THE TOOL BAG
Written 2015 & reviewed 2017
I talk about the products I actually use, they don’t sponsor me and I get no money from them.
Gear isn’t everything, but let’s get real, you need
35mm f1.4 lens is arguably the most versatile in my kit. I used to say it was the 50mm f1.4, and it’s still a
Don’t buy stuff you don’t need, spend it on
Learn how to use a computer with Lightroom/Photoshop.
Get a decent monitor.
1. Gear isn’t everything…
…but let’s be honest, it’s important to have a solid idea of what you’ll need to survive and flourish as a photographer no matter what level you are. A beginner shooting a family portrait to a professional climbing Everest, if you don’t use the right gear, it can make or break the shot, and the right gear for me isn’t necessarily the right gear for you. Often I’m asked by students, friends and family what lens they should buy or if they should choose Nikon, Canon or Sony or what size memory cards or if a UV filter is worth it and so on. My answers are usually coughed out as mumbles in case they actually take my advice, but the reality is it all depends on you and the style you intend to shoot. Yeah, that sounds like a bit of a cop out, but don’t worry, there are some constants that work across the board and once you understand the intended purpose of a particular type of lens or memory card or Cloud storage service you can break out the box and start doing things your way!
You should note here that, as with everything in life, choosing the right gear is a fine balance of looking at cost vs. functionality. If you have millions in the bank you might just get the latest and ‘best’ gear, and why not, you worked hard for that. But let’s say you don’t have millions, let’s say you need to be careful with money because you have a sense of self-preservation, especially when you’re thinking about spending it on something that probably won’t give you any return for a loooong time, if ever! That was me 15 years ago, and the decisions I made were based on choosing the most functional gear I could for what little money I had. How? Research. Research. Research.
2. Starting out …
…in the early 90s I was using a pair of Pentax and Nikon FM2 film bodies, and then in the early 00s a Nikon D90 with a kit 18-55mm lens and a cheap Chinese flash gun. I didn’t give the gear much thought back then; I’d just sling my cameras and head out into the city streets of Brighton and London looking for moments to capture if I’m allowed to put it artistically. I’ll be honest with you in that I’ve become a bit of a geardo over the last 20 years, but it’s not the gear that got me the images; it was me. It was attention to detail, a developing photographic style, an appreciation of the fluctuating market and constant research about a modernizing discipline that kept my head above water, and in turn kept me motivated to shoot more and more over the years. I’ve used Nikon since film days because I feel they offer a ‘best in class’ solution, but the rest has been up to me. And when I say me, I really mean you. We could argue the pros and cons of Nikon over Canon over Sony for millennia (and I have) but the ultimate reality is that each company has a killer sales pitch, with killer merchandise, and if they match your style then you’ve made the right decision. You can’t go too far wrong when picking a camera these days; they really are all very capable.
3. Happy days…
So we have our nice shiny new camera body and a kit lens, is that enough? It all depends on how far you’re willing to go. Hands down one of the best investments I ever made, other than moving to Nikon’s FX body range, was to pick up one of Nikon’s 1.4 50mm lenses. It’s just a thing of raw potential and opens up doors you never knew existed. Once I brought the 50mm I left the kit 18-55mm in a box and haven’t used it since, a little extreme perhaps, but if you’re serious about photography you need to push yourself out of that comfort zone! A 50mm wasn’t going to work 100% of the time, so I needed something wider and longer if I wanted to expand my shooting options, so I went on eBay and bid on an old Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 and a Tokina 11-16mm f2.8. The 80-200mm gave me telephoto reach for running about London snapping people at distance, and the Tokina allowed me to capture wide scenes, such as internal architecture and wide perspectives of objects.
4. If at this point you’re scratching your head…
…then don’t worry; a lens is a lens is a lens, they are all made out of glass and plastic (and a little magic) and come in different shapes, lengths and sizes, with a huge variety to try out. It’s just that some lenses allow more light through to the camera sensor than others, and more light can potentially provide the photographer with a better image. Why? Because more light allows the camera shutter to operate faster, and a fast shutter means a blur free image. No one likes a blurred action shot! Remember that f number I mentioned? The lower that number the more light the lens lets in, hence a f1.4 lens lets in more light than, say, an f4, and an f4 lets in more light than an f5.6. See? You learnt something already 🙂 (We could also talk about another aspect of that f number called ‘Depth of Field’ as well, but I won’t, let’s save it for a workshop). But there’s a snag. More light = more money. You want a nice f1.4? A f1.2 even? Then be prepared to get your credit card out, and possibly remortgage your house! We call these lenses ‘low-light’ or ‘fast’ and they can go for mega bucks. Last time I checked Canon’s 85mm f1.2 was coming in at around 2000 bucks :S
5. Let’s look a bit wider here…
…and we see this theme isn’t just true for ‘fast’ lenses, in the photographic industry the gear that expands your raw shooting potential is more often than not at the expensive end of the spectrum. There is hope, though, and with enough perseverance you can cut a few corners and save some pennies. There are huge communities of ‘modders’ out there that recreate some of the more expensive shooting setups using Gaffa tape and a little imagination. Also, as a beginner, one of the reasons I moved to Nikon was that I couldn’t afford the lenses I needed/wanted, but Nikon had a huge back catalog of cheaper ‘legacy’ lenses that, with research, allowed me to get those fabled low-light options at a fraction of the cost. Canon has a great back catalog too, with Sony bringing up the rear. I have to say that really!
It’s worth noting here that there are very good alternatives to the ‘best’ lenses and camera bodies, you just need to know what you’re looking for. A perfect example is the choice of either a) a 50mm f1.4 or b) a 50mm f1.8. Seriously, unless you’re a professional low-light shooter who needs that tiny bit of extra light, you can save hundreds of dollars and spend that money on your first decent flashgun instead. How about the fabled Nikkor 70-200 f2.8 vs. the newer Nikkor 70-200 f4? Again, save money with the f4 and spend it on a decent pair of walking boots or a light weight rain jacket. And then we have the ‘third-party’ lenses, those made by Sigma, Tamron, Tokina and so on. How do they compare to the likes of Nikkor or Canon? In the past not so well, but over the past five years they have REALLY stepped-up their game, and it’s even been known for a Sigma to outclass a Nikkor! A perfect example is Sigma’s 35mm f1.4 ART prime lens, costing HALF of the Nikkor equivalent and beating it in a technical shootout performed by DXOMark.com, the web champions of lens analysis. I hate to say it, but professional photography isn’t always about the artist in you, there comes a point when you have to sit down and geek it out a bit. But not too much, just enough to get a balanced idea of what it is you need vs. what it is the companies want you to buy.
Looking at my gear at the bottom of the page I guess you might ask why I don’t have any of these cheaper ‘just as good’ lenses, so why am I selling the virtues of saving money when I’ve obviously gone and kitted myself out with Nikon’s best gear. The short answer is that when you end up travel shooting all the time you put your gear through some really nasty environments, and Nikon’s lenses can take quite a beating. That’s not to say they don’t break, but when they do I know exactly where to send them to get fixed, and I know it’ll be done well.
There is a longer answer, which involves years of testing third party lenses and never being 100% happy with them, it’s just unfortunate that Sigma and Tokina started making ultra-quality lenses after I’d spent a small fortune on Nikon. Such is life!
6. Which lens?
An age-old question with no perfect answer. It depends on what you want to do and how much you want to spend. Still, you’re here for answers, so I’ll try. Ideally you’d have one lens with a focal length of 6mm to 800mm, fifth generation Vibration Reduction with virtual redraw, ultra-coated elements, weighs less than your latest mobile phone, and is sharper than a sharp thing in sharp world. If you own this lens (and it’s a Nikon mount), please send it my way 🙂
Back to reality and we can only go in two or three directions; 1) a set of prime lenses, 2) a single zoom lens, or 3) a combination of both. Prime lenses are fixed to a specific focal length, so 50mm or 85mm for example, they cannot zoom. The trade-off is that they are usually sharper, lighter, and have less distortion than zoom lenses, and we like natural sharpness and less distortion, they make things look more realistic. Prime lenses can also, usually, let in more light, which is great for evening, indoors and night-time shooting. The problem is if we want to cover a large focal range we need to carry lots of lenses and keep changing them around; 1 x 14mm, 1 x 20mm 1 x 35mm, 1 x 50mm and so on. Zoom lenses, on the other hand, are great when we want to cover a large focal range without carrying loads of additional weight or changing lenses all the time. A pretty standard example for most companies would be an 18-200mm style lens, which is still usually pretty heavy. Some zooms can even cover a 50-500mm range!! I’ll be honest here, the ‘cheaper’ zoom lenses can REALLY SUCK in less than perfect light, so if you’re looking to your camera to help you capture strong images, I’d personally advise against them. The consensus is that the smaller the range on a zoom lens, the better it’ll perform. There is ALWAYS compromise when choosing a lens; there is no perfect single lens solution. We can mitigate some of the compromises by using other functions of the camera, such as ISO, or a tripod perhaps, but in turn they bring their pros and cons to the crowded table instead.
You still want a concrete answer? Sheesh. Okay, for the sake of this argument, assuming you have a ton of money, and a Nikon FX body, you should aim high and get the standard pro kit. It’ll set you back 10,000 GBP, and you’ll not be able to carry it all, but you wanted an answer: Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 N, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 E VR2, Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VR2 and a Nikkor 50mm f1.4. You might squeeze in the Nikkor 105mm Macro and maybe a Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VR2 as well. It’s expensive to shop at this end of the spectrum, so expensive in fact you wonder how a beginner could ever own them all. And the fact is, they can’t. Jees, even if you owned everything listed above you still only have a maximum reach of 300mm, and that’s nowhere near what a bird watcher would need to get that crisp shot of a Robin in a tree. These Nikkors are professional lenses designed to be beaten up and fixed, then beat up again, and are priced accordingly. Did I have this pro kit when I started out? Not a chance, I bought knackered 30 year-old Nikkors off eBay and loved every minute of using them, these days it’s a bit boring not having something to aim for 🙂
So instead we should look for alternatives to this set-up, and they exist in abundance. Go and check out Ken Rockwell’s website or come along to a workshop to find out more.
So now we have a couple of decent lenses and have been practicing looking for a strong image, what’s next? You’ll have probably been looking at flash guns and tripods and filters, and God knows what else ‘essential’ you’ve found on Kickstarter. But hold on a minute, I wouldn’t buy a car if I didn’t know how to drive (edit. Argh okay so I might, but that’s beside the point), so unless you plan on actually learning to use, and then actually using, that objet d’art I’d be a little more cautious with your time and money. Do your research, lots of it, look for product reviews and read them, look for alternatives in the market, try out friends’ first. I have eight flash guns, EIGHT!! Do I use them all the time? No. Do I need eight for day-to-day shooting? No. Why do I have eight ? Because I didn’t do my research and ended up buying flash guns that either didn’t have enough power or didn’t work the way I wanted them too. I have four tripods. Same story. Do your research. By now you’re probably thinking ‘well, how do I know what I need if I don’t know what I need?’ The simple answer is trusting your tutor, listening to a friend who’s been down that road, looking up reviews on Amazon and searching for sample images on Flickr or 500px, etc. It’s really very time-consuming to get a definitive answer for your situation, so if you need a condensed hit-list come along to one of my gear-admin workshops and I’ll help you out.
7. Round one over
Camera – tick. One good quality, sharp, low-light general purpose Lens – tick. One good flashgun – tick. Couple of memory cards NOT OFF EBAY – tick. Easy access camera bag or heavy duty camera sling – tick. Okay, you’re all set to go out and shoot. Now what?
Let’s say you have a set of images on your camera, what do you do with them? How do you print them or get them online? Do you use a Laptop, a desktop, a tablet, a mobile phone even? Yes, you got it, we need a computer!
Did I hear someone shout G3333333333333333333k? You should know that good photographer’s back-in-the-day also had good darkroom skills, and those that didn’t knew someone who did. The same applies to digital photography, computers are your new darkroom, so it’s essential you sit down and learn what you need to know.
8. Round two start
So how does using a computer compare to a Darkroom? Well it’s a lot bloody quicker for a start! When I used to shoot film I knew the darkroom inside out, I could process a film negative blind-folded, which was handy seeing as it had to be pitch black to perform that part of the processing. Pitch. Black. From negative to positive we would run test strips through the enlarger, print off contact sheets, spend hours eye-balling test prints for over or under exposed sectors, create more proof prints, eye-ball again and then plan out the final positive exposure using manual dodging and burning. Yeah, MANUAL. And all this had to be done on a timer; keep light on the paper for too long and we over expose the positive print, everything goes too dark and we waste a sheet of rather expensive paper. Problem is, the image won’t appear until you process the paper itself. So after exposing the paper to what we hope was the right amount of light and time we would then bathe the paper in 3 different liquids (for black and white), each tray of foul smelling toxin adding to the magic as finally we see a SHAKY, slightly out of focus, image appear on the paper. ARGH it looked alright on the negative. Clench fists, go out for fresh air, cup of coffee and try again. Frankly, whilst it was a great experience, I’m happy computers took over, they really are so much more capable and offer the modern digital photographer an endless set of options to work with, far more than a darkroom ever could.
9. Bytes and bits – don’t be scared
The modern-day digital photographer should be harnessing technology at all levels of their workflow, so if you don’t know your Bytes from your bits then it’s time to get Wikipedia out and start learning. These days my computer gear is powerful and coupled with unique workflow processes to get images out the camera and online as fast and professionally as possible. This is a reality of the ‘freelance photographer’s’ daily routine, like it or not, technology is here to stay and it should be working for us, not against. Have I always been this way? No, not at all. But I understood at an early age that digital photography needs a computer buddy, so I figured why not try to understand how computers work as it might help my photography.
Hey, I use Windows 10 🙂 I know, someone has to, right?! But I like Windows 10, it works well for me and does what I need it to do. You might like OSX on a Mac, don’t blame you either, it’s fast and smooth and seems to know what you’re thinking half the time! They are both great, so pick whatever one you’re used to. In all honesty though, whilst I love my Windows PC, Macs are considered better overall (usually meaning faster) at handling post-production workflows due to the nature of their architecture. Windows PCs really aren’t too far behind though, and with enough high-speed RAM they can actually perform better. Whatever you choose though, make sure it’s right for your style of photography. Do you use Social media all the time to showcase your snaps? I know people who shoot exclusively on a high-end mobile phone and publish directly online from there, nothing else needing! Do you shoot with a DSLR or CSC on the run? Whilst traveling the world on a bicycle maybe? Then a Macbook Air could be just the ticket, or maybe even a Microsoft Surface Book Pro. Have you just shoot 10,000 images at an event and need to process them as fast as possible whilst backing up the originals and uploading the compressed and resized JPGs online? Probably better with a high-end PC with stacks of RAM, multiple scratch disks and RAID storage. It’s swings and roundabouts really, but honestly, you can’t go too far wrong whatever you choose, just use common-sense, understand the pros and cons, and take a little advice. I like desktops because they can be upgraded, extending their lifespan and saving me money in the long run. I use a laptop when I travel, but not to post-process, just to sift through and delete what I don’t like. I use a phone when I’m desperate and I never use a tablet.
So we made a purchase, maybe a new Apple Laptop, a touch-screen-hybrid-tablet thing, or even an amazingly fast desktop with a professional monitor! Hardware is the first step in this digital adventure, the next is software. There’s a staggering amount of free and cheap image-manipulation software out there on the interwebz, and I’ve tried the vast majority, but I’m going to make a stand here, tell you to suck it up and just subscribe to Adobe’s Creative Cloud. The positives of having access to their entire suite of software far out-way the negatives (mainly the monthly cost) and you only have to learn a few things in each program to really get going. You can subscribe on a monthly basis and choose what programs you need, so if you’re not going to be shooting for a few months just cancel the subscription and save some pennies. I spent a long time arguing the pros of free software over paid, but eventually I got bored of bugs, viruses and poor functionality and just got on the Adobe band wagon. Hate to say it, but it’s been great ever since 🙂
10. Super-charge your digital darkroom
Let’s fast forward a little, assume you’ve sat down with a coffee and started working on 100 of your strongest holiday images. You want to make them ‘pop’, you want to print and frame them for the home, maybe give away a few for presents, and finally get them online as part of your growing portfolio. You’ve picked up a few tips on using Photoshop, you’re starting to use filters stacked on top of each other, maybe you’re even recording a few macros to help with the processing. And then, suddenly, your darkroom slows down, screams at you, and shuts down. We’ve all been there.
You may, depending on your hardware purchase, have started to encounter processing bottlenecks. What’s a processing bottleneck I hear someone shout? It’s when your computer slows down so much you drink three cups of coffee watching a frozen screen, just waiting for something to happen, before Photoshop crashes and you loose your work 🙂
Processing bottlenecks can be due to a number of reasons, and they usually result in painfully slow data transfers (either between the camera and your computer, or from disk to disk), software crashes, hardware crashes, temporary loss of files and even corrupt data/disks, which REALLY SUCKS. So it really is worth trying to fix these problems before you continue, mainly for your sanity, but also to keep your work safe. The above issues can usually be sorted with a couple of simple computer upgrades, but if you’re serious about photography and post-production then it’s advisable to plan and shell out for a computer that’s built with post-processing in mind. I’m going to geek it up a bit here, don’t worry if this doesn’t mean anything to you, you’ll get it eventually.
A Solid State Disk and as much high-speed RAM as possible will keep you going if your computer has slowed to a grinding halt, however an upgraded quad or octa core CPU alongside a beefy graphics card will speed up processing immeasurably now that the Adobe suite takes (some) advantage of this additional processing power. An additional SSD scratch disk will make short work of Photoshop file management without eating up your primary drive and a few Terra-bytes of Disk Space (I use WD Green 5200 RPM) can easily be setup in RAID 1 in a desktop to act as fast and safe storage (if you use a laptop you might consider an external NAS bay, but be careful, some are better than others). If you are planning to build or buy your own digital darkroom make sure you go for the best combination you can afford; RAM, CPU, graphics cards and disks all ship at varying speeds, but there’s no point in buying a super fast CPU just to cheap out on the hard disk or RAM. It’s a well know fact that a slower CPU and modern SSD combo is feasibly better than a super fast CPU and slow-ass spindle HDD. And we haven’t even touched on the ultra-fast PCIE SSD disks now available for heavy users, nor dual graphics cards, or even the AMD vs Intel debate. If you are interested in building a processing-specific PC you could do worse than to spend a few days trawling the internet and doing some light reading.
11. Monitor your monitor
Monitors matter more than you can possibly imagine, take it from hundreds of thousands of photographers; don’t cheap out on the monitor. Yes even if you have a laptop you’ll honestly be better-off picking up a large desktop monitor to use at home, working on a small 13″ screen for hours-on-end really is quite miserable after a while. As professional photographers we require a high-fidelity monitor that produces a consistent, lifelike and reliable reproduction of colour, with no color shifting as we move our heads or wild and unusable Kelvin presets. I currently use a Benq LCD IPS 4k (UHD actually but whatever) 32″ panel and it’s truly a thing of beauty, not to mention a half decent companion for the occasional game, but it came at a huge 1500 USD price tag!! Why so expensive? It uses a very high-end screen technology called IPS for a start, it’s a touch under 4000 pixels wide and 32″ diagonally, and uses the professional technologies I need to get my images looking perfect on screen or print. The question is, can you find these advanced functions in a monitor that’s cheaper than 1500 bucks? Of course, but don’t expect to get something physically this big, look for a 23″ and work your way up. Be very wary of the really cheap ‘on sale’ desktop monitors as they usually won’t offer you any of the technology you need to work professionally on your hard-won images. Laptop screens are a whole-different ball game, and now is not really the time to discuss, but Apple’s laptops arguably have the best screens for image work. The general consensus, currently, is that a photographer should always choose IPS as a panel type (more expensive but higher quality colour reproduction and no colour shift to speak of) and the closer to 100% sRGB the better. The problem with even the best monitors, however, is that they aren’t great out the box and require a little fine-tuning before you get the colors and brightness just right. I use a Spider Elite 4 that helps me get everything perfect, which is incredibly important when processing and print matching images. You have been warned.
12. One workflow to rule them all
Workflows matter to everyone, whether simply keeping to the same shooting/processing routine or developing a mega-macro in Photoshop, we all need to follow some kind of process, it’s what keeps things ordered and simple. Post-production workflows should be designed to take away the stress of boring processing and allow our artistic freedom room to play. You also have to remember that an image you want to print is fundamentally different to the same image you want to share on facebook, or an exhibition print version maybe. Each image ‘type’ needs formatting slightly differently, and doing this manually with every image from your latest shoot is seriously time-consuming. The extent of your post-production workflow really depends on your level as a photographer; a beginner wouldn’t use the same processes as a professional, but having an understanding of image types and how they differ for different platforms (so print, online etc) is essential to your development as a photographer. Unless you have someone to do all this for you, in which case stop reading and go be artistic 🙂
An example post-production work-flow I use for smaller commercial shoots is designed to automate the boring stuff and get all the images processed to look decent, resized for different platforms, renamed for sanity’s sake, and then saved to a specific location on disk quickly and quietly. Without this I wouldn’t be able to head out the next day and shoot more, I’d still be in front of the computer pressing buttons. The work-flow starts after I’ve taken the images off the camera and transferred on to a fast disk on my computer. First I use Nikon’s View NX2 software to open the uncompressed RAW files (Nikon NEF in this case) and translate them to 16 bit TIFF, now more easily editable in Photoshop. Next I open Adobe Bridge, select ‘batch processing’, navigate to the folder of newly converted TIFF images and then select one of my general Photoshop macros, which Bridge has kindly loaded. A ‘macro’ is just a recording of individual processes I would usually perform manually in Photoshop, such as auto-leveling, cropping, contrast adjust, auto colour-tone, canvas/image size change and so on. I hit play and boom, each image is now automagically converted from the original unprocessed image to the new processed version and saved as a new set of files. Variations of this automatic workflow are used on all my shoots so I know what I’m working with, what options I have backed-up, and where all my images are kept. I don’t deal in odd cropped sizes, I don’t work with lower resolutions, I don’t offer special sizes unless it’s a special commercial shoot and I’m getting paid. Instead all my images are finished to exactly the same size and quality, leaving me more time to shoot and less time working on post.
13. Backup the backups of your backups… twice
My production data is stored in a RAID configured disk array (A WHAT???), in my case that’s four Hard Disk Drives chained together which Microsoft Windows manages naively. This setup keeps my data extra extra safe, four disks working in tandem to mirror all the files across the ‘array’, if one breaks, which they invariably do, the others are ready to pick up the slack until you replace the broken one without any downtime. So, I have duplicates of my images in different formats (NEF, TIFF, JPG etc), I also have duplicates of the duplicates using a RAID array of disks, and finally I use The Cloud to take my backup one step further…
14. The Cloud
The ‘Cloud’ is a wonderful illusion of safety, time-management and cost-effective storage but the ‘global’ reality is somewhat different in my experience; slow upload speeds, mounting storage costs and asset-rights question marks all leave us a little confounded by something that should be straight forward. I do use The Cloud, it’s the third backup I maintain of my super-important images, the ones that I just couldn’t live without, but everything else stays local to keep costs down and access fast. I do not store my images on free sites, I do not use Flickr, I do not use any site that proclaims free storage because I do not trust them when it comes to copyright. Instead I use paid-for services such as BackBlaze and Dropbox Pro to maintain seamless mirrors of folders on my production box. Simples.