DON'T MISS: Italian conceptual portrait photographer Sara Lando coming to US for two weekends of workshops in August.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Without Reservation: A Recommended Gear List



This is something I get asked about a lot, and its inclusion on the site is far overdue. The following is a list of gear in which I have complete confidence, and would recommend wholeheartedly to any photographer.

The Without Reservation list will be kept up to date going forward, so these are all subject to change at some point in the future. But as of now, this is the go-to gear that I rely upon day in and day out.
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Cameras

What camera you use is a highly personal (and brand-dependent) choice. So my suggestions for cameras (and lenses) are more like a framework of guidelines. Above all, you should remember that cameras evolve very quickly and you will likely rotate bodies every few years. So in that sense, I think of a camera as something you date as opposed to something you marry.

As a Nikon guy for 30+ years, the brand obviously colors my camera choices at any given time. But in general, if I am going to lug a DSLR around I am likely to steer toward the best full-frame body that I can afford. This may be a very different choice than "the best full-frame body they make."

Given the large size of a DSLR, I feel like a full-frame chip is the sweet spot. If I am going to drop to an APS chip (and I have for much of my shooting) I want a smaller form factor than a DSLR as a reward for that.

Beyond chip size, pay attention to sync speed. It will leverage (or penalize) the usable power in every flash you own. It's a big deal.

Given all of that, my workhorse DSLR has for many years been a 2007 Nikon D3. It is several models out of date, but it fills my needs very nicely: big chip, 12MP (I could give a crap about the pixel wars) good low-light performance and a fast motor. It is a very versatile camera that, at this point, is widely available and pretty affordable.

That said, I am spending far less time shooting DSLRs with each passing year. My most-used system has grown to be the Fuji X-Series cameras, and especially the Fuji X100s. That camera is, to me, magical. I love the small form factor and wonderful quality that camera offers. It is a fantastic sweet spot for me and it has reinvigorated my shooting.

I have written in more detail about the Fuji system and in particular about the X100s. There is also a separate post on how to use the X100(/s) remarkable leaf shutter with flash outdoors.

You date cameras, but you tend to marry camera systems. So pick one (or two, as I have) with which you are very comfortable. And that is exactly how I feel, shifting my weight between Nikon and Fuji-X.


Lenses

If you date cameras, you most certainly marry your lenses. Buy them as if you plan to keep them for 10-20 years or more, as that is exactly what can happen if you choose wisely. I still have and use some wonderful lenses that I purchased in college in the mid-1980s.

In the past, I was a lens speed freak and was willing to spend great sums of money to have very fast glass. I now realize that lust was misplaced. If I had it to do over again (and I do, and have) I would lean more on reasonably fast primes and here's why.

Moderately fast primes are (much) lighter, (much) cheaper and often just as sharp (or sharper) than their speedy siblings. For instance, the Nikon 28, 50 and 85 f/1.8 trio of lenses are great examples of this. They weigh next to nothing in my bag and offer great performance. Also, I have moved away from primarily using fast zooms. Rather than a fast 24-70/2.8, I'd now opt for a trio of fast-ish primes and a decent, slower zoom to back them up.

This way, you get a stop (plus) faster at each focal length, backups throughout the 24-70mm range and you lose the most daunting aspect of the speed zoom: an expensive single point of failure.

In general, remember this when it comes to ultra-fast DSLR lenses: you pay through the nose for them when you buy them. And then you pay again, in weight, every time you lug them around. Remember that cameras have amazing high-ISO performance these days. And they are just going to get better as we go.

As for my Fuji lenses, I love the built-in 23mm (35 equiv.) of the X100s. Along with that, the 35/1.4 (50) and 14/2.8 (21) are my go-to lenses on the interchangeable lens bodies. For my money, the X-E2 is the current sweet spot of the interchangeable lens cameras. As with DSLRs, I anticipate rotating bodies and marrying lenses.


Lighting

Because big lights and small lights each bring a different set of considerations to the party, I am splitting my recommendations into speedlights and "studio lights." (Although I hate that term.)

For speedlights, you have to decide if you wanna drive stick or automatic—AKA manual or TTL. I live in manual mode, which means I sacrifice some convenience for reliability and repeatability. It also means I can pay about a third as much for each of my flashes.

If you live by TTL, you will die by TTL. Or, at least your wallet will die a small, unnecessary death every time you need to purchase a flash.

For manual speedlights, I wholeheartedly recommend the LumoPro LP180, about which I go into far more detail here. It's built like a tank, syncs four different ways, has a fluid user interface, a built-in light-stand socket, a built-in gel holder and has a two-year manufacturer's warranty. No other speedlight even comes close to claiming all of those useful features.

That it costs about a third as much as you would pay for an OEM branded flagship TTL flash is icing on the cake. If you can commit to shooting manually, this is your flash.

If you need TTL (and remember, this is the gear acquisition equivalent of joining the TTL mafia) I would consider eschewing the OEM flagship TTL flashes. They can run north of $500USD, which is just nuts.

The Phottix Mitros comes in Nikon and Canon variants and sells for about $300USD—with twice the warranty length. It does pretty much all the fancy stuff most of the OEM flashes do including the optical TTL triggering of other TTL units, be they other Mitros units or OEM units.

I will say that for the lesser price you will give up some ease of user interface. But this may well be that I was used to the OEM flash user interface and that of the Mitros is pretty radically different.

Finally, for some people the flagship OEM flashes will be just fine. For instance, if your name is Bill Gates they are a perfect choice for you.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are a ton of flashes constantly hitting the market from the far east, from a variety of pop-up brands. Some of the brands are recognizable because they bought the rights to use familiar but now bankrupt brands that were formerly trustworthy. They have spotty track records for quality. Factory warranties are short to nonexistent.

Many who read this will be tempted to go that route because of prices that are almost too good to be true. If that's you, by all means knock yourself out. Some people need to be stung in the wallet to remember a lesson or bit of advice. I know I did when I was young. Good luck with that!
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As far as big lights go, there is a completely different set of variables to consider. Big lights are system-oriented, and you would do well to choose wisely in what will likely be a long-term relationship.

I spent a lot of time and money auditioning big lights over the past 25 years. I am really happy where I am now, and would have loved to make this good of a choice from the get-go. I wrote about researching and choosing big lights a couple years ago and at the time settled on a Profoto/Paul Buff hybrid choice.

I loved Profoto's light mods and quality of light, but they were very expensive. And the battery options insanely so. So instead of battery versions of my Profotos, I went with Profoto plug-ins and a full Paul Buff Einstein setup for portable, battery-powered big lights. Sounds crazy, but for the price of just two AcuteB battery generators you can outfit yourself like an Einstein King.

So for the last couple of years I have had two full systems in my gear closet: Profoto plug-ins and Einstein 640s with portable battery packs. (But they also plug in.) And even though the Profotos are far more expensive, rugged and "professional" (whatever) I found myself again and agin choosing the Einsteins to use.

That's because inexpensive or not, they are simply amazing flashes. And they come with a 2-year warranty (sensing a trend here?) and legendary factory service. Further, Paul Buff has finally taken some time to develop the modifier system that a good flash deserves. The reflectors and accessories are well-designed—and wonderfully inexpensive.

The caveat here is, this is pretty much a US-based choice/suggestion. One of the main reasons Paul Buff lights are so inexpensive is that he only sells direct, and mostly in the US. There are a couple of dealers outside the US but that starts to erode the value proposition pretty quickly.

So, to beginners looking for a great light at an amazing price in the US, I would suggest you strongly consider Einsteins. Not the similarly shaped and even cheaper AlienBees, however. They look similar, but are not in the same league as the Einsteins. Save your money and go Einstein. It is not that much more.

If you are outside of the US, I am sorry that this choice will be either not available or not nearly as good a value to you. So I would suggest that you look at other reputable flash brands (Bowens, Elinchrom, Hensel, Profoto, etc.) and choose the brand that works best for your needs and your wallet. This advice also holds for people for whom the Einsteins aren't a good fit.

Again, I would suggest avoiding the temptation of the super-cheap mystery brands from the far east. Personal experience. But if you need some personal experience of your own to dissuade you in the future, by all means go right ahead.


Triggers

This is pretty simple and straightforward advice. First, start with a wire. A simple sync cable. It is cheap and reliable, and a great backup to have for when your wireless triggers decide to go all hinky on you. Which they sometimes will.

If you chose your flash wisely, you'll not be locked into expensive, proprietary PC-based cords. I live in a one-eighth-inch sync ecosystem and could not be happier with it. As such, my current favorite universal camera-to-flash cord is this little 16-foot baby from FlashZebra.com. I wish everything in my life was this simple.

Next, promise me this: that you will never again buy a flash without a good built-in slave. Every flash I have recommended to you has one. Don't be without it. That makes triggering multiple units much easier, whether you have wires or radios or whatever. Just makes too much sense. Friends don't let friends buy flashes without built-in slaves.
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For wireless triggers, you can date or you can marry. If you just want to date, there is a new flavor-of-the-week appearing near constantly. They'll be cheap, but they'll likely not be long-term compatible with other triggers of the same brand. I have been using the same brand of triggers since the early 1990s. And by choosing wisely then, all of my triggers can work well together even though they were purchased over a span of 20 years.

I am a PocketWizard user. And because I am a manual shooter and am not chained to TTL, I can go with the simplest (but still rock-solid) PocketWizard triggers. So I recommend without reservation the ~$100 PocketWizard PlusX transceivers.

Why: They are super reliable, simple to operate, run on AAs (huge thing if you have ever been left scrounging for batts in the wild) have ten channels, are auto-sensing receiver/transmitters, have a hard-shell-enclosed antenna, and have wonderful range.

PocketWizard make a wide variety of increasingly complex and capable triggers. But if my son or daughter were starting out as a young pro photographer, the PlusX is what I'd buy them. I have owned nearly every model of PW trigger, and these are by far my favorite. For 90% of PW shooters, these will be the best choice.


Lighting Supports

Light stands are designed to oppose gravity. Pretty simple. And the designs are, for the most part, pretty similar. I think of light stands as being in three categories: normal stands, compact stands and C-stands. For lights stands I like LumoPro for many of the same reasons I like the LumoPro LP180 speedlight. Their stands are well-built, reasonably priced and guaranteed out the wazoo. LumoPro has great service, too, should you need to replace a broken knob or bolt or whatever.

For normal, full-sized stands, I like the 10-foot LumoPro LP608. It is air-cushioned, has a five-year warranty and costs $45. It is a great value choice and you can certainly spend more but get less.

For a "splurge" light stand I would consider the Manfrotto stackers. They have a unique design that allows them to snap flat together for easy transport and space-saving storage. They are more expensive ($80 each for 8-foot version) so you'll have to make that call. They have a taller model, which of course costs even more.

Many speedlight folks who don't need too much stand height prefer to use compact, 5-section stands. For that, my recommendation is easy and clear-cut: get the LumoPro LP605. It is the best-built of the five-section stands, includes ground spikes for more stability in wind and has LumoPro's five-year standard grip warranty. For $40, it is hard to go wrong here. There are more expensive versions of this, but they are not as well-built, have no ground spikes and you won't get a five-year warranty either.

As far as C-stands go (more on what they are, here) they are pretty much all built like tanks. Which is part of their weighty charm. LumoPro C-stands are a good value choice as they back up the build quality with their five-year warranty. If you want to get fancy, Kupo C-stands offer a quick-release mechanism for faster setup.


Soft Mods

Light softeners are the bread and butter of lighting photographers. They take our hard, pinpoint light sources and turn them into beautiful, quasi window light.

Every people shooter should have a large, go-to light modifier. A giant "octa" soft box is the pricey industry standard, but I much prefer a Photek Softlighter II in the 60" size. The reasons are many.

Being umbrella-shaft-mounted, the SoftLighter is designed to fit just about any light source. It also doubles as a big umbrella, reflected or shoot-thru. It packs nice and thin, and is very light. But it also gives you the same, usable edge to the light as does an octa.

At the most basic, I also frequently use 43" Westcott Double-Fold umbrellas. At $20 they are priced to be damn-near disposable. And they kinda are, actually. Don't expect one to last forever. But they more than make up for it in that they pack almost down to nothing.

When working in close, I also love the diminutive LumiQuest Soft Box III. It is designed to work great at knife-fight range, folds flat in your bag and is guaranteed for life. Sign me up.

I have written in more detail on my favorite soft light mods, including examples shot with each, here.
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Specialty Mods

For light restrictors, you'll want a selection of snoots and grids. They make your light, well… more interesting.

My views on snoots have not changed much since the Lighting 101: basically, you should roll your own. This is not rocket science -- we are just blocking light and cardboard works just fine.

For grid spots, which work like snoots but have a much more beautiful fall-off to the edge of the light, you can DIY them out of straws but it is a pain in the ass and not really worth the effort for many. My advice? Get a Honl eighth-inch grid and be done with it. They are indestructible, and they fit all speedlights. Nix the velcro mounting system, mod it with elastic for quick changes and Bob's your uncle.

Also categorized as specialty mods are speedlight ring flash adapters. They turn your small flash into a donut of light that can give you a beautiful, shadowless look for key or fill. My two favorites here are the Orbis. and the RoundFlash. Both have a very good quality of light. Both have advantages and disadvantages.

For the record, I have owned five different commercial ring flashes (and adapters): Profoto, ABR800, Ray Flash, RoundFlash and Orbis. I use the Orbis more than all of the others combined.

I have tried most others, and have found them all pretty wanting. And whatever you do, avoid the Chinese knockoffs of the Ray Flash. They are light-sucking pieces of crap that are rarely color correct. But they are cheap!

If you are that broke, you'll be better off home-brewing a cardboard DIY ring flash adapter.
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Feed Your Brain

Your brain is gear. Keep it in tune by providing it regular doses of education. A well-written and info-packed photo technique book is a screaming bargain in the long run. You're essentially renting someone's brain. I have dedicated an entire bookshelf page to my very favorite lighting (and other photo) books for your perusal.

But beyond that I would suggest you consider the occasional workshop. Nothing beats a hands-on, small class with a solid pro who knows things you would like to know. It is a super growth experience, and something you really owe yourself if you are passionate about learning to be a better photographer.

In the past I have taught a lot of workshops and worked with many organizations. Having worked as an instructor for Gulf Photo Plus (held late winter in Dubai) and Santa Fe Workshops (held year-round in New Mexico and elsewhere). I can strongly vouch for both of these organizations. I have seen first-hand how students grow in leaps and bounds in the span of a week, all while making great new friends and having the experience of a lifetime.

If you have ever toyed with the idea, you should definitely ask around, do your research and then take the plunge.
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So that's my two cents worth on gear. You may have other choices or priorities, but that is the best I can offer you with over 25 years' experience behind it.

If you want to chime in on your own, feel free to do so on Twitter via the hashtag #StrobistGear. If is it important that I see it, include an @Strobist in there somewhere and I will.



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