Best Purchases / Worst Purchases of 2014
I made some very large, long-overdue investments in my business this year and mostly I am ecstatic with the results.
Below is a summary of those purchases, what I liked and didn’t like and why, and in some cases I wander off into a mini product review. You’ve been warned 🙂
ProFoto B1 Kit + AirRemote TTL:
OMG. Far and away the very best off-camera lighting solution (for a wedding, editorial and event photographer) I have ever owned, and I’ve owned many, many types. Each as powerful as 10 Speedlites. With enough battery power to last more than 1/2 a full day. (Best to get extra batteries (I did)). Incredibly light and portable for how much power & functionality they possess. And they are just beautiful, with an almost Apple-like design – just dang pretty to look at and hold. Practical and thoughtful details everywhere abound, things like:
- a carrying handle.
- two ways to determine how much battery power is left: a push button LED meter on the battery, and a battery icon on the B1’s display panel.
- a large soft-touch-clicking dial that lets you change power in 1/10 stop increments or in full stop increments, from 2.0 to 10.0.
- an LED modeling light that barely drains your battery, and that can be set to be always full on, or to dim until the strobe is re-charged, or to be on proportionally linked to your power setting.
- the ability to trigger the strobe via old-skool optical slave, or old-skool wired to a radio trigger (like a PocketWizard), or new skool using Profoto’s AirRemote TTL triggers, that give you complete remote TTL control over your strobes.
And such wonderful controls from the AirRemote! I can turn modeling lights on or off individually. I can turn individual heads off (say if I’m metering my fill, and then metering my key). I can set differential power (for fill and key), and I can bump up or down each light’s power by 1/10th stops or full stops. Or my absolute favorite feature of the AirRemote TTL is the ability to let the strobe use the camera’s TTL to make a very good guess at differential lighting exposure in any scene, and then (!) lock those strobe settings in with the push of a button on the AirRemote, taking the lights from TTL to Manual. This is HUGE for run n gun wedding & event photographers who sometimes quickly need radically different strobe settings in different environments. I only wish my Canon Speedlites had this feature.
And now, just in the last three days or so, Profoto (through a flash eprom update) has enabled true High Speed Sync in their B1 strobes. This is tremendously awesome.
Another design feature I love and have always envied in Profotos is their bomb-proof rubber sleeve attachment system for all of their modifiers. The system always works, is no-brainer easy, is mechanically simple and elegant, and is truly an example of design brilliance. Whereas Paul C Buff speedrings and such have a four clawed system that makes only slight contact in 4 locations that invariably bend and distort speedrings and that often pop off under load or wind, the Profoto system makes 100% full and snug contact all the way around your strobe for an incredibly sure and strong attachment.
My only complaint about my B1 system is their inadequate integration with Speedlites, something I need to do all the time in my wedding work. It’s important that I have a Speedlite on my camera for intimate dynamic dance floor-type shots where my Speedlite is in ETTL mode reacting to my constant shifting forward and back. Yet I want to trigger my B1s while a Speedlite is on my camera. This requires me to remove Profoto’s AirRemote TTL trigger from my camera and figure another way to trigger the B1s. Currently there is no elegant way. The AirRemote does not have any kind of external port (like a PC or mini sync port), and when connected to a 3rd party hotshoe cube with a mini port this combination fails to trigger the B1s. I see this as a major shortcoming of Profoto’s AirRemote TTL system. That leaves us to use a 3rd party trigger system like pairs of old skool PocketWizards, one tethered to the camera’s PC port and the other tethered to the B1’s mini sync port. Inelegant, and too many dangling wires. I truly hope that Profoto makes integrating B1s and Speedlites easier in the near future. Personally, I think Profoto should buy RadioPoppers!
Canon 5DIII bodies:
Oh Gosh. I’ve waited so long for these babies. I recently purchased two used 5DIIIs through Amazon for about $1,000 less (each) than new. The one thing I wanted and needed so badly is the upgrade from the 5D’s & 5DII’s pathetic 15 focus points (only one of which is “cross-type”) to the 5DIII’s 61 focus points, forty one of which are cross-type. Finally I can focus my photos exactly where I want to. It’s painful to recall how many otherwise excellent photos I’ve had to throw away in my Canon 5D and 5DII days because of back-focusing, outreached hand focusing, and just plain wrong focusing. What a huge relief it is to now nail my focus almost every single time. Compared to Nikon Canon really sucks in this department when talking 2nd tier pro bodies.
Canon 600EX-RT Speedlites:
Finally, Canon did everything right on this one. The four biggest a-MAY-zing things about this nearly perfect flash are:
- radio control,
- mixing ETTL with Manual from back of camera,
- support for up to 5 groups (A,B,C,D,E,F) of flashes,
- the requirement to assign a unique Radio ID to all of your flashes making it extremely unlikely that you will ever clash with other photographers in the same area.
External Flash Battery Pack Replacement for CP-E4 ($32.99):
I LOVE this thing. While a little awkward having this thing tethered to my Speedlite, it fits perfectly in a dress coat inner pocket, or on your belt (although you have to remove your belt and slide it into the fabric case). And it completely prevents missed flashes from my main on-camera Speedlite and allows me to shoot without changing batteries at a full day wedding or event. And at only 20% of the cost of the genuine Canon CP-E4, I’ve totally gotten my money’s worth. Highly recommended.
Cheetah C-10 10 foot collapsible stands:
I own all three sizes of Cheetah stands, and like Goldie Locks I’ve found these wonderful collapsible stands to be too small, too big, and just right. The C-10 is just right. Strong enough and tall enough for most situations yet portable. The C-8 is very small, not very strong, I don’t trust it with big lights or big modifiers. And the C-12 is just overkill. But automatically collapsible c-stands are a wedding & event photographer’s dream. Love them.
Photek Softliter 60 Inch Diffused Umbrella:
Buttery, gorgeous light in a very portable collapsible modifier. This is my Desert Island modifier. The only complaint I have is they should provide some sort of plug or cap for when you unscrew and shorten the shaft. Being able to shorten the shaft is very useful, so that there is not a long metal rod sticking out from the back of your strobe ready to poke someone’s eye out. However the shortened shaft tends to slide out of my B1s, dropping the modifier on the ground. An easy fix would be to insert a screw into the end of the shortened shaft, if it were not such a bizarre and impossible size to find (6.5mm x 0.05mm).
“Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life” by Eric Metaxas:
I’ve always struggled with faith, I’m a deeply skeptical and rational person by nature. I can honestly say that this book – through many pages of scientific review of astrophysics and many first-hand highly credible and very varied retelling of genuine miracles, has done more to strengthen and solidify my belief in God, in a super intelligent designer, and in the utter obviousness of a Creator who loves us, than any book I’ve ever read, including The Bible. If you’re curious, or want to believe in God and Christ, give this fascinating book a read. At the very least you’ll catch up your astrophysical knowledge about how the universe and solar system and Earth and the moon and the physical laws of nature were created.
Fstoppers Flash Disc Portable Speedlight Softbox.
Events, Wedding Receptions: Probably the best on-camera modifier I’ve tried yet, and I’ve tried many. It does what we want many modifiers to do – make a small light source larger and diffuse. And it’s perfectly collapsible so it fits in a back pocket or a side pocket of my Boda bag.
Lexar Professional Workflow HR1 Four Bay USB 3.0 Reader Hub and 4 Lexar FCR1 Readers:
These things are fast, they look good, and they never fail to read my CF cards. Excellent purchase for a busy photographer.
Liquid-Cooled Gaming PC:
Research shows that the most important factor in Lightroom performance is CPU clock speed. Everything else is less important: RAM, SSD drives, fast ethernet, fast thunderbolt or USB 3 connections all pale in their ability to speed up your Lightroom performance. I bought an overclocked Gaming PC from a very smart young man who was about to report for duty into the US Navy. He overclocked the 3.4Mhz CPU all the way up to 4.8MHz. Try that with your overpriced, pretty Macintosh. This PC (not the one in the stock photo) also has lots of RAM, many SSD drives, and fast USB 3.0 connections. But the blazing fast overclocked water-cooled CPU is what has turned my Lightroom slavery from painfully slow drudgery into snappy almost real-time performance.
Westcott 7′ Parabolic Umbrella 3-Pack.
I picked these up at the WPPI 2014 Tradeshow: I bring one of the three umbrellas to almost every shoot. They give big beautiful soft light, perfect as a fill light. There is a white shoot-through, a black outside white inside, and a black outside silver inside. Even though I never use the silver, and the shoot-through broke on location a while back, at $99, this purchase has been an amazing value all year long. If Westcott offers this deal again at WPPI I’ll probably buy two sets of three.
Used Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 from “Get It Digital“:
“Get It Digital” advertised this lens on Amazon Marketplace as “pristine”. In fact it had a terrible light leak that I only noticed *after* a very important wedding. Fortunately the leak was not enough for the client to notice and they love the photos. But it was a badly flawed used lens that obviously was not tested before being offered as “pristine”. Worse still, when I tried to return it, the company was difficult and surly and evasive. Eventually I appealed directly to Amazon who took care of me immediately with a full no-questions-asked refund.
Profoto Disc Umbrella Reflector:
This modifier is not meant for the B1 or D1 Profoto strobes, yet nowhere is this mentioned on the selling page. I guess it was stupid on my part, but honestly I didn’t see any warning that this is incompatible with ProFoto’s two best strobe lines. I ended up modding it so that an umbrella shaft (sort of) fits while using this mod, but I don’t use it much. Not a good use of $100. BTW, Profoto modifiers are famous for being over-priced. Fortunately there is a robust market of 3rd party parts that work just fine on Profotos for substantially less $. For example, I purchased some Chinese honeycomb grids for less than 1/3 the price of the official Profoto models. They work great.