The Best and Worst Photography Products I've Purchased

The Best and Worst Photography Products I've Purchased

The photography world is chock full of products meant to make photographers think they will instantly improve their work and take dazzling shots. Some are obviously better than others. Here are the best and worst pieces of photography gear I've purchased.

Spend any amount of time in the photography world, and you will probably notice the abundance of products marketed like they are magical shortcuts to photographic excellence. And of course, some products do genuinely help, but a lot of them are over-hyped and a waste of your time and money. Here are the best and worst products I've purchased in my time as a photographer. 

The Best

This wasn't even a tough choice. I spent my first two or so years of shooting using only natural light. The only modifier I owned was a 5-in-1 reflector, and it taught me a ton about shaping light. I personally think every photographer interested in photographing people should own one and learn to use it. And it won't just be something you use when you're learning the basics; I promise you'll be using that reflector for years to come. Many longtime photographers still carry and use them throughout their entire careers. They're very light and portable and easy to hand off to an assistant whenever. 

What makes them so great is their sheer versatility. Most come with five surfaces:

  • Silver surface: this is designed to essentially create a second light source, often to add fill. It increases specular highlights, contrast, and can create nice catchlights when used in the proper position.
  • Gold surface: this produces a warming effect and can be great when you want that sort of fill.
  • White surface: produces a softer, more neutral-colored bounce. This is my preferred side for fill, as I find the shiny sides a bit too harsh for people a lot of the time.
  • Black side: this can act as a flag to block undesired reflections or color casts or to increase contrast.
  • Translucent: this is by far my favorite, as it opened the most possibilities for me. This allows you to diffuse hard light and create a nice, soft source. When I was first starting out, this allowed me to move from shooting only during golden hour to working whenever I want. You'll even see studio shooters sometimes fire a strobe into one for a quick and easy softening effect. 

The light was pretty hard when I shot this, so I had a friend hold the translucent piece over the model, which turned it into a much more flattering light (1/1,000 s, 100mm, f/2.8, ISO 100).

I still haven't gotten to the best part about 5-in-1 reflectors, though: their price. It's no secret that photography gear can get really expensive really quickly, and among all that pricey stuff, the 5-in-1 reflector comes in at a refreshing $20-50 depending on the size you get. I truly think that it's both the best price-to-capability and best price-to-learning potential piece of all photography gear, and given its cost and ongoing usefulness, it is something that every photographer should own.

The Worst

I made some bizarre purchases when I was new to photography and didn't really know what I was doing, so it took a bit of time to decide what was the worst, but after a lot of thought, it was clear to me that this was presets. Presets are insanely popular among photography influencers, YouTubers, and many others, and a good chunk of big names in the industry sell their own preset packs, and budding photographers eagerly scoop them up in the hopes of emulating those who they admire, only to frequently be disappointed when the results aren't anywhere near what they expected. 

Before I continue, I should say that I'm not totally against the idea of presets once you know what you're doing. I sometimes have a photo on my screen that I know has potential, but I'm unsure of how I want to edit it. I'll scroll through some presets for creative inspiration, and often, I'll see a look that'll give me the jolt of creative inspiration I need. 

They can be even more useful if you're someone who shoots in the same scenario a lot — perhaps you shoot a lot of events or work in the same studio environment a lot. If you're applying the same sort of edits to lots of photos, presets can save you a ton of time and repetitive tedium. If you're in this scenario and haven't tried them before, try creating one based on your normal edits, then have Lightroom apply it at import. It can really increase your efficiency. 

My personal presets can often get my files to within 90% of where I want them to be before I even touch the sliders. (1/250 s, 200mm, f/4, ISO 100)

Where I take issue with presets is beginners using them before they understand how to edit a photo (which is unfortunately the exact market segment that those selling them are normally aiming for). Unless you've taken a similar photo with similar lighting, white balance, color palette, exposure, etc., a preset is not going to magically get you anywhere close to what you were hoping it would. This is simply because a preset is nothing more than a formula defining how certain parameters should affect an image. Feed it different input data, you're going to get different output data.

The catch is that if you know enough to be able to read the light, color toning, etc. of a photo you like, you know how to recreate that look yourself and don't need a preset to do it for you. The paradox of presets is that they're not really helpful when you don't know much, and once you do, you don't need them anyway. Every time I bought presets when I was still new to photography, I tried them on a couple of photos, didn't understand why I wasn't getting the results I wanted, and never touched them again.

That being said, there are a few cases where an experienced photographer might want to purchase them. Quality film emulation presets come to mind, since those companies have worked hard comparing films and measuring their response to recreate them as closely as possible in the digital realm, and a photographer might not want to invest the time or money to do that themselves. I'm not dismissing them completely, but for a beginner photographer, you'll be much better served learning the basics of editing and how to read an image to achieve what you want. 

Conclusion

If you're new to photography, it's important to be careful with your money and not fall prey to the hype machine of a lot of products as I did. Find a more experience photographer who can mentor you and offer their opinion. Ask online in forums. Ask here in the comments on Fstoppers; all our writers are very friendly people (except Robert Baggs, don't listen to him).

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56 Comments

Previous comments
Ansel Spear's picture

My worse purchase was a camera. If I hadn't bought that, I could have been a corporate lawyer earning gazillions per minute instead of being a tired, washed-up, broke old phot man.

Felix Wu's picture

You can charge by minute, by shot, by shutter click.... : P

Ansel Spear's picture

Not when you're tired and washed up, you can't.

michaeljin's picture

Best purchase so far: Elinchrom ELB1200
Artificial lighting alone is a big step, but the power, portability, and HS has opened up so many new possibilities for me to explore.

Worst purchase so far: Canon PIXMA Pro 100
So I pretty much got this thing for free like many others did. After getting it and using it for a while, I realized that I would have just done better to spend the money to buy a higher end pigment printer in the first place. Ended up giving it away before it got clogged from disuse. Still haven't bought that new printer, though...

Keith Meinhold's picture

Ha, those things are huge and heavy but got mine nearly free as well. I have had some great prints from it though now if I print large - Walgreens when they are having a sale.

Ned Bowen's picture

Does anyone have a recommendation for the best size for your 1st reflector?

Jeff McCollough's picture

Depends on what you shoot.

Ned Bowen's picture

Would you care to elaborate?

Jeff McCollough's picture

I have a couple of 12" reflectors(One is white/silver and the other is a little 5 in 1) for product shots and some on the go random tight portraits. I then have a 30" white/silver reflector for a fill for headshots. I also have a large 40" 5 in 1 reflector for other things like portraits, fill for larger product photography and I am going to give it a go as a background for headshots.

Ned Bowen's picture

Awesome - thanks so much Jeff!!

As big as you can handle holding or setting up in whatever you normal shooting situation is likely to be. The bigger they are the better the light...but those suckers can be a sail in the wind! Really huge ones are a floppy pain to work with...but dont go really small.

Stuart Carver's picture

im fairly new to the game but id say my best purchase so far is a 20 quid fitted L bracket for my X-T2, the £150 i saved on a RRS one bought me a prime lens.

Worst Purchase so far is cheap filters, they are ok but the difference between them and the Hoya Pro's are like night and day.

David Pavlich's picture

I have to go along with presets as my rookie mistakes, but I have to give props to a group of presets I got from Serge Ramelli. Not all of them are good, but there's some that really work well on stuff like Sunsets.

My best purchase, hands down, was my Canon 70-200 f2.8L II. Pretty hard on the photo piggy bank but the return in pleasure of use and performance more than make up for its cost.

Best purchase: Fujifilm GFX-50S
Worst purchase: Monopod (don't remember the name, but I had never used it)

Gerald Bertram's picture

Worst purchase was the series of cheap aluminum sub $100 tripods because all a tripod needs to do is just hold up your camera, right? Best purchase was my carbon fiber Benro tripod because holy crap does a quality tripod make all the difference in the world. I'm actually embarrassed to say how many of those cheap tripods I bought before I learned this lesson.

Cheap stands and or tripods are the worst. Good stands and tripods are the best. Of course great cameras are great....too bad with digital your great camera isnt all that great 5 years later...but thats just the way it is now.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Best purchase, 5DmkII. I had my first career breakthrough because I happened to have a camera that could shoot video.

Worst purchase, a lens baby.

Best purchase: hard to say
Worst purchase: variable ND filter (a cheap one). So frustrating with the color cast. The variable nature meant you had to just guess at your exposure. It was impossible to calculate.

Simon Patterson's picture

My best is the Nikon d800. Still blows me away all these years later. Worst is the Nikon 1.7x teleconverter. Cropping images by 1.7x gives the same IQ as using it, so all it does is gather dust.

Susan Brown's picture

Best purchase: Sekonic L-478 light meter. Helps me to get consistent, predictable results with whatever lighting I am using. Worst purchase: Canon 600EX-RT flash and transmitter. Overpriced, poor performance, unreliable.

Ted Mercede's picture

Surprised by the comments on the 600EX, I like mine, in fact I'm impressed by it. Overpriced, probably.

Susan Brown's picture

I have had the 600EX fail on me multiple times during photo shoots, the recycle time is just too slow. And I don't think the TTL is all that accurate. My cheap Godox equipment performs better, faster, and is more reliable.

Ted Mercede's picture

I have a friend who also has the 600EX and had the same complaint about recycle times. He needed to use my camera and flash for a job, when he came back he asked what I did to get my recycle time to be so fast. I told him you need to use good batteries, which I use the Panasonic rechargeable batteries. So that would be what I would try if you still have the flash, and if you were using cheaper batteries.

I use mine only for events, and Photogenic strobes in the studio.

Susan Brown's picture

I only use TTL with events or action, always shoot manually with the meter for my portrait work.

The worst:
The worst product I have ever bought was the Sony a55v. This camera was really,really awful. It overheated even in photo mode after a couple of minutes in warm climates.
The most horrible lens I bought was a very old (film days ) Tamron 18-200 and later (15 years later) a Tamron 18-200 aps-c. Both were horribly slow and soft.
I also bought the Sony 16-80 Zeiss. I hated this lens. It always rattled and the focus wasn't very good.

The best.
The best product price/quality wise I bought was the Sony a6000. It was my first venture into mirrorless and I loved this little camera.
There were a couple of lenses I really loved. I bought a second hand Sigma 17-5-/f2,8. I sold it because the af made noise when shooting video but otherwise I loved this lens. Later I bought the Sony 16-50/f2,8 and I still love the details and colours.
A couple of months ago I bought the Sony rx100VA. I love the iq from this little camera that weighs nothing is very small and performs like a giant.
The same for the DJI Osmo Pocket.