In last week’s article, I took you through the four best investments that I’ve made since becoming a professional photographer. But, since there are two sides to every coin, I guess it's only fair to also tell you where I’ve gone wrong.
So you don’t think me a completely poor buyer, I’d suggest first reading the previous article about which items made the good purchases list before reading this one. But, in case you’d like to read your bad news first, I’ll repeat the basic disclaimer here that I made previously.
Every item on this list, both good values and bad values, are terrific products. No items on the list below are bad products. This is not a product review. Instead, this ranking is a personal attempt to access how much value I have personally gotten out of the items in my gear closet based on how much I spent and how much has each product paid off for me. That last part is especially important. I can only access value based on how I use the items and my own needs. A passing quarterback that gets drafted onto an NFL team that only ever runs the ball and winds up sitting on the bench doesn’t suddenly suck as a quarterback. He just wasn’t the right fit.
The list is also meant to be fun. Today’s list actually pokes more fun at me than the products themselves, as they each, in some way, represent a failure on my part to take into account exactly how each purchase would provide a return on investment. But, this doesn’t mean that the exact same products wouldn’t be the perfect investment for you.
So, with the disclaimer out of the way, let's get to the list on my less wise purchasing decisions.
About Two-Thirds of My Fuji X Lens Lineup
I talked at length in the best value article about how quickly I fell in love with the Fuji X system. The size, speed, and simple joy of use are nearly impossible to match. And, at the price point, you’d be hard-pressed to find a camera system that gives you so much for so little. I loved shooting with my X-T2 and X-T3. I loved it so much, in fact, that I quickly started building up my collection of Fuji X mount lenses. I wanted to use the camera more and more, so logically, I wanted to have a complete set of lenses to take into any situation. I even reached a point at some time last year where I had just about every Fuji X lens that I could ever possibly consider using.
I absolutely love the system. So, how can it be on both the best purchase list and the worst purchase list simultaneously? Well, again, I remind you that this is not a product review. Every single one of those Fuji X lenses I bought was amazing. Tack sharp, small, and quick. Compared to other systems, they are also incredibly affordable, which is why I was able to complete my collection so quickly.
But here’s the thing. In the throes of my love affair with my Fuji X-T3, I’d taken my eye off of the larger picture. I knew that I loved the camera. But, I’d missed the point as to why I loved the camera. Yes, the image quality from the X system is fantastic, especially given a small size. But the reason I was using it for my personal work as opposed to my Nikon wasn’t because of superior image quality. No, the reason I loved using the Fuji X system was that it was small. I spend all day holding a Nikon D850 with a heavy 24-70mm f/2.8 attached and lugging around Pelican cases full of lights. What the Fuji X-T3 was really offering me was the ability to move around lighter and less encumbered.
Bill Clinton is famous for saying in response to a question about winning elections, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Regardless of your political persuasion, all the great minds in political strategy can’t outthink the economy. Generally speaking, the better the economy, the better the results for the man or woman in the office.
I love my X-T3 for several reasons. The dials, the ease of use, the colors, the inspiration. But, at the end of the day, the reason I was picking it up as opposed to other cameras in my possession was that it was small. It was easy to toss into my backpack or into the center console of my car and just have with me at all times. In other words, I should have been telling myself, “it’s the size, stupid.”
So, when I started buying every Fuji lens under the sun, while it seemed logical, it was actually against my best interest. As I got more lenses and accessories, the size of my Fuji system moved from a shoulder bag into its own Pelican case. I was inadvertently taking away my reason for having the Fuji in the first place. Once a camera system requires its own Pelican case, it invites the question of why I would bring it as opposed to just bringing my D850. Again, it was the size of the D850 I was escaping, not the image quality. Previously, the X-T3 was being asked to fill a niche. It was a relief compared to my everyday work. After all the build-up, it was being asked to win a one-on-one battle with the heavyweight champ.
Of course, there’s no requirement that I take all my Fuji lenses with me at all times. Eventually, this is what I started doing. The only lenses I ever really found myself using were the 27mm f/2.8 pancake lens for walkaround photography, the 16mm f/1.4 for video, and the 35mm f/1.4 for walkaround and people photography. The rest of the lenses stayed home in the land that time forgot along with a couple of Nikon lenses who had met the same fate.
So, while all of these lenses were amazing performers, none got the chance to perform very often, thus making them a less than valuable investment. In fact, I just sold a number of them off to invest in more lights. Like most of my failed relationships, it wasn’t them, it was me.
Now, had the X-T3 been my primary camera system, purchasing a complete set of lenses would have been a smart move. But, because, for me, it was a complementary system, I should have done a better job of assessing the source of its value to my overall toolkit.
Arri Softlight Kit
Before I was a photographer, I was a filmmaker. I studied cinematography, and so much of what I knew about lighting was based on how I lit my films. When I became a still photographer, I started to hear about these things called strobes. I didn’t know much about them, but they sure sounded intimidating.
So, my first still photography lighting decision was to purchase hot lights instead. Like the other products on this list, the lights themselves are amazing: a pair of 650W fresnels and another 1x1 foot softlight. This is in the days long before LEDs, for those of you wondering. Although your electricity bill starts to cry every time you plug them in, the lights work perfectly. These lights are made to work day in and day out on a hectic film set, and they will last pretty much forever. So, why are they on the poor investment side of the list?
Simple, I purchased them out of fear. I didn’t buy these lights because they were the right tool for the job. I bought them because I was afraid to learn a new technology and wanted to stick with what was safe. But, spoiler alert, if you want to be a professional photographer, at some point, you are going to have to learn how to use off-camera flash. Whether or not it becomes part of your personal aesthetic or not is another thing entirely. But, you need to know how to use them even if you choose not to.
So, inevitably, as my career progressed, I got to a point where I needed to learn how to use strobes. I actually reached that point relatively quickly, meaning that the Arri system I spent a decent amount of money on over 15 years ago has been used mostly as a glorified step stool around the house. Even as I write this, I have to think twice to try and remember where the system even currently is in my house.
I have turned it on a few times over the years. And every time I fire it up, it works without a hitch. But it makes this list because I personally made the mistake of letting my fear prevent me from selecting the best tool for the job.
Fuji GFX 100
I debated whether or not to put this on the list, because I didn’t want to give the impression to anyone who might be reading that this camera is anything short of a technological marvel. The images this thing creates are second to none. The files are nothing short of amazing. If you want the ultimate in image quality, look no further. I actually just shot something with it yesterday, and, even after a year, I am still blown away each time I open the files in Capture One. So, why is it on this end of the list?
In case you don’t remember from the first part of this series, a quick reminder of what I do, as it will affect the explanation to follow. Professionally, I shoot advertising campaigns for fitness and activewear brands. So I require high megapixel counts for large-scaled detailed prints and potentially substantial cropping. But, unlike for instance someone who shoots product still lifes inside a studio, because of my fast-moving subject matter I also require fast and accurate autofocus speed, higher burst rates, and a bright clear viewfinder to capture fast-moving action. Before purchasing the GFX 100, most of my professional work was shot with either a Nikon D850 or with a (rented) Hasselblad or Phase One medium format system.
My purchase of the GFX 100 was motivated by a desire to deliver my clients top-class image quality while personally getting the user experience delivered by my Fuji X series cameras. I’ve written extensive reviews on both why I bought the camera as well as how I feel about the camera currently. I won’t rehash all of that here.
What I saw on the spec sheet of the GFX 100 was the perfect balance between image quality and a skillset to match my workflow. Well, it definitely delivered on the first count. The second? Well, this is where that disclaimer about this list being specific to my own workflow and shooting style comes into effect.
If you shoot anything stationary, like landscapes, still lifes, posed portraits, or even general street photography then the GFX 100 is nothing short of a godsend. When the focus locks on, the images coming out of this camera are the most detailed that I’ve ever seen. It provides the perfect medium format feel, which is hard to describe, but, for me, comes down to making you feel like an image is an entire world in and of itself. The camera can absolutely deliver the technical quality that even the most demanding client could ever ask for.
The problem I made is that I paid too much attention to the spec sheet and image quality and not enough attention to how I actually shoot in real life. I am dedicated to my craft, technically knowledgeable, and determined to deliver only the highest quality end product that I can. I plan. I brainstorm. I experiment. I put all my passion into my work and hit the set like a whirlwind of ideas, moving from one setup to the next at a frenzied pace that leaves me thoroughly exhausted at the end of the day.
But despite all my preparation and focus, I am not slow and methodical. When I shoot, I want to be on the move, both literally and figuratively. I want to move onto a new concept the very instant the thought enters my head. I want to transition my subjects from portraiture to Crossfit at the drop of a hat. I’ll change speed and directions faster than you can blink an eye. Whereas some really amazing photographers will spend an entire day working on one concept, my brain works exactly the opposite. I have to keep moving onto the next thing. I’m a bit OCD, with or without a camera, and I’m driven to fit all my various ideas into as short a time as possible. Simply put, I move. I care about precision. But I care more about individual moments, many of which come about spontaneously.
The GFX 100 is a camera, while delivering superior image quality, that is designed for photographers who take their time and have advance notice of what is going to occur in front of them. And despite being advised to do so by lots of my early mentors in the industry, I’ve learned over the years that slow is simply not how my creative brain functions best. I can go slowly. I have gone slowly. There are even easily identifiable benefits to going slowly, like going deeper and really exploring a concept. But, in general, I personally get better images with a cheap camera and the ability to move freely than I do with an expensive camera but confined to work slowly. Again, that is 100% a personal thing and not at all a judgment of the camera. Over the years, I’ve just learned how my creative engine runs best.
Of course, when judging the value of an investment, I have to take into consideration how useful it is to me. After all, I’m the one that spent the money. And regardless of how perfect the fit seemed on paper, in actuality, I’ve found myself reverting to using the Nikon D850 for 95% of my workload. The GFX 100 has its place. I mostly use it for rare formal portraits or just as a personal walkaround camera. Despite its size, I do love shooting with it.
But, just like signing a backup quarterback in the NFL, is it worth spending big money on a player that isn’t going to start the big games? For the most high-pressure ad jobs, the jobs where this camera was meant to fit, I generally still find myself wanting to rent a Hasselblad or Phase One. For other professional and spec shoots, I find myself turning to the Nikon D850. And for traveling light, I turn to the X-T3. So, despite its quality, the camera doesn’t get very much time on the field.
I will say that I’m still holding out hope that this purchase won’t be a permanent resident on this list. As I described in my best value article when discussing the Canon EOS C200, sometimes, products simply take a bit of time to integrate into your system. At first, they may not seem like the best choice. But as you learn more about them, their benefits start to pay off down the line. The GFX 100 certainly has enough potential to develop. For a more methodical photographer, it would be the perfect tool. And I am absolutely positive that there are still shortcuts with the camera that will allow me to use it more efficiently than I will eventually learn. But at the moment, it makes the lower value end of the list simply because I inaccurately predicted where it would fit into my gear team and overestimated my ability to adapt my shooting style to fit with the camera.
Pretty Much Any Gimbal I’ve Ever Bought
I love footage shot with a Steadi-Cam or the poor man’s version, the gimbal. There’s nothing better than long tracking shots where the camera seems to glide through the air free of being tethered to physical bounds. I love this technique so much that I’ve tried to incorporate it into my own work. Actually, I’ve tried several times. And those trials have all included the purchase of a brand new gimbal that promises to provide me with smooth footage with limited hassle.
And, for the most part, they deliver. Aside from the mechanical Glidecam which I never did get the hang of, a result of user failure not device failure, all the motorized gimbals I’ve purchased have done the job they were intended to. Once you get going, they deliver smooth video movements and a professional feel. S,o what’s the problem? And why have these purchases been the absolute worst purchases of my career?
Because I never use them. Despite an abundance of YouTube videos discussing how easy it is to balance a camera on a gimbal, I admit to being an abject failure in that category. While the motorized ones are easier, it’s still not something that comes easy to me, and it’s not due to lack of trying. So, while I certainly can balance a camera eventually, it still takes me absolutely forever to do so, like an embarrassingly long time filled with several curse words and pleas for help from a supreme being.
If I have an unusually long prep period or an assistant who can set it up for me, I’m good to go. But, in actual practice, the entire setup usually ends up just taking me so darn long that I give up halfway through and simply revert to hand-holding the camera and trying to quell my shaky knees. It’s not ideal, but as mentioned in the last section, I like to move quickly, and I’d rather risk having to edit around a less than perfectly smooth shot than to cool off the subject as they wait for me to set up the gimbal.
In a way, this final entry is the perfect encapsulation of what ultimately determines a product's value as an investment. Value can’t be judged simply by numbers on a spec sheet or by how other photographers you know are using the equipment. As I’ve even said multiple times throughout this article, my thoughts above are based solely on my own needs and shooting style. That’s the only truly honest perspective I can offer. Value has to be a personal thing. It can only be judged by how you will use the equipment personally. Does it fit not only your technical needs, but your shooting style? Is it the best tool for the job or just the best tool on the market? Those aren’t always the same thing. Do you know specifically why you’re buying a product? If you don’t, you’re likely to end up buying the wrong product or spending too much on a higher-end product when a lower-priced one might be a better fit.
Of course, these are only my opinions. And every single item on this list is a great product for the right customer. And there are surely several products on the market that I have yet to have a great fortune, or misfortune, to purchase. So, what are your best purchases? And what is your worst?