Sunday, July 29, 2012

when gear DOES matter

Before you read this blog post, let me first start off by stating that this post will be focused on gear. If you are not a gear head or tech nerd, such as yours truly, than this is probably the best time to head for the hills. Or as marketing genius Ryan Holiday says, "porn is always just a click away." You'd have to see the interview to understand that one. You can check that out [here].

I'm a big advocate of the motto "gear doesn't matter," but in actuality, there are times when it matters, in a big way.

Chase Jarvis, world renowned advertising and lifestyle photographer/director, has, on multiple occasions, compared cameras to hammers. The simile explains that a photographer should use their cameras just like a carpenter uses a hammer. Paraphrasing Jarvis, 'this is not to say that cameras are dumb pieces of technology.' He explains, with his frequent words of wisdom, that cameras, like hammers, are simply tools and should be used as such. Just as there are specific hammers for specific construction job requirements, there are specific cameras that yield specific results and the right one should be chosen for each particular job at hand. Chase's preachings have in recent years spread like wildfire across the photography community. Many photographers and myself have adopted these words to biblical proportions.

So many times, I've had people say to me, after seeing work from a shoot I've done, that they would be able to do the same level of work if they had the same camera. Ludicrous. It is often in those situations that I quickly pull out my antiquated iPhone and show them some work on there. I then explain how those shots were taken with and edited with nothing more than a couple free iPhone apps. This typically crushes their thoughts that given an expensive pro piece of equipment that they'd be able to produce the same work. I'm not knocking anybody's photographic abilities but the statement is very ignorant, at so many levels. I further my argument to work I shoot on pro gear to the fact that same pessimist could give me the cheapest of cameras (think cardboard and disposable) and I'd pull off the same quality of work. My point to doubters, although not as elaborate as some of the Chase Jarvis interviews, is one in the same, that gear doesn't matter.

Now, why on earth would this post be titled just the opposite, "when gear DOES matter"? Take for a moment, to think about the statements that cameras are like hammers and gear doesn't matter. A bit paradoxical, is it not? If gear doesn't matter than how can the right camera matter for the right job. Truth of the matter is that gear matters to a point of availability. The right tool for the job is great, if you have a wide variety of tools. But given a situation that you don't have the right tools you better make the tool you have work for you or you'll be toast. That brings us to another Chase Jarvis parable, that the best camera is the one you have with you.

For newbies, this all may be a bit confusing. Let me get down to the nitty gritty of what exactly it is I'm talking about and what any of this has to do with a photograph of a tripod.

More after the jump...

Packing Heat

Currently in my arsenal of gear I own the Nikon D4, a couple of older Canon DSLRs, an iPhone and some older Nikon point and shoot cameras. Along with that, there is much lighting, grip, triggers, etc. Given a specific project, I could then decide which camera would be appropriate. If the gig is commissioned and something that needs to be of the highest caliber, I will likely use the D4. I could easily make the same projects similarly successful using one of the older Canons. Director and Pulitzer prize winner, Vincent Laforet says it best when speaking of gear. He says that every camera has its sweet spot and as photographers, should know where that spot is in all of their gear. Although I could pull of many shoots with the older cameras, knowing them like the back of my hand, I am currently biased towards the D4, for obvious kickass reasons. I effing love my baby. If I'm out pounding the pavement, just looking to make some cool photos for my personal work, I typically use my antiquated iPhone. I find that with its lower resolution and some cool free apps, I can make some fast, awesome, retro, Polaroid styled photographs. No need to lug around the beastly D4 for those little excursions. On the other hand, shooting street photography with some nice pro gear can really yield some spectacular results. Something I've been wanting to do more often. I have lots of tools for different jobs and I use them accordingly. Does gear matter for me? I'm a super gear junkie but given a situation will make due with what I have on hand. This leads me to another funny quote of which I forget made the statement: "The best camera is the one I left at home."

Last night the 2012 Olympics in London began. Shooting the games will be countless, handheld, robotically controlled, suspended and submerged Nikon D4 and Canon 1Dx DSLRs. Would these photographers be able to swap out a D4 for one of my old Canons or an iPhone for that matter? No way. Why? The new Nikon and Canon flagships are the chosen shooters of the Olympic games due to their superior image quality, coupled with wireless capabilities and shooting at super fast frame rates. Sure, cameras like these weren't around before these games and photographers made due without them in the past so why do they need this equipment now? Well, the technology is there and with this technology, the press will be able to create images that were previously impossible, giving the viewers new and amazing captures of the games. In London, gear absolutely matters.

What's The Deal With The Tripod Photo

The "gear doesn't matter" discussion can be a bit debatable. Hell, after writing those last few paragraphs, I've even confused myself, wondering if it is or not important.

Today, I want to explain to you that there is one piece of equipment that can make or break you, when gear DOES matter. You can try to argue this or not and I welcome any debate. But let me tell you from experience my friends, in the tripod department, gear matters, 110%! Period.

I've recently been long in the market for a new tripod. The case was that I was without one but the one, two actually, that I owned, were crap. I won't share the brand names of these dilapidated tools as I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. I'm more of a handheld shooter so the urgency to buy a new tripod was something I could put on the back burner for some time. That was until the day arrived that I needed, without a doubt, a solid set of sticks.

The shoot was of a product variety. I knew I'd have to pull out the old rusty set of legs for this particular day. I was hesitant do do so, knowing the legs weren't so dependable. From time to time, they wouldn't properly lock and begin to slide down, unevenly, causing much danger to the gear screwed to the top. Needless to say, I wasn't excited about strapping 10 grand worth of gear to the top of a rusty, old, shaky tripod. Long story short, I barely pulled off the shoot using the tripod about 30% of the time and just improvising, handheld, the rest of the shoot.

As the client left, I knew then and there that I had to stop procrastinating and pick out a freaking tripod.

Strobist, David Hobby, has compared the tripod and cameras to relationships. Cameras are a temporary fling. After a few years and it will be time to move on to a new camera. Tripods, on the other hand, can be a lifelong commitment, if you chose the right one. Basically, if you skimp and try to save a buck, buying a tripod, you will set yourself up for a short term relationship, ending in disaster. Go the extra mile and invest in a high quality professional tripod and that may very well be the last tripod you will ever have to buy. Sometimes gear does matter.

It wouldn't be the first time that I would search for a suitable tripod. I was well aware that the day would arrive that I would need a solid set but I easily blew it off, thinking there would be other gear that would be a better purchase instead of the tripod (i.e. mods, mods and more mods). I couldn't have been more wrong.

From inception, the deciding of a tripod was quite difficult. As opposed to cameras, there are so many brands of tripods to choose from. Camera choices are easier, as you typically stick to the brand you already own. Well, I am an exception as I recently jumped from the Canon ship to join the Nikon team (just a preferential decision). Tripods, on the other hand, come in many different shapes, sizes, materials, etc. Then, just when you think you have decided on a set, you have to consider what kind of head do you want on that thing. Remember, this is a lifelong decision. The choice had better be right or you'll be stuck with a perfectly functioning professional tripod that you don't particularly care for. So, will it be ball head, or pan head? The choices are endless. This was one reason that I often stopped the searching for the right set of sticks.

Gitzo, Manfrotto, Giottos, Oben, Vanguard, Induro, Benro, Benbo, are all brands that manufacture professional tripods and heads and that's just a few. How to choose one over the other? They all seem pretty legit. Prices are all over the map. I mean you can spend anywhere for a pro tripod from 100 bucks to well into the thousands. How much is too much? How much is not enough? The answer is to find the right tripod for your specific needs. Would you be strapping a 600mm lens to the top? Would you be using in studio or on in the field. Jeez, all these things I was having so much trouble answering. I mean, sure today I may use only in studio but how about tomorrow, would I be out on a mountain, wishing I had bought a more suitable tripod for a given situation?

I began to obsessively scour the internet, looking for reviews of various brands of tripods. Then, out of nowhere, I had a eureka moment. I came across a YouTube video of Peter Hurley. I often watch his videos as he is an awesome photographer and funny as hell. Hurley is an admitted gear head, a priceless trait to find in someone reviewing new equipment. There it was, Hurley's unboxing of his new Feisol tripod system. I've never heard of the company but I was intrigued. This thing was big and it had my attention. Hurley even lets the viewers hear the sound of the leg tubes as the "thump" open. I too was drawn to this sound. Not a scientific decision by any means but it's the little things that draw me to certain pieces of gear. I was hooked and needed to do some more research.

Turns out Feisol is a new company in the tripod market. They make high end equipment at, well, somewhat midrange prices. Reviews were excellent. Availability, a bit tight. At the time of interest, I couldn't even find them at the big pro retailers. Those interested could only buy them direct from the Feisol website. That has since changed as the big pro shops are now selling the entire Feisol lineup.

It wasn't long after doing some research that I had my heart set on Feisol. Now, it was which Feisol tripod and head to choose from.

I ultimately decided on the CT-3471 Rapid tripod, with CT-3342 center column and CB-70D ball head.

The CT-3471 Rapid is a four section carbon fiber tripod with nice thick tubing, allowing for greater weight capacities. The carbon fiber means bad ass, light weight and super durable, need I say more? The four sections allow for a more compact closed unit. And this baby is big, fully opened, sans any added center column or head, the CT-3471 opens up to just over 5 feet in height. Add the CT-3342 carbon fiber center column and the CB-70D ball head and we are talking about nearing 7 feet in height! Yup, fully extended with camera on the perch and it is well over my head and I'm a big guy, standing tall at 6 feet 3 inches. This was another selling point for this particular Feisol line.

The CT-3342 carbon fiber tripod, is, well, a nice center column. Not sure how much I could elaborate on that.

As for the CB-70D ball head, I went with the biggest baddest beast of the entire lineup. I wouldn't want a itty bitty scrawny little ball head strapped to such a beastly tripod. And the CB-70D ball head is large, bigger than my fist if I had to compare. This solidly built head coupled with the column and tripod are no problem for lots of heavy professional gear and as a system lighter than one would imagine, due to the carbon fiber build.

When that delivery came I couldn't wait to tear open the box. I was even drawn to their boxes, their logo/brand being nothing less than perfect. I've never done an actual video unboxing but sure did want to on that day. Only problem was, I didn't have another working tripod to support my camera while opening this tripod! I had to settle for sharing some crappy photos on facebook. I did, however, want to share an image of the beautiful beast, which brings us here to today's posting.

I wanted to keep the tripod closed so that you would have a better view of all of the Feisol's glory and power, nice and compact. Oh, by the way, it comes with a beautiful carrying case with the awesome Feisol logo on the side and padded shoulder strap. I carry my Feisol with pride, making sure the logo is faced out for the world to see that there is a new sheriff in the tripod town.

Bottom line, I heart my new Feisol system.

The Feisol Photograph

This photo was nothing short of being a giant pain in my ass. The pain was well deserved as I made the shoot more difficult than it needed to be.

It was a run and gun sort of shoot, meaning I didn't want to get too fancy or over the top, just needed a usable photo for the blog and wanted it done in minimal time. Light was an issue and didn't want to use any of the mixed ambient in the room. To remedy the situation, I would knock out the ambient in camera by manually adjusting the exposure until I had a nice black image. After getting the underexposed image, I would then bring in the strobe. Again, I didn't want to get crazy here so I decided on one speedlight. I would trigger via Pocketwizard transceivers, of course. I didn't feel like pulling out any stands or mods for that matter. I had to get creative. I decided to lie the tripod on a large throw rug and place it in front of the white fridge in my kitchen. As I was using a bare speedlight, this would be my quick thinking to get softer light. The fridge would act as the modifier.

I grabbed the D4 with 24-70 2.8 Nikkor glass, so that I'd be able to fire in close and still get the entire tripod in the frame. As I hovered over the floor/tripod, I supported the camera with my right hand and with my left, also support the camera while holding the PW/strobe combo in my left. The strobe was aimed camera left, directly and only a few inches away from the fridge, also at camera left. This would result in a larger apparent light source than that coming directly from the head of the strobe. This quick setup would allow for softer light along with very awkward shooting. In less than five minutes I had a usable portrait. It was a wrap.

Done And Done

Gear heads, I hope you enjoyed my introduction to the Feisol. If you haven't heard of them, be sure to check them out. I am super pleased to announce that the Feisol will be the newest addition to my polygamist family. Now the bed will include; Stefanie (wife), Bruno (pit-bull), Pocketwizards, Nikon D4 and the Feisol. That's one crowded bed!

Feisol baby, Feisol!

Until next time...