The only question in the world of photography that I dread, and the one that I have no answer for: “Is it worth it?” I’m usually eager to answer most photo related questions. Many people have questions about photo gear, asking which is better A or B, or what do you recommend for a specific purpose, these are relatively easy to answer. I can cite hard evidence which can be used to prove my points. However, trying to prove that an item meets a certain level of value can be as slippery as a wet fish.

I’d been thinking about this a lot when I wanted to expand my range of camera classes to include tutorials on the legendary and expensive Leica camerasI first became aware of the Leica mystique when I was in college for photojournalism. My first opportunity to use one was in the 90’s when I got a loaner to use for the afternoon (see photo above).  In order to do my camera classes right, I purchased two Leica cameras and four Leica lenses. If you are not familiar with Leica, this amounts to a small fortune.

As I shot with them over the course of several months, I routinely contemplated the thought, are they worth it? Normally I don’t worry about such analysis, I leave it up to the immense crowd of camera reviewers and internet experts to debate.  But this one struck a little closer to home, these Leica’s and many other cameras are downright expensive and when we spend lots of money we usually like to know that we’re not wasting it.

Leica M10 in Hungary

So back to the question – Is it worth it? There’s a lot going on in those four words, both explicit and implied. I think it’s an impossible question because at its core, it deals with money, and as we all know, everybody has their own ideas about money. One thousand dollars most likely means something different to you than it does to me. Even if you were willing to disclose your entire financial situation to me, I still couldn’t make a good decision for you. Our value system for everything else in the equation is likely to be different. How much value do you put on having an ISO dial on the camera, how important is a more comfortable grip, or how important is a larger collection of lenses?

You’re going to have to ask a different question if you want a definitive answer. If I have to answer the original question in the most simplistic manor, I would ask you in return two questions – 1. Can you afford it? 2. Will you use it? A yes to both of these questions and your answer is most likely, yes, it is worth it.

Unfortunately the question of what you can afford proves to be as tricky as the original question. Is photography a business or a pastime for you? If it’s a business it comes down to cold hard facts regarding whether you have the money or if you can afford the loan, and how long it will take for the equipment to pay for itself.

Leica M10 in Krakow, Poland
If photography is for personal reasons, you’ll need to determine if spending the money will prevent you from doing something else important like, visiting a sick friend, paying for college, or making the mortgage payment. You’ll need to assess how much tolerance you have for a photographic purchase impacting the rest of your life. Now we’re certainly neck deep into our value system where we’re likely never to be in total agreement, so let’s go back and try to answer the original question.

How do you decide if something is worth it? Start by determining how much you will use the item in question. The more you expect to use it, the more likely it’s worth it. Try to disregard how much you “want” an item, because after the exciting honeymoon is over, it will just be another tool in the tool box. As for the money, ask yourself if spending that amount of cash will negatively affect other parts of your current or future life. If you can make the purchase and keep the rest of your life going without disturbance, then the item is indeed something you can afford.

So what about that expensive Leica system I bought into, was it worth it? It did get me a unique and high quality system of equipment that I enjoy using and has resulted in photos that I’m happy with. I’ve kept food on the table, a roof over my head and the tax collectors at bay all while capturing photos in a manor that makes me happy. So I’d have to say yes, it was worth it.

Was it good value? Now that’s a totally different question for another time.

Leica M10 in Budapest, Hungary