Behind the Camera: Does Gear Really Matter?

· Reading Time: 34 minutes

Welcome back for another installment of my monthly Behind the Camera series.  It is in this feature that I will take a question that has come up during the month and answer it, or I’ll use it to discuss something that has been on my mind.  As we enter August I’m motivated to ask a question of myself as well as you.  Does gear really matter for the photograph?  I’ve been right there so many times saying that it doesn’t matter and I still stand by that.  Photography is all about the vision and the creative force of the one who is manipulating the camera.  The biggest difference that can be introduced to the quality of the image is that of the one capturing the image.  I’ve said for a very long time that the camera is just a tool as much as a hammer or a screw driver.  The implication of those statements is that what tool you use doesn’t matter to the final product.  That might not be exactly correct, and is probably a very generalized takeaway from the discussion.  Having spent about two months now sorting through some new equipment purchases I’ve found myself asking myself if I am just buying to collect gear because I seem to have GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) or if there is a real reason behind those purchases.

I’ll always say that the photographer is who makes the picture and you have to have a creative vision along with the talent and skills to make an image that rises above that of a snapshot.  The gear which is used is just a portion of the equation.  That portion can be important though.  You can drive a screw into wood with a hammer…just ask Toni.  The better option is to use a screw driver.  The best option is to drill a pilot hole and then use a screw driver.  If all you have is a hammer, you can arrive at the end result, but it won’t appear as finished and will take a lot more effort to accomplish.  The same can be said of photography.  The gear that you choose should be the right gear for your needs and should be designed to make your life easier as you produce your photographs.

The thing that photographers focus on the most when looking at gear is the latest and greatest camera bodies.  This is where the manufactures make a killing because they are selling the idea of obsolescence to you and making you think that you have to get the next version, or a higher priced body to make your pictures better.  In my tenure as a photographer, I’ve shot with and sold images from a (basically) point and shoot Sony F828 (8MP) camera, a Canon 40D (10.1MP), 5D Mk2 (21.1MP), 5D Mk3 (22.3), and 5DS R (50.6MP).  In the real world, the only change that I saw in image quality was when I stepped up to a DSLR and left my OG Sony.  The difference was in the amount of noise in the image which was based on the size of the sensor moving up to a cropped body DSLR.  The differences between the 40D and the 5DS R are minimal until you get into making prints larger than 13×19″ when you start to see the difference in detail with the higher resolution.  All I am saying here is that for most photographers, any of these camera bodies would work just fine for image quality.

Where the difference comes in with paying more for camera bodies is convenience of the controls.  The current Rebel body offered by Canon is a better image making machine than my 40D and possibly better than the 5D Mk2 because of improvements made to the sensors over time to reduce noise and provide a cleaner image at higher ISO ratings.  However, the control layout on the body is menu heavy with lots of dual function buttons that will open up features like exposure compensation, white balance, ISO, etc while even my more than a decade old 40D had dedicated controls for all of these features which made it easier to navigate setting changes on the fly.  For me, this is the biggest reason to spend money on a body because at any given time, the image resulting from a camera will be largely the same.  The higher end camera will allow you to get the images quicker and easier if you take the camera out of auto mode regularly.  I rarely have to access the menu in any of the DSLR bodies that I have owned and that is a big help for me.

Alaskan Spring“, Canon 40D, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk1, B+W KMC Polarizer, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop soft edge ND Grad

If the 40D is as good an image maker as my current 5DS R, then why do I have a long list of bodies which I’ve used since 2007?  Well, that is a very simple question to answer.  I researched all of the brands when I was still shooting with the Sony and found that the Canon “L-series” glass was generally considered the best optics from any of the camera manufacturers.  Nikon was said to have slightly better bodies at the time, but playing the long game, I knew that I was going to want to invest in top notch glass more than anything.  As an added bonus, the Canon bodies fit my hands better than the Nikon ones did.  The controls seemed better placed for me as well.  With my budget constraints, I opted for the mid line 40D and three L lenses (17-40mm f/4L, 24-70mm f/2.8L, and a 70-200mm f/4L) and a 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 to give me a wide angle lens on the cropped body.  This served me very well for the first couple of years that I shot with it which included a trip to Alaska (see above).  I had no problems making prints up to 17×25″ with this camera and I loved it.

That 40D met its end on a winter hiking trip to Hanging Rock when I had it mounted to the tripod along with that 10-24mm lens when I slipped and fell on the trail.  I broke the lens barrel and jarred something loose on the inside of the camera which affected some of the focus features and the ability to use the remote shutter release on it.  An interesting note about that was around that time Toni had gotten an interview set up with Roy’s Folks which was a local news feature here in the Piedmont of NC about my photography.  For the bit that they filmed about me, I was using that broken camera to demonstrate what I did.  I hadn’t received the new camera yet and I needed to be able to show how I worked in the field, so the broken camera was how it went.

Because the camera and the wide angle lens were both dead, I took that as an opportunity to move up to a full framed camera with a higher MP count with the hopes of getting more detail in my photographs.  By going to a full frame camera, I wouldn’t have to replace the lens at all because that 17-40mm lens that I had would be plenty wide on a full frame body so my pack would actually get lighter at that point.  The really nice thing about this move was I was able to keep the same controls that I was used to with the 40D while adding a good deal of weather sealing and resolution.  In practice though, I didn’t see much difference between the images that I was creating.  The upgrade didn’t make me a better photographer, and I usually forgot that I was shooting with a different body because it felt and operated the same.  What I missed was that cropped sensor because my 70-200mm lens was now just a 200mm lens while I was used to it being a 360mm on the cropped body.  The money that I saved by not having to buy the wide angle lens was then put into a 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L lens to give me that reach that I had lost.  This lens was many times more expensive than the wide angle lens that no longer needed to be replaced.  If I were a wildlife photographer, the move to a full frame camera would have been utterly stupid in hindsight.  Noise levels between the cameras were about the same because there were many more pixels placed on the slightly larger sensor so the pixel density was quite similar which is what leads to the noise.

I went around with this kit for another year or so and then got so fed up with photography that I sold it all…and I mean I sold everything and gave up on photography.  Well, me giving up was more of a hiatus because a couple of years later I had the bug to take more pictures once again.  Of course, that was hard to do without a camera and at the level that I wanted to be operating at, a cell phone camera wasn’t going to hack it.  Since I was going from the ground up, I took the opportunity to research the big brands which were now Canon, Nikon, and Sony which had a very good reputation as a camera maker once again.  In the end, it was seeming like a wash between them as to which was better overall.  I went with my own advice and selected a body that fit my hands and had the right controls for what I shot.  I ended up going with the current offering from Canon with the 5D Mk3, which was physically just like the Mk2 I had sold.  The sensor had a few more pixels in it, but I wasn’t really expecting much in the way of improvement.  It really was the same camera in practice.  I believe that there were some buttons on the back that had been moved from below the screen to the the side of the screen or something like that.  It was a minor change though.  Knowing that I needed my favorite lenses, I went with a 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2 for the wide angle shots, a 24-70mm f/2.8L MK2 for the backbone of my shooting, and I rounded it all out with a 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2 for the telephoto duties.  I added a 2X teleconverter to mate to the long lens to give me the 400mm of reach that I needed occasionally but without the weight penalty of the second telephoto lens.

Linville’s Autumn“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

This is where I chose to upgrade my gear a little bit from my previous selection.  You might have noticed that most of my new kit was faster at f/2.8 rather than the f/4 glass from earlier.  Originally, I had gone for a cheaper version of the glass for budget concerns and to keep my pack weight a bit lighter.  Since I was having to replace it all, I opted to go with a faster lens selection because on the rare portrait shoot that I had done, the f/4 glass was a bit limiting and I wanted to have that flexibility in my kit which led me to an all f/2.8 selection which is the slowest of the “fast glass.”  It was a tool choice that fit the way that I shot currently and opened up some other potential for down the road which I thought was a good idea.  I found that the 5D Mk3 was a great camera and it turned into the body that I shot with the longest of all that I have used.  It was a minimal jump in resolution from the Mk2 and I saw about the same noise levels at higher ISO which didn’t bother me since I rarely shoot above ISO 200 anyway.  I kept plugging along with this camera and was actually making prints in excess of three feet tall with the images that it captured.  Was I a better photographer with this camera than I was with the 40D?  Yes, but it had nothing to do with the camera body choice as they were both equally as capable.  The difference was my skill level with the camera and knowing how to capture a scene.  It was the larger prints that were starting to present a problem though.

It was seeming that more and more I was being asked to produce print sizes much bigger than what I was comfortable producing from my camera.  Because of the demand for the larger prints, I had to start thinking about changing the tools I was working with.  I was also starting to do more with portrait work and I was really wanting to get into a mirrorless body for the Eye-AF feature which would follow the eye of the subject regardless of motion which would make things much quicker when photographing people.  I had two areas where I needed to see an upgrade which was a unique situation in my tenure as a photographer.  Up until now, my upgrades had been a matter of replacing broken or sold equipment.  This was the first time I was looking at replacing a perfectly good piece of equipment that wasn’t fulfilling my needs as it once did.

I was looking at moving over to Sony for the Eye-AF feature on the A7R-IV body which was their high resolution camera body.  It would have fit my needs for a 60MP sensor, great dynamic range, and the auto focus that I needed.  The problem was, I was going to have to swap out all of my lenses and go with the Sony mount which was going to be an expensive proposition.  I also didn’t like the feel of the camera body at all in my hands, and the controls didn’t make much sense to me at all.  I could tell that I would not like using this camera at all, so going to Sony was out of the question.  Canon only had the EOS R body which had the Eye-AF and a higher resolution than what I had, but not as high as the Sony.  It was also not really in line with the 5D series that I was so used to in terms of features and controls which made it more of a step down in my eyes.  I would also want to swap out all of my lenses to go with the RF mount “L” glass.  This was going to be an expensive option as well, but might be worth it for the upcoming EOS R5 body which was the mirrorless equivalent of the 5D series that I loved.

I waited and due to the pandemic, the release of the camera was delayed and Canon marketed it as a video camera more than a stills camera which kind of made me shy away from it.  I also wasn’t doing much in the way of portraiture so I wasn’t needing the auto focus of the mirrorless camera.  With the art gallery sales slumping as well, I wasn’t seeing the need for the extra resolution either so I was content to stick with my aging 5D Mk3 as it was working out just fine and meeting all of my current needs.  Meanwhile everyone else was scooping up the latest and greatest bodies from Sony, Canon, Nikon, and Fuji.

It wasn’t until a friend of mine mentioned that B&H was offering the big boy Canon 5DS and 5DS R bodies on clearance that my GAS kicked into gear once again.  Both of those bodies were over 50MP in resolution and were based on the 5D body that I had grown so familiar with over the years.  Having it marked down substantially made it a minor investment and it would allow me to keep my current lenses which would save me money.  The resolution was between that of the proposed EOS R5 and the Sony A7R-IV which would give me plenty of resolving power for anything that I wanted to shoot and would allow for huge prints with no loss of detail for the art galleries when they started selling prints again.  It didn’t have the Eye-AF feature, but I wasn’t focusing on doing portrait work anyway and had been working with the mirror based AF for a while now anyway.

Doughton’s Tree“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters, Focus Stacked

The difference in this camera from the 5D Mk3 are hardly noticeable on the computer unless you zoom in deep to an image.  There is a ton more detail to be had here, but in the real world, you really can’t tell a difference between the cameras.  The differences that I do notice are not good differences though.  The file size is huge from the 5DS R which is slowing down my processing and filling up my hard drives much quicker than before.  The files are roughly three times the size of what the 5D Mk3 was producing and the panoramas are largely unmanageable with the new camera on my aging computer.  The noise levels are also higher on the new camera because the physical size of the sensor is still the same, but they have stuffed over two times more pixels in it.  I knew that this was a concern when I bought it, but figured that I don’t do much high ISO imagery anyway so it wouldn’t be a problem.  Well, it was more of a problem than I thought as I was used to being able to shoot up to ISO 800 without a problem on the Mk3.  Now, I’m seeing noise that I consider severe at ISO 400 on the 5DS R.  More than anything, that has prompted me to keep the old Mk3 in service for those occasional times that I need a very high ISO setting.  The biggest benefit to the new camera is the ability to produce gorgeous images of 6ft or more in size, and that was why I selected that body as an upgrade.

All of that history was just to point out that the camera body is not all that important to your photography.  As long as you are selecting the body that meets your needs and makes sense to you then you are on the right track.  There is nothing at all wrong with an entry level body if it has the features that you need.  If you like to shoot in auto or program mode then you really don’t need access to the same features that I do shooting in pure manual mode.  The money you spend should be on the glass which has the most impact on the image out of everything that you have in your bag.  Remember, my decision to go with Canon was based on the quality of the glass rather than the specs of the body.

When it comes to lens choice, there are typically three tiers to choose from.  You have the kit lens tier which is what is usually included with the entry level bodies which are something like an 18-55mm and 55-200mm.  These lenses are usually just a couple of hundred dollars each and they are light.  It is what most folks will get with their cameras and will be happy with them.  If they work for you, then by all means carry on.  However, you are usually making some concessions with these lenses as the front element is not fixed.  That means that it will rotate as the lens focuses which is a problem if you are using a filter.  It will change the polarization effect, or move the horizon around on a grad filter.  It just adds a step which can be annoying.  Second, while the optics are usually quite good in these lenses, the build material is not all that great so the lens will change shape in the heat of the day causing image softness to appear due to the plastics expanding and contracting.  These lenses are also slow and variable aperture which means that you will only have the f/4.5 aperture on the wide end of the lens while the longer end of the lens might only give you f/6.3 as the widest aperture.  This will force you to shoot with a slower shutter speed and to have a larger depth of field.  If you are on a tripod, and shooting landscapes then this is fine.  If you are a portrait photographer, then this will be problematic on several fronts.

The next tier of lenses is typically the enthusiast line of glass.  It is better constructed, generally a tad faster, and has great optics.  The focusing will be internal so that the front element will not twist as the lens focuses which is great for filters.  This is the range of glass that I would recommend that you start looking at.  You will start to get prime lenses offered here as well as different zoom ranges to fit your needs.  The lenses will range from a couple of hundred for a 50mm prime to to around $800 for an all in one zoom lens.

Damp Autumn“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters

Those looking for weather sealing and robust builds to stand up to harsher use need to look at the pro level of glass.  This is what I use and I love being able to shoot in a driving rain with the rain dripping off of the lens barrel knowing that everything is good to go with the lens.  You will also be able to get much faster glass at this level.  Fast glass is generally thought to be f/2.8 or wider.  You can get prime lenses with apertures of f/1.2 which will make your depth of field very slim.  If you are wanting this type of style in your photography, this is the level of lens that you need to be focusing on.  Also, look to pay four digits for each lens, and some will hit the five digit realm for fast telephoto lenses that sports shooters need in order to keep their shutter speeds fast and capture images a hundred yards away.  Glass is where you will see your investment grow quickly and that is where most of my money is tied up in my kit.

Why do I recommend investing in glass?  It will outlive the camera body in most cases.  Had I not sold all of my gear in 2011, I could and probably would still be shooting with that same collection of lenses.  I still wish I had my 180mm f/3.5L macro lens and the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L telephoto lens which I sold.  That would have lasted me through four different bodies and more than a decade of shooting.  That was the plan when I purchased my gear the first time.  I wanted to have a lens collection that I would have for several decades as the lenses just don’t give up that easy.  Unfortunately, I had a temper tantrum and ruined that plan.  When I came to my senses, I built a lens kit that would serve the same purpose and it has seen me through two camera bodies now.  Realistically, I could still use them with the mirrorless camera if I chose to do so with an adaptor.  I would lose none of the functionality of them with the adaptor and the would all work flawlessly.  The difference is, the RF glass that is being developed now is superior to the EF glass that I have now because of the design limitations that had to be made for the DSLR body which are not a concern with the mirrorless.  I would be able to get lighter, smaller, and faster glass with the RF mount which would benefit me in my landscape work as well as any portraiture that I might do.  The cost of admission is going to be very high though which is preventing me from making that jump.  It is an easy pill to swallow though since it will not make a noticeable difference in my image quality, just in my own convenience and possibly some new creative options with portraiture.  That is not enough benefit to outweigh the $15,000 buy in for the gear.

Tripods are the next area that I think that one should really spend their money on.  This piece of equipment becomes the platform that your camera is mounted to which allows the lenses to capture an image and place it on the sensor, or film.  If that tripod is not steady, then nothing else will matter because it can’t live up to its potential.  I would go into more detail here, but I just finished writing about tripods last month and you are welcome to refresh your memory on why they are needed.  The main point that I want to make here is that when you save money on tripods, you will get flimsy platforms that shake and could easily be knocked over.  You are getting confusing levers and controls which make them look advanced, but just add to the complexity of the operation.  Spend the money and get the stable tripod and solid ballhead because just like the lenses, your tripod and ballhead will outlast your camera bodies many times over.  I have no doubt that I could still be shooting with my first Manfrotto/Acratech combination that I had in 2007 had I not sold it.  I loved that combination so much, that is what I got in 2013 when I entered back into the photography game and I’m still using it regularly.

Filters are the last area that I think that you really need to spend your money on.  There are so many ways to cheap out on filters and so many photographers fall into that trap.  Hey, its just a small thing that goes in front of the lens to provide some type of filtering, how important can it be?  You can read the previous Behind the Camera on filters to see what I use and how I use them.  Much like the tripod scenario I mentioned above, if you put a cheap filter in front of you top tier lens attached to a very capable camera body which is mounted to a sturdy tripod, you are going to be getting an image through a cheap filter.  That means visible anomalies, ghosting, color shifts, color casts, and just generally odd looking images.  You can have the best of the best gear and if you are shooting through a $20 filter, then you have an image shot through a $20 filter.  If you get a high quality filter and place it on your well thought out camera kit, then you will let all of your gear choices shine through in the image.  That makes it a no brainer for me, that’s for sure!

On the subject of filters, I would like to point out an often missed opportunity to save money here.  Typically, a photographer will have at least two lenses in their bag and often more than that.  The chances of having all of your lenses being the same diameter is slim.  In my workshops, I’ve run into many cases where a photographer will have a 58mm, a 67mm, and a 77mm diameter lens in their kit.  Personally, I’m running two 82mm and a single 77mm diameter lens.  More often than not, I’ve seen photographers using different sized filters to cover all of their lenses.  Sure, this is a valid option, but it takes room in your bag and adds weight over time.  Most importantly though, this is an expensive option.  Lets say that you have a good quality polarizer that runs roughly $125.00, but you need it to fit a 58mm lens and a 77mm lens.  You now have $250.00 tied up in just a polarizer.  I always recommend working with filters in the 82mm size and using step up rings to make them fit your individual lenses.  This will avoid any vignetting issues when used with lenses smaller than 82mm.  These rings run a couple of dollars each, so to fit those two lenses, you are looking at $127.00 vs $250.00.  Think about that over several different filters and you will be saving all sorts of money and space.  I also recommend going for a filter system that accepts flat filter in either the square or rectangle variety because you just have to buy the filter once and the adapter rings are not terribly expensive to make them work on your different lenses.

But does gear make you a better photographer?  It sounds like it might, but that is incorrect on many different levels.  There have been challenges done so many times where a professional is given a basic point and shoot camera and an amateur given the top of the line gear to see who makes the better image.  Hands down, it is the professional photographer no matter what they are shooting with that will produce the better image from an aesthetic point of view.  Photography is about the creative vision and the ability to execute that vision, not about what is in your hand during the process.  Always spend more time learning the craft than filling your camera bag.  Learn how to read light and how to capture it.  Learn composition and timing.  Find gear that works for you as you run into situations where you just can’t make your current equipment work for you.

Remember that these bits of kit are all just the tools that you use in the creation of your images.  I was making images that I was able to sell with an 8MP Sony point and shoot using filters that were not much more than mid grade, all placed on a variety of cheap tripods.  The reason I was able to sell those images was that I learned to work within the limitations of the equipment and I found the situations that my gear would work the best.  It started my love with cloudy day photography because I knew that the sensor on that camera, when paired with a polarizer, would show artifacts between the deep blue sky and the limbs on a tree.  I just avoided that situation and found that cloudy days were easier to work with on that particular platform.  As I’ve gone deeper into the art of photography, I’ve found the limitations that my gear has and I’ve found ways around those limitations.  When I have the funds available to make life easier for me, then I will upgrade and learn the next level of limitations.  It is those limitations that really prompted this entry as I have been dealing with new limitations as I get more and more serious about doing portrait work.

Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2

I think that most photographers start out doing family photography and are very familiar with photographing people by the time they decide on which direction to go with a camera.  I’m a little opposite as I first picked up a camera seriously and decided to go out and do landscape photography.  It was through constant prodding from Toni that I started to consider photographing people.  Again, the first time I did that was with the old Sony camera that I mentioned and that was a very difficult thing to do because of the limitations that the camera had with a very rudimentary Electronic Viewfinder that was slow and laggy with a long period of blackout between shots.  This never bothered me while shooting landscapes because not much moved in front of the camera during the shoot.  My gear now is much better for doing portraits and many professional portrait photographers use the same equipment as far as the camera and lenses.  However, for a photographer that deals in natural light photography for 99% of his work, I was very limited when it came to portrait work.  I learned to work around that limitation by being a natural light portrait photographer which meant that I needed all of my shoots to be outside with a flattering sun.  You can imagine how easy it was to plan portrait shoots having to take into consideration the weather.  Well, I managed to make it work and I learned how to use reflectors to bounce the light from the sun to where I needed it in some situations.  I learned how to use on-camera flash as a fill light which was not all that flattering in many cases since it was direct light from the same position I was standing with the camera.  I was making it work though because gear doesn’t matter on that level.

The more I made it work though, the more I found that I was beating my head against the wall.  I was learning all sorts of little tricks to help work the existing light, but it was all forcing my photography into very narrow directions.  Much like avoiding the contrast between the blue sky and the green trees with the Sony camera, I was having to avoid inside photography, and even had to be careful with working in the shadows for portraits.  In order to make the images that I was wanting to make, I was going to need to get better tools, but this didn’t mean that I needed to get the latest and greatest gear.  Nope, I was looking at this kind of like I do with my camera bodies.  I was looking at things that had the features that I needed and that made sense to me.  I wasn’t interested about special application gear, or things that this photographer used or that one did.  I wanted to find out what would fit my style of working and what my current needs were.

Sure, I would have loved to have gotten heavy duty booms that I could roll around my studio which could hold anything from lights, to modifiers, to reflectors, but I didn’t need that and certainly didn’t need to spend thousands of dollars for stands.  On the other hand, I didn’t want a short plastic stand that would break or fall over.  What I needed was something that would stand up to regular use inside with occasional use outside for those times I needed to modify existing light for portraits.  I did my research and found some stands that fit my requirements and turned out to be rather inexpensive.  With a little bit of care, I should be able to make these stands last a long time no more than I will be using them.

I was going to need light and from what I had researched, I was wanting at least a two light setup with a potential for a third light later on.  I already had one Canon speedlite from my original purchase in 2013 along with a Canon transmitter to allow that to work off camera.  It was an expensive light, but one that was quite capable.  I could build a lighting kit around that, or I could go with more dedicated light units which would have more power and output.  When I started to crunch the numbers, I was going to more than wipe out my allotted budget in getting two lights and stands which would leave me no money for lighting modifiers.  It is the modifiers that will make or break a light source.  The decision was made to build around my existing light knowing that this would be a secondary direction with my photography and not a primary one.  With the money I would save, I could get lighting modifiers to make better use of the lights and give me more flexibility in my portraiture.

I added a stepped down version of my existing light that would be used for a fill light so I wasn’t going to need anything overly powerful there.  This light was only a few hundred dollars which got me a two light setup which would be sufficient for interior shoots.  Working outside to counter the sun would be a limitation with this setup, but I doubted that I would find myself in that situation enough to warrant the added expense of a high power studio strobe.  I had my stands and I had my lights.  There was still money in the budget for some modifiers so I researched what I would likely need.

What I ended up doing was getting two lighting kits which included a shoot through umbrella with a black skin to be used as a reflected light source along with a diffuser panel that would make it a softbox.  Was this as good as having a full on studio setup?  I highly doubt it, but it would give me options for my lighting and allow me to do several different things with the two lights that I had.  To fill in a potential gap, I wanted to get two strip lights for some very specific lighting that I wanted to try.  Strip lights are very expensive modifiers and are generally not designed to go on a speedlite.  Through my research I have learned about the Strobistrip which is a soft modifier that is designed to go over a flash head.  When paired with two lights you can have nearly six feet of strip light which is enough to illuminate an entire subject very specifically.  That rounded out my lighting and basic modifiers.

I then needed to work on backgrounds and some reflectors to fill in the voids in some lighting scenarios.  I had thought about the muslin backgrounds, but that would end up not being overly mobile so I opted for a 5×6.5′ collapsible backdrop that gave me the option from the standard gray to a blackish green tint.  I already had a 5-in-1 reflector that I had learned how to turn into a black or white background so I had plenty of options there and they were portable.   To join that one reflector, I went with a smaller round reflector that could be placed under the subject to fill in light under the chin.  Of course, I found stands for the background and reflector the same way that I did with the light stands.  It would have been cheaper to continue using Toni to hold these things, but I had to make sure that I could work solo if needed, and to free her up for other tasks during a portrait shoot.

In the end, I spent just $1000.00 for a mobile studio lighting setup which actually left me a little in my budge which would allow for a third light if needed down the road.  I know that it is not perfect, and there are limitations that I will have.  This is the part of photography that I have grown accustomed to over the years and I’ve found that the limitations make me better at what I do because I have to think outside of the box and many times these limitations help to define my style as a photographer.  The main thing that I had to keep in mind is I had to buy for what suited my needs.  Since I’m not booking portrait shoots daily, or even weekly, it would have been silly to spend five times what I did to get higher end equipment.  If things turn around and I start to do more portrait shoots then there will be a need for the upgraded gear.  The way that I have built my current kit, I can upgrade bit by bit as needs change, or I can do it all at one time.  That was my way of future proofing my setup.  That third light that I left open, could very easily be a dedicated monolight which could then be used in conjunction with the exiting two light setup to provide a key light and something powerful enough to counter the sun.  If I decided that I didn’t need something that powerful, I could very easily go with another speedlite for cheap.  I knew that before I spent the big bucks on this, I needed to learn how to use the basics and then see where I needed the improvements to be made.  That is the process of growth.

All of my choices for gear are designed to be made for what my current needs are as well as what I think the future needs might be.  I know that I am producing images regularly which I intend to sell and potentially in a very large format.  For that reason, I have always needed high quality image making equipment.  If it had just been for a hobby, I could have gotten away with much less investment, but that would have limited my ability down the road.  I’ve reached the stage where my photography is paying for itself and I have vowed to let it do just that.  If I’m not making money off of my gear choices, I made the wrong decision.  My gear is my collection of tools which provides a way for me to make my images and make money.  If I’m not making money with what I buy then it was a waste of a purchase.  I could care less about what looks cool, and what the newest thing is.  I need results, and if it doesn’t provide a value for what it does, I don’t need it in my bag.

Sit In Awe“, Canon 5D Mk3, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, No filters, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

So, does gear really matter?  The popular answer is that it doesn’t, but it does…just not in the way that the manufacturers want you think it does.  When I’m not behind the camera, I am a bit of a gearhead and I love tinkering on vehicles.  I’ve been collecting tools since I was 15 years old which I use regularly for maintenance and repairs.  I’m proud of my tool collection and they have never failed me in all of the years that I have used them.  I’ve also worked for many years in different dealerships in the service and parts departments and have seen what professional mechanics use and why.  If any of them came over to look in my Craftsman toolbox, they would laugh at me because I’m using basic tools.  They get the job done for me, and since I’m not using them on a daily basis for many different tasks, the chance of wearing them out is rather slim.  On the other hand, that mechanic is making money from his craft and needs tools that will make him more efficient (impact wrench), and will be less likely to break with continued use.  This is why professional mechanics will sell their first born for a 10mm Snap-On socket and I got mine in a 156 piece socket set when I was 15.  I can do all the same things with my socket, but under heavy use, it might not hold up over time.  I just don’t need that kind of quality for my needs.  What is much more important is that I know how to do repairs and maintenance and continue to expand my knowledge of how to work on cars.  That will serve me much better than getting top quality tools.

When you are deciding on purchasing gear, you should always look at the “value” of said gear and what it will bring to the table.  If the biggest reason for purchasing a piece of kit is that it is new and all the cool photographers are using it then you are not looking at it in the right way.  You should always look at a potential piece of new gear in the light of what can it do for me, and is the cost of it worth that investment?  At the end of the day, the only thing that people will know of your photography is the photograph that you crafted and created.  Nobody cares what you shot it on…really, nobody cares.  At the end of the day, the gear you use just has to make you happy and make it to where you can create the images that you want as conveniently as possible.

This kind of brings me to another aspect of Gear Acquisition Syndrome that many folks never consider.  When you start upgrading, you are usually forced to upgrade more than just what you are thinking that you will.  Something as simple as a new lens could mean that you will have to get a bigger bag to carry your gear with you.  You want to have it available to use don’t you?  If you upgrade to that large resolution camera like I did, you might be in for a rude awakening in that your computer might not be able to process the files, and then there is a matter of storage of the much larger files.  I was very fortunate that before moving into a 50mp camera, I did some dry edit runs with sample RAW images to make sure that I could deal with the file sizes.  It was satisfactory with the single images, but when it came to merging files together, my machine couldn’t keep up.  As luck would have it, a bmp in RAM to 32gigs fixed the issue without the need to get a new computer, but the possibility was there.  I’m now looking at storage options as the final files that I am creating are significantly larger than the ones that I had been with some of my panoramas in excess of a gigabyte in size.  When I started out on my quest for some better lighting options, I ended up down a rabbit hole that forced me to get stands, and then to get reflectors and backdrops to make full use out of what I was buying.  When I started out, I was just thinking that I needed to get two lights.  That went off the rails quickly as adding new gear often will do.

If left to my own devices, I would be out getting the 100mp medium format offering from Fuji along with a full complement of lenses in primes and zooms.  It would allow me to make images of twice the resolution than I can now with better noise control.  I would have access to more top end features and it would make photography……well, not that much different actually.  It would also set me back about $20,000 or more after all the necessary purchases along with the new system and I don’t think I would make that investment back in any kind of realistic time frame.  On the other hand, my $1000.00 investment in middle grade lighting for portraiture has already seen a return of nearly half in just a couple of months.  I will make money off of that lighting, but switching to a medium format camera won’t make me money for a very long time.  Now, if things start to change and I start selling more prints and portrait bookings I will be able to justify the expense of the new camera system, but those sales are based on my abilities, not the equipment that I am using.  That is how gear matters, and why it doesn’t.  Always go for what makes your photography easier and more fun, not what is newest or most expensive.


Thank you for joining me for this installment of Behind the Camera.  I hope that you enjoyed it and learned a little something that might help to save you money in your own endeavors.  As always, if there is something that you would like for me to talk about here, all you have to do is ask.  I’m always looking for new topics that will be of interest to others.  Also, if you are in the market for new gear, check out the links below for some of the items that I use and have talked about here today.  By clicking on the links and making a purchase, whether or not it is that particular product, it does help me out and doesn’t cost you a cent extra.

See you next month!
Remember to use the code KISER10 to get 10% off your purchase

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