Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The gear I use and how I use it.

I get e-mail etc about the gear I use on a fairly regular basis (I don't claim to be an expert or pro, the explanation below is my experience, yours may differ). Usually the question is “what camera do you use”. I respond that I use such and such camera, and that is the end of the conversation (most of the time). So many times it easy to believe that the camera is what creates great photos (after all the camera manufacturers tell us that when they market the cameras to us). The right question to ask when you see a great photo, is to question how that person took the photo, how the photographer used the camera.

My intention in sharing my gear is to help out in understanding what benefit I get from the different pieces of gear I use. I want to show how I use different pieces of gear in my bag.

One suggestion: if are serious about photography, get a DSLR. Any brand will do but a DSLR gives you flexibility that you can’t get from traditional point and shoot cameras (though some are getting close)

My cameras:

I use a DSLR (note that most manufacturers have equivalent bodies, lenses etc. sorry this is so brand specific). I started out with the D40 which I still use today (yup the beginner DSLR by Nikon), and later bought a well used D70 camera body off ebay (mainly for the 18-70 kit lens and because I wanted a second body). As far as I am concerned the camera body makes the least impact on your photos compared to other photo tools you could acquire. Some will argue the point, I don’t have any experience with the expensive bodies so I am unqualified to comment on bodies. From my view point the camera body isn’t where you should focus your dollars. When you get the other items (read below) then upgrade the camera body.

My gear
Click on the photo above to see notes on the photo

My lenses:
I really only use three lenses for my shooting, the 18-55mm doesn’t see much use anymore. Not because the 18-55mm is inferior, the 18-70mm wins due to the lens hood, slightly faster aperture and better reach. The other two lenses I use are the 55-200mm VR and the 50mm 1.8 Nikkors. These are the lenses I use and have. The lenses are cheap, and they work well.

So this deserves a side bar… Am I happy with these lenses? Sort of, they are great because they are light weight and compact (I will keep them when I upgrade lenses so I have a light weight travel kit), but they aren’t fast (I mean that they don’t have a big aperture). Ultimately I want some 2.8 constant aperture equivalent focal length lenses of the two zooms mentioned above (I am just a little financially impaired).

So why use the 55-200 VR?
To get that shallow depth of field and compression you get when shooting at 200mm. Can you get this from other lenses? Yes but most cost a lot more.

A long focal length like 200mm can make the background seem like it is right behind the subject (compression) but look soft like creamy butter (shallow depth of field). This shot of Airen was taken using the 55-200mm at 200mm, see how the background is like a soft painting?

Sad against a tree

Why use the 50mm prime?
For that 1.8 F stop. When I shoot with this lens it is nearly always wide open aperture. I want that low light goodness. Shooting beautiful natural light usually requires a lens that is fast like the 50mm 1.8. Again you get some great soft backgrounds, this time because the aperture is so big (1.8). The bad is that you really need to be careful how and where you focus otherwise the important part of the pic will be out of focus. Notice how the photo below son's eyes are sharp and in focus but the rest of his face is quickly falling out of focus. Hall mark of the 50mm at 1.8 aperture.


Why use the 18-70mm?
For the wide end and for all the normal angles you might need. It just works well, though it doesn’t have any pop except when wide (when I say pop I mean that at most focal lengths it is like vanilla ice cream a bit boring but still the most popular flavor). If you shoot landscape then you want wide 18mm or wider. I don’t so I don’t have any ultra wide lenses. Here is a wide example, notice how everything appears in focus? That is where the wide bodies excel. Here is an example of a photo at ~18mm.

Brittany and Jake

My lights:
I have an SB600 for the on camera stuff (I don’t use direct on camera flash much opting to bounce of walls etc), and use two older (very worn and beat up) speed lights for my lighting (planning to add a fourth light soon). This was due to a suggestion from David Hobby (Strobist) to buy used and I think I made the right decision. I don’t worry too much about the lights (SB 24 and SB 25), and just use them as the tools that they are.

Lighting is sometimes a hot topic (some think it is cheating). Suffice it to say that natural light can be wonderful, so use it when you can find good light. If you don't think lighting is interesting then skip the rest of the gear post...

Lenses are easy to explain but lights are a whole other beast. Suffice it to say that learning about light is what photography is about. Cameras capture light. I don’t know what more to say except just use it and do it. The more you do it (take photos) the better you will get! Now I don't want anyone who reads this to think that you have to use flash or strobe light, natural light can be the best light you will ever find, but learning to use lights can help you see natural light better, making you a better photographer all around.

Start simple, when learning to light, I suggest starting with a single light and then building up from there. After a while you will start thinking in terms of two, three, four and more lights, but I suggest starting with one. In fact most of time I use one light because I don’t want a shoot to get to complicated.

Here is a behind the scenes photo (indoor and a little more complicated).

over under light setup

Here is the result.

Anji BW

Light modifiers:
As you can see I use three different umbrellas sizes 60”, 43” and 33”. Light size is a huge part in the quality of your light. Most of the time you want soft light as it is more flattering. Soft light is achieved when you have a big source relative to the subject (more about it here). The 60” umbrella is great at providing real soft light. The 33” is a little more edgy but still is much softer than a bare flash.

Remember I said the light source size relative to the subject size, so a 60” umbrella 10 feet away will look as soft as a 33” umbrella shot at 3 feet away. Move the light in close to get uber soft light.

Other stuff:
Light stands, clamps, triggers (to trigger the flash when of camera) are other stuff I use. I use a couple of Bogen nano light stands because they are really compact and easy to haul around. Filters to change the color of the light etc. You can really spend a lot of money on extras.

One last note; there is so much more to photography than the gear, such as posing, framing, color, and the list goes on and on. This only touches the gear aspect which is a fairly small part of the equation. Getting all the right gear only gets you so far, the gear after all are just tools, you are the artist using the tools!

Hope this helps out!


stillsmallspace said...

Very helpful, thanks!

Paul said...

Thanks for this article, Nathan. I also own a D40 and I share your opinion about cameras. I think one needs to out-grow her/his equipment and then upgrade.

I haven't been that interested in portraits so far, I mostly like taking photos of landscapes and street photography, but the part about lighting in your post is enticing and made me have some seconds thoughts. :)

I own a SB-600 and, as it happens usually, I want the thing that I cannot have, meaning to trigger the flash remotely, which is not possible with D40. I need a trigger. :)

Anyway, I was wondering if you can give more information about the setup in this image. For instance, I wonder about the purpose of the lower side light. The hair on that side seems a bit burned to me.

Nathan Marx said...

You are totally right that the "hair light was too hot" an excellent point, and a learning opportunity. The idea is to create seperation (no matter how poorly executed). The light behind the subject was a poor attempt at creating a hair light very similar to rim lighting. It may not be the best example of what too do but if you look at portraits of better photogs, you will see how awesome rim lighting can look. How it can really add pop to a portait.

Good question poor answer...

I will add the topic for a later post with better setup and results.

Paul said...

Oh, I actually made a mistake. I thought that the light coming from the second umbrella on the side of the subject, that is seen in the bottom part of the image, was producing that effect in the hair. But after reading your answer I see that it's in fact the light source on the shelf.

Ok, thanks for the answer and waiting for the next post.

JJ Benito said...

Very, very, very interesting way to point out your thoughts. Thanks! You cannot imagine how I appreciate who writes something like "Some will argue but I have no experiences with expensive bodies" or "The gear are the tools and you are the artist". This really bring us that "wow, I can learn. I can do it" even with limited budget. You showed it.


Esther said...

Truly appreciate your sharing about the lenses part. I have the 3 you mentioned and being a self taught hobbyist photographer, I learn through comments and notes like yours. Love your blog. I will put link yours on mine.

Teddy said...

Nathan, I was wondering what triggers you use for your flashes. I'm looking to get one for my D40 and Vivitar 285.

Nathan Marx said...

Currently I use Cybersyncs (alien bee), though I have used the Gadget Infinity triggers. I think Vivitar 285 has a proprietary sync port, other than that you should be set with what ever.

Aries327 said...

Anji is so gorgeous. Nice work!