My gear

My primary element of gear is, naturally, my camera: a Nikon D700, one of the best pro-grade DSLRs ever made. As a backup, and for a DX body, I still often use my trusty Nikon D80, which has aged very well indeed. An essential pair of components are an X-Rite ColorChecker Passport and a Lastolite Ezybalance 18% gray card.

In terms of lenses, I am a fan of fast primes; and I have Nikon 35mm, 50mm, and a surprising Rokinon 85 mm lenses in this category. I also really like my Nikon 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 D AF Nikkor lens; it has a switch to shift between normal and macro modes. You can focus as close as 0.7 feet (22 cm) in macro mode. It vignettes a bit at 28mm and wide open; and it has very low distortion in the same low-vignette conditions. At the price, it’s insanely great.

I also use a Nikon AF Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6D ED lens, which some folks have speculated was actually built for Nikon by Tamron. Big whoop. I tend to use this closer to the middle of its zoom range, 200 mm, and stopped down. Here it works wonders; again, at the price.

If you popped open my camera bag, you’d almost always find this kit ready to go. In addition, you’d find my X-Rite Passport ColorChecker, a few circular polarizers, a Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo, their Galen Rowell ND-2G grad and their Daryl Benson reverse grad ND-2, as well as all those filter rings and Cokin P-holders and adapters that go along with them. Of course, not fitting into the bag would be a couple of good (not great) tripods.

In another carry bag or two, I can stuff a lot of studio gear. I’m a fan of speed-lights rather than big strobes; and I use SB800s and one lonely SB600, extensively. Along with these come a range of light modifiers including umbrellas in a few sizes, soft boxes, reflectors and scrims, and stands and clamps for all of the above. I use an excellent backdrop support system that breaks down and tucks away into its own carrying case in a few minutes. I have a couple of huge seamless muslin backdrops that work very well for me.

Honestly though, whatever I’ve spent on cameras, lenses, and studio kit pales in comparison to what I have in my “digital darkroom”. Of course, one buys a camera or a lens, and this is a stand-alone investment that lasts and lasts. Post processing software is a different animal altogether. I suppose I still have Photoshop 6 or something on a disk somewhere, just to prove I have a license code for it; but it probably wouldn’t even run on any computer I have around. Since the early days of Adobe & even Aldus (anyone remember them?) I’ve had my own copies of everything from Photoshop and Illustrator and Acrobat to Pagemaker and then InDesign. Of course, these are work horses of the photographic and graphic industries. Since Adobe first came out with their Creative Suite bundling concept, I’ve licensed it in every iteration except CS2.

Then, of course, there are the plugins. My main plugin suites are from Nik, onOne, and Topaz, at least as far as Photoshop is concerned. I have just about everything one can buy from these three vendors. I should not neglect the various actions and configurator panels that I’ve acquired over the years, not to mention brushes and textures and styles.

All of these plugins and other tools go a long way to enhancing the range of the tools in my physical kit. For example, a simple muslin backdrop can be easily given a wide range of other patterns with PhotoFrame. An image shot with the aperture stopped down can be given a reduced depth of field using with FocalPoint.

My favorite raw converter these days is Phase One’s Capture One v6. It used to be Nikon’s own Capture NX2. Of course, Lightroom continues to evolve and get better, while NX2 seems to have been static for several years now. Will there be an NX3 soon? Nonetheless, for accuracy and simplicity in handling lens corrections and chromatic aberration, nothing seems to beat Capture One.

As to HDR, my favorite program here continues to be Photomatix Pro. Nik’s HDR Efex Pro is a close second, but Photomatix wins hands down in terms of handling ghosting. I admit that HDR Efex has a wider range of conversion options than Photomatix; but I’d rather be able to get the dynamic range of an image right and avoid ghosting than have a beautiful set of conversion options for a result that will always suck because of artifacts. In fact, I’ve come to the view that if I want to apply HDR Efex styles to an HDR image, I’d convert it with Photomatix and then use HDR Efex on the the result. I’ve also tried any number of other HDR conversion methods including what’s been built in to Photoshop CS4 & CS5, Hydra, HDR Expose, and HDR Photostudio. In my mind, nothing stacks up to Photomatix. This is not to say that Photomatix is without its flaws. While its manual ghosting method is generally excellent, if you select the wrong source file for anti-ghosting, you can get some odd results. In the final analysis, here’s my 2 cents on this: if you can’t get Photomatix to give you a good result in 15 minutes of tries and retries, quit. That’s probably on the high side; that is, maybe 5-10 minutes would be a better quit-point.

For portrait work, I am amazed by the utility of Anthropics Portrait Professional. It is definitely in my arsenal of tools that are applied to almost every portrait I do. Here is my one comment on it for now: you have to get your work right inside of this application since it will almost always make changes to the shape of a subject’s face so that a simple layer opacity blend will often not work properly. So, don’t go overboard in Portrait Pro and expect to just back off in Photoshop latter. A slightly less extreme plugin is Imagenomic’s Portraiture. Most of my portraits will get one or the other or both at some point.

But, of the two systems that I go to for practically all my work, there is either Grubba Software’s TrueGrain for most of my B&W conversions or Corel Painter. Of course, Painter is the ultimate tool for dealing with defects in a photographic image, CA and ghosting a problem in an HDR conversion: send it to Painter. Naturally, Painter is much much more than a corrective tool; and I humbly admit that I am just getting the hang of it. More of this in blog posts.

Painter, Photoshop and all the rest would be almost impossible to use without my Wacom tablet. I use an Intuos 4 medium sized version with Bluetooth. Way to go Bluetooth.

I work exclusively on Mac platforms and have for years. I calibrate my monitors with Datacolor’s Spyder3Elite system and my printer with their Spyder3Print. Since I love B&W, I have been using a combination of the Spyder3Print system and QuadTone RIP to get calibration profiles for my printer. There is some detail on this in my blog.

My go-to printer is an Epson 3880; and what a joy this is. I can recall, years ago now, the first time I attempted to print a good color image on my Epson of that day. Boy, did I learn about calibration and color workflows quickly; that must have been 15 years ago now. I wound up buying a RIP in order to get anything like reasonable results; but I don’t think I’ve used a RIP in several years now. Improved drivers from Epson and calibration tools that work have made RIPs of little value for a small scale shop like mine. I use Epson and Hahnemuele papers and I love both. I guess we all have our favorites. I’m not sure if paper counts as “gear” but since it’s what carries an image into a client’s hands, it is a critical as anything else. For viewing prints, I use a good Solux lamp with 4700K bulbs.

I would be neglecting a few things if I didn’t go back to Lightroom and Aperture. These are more than just image editing tools; they are digital asset managers (DAM). I used iView MediaPro before Microsoft bought them and wrecked the product. I tried Aperture for a DAM for sometime, then replaced it with Lightroom v3. However, after PhaseOne brought out their refurbished version of MediaPro, I went back to that, bought into the integration with Capture One; and I haven’t looked back. I love the pairing.

In terms of publishing images, there’s the printer, of course; but increasingly, images get delivered in some digital form. Where I send them to the web, I use Dreamweaver and, as in the present case, WordPress. Extensions for Dreamweaver and plugins and themes for WordPress have made my life in publishing to the web so much easier. WordPress v3 has become a content management system worthy of the name, and not just a blogging tool any more.

In fact, they’ve saved me so much time that I can enjoy my favorite hobby: making beer. Time to go do that!