When Gear Matters

It is widely acknowledged that necessity is the mother of invention. DIY and jury-rigged lighting setups are all the rage these days. The phrase "gear doesn't matter" has become a mantra. Why are photographers so loathe to admit that gear can matter? Sometimes not having the right gear is what stands between you and your concept. Check out this Profoto video of Alexvi's images coming to life thanks (at least in part) to the type of gear he uses. (Turn on the closed caption unless you speak Chinese.)

Gear and Personal Style

Sometimes you may have a vision in your head that you just can't get to work once the lights start flashing. Surely everyone would accept that having a particular piece of gear at your disposal can actually help you execute a particular look. Perhaps even more than that, specific gear may help you actually develop your personal style in a way that another piece of gear might not. As a quick example, a photographer experimenting with long exposure would certainly end up with a different feel in their portfolio if they did, or, did not have a tripod. Or, just try getting the soft-light feel of a giant soft box with nothing but a collapsed 18-inch umbrella. Doable? Maybe. But it is unlikely that your images will have the same look.

Alexvi and Profoto

Known for his unconventional approach, Alexvi was asked by Profototo to take their unorthodox strobes out for a test drive. Looking to do something off the beaten track, Alexvi took his team and his Profotos to the shuttered Shijingshansteel plant just west of central Beijing. Using the portable B1sB1XsA1s, and B10s Alexvi shot the models with a complex blend of hard-rim and slightly softer front lighting. Once the initial flashes fired, the model and crew would quickly leave the scene so that the background would burn through the model. Almost a double exposure feel. Having such portable and light-weight strobes that are also capable of producing high-end studio-quality light certainly helped Alexvi achieve his vision.

For me, being able to create an atmosphere or a feeling with light is much more rewarding than relying too much on post-production techniques, the B10 helps me do that - and with its small, lightweight size - I can do it in any location.

Sure, you could shoot this with much less expensive speed lights or heavier strobes. I doubt however that you'd get some of the more complicated lighting setups to work so well in camera. Inevitably you'd end up with color or power problems. You'd also be unlikely to get the lights out of the shot quick enough to allow the desired bleed through effect. So, when the goal is to get the blended exposure technique in camera, it's important to use gear that gets you what you need. I wonder if you tried this with speed lights and ran into color and power problems if you'd move on to something different. I don't mean to say that it would be worse, just that it would end up different. 

Gear Can Develop Your Style

Photographers are often the first artists to claim that necessity is the mother of invention. Why then do we often have such a hard time acknowledging that sometimes the opposite is true? If not having a particular piece of gear can drive your style in a particular direction, surely having a particular piece of gear in your arsenal can drive you in another. 

Make sure you check out the finished shots as well as some interesting behind the scenes shots at Profoto.

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50 Comments

Deleted Account's picture

Thank you for the video AND the message!

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Thanks for stopping by Sam.

michaeljin's picture

There's no such thing as a spoken language called "Chinese".

Deleted Account's picture

Well, yes, but you know what he means.

michaeljin's picture

Of course. I just wanted to clear up a common misconception that some people might have as it's a rather complicated situation over there as far as language goes.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Mandarin and Cantonese are dialects of Chinese, aren’t they? I am not a speaker, if you know which dialect, I’d be happy to edit to be more accurate!

michaeljin's picture

Only the written language is unified. The spoken word is divided into tons of different dialects and to my knowledge, it's not really like the difference between a Brooklyn accent vs. a southern twang where you can still make out what the other person is saying. Mandarin and Cantonese are the two major ones, but it gets a bit complicated because there are sub-dialects within those dialects:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_China
https://asianabsolute.co.uk/blog/2018/04/24/languages-spoken-in-china/

I don't speak any of the languages, but if it's an official announcement or promotion in Mainland China, my guess would be that it's some form of Mandarin as that would be the widest spoken language and is technically the official spoken language of China (even though some schools do not necessarily teach it based on region).

India has a similarly confusing situation involving language.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

A long long time ago, I studied a bit of semiotics. Language can be so interesting. Especially the slipperiness of meanings.
From what I understood, the different dialects were like the differences between French / Spanish / Italian.
Thanks for taking the time to come back and comment.

cameramanDop Shanghai Hong Kong's picture

"Only the written language is unified."
No, plain No.
Cantonese writing is completely different from Mandarin writing.
Cantonese is the "old" way of drawing characters where Mandarin used a simplified version.
They are very different. Both writing and spoken.

Cantonese and English are official language of Hong Kong for example.
Mandarin is official language for Mainland China only.

Schools are forced to teach mandarin only in China mainland, no more local dialect is allowed.
English and Cantonese are teach in Hong Kong and a new exam will force a limited level in Mandarin for the coming years.

At the same time, almost each city in China have it's own dialect, Beijing, Shanghai and others. Around Guangzhou/Shenzhen area; Cantonese is widely used.
In 2008, it was said that only 50% of persons living in China were fluent in Mandarin.

The funny thing is to hear HongKonger referring to Chinese language as Cantonese when Main-lander saying Chinese is the language they are using (which is Mandarin).

michaeljin's picture

And the we are from a better source. Thanks for the clarification.

Jared Wolfe's picture

I am sorry but how does this prove your point? This was flash + long exposure on location. How exactly is the B10 the only flash that could be used in this instance? A Goxdox AD400 could not have been used to produce this same result? It is also battery powered and has a modeling light. I am pretty sure you could do this shoot with a speedlight and the light from an smartphone.

Gear does matter, but what frequently doesn't matter is what brand that gear is. There is no need to spend 10x more just to get something from a brand that gives you a gear boner.

Deleted Account's picture

I don't think he meant a particular brand matters but, of course, Profoto does! ;-) I like Godox, and not just because of the price. :-)

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I am a big fan of the colour fidelity of Profoto. In my experience, less power shift, less colour shift more robust. I think it does matter.
But, I do take your point.

Johnny Rico's picture

I thought the newer Profoto stuff was all over the place compared to their older stuff? (online tests) Also I shoot alot of Profoto gear.

EDIT: Hell I just looked it up and thebroketographers tested the B2 @ 1450K max shift across the range......

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Interesting! Thanks for pointing that out. Aren’t they testing it in HSS? Not what I’d use them for.
I’d also trust a drop and a repair from Profoto more than Paul C.
If I’m shooting something where colour fidelity is of prime importance, I rent Bron.
What Profoto gear are you using?

Johnny Rico's picture

They tested it both ways, and the 1450k was in non HSS mode. I shoot Profoto D4, Pro 7a's, Pro 7B2's, and some D1 kit I rarely use. The only pack they offer now is a Pro-10 @ a laughable 14k price tag. Then sell 250ws speedlights. From the direction of their advertising and blog I'm assuming they are going to go exclusively for the light editorial photographers and wedding crowd.

Love their old gear, and it keeps on working.

Also Capture Integration said they are jacking their prices up at the end of the month.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Eek. Those aren't great test results.
We use the D4s and B1s. If colour is critical or if there are going to be hundreds of images used in the same print, we'll even switch to Bron sometimes.
That price for a pack and head is incredible. I get why a McLaren and Ferrari cost what they do. There is both technological and artistic merit to the vehicles. Beyond that, there is also scarcity. There shouldn't be scarcity in lighting components and if they are failing as badly as the test results you shared, they shouldn't be charging that much. I haven't seen failures that bad in personal experience, but . . .

Motti Bembaron's picture

Just so you know, from what many Youtubers say, the AD600 PRO is better than the Profoto in terms of color consistency.

Julian Ray's picture

Thanks for a courageous article and video.
In my 30+ years of working in commercial and editorial I've run across many types of photographers. In general they fall into two camps. The DYI type and the the gear to serve the job type. I have to agree that having kit that just works, works well, and does not need constant repair/replacement/adjustment is something essential. For me having the right tools that work and work well every time, all the time is so liberating to allow me to focus on creating.
Thanks Mark.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Thanks! With you on the “just works”. There are reasons why particular motor car manufacturers win F1.

Julian Ray's picture

Yep.
An example of "just works".
On a location shoot in Myanmar (Burma) for Ducati it was so hot that some of the bikes where overheating, the models and crew where definitely baking, laptops shutting down, etc, but the Profoto lights and packs just kept on popping away. Full power and consistent colour.
And the best part was no one had to go and fiddle with them. They just work.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Exactly why I trust them over so many of the knock offs!!!

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I’ve used the pack and head Speedotrons. I personally found they provided the quality I was looking for.
Not a fan of the Paul C lights The versions I’ve used just aren’t as robust.
Can’t speak to the others.
Where the lights are made does matter to me, but it’s usually not the most important factor on my list.
Overall, I’m not knocking DIY, I’m just trying to point out that access to certain types of gear can mark a difference in a persons style.

Felix Wu's picture

The technique being used in this video had nothing to do with quality of strobe he used. Nothing. A speed light could have done this perfectly. Colour issue will more be affected by ambient light during long exposure.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I’m not sure I agree with you. Certain lights are manufactured to ensure colour fidelity. I think these type of lights work better than others that are not.
The highlights on the models (the work of the flash) would certainly show fidelity issues. Don’t you think? Aren’t the highlights lit almost entirely by those lights?

Felix Wu's picture

In this particular shoot, Profoto B10 strobe contributed a max 2% “quality”...this shoot required no high end gear...the unmodified highlight, the long exposure (slow recycling)...it could have been any flash.

The so-called colour fidelity is resulted in selecting the right white balance, picking the right gel and nailing the flash output and in camera shutter speed. Nothing magical. It could have been a canon speed light, a Nikon, a Godox.

The 2% quality was probably due to B10’s ease of use, user experience and feel good factor. ; )

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Where does the 2% come from?
I know you're kidding around, but, I do agree with you that the 'feel good factor' is not worth thousands of dollars!

Felix Wu's picture

I just threw in a random number to show how insignificant Profoto light has to do with this particular shoot.

Don’t get me wrong though I am all for reliable and quality gears and I shoot with Profoto and Broncolor myself. However for this particular shoot as shown in video the quality of light itself did not make or break the photos.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Gear matters, brand name does not. Another Profoto commercial :-)

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Of course it’s a commercial. That’s what they do.
This article is not a commercial. It is an honest attempt to ask why photographers are so quick to dismiss the importance of gear (in terms of quality). It doesn’t keep me warm at night, but, quality usually comes from a brand name. And, it usually costs.
If gear matters and quality matters, doesn’t a quality brand matter?

Yin Ze's picture

Only thing missing from this article is an affiliate link.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Way too many photography lighting "articles" (or tutorials) look like an advert and almost always Profoto is left, right and center.

It's this sneaky way they nonchalantly dismiss anything that does not require a mortgage as not professional. As if "you are a professional then it should cost you" (as you said).

Honestly Mark, this article smells like one big advert, including a few affiliated links. Everything in it suggests that. The title should have been read "Profoto does matter".

Quality, as we know, does not require unnecessary spending, not anymore. If a photographer needs $11,000 of lighting gear for a portrait shoot then well...

Importance of gear is to have what you need for the job you are about to do. If you show up to on-location family portrait with a camera body, a lens and a speed light, you limit yourself. A reflector, a couple of different lenses and maybe a second light will give you more options. If it's Godox, Profoto or Nikon makes ABSOLUTELY NO DIFFERENCE.

And if you know what you are doing you can still get great shots with only a camera body, a lens and one speedlight

And why would you suggest that not using Profoto it's DIYing? I put my 2 AD200's on a stand, put the trigger on the camera and off I go. No taping or any gluing is needed :-).

Cheers mate! (I watch too many Australian shows)

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I agree with "Importance of gear is to have what you need for the job you are about to do. If you show up to on-location family portrait with a camera body, a lens and a speed light, you limit yourself. A reflector, a couple of different lenses and maybe a second light will give you more options."

But, if you're showing up for a high volume commercial shoot, I can't agree with "If it's Godox, Profoto or Nikon makes ABSOLUTELY NO DIFFERENCE." Trying to shoot in inclement weather, trying to shoot in hot weather, trying to shoot something that requires colour and power fidelity access the board, the quality does matter. I do agree that brand doesn't always equal quality, but, it often does.

I also agree that you can get almost everything you need with a camera a lens and a speedlight. Don't get me wrong, I do. But, with the pressure of a commercial shoot, that isn't always so. Short timelines, demanding clients and demanding conditions mean that sometimes you need gear that makes life easier. My opinion is that that often comes in the guise of branded lights.

Cheers!

Motti Bembaron's picture

Well, I never did a commercial shoot so I can't comment on that specific genre and what is needed. However, a couple of years ago I saw this Youtube clip and here is the link

The audio is in Hebrew but text is in English.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Fun video. Thanks!

Yin Ze's picture

One minute it's "Why You Shouldn't Buy New Camera Gear" the next minute it's a thinly veiled Profoto ad with the heading: "Gear Can Develop Your Style". I'm about to flip out like a Panasonic GH5 screen. So confusing....

Robert Altman's picture

Physics matters- the size and shape of a modifier etc... But- comparing a 7' non-Profoto umbrella brand to a Profoto one... Gear matters- but NOT brand name hype...

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I agree that some parts of your gear bag do not require the same kind of quality. My $20 Wescott and second-hand umbrellas are just as good as anything around. But, there are differences in other parts of my gear back.

Felipe Jans's picture

I think those classical quotations are dependant of the style of photography.
"gear doesn't matter"
"the best camera is the one you have with you"
It is pretty obvious that you don't need a Phase One to be an alleycat through the streets capturing moments. You make the best out of what exists with what you have.
In studio photography, though, gear is important or your product (wether it is a model or a thing or whatever) won't sell.
So gear does matter, but only when aesthetics matter and not the meaning alone of the photos.
I personally love taking street photos and I have been doing it even with my cellphone, but when a person asks for a session, I am not going to tell them I'll do it with my phone right there since gear doesn't matter.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Well stated!
Just one comment, if you were using a 2005 BlackBerry, I'm sure you'd rather have your camera with you. ;)

Andy Barnham's picture

Anyone else feel underwhelmed by the images?

David T's picture

Wish they'd have given a better use case, e.g. freezing raindrops or action, some strobes can't do it. But that's not brand specific, but rather model specific.

The actual best feature and unique point of sale that profoto has are the integrated reflectors and the mount. Gels and softboxes can be very easily mounted.

As for reliability, not so sure... I've even had expensive strobes like Broncolor Siros and Profoto D1/D2 fail on me before. Repair costs are absurd, you can get a whole new cheapo strobe for that.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

That last point is certainly something to think about. Repairs can be expensive and replacement of cheaper models can actually be more cost effective (at least in the short term).

Motti Bembaron's picture

Here is an article written by an experienced photographer using AD200 and AD360 in extreme weather:
http://oleliodden.com/photo-gear/field-reviews/godox-witsro-ad360-ad200/

It's a good read.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

That is extreme!!!

Motti Bembaron's picture

The only US made lighting company that I know of is Paul C. Buff and they have excellent strobes. I had two Einsteins, two B400's and a WL strobe, all well made and work like a charm.

Although they offer a good value they still missing some important features. I now use AD200's and their small size and the all in one system is such a pleasure. I am very surprised PCB did not come out with such a system, they would have taken the US market by storm.

After working with Alien Bees for many years I am so relieved not attach cables, batteries and triggers and instead having everything built in.

Notice though that outside the US PCB are not as competitive. They do not ship outside North America and support is then limited.

The European brands still do very well in Europe because for them they are not as expensive and support is readily available. The likes of Godox though are making huge inroads and are claiming huge part of the market. I would not be surprised if some distributors in Europe will do as Adorama did and re-brand Godox with their name, then offer warranty and support. That would make Godox even stronger.

Although HSS might not be as relevant in the future the TTL ability and the all-in-one system is still a huge incentive for (especially on location) photographers to purchase them. Now with the AD400 PRO photographers can still have a relatively small form strobes with pro grade color consistency and excellent battery life. Not to mention great value.

I would say that Paul C. Buff should really wake up and start making their own all-in-one system or they will be left behind. The likes of Godox are only getting better and better and they are doing it in huge strides.

Bill Wells's picture

I remember a time when we called cars like Datsun, Toyota, Honda rice burners. They hit the US market and were considered low end (they did cost less) and not as good as American built cars. But year after year they got better and better. Until today, they are considered better made by many.

So we need remember that with photography equipment as well. Truth is Godox is getting better and better each year. They are even starting to innovate and not just copy.

Yet, just like we did with cars. Our solution was to write them off and all the while they were getting better and better.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Not necessarily a fan of the term rice burner, but I take your point. I do like the idea of don’t look now, but look how good they’ve gotten. Good point.
Two comments, I’m not sure if they are equal yet. And, the Chinese market and industry is different than Japan’s through the 70s and 80s. I don’t think this is the right space to get into that kind of conversation, but, they do / did have different goals and specialties.

Bill Wells's picture

"Rice Burners" is just what they were commonly called. If you look at Godox their remote will let you fire flashes (all of them) in TTL mode. Then the press of a single button switches each flash to manual power and level last fired. Profoto is the only one other company that I am aware of, that can do that..

Motti Bembaron's picture

Agree! They are absolutely at the same light and built quality as any other brand. But offer a much, much better value.