What Camera Gear Should I Buy? Part One

As any photographer at any level that has been shooting for any length of time will tell you, the most common question you get is “What camera gear do you use?” or “What should I buy?”  Many people that ask me are referred to my photo gear page and this gets the job done.

Lately, I’ve been talking with a very good friend of mine who is a professional graphic designer looking to get back in to photography, but wanting to update from his film equipment.  I thought the info dump I did for him might be helpful to you guys too.

What follows are parts of emails that I sent to him.  You’ll note that this information is tailored to his specific needs.  This means we quickly establish that he is only interested in Canon ecosystem, he is mostly/only interested in studio work, he only wants a DSLR, etc.  so please bear that in mind.

Having a studio, even a small one, would be a huge help for anyone not looking to do location work.  I badly wish that I had a space that I could set up, leave up, and use.  My problem is a small house with low ceilings.  It is the same issue when I do anything in my shop.  With either task, I have to move stuff out of the way, get out the stuff I want to use, etc.  and then reverse the process when I’m done.  It adds a lot of time.  I timed it when I took some portraits when I was in Birmingham and Huntsville and had a full-time helper.  It took me at least 30 minutes to set up a simple portable studio both times I set it up.  About the same time to take it down.  When I say simple, it was one light, a reflector, and a backdrop.  So really simple.  The other advantage you have of setting something up in a dedicated studio is if you plan to continue shooting the same way, you can leave all your stuff exactly in position so you don’t have a to do a bunch of test shots to get things set right again.

I would highly recommend that you use your garage as a studio if you are going to be doing studio work.  You’ll love it.  I’ve not seen it in person but I seem to think it has higher ceilings which will be a huge help.  Generally, the bigger the light source, the nicer the light and high ceilings will allow you to get some big-ish softboxes above your subjects (see my gear list for a great big one.  I love it).  Also, having that long space will help tremendously when you use long lenses on bigger subjects.  Many pros are successful around here working out of their living rooms and your space would be much better than that.  These are folks that have a couple of assistants, etc.  Not mom n’ poppers.  You would come across much more professional and it would just be easier.

I spent A LOT of time and energy researching equipment and you can benefit from that. Just look at this link:  http://jasonpatz.com/photo-gear/

The camera system you choose to go with is going to be largely dependent on what kinds of photos you want to take and personal bias.  My camera body was a simple choice.  It was the best full frame (35mm equivalent) available at the time and it was Canon (which is the system I know and love).  It is still a great camera and I still see many/most of the pros I follow using it, but it isn’t the best anymore – especially not video (which is funny since it was the first DSLR used for TV-Quality video I believe).

For video check out the Panasonic GH4.  Videographers are blown away by what it can do for the price. Dave Dugdale is your friend if you want info in DSLR video production.

If you are going to be doing low light work outside and traveling around a lot (landscapes), you should look at the Sony A7R or A7S.  They have the best dynamic range of any full frame (full frame = full 35mm equivalent that you are used to – like the Elan) camera right now.  People get HDR looks from a single shot with these bodies.  They are also more compact so you are more likely to have it with you at a given time.  Serge Ramelli is the man for info on this camera ecosystem.  Check out his gear page.

The best full-featured full frame camera body is the Nikon D810 – no question in my mind.  It has some amazing capabilities.  Google Tony Northrup’s YouTube review of it to see its great focusing and image quality in action.  It does good video too if I remember correctly.  Interestingly, Tony has chosen to stay with the same camera body that I have because he prefers Canon’s f2.8 70-200 lens (which I also have – see gear page).  I agree, that is my favorite lens I own, but boy is it big and heavy.  You can’t take it everywhere.

If I was starting over now, I’d probably stick with what I have but I’d strongly consider the Sony products too.  I wouldn’t go Nikon just because if I’m going with big cameras and lenses I’d just assume stick with the system I know.  Also, Canon dwarfs all other camera companies in size so everyone makes stuff to work with them.  Sadly, they are the slowest to adapt and add in great new features too.  If you aren’t in a hurry you could find out when the Canon 5D Mark IV was coming out.  That will probably be a great camera and since the Mark III is several years old now, I would think it won’t be too long.  If you wanted to save some cash, many pros still shoot with the 5D Mark II and you could get one used (check how many shutter clicks it has had first).

You could step up to the tippy top tier Canon or Nikon cameras but you only get higher FPS.  The image quality isn’t better (and in the case of Nikon is actually worse since the D810 is so good.  Actually in Canon’s case, that is probably true too).  You could go medium format like some of the catalog and other studio-only guys do but all three of these options are mortgage-your-house level $$$.

If you want to spend less, look at the next step down in all the cameras I just recommended.  I think you will want to remain in a full frame camera though.  They have the best lenses and typically the highest image quality.  If you are just toying with the idea though, I’ve seen excellent images made with crop sensor cameras and you can cut your costs drastically (1/5th the price?).

The biggest black hole for me was lighting.  In the end I went with Canon’s Speedlite system.  It is great in many respects and sucky in some.  Very expensive for what you get.  It is RF instead of IR/visible light which is huge.  Better range.  Don’t have to have line of sight.  No headaches for setup at all – no cable, etc.  Works 99% of the time (occasionally fails to get a signal – very rarely).  It’s ETTL metering sucks.  You can have a controlled environment where you change no settings or subject matter and about 1 out of 10 or 20 pix will be unusably incorrectly exposed.  It just guesses wrong sometimes.  Unless I must, I just use manual settings on it.  Very small, lightweight, easy to set up, easy to navigate menus.  Love the group mode where I can control groups of flashes from my camera body quickly and easily.  Low power!  I read all of these reviews talking about how much more powerful they were than other speedlites but not having used them before I didn’t realize how wimpy they are compared to studio lights.  I’d only used big hot halogen continuous lights before (ala movie production).  These speedlites definitely get the job done but as an example, for my high key portraits, a single speedlight must be set on max power to fill my biggest diffuser and even with it as close to a subject as I can get it, it is just barely correctly exposed/slightly underexposed.  Because it fires at max power, I must wait a beat or two between shots for it to recharge.  This means the model must get into a rhythm with me or I will miss shots.

If I could change just one thing I’d swap out two of my four speedlites for two studio strobes.  For studio strobes I’d go with Paul C. Buff Einsteins and get the RF system for that and the various diffusers/softboxes that work with them. From people I actually follow I’ve heard nothing but good things about them and they are cheaper and easy to use.  The results I’ve seen from them are fantastic.  Phlearn uses them.  I might replace the remaining two Canon Speedlites with two of the top of the line YongNuo ones if the RF system for the Einsteins would work with it.  You can find out more about YongNuo from Tony Northrup (Stunning Digital Photography – a great product tester (my favorite) and reviewer) as well as Matt Granger (Get Your Gear Out/That Nikon Guy – the earliest adopter and biggest cheerleader I know for YongNuo).  YongNuo are so cheap too! Practically free.

If any of this info helps you and you buy through Amazon, please use one of the links from my photo gear webpage so I’ll get a commission.

Continue to Part Two where things get more specific!


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