It’s an old saying that means doing things in the wrong order. I could also say, don’t run before you can walk…but I had this picture handy. I want to apply the idea to the tools you need to make portraits.

A friend asked on Facebook the other day about the most important factor when buying lighting equipment. It’s a complex question, but I think the first part of the answer is easy.

Learn it before you buy it

The are many brands and types of lighting tools out there. I’ve used several, and I’ve owned a few too many. You can save yourself a lot of money and trouble by only buying what you will really use. The best way to know what you will utilize the best is to learn to use the tools before you buy them. Then you know you’re getting exactly what you need, and augmenting those tools with accessories as you grow and change your style will be cost-effective.

One of the worst feelings is buying a tool and never using it. It’s depressing to have a thing that you know other people use to make terrific pictures but your own results are less than great. Let’s not talk about my ring-light misadventures.

Use up what you’ve got

Furthermore, before you buy anything new, you should wear out the tools you already have. The best lighting tool in the universe is the Sun and most photographers haven’t exhausted its possibilities. you can make a very good living using nothing but sunlight. Direct, indirect, reflected, magnified or diffused — the sun does it all, and often on the same day. You can go a long way without buying any lighting tools at all. Although a 5-in-1 reflector is always good to have close by.

Buy books, attend workshops

If you looked at my equipment buying history, I would be the biggest hypocrite. I bought a camera ten years ago, and then I bought a reflector and a speedlight within three days.

However, before I even owned my first digital camera I had discovered the kinds of portraits I wanted to make and studied as much as I could about it. I read all of Joe McNally’s books and attended workshops with David Ziser and Sandy Puc. I admit it was funny to be the only one in the audience who didn’t even own a camera.

I learned as much as I could about the tools I was planning to use before I owned them. When I bought my first speedlight that weekend, I already knew how to set it up for off-camera work and how to make it work well for portraits. In fact, I never once attached that flash to the top of my camera. There was literally nothing more I could learn without the flash in my hand.

A useless cart

I have stuff in my closet right now that I don’t use and I should never have purchased. It was flashy, and the ambassador for it made it look so cool. And it works great for his style and his work. But I should have learned to use it first to see if it really fits the way I like to work.

Buying things before you know how to use them is like buying a cart for a horse before you even own the horse. Or maybe before you even own a place to keep a horse.

I’m all for buying the tools you need to do your work and I’m glad there are so many innovative companies out there making wonderful tools. Just get yourself a horse-full of knowledge before you buy a tool you won’t use.

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.