My Best Investment as a Photographer

My Best Investment as a Photographer

As I set up to shoot an assignment last week, I found myself in a casual conversation with the owner of the location. He was also a photographer, and as I opened my Pelican case and began to set up my strobes, he commented on the fact that he owned the same one. He then lamented the fact that this particular kit was no longer made by the manufacturer. It had been discontinued and replaced by a new line of photographic debutants. I had no idea.

Having spent what would undoubtedly amount to multiple years of my life plugging and unplugging this very kit into walls across the globe, I couldn’t help but feel oddly reminiscent. It made me think of not only of my relationship to this particular kit, but also reflect on the value, and sometimes lack thereof, of the tools we acquire for our business.

I should probably start out by admitting that I am not a gearhead. That’s nothing against gearheads. It’s just not how I am personally wired. I’m more driven by the emotional component of art rather than the technical aspects. That’s not better or worse. It just is. I don’t get particularly excited by megapixels. Most of the tools in my standard kit show definitive signs of gray hair. And my level of joy when obtaining new photographic toy is generally limited to its individual utility. Does it allow me to create the image I want and generate the emotion I’m after or not?

It’s not that I don’t pine for all the flashy toys from time to time. I am a photographer, after all. Our job is part art and part science. And having the right tools for the task are important.

Perhaps if I were independently wealthy my view would be different. If money were no obstacle, I certainly would always own the best and brightest and further, make use of every available corner of my office by stacking Pelican cases filled with gear from floor to ceiling. No doubt, when photography was still a hobby for me, and not yet a career, I was far more prone to burn through my wages on a new toy simply because I had heard it was something a top photographer is supposed to have rather than identifying how it would play into my own individual skill set.

But alas, I am but a working photographer. And one of the first things you learn as you make the transition from hobbyist to filling the refrigerator is that any piece of equipment is only as valuable as its ability to help you generate income. Yes, the newest version of your camera or lighting kit may look cooler, but unless it improves your ability to do your job, is it really worth the investment?

All of this brings me to my own standard lighting kit. A Profoto Acute 2 2400 pack with three Profoto D4 heads. There are a few other things. A handful of modifiers. An extension cord or two. A second Acute B 600 pack for shooting at a location without a power outlet. But the main workhorse is the Acute 2 2400 kit. At the time of purchase, it was not the top of the line. It wasn’t the bottom. It was simply the best I could afford. A balance of professional grade quality on an (at the time) aspiring photographer’s budget.

I bought the kit about seven years ago in an effort to take my photography to the next level. Was I at least somewhat still under the delusion that a piece of equipment could make me a better photographer? Probably. But there was also a much more logical reason for my investment.

I never went to photography school. Not because I didn’t want to, but as I discovered photography late in life, at a time when I already had a house, a mortgage, and a daunting multitude of other financial responsibilities, affording to break off a large sum of cash to go back to school just wasn’t something that was within my grasp.

I did, however, have the benefit of having previously studied cinematography at UCLA Extension as well as having worked in the motion picture industry for over a decade. And while my days in motion pictures were largely focused on writing and directing, rather than camera operation, I did have a fairly firm grasp of f-stops, shutter speeds, and the basic concepts associated with creating an image.

In fact, the way I learned still photography was in class studying cinematography. It was a heck of a lot cheaper for students to learn about f-stops using still camera then burning through 35mm motion picture film. The tools to create moving images and still images are incredibly similar.  

Similar, but not the same. To be more specific, while I may have had a firm grasp of how to light a scene with hot lights for a film production, I hadn’t the foggiest clue how to fire a strobe.

I took my first few tentative steps towards still photography lighting with a more limited investment, the purchase of a couple of Nikon speedlights and a couple stands light enough to carry around, but also flimsy enough to be blown over by the gale-force wind generated by an over-exuberant two-year-old staring at a candle laden birthday cake. I quickly consumed every Joe McNally tutorial I could get my hands on and did my best to recreate the mega dollar editorial shoots I so admired on my shoestring budget.

There really is a great deal one can do with just a handful of speedlights, but, perhaps due to my competitive nature, perhaps due to unearned ambition, I knew I wanted to aim for a “higher level.” I intentionally put “higher level” in quotation marks, because that term is all relative. There was absolutely nothing lacking in the images I created with speedlights. At least nothing lacking as a result of the equipment versus my own lack of skill at the time. But, I also knew that I wanted to shoot at a high level one day, and from all I was seeing around me, that meant big strobes. And the one name that I always had stuck in my head was Profoto.

Only one small problem. Even the smallest of Profoto kits was going to costs decidedly more than a couple speedlights. A lot more. And while my skills as a photographer were fast developing, the same couldn’t be said for my bank account. But I knew that if I had a desire to compete at the highest level, these were skills I simply had to learn.

I knew the kit wouldn’t be cheap. The initial investment for my base kit with pack, heads, stands, and a couple modifiers, probably ended up running me around five to six thousand dollars when I first bought it. Quite a bit more than the three or four hundred bucks I spent on each of my speedlights. But decidedly less than the forty thousand in annual tuition it would’ve required for me to attend photography school full time. And while attending school would have no doubt afforded me access to the best equipment available, by sinking my money into my own kit I knew that at the end of the day I would own the equipment as well as the knowledge.

Of course, acquiring the knowledge was a journey on its own. Without a formal structure to guide me, I took advantage of being newly equipment rich, if knowledge poor, to teach myself how to light the old-fashioned way… by doing.

Still, at my day job at the time, I filled every weekend with test shoots to familiarize myself with my new equipment. I tried out different modifiers, experimented with light placement, learned to use my light meter and work with the power setting on the strobe pack. Having access to the kit allowed me very quickly to learn how to create a basic “correctly” exposed image. Continuing to have access to that kit allowed me to keep shooting and keep experimenting, the key to developing one’s skill set.

Like a soldier becoming familiar with his or her own rifle, I learned every nook and cranny of that pack. I learned it’s quirks (which admittedly are very few, it’s a great piece of equipment) and strengths. In short, I learned enough about the gear and the process of lighting that it all became second nature, to the point where the technical aspects of photography could fade to the back of my mind while shooting and I could instead focus on the creativity of the image.

There are other ways to acquire this knowledge. One doesn’t have to own their own kit. You could rent one. You could assist another photographer who has one. You could go to a proper school who will allow you access to one. But, for me getting to know not just any kit, but this specific kit was a real turning point in my understanding of photography. It may not have been cheap, but it was well worth the nearly full year of cutting back on other expenses it took to save up enough money to purchase it.

Seven years later, and several camera bodies later, that same kit is still the first thing loaded into my truck for a shoot. Like a really great piece of glass, it is the gift that keeps on giving. Having used it now on hundreds of occasions, it has more than paid for itself financially. And while I am now often afforded the chance to shoot with a very high end of the Profoto line on larger scale shoots, it is the basic knowledge I learned through all the test shoots with this starter kit that allows me to easily adapt to any lighting system I may be presented.

And while this actual model may have been replaced in the Profoto lineup by newer models, my own trusty Profoto Acute 2 2400 kit will continue to be the first case opened up on set for many years to come.

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24 Comments

Vincent Alongi's picture

I've taken a similar approach with a pair of Godox speed lights, umbrellas and rechargeable batteries. The poor-man's lighting setup. And yes, it's all about testing, trying, rehearsing and putting the gear through sessions with my kids and friends. It enables me to use it more efficiently with models. As well, TFP sessions - they're getting what they pay for and vice versa. Self-teaching has its advantages and disadvantages.

Would be interesting to hear opinions on an upgrade to speed lights- I'm kicking around the idea of strobes, but I'm not going Profoto just yet- too costly for a rig that's not going to pay itself off just yet. As well, I'm of the belief that the newer brands are quality based on reviews.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Speed lights are great. They also have an advantage of portability if you travel a lot for work. You can obviously packs strobes as well, but depending on your business model, you may be able to travel lighter with speedlights.

Vincent Alongi's picture

They've worked so far.. the most extreme situation was late December at night on the High Line in NY. Windy, cold. Fingers freezing, the umbrellas were on lightweight light stands. It was an adventure; in one shot my model miraculously used his feet to keep both stands in place. We only ended the shoot since the High Line closes at 7pm during the winter... otherwise we were probably good to shoot on.

I'll keep learning lighting technique and style on them. Though I'm thinking springtime is when I'll pull a trigger on something at the next level- the power capability and batteries of strobes seem very appealing. Though I'd be hard-pressed to ever get rid of the speed lights.

Still trying to decide if I want to "invest" in the self contained Profotos, the B2 or an acute pack with heads. Having all three is just not cost effective or practical at this point.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Try the new AD600 Pro by Godox. Or for portability, the AD200.

William Howell's picture

Excellent article, I feel the same way, sure I love fancy gear, (who doesn’t), but your most important investment is light. And the light modifiers, my best modifier, the one that makes the most beautiful light, to me anyway, is a scrim with paper diffusion material. It is almost dirt cheap and easily replaceable.
The first time I saw light from a diffused scrim, I was like, whoa! I had never seen anything so beautiful.
Now I can’t use a paper diffused scrim every where and that’s a shame.
This my newest light, it is so powerful, I love it. Right now it is my “muse.”

Christopher Malcolm's picture

A lot can be done with a bit of diffusion. And, like you said, you don't need to spend the mortgage to get beautiful light.

William Howell's picture

That is what makes it cool, to me anyway. Classic American design, no frills or bells and buzzers. And this light goes from full to 128th power, or 1320 Ws to 5 Ws, ain’t that something.

Jason Lorette's picture

I feel the same way about my one Alien Bee 800...it was an investment when I still wasn't making any money through photography (still have a day job). I also have some old Bowens lights, that are at least 30 years old (they are made entirely of metal), that were given to me and are amazing (will be a sad day when they die as Bowens no longer exists and I won't be able to get new flash tubes). These old Bowens lights have allowed me to learn, and still learn, how to use strobes. They have a photo cell that plugs into them that I trigger with my Bee (the jack looks like an old pair of 70's headphones). I would have been much farther behind without them.

Great article...thanks for sharing :)

Christopher Malcolm's picture

I love gear that is built to last.

I've been eyeing the Alien Bees, but have heard differing opinions. Have they been good for you?

Vincent Alongi's picture

That's one light on my radar; I've read good things about it.

Yogesh Dhakal's picture

touched .. i feel photography is always about the photographer .. tools just aid the process

Studio 403's picture

Can I borrow your light gear for 7 or 8 years, I promise not to bring it back, I guess my envy and jealousy will never cease.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Beautifully written and very inspiring. I'm the same way, gear doesn't enthuse me in the slightest but the spiritual process of creating is what I live for.

Motti Bembaron's picture

I will stick with Godox :-) I get the same (if not more) for a fraction of the price.

Dieter Kaupp's picture

U go girl!......am at the same point you were 6 or seven years ago......

Dieter Kaupp's picture

oops......sorry Christopher......seeing the nice photos I was thinking 'female'.......nice work!

Tony Burns's picture

I did the same thing when starting my journey into lighting, but with a four pack of Einsteins! It's probably been one of the best investments I made early on in my journey.