I know I harp on about gear not mattering. Nevertheless, there are individual purchases that I have made over the years that have had a real impact on my work. Having been a commercial photographer for some time, I thought I'd share my opinion on this.
I am notoriously tight when it comes to business purchases. I don't buy the latest and most excellent cameras, and if you asked me about which brand has which camera out right now, I wouldn't have a clue. The brand wars, latest bodies, and all of that hype just pass me by. Most of it is irrelevant, and when I need a camera to do something new, I go and talk to the guy in my rental house and see what ticks all of my boxes. This way, I don't get tempted to buy something because it has better specs than the previous model. A better spec often doesn't mean better images.
Before we go too far into this and I offend half of the internet, it is worth noting that I work predominantly in a studio as a commercial food photographer. I don't photograph sports, I haven't shot a wedding in some time, and I don't have any interest in pixel-peeping. My work is solely for commercial purposes and to be seen either digitally or in print as part of campaigns. However, I do think that a lot of theses purchases will cross over to different fields.
A Bigger Sensor
I hate to admit it, and I have raged against this for years, but bigger is better. I compared Canon's top crop sensor DSLR to their first Canon full-frame camera in a studio setting, the dinosaur was miles ahead of it. The images just looked better. Then, comparing a Phase One P45+ to a Canon 5dS, the P45+ had just a more beautiful rendition. Buying a bigger but older sensor is far more sensible than buying a newer and smaller sensor, in my opinion. When printed big, the bigger sensor always produces a better image. I also have a bit of a crush on the old CCD medium format sensors for food work. They just look a lot more film-like than the CMOS ones.
This article is now starting to sound like I am compensating for something, but along with a bigger sensor, bigger lights are also better, not in terms of the size, but the power. Shooting a 1,500-watt light at 500 watts is generally more stable and consistent. Most lights that I have used, when smashing out full power, don't feel too happy. I purchased 10 500-watt lights when I started out, and it is one of my biggest regrets. I wish I had sprung for 1,500 watts instead. Once you really get into studio photography and crafting light, you lose a lot of juice. By the time I have polarized the lens and the lights and added tight grids, flags, and scrims, there isn't that much light left for my camera, and trying to get ISO 100 and f/10 suddenly becomes a real issue.
Again, being tight with money, this pains me to say, but a lens from Schneider, Fujicon, or Zeiss is just better than what Canon or Nikon produce. The prices make your eyes water, but the image quality is worth it. It comes down to the tiny details, the way the coatings control highlights, the color rendition they create, the way the focus fall-off happens, and in some applications, how much detail they can render for the sensor. Like most photographers, I started with the nifty fifty. I sprung for some L zoom lenses before heading out for some exotic primes. Later, I upgraded some to Zeiss lenses and started using the Schneider lenses with the Phase system; the difference was night and day.
A Bigger Tripod
I don't feel like I can deny the overcompensating vibe anymore. When I started in photography, I thought I was a portrait photographer. I was sure I was. I wasn't, though. However, I used to laugh at people with tripods. I never saw the point, because everything I did was handheld and required a reasonable amount of moving about. Then, one day, I got my first commercial campaign, and I needed to shoot a backplate for it, so I borrowed my mate's tripod. After the shoot, I purchased a pretty hefty tripod secondhand for about $700. It was a tank, but still not enough, so I went for a salon stand, which was a beast, but I always get jealous every time I end up on a vast Cambo stand in a rental studio. These bad boys are so good, and as soon as I am settled on my current studio location, I will be investing in one.
You get what you pay for when it comes to modifiers. Yeah, you can buy something that claims to be a parabolic octabox from china for a relatively small fee. Still, when you compare it to something from Broncolor, the difference is enormous, and I would go as far as saying bigger than any camera upgrade.
My pockets are not deep enough to have the best modifiers in my studio, so I use Bowens modifiers that allow me to have everything from 8 foot indirect octaboxes down to a snoot that I have 24/7 access to in case a job comes in at the last minute, but at a higher quality than anything from Godox or similar brands that I have found so far. However, when I am shooting a big campaign, I make sure that a lot of the equipment budget goes to lighting and modifiers. In a few years, I hope to be able to upgrade my Bowens selection to a Broncolor set, but for now, my bank balance says no.
Monitors and Calibration Systems
I hate tech, and more than cameras, I hate computers. When I purchased my first editing monitor, calibration module, and color chart, I felt utterly violated. It seemed like an absurd amount of money, considering I had three Macs with Retina displays already. As usual, I was wrong. Granted, these didn't make my images better, but they stopped my retoucher from being angry at me when he received files with casts, inconsistently white-balanced lights that I had missed, or my color grading that was out while I was sure it was spot on. You can spend a lot on monitors. In the future, now that I can see the benefits, I will be going for something a bit more advanced for my editing suite and moving my current editing monitor to my tether trolley.
What is the most important purchase you have made?