As a freelance photographer, the question I ask myself most often is whether or not I should be spending my hard-earned money on new equipment — especially when I’ve only just become intimately acquainted with the many features of my last purchase. The short answer: Yes.

After many years in denial, I’ve come to realize that upgrading your gear virtually always results in better image quality and, therefore, better work opportunities. Now, what gear you should be buying depends entirely on your own style and imperatives — “one-size-fits-all” hardly applies to photography. So, before maxing out that credit card, here are the fundamental things to take into account whenever it’s time to upgrade.

Choose Based on Your Needs

Different cameras and lenses serve different purposes, and it’s crucial that you have an idea of what kind of photography you want to shoot, either as an enthusiast or a professional, before making a big purchase.

Take an example from me: When I upgraded my beloved Canon EOS Rebel T2i DSLR camera for a Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR camera, the jump felt enormous. Prior to owning my Rebel, words like “ISO” and “sensors” meant nothing to me; I’d purchased the camera on a recommendation from a store clerk. The camera turned out to be great and easy to use, giving me a smooth introduction into the world of DSLRs.

However, once my projects became more ambitious and opportunities started rolling in, I realized that my camera wasn’t capable of performing certain tasks the way I needed it to. (For instance, its sensor and ISO range weren’t ideal to shoot in low-light conditions — I was shooting concerts at the time — and it wasn’t right for shooting video, which forced me to reject lucrative offers.)

Upgrading at that point was a necessity — and, once I did, it became apparent that my shiny new camera not only led to better jobs, but also further developed my personal relationship with the medium.

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By the time I decided to upgrade again to the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV DSLR camera, I knew perfectly well what its added features (including an ISO range of 100–32000 and 30 full-frame megapixels) meant for my needs in terms of low-light performance and resolution. I was also stoked by the idea of built-in Wi-Fi and being able to focus with a touchscreen — both attributes I knew would be life-savers when covering events.

The same principle applies to lenses: Your choices should depend on what you’re aiming to shoot. For starters, Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens is a fantastic (and very affordable) standard prime, famous for its sharpness, small size, and multipurpose nature. If you’re looking for a zoom lens though, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM telephoto is ideal for shooting far distances, and the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM is great for wide-angle shots.

Never Skimp on Research

The best way to approach the overwhelming world of gear is first to do some dedicated online research, paying particular attention to user reviews. As a self-taught photographer, the internet has been an indispensable resource; it’s full of other enthusiasts who can give you helpful information about a product. (Believe me, I’ve searched for everything, from “What kind of camera does so-and-so use?” to “What does megapixels mean?”)

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Once you’ve determined what gear might be right for you, it’s a good idea to give it a try through a rental company. Some camera stores even allow you to take equipment out for a test run before purchasing, which is especially important if you’re looking to switch brands or are trying out a new type of equipment for the first time. Keep in mind that there are good reasons why some cameras are more expensive than others, so make sure you’re well informed on what your new gear can do for your work.

Make a Budget and Prioritize

In spite of the plethora of state-of-the-art photo gadgets on the market (anyone who’s walked into a big, bright camera store will know exactly what I mean), the reality is that most of us have to work within a budget.

A good way to avoid becoming overwhelmed is by locking down essentials first and going for accessories second. A good camera with a fast lens will go miles in terms of high performance, and these are the two most important tools you’ll need to produce quality work. Once you have these secured, you can go wild and start adding other items to your cart (or wish list) from the marvelous and infinite world of photographic gear. Then, get out into the field (or the concert venue, or the wedding locale, or the neighborhood) and click away.

Francesca Beltran is a Mexican visual artist, writer, and producer based in New York. Aside from her personal wanderings, she works in media creating original content for a variety of clients and publications.

This post is a sponsored collaboration between Canon and Studio@Gizmodo.