When I first started getting into photography, I learned about the “newbie tax.” Cameras and their many accessories are expensive, and because you’re a beginner, you feel like you can get away with something cheaper. Instead of buying the $300 tripod with the $150 ballhead, you buy the $20 tripod from Amazon.com. After all, it got 4 stars, and it comes with a carrying case!
Your new tripod arrives, and it’s mostly fine, but one of the knobs is a little bit loose. Two months later, the knob breaks. No worries, you think to yourself. You only lost $20. But maybe it’s worth buying the $60 tripod this time. Your new tripod is sturdier, but it’s also heavy and unwieldy, so you rarely take it out. You finally force yourself to bring it with you on a five-mile sunset hike, but afterward, your sore legs and shoulders convince you to spring for the $150 ultra-compact travel tripod.
And on and on, until you finally end up buying the expensive tripod anyway. The cost of all those cheaper tripods you bought and subsequently discarded? That’s the newbie tax.
I think there’s some truth to this in photography as well as many aspects of life. By definition, newbies can’t truly know why good tripods are so valuable (and, hence, so expensive), which makes it hard for them to evaluate tradeoffs. However, money is also an imperfect representation of value. I have certainly paid my share of the newbie tax in my day, but I’ve also bought plenty of cheap equipment that continues to work beautifully. My 16-year old nephew takes better photos with his cheap phone than many gear heads I know who only own top-of-the-line equipment.
Furthermore, I’m not sure the learning you get from paying the newbie tax doesn’t pay for itself in the end.
A few weeks ago, I bought a cheap crab net from my neighborhood bait and tackle shop, and I decided to try my luck with it at Fort Point this past weekend. I know almost nothing about fishing, but the owner of the bait shop insisted that it was easy and that I would have a blast.
And I did! But it wasn’t easy, and it turned out the equipment she had sold me wasn’t quite adequate. My net was good enough to catch crabs off the pier, but it wasn’t sturdy enough to fend off the seal that dived under the pier repeatedly, stealing bait from chumps like me who didn’t know any better. The regulars on the pier shook their heads sympathetically as I stood there, staring at the hole in my net where the bait used to be.
I had paid the newbie tax. I was annoyed by this, and I was even more annoyed by the seal that, only a few moments earlier, I was marveling and cooing at. But afterward, I couldn’t help chuckling at our little run-in and appreciating the gorgeous morning I had spent on the water with my sister, sipping tea, gazing at the Golden Gate Bridge, taking in the community that met regularly at that pier, and day-dreaming about the tasty dinner that I didn’t end up catching. I’m pretty sure that my experience as a whole was more than worth the newbie tax.
Off to buy another (more expensive) net!