Wow, positively a cornucopia of new photographic equipment on display here. Welcome to this the first in a two-part article discussing the what and the why of some recent photographic equipment purchases. If you have followed my blog for any period of time you will know I rarely talk about “gear”. Although if you follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Google+ that trend was certainly reversed over the last couple of weeks! For me however photographic equipment of any sort are just tools of the trade, an important part of the trade but not the be all and end all. As David duChemin says “Gear is good, vision is better”.
That is not to say I live in a ivory tower and look down with disdain on all those poor people who lust after the newest and shiniest of photographic equipment. No I am down there too, I just don’t let it get in the way. I have followed with great interest Nikon’s recent announcements of both their new D4 and their ground breaking (at least in my opinion) D800; Canon and there recently announced 1Dx and the replacement for my Camera body, the 5D Mark III. I have equally followed the launch of the Phase One IQ Medium Format digital backs and the more recent announcement from Leaf of their new Credo MFDB. On top of that there has been numerous new and revised lenses launched from all the major players, not to mention the burgeoning 4/3rds range. It’s enough to make your head spin if you let it. It can also become a major distraction from actually producing photographs, the reason you have a camera in the first place! For those who are familiar with how obsessive photographers can become with gear, and indeed those of you who might not be I’ll point you to this very humorous discussion on buying hammers as a taste of how bad we can be.
In saying all of that however the perceived lack of something has never held me back from creating images. My gear bag is ‘relatively’ modest; I say ‘relative’ somewhat tongue and cheek as of course relative to what? Let me say that over the course of my photographic journey there has been a great many occasions where I knew if I had X attachment or Y peripheral it would have made the production of an image faster/easier/better; but the lack of it did not stop me. I much prefer to produce ‘something’ with what I have then to procrastinate over what I don’t have and produce nothing.
So with that long lead in I am actually about to talk about gear! See many photographers (while all the above obsessiveness is going on) will say gear does not matter. And to a point that is true, particularly if you are just starting out; certainly the perceived lack of something should never hold you back. Hell look at the stuff folks are producing on their iPhones. So vision is first, in this I completely agree with David. There does come a time however when the ‘gear’ does play an increasingly important role. Whether it is because you are beginning to specialise and that Macro or Tilt-shift lens becomes critical for you; or allows you to speed up your workflow because of time constraints and demanding clients (one of the reasons behind my iMac upgrade last year); or simply to allow you to operate at a certain level within a specific industry, say the role Medium Format seems to play in high-end beauty/fashion. There are a myriad of reasons why gear can become important but I strongly believe that the lack of it should never stop you. The gear/equipment/tools should help augment your vision but never limit it.
The last time I made any significant investment in photographic equipment was 2009 when I purchased my Canon 5D Mark II and a number of L lenses. These have stood the test of time and are still the core of my photography. I spent a long time researching each purchase; reading the spec sheets and all the reviews I could find. However once the decision was made and the equipment was in my hands the spec sheets and reviews were forgotten. It was time to use them, every chance I got. I have only made minor additions since then, such as a cheap (but great) manual strobe. But there were a number of additional items I wanted to add along with a couple of gear changes and so April 2012 became the date I invested further in my kit bag. So let me step you through the first part of what’s in the above picture and explain the reason behind each purchase.
But don’t you have one of those already John. Yes indeed I have (had) the f/2.8 IS version of this lens that I picked up in 2009. My relationship with this lens however has been somewhat of a love/hate affair. Love; optically this lens is amazing. Hate; damn it’s heavy! Whenever I was going on a serious walk or hike I really needed to sit down and have a conversation with myself about whether I should take the lens with me or not. At nearly 1.5kg (3.3lbs) I quickly felt its weight in my kit bag. And as for around your neck, 2.3Kg with the 5DII; give that an hour. Ouch! But that alone was not going to have me rid myself of this superb lens.
I was however acutely aware that this lens was also available in an f/4 flavour and was substantially lighter. So did I need the extra stop of light. Well the answer to that ended up being no! I reviewed the last few years of images I shot with this lens and realised that very few were shot wide open. I don’t shoot sports or wildlife so shutter speed and therefore that extra stop of light was an issue. And for the very few times I do need it the ISO performance is so good on the 5DII that I was not worried about bumping to 400 or even 800. Hell I shot an entire corporate event in low light at ISO1600 and after some clean up the images were great.
As you know I do shoot a lot of shallow depth-of-field floral images with this lens but very few of those are below f/4. So the f/2.8 was overkill for my shooting style as it is today. When I think back to my thought pattern when I originally decided upon the f/2.8 version over the f/4 was the idea that I could add a 2x extender to reach 400mm and still get f/5.6. However after actually owning a 2x extender for 2 years guess how many times I used it for a final image? Twice!
So with the need for the 2.8 knocked on the head what about IS? Again, a review of my Aperture library over the past three years showed that I very rarely shot handheld at a shutter speed that would require the assistance if image stabilisation and if it does arise the logic applied around ISO above still applies here. So decision made, sell the 70-200mm f/2.8 IS and buy the considerably cheaper but equally optically brilliant (some pixel peepers would say better) f/4 non-IS version. Oh and since I never used it I went and found a good home for the Canon 2x Extender as well.
Will I change my mind sometime in the future? Not sure tbh. It is certainly a well known trend for owners of the f/4 version to upgrade to the f/2.8 at some point, I’ve just taken the opposite direction. For right now though this is the right decision.
This lens has been on the top of my shopping list for a long time, pretty much since shortly after I moved to the full-frame Canon 5D Mark II back in 2009. And I have talked about wanting it on several occasions including my year in review posts from both 2010 and 2011. For me, and many others this focal range represents the perfect walk-around lens. It also manages to fill the focal gap I’ve had between the 17-40 and 70-200 since 2009; which will be nice. There is also the excellent 24-70mm f/2.8 from Canon however with no IS and no overlap on the long end with the 70-200 I dismissed it over the more flexible 24-105 lens.
The great thing was by selling my 70-200mm f/2.8 IS and never used 2x Extender I actually funded the entire purchase of both of these new lenses. Interestingly enough to my earlier point around weight, both of these new lens combined weigh less than the outgoing 70-200mm f/2.8 IS!
I’ve used a Giottos aluminium tripod for over 6 years and loved it. It travelled with me everywhere, was rock solid and never let me down. Well built, solid construction; and very importantly, twist locks. So if it is/was so great why replace it? eh Weight (see the trend here?). Actually the Tripod wasn’t that heavy at 1.6kg (3.5lbs) but combined with the head I was using it came in around 2.3kg (5lbs). In addition, as it was a 3 section tripod it was relatively tall when packed down, at 57cm (22.5″) and I wanted something shorter. And lastly, still talking about height it had a very poor minimum height, with the head it was about 52cm (20.5″) off the ground. I shoot so much ground level macro this was a real hindrance.
So I began a long and arduous search for the perfect replacement. 1st stop was Giottos themselves since I was so happy with the current one from them. Nothing jumped out from them in terms of weight or folded height. They did offer a nice range of Twist Locks but I could not find any stockists in Europe, they only seemed to stock the flip lock versions.
Twist lock, flip lock? What am I talking about? Well, the locking mechanism for the legs. It comes down to a personal preference and I can’t stand flip locks. I have tried them on a number of friends tripods and I would not want to be fumbling with those on a freezing cold morning with stiff fingers. No, twist lock always seemed a better solution.
So with Giottos out of the way I continued my search. Manfrotto which seems omnipotent in Europe was quickly discarded as they only do flip locks. Gitzo produce impressive tripods however I was unable to justify their cost.
So my search eventually led me to a Taiwanese company called Feisol. Never heard of them? Yea neither did I until I really started to dig. They are in fact first and foremost a carbon fibre tube manufacturer and decided to start designing and manufacturing tripods about a decade ago. Yes you did read that right, they have been making tripods for since 2002!
After some research on there European website, reading numerous reviews, and some very helpful answers from their sales staff I decided upon their 4 section Tournament Tripod. It arrived in last week and first impressions are very positive; great build quality & very rigid in a very light package – 1kg light. I’ll be putting it through its paces over the next couple of months though so expect a full review.
Unlike my love affair with my old tripod (apart from the weight, folded height and minimum height of course); the story with my head could not be more polar. I purchased a Manfortto 322RC Pistol Grip sometime in 2008 based on a recommendation from a fellow photographer, and I pretty much hated it from the 2nd month of ownership. BTW this is an extremely popular head, so this is just my personal experience! Squeezing that trigger during very cold mornings was not fun, neither was the awkwardness of trying to line up the camera with any type of precision while squeezing said trigger. And lets not mention that after I actually got the camera set up to my liking and after releasing the trigger it would drift. The drift might be only 1mm or so but on Macro images that was a lot. Add to that the weight, at 700g (1.5lbs) this was not a light head. So why did I end up using it for 4 years? Good question and I’m not sure tbh.
However change it I did. And just like the Tripod decision a lot of research ensued. Like every one of my decisions in photography gear it is always a trade-off between weight, quality and price. As you will no doubt have surmised by now though I don’t change/upgrade my gear often so I view it very much as an investment. I have zero issue spending the money if I am going to derive a long-term value out of the equipment. So based on my poor experience with my last head I wanted easy & precise adjustment with zero drift in a light, high build quality package.
Hmm seems like I wanted too much, precision really means a geared head and they don’t come light. There is the very well-respected Manfrotto 410 but it weighs 1.2kg (2.6lbs) and it’s two bigger brothers weigh even more! That’s not very portable for long hikes. I did however come across a simply astounding piece of engineering from the masters of ball-heads, Arca-Swiss. They have managed to develop an incredibly light and compact geared head in the d4. Remember the trade-off I mentioned earlier? At €1,000 this light, compact precision device does not come cheap. Plus extended delivery times sent me to look at alternatives but I stuck with Arca-Swiss and came upon their ingenious Monoball p0.
The p0 is a reverse ball head design using the same elliptical ball they were famous for on the Z and older B series ball heads. Because it is a reverse ball head the panning plate is on top which is far more useful. It is operated via a single control collar that runs the circumference of the head, rather than the dual knob setup of most other ball heads. The collar utilises a planetary gear mechanism to ensure equal tension around the ball, so zero drift. At 350g (0.75lbs) it certainly met the weight criteria and now that I have it in my hands build quality is superb. Just like everything else here though it needs months of hard work in the field before I am prepared to write a review and offer my final opinion.
So there you have it part one of a two-part series outlining some fairly significant investment in new photographic equipment. I hope this has proved useful in as much as it shares with you the very specific reason I chose to purchase each of these items.
Stay tuned next week for part two where I’ll outline the reasons behind not just one but two camera bags along with some additional filters and reflectors.
I have provided links to the locations I purchased these items. I have no relationship with any of these vendors at the time of publishing this article other than being a customer. This is not meant in any way as an endorsement of their services but it does reflect that I had a positive customer experience.