My best and worst photography purchases

The greatest hits, misses and everything in-between

In photography, it’s terribly easy to get carried away with acquiring camera gear or seeking out that “next thing” that will allegedly take things to the next level. While some items are helpful, as time goes by the need to acquire diminishes and you start scrutinizing your purchases more: acknowledging what has been a boon to your efforts and shaking your head at what you wasted money on.

For myself, here is a small list of items I’d buy twice, ones that I’m still on the fence on and the rest where I could have appropriated my funds a little more wisely in hindsight.

Best purchases

70-200mm Lens: No lens does it all, but this might be my choice if I could only own one. It does telephoto, portraits, action and maybe your laundry if you ask nicely (and damn well should for the price). Whether it’s an f/2.8 or f/4 version, everyone needs a 70-200mm lens in their collection.

Beauty dish: Easily my favorite light modifier for it’s sheer versatility. Puts out punchier light than a regular softbox, or slap a diffusion sock on it to mimic a soft box. Setup is easy, no folding or velcro panels required. You can grid ‘em. The swiss army knife of light modifiers.

L-Bracket: These brackets allow you to quickly orient your camera sideways either horizontally or vertically on a tripod while the ballhead is upright. Not only is this quicker than orienting the ballhead on the side, it avoids camera creep and maintains the composition when switching between portrait and landscape. Once you start using them you won’t know how you ever lived without one.

Polarizing filter: I find I use polarizing filters more often than I’d expect. Particularly useful outdoors, polarizers help darken skies and enrich colors of the environment, as well as considerably cutting haze and glare on surfaces such as rocks and water. As they will cut the light by a stop and a half, they can also be used as a mild ND filter in a pinch.

Tripod: A near-essential for many types of photography or simply getting the highest quality possible. Even when handholding is viable, tripods are still useful for maintaining compositions, bracketing or simply taking a load off. Whatever tripod you go with, spare no expense (you’ll waste more money going through cheaper ones) and take your time to find the perfect one for you.

Light Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting: This is an incredibly geeky and scientific book, but I guarantee you’ll learn more about lighting than any YouTube video or online workshop. Unlike other resources that focuses on the how, this book is all about the WHY.

On the fence:

Franken-flashes: This is what I call owning a mix of different brands of flashes and strobes. Many modern strobes and flashes offer features, parity and convenience when “talking” with others of it’s own family, but are either limited or negated when used with third party flashes and triggers. My advice to anyone debating their first flash purchase is to commit to one system or brand, you’ll make things easier on yourself later on.

UV Filter: The favorite upsell for camera salesmen, I’ve never bought the official line about their benefits for any other reason other than protecting the lens (which a hood can still help with). I do use them in very volatile environments, but otherwise I don’t use these too often.

PocketWizards: Once the gold standard of wireless triggers, PocketWizard has been hit hard as of late by foreign companies producing triggers that are getting better all the time. The dumb triggers like the II’s and III’s work flawlessly; the “smarter” TT1 and TT5 Flex system…not so much. I eventually consolidated under another trigger system, but fortunately I bought most of my PW gear used so it wasn’t a huge hit in the wallet.

CamRanger: I have a serious love / hate relationship with this thing. The CamRanger is incredibly helpful in scenarios where I can’t be directly behind the camera, but the device sometimes has unexpected troubles like randomly losing connection or miscommunication with the camera. Ultimately, it’s just another device to fiddle with that distracts from the real goal: taking pictures.

Worst purchases

Commercial speedlite light modifiers: I have a LumiQuest that perpetually sits in my drawer. As Jim Harmer of Improve Photography pointed out once, there always seems to be some sort of new gizmo or gadget for speedlites on the market that promises to revolutionize everything…but none of them change the fact that the speedlite is still a small light source. While these types of modifiers DO serve a purpose in impossible lighting environments, in most cases you’ll be better served by bouncing your flash.

ExpoDisc: I picked up one of these white balance gizmos for half price on a sale, but it was moot as their second generation model dropped in price anyway. ExpoDisc works fine and nails white balance effectively, but it’s just another gizmo to carry around and I rarely use it outside of snowy scenes and occasional indoor sports games. With practice you can learn how to tweak white balance accurately on your own.

Canon MP-E 65mm Macro Lens: I bought this when I was on a macro kick and it’s a actually a fine lens, but it ended up being a bad purchase for me as I simply didn’t have the time to invest in it. Mastering extreme macro is time-consuming and may require extra purchases like focusing rails and special lights. I opted to sell the MP-E 65mm, and I always have my 180mm for any macro needs.

Fotodiox Stripboxes: I’m not high on Fotodiox stuff, particularly their large stripboxes. The quality of light is fine but you’ll be doing your best impression of a professional wrestler as you struggle and fight this thing to the ground just to disassemble it (and I’ve already torn one doing so). An adapter ring from a different manufacturer might ease the tension on the rods to make things easier, but otherwise assume that you won’t ever be taking this thing apart once it’s together. Because space is precious, I’ve since switched them out for Paul C. Buff ones and have been happy ever since.

On1 Photo RAW: Always on the hunt for something new and better, I decided to give this software a try. Unfortunately, On1 Photo RAW isn’t nearly as fast or impressive as the hype made it out to be, and a $100 upgrade was recently announced less than a year after the original’s release. Now paid upgrades are certainly nothing new, but I think the 2018 update should have been free as the original was more or less a beta test.

Patrick Shannon

About Patrick Shannon

A creative professional, photographer and design+technology advocate based in St. Louis, I have worked with a number of businesses, agencies and clients on design, production and marketing for everyday brands. In my spare time, I enjoy woodworking and am still attempting to build a life-sized replica of Optimus Prime out of wood.