Equipment Journal: From CF card to final output

• SanDisk Ultra II CompactFlash cards in 1 to 2 GB versions. I’ve found the read/write speed to be perfectly adequate for the work I do. When my friend and I shoot sports we use 8 or 16 GB Extreme IV cards which need a faster write speed while using a motor drive. Personally, I’d rather have my photos spread out on three or four cards rather than just one in case something happens to one of the cards (like an accidental erase, loss, or malfunction).

• Canon EOS 5D. I have serious admiration and respect for my D-SLR body. That fact that these are down to two grand amazes me. I have had work published with it using ISO 3200 and under. 3200 ISO with no visible grain on tabloid-sized newsprint, a feat absolutely not possible with film. I’ve owned the body for over two years and am still awed by some of the advanced technology that goes into these things. I would buy a backup 5D in a heartbeat if I felt I needed one.

I often scale images down 75% to deliver to clients, as that is a more practical size for most print needs (other than magazines or large prints). The EOS 5D and the Canon 1Ds Mark II were really the first digital SLRs released that meet and exceed the quality of 35mm film. The copy I have is dependable, lightweight, and has intuitive controls which can be switched rapidly. When my focus lock beeps and the shutter clicks, I know damn well that I got my shot.

My 5D has very few shortcomings, but a faster sync-speed (I’ve gotten between 1/120 and 1/200 depending on the rest of the chain) would be helpful in future models. I also tend to get a slight red shift in the color balance on skintones when converting from RAW to Adobe RGB color mode. I’m able to easily fix the issue in post, but I do consider it a minor annoyance. It very well could just be my copy’s auto white balance is off. A larger, brighter lcd screen would be nice and I’m sure the 5D successor will be updated with such. A water resistant body would be extremely practical as well.

• 16-35mm f/2.8L. This is the wide angle glass I use use for architecture, landscape/travel, and large group photos. I’m happy with the copy I have although it can suffer from chromatic aberration and slight edge softness. It is also quite heavy which I consider a disadvantage. Others will call it an advantage due to excellent build-quality. I consider wide angle (and extreme telephoto) both sort of necessary evils. By nature I tend to dislike zoom lenses: they are relatively slow glass, clunky, and often times offer barrel/pincushion distortion at the focal-length extremes.

• Canon 35mm f/2.0 EF. This is my “crappiest” lens. Wide open it suffers from a multitude of minor optical problems on a full-frame sensor. Nevertheless I love the lens for reportage, band promo photos, group shots, exteriors and environmental portraits. This lens is super lightweight and has a nice low profile. I enjoy hiking with this one sometimes. The f/1.4 L version is a remarkable lens if you have the money.

• Canon 50mm f/1.4 EF. This is my baby, my workhorse. I don’t shoot her below f/2.0, I don’t ever really need to. From f/2.0 on this lens really shines. Fast focus lock, tack-sharp, bright viewfinder and good color clarity. I can hand hold this down to 1/60 sec. and still get a sharp image which is key in low-light venues. A very useful focal length, my 50 is often my walk-around lens. Not a good choice for copy work-suffers from barrel distortion.

• Canon 85mm f/1.8 EF. Excellent portrait lens. Razor sharp from edge-to-edge, beautiful bokeh, lightweight design, fast glass. For photographing people-this is the first lens I’ll grab every time if I have enough working space. I prefer to shoot handheld as much as possible and wouldn’t even attempt a full-day fashion shoot with a 70-200mm f/2.8. Since much of my location work is done in low-light venues, fast glass is absolutely necessary. Color saturation, image clarity and bokeh on the f/1.8 is not nearly as nice as the f/1.2L which happens to be one of Canon’s finest lenses.

• Photo filters and fittings. I use circular polarizers outdoors quite a bit, they can really make a blue sky and clouds pop. My lens diameters range from 52mm to 77mm. I own a Hoya 58mm circular polarizing filter and a Hoya 77mm circ. polarizing filter and a B+W neutral density filter. I am relatively happy with the optics of the filters although if I had to do it over again I’d have gone with B+W slim mount, thin ring, multi-coated filters. They are expensive as hell, but aren’t going to vignette your wide-angle photos. To affix my 58mm diameter filter to my 52mm diameter lens I use a step up ring which works perfectly.

On very rare occasions I use a rectangular Cokin P mount, 2-stop graduated neutral density filter and filter holder. It takes some time and patience to set up, but really keeps a landscapes dynamic range in check and perfectly darkens skies. The Photographer’s Guide To Filters by Lee Frost is the best book I’ve found on the subject.

• Kenko three extension tube set. I ordered this kit for around 100 bucks from eBay from a respected seller in Hong Kong. There is no glass in extension tubes so optics are not affected. These work as they are supposed to for macro work.

• Opteka remote shutter release cord. I recently picked one of these up for $20 and I’m very happy with it so far. The connector shorted two weeks after purchase. Will not be ordering a new one.

• AlienBees AB1600 strobe. I have a bunch of these and use them with various modifiers: softbox, beauty dish, umbrellas, gels, bounced, etc. In a pinch I’ve used just the reflector dish and modeling light. I like my Bees but they are not perfect. Build quality is average, but it’s well-documented that Buff has unparalleled customer service. Though I own one, I really can’t recommend the Paul Buff softboxes, spend the extra money and go with Chimera or Photoflex. I do recommend the Paul Buff beauty dish, it works beautifully. I trigger my strobes with either 4-channel remote triggers or hardwired with the sync cord.

• DIY battery pack. On location I use a battery pack I constructed myself to power the strobes. I get nearly 400 flash bursts from one battery charge which suits me perfectly. Mine uses a 150W power inverter and I would increase that to a 300W inverter if I was building another one.

• Impact 10′ air-cushioned heavy duty light stands. They work well with heavy softboxes and have a wide footprint for stability indoors or out. I’ve heard of the knobs breaking on them, but mine seem solid. For light-duty work I use a Smith Victor RS75 Raven stand which is compact and lightweight. I also use several Bogen Superclamps for mounting lights or gear to ceiling trussing, rails, or light stands.

• Canon SpeedLite 550EX flash. Dependable, works well as far as on-camera flashes go. I’m not crazy about using them as a primary light source unless I really have to. Tip: do not leave your AAs in the battery compartment of your flash during storage. Eventually the batteries will drain and leak acid all over your expensive flash. Sadly, I know this from personal experience. After I’m finished using my 550EX I simply remove the batteries and rubber band them together to keep them all in one place. Be sure to check out strobist for more useful flash/lighting information than one person can possibly consume in a lifetime.

• Lowel Tota-Light (750 W) and Paterson Interfit 1000w variable-powered quartz hotlights. Continuous lighting works great under certain circumstances. However, once the light is diffused (such as through an umbrella or bounced) it’s very tough to get enough light on the model or sitter. Even with multiple hotlights you can expect to shoot at 400 ISO or worse. The Tota is very light/compact and works very well for simple location shoots. The umbrella mount on it only works with a rather small Lowel umbrella.

• Slik Able 340DX AMT tripod with 3-way quick release pan tilt head. There are plenty of tripods that are better than this one. However, for me, this tripod fits the bill perfectly. It’s lightweight/compact (a recurring theme with my gear) and inexpensive. At times I wish it went taller and had a bubble level-but I’m willing to sacrifice those features for the fact that it’s so damn toteable. It’s made of an aluminum, magnesium, titanium alloy and weighs in at 3.5 lb. A Bogen with pistol grip weighs easily twice that-which adds up on a full day hike or multi-location shoot. For me, a tripod is just something to set my camera on and nothing more.

• Adobe Photoshop CS3. I’ve kept my machine up to date with software updates to both the OS and Adobe updates. Everything is running very smoothly now and I’m happy to be using the latest-generation software. No question about it; Photoshop is the ultimate in imaging/retouching software. All of the controls in Camera RAW mode are a godsend. The healing brush tools are extremely useful for digital photography.

• Apple G5 tower dual 1.8 gHz, 2.5 GB RAM. A very solid, stable machine. Retouching 13 megapixel, 16 bit images is not a problem and most operations happen in realtime. I use various external hard drives ranging from 80GB to 400GB that are USB 2.0 or FireWire based. I use Time Machine software (free with the OS) to back up my system, but manage/back up my “Photos” folder by hand.

• Dell 2005FPW UltraSharp 20″ LCD monitor. I love this thing. It’s got a very consistent, profiled color and is extremely vivid and sharp. I can’t see myself needing a monitor over 22″ ever.

• Epson Photo R1800 printer. I have a love/hate relationship with my R1800. When it has full tanks of ink (eight), and I have the right paper on hand, and I need a print quickly–I’m happy to have it around. Drawbacks: the thing is constantly out of one or two cartridges of pigment. The tank capacity is not nearly large enough. Replacement ink is over 100 bucks and I don’t even want to know what the cost basis is per print. If I’m out of yellow pigment the drivers won’t allow me to print a text document in b/w because of the company’s faithful commitment to the consumer. Black and white prints on the R1800 pretty much suck so I typically just print them sepia toned which works well. My printer occasionally suffers from some unwanted color casts (which need to be corrected in post). Needless to say, I still do much of my printing for clients at the photo lab.

In summary, I like my equipment reliable, affordable, lightweight, and durable. I don’t beat on my gear which is one reason I don’t need heavy-duty stuff. I generally like to use natural light or minimal lighting setups with 1-3 lights.

I prefer using prime glass and I know my gear extremely well. I read my camera manual from cover to cover. When it’s time to shoot I make a conscious decision on the spot as to focal length, filter selection, lighting, ISO, aperture, shutter speed and focus point. Once the technical decisions are made, then it’s time to compose the photo and capture “the decisive moment” as Henri Cartier-Bresson put it.


May 15, 2008 6:24 pm

Very nice post. Haven’t seen you at derby lately so I’m glad to have found your blog. I had a chance to rent a 5D and the 85 1.2 lens for something a month ago and I really fell in love with both of them. The 5D is a no-brainer: that camera is quite amazing, especially coming from using the Rebel line for three years. The 85 surprised me, though. I thought for sure it was a focal length that just didn’t interest me. Most of the stuff I shoot calls for much shorter lenses, but that lens just blew me away. And on the 5D it’s got about the same field of view as my 50mm on my 1.6 crop body… but the colors and sharpness of this lens just floored me. If I had the money to toss at it, I might do it.

May 18, 2008 2:31 am


Glad you found my blog! I use my 85 for derby now and can get a comfortably safe distance from the track. As opposed to my 50 where I needed to be a little close for comfort.

I’m hoping to shoot the DD vs. Denver bout in a few weeks so hopefully I’ll see you there.

There is no question about the incredible image quality on the 85L. The things I do like about my f/1.8 are: low cost, lightweight, and fast focus. It would be really hard to justify the L for me at this time but I certainly do enjoy the work being produced by Perry Gallagher and others wide open with the f/1.2 version. However, I also love the work being produced by Leica rangefinders with 50mm f/1.4 and 35mm f/1.4 lenses. One can dream.

July 19, 2008 1:55 pm

Although I’m a Nikon guy, your post was informative and a good read. thansk.

July 19, 2008 3:11 pm

Thanks for dropping by Ray. It’s my opinion that Nikon lenses and camera bodies can practically be interchanged with Canon in my review. Both brands make fantastic images.