Three Surefire Purchases That Will Improve Your Work.
With press releases about new gear popping up on the market, rebates on current models, the holidays and tax season just around the corner; this is the time of year that many begin thinking about their next large gear purchase.
What piece of gear will offer the greatest improvement or add increased capability to your current lineup? Well, the answer is not always simple because every person has a different set of gear and a different set of needs. That will never change. In fact, the best way to answer that timeless question “What is my next upgrade?” is to evaluate the gear that you already own and look at the type of work that you do, then make a decision based on those two factors.
With that said, there still are three, key gear purchases that will (just about) always upgrade or improve your current bag of tools. In this article, I am going to go over those three things, but I am going to keep it very general while citing some specific examples.
Being a photographer and cinematographer, I work in two professional worlds that are very closely related, but they are indeed different. There certainly is some overlap, but specific gear needs are very different. My thought behind presenting a broad recommendation is in order to write relevant content for both audiences. Without further ado, here are the three gear purchases you should be thinking about when that money is burning a hole in your pocket.
1) A Prime Lens
No matter what type of shooting you do, there is that perfect focal length that you find yourself going back to over and over again. Maybe it is the sweet spot on your walk-around/ run-and-gun lens, or maybe it is an end of your zoom lens that does not deliver quite as sharp an image as you would like. Whatever that focal length may be, there is a prime lens that covers (or comes very close to covering) where you want to be shooting. As a bonus, this prime lens will likely be smaller, lighter, and offer you a faster iris that is more consistently clear and with less distortion throughout the entire aperture range.
Canon 24-105mm f/4L is a great example of a ‘go-to’ lens. It has Image stabilization and a wide-to-telephoto range on both crop AND full frame cameras, making it a popular choice for people to leave on their cameras, a lot. Canon also makes prime lenses at six focal lengths that fall within the range of the Canon 24-105mm f/4L. With the exception of the 28mm, which has no L series counterpart, the remaining lenses come in L Series and non-L Series versions and are: 24mm, 24L, 35mm, 35L, 50mm, 50L, 85mm, 85L, 100mm and 100L. While I am certainly not suggesting that you buy every prime lens within that range, (would that not be nice to have anyway?) there is at least one that suits your needs.
The benefit does not end there. Prime lenses can change the way you shoot. With your legs being your only ‘zoom’ option, prime lenses can leave you at a focal length that presents a perspective that you may have zoomed away from, overlooked or have not otherwise considered. For example, on a recent non-work trip to Boston, I carried only my 7D and a 50mm lens. I had no option but to shoot everything: cityscapes, interiors, portraits and abstracts at a fixed focal length that I would have not always preferred, and it opened my eyes on how to make the adjustments that I needed in order to get the shot that I wanted. I was constantly re-evaluating how to compose each shot, especially when I could not get as wide as I would typically want. Overall, I was very content with the results and I can attribute the learning experience to stepping outside of my comfort zone. Shooting on a prime lens forced me to do that. When looking at your next gear purchase, a fast prime lens should definitely get some consideration.
2) Camera Support
Whether you want to go light and fast or big and durable, there is a camera support system out there made specifically for what you are trying to do. Having the right support system could be the difference of getting the shot or completely missing it.
I specifically avoided calling this section ‘tripods’ because they fall into the much larger category of camera support systems, many of which people do not know much about.
For example: Cotton Carrier makes a two-camera vest system that allows you to move around actively while keeping your hands free until you need them on one of your cameras. For under $200, this everything-you-need-to-carry-two-cameras system can also break down into a single camera chest harness, a single camera belt clip, or stand-alone camera hand straps. Their brilliant adapter system allows you to use their harness and still keep a quick release plate on your camera, which gives you the option to use a tripod in conjunction with this system without the a need for swapping plates. This is just one example of how an easily accessible camera can promote you to shooting more often or at the very least, getting the camera in your hand much quicker. Both of those side effects of a vest or belt system can instantly improve your results and capabilities.
Tripods are like prime lenses in the sense that manufacturers design them to do one function well. This is why I can justify owning multiple tripods for different purposes. Sometimes you need one that extends over six feet tall, and sometimes you just want one that fits in your carry-on luggage so that you do not have to pay to check another bag. Choosing the right tripod for what you want to do can also be as difficult as choosing the right prime lens. With so many options out there, features such as degree markings, ball heads, fluid heads, bubble levels and spiked feet could be the missing essential piece of gear that you need to solve the logistics puzzle of your next shoot.
A common support system for video shooters is a camera rig or cage. Utilizing one of these systems can allow more ergonomic operation, help stabilize handheld (or shoulder mounted) shots, and even protect your gear. Additionally, these rigs are capable of mounting matteboxes, follow-focus systems, off camera monitors, audio recorders, power packs and much more. While expensive, these support systems can be invaluable ways to eliminate the need for an assistant on set, saving money in the future. Furthermore, they are infinitely expandable and are available as a set, or as individual pieces.
Camera support systems run a wide gamut of products and it can be very overwhelming when deciding on where to begin. The decision should always start with attempting to solve your current shooting challenges rather than adding an additional service. My experience with Redrock Micro products has been very good over the years. They offer a variety of pre-made kits, but I have always opted to build something from scratch that suits my exact needs.
We can always use more light. Even direct sunlight during mid-day could benefit from a complementary fill. There seems to be an endless amount of ways to bring a little bit more light into your life.
Speedlights are compact, battery operated flashes used on and off camera. If you have ever seen an event photographer at work, then you have likely seen a speedlight on their camera’s hotshoe. Even the most basic, no-frills speedlight can give you a quicker, more powerful burst and spread of light than your pop-up flash. Without a doubt, the biggest advantage of a speedlight over a pop-up flash is the ability to change the direction and beam angle of the flash head. With just those features, you can bounce, reflect, cut and soften the light it puts out, creating a less-directional light for your images. If you want directional light, then a speedlight can do that too. With the help of radio triggers, you can use a single or even multiple speedlights off camera, either as multiple light sources, or grouped as a single source. Another very attractive feature of a speedlight is that modifiers are plentiful and relatively inexpensive. There are also dozens of ways to build effective DIY modifiers on the cheap. A quick google search of “Strobist technique” will offer a glimpse of what is possible with a speedlight only workflow.
Monolights are powerful, self-contained strobes that can accept dozens of modifiers. Although most commonly found in a studio, certain models have battery packs available, allowing a photographer complete freedom from a wall jack. In fact, a monolight/beauty dish combo has dominated the vast majority of my commercial photography work shot within the past year. Had I changed the beauty dish to another modifier such as a strip box, I would have created an entirely different look. As far as cost goes, monolights offer far more power output and versatility than speedlights for products within the same price range, but that is where the comparison stops. Most models have user serviceable parts, such as the flash tubes themselves. A built-in optical sensor for wireless triggering without the use of radio triggers is also a nice feature to have, and is common on even low-end monolight models. However, the reality is that you have to choose the right tool for the job, and realistically, you would not want to shoot events with monolights. They are typically heavier, bulkier and therefore far less portable than a speedlight. Photographers also do not need as much power as monolights are capable of outputting, especially in a dark ballroom while shooting an event. One final advantage is that monolights can pull double duty because they typically have a built in modeling light. I have actually used these modeling lights as a hair or kicker light, when low power output (typically up to 250w) is enough.
Hotlights– I cannot leave video shooters in the dark, so I need to mention hot (AKA continuous) lights. If you had the budget to buy only one hot light, put it towards a Fresnel fixture and you will be maximizing your lighting capabilities. The endless versatility of Fresnels makes them the Swiss Army knife of the lighting world. Sure, a premade all-in-one softbox such as the Lowel Rifa is a quick, easy setup, for instantly soft light, but a Fresnel can also take a softbox attachment… or barndoors, or scrims, or colored gels and more. Perhaps the most underrated feature of a Fresnel fixture is the ability to focus the beam of light it emits. From a wide flood to a tight spot, the characteristics of light that is output by a Fresnel is ever adaptable to meet your needs. I use ARRI Fresnels and nothing else (as far as hot lights) in my studio. As far as cost goes, Fresnels are right in line, if not a tiny bit pricier than a typical monolight or speedlight. The difference is that while you can get away with just one of those, you typically want to begin with a three light kit when choosing continuous light. It should come as no surprise that still photographers can use continuous lights as well. Personally, I do not use hotlights for photography because I already own a variety of speedlights and monolights that can do the trick without the excessive power draw.
While there is no direct comparison on measured light output between a flash and a continuous light source, I can tell you that a burst of concentrated light is far more efficient, and therefore capable of being more powerful than any continuous light in the same price range. It is important to keep in mind that hot lights do create a good bit of heat. This can be an issue of comfort and safety in smaller studio, but you always know what you are going to get. I tend to stay away from fluorescent and LED fixtures despite their lower heat output and power consumption simply because they are not as versatile and consistent as hot lights.
Reflectors – Nothing can beat the cost vs. value of a sturdy, five-in-one reflector. They are so affordable, that you should not be without multiple sizes within arm’s reach. In fact, I always keep a small one in the trunk of my car because it takes up practically zero space and you never know when it will come in handy. Even with multiple speedlights, or a full complement of monolights and modifiers on hand, a reflector can come in handy for those pesky, under the neck shadows… or leave it the case and use it to flag off light spill. My most recent (personal) testimonial only goes back 3 weeks when I improvised a five-in-one reflector as a shoot through ‘softbox’ for hot lights while shooting video. They are so lightweight that I literally used gaffer’s tape to hang it from the drop ceiling of my location. *Side note: You need to mind the distance between a reflector and hot lights, as they will not take high heat and they ARE flammable. By considering all these uses, there is not a single good reason to be without one. If you already own one, I recommend trying out different sizes and having multiple options available. Taking it a step further, it would not be a bad idea to pick up a boom arm in order to use them on a stand when an assistant is not available.
Light is indeed applicable to almost every type of photographer or cinematographer out there. The proper lighting gear, rigging and expertise can instantly improve your images. Above are just a few suggestions and situations to back up those suggestions. You still have quite a bit of research ahead of you before you decide which light will bring the most impact to your work. Enjoy it! The research you do will help you learn about what type of shooter you are, and learning about what options are available (even if it is just for rent) will allow you to be more informed as you approach your future lighting challenges. Applying this knowledge to your gear purchases and rentals will make you that much more versatile.
*Honorable Mention* Education- I chose to make this an honorable mention because it is not a piece of gear, but it IS invaluable. Going out to shoot while armed only with limited knowledge, trial-and-error and information you have read on the internet is a guarantee of limited success. I am by no means knocking internet sources such as the one you are reading right now. They can be a great resource for getting specific questions answered, or discovering a new technique for doing something that you have been doing for years. I would hope that people do not rely on the web as an exclusive source of education.
Trial and error is another familiar method for improving our shots. When it looks OK at f5.6, we can still experiment and see how it looks at f2.8, then make the choice on where we want to be for the final press of the shutter. This irreplaceable method will always be a part of our learning process, but what happens when you are still unhappy with the way things look?
Proper education does not necessarily mean enrolling in a college course, though you will find very few options that are as complete. Most higher-education, film and photography coursework is very thorough and will open your eyes to theory, history, important advancements in the industry and notable figures that you may have never learned about otherwise; even more so than trade schools, which focus more on practical application and preparing students for entering the workforce.
Apprenticeships and internships with commercially successful professionals are also a popular way to supplement your education, but be sure to ask for a program outline in order to understand what the focus of that program is intended to be. There are small groups of working professionals out there that look to take advantage of students by disguising a volunteer position under the label of an internship. Whether it is paid or unpaid, an intern should NEVER be responsible for completely creating billable work. It is the responsibility of the company to act as an educator, and offer industry knowledge to the intern in exchange for support.
Workshops, in my opinion, are the next best option to higher education. While apprenticeships, internships and college courses can indeed be valuable, they also carry huge time commitments. Workshops offer an intense concentration of information, often on a very specific topic or technique. Furthermore, students are able to choose which topics they wish to learn, by the person they feel is most qualified. Costs can certainly vary, but there is no shortage of well-organized, interactive workshops available nationwide in the $50-$150 range. Interactivity is the key. Remember trial and error? Well, it is far more effective with an experienced guide that would otherwise not share their industry secrets.
Whichever method works best for you, education is worth a consideration when deciding on how to improve your shooting. The right combination of workshops and freelancing as an assistant to an experienced shooter can push your work further in a few months than a single piece of gear can do in a few years.
As the holidays come and go and you feel the need to improve the quality of your work; you can now make a more informed decision on the best way to spend your money. Prime lenses, Lights, Camera Support and Education are all viable options and each should get serious consideration. While a new camera body is an exciting way to re-ignite one’s ambition to shoot, it offers very few direct benefits in the grand scheme of becoming a better lens artist. If anything, improved high ISO performance, in-camera effects, and more complex metering and focusing systems all enable a reliance on the technology and put less importance on the operator making the correct decision. A little bit of soul-searching on your own workflow combined with good product research will take you much further in your craft… and for less money. Happy holidays and happy shooting!