I love reviews. I'm a bit of a geek when it comes to gear, I think it's fun to dive into specs and features and comparisons... it's a bit of a hobby for me. But it occurred to me that you rarely ever hear about what gear is actually like to live with. A lot of reviewers don't actually use the gear they happen to be reviewing, right? So I thought it might be nice to share with you the gear I use every day, every shoot, and has ended up finding a home in my studio. I'll follow up with full reviews in the "Review" section but for now let me tell you what I'm using today and, for better or worse, why!
What? They still make cameras? Weren't they bought by a copier company? Wait, a CROP SENSOR!?!? Ok, I'll get into the "crop vs. full-frame" thing later, but after 2 years of living in the Pentax ecosystem I'm more likely than ever to stay! Excellent sensors, weather-sealing, in-body stabilization, magnesium construction, selectable anti-aliasing, and a slew of other features simply put this camera ahead of everything else within this price range. And, well, it just "feels" right. I know, totally subjective here, but it simply feels the way I want a camera to feel. Is it perfect? No, as the first three K-3s I returned to the shop demonstrate, but it hits all the right notes and has always delivered at a shoot.
The "other" reason why I ended up in the Pentax camp. Yes, Canon and Nikon have their fair share of incredible glass, and independent manufactures (like Sigma's "Art" lenses) have a lot to offer as well, but I've simply grown to love Pentax "Limited" line of film and digital lenses. Small, compact, ALL METAL, impeccably manufactured... they are almost anachronistic in this world of plastic. The image quality is incredible AND the FA and most DA lenses are full-frame, so I'm all set for the Pentax full-frame bodies coming out in 2016. The Pentax-FA 43mm and 77mmm Limited (64mm and 115mm equivalent) are my go-to portrait lenses, with the 15mm and 35mm filling in for wider shots.
What did I just say about plastic? I digress, but for a beginners lens this was simply AWESOME! The image quality is excellent and at $150 you just can not go wrong. There are a couple reasons why I picked this over the 18-55mm kit lens when I was just starting out in photography. For one, a prime lens encourages you to move rather than zooming in and out to change your framing (good habit), and at 50mm (75mm equivalent) it was perfect for portraits. Really focusing on a single area of photography, like portraiture, eliminated a lot of variables for me and allowed me to concentrate on mastering the foundational principles instead. And it takes awesome pictures.
Not sure what to say about this lens. I picked it up because I needed a longer focal length to shoot a game for our local roller derby team, The Storm City Rollers. It works, good. Great, I suppose. It's very compact, 2.8 aperture and 150mm equivalent focal length, it's made of metal, is fully weather sealed, AND doubles as a macro lens. Wow, on paper it's incredible! In reality it's just... good. For me, anyway. Underwhelming I think is a better term, and I still don't really know why. I simply don't get as good images from this lens as I do with my limiteds. A lot of that probably has more to do with me than the lens itself, I'm just not thinking in 150mm focal length. It's not quite long enough for sports (the Pentax K-3 is NOT a good sports camera anyway), not quite fast enough for indoors, not quite short enough for portraits, and I don't shoot macro. Clearly I'm not the target audience for this lens. However, it IS fully weather sealed so this is the lens I bring on rainy days. Running around with a weather sealed camera and a weather sealed lens is worth it's weight in gold up here in the Pacific North West! I'm sure my feelings will change as more opportunities for this lens to shine pop up but, for now, it's keeps the lens cases company.
I've always been a big fan of quality, which is one of the reasons why Pentax and it's impeccable build quality factors so highly with me. So the idea of cheap, $70, Chinese made speedlites was a really tough sell. But I simply couldn't justify $500+ named brand lights so I gave Yongnuo a try based on a few reviews I had read. Quite simply THEY ROCK! Yes, they are fully manual, no HSS, no TTL, and every once in a blue moon will miss a flash, but they are $70!!! And I can control zoom and flash power on up to 6 speedlite right from the controller on my camera. They have been rock solid for me so far, with several rolling down a flight of stairs or two and another spending a good 10 second at the bottom of a river... still works like new. Best bang for the buck hands down.
These are my go-to tools. On location, in the studio, doesn't matter, I reach for these first. Light, sturdy, easy to set up, easy to use, and the quality of light they product is always excellent. Pretty much idiot-proof. If I'm not sure exactly how to set up lighting for my shot I will just grab a couple of these and within a few moment have things dialed in. Each model is specialized for a different use, but my most used are the Octave 53 (portraits) and the Square 43 (everything else). The Octaves have such beautiful, soft light without looking flat, while the Squares are so versatile you can use them for about anything. These are a great starting point for those just getting started with flash.
Just to give you an idea of the size difference we are talking about between these modifiers, this is the 64" PLM next to the Gamilight Octave 53 and Square 43. I wanted a pair of big modifiers for the two big strobes I had just picked up for the studio, and these work great. I chose one "soft silver" and one "hard silver" which, basically, give me the option of a harder, more specular "glamour" look or a softer, more toned down look. They are great for covering a lot of area and (if you use the diffuser) bathing it all in nice, soft light. But be sure you have some smaller options too, these are a bit unwieldy.
As I developed as a photographer Speedlites became a big part of my shoots, so batteries became a big part as well! I was going through a LOT of batteries, so I needed to find something that would perform better than disposables, for cheaper, and with less impact on the environment. I'm sure there are "better" rechargables out there, but these are very affordable at Costco and work great! They hold their charge, maintain a high discharge rate right up to the end (which greatly improved my flash recycle time), and are convenient.
Light stands are tricky. You don't really need an expensive one but you definitely DON'T want a cheap one. Finding that middle ground can be tough, since Amazon is filled with a lot of stands that are just plain junk. I chose LumoPro based on a recommendation and, after two years of abuse, they are still going strong. The air cushioning is a nice feature and after multiple falls everything is still really tight. And that's what's most important, look for stands that are substantial enough to hold everything securely and pay extra close attention to the fasteners. LumoPro fasteners are all metal, not plastic, and they are worth it.
So you got your flash, and your stand, next you need something to connect the two together. Get these, trust me. You can use them to mount any hot-shoe flash and the ball joint allows you to the flash any direction you need. Plus the alligator clamp allows you to clamp your flash just about anywhere! I use them to mount two flashes with Gamilight Square 43 modifiers to a single light stand, one above the other, when I need a wider distribution of light on my subject. Poof, instant stripbox! The ball join/alligator clip combination really can't be beat and this is the only mount I have found to edge out the also superb Gamilight H-1.
At some point you will probably want a pair of strobes for your studio. Cool as speedlights are sometimes you just need to drive larger modifiers (like the 64" PLMs), not to mention the faster recycle times, etc. I bought these for $200 on Craigslist, with stands and a set of huge Radio Slave 4i radio triggers included. They were old, dirty, missing parts, and covered in tape, but they worked and Paul C Buff has a reputation for building sturdy equipment. I love them, and they were cheap! When it comes to studio strobes I think these older Paul C Buff units are a great option for a cost conscious studio owner.
Like stands, tripods are tough to find that sweet spot. It's even MORE important to find one that is very sturdy and stable (otherwise it's useless) but is a $500+ carbon-fiber Manfrotto really justifiable? Not sure yet, but I can say the $150 MeFoto aluminium stand is pretty good. It's sturdy, built well, and heavy enough but not too heavy. That said, it is far more of a pain than I thought it would be unscrewing each of the 12 fasteners to extend the legs. More importantly, the tension controls on the ball head hold things well enough, but it doesn't do a good job allowing you to make small adjustments without loosening the whole thing and having to completely reset. Meh.
Yeah, we are a Mac shop. Used to be PC and, honestly, I catch myself looking for opportunities to switch back now and then but I still think Apple OS has the edge when it comes to the needs of creative professionals. For me I just needed to be able to turn the machine on and have it work, with a logical and efficient workflow. Throw in a brilliant 5k Retina display and you've got a pretty good package. At the time the whole machine was almost as much as the first, stand alone 5k displays available, so it was really a no-brainer. Now the displays alone are much more affordable, so the margin between PC and Mac is much thinner. In the end, it's a tool, and which ever tool works best for you, use it, keep it in good working order, backup often, and don't be the first to update your mission critical applications (always wait a bit to see if new versions have issues). Of course, the 5k Retina display is excellent for photo editing and that alone is worth a look for any photographer.
Speaking of backing up, that's exactly what these guys do, and you should too! I currently use 5 hard drives; one 3TB in my iMac for my operating system, applications, and working Lightroom library, one 3TB external Lacie drive for my archives (templates, backups, old projects, etc.), one 5TB external Lacie drive running TimeMachine to backup the first two, and two more external drive to mirror everything and store in a safety deposit box as a rotating, off-site backup. Whatever you do, make sure you have at least 3 copies of your critical files; one you work from, one for BU, and one for off-site storage.
Well, there you have it, the gear I use every day for my shoots. Some things I have grown to love and have become an integral part of my shooting style, other things I've grown to, well, not love. But all of it works which is what counts, right? The moral of the story is that these are all just tools to be used to create the images you want to create. Don't worry too much about finding "the best," but instead look for what's going to work for you and will fit your style and workflow. Learn that and become the best you can be with the tools you have, then upgrade as you grow as a photographer. And now is a great time to be a photographer as technology has brought down the price point of professional quality gear to levels us mortals can actually handle. As this list demonstrates, you don't need to break the bank to run a studio, just be informed with your choices