Photography Gear

Here's the photography gear that I use and my honest opinions on everything.  I don't claim to do "real" reviews.  To be a credible reviewer, I think you really ought to have worked with a large portion of available gear, and not own any of the gear you review (at least at the time you review it).  I can't claim either of those two things.  So I can only give you my thoughts, and they might be biased by my ownership or my lack of experience with alternatives.  Everything on this list I own, I like, and I think is worth buying.  But that doesn't mean it's perfect.  So I'll tell you what I use, why I like it, as well as anything that don't like about it.

Camera and Lenses - I consider myself a Nikon shooter, but you can't really call me a fan boy.  I could very easily live with another brand.  It seems like everybody is putting out great cameras nowadays.  I shoot Nikon because when I last bought into a system, I felt like they had a very slight edge on image quality in the product category for which I was buying.

I want to say though that if I were buying a system camera today, I'd go with a Fujifilm X series.  I think Fujifilm's customer support blows away Nikon's.  Let's put it this way:  Fujifilm issued a firmware update with substantial new features for a camera (the X100) that's no longer in it's lineup.  They made no money on this update (directly); they did it for their customers.  Meanwhile, Nikon has a camera with a documented sensor dust issue - the D600 - and instead of doing the right thing and fixing the problem for it's customers, it discontinues the D600 after only a year and releases a new model (the D610) that is basically the same camera minus the issue!  No recompense for the poor people who spent their hard-earned money on the D600.  And that's just one example.  Nikon makes good cameras but their customer service is crap.  If I didn't have a fair amount of money invested in Nikon gear I'd jump ship.
  • Nikon D7000 with MB-D11 battery grip - This is my camera.  There are many like it, but this one is mine.  I like it because it takes terrific pictures, it has a snappy response, it has a full set of external controls to minimize menu-diving, and it's rugged.  That's really all you need.  Although I also like the fact that if there's a 3rd party accessory out there, it probably works with my camera.  Since I initially wrote this, the D7100 and D7200 have been released and so my D7000 is now two generations from current. It's still a great camera, but I have to admit that the focusing system, LPF-free sensor, and built-in WiFi on the D7200 are awfully attractive features. I will probably skip this upgrade cycle though and wait for the D7300 in a couple years. Probably. ;-)
  • Fujifilm X20 - There's an old cliche that the best camera is the one you have with you.  I bought the X20 so I could always have a camera with me. It goes with me to work, to the store, to my kids' soccer practice - all the places that I don't want to lug around a big DSLR. My one sentence review: "So good you'll forget it's a compact, but it's still a compact." I absolutely love the size, the build, the lens, the controls, the feel, the creative features, and the overall retro vibe of the camera. It's a whole lot of fun to shoot with and within its limitations, it takes terrific photos with wonderful color and sharpness. So what exactly are the limitations? Well, like all small-sensor compacts it's subject to high ISO noise (800-1600 is really the limit for me) and it lacks resolution on really fine, distant detail (such as grass and foliage). So it rocks at people photos, but it's not so hot at landscapes. For whatever reason it takes beautiful black and white photos, which is good because ISO noise is a lot less objectionable in B&W. The X20's strengths make it a really fine street photography camera.
  • Sigma 17-70mm F2.8-4 DC Macro OS HSM | C - Due to its versatility, the Sigma has become my most used lens. It's very sharp across most of its range; it auto-focuses quickly and decisively; it laughs mockingly at low light; it has surprisingly nice bokeh; and its fit, finish, and materials belie its reasonable price. On top of that it also has a very handy macro capability. Like I said, versatile! The biggest weakness with this lens is that the edges are soft at the wide end of its zoom range and it doesn't improve much when you stop down.  So it's not the best landscape lens in my bag, but it'll do in a pinch. When I want one lens that will cover a lot of shooting scenarios without swapping, this is the one I reach for.
  • Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G - I'm a fan of prime lenses because they're cheaper, faster, and sharper (albeit less versatile) than zooms. Even high-quality zooms.  On the D7000, this lens has a full-frame equivalent focal length of 52.5mm, so it's essentially a nifty fifty.  It is wicked sharp, especially stopped down just a little bit.  The f/1.8 aperture means that it works great with available light.  It also has a pretty nice bokeh.  All that for $200.
  • Tokina AT-X 124 AF PRO DX 12-24mm - This is a surprisingly versatile ultra-wide due to its top-end focal length of 24mm. That equates to 36mm on a full-frame, which is in the "wideish standard" range so if you want to eliminate some background you can still do it without having to swap lenses. At 24mm any radial distortion is completely unnoticeable, so it takes really nice contextual portrait shots. It's reasonably sharp and has great image quality with the one exception of pretty egregious chromatic aberration, especially when shot wide open. Fortunately, that can be easily fixed in post. Obviously it's great for landscapes, and I love the possibilities available with ultra-wide perspective and gargantuan depth of field.   The only complaint I have is that once in a great while (like, maybe once every 4 months) the auto-focus will won't work. It typically happens when I put the camera (not the lens) in manual focus mode then switch it back to auto-focus. The fix is simple:dismount the lens, then remount it. 
  • Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G - This is the 50mm version of the 35mm f/1.8 lens above.  With a full-frame equivalent focal length of 75mm, it's my go-to "portrait lens".  I also use it indoors without a flash when I need a little more reach than the 35mm can provide.  It has all the same virtues of the 35mm, including a bargain price.  Plus, it's an FX format lens, so if I ever upgrade to full-frame, this lens can make that leap with me.  Downsides?  Oddly, this lens isn't quite as decisive in its auto-focusing as the 35mm.  In dim light, it will get confused more easily.
  • Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR - This is my cheapo long zoom. It is so much better than it has any right to be for $400.  It has surprisingly good image quality, it's wonderfully compact, and when you learn its limits you can make it perform well.  It doesn't have any focus breathing (where changing the focus also changes the zoom, thus reducing effective zoom range) that I can detect.  The VR image stabilization system is the shiznit.  Handholding a camera at 450mm (full-frame equivalent) can be a jittery mess that makes me realize just how unsteady my hands really are.  But I half-press the shutter release button, VR kicks in, and all that jitter just fades away and I get a nice, sharp shot.  It's really quite amazing.  For trips to the zoo, baseball games, my kids' school assemblies, and the like, this lens is a champ - anything where I need range but subject movement is relatively slow and predictable.  The limitation is that the lens has a slow, variable maximum aperture and the auto-focus can be a little persnickety when it's zoomed past 200mm.  (Tip:  First acquire focus at 150-200mm, then zoom in further and the lens will auto-focus much more reliably from there.)  So, it's not a lens for shooting night-time sports or quick-moving wildlife.  For the stuff I shoot, I can live just fine within these limitations.  But if I ever got seriously into sports or wildlife photography, I'd probably need to upgrade.
Lighting - I definitely identify with the strobist movement.  That's somewhat driven by budget limitations, but I also like the portability of speedlights.  Thank goodness for David Hobby, the pied-piper of strobism.  The dude has taught legions of people like me how to conjure professional looking lighting from little speedlights.  Having said that, I've nothing against studio flash and in fact any further investment in lighting gear will probably be in that realm.
  • 2 Nikon SB-700 speedlights - These are Nikon's mid-range speedlights.  They have only moderate power, but a very nice user interface and a robust CLS implementation.  They also have a really solid optical slave mode, which I use a lot.  It even works well in sunlight.  I generally don't use full-on TTL with the CLS system.  I find setting flash power levels directly in manual mode to be more intuitive than using flash exposure compensation with TTL, plus it's easier to get maximum power when using manual flash.  However, CLS is awesome for manual flash too because it allows you to set flash power remotely at the camera instead of having to do it at each speedlight (which are often at the top of tall light stands).  That alone is a huge hassle-reducer.
  • LumoPro LP160 speedlight - The LP160 is a great, straightforward manual flash.  It dispenses with all the fancy TTL stuff, and gives you consistent, reliable, and powerful light at a great price.  My favorite feature is its built-in optical slave, which is rock-solid reliable.  It just works.   There's even a setting that allows it to ignore CLS pre-flashes, so it integrates into my setup well.  If you want a powerful and dependable speedlight, but you don't have a lot of money to spend, this is the one you want.  Unfortunately, LumoPro discontinued it, but they replaced it with the LP180, which improves on the concept by adding more power, an LCD, finer flash power adjustment, a high-voltage battery input, a more rugged build, and a number of other features.  If it retains the LP160's reliability, then the extra $20 over the LP160 sounds like money well-spent.
  • Nikon SG-3IR - One of the biggest problems with triggering off-camera speedlights optically using the pop-up flash on the camera is that the camera flash can add it's own light to the photo and screw up your carefully prepared, off-camera lighting treatment.  This gizmo slides into the camera's hotshoe and obscures the light to keep it from influencing the picture.  However, any CLS or optical slave can still see the flash so all the triggering and inter-flash communication still works.  A simple, inexpensive ($12 street), and very effective solution.
  • Yongnuo RF-603 N3 wireless triggers - Sometimes optical/CLS triggering just won't fire a remote flash reliably. Like when you're outside in bright sunlight, or when you're in close quarters and your light modifiers block the line-of-sight between your trigger and remote flashes. At that point, you have to use either a hotshoe cable, or a radio frequency trigger. The RF-603's are cheap (about $30), easy to use, and have decent range. They work in bright sunlight, around corners, even through walls. And unlike some cheap triggers, they fire quite reliably. I like them very much. But they don't support TTL or remote power adjustment. You have to set your flash power on the flash itself, which is a pain. Thus, I only use triggers when I have to.
  • Lastolite 24" EzyBox HotShoe softbox -Okay, now we get to the fun stuff in terms of lighting.  The Ezybox has two great qualities compared to a lot of other softboxes:  One, it works with speedlights, and two, it's very easy to set up and tear down.  It's also very thoughtfully designed and casts a terrific, soft light.  I appreciate the craftsmanship of it too.  When assembled, all the fabrics are nice and taut, and the pieces fit together with reassuringly tight tolerances so that everything feels solid.  My only complaint is that it's fairly pricey for what it is.  The same can be said about most name-brand lighting products, frankly.  But the quality of this thing is evident. It's a perfect size for head and shoulder portraits.
  • 48" Octagonal Softbox - This is my big softbox - big enough to shoot multiple people and 3/4 or full-length portraits. The one I have is an inexpensive e-bay item, but it's surprisingly well-made and performs wonderfully. It's basically a silver bounce umbrella with a diffusion panel on the front, so it's lightweight and collapses down really small. Like the Ezybox, assembly and disassembly is simple and fast. Unlike the EzyBox however, it produces round catchlights, which is nice. Most importantly, the light out of this thing is sumptuous - it's easily feathered and it casts extremely soft shadows. A very flattering portrait light. Mine included a detachable grid to control spill, which I've come to view as a necessity given the size of this bad boy. Downsides? Well, the biggest thing is that the strobe goes inside the softbox, which requires using wireless triggers, so power adjustments must be made by opening the softbox and adjusting the controls on the flash. I just leave the velcro on the diffusion panel partly unsealed so that I can easily do adjustments until I get it fully dialed in. Then I seal it up proper. The other downside is that a boom stand is pretty much mandatory for freedom of placement.
  • LumiQuest Softbox III softbox - This is another speedlight softbox.  It's considerably smaller than the EzyBox or octabox, so its light is not as soft.  But place it really close to the subject and it looks great - more dramatic with harder light/shadow transitions than the EzyBox.  It has the added advantage of being remarkably portable and unobtrusive.  I've shot great photos just holding my camera in one hand and the Softbox III in the other.  In a clamshell configuration with a reflector or a bigger softbox on the bottom, it also does a serviceable beauty dish impersonation (except the catch light is square instead of round).
  • 2 Impact 43" White Translucent Umbrellas - Umbrellas are great when you want soft light and you either desire, or don't care about, extra light spilling around the scene.
  • Fotodiox 42" 5-in-1 Reflector - Reflector disks are another lighting classic.  This is a 42" disk that can be used to reflect, diffuse, or block light depending on the cloth cover you put on it.  There are many applications for reflector panels.  In fact, a lot of pros primarily use panels of various shapes and sizes (including giant 6' X 6' mini-walls) as their light modifiers of choice.
  • ExpoImaging Rogue Grid - A grid is an adapter that goes on the front of a light source that funnels all the light through a honeycomb-like filter. A light sieve, if you will. It has the effect of focusing the light into a tighter beam, reducing spillage of light outside the beam. A speedlight grid produces a light beam with more feathered edges than you'd get from a spot light or snoot. But it has absolutely no effect on the softness of shadows, however. It's all about controlling where the light falls, not the shadows it casts. A gridded speedlight works great as a key spot light, hair light, background light, or for situations where you want to throw light on something but don't want it to spill onto other things in the surrounding area.  The Rogue grid is nice because it has interchangeable grid inserts that provide different spotlight sizes, and a clever attachment system that is both secure and easy to work with.  It's also well-made and has a nice integrated look, instead of looking like a lab experiment.
  • LumiQuest FXtra and Rosco Strobist Collection gel kit - Gels are colored sheets of plastic through which lights are shone to change their color.  They're used either to match the color of a flash to existing lighting, or to create some kind of special effect lighting color.  The challenge with gels and speedlights is attaching the gel.  The FXtra system is a clear plastic gel holder that attaches to the speedlight using a strap system that's compatible with the Softbox III.  It works well, although a definite drawback of the system is that the gels fit really tight so it takes longer to get them into the holder than it should.  The Rosco kit is a collection of 55 color correction and special effect gels cut to fit the FXtra holder.  If you have the FXtra system, the price and comprehensiveness of the kit makes it a no brainer.  And even if you don't have an FXtra, it's worth considering because you can just scotch tape the filters to your speedlight.
  • Impact Multiboom Light Stand and Reflector Holder - A simple, inexpensive, and effective boom stand that holds reflectors and small speedlight/modifier setups.  The boom lets you put a speedlight or reflector exactly where you want it.  The ability to clip on a reflector is essential if, like me, you're working with reflector disks that have a tendency to roll away.  I wouldn't trust a heavy light to it, but for reflectors or a speedlight with a small modifier, it's fine.
  • Light Stands - I have one Impact Air-Cushioned Heavy Duty Light Stand and two Proline Speaker Stands. The Impact stand is tall (9.5'), stable, sturdy, lightweight, and reasonably priced. It's kind of bulky, but that's the trade-off for sturdiness. I augment the Impact stand with a Cowboy Studio Boom which provides a lot of flexibility in light placement and extra height when needed. The Prolines aren't even light stands, they're PA speaker stands! I've had them forever from playing in bands and I decided to put them to use as light stands as well. They work very well for that purpose other than being a little short for certain situations. The upside is they carry 75+ pound speakers so handling speedlights and softboxes is child's play.
  • 2 Impact Super Clamps - A super clamp enables you to mount a light on pretty much anything, like a door, a table, a bookshelf, a car, or in my case, a PA speaker stand.
  • 2 Impact Umbrella Brackets - An essential gadget that mounts a speedlight and modifier onto a stand and allows you to adjust the angle of the speedlight.

Accessories - This list doesn't include all the little stuff that you end up buying - memory cards, filters, batteries, and so forth.  Just the big stuff.
  • Manfrotto 055XPROB tripod - I love this tripod!  It's tall (70" max height), built like a tank, and incredibly stable.  It's very versatile with its center column that can be oriented horizontally and legs that can be splayed out almost flat, allowing you to get your camera right down to ground level.  Best of all, it's very reasonably priced, relative to what you can pay for a good tripod. The drawbacks?  It's heavy and not exactly compact when folded down.
  • Vanguard SBH-250 ball head - Another great value. Excellent build quality, very smooth action on all the controls, and amazing weight capacity. It has all the desired adjustments, dual bubble levels, and comes with not one, but two, safety-locked, quick release plates.  My only wish is that those plates were Arca Swiss compatible.
  • Mefoto GlobeTrotter – I got the GlobeTrotter as a birthday gift from my wife and I love it. I expect it to be used more than the 055XPROB going forward because it's built for travel. Compared side-by-side with the 055XPROB and the Vanguard ball head, the GlobeTrotter is almost half the size (collapsed) and weight. It will easily fit into a backpack, carry-on luggage, or strapped to the outside of my camera bag. Despite the size it is very solid and rugged, and it extends to 64.2" so I'm not giving up too much height. Operationally, it's got the right features and everything moves with reassuring smoothness and no play. Conveniently, one of the legs unscrews and attaches to the center column to create a monopod. It's a high quality piece of gear for a very affordable price.
  • Lowepro DSLR Video Fastpack 250 AW - This is the closest thing I've found to the perfect camera bag.  Somehow, it will hold a gripped camera, 4-5 (DX size) lenses, a speedlight or two, a laptop, a tripod, and myriad small accessories -- and still have room for some personal stuff in a separate compartment.  And it easily fits under an airline seat!  It's well-made, heavily padded, and comes with a rain cover to boot.  The worst thing I can say about this pack is that I wish it had a couple more memory card pockets. Lowepro replaced this bag with an equivalent bag from the Fastpack II series. Looks like they've added a couple small improvements (removable padded waist belt and a lower flap with zip pocket) but I don't like the tripod leg pocket as much as on the original. Still looks like a winner though.
  • Maxpedition Thermite Versipack - This is not really a camera bag, but it works great for that purpose. It's the bag I use for my lightweight/low-fuss setup, based around the FujiFilm X20. I use this setup I use when I want to go minimalist and agile. The bag can hold the X20, extra batteries, charger, a couple of filters, filter adapter, and some small accessories. If I'm hiking and I need stability, the Versipack can be worn like a holster, with straps for the waist and thigh. But normally I use it as a shoulder bag so it doesn't look so police tactical.
  • OP/TECH strap system - I use three different OP/TECH straps.  The Super Classic strap with Uniloop connectors is a regular neck strap, but with a nicely padded neoprene pad for comfort and grip.  The Utility Strap Sling is my go-to strap for all-day outings.  When you have to do it for several hours, its amazing how much more comfortable it is to carry a camera slung across a shoulder rather than around the neck.  Finally, I use a couple of Swivel Hook System Connectors to attach my camera to the shoulder straps on the LowePro backpack for the ultimate in comfort!  All of these straps are pretty inexpensive, but what's most cool about them is that employ quick-release connectors so the I can switch straps on my camera, or move a strap between cameras, in a few seconds.
  • Westcott X-Drop Backdrop - The X-Drop is a portable backdrop system. At 5' x 7', it's only big enough for single-person, or maybe really cozy two-person, shoots. But that's exactly the sort of shooting I mostly do and my studio is too small for a full-size backdrop. The chief advantage of the X-Drop is that it travels and stores exceptionally well, collapsing down into a really compact package and setting up and tearing down very quickly and easily. I have the white and black drop cloths and they look and function exactly as you'd expect. The stand itself is a pretty clever design, stretching out the drop cloths to remove wrinkles, and stowing away into a handy bag when collapsed. However it's delicate in terms of build so I wouldn't recommend it to somebody who's tough on their gear and using it outside on a breezy day is just begging for trouble. But if your usual shooting parameters fit within its limitations, it's a terrific system.
Software - I consider post-processing to be as critical to what I do as working the camera.  That's not a hip thing to say as a photographer, but it's true.  I don't mean to diminish camera skills (you can't polish a turd, after all) but just like a song recording really comes to life during mixing, a photograph really comes to life during post-processing.  Transforms it from "That's really nice" to "Wow!"
  • Adobe Creative Cloud Photography - In early 2015, I switch over to Creative Cloud. The Photography plan includes Lightroom and Photoshop, which are both industry standards. They're mature, highly evolved, and for the most part, best-in-class. I'm really glad I made the move. Now, the Creative Cloud subscription model is controversial among users, and it's not really "cloud" software, but from my point of view the Photography plan for CC is a no-brainer. I can't think of many other industries where the high-end, market-leading professional software tools are available at this low of a price (even factoring in multiple year ownership). Just skip eating out once a month and it's more than paid for.
  • Nik Collection - This suite includes HDR Efex Pro 2 (an HDR app), Color Efex Pro 4 (a huge collection of absolutely killer filters covering a wide range of common and unusual post-processing techniques), Silver Efex Pro 2 (probably the best black & white conversion tool available), Dfine 2 (an excellent noise reduction tool), Sharpener Pro 3 (an outstanding sharpening plug-in), and Viveza 2 (a selective color/tonal adjustment tool).  I use Color Efex Pro more than any other plug-in, and it alone is probably worth the price of the suite.
  • Topaz Labs Adjust - Topaz Adjust gives you amazing control over exposure, tonality, local contrast, and other elements of a photograph. The user interface is kind of quirky (and you can really make a mess with it) but it's incredibly powerful. Amazing tool, great price.
  • HDRsoft Photomatix Pro - Photomatix is the HDR software I'm most comfortable with. Frankly I don't shoot much HDR anymore. I find I can get nicer, more natural looking results just using standard tools on well-exposed RAW files. But I still dabble with HDR occasionally when I want "that HDR look" or when I just want to do it because the process is fun. Photomatix is not exactly intuitive to use, but it is really powerful once you suss it out.