final net cost I incurred. I went to Slickdeals and set a deal alert for “Sigma 150-600mm”. Sigma makes three versions of the lens: one for Canon, Nikon, and Sigma cameras; they also make a more expensive “sport” version. I try to keep deal alerts as broad as possible. After all, if the sport version went on sale cheaply enough, maybe I’d consider that.
Sure enough, during the holiday season, this lens went on sale several times at very good prices. One night, it dropped to the lowest I had seen: $679 brand new on eBay from an authorized dealer — with an extra piece included: the USB dock for updating the internal software/firmware of the lens (normally about $60 and sold and packaged separately).
At that price, it was a no-brainer. Used lenses sell for more without the USB dock. See the current lowest used prices on Amazon:
How did it work out?
As for taking pictures, I loved the lens. It was a joy to use. Not every picture came out perfectly — but it could have if I was better at handling it. Truth be told, my wife took some of our best photos with it — she’s got a natural eye for taking great photos. This was neither the only lens nor the only camera we brought on the trip, but here are a few of the photos we took at Kruger National Park with this lens (most of these are not full resolution here):
Those are beetles above. Yes, that is a pile of what you think it is. Pro tip: don’t drive on the elephant dung. Apparently, those little suckers have hard shells known to pop tires. I helped a park worker change a tire on a bridge during our first safari while my wife watched out for animals. You’d rather not pop a tire.
If you look just to the right of the bird’s head, you can see an insect flying near its head.
And that wasn’t actually the only lens I picked up for this trip. I also bought a wide-angle Canon 10-18mm. I think I may keep that lens as I think it could be useful for taking pictures of hotel rooms for reviews in the future. I took this photo with it in the park near Lower Sabie:
How about selling the lens?
That worked out as well. I sold the lens on eBay about a week ago for $750. After fees and shipping, I got about $662.50 — and I still have the USB dock to sell. I expect to net at least $30 on that — meaning that my lens “rental” will have netted me a very small profit when all is said and done. I didn’t buy the lens counting on making any money on it; I figured that if I lost less than $50 and got some good photos, I’d feel like that was a decent “rental” price. I knew I didn’t need to own this lens long-term, and this way I wouldn’t feel any buyer’s remorse over owning a $1,000 lens that I couldn’t justify — yet I could still enjoy the fun of having the lens I wanted on the trip. Coming out a few dollars ahead is just icing on the cake.
Of course, this isn’t without risk. The eBay buyer could somehow scam me. The post office could lose the lens in the mail. If I sold it locally on Craigslist, I could get robbed. There are many possible negative outcomes, and those are real risks to take into account — especially with an expensive lens like this. Full disclosure: The lens went on sale a few times at $775 with a $100 Newegg gift card. I bought several of those and sold each one for $825-$870 (some locally and some on Amazon) — netting a bit of profit whether in cash or just the gift card. So I hedged my bets a bit on this lens and fortunately all of those sales went through without a hitch.
I know that some would say that I could have achieved the same end — enjoying my lens for the trip without committing to keeping it — by buying it from a store with a generous return policy and then bringing it back afterwards. That’s just not something I’m comfortable with — buying it and using it and then selling it to someone does fit my comfort zone. The store is happy, I’m happy, the buyer’s happy, and I made a few bucks and got some free Membership Rewards points. Seems like a win all the way around.
Buying and reselling isn’t for everyone, but it’s sometimes an overlooked way to get the travel gadget you want without the long-term commitment to an expensive piece of equipment you don’t need. And for those of us who like to play with the newest toys, shopping around can make that possible. With a little luck, you might get to play with it, sell it, and still come out a few bucks ahead.