Does using pro photo gear really matter?

The amazing Profoto B4 Battery generator and Pro B head kit for rent from High Output Charleston

The amazing Profoto B4 Battery generator and Pro B head kit for rent from High Output Charleston

I admit it; I’m a gear horse. I love having and using the best possible tools to create my photographic images so I get asked frequently if have top line gear matters, and in a nutshell, yes it does. But just because you can’t afford the latest gear doesn’t mean you still can’t use it. There are rental houses across the globe that can get any photographer loaded for bear with just about anything you can think of. I’m very fortunate to have two of them here in Charleston SC; Shoot Rentals ( and High Output Charleston ( and today I’ll highlight High Output.

Most who know me can agree that I’m a disciple of light, whether using speedlites, studio strobes, LED panels or good old-fashioned worklights with compact fluorescent bulbs. I wish I had the budget to purchase the top-line Profoto lighting gear, but it’s not in the cards at the moment. So I do the next best thing; rent. You may be asking yourself “If you have all the other gear including professional mono-lights, why Profoto?”, It comes down to performance and consistency of the light. If I am shooting product and have the luxury of waiting a few seconds for the lights to recycle, my Calumet / Bowens lights are awesome. Working with a subject that changes expression or moves may be a different story. Have you ever taken a photograph only to notice an even better expression a split second later? You take the shot and realize that the light didn’t fire. The moment is gone. Or maybe the next shot the lights haven’t fully recycled but still fired without as much gusto, leaving your next image underexposed. Maybe not so much of an issue if this is your hobby, but a major problem if you do photography for a living!

I don’t know too many people that have an extra eight to sixteen-grand lying around to pick up a new Profoto B4 Air 1000 or two, and I certainly don’t. And I think even if I did, does this make good financial sense even if I did have the cash? For $145 I can rent almost $9k in top-line Profoto gear for the day. If I have the right client and want to use a $4500 Broncolor Para 177 modifier to get the exact look they are after, I can rent that too (and keep $4250 in my pocket for other expenses).

Does this mean I use this gear on every shoot? Nope, my gear including Speedlites, Quantum Q-Flashes and my trusty old Calumet Travelites can handle the every day stuff. But it is sure nice to know I can lay my hands on the best gear at a moments notice without the expense to own & maintain day in and day out!

(Special thanks to Liz Bruer for the loan of her daughter Penny for the test!)

Consistent output & color out of the Profoto B4 Air 1000 kit, shot with the Canon 1Dx, 24-70 2.8L at almost 12 frames per second without missing a beat!

Consistent output & color out of the Profoto B4 Air 1000 kit, shot with the Canon 1Dx, 24-70 2.8L at almost 12 frames per second without missing a beat!

Consistent output & color out of the Profoto B4 Air 1000 kit, shot with the Canon 1Dx, 24-70 2.8L at almost 12 frames per second without missing a beat! Don't forget, this is a battery powered flash!

Consistent output & color out of the Profoto B4 Air 1000 kit, shot with the Canon 1Dx, 24-70 2.8L at almost 12 frames per second without missing a beat! Don’t forget, this is a battery powered flash!

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The cost of doing business as a professional photographer…

Adrianne Killin

Another delightful (and favorite!) model; Adrianne Killin helping with a lighting test.

Lately I have had some interesting conversations when I’m at various business and networking events. After exchanging the usual pleasantries and asking the person that I’m talking with about what they do, invariably (at least most of the time!) the other person will ask me what I do for a living. I like to answer that I’m a problem solver for my clients and that I help make them and their product or service look their best. I do this through my photographic services and knowledge base.

The first question I’m asked is about what camera gear I use. I have found that the answer I give can have a polarizing effect, from “Oh, yes, those cameras are the best and they take great pictures!”, to “How come you don’t use a XXXXX camera? My dad / Mr. Professional / I used to have (you can fill in the blank) always uses an XXXXX and they take the BEST pictures!” The conversation can sometimes take a turn for the worst; with the other person deciding they will tell me what’s wrong with my gear and why brand XXXXX is so much better. What fun!

The second question I get, is why professional photography is so expensive (in their mind)? To them, a camera and a few lenses from Costco or Best Buy and we’re in business! Yes, it’s true, expensive gear a photographer does not make. But the gear we use are tools, just like any other professional. Most top end mechanics use Snap-on, SK or another top of the line tool set. They invest in their craft because they want to be able to do the job without having tool failures and when there is a failure the tool is guaranteed for life and is replaced. Unfortunately, even though we invest in the top of the line professional gear, it is not warranted for life (not even close). So we invest in servicing said gear. A shooting pro can invest tens of thousands of dollars in camera bodies, only to have them wear out or become obsolete in only a few years. At least lenses have a longer life span.

Professional lighting, lighting modifiers, grip (light stands, booms & support), camera supports (tripods, monopods, studio stands) and computers and their software all cost money. And speaking of computers and software, there is always another upgrade waiting in the wings thanks to planned obsolescence. There are things like memory cards, batteries, radio remotes and a whole host of other necessities for day to day photographic capture and production. What about utilities? Power, phone and internet access come to mind. Commercial versions of these cost considerably more than their household counterparts. What about the lease cost for a space? Travel costs, even when in town, like fuel, parking, etc.?

Then we get to the things that most people forget about; insurances, licenses, professional memberships, accountant and attorney. What about marketing and advertising? All of these things add up, and are not much different from any other “professional” business. So why do people think we as photographers should do our livelihood for cheap? Don’t we deserve to put a roof over our head? Send a child to school? Pay for health insurance? Take a vacation? But I digress…

Just the other day I wound up sending in a couple of camera bodies, a lens, two small flashes and a battery grip all for servicing. Thankfully the team at CPS (Canon Professional Services) takes really good care of me! They sent me out loaner gear and covered all of the FedEx shipping both ways, had my gear all repaired within a week and with our Platinum membership it all cost me less than a thousand dollars. Again, one more example of the cost of doing business, and a place I recommend not skimping!

I guess all this is to say, running a professional business or any business for that matter, has expenses and if that business is a specialty it can get quite expensive. Maybe take a look at it from the standpoint that you are investing in great photography rather than the cost of the service, and that way we professional photographers may invest in your product or service too!

Stop allowing others to take advantage of you!

20150321_CHS_FW_Bridal_BW-0003As a long time professional photographer, I still am thrilled when a publication contacts me and offers me an opportunity to do photography for them. It usually goes something like this;

“Hi! This is So-and-So from XYZ publication. We’ve seen your work and would love to have you cover a photo project for us!”

Well thank you for noticing my work. Where was it that you saw my work? (I’m always interested in finding out which images others find compelling.) Please tell me a little about your project.

“We have a couple of stories that need accompanying images for our upcoming issue, including a cover shot. Would you be available in the next week or two?”

Checking my schedule, I mention several dates that are open. Now comes the fun part…

What kind of budget are you offering? What’s involved and how much time will be required? I ask.

“Oh, we’re pretty tight, and this will be used for editorial. It shouldn’t take more than an hour or so!” says the happy voice on the other end of the line.

With this in mind, we agree on a price for our first collaboration, and then I ask about how their accounts payable would like to have the invoice and how quickly I may expect payment after the shoot. I find out that they normally pay after the issue comes out which can be a month or more. At this point, I give my little speech about not being the Bank of Stan, and that they can have price or terms, but not both. The happy voice tells me that they can expedite it if needed. It’s needed. Before bidding each other farewell, they mention that they will need to have me fill out their W9 and sign a contract. I’ve seen a lot of contracts, and there’s never anything in it for the photographer.

When the contract shows up in my e-mail, sure enough, they want it all and are giving no quarter. A couple of things get my attention. If they decide not to publish the images, no pay will be forthcoming. They require all copyrights to be transferred to them in perpetuity and the photographer may not use them whatsoever. All of the liability during the shoot lies with the photographer (which isn’t really an issue as I have liability and E&O insurance), including securing all model & property releases. Most people tend to glaze over when reading any sort of contract as the boilerplate is mind numbing, but when it comes to your livelihood, I highly suggest taking the time to examine it thoroughly.

So maybe the next time you get the “opportunity “ to do Work Made For Hire, you might take the time to look out for your interests as well. Just remember, if you don’t, nobody else will!

Safe travels!

2015 – The year of CunningFox Photo Education

Contrary to popular belief, I have not been trapped by a large piece of office furniture or kidnapped since the end of December!

As some of you may know, I have been very fortunate to partner up with other wonderful photographers over the past four decades and last year brought together three of us on a new project. It all started from a desire to create something bigger than each of us was capable of by ourselves, and to be able to “give back” through speaking engagements, workshops and mentoring. The culmination of several months of meeting and brainstorming resulted in CunningFox Photo Education, with partners Douglas Carr Cunningham and Iveta Butler.

We began in earnest with a free monthly speaking series hosted through the City of North Charleston, featuring photographic topics for all levels of photographers. Douglas was able to bring ThinkTank camera bags on board as our first corporate sponsor, allowing us to give away some of the best bags in the industry to our participants!

At the same time, we’ve been working hard to finish The Charleston Darkroom, the premier black and white darkroom in the region, along with a workshop / classroom for lighting, posing, product and presentations. To say all of this has been a labor of love for us is quite the understatement and we are so looking forward to sharing this with the photographic community. Best of all, we get to have a blast doing this together.

For now, I leave you with a few images to show what we’ve been up to. Normal service to resume soon!

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My photographic goals for 2015

We all know how important in our success it is to plan and set goals, but some of us (namely me) have a harder time than others with this task. Kind of like sticking to an exercise routine, goals can be daunting, as once we set them, we can be held accountable but the results can be fantastic. For something to be classified as a goal, it must be S.M.A.R.T.; Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. When I say something like “I want to take better portraits this year” or “I want to learn to use off-camera flash better”, it is merely a desire or a wish.

In order for either of these to become goals, I have to apply S.M.A.R.T. to them. I also choose not to use words such as; Want to, I Should, I Wish, etc.

For the past several weeks, I have been pondering what goals I would like to accomplish photographically and I have come up with a few!

  • I will hold ten ProActive Photographer Photographic Lighting workshops during 2015.
  • I will print at least one new portfolio / display image each month in 2015.
  • I will enjoy one day each month to photograph around Charleston for fun.
  • I will gain two new commercial clients each month.
  • I will travel to and photograph a destination I have never been.

And finally, I will carry a camera with me every day!

I wish you all a safe, happy and healthy new year! Next time; 2015 – The year of CunningFox Photo Eduaction

The joy of being out for a paddle!

The joy of being out for a paddle!

My son's friend Dustin always has a ready smile!

My son’s friend Dustin always has a ready smile!

A special place

A special place

After a summer storm atop the 14,250 foot peak of Colorado's Mt. Evans

After a summer storm atop the 14,250 foot peak of Colorado’s Mt. Evans

Sharon explores the beauty of a Georgia lake

Sharon explores the beauty of a Georgia lake

Sharon on her race bike for a spin around Miller Motorsports Park

Sharon on her race bike for a spin around Miller Motorsports Park

The ProActive Photographer; Photographic Inspiration

Over the years I have enjoyed looking at the images made by master photographers and artists, and I remain in awe of what has been created. I do this for inspiration and to better my craft. Seeing through the eyes of Yousuf Karsh, Steve McCurry, John Singer Sargent, Gregory Heisler, Jay Dickman, Art Wolf, Renoir, Richard Avedon, Pablo Picasso, Joe McNally and so many others (my list is huge and there are so many I owe much to!) broadens my personal view. It also allows me to shift my way of seeing things in new ways, which has given me much appreciation for the every-day!

What keeps me inspired is the ability to tell a story through the images I create. What inspires you? What stories do your images tell?

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Ghislaine Maxwell, founder of the TerraMar Project, a nonprofit on a mission to create a global ocean community to speak up for the high seas.

Next time; Photographic goals for 2015

Magnolia blossom at the historic Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston SC

Magnolia blossom at the historic Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston SC

Corporate portrait, Mario Nardone

Corporate portrait, Mario Nardone

Newly renovated Colorado state capital dome. All of the copper plates that make up the dome were repaired or replaced and shipped to Italy along with gold mined in Colorado for gilding, then shipped back for installation.

Newly renovated Colorado state capital dome. All of the copper plates that make up the dome were repaired or replaced and shipped to Italy along with gold mined in Colorado for gilding, then shipped back for installation.

Brilliant lecture by "Catch me if you can" Frank Abignale

Brilliant lecture by “Catch me if you can” Frank Abignale

Technician setting up the new Orion medical fluid delivery machine

Technician setting up the new Orion medical fluid delivery machine

Ageless beauty

Ageless beauty

Athletic beauty in the human form, pro surfer

Athletic beauty in the human form, pro surfer

"Obey Giant" Sheppard Fairey's Andre the Giant looks across downtown Charleston

“Obey Giant” Sheppard Fairey’s Andre the Giant looks across downtown Charleston

Camera Gear, part 2 ~ Or the tools in the toolbox continued…

I have been asked once again by people getting into photography; what’s the best camera and what do I use? There seems to be this ever-present mystery in the eyes of the general public (and quite a number of photographers!) is that there is some special gear still out there that can create the perfect image and that what ever they have isn’t good enough. Maybe this is what is fueling the latest mumblings going on in my brain.

Wait, what?

Yep, even found myself feeling the same way, but for a different reason.

These days I have been wondering what the perfect setup for me would be when I cover next year’s Sperry Top-Sider Race Week here in Charleston SC and a race week in the Bahamas. The second part of this dilemma, is that for the sailing race in the Bahamas, we’ve been invited to set sail from here in Charleston aboard our friends’ beautiful 43’ Beneteau. In becoming shot-term live-a-boards, space will be a premium, so bringing along all sorts of gear that I would usually have (like the EF400mm 2.8L II that’s not much smaller or lighter than a horses leg!) will not work.

With this limitation in place, I’ve been having some serious gear lust for the Olympus OM-D pro system. They have built a pro-level micro four thirds system that is dust proof, water proof and even freeze proof, and have just come out with another pro zoom lens; the 40-15mm f/2.8 Zuiko (equivalent of 80-300mm on Full Frame) . I had already tested the fantastic 12-80mm f/2.8 Zuiko lens (equivalent to a 24-80mm on full frame) on the OM-D EM-1 and was quite impressed with its sharpness and clarity. I have already heard from my friend, Olympus Visionary Jay Dickman, that this was even better! And to round things out, they are planning to roll out the pro-line Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8 & 300mm f/4 for micro four thirds sometime next year. Four lenses giving me a focal range of 14mm to 600mm in full frame equivalency plus two pro bodies, all waterproof, weighing in at less than half of my normal kit.

Pretty sweet. But would it also cover my needs for the rest of the photographic work I do? Maybe not.

I look at photographic gear in terms of buying in to a “system”. In other words; what kind of lighting systems will it interface with? It gets old when you have to cobble gear together in an attempt to make things work reliable, and in commercial work repeatability is essential. Right now Canon has the best OEM small flash system available, complete with built in wireless transmission. No need to purchase third party accessories in an attempted work around. There may be in time, something available from Quantum that talks with the Micro Four Thirds systems of Olympus and Panasonic, but they have been working on it for a few years with no signs of a release.

So I guess this is my way of explaining my answer to the original question in depth. The best camera system is the one that covers what you, the photographer, need it to do very well. And in my case, more tools in the toolbox!

One more thing to think of when looking at upgrading cameras or making your foray into a new gear purchase, is how it feels in your hands. No matter how technologically advanced the latest camera and lens combo is, if you aren’t comfortable with the way your gear handles, you won’t enjoy creating images with it.

I hope you all have a Happy Thanksgiving and don’t forget to make those holiday captures with the ones you love!

Next time; The ProActive Photographer ~ Photographic Inspiration

Ciao!Olympus_OMD_EM1 001 20141119_Gibbes_Luncheon_Preview-021 2014 Sperry Top-Sider Race Week Friday 20141120_NanoScreen_Orion_web-017 SI Solutions, Inc., Columbia SC