What are the most cost effective pieces of photo gear I've bought in the last 30 years?

I love to play with cameras, dissect them, push them and coddle them. They are the bling of photography. Especially the digital ones because they come out with new ones at about the same rate that the fashion industry changes direction. Surprisingly, the cost of keeping up in both camps is pretty much the same....all of your paycheck. The lenses are like fine watches. If you know a watch collector who is into a certain niche, like automatics (non-electric, self-winding) chances are they have just about as many different watches as we might have lenses. And they've got a great rationale for each watch, just as I have for each jewel-like lens we buy.

If all it took to be a commercial photographer was a sick love for camera bling and lens jewelry I would be in the hallowed ranks of the superstars by now having plundered just about every camera line except for the new Fujis and Pentaxes.

But as I was setting up my studio just now to do a portrait this evening I took a good hard look at all the stuff we use every day to do our work and started to realize that cameras have always been a net money losing proposition for me while the gear that keeps the business alive is the stuff that can't be worn around my neck on a fancy strap.

So let's break it down by what we paid the least for, used the most and for the longest amount of time. Face it, it's the infrastructure that makes the whole deal work. A building without plumbing and electrical is just going to wind up being a mess!

Last or first on my list, depending on how you look at it, is my motley collection of light stands. I use light stands for everything from holding up lights (duh!) to holding up the suits and dresses of my subjects when they need a place to hang alternate wardrobe. They hold up light blockers, light reflectors, nets, and various umbrellas (with and without lights attached---nice to have an umbrella on a bracket on a sun baked outdoor shoot in the Summer. Instant shade). The sexiest thing my light stands do it hold expensive strobe heads with expensive soft boxes while they pal around with the sandbags draped over their "feet."

I have twelve or fifteen light stands. The least I've paid for a light stand is zero. Someone exiting the photo business in 1978 gave my first two for free. The most I've ever paid for a light stand would be the $139 I spent a few years ago for a heavy duty, high rising Kupo Century Stand. Big C-Stands are something you'll only need to replace if they are unlucky enough to be hit by a meteor the size of a bus. Nothing else I can think of would break them. So, if I total up the cost of every light stand in the studio I still can't scrape a thousand dollars. Less than a grand for tools that I've used on almost every shooting day for decades. Damn. What a deal!

And when I become an available light only shooter (hmmmm.) I'll still keep them around for hanging stuff over windows and using angled shiny boards in the sun to make interior available light----more available. I have a warning for you though. My friend, Frank, showed up for coffee last night with a box in hand. It seems that with all the profit wrung out of everything else in photography light stands might be the newest innovation. Frank showed me a ProMaster ultra light, carbon fiber light stand that has multiple leg positions and weighs about 2 pounds. It's about eighty dollars. To me what it means is that the lowly light stand is about to be decked out and tech'd out and that means once they add the hood scoops, the fins and the shreddingly cool heat sinks the big manufacturers should be able to propel the lowly light stand into the fashion arena and attach price tags to match.

Next on my list is the lowly photographic umbrella which is already undergoing a gentrification process at the hands of Profoto, Elinchrom and several others. I've bought a fair amount of umbrellas but again I'd say in all the years of buying them I'm still under the $2,000 threshold. And you've got to consider that I've been doing location assignments for nearly three decades. That's a lot of wear and tear.

Umbrellas aren't as tough as light stands though. Sometimes they blow over and the metal ribs get crimped and the umbrella is never the same again. I have one favorite 46 inch Softlighter umbrella that I liked so much I tried to fix it when the metal ribs got damaged. I taped pencils as splints around the weak areas of the ribs with white gaffer's tape ( on the theory that it would be inconspicuous ) and I still use that umbrella. I try not to use it too much in front of new clients because I don't want them to get the wrong idea. But then maybe saving money by rescuing injured umbrellas is the right idea. I can't figure it out.

I've lost a few to mortal injuries. One 60 inch softlighter kissed the tarmac of a windy little airport when I was in north Texas photographing the private jet collection of a law firm a few years back. It had to be thrown out and I did so with incredible sadness. It had done years of good service for me. I almost felt as though I should have brought it back to Austin and buried it in the back yard.

I've found a source of Westcott collapsible umbrellas that will fit just about anywhere and I've got matched sets in silver interior/black exterior, shoot through, white interior/black exterior and also silver matt interior. They collapse down to about 16 inches but they spread open to 45 inches. Miracle modifiers---and cheap as dirt.

Yes, I've bought many an expensive soft box and I do understand the mild light quality differences between the boxes and the umbrellas but for my money you can get 95% the way there with a good umbrella equipped with a front diffuser for a lot less money and you won't get stung in the wallet for good speed rings or stung on the hand by one of the sprung, high tension rods that hold the boxes together.

Every single soft box I've ever owned does three things: 1. They all start to rip at the seams sooner or later. 2. Every box will meet a temporarily unsupervised assistant who will take it upon themselves to "quickly" assemble the box and the fiberglas or metal rod you need most will be snapped in half or bent out of shape in a way that is unrecoverable. And, 3. They will each, in turn, become unevenly yellowed and stretched out of shape.

Now that the Chinese have entered the soft box race the penalty for melt down and yellowing is less severe but I remember too many times when Chimera was the only game in town and a big box could set you back six or seven hundred pre-inflated dollars. I'll gladly take five or six (or ten ) umbrellas instead. Learn the theory, save the bucks. Go umbrellas! If you pay over $100 these days for an umbrella, even a 60 or 72 inched, you've been had. My current favorite? A huge Fotodiox (chinese made) 72 inch white on the inside opaque black on the outside, deep umbrella that I think I paid $69 for. And that includes a white, nylon diffusion sheet for the front. Light modifier nirvana.

You already know how I feel about soft boxes and I am still stinging from the Profoto days when each speed ring (and we had a half a dozen) was about $120 each. And I may be remembering that price too optimistically..... Get em if you need em but be sure you really need them and it's not a question of just not learning how to feather an umbrella or "barn door" it with a piece of foamcore.

Moving up the list and down the overall value chain we come to an equivocal part of the inventory, the mighty tripod. Now, most of my wounds here, as with cameras and lenses, are self-inflicted. But a good tripod isn't all things to all shooting situations. I think you need at least two and one of those is bound to be frightfully expensive. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that if you don't feel nervous guilt while buying one (especially if you are a parent and your kids need things like shoes and lunch money) then you probably got one that just isn't good enough or won't last long enough.

It's crazy but the tripod that has stood the test of time and vibration the longest in this studio is an ancient (and I mean early day of film ancient) Gitzo 500 series Studex. The thing cost a fortune and weighs so much that assistants cry when they see it on the location gear inventory. But it's been run over by tanks, set on fire, used to hold the garbage crusher on an imperial cruiser open (which saved our lives) and it still works smoothly and with a benign grace. I have stood on it, used it with 8x10 and 4x5 inch view cameras, super long lenses and so much more. It is immovable during an exposure and I will never let it go. But it did cost me a fortune. And, of course, over the next thirty years I've bought lots of other tripods in the constant but ultimately frustrating search for anything both better and lighter. I've wasted money on carbon fiber and basalt and titanium and except for nicely and primly filling a corner of the studio they have all been for naught. They are all overshadowed by the 500 Series Studex.

But that doesn't prevent tripod flirtation which raises the over price of owning that class of good. My advice to you? Vibration reduction. But if you drink coffee or have a need for prints bigger than 4x6 inches with high sharpness just do yourself a favor and buy a big, bruising, heavy Gitzo and be done with it. Not nearly as cost effective as light stands, I'll tell you that right now.

I mentioned two. The big tripod is most important but there will be times when you will be weak and unmotivated and ultimately unwilling to carry the weight of perfection around with you. For these times you will need a smaller tripod. Not a mini-tripod, just a smaller one. I can't advise you on the mid-range as I am lost in the same thicket. Just grab one that goes up high and feels as stable as it can. Try to stay away from plastic leg logs----they'll come back to bite you.

Now we're moving up near the part of the list that causes most of us to hemorrhage money. But we're not at the camera and lens part years. First we have to go through the valley of the shadow of file life and death known as computers.  Yes, if you are under 40 you'll shake your head and think, "Oh, I can just get a crappy Dell machine for $700 and be done with it." And for the most part, if you are willing to do endless self help-desk you are correct. You can get a prettier machine with a better operating system elsewhere but in terms of just cranking through PhotoShop a decent (basic?) computer will work for the price of a decent sports coat.

But if you were around when they were first inventing this stuff you would have already spent at least as much as you would have on a nice car, over time. And to really do it right (optimally? Comfortably?) you'll still need to spend a hell of a lot more than the price of a couple of exemplary tripods or a couple hundred workable light stands (which you will use just as often).

I've owned and used computers in the business since the days when a 10 megabyte hard drive (not gigs or terabytes. Just megabytes) was about $2700. That doesn't include the computer to run it. Over the years I'll guess we've dropped about as much as a nicely equipped Honda Accord V6 but it never stops with the price of acquisition. There's all the software and, as our camera files get bigger and bigger there's the open door to nearly monthly hard drive replacement/augmentation and RAID care and feeding. Oh the joy of it. Tell me again how film and processing was so expensive? I bet even in this day and age it really would be a wash.

That brings us back to square one. The bling. The cameras and the lenses. The fashion and the fantasy. I know why it appeals. You can wear it. You can wear more than one.  You can take them out to show your friends. They go with anything. It's the portability and the show. Just ask anyone in Manolo Blahnik boots why they paid what they did to wear uncomfortable footwear for a few months. It's the same investment class. Really.  Here's a pair you might like CRAZY SHOES!!! So tell me again why getting the Panasonic LX100 or the Sony RX111 isn't exactly the same thing....

Which brings me back to light stands. I'll be sad when they succeed in coming out with designers light stands. And even sadder when the photo cognoscenti change out stands with the season...Someone on a web forum will pedantically explain that clients won't hire people who don't have the latest gear. And, after all, don't they deserve it?

Wanna save money in photography? When buying any gear always remember the value proposition of the light stand. The only real, long term investment in all of photography.

Best gear ever? My typewriter....    


Mark Davidson said...

Kirk, you touch on a subject dear to me with respect to umbrellas. I, too, love umbrellas for their cost/effectiveness ratio. I have also destroyed far too many when they blew over. (It is a Murphy artifact that opening an umbrella causes the wind to blow....anywhere).
I thought that switching to umbrellas with fiberglass ribs would solve the problem. It solves the problem of rib breakage but now the shafts break right at the catch as this is now the weak point.

I have dreamed up an umbrella with a fiberglass shaft that would eliminate this and offer the idea to anyone who will make it. I am hoping that someone will do this as it would be a paradigm change in umbrella longevity IMO.

Anonymous said...

Loving the umbrellas. They go anywhere and they're quick to set up. Cheap.

Frank Grygier said...

I am a sucker for anything carbon fiber. What can I say.

Grant said...

That garbage crusher story has to be worth an article on its own!

Kirk Tuck said...

Grant, it was stolen directly from a scene in the first Star Wars movie. But thanks!

Anonymous said...

Another genius article about the real life side of the business.

neopavlik said...

Very timely as it looks like I'll have enough $ in the next 6 months to get both the long term stuff; pelican case and lite panel kit (4 panels with all the fixings) as well as the bling (used D800 + up to $2000 worth of additional lenses). That opportunity never presented itself before.