3 Pieces of Camera Gear That Surprised Me

3 Pieces of Camera Gear That Surprised Me
I have owned, reviewed, or tested an inordinate amount of camera gear over the years — cameras, lenses, bags, lighting — and as a result, I'm not easily surprised. That isn't to say I'm never surprised, however, and here are a few times I was.

Have you ever tried a piece of camera equipment and been caught completely off guard? Perhaps you had low expectations for something, or you had some preconceived notions, or it was a little too cheap to warrant much hope of quality. Whatever the case, make sure you share the gear that surprised you in the comments below.

This eclectic mix of gear might not be an exhaustive list of equipment that has surprised me, but it's likely the top three.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III

In 2020, Olympus (just before they became OM SYSTEM) was kind enough to send me to Costa Rica to review their upcoming camera, the OM-D E-M1 Mark III. They put me in one of the most beautiful and vibrant countries on earth, they gave me a plethora of interesting subjects, a new camera, and more lenses than I could carry. Nevertheless, I didn't like Micro-Four-Thirds (MFT) cameras. I had tried a few and I found the results disappointing in everything from raw file flexibility, to crop possibilities, to bokeh. I did my damnedest to stay open-minded and neutral, but I needn't have bothered: the camera won me over anyway.

For an extended version of this section (a whopping 3,300-word version!) you ought to read my original review. In all honesty, the raw files were a bit tough to work with, I couldn't crop as much as I was used to, and the bokeh was pretty ugly comparatively speaking (albeit only to photography dorks), but the camera blew my mind in many ways. The tech inside this thing is still some of the best I've ever seen in a camera, with Live ND and Starry AF (that means autofocus; wash your mouth out) really making life a lot easier. However, and I'll just quote myself here: "Live Composite is borderline wizardry and by far the greatest feature addition I've seen on a camera for years." Approaching four years later and that's still true.

Canon (or any) 70-200mm f/4

This might be the most unexpected inclusion on this list, but when the idea came to me, it was one of the first I wrote down. I hadn't been a photographer very long when I bought this lens, but I knew I wanted a 70-200mm. There were precious few options back then, and as a Canon user, I felt as if their L range option would be perfect. The difficulty was that I didn't have much money — I was at university still — and even an old used version held its value absurdly well. I remember scouring eBay and other reselling sites looking for a batter f/2.8, but alas, they didn't exist. I found some 70-200mm f/2.8s that were dented, scratched, and their awful hospital-war-color barrels were almost faded to an even less appealing color; even they were expensive!

I eventually conceded that perhaps I had to look at an f/4, but I was not happy about it. I wanted that beautiful bokeh, the clean subject separation, the low-light capabilities, and all the other things I'd heard other photographers talk about. But, an f/4 version — which looked almost identical in almost every other regard — was available for £300 in good condition, with its original box, pouch, manual, and tripod collar. I had to accept that was what my budget allowed for, and I bought it.

When it arrived, it was immediately on the front of my camera and I was in the car looking for subjects. It was a crisp winter morning, the sun was large and low, and there was a lot of snow (for England). Eventually, I happened on some horses, and to their delight, I decided they had to do. The first shot I fired off (above) immediately shocked me with how much subject and background separation you could get at 200mm with f/4. Not to mention, the bokeh wasn't unpleasant either. In a nearby field, I lent on a fence and shot another frame directly into the sun and got another keeper.

It's worth mentioning, this was over a decade ago, I was inexperienced and really rather rubbish at photography, and I had just spent a large amount of money for a student on a lens I didn't want. So, I was thrilled with those two images and they gave me enough serotonin that I rode that high to a clean-cut case of Gear Acquisition Syndrome.

Zenit Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5

I bought this lens on a bit of a whim in 2016 and I didn't expect too much from it. It wasn't too expensive, it was manual focus, and I'd heard some pretty scathing reviews. Well, in 2017 I wrote this article, and my conclusion unpacks a lot of how it surprised me: "this lens is awkward, heavy, irritating, averse to bright lights, and erratic: 10/10, would buy it again."

I have a real penchant for wrestling with difficult-to-use equipment, and this bugger is right up there with the best of them. Nothing — nothing at all — is good about this lens apart from the results if you nail the shot. Now, that's a pretty large caveat, but it offsets so many of the negatives. I wouldn't have dreamt of using it for a time-sensitive shoot, a wedding, or anything with an ounce of pressure, but when I'm given the freedom to play around, this thing is a gem. If you can live with the fact that you're going to miss a lot of shots, you're going to get arm ache, and you'll get angry commenters who loudly loathe radial bokeh, you're in for a treat. I didn't expect to even like this lens, let alone love it, but love it I do.

What Camera Gear Surprised You?

I'm sure many of you have been pleasantly surprised by camera gear, whether you've had a chance to try it, bought it, or adapted something from your grandparents' loft. Let me know your story in the comments below, and then, I will try to avoid buying it.

Robert K Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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The lens that surprised me is the Lensbaby Edge and Composer Pro II. Lensbaby often gets derided as nothing more than expensive toys and effects you can just do in post but I found the way you can bend the plane of focus to follow lines in the frame really has given me a whole new way of taking photos that is very different to traditional lenses. I don't shoot wide open as I don't like that 'minature' effect and use it more subtly than that. Downsides are it takes a lot of practice, is not the easiest to focus as it lacks distance and zone focus scales and the tilting mechanism means you can't really use it for on-the-go candid street photography. Its quirks and awkwardness do add to the experience though and I find the rewards pay off.