Sunday, December 11, 2011

A few of my favorite things

With Christmas almost here, many of us are compiling lists of equipment that we'd like to own.  To that end, I wanted to mention a few of my own pieces that I've come to really love.  I tend to collect older equipment from various non-retail sources, so I've got a lot of gear piling up.  Some of it works well for me, and some of it doesn't.  The gear listed below is some of my best-loved equipment that I'd highly recommend to friends.

Manfrotto 055XProB tripod

The first thing that came to mind when I first started writing was my tripod.  This is the big brother of the 190XProB, which is shorter & has a lower load capacity.  I'm 6'1", so I wanted a support that I could use without bending over and without extending the center column.  I also wanted something very solid.  The 055XProB fits the bill beautifully.  The great thing about this series is that the center column can extend out horizontally, allowing you to position the camera at odd angles for close-up photos.  I've never regretted spending the extra cash for this great tripod.  It sells for about $180, not including the head.  If you need something lighter weight, the carbon fiber version (055CXPro3) retails for $300.

Speaking of heads, I own both pan/tilt and ball heads, and both have their uses.  Pan/tilt heads, like my Manfrotto 804RC2 ($65), are good for panoramas, portraits, and other applications where you want to be able to adjust each axis individually.  Ball heads work better for sports or macro work, where you need to adjust the head at odd angles or do so very quickly.  I own a couple older ball heads bought off Craig's List, and I cycle between all of my heads pretty much equally.  If I had to choose just one, I'd probably go with a ball head.  Just make sure you get one that's sturdy enough to support more weight than your heaviest camera/lens combo.

Canon 7D body

The 7D is Canon's best crop-sensor body, sitting right below the full-frame 5D in their lineup and retailing new for about $1400.  I upgraded to the 7D from my consumer-grade Rebel 400D/XTi about a year ago, and I absolutely love it.  It can shoot 8 frames per second, which is great for sports and active kids.  It's weather sealed, which is great for shooting nature shots in inclement weather.  It can autofocus while shooting 1080p video.  The 18MP sensor is wonderfully sharp in good light, but can be pretty noisy at ISO 12800.  It was also Canon's first body to offer a built-in remote flash commander via its pop-up flash.

I've gotten so spoiled by this body that I can hardly tolerate using my 400D as a second camera when shooting events, so I'm currently looking for an upgrade that costs a fair bit less than the 7D.

Canon 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 lens

With about 30 lenses in my collection (most of them older, manual focus varieties), it's hard to pick one favorite.  My ultra-wide 10-22mm zoom is certainly in the running, though.  I love the creative effects that the ultra-wide 10mm focal length provides, and it's also great for taking in the entire room when you can't step back.  The 22mm long end is only moderately wide, and works when you want to avoid that ultra-wide distortion.  I frequently combine it with my Tamron 90mm macro lens for a light weight, 2-lens travel kit.  Several ultra-wide lenses are available from different manufacturers, but the Canon 10-22mm is the sharpest and least distorted of the bunch.  I'm told the Sigma 10-20mm isn't bad, either, and is available for all the major camera mounts.  Note that this is an EF-S lens made for crop sensor bodies, so it won't work on a full frame body.  It retails new for about $800.

Canon 430EX II flash

I own a good number of flashes.  Most of them are non-TTL, which means they take a little more thought to use on-camera in an interactive environment where camera settings and subject distance are constantly changing.  Despite my love of old things, I could never be without my modern 430EX flash for everyday use.  It zooms, tilts, and rotates 270 degrees (340 degrees after I modded it).  It supports high speed sync and second curtain sync.  It can act as a remote slave in TTL mode for off-camera use.  The 430EX is Canon's second tier flash behind their 580EX, but it's still powerful enough for most uses, and it's much smaller and less expensive than the 580EX (retailing for about $250).  For you Nikon folks, the SB-700 fills a similar niche.

Rosco Strobist gel pack

Once you've got a flash and are learning to use it, you'll quickly find that different types of light emit different colors.  Daylight, tungsten, and fluorescent lights don't generally play well together.  To help your flash fit in with the current lighting, you can put these little, colored sheets of plastic over the flash.  They work great not only for matching room light, but also for adding creative effects -- and they're only $8.

So here you have it -- a list of some of my must-have pieces of photography equipment.  I wouldn't hesitate to recommend any of these pieces to any of my picture-taking friends, and I've never regretted purchasing any of them.  There are plenty of other pieces that I enjoy, but these are the must-haves.

What other bits of gear could you not go without?  I'd love to hear your recommendations in the comments below.

I hope all of my readers enjoy this time of year and the festivities that come with it.  Most importantly, don't forget the reason we have to celebrate.

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