DIY vs Commercial? Equipping Yourself and Thoughts

I was recently involved in some discussions  in the area of Do It Yourself (DIY)vs Commercial gear and the in’s and out’s of when each should be used.  When it comes to photography, there are some very interesting articles I’ve read about and more than a few things I’ve tried out myself.  I also developed a few opinions around this.

When to DIY

By DIY, I mean when exactly that Do It Yourself– are there things that one can build vs something that is available commercially?  For me, I have some mixed opinions on this.  My usual first instinct is to see if something is available commercially and at what cost.  That cost factor tends to be a very critical piece.  If I really really need it for a project and it is exactly what I want, I may buy it.  More important – if it’s something I can use a lot, the cost may go out the window.  Let’s talk about a few of these “instances”. 

It’s About “Looking Professional”

I’m going to start here to set the stage for what I’m going to chat about later.  This also applies to life in general, I would think.  In talking with more than a few professionals about this,  two pools of thoughts have emerged.  It basically breaks down to this.  You want to “look the part” as often as possible.  If you do need to DIY, it should be in areas where commercial stuff simply isn’t available.  Let’s expand on that.

We’ve all heard that thing about having a DSLR strapped to your neck makes you “look like a pro” Smile  I guess that’s correct to a certain degree.  Most pros do use DSLR’s for their work Smile  I look at it this way.  If you are at that stage where you are getting paid for the gigs or even if you are a backup photographer or a volunteer photographer or someone who aspires to “get there”, you need to get noticed in one way shape or another.  Soooo.. how does one do that? 

Basics

Of course, in order to attract more business, a big concern when starting out is  getting your name out there?  Do you have  a business card?  Let’s start there.  Putting you name and number on a napkin is not a good way, believe me.  It’s probably going to get tossed before the nite is out.  A business card, though will get kept.  Remember – you are going into business or hoping to.  Portraying that impression is important.  Business cards are a cheap investment – one should spend a bit more to get one that stands out.

The next piece is obvious but not so obvious.  Dress for the occasion.  If its a formal occasion a suit and tie may be in order, though a tie may not be so essential.  If you are in a more casual atmosphere, I would dress slightly “upscale” for the event just so I can differentiate myself.  The bottom line here – align your clothing to match the event but at the same time, you do need to stay comfortable and loose.  A real world example.  Last year, I was requested to take Linkedin photos at a job fair.  A couple of things about this one.  Typical to job fairs, there were a pile of recruiters at the booths.  This one was also targeted to mature job seekers.  Most photographers who were asked to do this wanted to get paid for this.  To me, they missed the whole point or the big picture.  This was one of those rare instances where doing a pro bono shoot could get your name out big time.  This was an association.  I volunteered.   More important, this wasn’t a tough shoot, if you knew what you were doing.  All the administration was set up so all one had to do was take the shots (about 3 if you were set up), catalogue them, and just a bit of post (crop for Linkedin), and email them off to the client.  There was about 35 sets,  about 8 hours of post and my name got out to over 300 “others”.  How do I know that?  I had my business cards at the administration desk AND at the photo desk.  On my side, this was a bit of a test market to see if there was a long term photo opportunity in that market space.  I dressed in suit and tie for this occasion and took my suit off when I was shooting.  It went back on if there was a quiet moment.  Also – this gave me an additional opportunity to chat with recruiters first hand as well.  At the time, I was also looking for work.  I’m an IT Sr. Business Analyst.

Sooo… did I get some spin off?  Yes.  More important and this was very interesting.  NO ONE asked me to do a shoot for free!!!  Did I get asked about my gear?  Absolutely.  I was using my Nikon D7100 as a primary and tethered it to my notebook so the client could see their photos.  I used a 3 light set up with strobes and radio triggers with a portable backdrop.  In this case, there was nothing DIY about this.  I was also taking some candids.  I used my D5100 with my SB700 and Gary Fong Light Sphere.  Again – nothing DIY here.

We have this thing in July called the Calgary Stampede.  Blue jeans/cowboy boots – western wear.  I’ve done a few events, and have dressed accordingly.  This is one where its really hard to distinguish yourself from a dress standpoint, but you camera will make you distinctive.  Everyone is partying and photos are the last thing they think of Smile 

I do several fashion show events per year.  Again – suite and tie, usually.  Do I do more casual events?  Yes and again, I try to dress for the occasion. 

Most important – am I a pro?  NO.  I am, however, a very serious amateur and do get paid for a few gigs along the way.  I feel that I have a ways to go, but having free-lanced before,  these are things I’ve picked up along the way.

My perspective on this, is that if I am public facing, I want to look as professional as possible.  This also means as little DIY stuff as possible or anything that could detract from that.  If I show up at an event, I’m not going to be carrying say, my power cords or power bars or any accessories in plastic grocery bags Smile  I have equipment cases.  For my studio gear, I have everything in several cases or carrying bags that are made for toting this stuff.  If I am doing flash work, which is actually quite often, I don’t DIY anything there.  My primary flash accessory is the Gary Fong LightSphere.  I do have other reflectors and softboxes for more specialized stuff.

If I am doing more specialized stuff, I will DIY a bit.  Again, this is a “depends” thing.  Sometimes, it’s easier to take the time to DIY something than try to find it commercially.  More important, some of these things can be made very easily.  Even things like backdrops.  I go to a fabric store Smile  Because I do mostly head and shoulders work or full body  work, the 2 meters wide for most things from a fabric store is more than adequate.  AND, the cost is minimal compared to commercial backdrops.  In saying that, I recently acquired a full sized backdrop and it looks like I’ll have to bite the bullet on some 10ft ones…..

Doing It for Free

Man – is this a hot topic Smile  To me, this is a bit of a two edged sword.  If you are just starting out and feel confident enough to start charging, there is is “moment” where one looks at this as a full time career.  I look at things this way.  One does need to get their name out there.  How you do this is up to you.  For me, if I am going to do a pro bono shoot, it will be of MY choosing.  I am not going do a shoot where the client tells me that doing the shoot for them for free will enhance my career.in photography.  That also tells me that the client might try to chisel the price even if I do the shoot.  In fact, for me, I will walk away from that type of scenario.  Because this is still a hobby, I still take a professional attitude.  If I am asked for price, I will give one.  NO…it won’t be cheap.  I have my rates set and they hit the middle ground.  I do put out top quality work – there’s a price for that.  Do I negotiate the price?  No.  I’m not making a living doing this, but that doesn’t mean I should discount because I’m a serious amateur.  I did get paid back in the 35mm days – why should that change.

Now – the pro bono side.  There are certain types of events that I will shoot for free.  These are the types of events that can get me huge exposure.  My wife and I volunteer for certain events.  I get “volunteered” for others Smile  Most of these types of events gets me vital connections for potential future business if I go this way.  I’ve done a bunch of these over the last few years to the point where if my wife is there, I’ll be there.  My photos do get published with credits.  What do I gain from this?  Those contacts!!!  When I get called, they fully expect to pay.  They already know the quality of work  from past performance.  Do I get business from all events?  No – in many cases, the photos are used for their newsletter. 

Do I do other things for free for other folks.  Yes, I do.  BUT, and this is a big BUT.  I choose.  If I get invited say, to a wedding.  I’m NOT the primary photographer or the pro for that matter.  I will take my shots and give them to the bride and groom.  Yes, they will be at the “pro” level for a wedding and they will be post processed.  Mine will simply be their “wedding present”.  They will have the pro’s work too.  NO – I don’t do weddings Smile  It’s not that I’m not good at doing them, I simply prefer not to do them.  Other events – certain ones, yes.  If I am invited to something like a recruiter event – Stampede Week lunch, XMAS event, I’ll take a camera and donate photos. 

Depending on the event, will also determine what gear I take.  A wedding – my DSLR’s but not everything.  Social events – maybe DSLR’s but not likely.  I’ll grab something smaller – they are going mostly be candids anyway.  If I am heading to an event where I feel I can get connections – DSLR’s all the way.  Judgement calls.    

Studio Gear

When I was looking in the world of portraits and studio work,  I looked at various lighting setups.  At the time, I already had a light box (more on this later) and some continuous lights for that and that was my first thought – use these.  BUT, the more I thought about that, the more I steered clear of that.  My lights were those clamp ones and they were fine for the light box I created, but using them for studio work?  Well, maybe not.  ’

I do have a lot of experience in the world of 35mm film and re-engaging in digital and seeing how the technology had evolved, allowed me to think a little differently.  I decided to use strobes and electronic flash.   There were a couple of reasons or more for this.  With electronic flash, I could be very mobile which is paramount for me.  Strobes were a bit of mixed bag, but in the end, I used them because I could sync them with radio triggers and in the end, fewer cords.  The trade-off?  Correct exposure.  There is bit more learning curve there and if you are doing anything a little complex, there is a bit more experimentation involved.  Not a bit deal.  For most of my work to day, it’s very straightforward and I use a pretty standard lighting technique and get what I want with little or no change to exposure.  Usually, it’s a couple of test shots and I’m ready. 

Did I do a lot of experimenting? Absolutely!!!  AND I write everything down once I get my set ups how I want them.  Critical when I go to site.  For me, each time I get an accessory, I try to experiment with it  and make sure I have it nailed down tight.  I had an instance where I got my Nikon D7100 and had a volunteer event that my wife got me into and rather than risk missing a shot, I used my D3200 and D5100 instead.  I actually didn’t use the D7100 for a formal event for a bit.  The controls were very different and I didn’t want to risk missing a shot fiddling with settings.

Do I have DIY stuff for studio?  Yes.  For product work, I built my own light box.  I had space constraints so I had to fashion something to accommodate the space available.  This was an easy build for me as I do renovation stuff as well Smile  I occasionally have to build reflectors and backdrop stands for other things.  I also do renovation work, so building some of this is pretty well a no-brainer for me.   For portrait work – very little in the DIY space – I’ll buy whatever I can and DIY as a last resort.  I’ve had to build certain types of reflectors and build certain backdrops for some work.

Bags

  Ahhhh… bags.  This is the never ending quest I think Smile  Every photographer I know seems to have the same dilemma of finding the “perfect bag”.  You see, we “think” we have the perfect bag – we get something else and that theory goes down the tubes and the quest begins again.    I have lots Smile  For me, I’m perhaps a little different in that I don’t use DSLR’s exclusively.  I will use anything from a pointy shooty to a DSLR depending on what I’m doing at the time.  It’s not that I don’t use a DSLR at every opportunity, I do, but there are times when it’s simply not convenient to lug one around.  To me, I look at it as “fit for purpose”.  Sure the DSLR will give me the best result but at the same time, those other units do a darn good job as well.  Especially when all I need is snapshot that I need for reference purposes.  I need a good exposure and little or no post required.  Don’t need RAW.  Fill the frame – done.  Some instances.  Renovation work for my properties.  I like to take progress photos of  work progress or when I do inspections.  One of my travel cameras or pointy shooties will do fine for this.  If I am looking to buy a property or help someone buy or look at real estate – again, nothing cute and fancy needed here.  Family things – snapshots.  Here, though, I do have my DSLR’s with me in case we want a formal family photo.  I COULD use another camera, but I don’t.  When I’m doing my weekend tasks.  I like to have a camera with me at all times.  This can be little mixed depending on what and where I go.  Sometimes, it’s  with my DSLR’s and sometimes not.

Back to bags.  If I am doing one of those really simple out and abouts, I have A Fossil bag.  A man purse actually Smile  I can drop in my iPad, a small camera and  away I go.  There are other times though, when I am wanting to take more – like my DSLR’s.  AND sometimes, I want to take 3 bodies and 6 lenses.  AND I want to have them easily accessible.  That one, I have yet to solve.  My usual for this has been a Think Tank Messenger plus a LowerPro messenger.  Recently, I got a Nikon Daypack and it’s pretty versatile, but only two bodies.  More in a bit.

The bottom line – as one gets more and more advanced, I think it can become more complex depending on what you are doing.

Lenses

There’s always discussions here Smile  The usual is zooms vs primes.  My take on this.  For me, my goal is to be able to be able to get my camera out and get a shot quickly.  This is where I find myself in most instances.  On my way somewhere, see a shot, get out of the car or stop walking and take the shot, continue on.  Not take the time to swap lenses.  Sure there are other times when I do go out with the express purpose of getting a landscape or something, There, I will take the time.  Ultimately, my preferences is to use primes.  I do own some, but you know, I’ve found that zooms do well for the things I do.  I have a Tamron 10-24mm on one body and a Sigma 18-250mm on another body.  In reality, that covers about 80% percent of the things I normally do.  There are times when I use the Nikon zooms, but since I got the other ones, not so much.  With Nikon, I have the kit lens 18-55mm and a 55-200mm.  For primes, I have a Nikon 40mm f2.8 macro, a Nikon 50mm f1.8  and a Tamron 60mm f2.0 macro.  Aside from landscapes, I do close ups and portrait work – these fit for that.  These also give me a lot more depth of field control for what I want to do.  I am considering getting a high speed intermediate level zoom for event work, but that’s just on my bucket list until I decide if I want go there.  I’ve done a few of these band events but he players were my friends, so it was more to “test market” myself there.  They got some great free pics and I got some great experience.

Tripods

When I was in 35mm, I did have a tripod, but back then, I didn’t use one all that much.  This time around, though, with close ups, certain landscapes,and portraits, the need for one or more became pretty well an essential.  Because I was focused on being mobile, my first pass at one was a carbon fibre Pro Master2 .  I ended up with a Manfrotto RC series ball head after a couple of others.  The kicker was being able to support the D7100 with the Sigma 18-250.  I needed a beefier ball head.   BTW – a ball head makes sense to me for portability.  Nothing sticks out.  Talk about sticker shock!!!  In the days of 35mm, you could get  a pretty substantial tripod for under $100.  In today’s world, it’s a lot more.  I paid about $400 in total for my portable one.  I opted a 5 section one to keep it light and small.  The problem with this one, was that it was find for being on the road but for more formal work like portraits, it simply didn’t cut it.  I had to look for another one.

As luck would have it, I stumbled on to a sale where I could pick up a Manfrotto 290 series with a Movie Pan head for about $300.  That’s the one I got.  Because they used the same base plates, I got some extras.  This is not a light tripod by any means.  Not quite at a pro level, but could easily work there.  It does get a lot of use and so far, is a workhorse.

Knowing What You “Need”

You know, we see all these articles on something called “equipment lust”.  Getting the latest and greatest for whatever reason.  I am a firm believer in getting the correct tool for the job, though.  Yes, there are times when I have gone really stupid overboard.  Like my travel cameras – I have about 6!!  Do I use them?  Interestingly enough – yes.  My wife uses two of them.  I do have my favourites but I also got a couple that were purchased for very specific reasons.  My Fuji F800,for instance.  It’s my backup to my X10 (a more advanced camera).   It’s also more advanced than others in this class.  More controls.  My Sony HX30V – better flash and again more controls, but it has a faster zoom.  Latest kid on the block – Nikon S9900 – 30x zoom in a tiny package!! 

Once I got to travel cameras, I started to take a very serious look at those super zooms  or “hybrids”.  This was before the Nikon S9900, actually, but if you’ve never played here, this is a whole new space and tons of fun.  I got the Nikon P520 on a clearout.  It has a 42x optical zoom.  Reasonable sensor size for what I do.  For what I paid, well worth it.   There is no way I could even get to close to this zoom level with my DSLR’s, let alone afford something.   At $300, it was a no brainer.  Yeah it’s a little slow on some things, but all things considered, it cranks a pretty high quality image.  Heck, the fun of just using it pays for itself Smile 

The Gear Factor

This is the million dollar question at the amateur level.  Hardly a factor for the pros.  They know exactly what they need to get their job done.  For the rest of the world, not so easySmile  There’s always been this quote about getting a better camera will yield better photos.  What they don’t tell you, is that, in most instances, it’s not the camera Smile  The camera is simply the tool that captures your “mind’s eye”, so to speak.  What one does, is get a better camera to better interpret what you are seeing to a digital or film image.  What the heck does that mean?  Like anything else, one has to learn and experiment in order to get better at something.  Like most things there are some “rules” and some knowledge needed to understand the how’s and why’s of what comprises a good photo.  You look a a landscape and go “How did they do that?”.   If you understand the theories or rules,  it’s not that hard.  To me, I look at the perspective that the photo was shot at for instance.  Composition tends to be fairly standard, but in many cases, the difference between a great shot and a stunning shot, is a combination of composition, perspective, time of day and exposure.   Knowing how to control that is where the gear comes in.  More advanced gear allows you get the shot easier, but it comes at a price.  Learning curve.  AND experience.

In reality, what I sometimes think that novices think, is that the pros can get that shot without taking that many shots.  Well, it’s not exactly like that.  Because the pros are exactly that, I would say they can get a particular shot in fewer shots Smile  If one comes from the world of 35mm like I did, one tends to have this obsession about getting the shot right in the camera.  My preference is to do as little post processing as possible.  What surprises me, is that with digital, it’s easier than ever to get it right in camera – there’s literally no cost to taking multiple shots at different settings, so why are we sitting at a computer changing it after?  Granted – certain types of work do need post work, but really, if you can get it right the first time, why not? 

Where I take the most shots is when I am outdoors or doing something outdoors.  Depending on time of day, light changes and with that comes exposure compensation.  Certain exposure changes can make the difference between great and stunning.  Knowing what your camera is capable of is critical.  Part and parcel to this – if you are getting new gear and “moving up”, it can take some time.  For me, my biggest surprise came when I moved from my Nikon D3200 and D5100 to the D7100.  The D3200 is an entry level camera and the D5100 is a mid-range unit.  The D7100 is very much so a serious amateur to semi-pro level camera.  When I first got it, getting it set up to where I could use it was pretty easy.  Taking advantage of the extra functionality was a whole new story!!  After several months and thousands of photos, I’m still discovering stuff. I’ve had the D7100 for about 6 to 8 months now.  Onward.  When I can control the lighting, like studio work, I take fewer shots.  Studio, is a different breed of cat.  Portrait type work or product photography require some pretty strict lighting controls.  In reality, if you get the lighting correct, exposure is pretty much a no brainer.  In this type of work, to me, the set up is where the time is spent.    Do I still take a lot of shots?  Yes and no.  When I’m working with the lights, I’m going to take a lot of shots to ensure my exposure is correct.  The final shots will only be for getting the pose I want.  I will get as many as I need to obtain the correct shot. 

For instance – models or someone who has been in front of a camera a lot will take instructions well.  In saying that, you also need to give instructions too Smile  When I am doing fashion photography, I get a lot of great shots, but I also get a lot of stunning shots.  With others, it takes moreSmile  To me, timing is everything.  My preference is using strobes – less heat, but needs a lot more setup compared to continuous light.  When I started acquire my gear for studio/portraits, there was a ton of experimenting and I acquired very slowly.  I got stuff because I wanted to create a very special “effect” and kept trying until I knew I needed certain pieces of gear.  My studio accessories are such that I can get what I want for most things.  For my strobes, I have several soft boxes, barn doors, umbrellas, reflectors, etc. to get my shots.  In reality, way more gear than I originally intended, but in saying that, I can do a lot of things between my strobes and flash units. 

File Formats

When I moved to DSLR’s, I was still shooting in JPEG format for everything.  In fact, I still do to a certain degree.  I really resisted moving to RAW as at the time, I didn’t see the need to go there.  I wasn’t in that space where I needed to do that much post processing.  Then, I had no choice for certain things.  I couldn’t get the exposure control I needed and had to move to RAW to get that.  That also meant new software.  With my D3200 and D5100, I can only shoot one format at a time.  I went to the D7100 because it has two card slots and I can shoot RAW on one and JPEG on the other.  Depending on the scenario, I will shoot in this mode.  For others, I will shoot RAW exclusively.  Again, this goes back to understanding your gear.  My smaller cameras can’t shoot RAW, but at the same time, I normally don’t need to shoot RAW with those if I get the exposure I want, which I can usually do.  Also, because I know what the limits of each of my cameras are, I don’t have any qualms about using one of my smaller cameras if the need arises.  For the record – depending on the event or whatever I am doing, if it’s an important event or something that counts, I’ll shoot with my DSLR’s and use RAW first. 

In the End

For me, it took about 3 years to “get back in”.   I started with the concept of being mobile and worked my way into DSLR’s.  I’m perhaps a little different in that I came from the world of 35mm and with that experience I had a very good idea of what I needed for what.  What I wasn’t expecting, was to get to DSLR’s.  I initially had no intent to go there, but here I am.  I’m now sitting at a point where I’m pondering kicking it up a notch again.  I still need to take more photos in a few areas to see how I do Smile  For me, my time is such that it’s easier to buy than build.

Onward.

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About gkamitomo
IT Busines Analyst

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