The photography world is chock full of products meant to make photographers think they will instantly improve their work and take dazzling shots. Some are obviously better than others. Here are the best and worst pieces of photography gear I’ve purchased.
Spend any amount of time in the photography world, and you will probably notice the abundance of products marketed like they are magical shortcuts to photographic excellence. And of course, some products do genuinely help, but a lot of them are over-hyped and a waste of your time and money. Here are the best and worst products I’ve purchased in my time as a photographer.
This wasn’t even a tough choice. I spent my first two or so years of shooting using only natural light. The only modifier I owned was a 5-in-1 reflector, and it taught me a ton about shaping light. I personally think every photographer interested in photographing people should own one and learn to use it. And it won’t just be something you use when you’re learning the basics; I promise you’ll be using that reflector for years to come. Many longtime photographers still carry and use them throughout their entire careers. They’re very light and portable and easy to hand off to an assistant whenever.
What makes them so great is their sheer versatility. Most come with five surfaces:
- Silver surface: this is designed to essentially create a second light source, often to add fill. It increases specular highlights, contrast, and can create nice catchlights when used in the proper position.
- Gold surface: this produces a warming effect and can be great when you want that sort of fill.
- White surface: produces a softer, more neutral-colored bounce. This is my preferred side for fill, as I find the shiny sides a bit too harsh for people a lot of the time.
- Black side: this can act as a flag to block undesired reflections or color casts or to increase contrast.
- Translucent: this is by far my favorite, as it opened the most possibilities for me. This allows you to diffuse hard light and create a nice, soft source. When I was first starting out, this allowed me to move from shooting only during golden hour to working whenever I want. You’ll even see studio shooters sometimes fire a strobe into one for a quick and easy softening effect.
I still haven’t gotten to the best part about 5-in-1 reflectors, though: their price. It’s no secret that photography gear can get really expensive really quickly, and among all that pricey stuff, the 5-in-1 reflector comes in at a refreshing $20-50 depending on the size you get. I truly think that it’s both the best price-to-capability and best price-to-learning potential piece of all photography gear, and given its cost and ongoing usefulness, it is something that every photographer should own.
I made some bizarre purchases when I was new to photography and didn’t really know what I was doing, so it took a bit of time to decide what was the worst, but after a lot of thought, it was clear to me that this was presets. Presets are insanely popular among photography influencers, YouTubers, and many others, and a good chunk of big names in the industry sell their own preset packs, and budding photographers eagerly scoop them up in the hopes of emulating those who they admire, only to frequently be disappointed when the results aren’t anywhere near what they expected.
Before I continue, I should say that I’m not totally against the idea of presets once you know what you’re doing. I sometimes have a photo on my screen that I know has potential, but I’m unsure of how I want to edit it. I’ll scroll through some presets for creative inspiration, and often, I’ll see a look that’ll give me the jolt of creative inspiration I need.
They can be even more useful if you’re someone who shoots in the same scenario a lot — perhaps you shoot a lot of events or work in the same studio environment a lot. If you’re applying the same sort of edits to lots of photos, presets can save you a ton of time and repetitive tedium. If you’re in this scenario and haven’t tried them before, try creating one based on your normal edits, then have Lightroom apply it at import. It can really increase your efficiency.
Where I take issue with presets is beginners using them before they understand how to edit a photo (which is unfortunately the exact market segment that those selling them are normally aiming for). Unless you’ve taken a similar photo with similar lighting, white balance, color palette, exposure, etc., a preset is not going to magically get you anywhere close to what you were hoping it would. This is simply because a preset is nothing more than a formula defining how certain parameters should affect an image. Feed it different input data, you’re going to get different output data.
The catch is that if you know enough to be able to read the light, color toning, etc. of a photo you like, you know how to recreate that look yourself and don’t need a preset to do it for you. The paradox of presets is that they’re not really helpful when you don’t know much, and once you do, you don’t need them anyway. Every time I bought presets when I was still new to photography, I tried them on a couple of photos, didn’t understand why I wasn’t getting the results I wanted, and never touched them again.
That being said, there are a few cases where an experienced photographer might want to purchase them. Quality film emulation presets come to mind, since those companies have worked hard comparing films and measuring their response to recreate them as closely as possible in the digital realm, and a photographer might not want to invest the time or money to do that themselves. I’m not dismissing them completely, but for a beginner photographer, you’ll be much better served learning the basics of editing and how to read an image to achieve what you want.
If you’re new to photography, it’s important to be careful with your money and not fall prey to the hype machine of a lot of products as I did. Find a more experience photographer who can mentor you and offer their opinion. Ask online in forums. Ask here in the comments on Fstoppers; all our writers are very friendly people (except Robert Baggs, don’t listen to him).