What bits of photographic kit do I use above all others? What if I could only have a handful of items? What would I keep? Here’s what I came up with in no particular order.
Canon EOS 5D MKII
Before obtaining this camera I’d used a Canon EOS 20D and a 30D. They were great cameras, more than good enough for serious work, but not the sort of thing you could really form a bond with – there was still that nagging doubt that 35mm film still had a special something. With its beautiful, clear images, massive resolution, and impressive low-light capabilities, the Canon EOS 5D MKII meant digital had truly come of age for me. I love this camera. It’s a workhorse. It’s a good mate.
Portaflash 5-in-1 reflector
Bought from eBay.co.uk for a tenner, this reflector offers a gold, silver, white, or black surface for bouncing or controlling light. It can even act as a diffusion panel with sunlight or flash. Careful use of reflectors can bring window-light shots to life or provide a pleasing fill light. This £10 accessory has been used to death both for studio-style shots and out on on location and has held up well after many years of use, even though I own other more fancy reflectors now.
Sigma 50mm f/1.4 lens
A pretty new addition to the kit-bag, this lens is a marvel with it’s sharpness – even used wide open – and its creamy background blur. Sitting closer in price to Canon’s 50mm f/1.4 lens than their crazy-expensive f/1.2L model, it gives Canon’s high end glass a run for its money and is a powerful tool in its own right.
There’s something very pure about a 50mm lens and a full-frame camera. A 50mm focal length more or less matches what the naked eye sees – not wider or longer. Before SLR cameras tended to come couple to a zoom lens in the 90s, the 50mm lens was what you usually to got as standard.
Hasselblad 500c/m ‘V-series’ camera
Since digital photography got great a few years back there’s perhaps less reason to use film. However, there’s still something special about a bit of 120 film loaded into a gorgeous Hasselblad camera. The modern Hasselblad H-series has established itself has a leading range for high-end commercial work but the V-series remains such a popular camera that the Swedish camera legends still include a V-series model in the current camera range.
Of course, you don’t have to use film with a Hasselblad. Insanely high resolution ‘digital backs’ can be clipped on, bringing a deisgn little-changed since the 1950s into 2011. Sadly, these backs cost as much as a high-end family car and are usually rented as part of commercial shoots rather than owned by individual photographers. Even older second hand models of more modest resolutions are way out of the reach of most jobbing pros. My Hasselblad remains proudly analogue.
Apple iPhone 4
Before I got an Android phone over a year ago I’d been a mobile phone luddite with a £10 text and talk phone. The HTC Android phone gave me a taste of the potential of smartphones but the interface was fiddly, the email client painful and the phone, while fast as first glance, would seem bog down under load becoming a frustration. Still, it encouraged me to move from a paper diary to Google Calendar, putting everything I was up to in my pocket.
When I got the chance to upgrade it was an easy choice to get the iPhone 4. I realised that while there is a huge amount of hype surrounding Android the iPhone is just slicker, more straightforward, and the App store actually contains some very useful, polished material (but plenty of dross too). Powerful applications like Filemaker Go turn the iPhone into a decent tool, not just a cool toy.
Of course, the iPhone 4 has, for the first time on an Apple phone, a semi-decent camera. I’m not going to start doing portrait shoots with it but with apps like Camera+, Photoshop Mobile, and Hipstamatic there’s plenty of fun to be had. I’ve even made some decent prints from iPhone images.
Light, Science, Magic Book
If you have any sort of camera that allows manual control and is fault-free you can potentially make brilliant images. It’s only educating yourself, hopefully starting from a base of visual literacy and a touch of talent, that improves your images.
One vital element that separates a professional-looking photograph from a snapshot is lighting. As you take more pictures you learn by experience that certain light is inherently easy to work with. Window light and open shade always flatters the subject. Hard light, like that given by harsh midday sun or small tungsten spotlights, can be unflattering and difficult to work with. Then there’s reflection, glare, shiny surfaces, and a whole host of other issues to grapple. The Light, Science Magic book gives you a great grounding in how light actually works – it’s technical, but distills the physics of light into a readable volume. I’ve read it several times and it’s a book I keep coming back to.
PocketWizard Plus II radio triggers
PocketWizards allow you to trigger you flash via a radio link. Want the flash outside, blasting through a window? From behind the subject? Need to trigger a flash even without worrying about line of sight? These triggers do all that and are rock solid, never failing to fire the flash on a shoot. I use them extensively with my Bowens studio lights and with smaller hotshoe flashguns.
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 lens
Canon’s mid-range primes are a mixed bag. Some are bitingly sharp with impressive contrast while others are merely so-so. The Canon EF 85mm f/1.8, however, is a stunning little prime in a classic ‘portrait’ focal length. I often use in in preference to a more cumbersome EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS, even though it’s a much cheaper lens.
Joe Demb Flip-It Jumbo bounce card
A good bounce card can really make flash photography sing, especially when there isn’t scope or time to set up elaborate off-camera lighting. The Joe Demp Flip-it is well made and easy to adjust, sending some light to your bounce surface (wall, ceiling) while giving a little kick of light forward, filling shadows. Used creatively, you can get some fine almost studioesque effects. I use it extensively on PR shoots like press launches or events and often manage to get fabulous, directional light.