Photography Gear: A Photographers Tool Box Exposed

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I follow several different photography groups on Facebook. Right now, I pay most attention to those groups that are focused on portrait photography and the business of photography because that is my main focus as I work to monetize my work. Two of the questions I see over and over and over and over again is “what camera?” and “what lens?” So much to the point that my head spins at time, but alas, it is what it is. When I have someone telling me that I'm the best at a certain genre of photography, well that is almost entirely subjective. I will gladly take the compliment and it makes me happy knowing that I get noticed for my work and not the fact that that my body/lens combo costs a lot less than a lot of equipment that is on the same field as me.

I dived off into the depths of photography in 2010 with the purchase of my first DLSR. In the past, I had always been sort of interested in photography. As a kid, I had a Kodak 126 and an Kodak 110. When I went into the Army in the early nineties, I picked up a cheap 35mm that finally bit the bullet some years later. I got away from photography until one day I decided to jump into it, somewhat tenatively. Now, I am somewhat obsessed by it. Over time, I have made gear purchases that were worth it, and I made gear purchases that were a waste of time. With this post, I'm going to list some of the gear that I use. It will not be all encompassing and the opinions are my own and have not been paid for by any of the manufacturers; although I would be more than willing to entertain sponsor proposals from those manufacturers.

First off, my PC is several years old at this point. I run Windows 7 and I have all the usual software suspects loaded; Lightroom, Photoshop, Photomatix, Nik, and Irfanview. I also have a Wacom tablet hooked up, along with a Canon Pro 9000 MkII and two external hard drives for storage. I don't use the printer much as it's pretty much a pain and I am needing to revamp my storage as I'm running out of run on drive.

The monitor I use is a 21” Asus. I don't remember the model, but it's a nice unit. I don't remember if it's a IPS monitor, which is highly recommended for photography work. When I first started, I was using an old monitor that came with the first PC I bought way back in 2003. I think the screen size was all of 15”. I then acquired a 15” flat screen which was nice, but it was old and editing was a pain. I finally stepped up to the Asus unit and the difference was night and day. For example, I have an image from Arizona that I had to spend about 30 minutes editing out dust spots and birds when I first processed it. When I got the “big” screen, I loaded that image and before, I thought I had cloned out all the dust spots and birds. I had not. I spent about another 20 minutes going over that image.

For calibration purposes, I have a Huey calibrator. Not the best on the market by any means, but it does keep the color in line and I have not had any issues when it came to receiving prints that were off. The best thing I like about it though is the portability. When I take off on a trip with just the laptop and I'll need to do some quick photo editing, I'll throw the Huey in the bag and plug it into the laptop and it works.

My tripod is a Vanguard Alta Pro 263 AT. I love this tripod. I have had it for just over two years now. I started out with a cheap, $25 tripod which broke within just a couple of months. Then I stepped up and bought a $50 tripod that lasted about 6 months. It got a partial bath in the Pacific one day and after that, I was shopping again. I went with the Vanguard model because of price and the reviews. It came with a pistol grip head. After two years, it's still running strong. It's somewhat heavy and I would not recommend hiking with it, plus the closed length is somewhat long for my tastes. One of my photography partners in crime has the same brand tripod, but it's carbon fiber. It also has a shorter closed length than mine and I would recommend that one for hiking. One of the things I like about my tripod is the fact that it came with a nice tool set that can be thrown in the camera bag incase leg locks need to be tightened down while out and about. If you are looking for a quality tripod for a small price, look as the Vanguard line.

I am on my third camera bag and it's a Lowepro Fastback 250. I got lucky and was able to catch the bag on sale for 50% off through an online vendor. I went from a small bag that could fit just a DSLR and a short lens, to one a little bigger that could fit more lens to the Lowepro that I have now. I usually carry my DSLR body, four lens (more on that later) and various accessories. The bag also has a pocket for a 15” laptop. Right now, I use the the pocket for magazines or a binder I use for portrait paperwork, but it's nice to have the space if I have to move the laptop out of it's bag to the pocket. I would go into the “accessories” that I carry in the bag, but that would take at least a day to inventory. Needless to say I have cleaning stuff, some small lights, business cards and I am sure some Clif bars are stashed away somewhere. When I went to California earlier this year, I was able to ditch some stuff in the main compartment so I could fit my second body just in case I had to go to a back up since I was doing work for a company on that trip.

Bag

My lens list might be a little off the wall. Before I dive off into this part of the post, I will post a disclaimer. When I first got into photography, my main goal was landscapes. I also was playing with a very limited budget and I would imagine most readers have the same issue. Then I moved off into sports/motorsports. At the time, portrait work was something I did not want to do. That piece of my work only started late last year and I am still working on a very limited budget until I get the business side of my photography to be it's own, self supporting animal where new gear purchases are allowed.

The first lens is the 18-55mm that has been with me since the first DSLR. It's an okay lens and I have been able to produce some decent work with it. In fact, the chances of that lens being the lens that I used for the work that will be posted here is solid. It's what I have.

The next two lens are lens that I do not use all that often. They are a beat up 50mm 2.0 and some oddball macro lens. Both I bought off Ebay for around $50 together and I have bought a total of 3 lens off Ebay for less than $100. Going this route can be dangerous. You won't know what you get until you get it, and I have been frustrated by losing some images with the Ebay lens group, but I have also been able to produce some decent work with a couple of them. I would like to use the 50mm more often, but I tend to miss the focus more times that not, so I only pull that out in times of great need. The macro lens I really can't say one way or another. I don't use it much as the frustration factor is high, but I have produced at least wall hangar from that lens.

LensThe last lens is my most loved lens and it's a Sigma 70-300. I first got the lens almost two years ago and I have dragged it through the dust of Oklahoma, Texas and California chasing off road race cars numerous times and it still goes. In fact, it's my go to portrait lens at this point. It might not be a mighty 2.8, but even at 200mm and 5.6, if I work my positioning right, I can still nail some nice bokeh. The auto focus on this thing has kept me in the game numerous times and I love the zoom ring, though it has started to stick at times, mostly when I haven't moved it for a few minutes, but once I've worked it for a second or two, it's works almost flawlessly. I keep this lens mounted on the body most of the time since most of my work now requires that lens.

I use two camera straps. An Optech slider strap and a strap made out of 550 cord made by a buddy of mine over at C2GFab. The 550 cord strap is pretty awesome and I like to keep it hooked up when I am not covering sports or portrait work. It is a great strap if you are out walking around and want to keep your camera off to the side, but want to limit it's movement. The slider strap is used for sports and portrait work. I can get the camera in action quickly and because my portrait work is mostly outside and somewhat spontaneous in nature, it's the best option for me.

gearI guess that's it for what I use for gear...................................oh wait, I might have missed something.

You will have to forgive me for the cheap attempt at a laugh. I follow several different photography groups on Facebook and the more portrait-centric groups tend to be overrun with “what body/lens” questions than anything else. So much so, I have seen several rants about it the last few weeks.

The body I use is a Pentax K-5II. Let me restate face, I am a Pentax shooter. A rare breed indeed and I hope that little fact doesn't get me fired from the blog, but I started out with a KX and moved up to the K-5II. I am pretty non-plussed about the whole brand discussion. Each brand has it's good points and it's bad points. I started out with Pentax because the price was right at the time and I was aware of the brand for decades. Reviews were good and that's the way I went. I shot the KX for about a year and a half and it's a rocking little camera. I have been shooting the K-5II now for just under two years and I really like the camera. I have drug both cameras through plenty of dirt and the first race the KX did was in a driving rain storm. I have been pretty happy with both units.

Now it is time to turn on rant mode. Like I said, all brands have their good points and their bad points. Since I started a few years ago with the KX, Pentax has always seem to be able to make a quality product for a decent price. Like I said, I have been working on a limited budget until I can get my business side flowing and buying a new Pentax body makes sense for the most part. You can also hope on Ebay and find plenty of lens for Pentax. Most will be manual focus only, but I have been pretty lucky with my purchases.

The bad part is Pentax has a very limited line up. Take one look at your go to online camera store and see for yourself. When I say limited, Pentax does not make a full frame body at this time. Jump over to new lens selection, and the offering is horrible. I have been in camera stores in several different states and only one was a Pentax dealer. It was also right across the street from an In And Out, so that was a plus. I do not keep up with what every brand is doing like it's life and death; but this past fall with Photokina, there was a lot of noise about Pentax releasing a full frame body and sure enough, the company gave us lip service by saying “yes, we're working on a full frame, but we might release it and we might not.” Right now, I am at that point that I need to move up to a full frame. Although the discussion on why full frame could break the Internet, there are some aspects of my work where full frame is needed and needed badly. I can get by with my crop sensor, and in fact I really don't see me getting rid of my crop sensor anytime soon, but by going with Pentax, I backed myself into a corner. When I am able to buy a full frame and Pentax has not released a full frame, do I float on hope, or do I pull the trigger and jump brands? I already know the lens lineup that I need and even the availability of that in Pentax is pretty slim. There is a small amount of me that would hope that when it's time to make the full frame purchase, Pentax will continue it's reputation by having a quality product with a quality price; but I probably will not hold my breath. Even if they do release a full frame before I pay that price, I would say I will jump brands. I have already decided which brand I will go with if that is the case and no, I am not going to say because it really doesn't matter.

What I want to impart on the readers about camera purchases is this, do your homework. Don't listen to someone who hawks Brand X all day without going into specifics as to why they shoot that brand while running down everyone else. Look at how much support such as accessories and lens that brand has. Of course, we can answer that now by saying Nikon and Canon. That's a no brainer and honestly, I would probably recommend one or the other over Pentax at this point because of that fact. There are websites out there that have in depth reviews and specs on cameras, head there and read up on what people have to say about each brand. Each person is different in what they look for in a camera. You might find yourself in the same boat as me. You might only want to start out shooting your kids running around the park, but something else might pique your fancy and the next thing you know, you are needing to move up the food chain in regards to camera quality and you might have bought into a brand that has very limited upward mobility.

Lastly, I want to impart something that I have found very important as I journey from “I only want to shoot landscapes” to “photography is my business and that is how I support myself and my family”; you do not always have to have a lot of money and you need to think outside the box. I never went to photography school and I have less than $100 invested in educational materials. YouTube is an outstanding resource to learn things. Between YouTube and free podcasts, I have learned a ton of stuff about the business side and I have learned a ton of stuff about using Photoshop. I am entirely self taught to the point that even though I have never attended a photography class, I have held two in my area and people want more. Before Adobe released Creative Cloud, Photoshop was pricey and Gimp was a decent, free alternative that I used. I learned how to work in layers by reading a book on portrait processing. Yes, a book devoted entirely to portrait images educated me to a point where I can use layers on any sort of image that I want. Pay attention to some of the photographers who run successful businesses and advertise the heck out of their products using Facebook. They might not give away the farm, but just by watching a 3 minute video they put up on Youtube advertising their presets, I have been to catch a piece of information that I had been wanting that allowed me to progress in my work.

Photography can be hard to learn and can be expensive to do, but if you learn where and how you can shortcut, the more enjoyable it can be. I might not be the world's greatest photographer, but one of the great joys I get outside of producing a decent image is when I print that image and someone wants to pay me money for my vision.

You can follow me at www.facebook.com/blackmesaimages or you can hit me up on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blackmesaimages. Thank you for reading and if you have any comments on this article, feel free to leave them.