Three Impulse Buys That Accidentally Ended up Being Some of My Favorite Photography Tools

I often write about the careful process of making sure you get the most bang for your buck when shopping for photo gear. Well, sometimes you just get lucky.

Buying photography gear can be unreasonably fun. It can also be unreasonably expensive. Even the most careful shopper will eventually look down at their receipt and wonder about all the other things in life that money could have been spent on. So, especially if photography is your means to make a living, it is vitally important that you scrutinize each of your purchases to determine their value to both your art and your bottom line.

With that said, we are all human. And just like when you see that chocolate bar in the checkout aisle that is decidedly not on your diet, sometimes, when you see a shiny new photography tool, you just can’t help yourself. I wish I could say this is a rare occurrence for me. But sadly, I consider myself one of the worst offenders. Whoever created online shopping and the ability to make purchasing decisions from bed at two o’clock in the morning was a very, very mean person. As a result of their unimaginable cruelty and my unimaginable lack of willpower, I’ve returned home to see a delivery box at my front door more than once and wondered, “wait, what did I order?”

In case it isn’t clear from my previous description, shopping on impulse for expensive photo gear is not a good idea. But, just as even a broken clock is right at least once a day, over the years, I have gotten lucky a time or two. So, just for a bit of fun, here are three impulse buys that actually ended up making a difference in my photography career.

Nikon D200

I guess this had to make the list since it was literally the impulse buy that is the reason why I am a photographer today. I won’t bore you with the details as I’m sure I’ve recounted my own origin story in another article, but at the time I bought the D200 all those years ago, it was hardly a prudent decision. Though I was already a filmmaker and did know a bit about still photography from my cinematography studies, it had been close to 11 years by that point since I had taken a still photograph in earnest. Being that this was in the days before I even owned a smartphone, I can’t say that my photography archives at the time amounted to much more than a handful of old 4x6 prints that I had made at the local drugstore then unceremoniously stuffed into a shoebox never to be seen again.

The purchase of the D200 was simply the result of a family vacation gone wrong. An impromptu photo opportunity that I completely botched due to lack of knowledge led me to do the novice thing and blame the camera. More as a result of my OCD rather than my desire to learn a new trade, I suddenly found myself looking to buy the best camera I could afford. I landed on the D200 after reading a whopping three user reviews in a comment section. And next thing I know, I was at my local camera store walking out with a far more expensive camera than was necessary for someone who had very little intention of using it.

But use it I did. From the very moment I took it out of the box, there was almost no place that I went that my D200 didn’t come along. Day trips, family visits. I even took it with me to a family funeral, which I still question myself about ethically, while, at the same time, being very grateful that I have the visual record of the day. Soon enough, I was not only starting to enjoy photography, but potential clients were starting to discover the work. Yada, yada, yada. And now, nearly two decades later, I can say that that camera not only provided me with a new passion but quite literally a new career.

Lighting Workshop at the Palm Springs Photo Festival

Impulse buys don’t have to be so tangible. Most of my early photo excursions with the D200 consisted largely of me wandering around in search of a subject. I knew the photography that I most liked to see, editorial portraiture, but I lacked the courage and technical skills at the time to really dive into photographing people. The way professional photographers would light their portraits seemed like magic to me. I mean, what the heck was a “strobe” anyway? The thought of a powerful studio light flashing was so intimidating that it would send me diving for cover as if I were in a WWI foxhole. But, at the same time, I really wanted to be able to make those images I had seen in the magazines.

So, when I saw an advertisement for a lighting workshop at the Palm Springs Photo Festival, I signed up. The course would be taught by Frank Ockenfels. If you don’t know who Frank is, you really should. He is quite simply a photographic legend and has produced the type of work over the decades for the entertainment, advertising, and editorial markets that 99.9% of photographers will only dream of.  

Not that I’m indicting you for not knowing who he is. As I was just getting into photography at the time, I didn’t know the name either. All I knew was that this workshop would be about lighting, and I was bound to see some of those huge strobes I’d only really glimpsed briefly in behind-the-scenes videos.

Well, I guess the joke was on me. Because, while the week-long course was indeed about lighting, not a single strobe was harmed during the course of instruction. But that wasn’t a shortcoming. Rather it was by design. What makes Frank’s work so special isn’t that he can afford the most expensive tools. It’s that he really understands how to use light and how to capture his truly unique vision in a way that no one else can. It’s not about the technology, it’s about the artistry.

So when, in place of strobes, Frank instead pulled out a small collection of 8 ½ x 11-inch silver and gold cards he’d fetched from the local arts and crafts store to be our sole lighting implements for the week, I knew I was in for something unexpected. Yet, despite the low tech, the week that followed ended up being nothing short of a lighting masterclass. He showed how you can accomplish almost anything with creativity and an understanding of light. After all, he’d used these very DIY reflectors to light an iconic image for the Spiderman movie franchise, which at that time, was gracing a massive billboard over Sunset Boulevard. If he could do something like that with a handful of these little cards, then surely, I have no reason to ever complain about not being able to do my job because I can’t afford this piece of gear or that one.

At the time I purchased my admission for the course, I was as interested in spending a week’s vacation in Palm Springs as I was in photography. But the time it was over, I had a much clearer understanding of not only what I wanted to shoot, but exactly how I could go about it. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I use the knowledge I learned in that course every single day I am on set.  

So when all these years later, I got a chance to attend this year’s Palm Springs Photo Festival, not as a student, but as a panelist to give advice to the next generation coming up, it all traces back to the afternoon I decided on a whim to blow off my day job and spend a week in the desert learning how to light. As far as impulse buys go, spending money on acquiring knowledge is one investment that is almost always going to pay off.

Fuji X-T2

By the time I saw the Fuji X-T2 in the display case at Cinegear Expo, I had already long since left the days of shooting for fun behind and had officially joined the ranks of the professional photographer. I’d already shot campaigns for major brands that I couldn’t have even dreamed of when I first started going out with my D200 to shoot local events years before. I wasn’t even at the event in my capacity as a photographer. Cinegear Expo is an annual event here in Los Angeles, usually held at Paramount Studios, where motion picture and commercial filmmakers get to spend hours mulling around the different manufacturer’s booths to see all the latest toys in person. At least it was that way prior to the pandemic. Hopefully, it will be that way again soon.

So, my main goal of the day was to get eyes on the latest Arri Alexa, see the newest constant lighting systems for cinematography, and be able to physically touch a bunch of gear that I will likely never be rich enough to afford, impulse buy or not. Since my initiation with the D200, I’d always been a Nikon shooter. The only exception to that was an earlier impulse buy, when I picked up a pocketable Fuji X100S with thoughts of it being a fun travel camera. Truth be told, I never really ended up using the X100S as much as I had planned. I found the autofocus to be somewhat confusing. And, more than that, I simply didn’t end up traveling enough to put it to significant use.

But still, when I saw the Fuji booth, I decided to stop by. In addition to hipster dream machines, Fuji also makes top-notch professional lenses for film and video. So, the optical equipment was what took up the majority of the real estate at the booth. But, off to the side, they had a small glass case with a collection of their smaller cameras. There was a new X100T in the case, and I was curious to see if the autofocus had been improved over the model I currently owned. They also had the X-Pro2 and another camera, the X-T2, that I didn’t know much about. I chatted with the saleswoman as much out of a desire to rest my feet in the convention hall as any interest in buying a camera. But, as the thought of updating my walkaround camera continued to linger in the days following the convention, I soon found myself on B&H typing in credit card information to order the X-T2.

This was an impulse buy in the worst way in that I knew going in that I might not end up using it all that much. If my history with the X100S was anything to go by, the odds were likely that it would end up sitting in my bag, awaiting an overseas vacation that would never come. Still, I wanted it. And, having just come off a major job, I was feeling somewhat flush in the financial department. So, I ordered one.

I don’t know exactly what it was about that X-T2 that seemed to match my hand so perfectly. Despite the fact that I was, by that point, already confirmed as a professional photographer and had a small armada of professional equipment to shoot with at any moment, I simply loved taking photographs with the X-T2. Suddenly, I found I was forming the same connection with my X-T2 that I had originally with the D200. I wanted to take it everywhere. A walk to the grocery store was no longer just a walk to the grocery store. Now, it was an opportunity to take pictures. Not that I had any expectations that there would be anything worth photographing. But the X-T2 reminded me to look anyway.

It’s not that the X-T2 ever really took over the mantle as my main camera for professional work. Instead, what made the X-T2 so valuable is that, after years of honing in on professional work and making photography a career as opposed to just a hobby, the simple joy of taking pictures with the X-T2 reconnected me to some of the reasons why I fell in love with photography in the first place. The images I took with it weren’t meant to be money-makers. They were meant to provide me with the beautiful thrill of capturing an image.  

The more your career progresses, the easier it is to forget that photography is supposed to be fun. The X-T2 reminded me about my love for the art form. It reconnected me to shooting from the soul. And, while the camera itself didn’t make too many appearances in my commissioned work, by re-opening my mind to creativity for the sake of creativity, it actually ended up benefiting my commercial work as well. It’s impossible to quantify the camera’s value since it rarely got used directly for client work. But the quality it brought to my artistry overall is undeniable. And that was well worth the impulse buy.

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17 Comments

Timothy Linn's picture

That link to the Frank Ockenfels site just sucked up two hours of my life...and you just happened upon an opportunity to take a workshop from him. Karma had your back that day.

Jan Holler's picture

Oh well, what a great photographer! Thanks for pointing that out. And thanks to Christopher for the article. I liked it.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Frank is AMAZING.

Jason Pietroski's picture

Great Article, Bummer I missed PSP This year would have loved to connect and see your workshop. My friend teaches a workshop for it and we headed out into the Desert for a week last time.

Frank is the Man! Got a chance to PA for him on a job and I learned so much from watching him and his crew work! Hope you're doing well! Loving your last session on IG!!!

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Thanks Jason. I'm sure you learned a ton working with Frank. Hopefully you and I can connect next time you are on the left coast.

Jason Pietroski's picture

Yes it was a great experience for a movie poster project! Learned a lot from watching his crew operate. Yes will let you know when I'm in your area. Friend and I are planning on going to WPPI in August for conference and some exploring. Have a great weekend!

Moshe Strugano's picture

Nice Article

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Thank you

Mik Foure's picture

Christopher Malcolm That's a nice article, thanks for that. Any chance you know if Frank Ockenfels has some online accessible workshops or where to find more in depths about his lightning knowldge?

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Good question. I don't know that he does. I know he does a lot of interviews and Q&As. But I'm not sure if he has any more formal education.

Robert Teague's picture

I've been doing photography for since the 1970s and never heard of Frank Ockenfels. I spent about a minute on his site; not my cup of tea. I have zero interest in portraits.

steven christie's picture

Great article Christopher and excellent pointer to Frank Ockenfels, a photographer whose site I stumbled upon some time ago looking for inspiration for music portraiture - and boy did I find it! Good to see acknowledgement of basic equipment to achieve professional results, I bought a very cheap set of gels and gel holder for my speed lights just to experiment with and are now used on every shoot I do to some degree! You're right too about that Fujifilm secret sauce, I have used Canon professionally for years but I picked up an X-Pro1 last year just because it was cheap and I liked the look of it and I can honestly say it's a thing of beauty which I admire (if not use) every day.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Fuji knows how to make cameras that are just fun to use. Not sure how they do it.

Paul Parker's picture

Great insights as always. And I LOVE that lead image!

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Thanks Paul!

art meripol's picture

"The more your career progresses, the easier it is to forget that photography is supposed to be fun." For me it's been the little fuji X100V. It's not my 'work' camera but so much more than an iPhone. I call it. my 'dog walking' camera, the one that's on my shoulder when I'm not working.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

The X100V is a great dog walking camera. Now, if only I could get my dog to stop pulling me down the street :-)