Sitting at home, waiting out a global pandemic can lead one to do a bit of thinking. And, because I am a photographer, what better thing to think about than gear?
Of course, not all the reasons I think about gear are positive. You may have gone through some of the same deliberations over the last couple of weeks. With the pandemic putting a hold on the income of most photographers and freelancers in general, it’s impossible to not look around at your assets and consider what you're willing to sell to stay afloat. Thankfully, I’m not at that point yet, but it never hurts to plan ahead just in case the current situation drags on longer than we might like.
On a side note, since this article will likely be online long past the time the world has returned to normal, feel free to ignore that first paragraph if you are reading this in a world where we can once again leave our houses.
Now, back to the gear. I will say that many of these items were on my radar even before I was compiling my list. I’ve been wanting to trim down the amount of gear I have on hand for some time. One, some of it is just taking up space and collecting dust. Two, if it has financial value, even during good times, it may be worthwhile to consider selling an item or trading it in. And three, if I never use it, is it really of any value at all?
Of course, value is not always an easy metric to measure. If you own a Ferrari, but don’t know how to drive, is that Ferrari still valuable? It’s a great car, for sure. But, if you never take it out of the garage, was it worth the money?
That’s how I will approach this list. I want to make clear at the top that I am in no way making a judgment of how good each of these pieces of gear is. Every item on this list can do the job. But “value” is a different proposition altogether. To properly assess value, I need to take into account not only how technically adept gear is, but also how I ultimately ended up using it, how well it fits into my workflow, and whether or not the Ferrari got out of the garage enough times to be worth the insurance payments.
One other quick asterisk before starting. I obviously don’t own every piece of equipment from every brand, so if your preferred brand is or isn’t on the list, it’s not a personal slight. It just didn’t make the list. And two, I am a professional advertising photographer who shoots mainly athletes, fitness models, and fast-moving subjects in the context of fashion and commercial products. That’s not a pitch for my services, but rather an attempt to give you context. What is valuable for my workflow might not be the same thing as what may be valuable for your workflow. And even within the same niche, any two artists don’t approach photography in exactly the same way. So, this is in no way meant to be a blanket declaration that everyone should follow. This list is compiled strictly from personal preference, as that is the only frame of reference from which I can give you an honest assessment.
I am also splitting this list into the two haves. I don’t want to just tell you what is on the list, but why they are on the list. So, I’ve spread it out over two weeks. In today’s article, I’ll talk about my best investments. In next week’s article, we’ll discuss the not so great decisions made by yours truly.
And last but not least, this list is meant to be fun — a bit of self-reflection on my varying levels of purchasing genius and extreme stupidity. This is not a product review. So, alas, let's get to the list, starting with the best investments and ending with the not so great ones.
Profoto Acute 2400
I dedicated an entire article to this. When I purchased my main lighting system close to 15 years ago, it was, at the time, the most expensive investment I had ever made in my life. And despite Profoto being one of the industry gold standards, spending so much money on a piece of equipment, especially so early in my career, was a risk. After all, at the time of purchase, I didn’t even 100% understand how to use the thing.
But, that was part of the point. Going back to school to formally study photography wasn’t really a practical option for me at the time. And, since I learn better by doing than by watching. I considered my purchase of the Profoto Acute 2400 and multiple D4 heads to be an investment. I may not have purchased it with much knowledge of lighting, but after 15 years of practicing with it almost every day, I now know my way around a strobe. And while I own several lights now and rent a variety of different systems, all I know about lighting started with that initial investment.
From a practical standpoint, the Profoto lighting kit is still the very first thing I pack into my car on just about every photoshoot. No longer just a learning tool, it has been my day in and day out workhorse for almost 15 years. So, simply from a mathematical standpoint, regardless of the high initial investment, it has more than paid back its value.
When I started writing this article, I planned to include my current Nikon D850 in this slot. I still maintain that it’s the best DSLR ever made. And since my involvement with mirrorless can be something of a love-hate relationship, the D850, for me, is still one of the best cameras ever made. For me, that is. But then, I started to think that, if we are talking about value, the real owner of this slot on the list should be my original Nikon D200.
Like my Profoto system, I spent way more to purchase the D200 at the time than might have seemed absolutely prudent. If I remember it correctly, I think it was just under $2,000 or so at the time. I understand that $2,000 isn’t that much in today’s market. But, considering the fact that at the time, I literally hadn’t taken a photograph in 10 years and it was more of an impulse buy than a well-considered investment, two grand was a lot to put on my credit card.
But, partly due to timing and partly due to a need to justify my investment, the D200 became the camera that allowed me to fall in love with photography. It was the camera that went from vanity purchase to essential tool. It was the camera that stayed on my person as often as my wallet or my smartphone. Actually, I think I may have had a flip phone back then.
Yes, $2,000 was a lot to spend on a camera for someone not known to take photographs. But, all these years later, that purchase is why I have a career that I love. Sure, I went on to use it for paid jobs, and it did generate enough revenue to say it covered the investment. But, more importantly, that camera opened up a brand new world for me and provided me with my life’s passion. What could be more valuable than that?
I love the Fuji X system so much that I’ve written about it on multiple occasions. Perhaps too much. But, the fact that the system has inspired so much digital ink to be spilled is a testament to how well suited the camera is to me.
My first Fuji was an X100S. I bought this to be a side personal camera, but it has admittedly been used more over the years as a fashion accessory than as a practical tool. It wasn’t until I impulsively bought a Fuji X-T2 after a trade show a couple of years ago that I ever even considered shooting any serious images with anything other than a Nikon or Hasselblad.
I was blown away by the X-T2’s small size and comparatively speaking excellent image quality. I paired it with the 27mm f/2.8 pancake lens, and suddenly, I found myself with the perfect walkaround camera to have with me every day. By this time in my photography career, I was already to the point where even the most basic shoots usually required me to deadlift several cases of heavy equipment. Having something like the X-T2, so small yet powerful, in my (coat) pocket was a massive change of pace.
So too were the tactile dials. Bringing me back to my old film cameras, the design of the Fuji cameras simply reminded me of the joy of taking a photograph. It inspired me to try new things and new combinations. It made me want to take pictures for the love of the game.
I’ve since traded in my X-T2 in favor of an X-T3. The jury is still out on whether I’ll get at X-T4. But, regardless of the model, that system has more than returned the initial investment. In fact, it returned that investment rather quickly since the purchase price wasn’t going to break the bank.
Despite its small stature, I’ve used the Fuji X system on several professional jobs, so it has also been able to return its value on the balance sheet. But, even aside from professional work, the X-T2 and then X-T3 became the cameras that got used every day. Whether shooting for practice or snatching a quick shot of a raccoon who suddenly showed up in my backyard, it was the camera that was always there.
It may not be a Ferrari, to use our earlier analogy. Maybe it’s more like a Toyota. But, like my own Toyota, it doesn’t cost that much, gets driven every day, and flat out gets the job done.
Canon EOS C200
Okay, this one’s journey to the best side of the ledger was a tricky one. For starters, it’s one of the most expensive items I’ve ever purchased. So, based on simple math alone, it’s going to be harder to recoup its value. I decided to invest as it came along when many of my clients were starting to be driven more and more by video needs as opposed to still photography. As great as the D850 is for stills, the video remained an afterthought. And I wanted a separate video system to address those needs.
The Canon EOS C200 ticked all the boxes I deemed necessary for the majority of my jobs. And, it was within my price range, even if just barely, compared to other cinema cameras. It took me a minute to talk myself into the purchase, but eventually, I took the plunge.
I was immediately blown away by the presentation and ease of use. If you want your footage to look cinematic, but still need to work quickly and without the benefit of a massive production, the C200 is the camera for you. The files looked great. It is perfectly designed for the solo shooter I so often find myself to be. Yet, it can be built out easily when needed for larger productions. It’s kind of perfect really.
So, why didn’t it shoot straight to the top of this list? Well, remember this list isn’t about quality but value — at least, my own subjective definition that I will remind you again is based entirely on my own needs and workflow. And around the same time I had purchased my C200, camera manufacturers suddenly decided to engage in a spec race to improve the video capabilities of their still cameras and flooded the market with an insane number of great video options for far less money than I had spent on my C200.
True, a lot of these smaller mirrorless cameras, like my own Fuji X-T3, were not cinema cameras. They had their own limitations. But, from the sheer standpoint of asking, “can this camera deliver the images I need,” the answer was yes. In fact, even while making the C200 my main video camera, I often used the tiny X-T3 as a B camera on shoots delivering work for some of the largest and most demanding brands in the world.
In many cases, I found myself preferring the footage I’d shot with my X-T3. So, inevitably, after my initial excitement, I went through a long period of wondering if my C200 was really worth the investment at all. The footage was better, for sure. But was it that much better than it was worth the investment for me personally? Or, in hindsight, should I have just saved my money and gotten a less expensive system?
Well, as it turns out, the C200 was worth the investment. True, at first, it did seem as though my smaller mirrorless camera could produce the same footage with less hassle. But then, something amazing happened. I actually learned how to use my C200. Out of the box, the C200 footage is great. But, as I began to understand more and more, especially about how to grade and manipulate the Canon raw footage in post, my results improved. Imagine that. It pays to practice.
Project by project, the C200 was working its way into being irreplaceable. That’s not a knock on other cameras. It’s just that once I got better, I was better able to utilize the C200 and take advantage of its strengths. So, the camera went from the bottom half of this list to the top and has proven itself to be a very valuable investment, even if it didn’t seem so at first.
Value is a personal thing. Something is only truly valuable to you if you are making the most of its potential versus the amount of money that you have invested. The four items above make the list of my four best investments. So, what landed on the bottom half of the list? Tune into next week's article to find out.