Why trying to save a few pennies as a photographer cost me a fortune.

I have learnt many lessons in my years as a professional photographer but if there is one that really sticks out it is that every time I have gone for the cheaper option is has cost far more than I have saved in the long run.

Let me give you some examples:

  • Purchased generic batteries rather than Nikon originals for my D700 saving £30.
    • Net result – Even though it was showing as fully charged the battery died half way through a wedding ceremony. Luckily I had spares in my bag but I lost key shots while changing it. 
  • Purchased bulk Duracell AA’s for my flash from eBay saving £2-3 per pack.
    • Net result – Batteries were fakes and leaked in my flash. Cost of a new SB910 £318.89. Not covered on insurance as it is ‘contamination’. 
  • Purchased 3rd party grip for my D700 saving £200.
    • Net result – The cheaper grip was not properly regulated and fried my camera mid wedding. Cost of repair £400 as it invalidated my warranty.
  • Purchased a 3rd party battery pack for my SB910 saving £120.
    • Net result – this ALSO wasn’t properly regulated and fried my flash. Net cost another £318.89 (although my insurance did pay for this minus my excess).
  • Purchased a D700 from a supplier that were the cheapest locally saving £50.
    • Net result – Turns out it was a grey import and had no UK warranty. When it developed a fault on the hot shoe I had to cover the repair. Cost £150.

Sure, you could just say I was unlucky. Repeatedly. But I now only buy Nikon original gear, I only buy direct from Amazon (NOT resellers on their site) and I don’t touch eBay with a barge pole. On a side note I now used the excellent Sanyo 2450 mAh Eneloop rechargeables for my flash. High capacity, last longer than non-rechargeables and much better for the environment.

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Westcott Ice Light Review

My purchase of my Westcott Ice Light was a bit of an impulse decision. I had heard other photographers talk about them like they were nothing short of miraculous, a source of perfect light available at the flick of a switch. It sounded too good to be true and, sadly, it is. That said once you have figured out its limitations it is a rather special piece of gear that has proven itself astonishingly useful.

Westcott Ice Light Review

Shot in a very dim bathroom with little natural light the Ice Light did a great job bringing out this brides beauty with its soft feel.

First of all it is important to know if you are considering buying one that it is not a magic bullet. Although bright the Ice Light is useless in daylight, even when heavily overcast, as it lacks the  guts to over power the sun by a wide margin. This is shown by the fact that nearly all the demo videos of it in the field are shot in near total darkness! (You can see them here, here and here) . Where it really comes into its own is when the light is poor. Got a bride getting ready in a dim hotel room? Bam, the Ice Light gives fantastic soft flattering light that is far superior to any flash. Shooting a portrait session and need to over power tungsten light? The Ice Light can even out the exposure and ambient light temperature.

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Used here to balance out the light between the dim foreground and the lights of Manchester.

The light is surprisingly easy to handle and is not at all weighty. It is entirely possible to shoot holding your camera in one hand and the light in another or alternatively to get someone to hold it for you as there is always a spare bridesmaid or two nearby. When it comes to the mechanics of shooting with the light I find the easiest way is to cheat a little and spot meter on the subject. Normally I would dial in the exposure manually but for shooting on the fly spot metering does a great job and the Ice Light highlights the subject beautifully with a stunning drop off.

The main question is, of course, is it worth the money? The answer depends hugely on how it fits your work flow and style. For 99% of amateurs I would guess that the £400 price tag is a deal breaker as that money could be better spent on other gear or training but if you are faced with poor light on a regular basis (as all wedding photographers are!) and can justify the price tag then it is a must. It is much more flexible and convenient than a shoot through umbrella and much more dependable than a reflector.

Westcott Ice Light Review

Used here to uplight the bride the Ice Light creates gorgeous catch lights and illuminates a dim corner of the hotel room.

For me, despite my initial misgivings, the Ice Light has rapidly become indispensable. As a professional I wouldn’t leave home without it and would certainly recommend it to anyone thinking about taking the jump.

My 5 Most Useful Online Tools as a Professional Photographer

1. CrashPlan

CrashPlan is a secure service that offers truly unlimited backups over the wire. You simply specify what folders you want uploaded up and it sits quietly in the background throwing your data to its server. It seems to manage bandwidth very cleverly as it never noticeably interferes with general usage of the internet despite its heavy load. It is cost effective compared to its competitors and much cheaper than the old LT05 tapes and drive I used to use.

Depending on your work load the amount of data you will want to back up will vary but so far I have 2.5TB in the cloud and have just queued up another 450GB. I have several friends in IT and they informed me that even by commercial standards my back up is huge and that they have 50+ person businesses that don’t have so much data to deal with. I blame the 50mb RAW file of the D800!

A screengrab of my CrashPlan backup.

2. Serpfox

This is a service that was recommended to me on r/SEO and has very quickly proven itself to be invaluable. It lets you track the current position of your keywords on Google (also on Bing but honestly, who cares?) and updates every few hours. This means you can quickly build up a profile of how your website is ranking and can see how any changes you make have impacted your overall results. Best part is that it is free up to 10 key words!

A screengrab of my Serpfox account

3. VaultPress

Simply the best $5 a month you can spend. This super simple system backups your WordPress site to their secure servers daily. Much easier to configure and use than Backup Buddy it gives complete peace of mind should your site be hacked or damaged by a plugin. Having already lost two days rebuilding my site from scratch after it was compromised using the Tim Thumb Exploit (remember that?) this system really does give peace of mind.

Screengrab of my VaultPress backup

4. SmugMug

A rather swish online gallery that features an integrated shopping system making print and canvas sales a doddle. Smart, sleek, secure and with tons of new customisation options after its recent relaunch it has simplified a major part of my business.

Screengrab of recent wedding album.

5. Zopim Chat

A very recent addition to my site Zopim adds a powerful call to action targeting any visitors interested in my services. It is customisable, really easy to install (seriously, took about 3 mins to get it working on my site with some swift header editing)  and best of all FREE for one user! Perfect for me and potential clients.

Gives you tons of data on real time action on your site as well as telling you what page people are on when they chat to you and where they came from on the web.

Screen grab of recent Zopim activity.

Hope some of you find this useful, if there are any bits of kit you use and want to recommend then leave me a comment below!

Nikon SU-800 Review

If you are thinking about buying this bit of kit, don’t.

Nikon_SU-800_front

I’m serious, don’t even consider it. It’s over priced, unreliable and its inception has resulted in Nikon deliberately crippling their speed lights to force photographers to use this rather than a 3rd party system. To ‘encourage’ photographers to use the SU800 Nikon removed the TTL quench pin from their more recent flashes (and killed some backwards compatibility with their older film cameras along with it!) meaning that if you want to shoot TTL you have to use the SU800. For what it is worth I don’t shoot TTL anyway, to me TTL is to flash what auto is to exposure, but even so it is not a cool move by Nikon.

The SU-800’s main fault is it reliance on infra red rather than radio waves. This means you have to have a line-of-site between you and the ridiculously small receiver on the flash and the signal is easily over powered by the sun. The advertised range of 20m is fanciful at best (I have known the unit struggle with 8m in overcast light) and the narrow trigger beam means that the flash has to be in front of the camera, so you can forget about any fancy lighting set-up. It really isn’t fit for purpose.

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This is the IR receiver on the Speed Light. Tiny and perfectly positioned to be blocked by the hand of anyone holding it. One of the dumbest designs Nikon has ever created.

 Luckily there are plenty of excellent alternatives. The Radio Popper series have proven to be very rugged and I have heard great things about the PocketWizard triggers as well. Of course you don’t have to spend anything like that much cash, there are plenty of cheap triggers available but I don’t mind spending a bit more for the reliability it brings. 

Spider Holster Pro Review

One Sentence Review:

A fantastic if pricey alternative to the standard strap, great for those with back problems.

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6 months ago I was looking for an alternative to the BlackRapid strap system. Now, before I start, I should say I am a big fan of BlackRapid. It is a huge improvement over the standard straps and a useful way of having your camera to hand. However, it was causing me some big problems with my back.

Even though the BlackRapid strap distributes the weight well it was putting a lot of strain on my right shoulder and lumbar. I am sure that for most people this would not be a problem but given that I can be wearing the strap for 10-12 hours at a time on a full wedding shoot the discomfort at the end of the day was getting unbearable.

I spent some time looking around for alternatives and after some research found the Spider Holster system. It is a very different way of carrying your camera in that the weight is either in your hand or your hip. After some Google-Fu I opted for the Dual Camera system and it has been a revelation.

SPDCS

First of all it has helped my back because there is no strain on it at all. Secondly it means I can have two bodies at hand with different lenses so I am ready for just about anything. My load-out of choice is my D800 with the 24-70 f2.8  as my main body on my right hip and my D700 with my 85mm f1.4 on the left. Given that the weight of these two cameras with flashes comes very close to 10kg it is astonishing how comfortable it can be to wear for long periods.

The build quality is robust and once holstered there is a catch you can flick to lock the camera in place. The cameras slot away cleanly leaving your hands free to organise a bride and groom and there are also points on the base plate to attach the bracket for a tripod.

The only slight sticking point is that while the camera is in your hand there is no security but I have fitted a hand strap to my D800 which gives it a little extra purchase. I was slightly annoyed that you had to buy the necessary D Ring as an extra given the cost of the belt but the peace of mind it brings is well worth the money.

All told I can recommend the system as a viable alternative to the standard camera strap or BlackRapid system. For those of you who wear your camera for extended periods or suffer from back pain it is an absolute must have.

Domke F-2 Original Bag Review

One Sentence Review:

Fantastic quality, hard wearing bag that can pack in a lot of equipment, great if you need to get to your gear on the go.

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Full Review

The Domke F-2 is the original photojournalists bag. Designed to be rugged yet portable it has an almost Tardis like quality to swallow up gear yet can sit on your shoulder all day without feeling cumbersome.

The build quality when it is in your hand is much more rugged than it first appears on any website. Little touches like having the main carry strap go all the way under the bag to support the weight and using tough plastic clips rather than metal so they won’t scratch your lenses show it’s pedigree as a bag by photographers for photographers.

As a wedding photographer I have found it invaluable. It can be by my side all day, small enough to hide out the way, and most importantly it doesn’t scream camera bag meaning it is a little more secure.

In terms of equipment it can take two SB-910’s, 4 mid range primes, lens cloths, light meter, a plethora of batteries and wireless triggers and has room in the back pocket for a moleskine notebook and pen.

The only major restrictions are that it doesn’t have room for a laptop or any large zooms. For example you would struggle with a 70-200 or longer.

Please note that this is not my image - there is no way I would ever have my lenses without the caps on like that!

 All told I heartily recommend this bag. After 6 months use it has proven itself to be invaluable time and time again.