6 Pieces of Equipment That Really Improved my Images

6 Pieces of Equipment That Really Improved my Images

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.

Bigger Lights 

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. 

Better Lenses 

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. 

Modifiers 

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?

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18 Comments

Christian Santiago's picture

I am dying to know what perception differences there are to modifiers that justify the price hikes on something from broncolor. At the end of the day, they’re either reflecting of diffusing light.

I have a bunch of modifiers, a lot of Chimera which are pricey but last a very long time under less than ideal conditions.
Somehow I have 11 umbrellas of various sizes and makers. The Calumet and Hensels are pretty well made but I really seem to like the cheap off brand shoot thrus, but I need to realign the frame often.
Sometimes bigger is better! I bought a used 82 inch Buff umbrella, it is sort of flimsy but I love the look of such a large source.

In many cases the high end stuff lasts longer and has less color shift modifier to modifier.

You seem to be talking about build quality, while the article seems to be about light quality. Those are two very different qualities.

Sometimes they go hand in hand like Broncolor / Chimera vs off brand chinese products (which are getting better!) Scott mostly talked about cost and power about lights except for the parabolic comment.
To split hairs maybe I should have said in spite of the poor build quality I like the light quality from the "cheap off brand shoot thrus" because of the color cast has shifted and the fabric is sort of worn out so they are my favorites." Sometimes the cheapest simplest modifier works best, or sometimes the big expensive one is best.

Kawika Lopez's picture

Better lens caps! Bigger light meter! Better bubble levels! Bigger gray card!

Sorry. Just being an obnoxious moron over here.

I wanted to make a joke about wider camera strap, but realized that I have it and it has lasted longer than most of cameras I had :)

Michael Dougherty's picture

Don't knock lens caps. I shoot a couple different systems and all my Nikon F mount lens caps are bright yellow which I buy from China. It makes it easier to pick the right cap out of a box of caps for different lenses. Otherwise, they all look alike. (partial humor but true)

Kawika Lopez's picture

Brighter lens caps!

Jakub Valovič's picture

A new sensor for each shot!
Carl Zeiss lightbulbs!
Toilet paper!

Kawika Lopez's picture

See this guy gets it.

Nico Socha's picture

I was using Bron modifiers very often, specially the 222 Para, but for 12.000$... nooo way, i wouldnt buy it. Instead I have a Walimex Pro 240cm Para and the results are the same. And it costs 500$.

Nico Socha's picture

I also worked a lot with the Bron Scoro, very nice generator of course. But for my studio I use the Godox QT series and beleive me or not, they produce very stable light and recycle very very fast. But I agree with the rest of the article.

First, I fully acknowledge that the title is ...improved MY images. meaning his in his primary shooting location. and i agree with most if not all of the article. Just voicing my thoughts that my list would be almost totally different, and in some cases exactly the opposite of his, being someone that shoots primarily on location. Some that come to mind that are different are strong, full featured wifi, fast lenses, compact and fast-to-setup strobes, battery everything. I think the point im trying to make, is I agree with his sentiment that, weather you like it or not, sometimes gear does matter, and also, it's your job to analyze the circumstances and come up with the best purchases for YOUR shooting situation.

Panagiotis Tsiverdis's picture

Sensor, Lights, Lenses, Tripod, Modifiers, Calibration. I agree with the titles of the paragraphs on this article. But the specifics makes you fell like you are useless if you haven't invested over 30K on your equipment.. I believe that talent and knowledge is far more important than having a broncolor parabolic and if you have those two you can compensate even if you're using a cheap Godox modifier. A lot of very successful photographers use L glass and haven't move on to zeiss or schneider lenses not to mention the old masters that used equipment that is just a joke by todays standards nevertheless creating images that we still can't surpass. For me the best equipment that really improved my images is my laptop, because with this I have watched youtube videos, tutorials and masterclasses that have really improved my photography..

Lee Christiansen's picture

Best thing I've bought...?

Eizo CG319X.......... Cost a fortune but will last me a decade. Like looking at printed paper when set to 75Cd/m2
Sigma 105 Art......... Darn, this thing makes pretty pictures.
Kodak Grey Card.... About the only thing I'll trust for exposure and colour balance
Elinchrom Octas...... 70 / 100cm sizes. Love the look even if they've a slightly different tint than my Profoto boxes
Godox X2T.............. Much better than the vs 1 (but I've glued channel 1 so as not to knock it.
Circular Gels........... Ok, I didn't buy them - I made them. But a full set for my Profoto D1's makes life easier
Intuos XL Tablet...... How does anyone manage with a mouse?
GoodSync............... So my Capture One tethering can have backups as I shoot
ChronoSync............ At last - I can incrementally back up my files with verification. Makes life easy.
My Product Table.... Self designed and like no other. Can shoot white on white with no need for cutouts / masking.
Samsung T5 SSD... My favourite portable hard drive

Lee Christiansen's picture

Curiously, Scott remarks that he gets more stable results with 1500W shooting at 500W

I found exactly the opposite with almost all brands (I started with Bowens), and my strobes were always more stable at higher % outputs. When I reduced them to less than half output I could find variances. (Hence the painful decision to go Profoto 10 years ago when I discovered they were stable to 1/10 stop at their minimum powers).

I do product photography but rarely need more than 500W for anything. It can be a little worrying when I hear multiple strobes popping at full power... never sounds comfortable... ha. (I only get worried about ISO when I go over ISO320)

Kirk Darling's picture

I shoot in my studio on a huge, sleek, black Inka studio stand that glides forward, backward, up, and down like a dream with just the flip of a handle. I can skateboard on it. The main thing I love about using it for portraits is that I can set up the shot and then get out from behind the camera. That's useful for anyone, but it pays the bills with children. Children give more when they can see your face.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

For studio product work, I agree, the availability of more power will be beneficial. There are also quite a few advantages of using a strong camera stand vs tripod. My two goals are to be productive and get repeat clients and any tool that helps me achieve this is typically strong in performance.