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The Best Place to Shop for Photo Gear Is Closer Than You Think

The Best Place to Shop for Photo Gear Is Closer Than You Think

A recent trip down memory lane reminded me that sometimes the best place to look for something new, is a to remember something old.  

“Every gambler knows that the secret to surviving is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep.” Yes, I just started a photography article quoting Kenny Rogers’ ubiquitous 1980s country tune. You should at least be thankful that you’re not sitting here with me as I write this article being forced to listen to me sing said tune out loud to the heights of my limited vocal potential. But darn it if that legendary country crooner doesn’t have a point.

I am a pack rat. There, I said it. It feels liberating like finally being able to release a long-held personal secret into the world and be able to live my truth. Although to be fair, my status as King Pack Rat would likely be incredibly obvious to anyone who has had the misfortune of opening any of the larger capacity closets that line the walls of my duplex whose doors chronically lie open ever so slightly, bulging at the hinges.

Like most of the problems in my life that I am too selfish to take full credit for, I blame this partially on my mother. Like me, she interrupts every trip to the wastebasket with the fateful question, “but what if you need it later for…” That question can be met with a multitude of responses, but generally always ends with the same result. Another trip to the “everything drawer” in the kitchen where the souls of knick knacks go to live in a castaways purgatory never to be seen or heard from again.

More than likely, the next time I lay eyes on that discarded “I Love Photography” sticker I found some time ago buried within a delicious box of Cracker Jacks will be years later when I finally decide to fill up another garbage bag full of similarity acquired remnants and make a trip to the donation center of the local Goodwill. Of course, it will be exactly one week after giving up on the above mentioned sticker that I will be on set, staring at a prop being placed into a scene, and think to myself, “You know what would really take this shot over the top? An “I Love Photography” sticker!!!”

And therein lies the rub. Therein lies the vicious cycle that is the life of a pack rat. I acquire things for their value. Knowing their value, monetary or otherwise, I am hesitant to discard them even once they’re outlived their immediate usefulness. So I end up keeping them around. In the meantime, I‘ve acquired new things which themselves may or may not be useful, but, in their acquisition, I tend to completely forget my ownership of the original item. In fact, my possession of the original item is usually buried so deep in my memory that when the fateful moment finally does arrive where the use of it would be ideal, I've already forgotten that I ever even made the original purchase of the perfect tool sitting in a closet just six feet away.

I’d like to say that this trend is limited to hand-me-down Blu Rays and oversized jeans. But, unfortunately, my Kung Fu grip also extends to the pricier things in life including those fancy devices I use to either create light or translate it into ones and zeros to create a digital masterpiece. Or, maybe, just to create a slightly out of focus rendition of my friend’s first attempt at a Triple Lutz and the inevitable trip to the emergency room that ensued.

A recent attempt to reorganize my gear storage lead to a deep dive into all the gear and the seemingly inordinate number of camera bags I’ve acquired over thirteen years in the business. Along with the rush of sentiment attached to certain items which I don’t use anymore but instantly connect me emotionally to the times when I did, the trip down memory lane also often evoked a more prudent question, “Why the heck did I just spend a thousand dollars on a new (insert your own item here) when I already had one sitting in my closet this whole time!!?”

But aside from just leading to a one-man rant inside my office, these type of questions lead to larger questions as a business. You see, even more likely than discovering that I had the exact same tool duplicated in my gear closet was the realization that while, no, I may not have that very tool that I’ve been eyeing on B&H yet, I do, in fact, have a number of other tools that could accomplish the same thing. So, instead of spending hours on end at the wrong end of an online shopping cart, why not spend a little more time shopping right here at home? If you’ve been at photography for any length of time, there’s a fairly good chance that you have more than a few tools lying around that do little more than collect dust or serve as decorations you’ve added to your living room that your patient spouse desperately hopes you’ll subtract. So, when looking for a tool to help you explore new photographic destinations, why not start first in your own garage?

Last week, while rummaging through my garage, post workout, I found a real gem. Hidden in a nondescript silver case which was sitting on a shelf in my garage for the last decade after being given to me by a friend who was cleaning out their own garage, I never really knew what was inside. I knew it was photography related. As my friends know that I am a photographer, I tend to inherit all discard photographic items, functional or otherwise, and, since I have such a hard time throwing things away, these items tend to pile up in various corners of the room.

This particular silver case came in a bundle that also included an old slide projector, popup screen, and a handful of other items which are super cool but not items I use on a daily basis. I had always assumed the silver case was simply an extra piece for the slide projector system. An extra tray. A platform of some sort. But when I opened the case, I instead found a strange metal bar with hinges and a few loose bulbs. I was intrigued.

Pulling out the contents, I quickly found them easy to assemble. The parts unfolded and reconnected like Optimus Prime and suddenly I found myself holding a very powerful and very portable movie flood light. Now, to be sure, this nifty little instrument is not likely to unseat my Fresnels or modern LED panels anytime soon, but it is decidedly handy. Sending a picture of the device to one of my cinematographer friends, he pointed out that this was one of the lights the Godard used when filming his classic Breathless. It's perfect for running and gunning. It has a convenient handle. Plenty of power. It's easily portable. And it plugs into any standard wall socket. Grab yourself a camera. Have your assistant grab this light and track the subject, and you're in business.

It has it's downsides, of course. None the least of which being that the light does get hot, really hot, and any mental lapses accompanied by an effort to hold it by anything but the handle will quickly bring you back into focus with singed fingertips. But, in a pinch, it's quite useful. Not bad for something I didn't even know was in my possession.

True, try as I might, I still haven’t been able to find an unused Arri Alexa sitting atop the mismatched keys in my “everything drawer.” And, no, this essay is not an attempt to legitimize my own embarrassing inability to discard shoes until there is a clear line of sight through the bottom of the soles up to the sky. Instead, it's a reminder that often the best shopping can be done without a credit card, without debt, and without leaving the comfort of your own sweatpants. Even if those sweatpants probably should have been thrown out years ago when they became permanently covered in paint, and you only hold onto them because you think maybe one day, someday, you will decide to pick up a paint brush again. So before your next purchase, take a moment to consider if you can save some money, and some storage space, by turning something old into something new.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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My brother manages an apartment building in Brooklyn and brought me home the same exact light from a vacant unit. So hot, but so powerful.

It's super useful. But definitely to be operated wearing gloves :-)

Why not put some high output fluorescent or LED bulbs on it?

Good idea. I'll have to try that.

Those were the first lights I used for still photos a looong time ago! Had my little brother hold and point them at my subjects. Got them from my father when he stopped shooting home movies. Still have his 1950's Dejur 8mm wind-up camera with 3 lens turret. I can still feel the heat those things made and the remember the burning smell also...

I want that case.

Yeah that looks like a pretty cool design. Might weigh a ton tho.

I've got one of those too! Hotter 'n Hades, but fun to work with :-)

That's awesome. Now, I'm jealous I don't have the on-camera mount :-)

Looks like any old school flash bracket might easily be drilled out to attach to that thumbscrew on "top" (flip it) of your lightbar. Just make sure you've carefully inspected your wiring in that lightbar or you and your camera could have a shocking reminder of the importance of electrical safety. http://www.ebay.com/itm/like/122338146696

I forgot to mention - mine came with the pictured 8mm Brownie camera as well as a projector: https://www.flickr.com/photos/brycemilton/37930545574/ :-) I've also got a 1940s E. Leitz slide projector that I've gone through and rewired - I'd forgotten how much I loved the clickety-racket of those old projectors and the smell of those hot dusty bulbs until I fired them up :-) The Leica projector even came with a grimy old bonus slide of Mount Rainier taken from Tacoma's waterfront back in the 50's.