Ok, I’m here to warn you about the dangers of becoming obsessed by owning the latest and greatest in photo gear. The only problem is that a lot of this new fangled gear is just too cool for words and I don’t blame you in the least for drooling over it! Every time I get on my podium and state that, “Back in my day, when we were hungry, we ate our film!” somebody waves their latest gadget in front of me and I think “Well shit – I have to have that.”
So before I start warning you to please be careful with what you buy, because I will be doing that – it’s the responsible thing to do – I would like to first state that I am really pretty impressed with many of the new photography gadgets hitting the market. There’s a fantastic mentality behind most people who design and create apps that there’s no point in making them unless they solve a problem (with the exception of celebrity apps).
I particularly love technology designed to make tools that used to be crazy expensive somewhat more affordable, like drones or slider rails and incredibly useful apps like Sun Seeker that allows you to track the direction and placement of the Sun for location shoots. The list is long for useful apps, although many of the apps are designed for casual and hobbyist photographers, which is great, but this website focuses more on commercial photography where apps like Instagram have less use.
However, I urge you to think carefully before spending your hard-earned money – photography can be an expensive hobby and an even more expensive profession. What kind of equipment you need obviously depends on the type of photography you shoot – candid and street photographers can get by with a wonderful short list of equipment, where commercial photographers are simply expected to have the gear necessary for large shoots regardless of the cost.
And of course there are some pieces of equipment that you should focus as much of your budget on as necessary, such as lenses and cameras. Actually, this is one of the many reasons that I believe going to an actual photography school is such a good idea – most schools are pretty well equipped with lighting and production gear and it gives you a good chance to try the equipment out in order to see what works best for you before you buy yourself.
Lighting and modifiers in particular can be inexpensive or even homemade – I talk a lot about lights and modifiers in the Lighting theory section. The lights I most often use now are Profoto 2400 WS studio strobes, and they are beautifully designed lights – easy to use and very reliable but a bit on the expensive side. As far as I’m concerned, light is light – whether you’re using a $10,000 power pack or a $500 mono-head, they both go pop in the end.
The only two things that really matter to me about lights are the accuracy of their colour temperature and how powerful they are (if I’m shooting still life, then I don’t even care about the power as I can multiple pop the strobes if they cannot give me enough power in a single pop). There has been many times when I have worked on commercial shoots that had a budget of many thousands of dollars, and used a $15 flashlight to light the shot.
As for modifiers, there are some that I will just buy, but many more that I will fabricate as I need them. I can’t be bothered to try and build a soft box or Octabank, as it is just too much work. But when it comes to increasing the size of my light source, I prefer to work with scrims anyway, and there’s no way I’ll buy a scrim. They are ridiculously easy and cheap to make and you can make them to the exact size that you need at the time – lighting modifiers like snoots can be made by rolling up a piece of black construction or seamless paper.
When I am working on a still life, I often use the weirdest light modifiers such as shining a hot light through a bunch of empty liquor bottles (we’re not here to discuss why I always have a large supply of empty liquor bottles – that technique is called Projected Light by the way). I actually just recently worked with a local glass blower to create a specially designed piece of blown glass for projected light and it is fantastic to us.
Just don’t get sucked into the marketing spiel put out by lighting and light modifier manufacturers that state your work will become sublime if you use their product. Speaking of which, I saw a post on petapixel.com called the “Cheap Shot Challenge” that advocates reproducing shoots that were produced using very expensive equipment by using very cheap equipment. I think this is the most brilliant idea ever! It teaches some incredibly valuable lessons; primarily that equipment is not what makes the photographer – knowledge, artistic vision and the ability to improvise are what make superb photographers.
The only worry I have about a challenge like this is it could put new photographers in danger of infringing on another photographer’s copyright. It’s one thing to copy another photographer’s style and quite another to flagrantly copy another photographer’s image. Actually, I will soon be uploading a blog post specifically on copying other photographers in order to learn how they were shot and why that can be both helpful and very dangerous.
But before I get your hopes up too high that you really don’t need much equipment to shoot at a high level, there is an exception – and that is commercial photography. There are times when the “Cheap Shot Challenge” is not appropriate! As a hobbyist photographer you have the advantage of being able to work with whatever equipment you like. Wedding photographers need top notch cameras and lenses, but they also must be extremely mobile and able to set up in a moment’s notice. Which means they tend to travel light in regards to lights, modifiers and grip equipment.
Commercial photography is another story – it depends a lot on the kind of work you do. For example, editorial photographers often travel with a minimum in lighting and grip equipment, but for some types of commercial work (advertising in particular), the only objective is to get the shot perfect and you simply cannot take the risk of not having the equipment you may need for the shot. When I shoot advertising on location, I pretty much bring the entire studio with me.
Larger commercial shoots typically require a lot of equipment, but they also usually come with fairly large budgets for gear. This means you don’t have to necessarily own $100K worth of camera gear, lighting, modifiers and grip equipment. Many commercial photographers have been dumping their gear over the last few years and simply rent the equipment when they need it. Those rental fees are then passed on to the paying client.
It especially makes sense when you need to shoot with medium format camera systems like a high-end Hasselblad digital that can cost tens of thousands of dollars and, being digital, will be old technology in a few years time. Far better to rent such gear as you need it and that way you have the best and newest of everything when you shoot and you don’t need to worry about maintenance or depreciation of value. If you live in a large city, it will be very likely that there is a photographic rental store available to you.
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There's no junkie like gear junkies
There's no junkie like gear junkies - Ok, I’m here to warn you about the dangers of becoming obsessed by owning the latest and greatest in photo gear. The only problem is that a lot of this new fangled gear is just too cool for words
Bluesky is a photography tutorial website created by veteran commercial photographer and college instructor Greg Blue. This site advocates an approach to learning studio & location photography that focuses first on light theory (these are free tutorials). Lighting, camera and post-production techniques are equally important, but should follow the study of lighting theory (these tutorials are also free). The site also offers a host of specific image tutorials that take a mile deep look at theory and technique from the perspective of individual images (these tutorials are members only).