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The Worst Things I Have Bought as a Photographer

I have no doubts that we have all forked out some of our hard-earned Benjamins on something completely regrettable, as I certainly have. Over the years, I have made some questionable purchases, and here are the worst.

I want to begin this article by pointing out it is for entertainment purposes. That is, it's tongue-in-cheek and I no longer feel aggrieved by these purchases, so you're welcome to mock away with impunity. However, I would like you to leave some of your own worst purchases in the comments; we've all made mistakes, so now's not the time to be shy.

A Star Filter

I could only have been about six months into the ownership of my first proper camera, and I was on something of a rampage with purchasing. I didn't have a great deal of money at the time, so I couldn't buy anything outlandish (which is probably for the best, actually), but I often bought smaller items. 

A website in the U.K offered a number of own-brand filters that created different effects in-camera. I bought five or so, and only one of them was useful (circular polarizing filter, though I didn't fully understand its purpose!) Two of the filters were particularly disappointing, even to my naive and hopeful eyes. The first was a soft-focus filter, but I was concerned when I bought it that it would make my images look like the 90s glamour portrait of my auntie that had been hanging on her wall for decades. It did.

However, the other major failure was the star filter. This thing was desperately cheap, and it showed. There are occasional uses for star filters, but not for this one, not ever. Star filters typically have a grid across them that catches the light and makes it flare dramatically into the points of a star. This one, however, had such a small and deep grid that every glimmer of light burst in all directions. An utterly ridiculous product. If I can find it in my giant box of photography stuff I seem to take with me every time I move, I will create some example images, but I suspect it was flung to its death at some point.

A 400mm Vintage Prime

This was another example of my gambling, and like when I actually gamble, I lost. I saw a vintage, long-reaching prime lens on eBay with not long left and zero bids. I decided to put in a low offer and I won it. I didn't expect much, but it truly exceeded my expectations, but in the wrong way. After I managed to track down and purchase an adaptor to fit this lens to my Canon (because wasting money on the lens was not enough loss for my tastes), I mounted this howitzer on my body and strode out to the garden for test shots. With photographs, there are sharp images, passable images, soft images, out-of-focus images, and then what abomination this lens produced. It transcended ordinary parameters of in and out of focus because honestly, you couldn't tell. Every shot looked as if it was the view of someone with severe cataracts looking through Vaseline. 

Still, it wasn't a complete loss; I used it to weigh down a backdrop once, and in a pinch, if I could lift it above my head, it could kill a burglar.

I don't have any images with the dreadful 400mm that I can find, so here is one result from a far better investment: the Pentacon 135mm f/2.8, i.e the 15-blade Bokeh Monster. Vintage lenses can be beautiful, but most aren't, so do your homework!

A Brandless Macro Ring Light

Any regular readers of mine — of which there are at least three — will know I have always had a penchant for macro photography. My first dedicated flashgun for it was a tricky venture. I wanted to buy a Marumi ring flash as I couldn't afford Canon's MT-26EX-RT Macro Twin Lite (it was likely a much earlier version of this model), but I was at university and rather poor, and I couldn't really afford the Marumi at the time either. So, what was a young man keen on photographing insects to do? I found a knock-off, brandless one on eBay that came with a whole arsenal of plastic crap I'd never touch. Quick, where's my wallet?

This thing was not only a disappointment to macro, it was a national insult to its country of origin. Its max sync speed was something like 1/60th, which meant I needed to tase insects to keep them still enough to capture. Its max brightness was so pitiful that you needed to be closer than 1:1 for it to really do much work, but if you got too close, it somehow didn't hit the subject because of the lip of the black plastic holder. Fear not, however, it had three more perks. The first: it came with colored gels so strong that not only did they blanket the scene with a paint bucket hue, but they bordered on opaque, so the dazzling light output was even less pronounced. The second: it had a video mode where the light became continuous, but this was some way over a decade ago, so LEDs were akin to tiny screw-in bulbs. The third: after a few forced uses to justify my dreadful purchase, the battery compartment activated some sort of self-cleaning mode and caused all the batteries to hemorrhage acid. Perhaps it was ending itself out of shame, who knows?

Eventually, I did buy the Marumi ring flash and immediately realized I ought to have just saved up for it in the first place. Still, that disappointment made for a paragraph in an article, which is something, I suppose.

A Beginner's Workshop for Portraiture

I'm going to be exceptionally sparse on the specifics here as I wouldn't want to hurt anyone's business, though being able to find this workshop would be next to impossible as it wasn't where I live. So, let me freely lament. After buying my first camera and falling face-first in love with the craft, I wanted to try portraiture. The problem was, I was knee-rattlingly nervous to do my first shoot and felt unworthy of anyone's time, model or otherwise. So, I found a workshop for portraiture near somewhere I was going to be staying on a trip and I bought a voucher. It wasn't expensive, but it wasn't so cheap I expected nothing in return.

On the day, I arrived at a rundown studio and a waiting room of bored people of varying ages. After a brief wait, we were blessed with the longest presentation on the fundamentals of cameras I could have imagined was possible. It was largely a self-congratulatory slideshow of the photographer's landscape images, upon which the photographer overlaid spurious composition claims. After a break and some free water with the vague memory of coffee, the model (read: a human roped, seemingly begrudgingly, into standing in front of us) was brought in. We were then given information on how to use our cameras in a way that would yield a picture of a person. That's as clear as I can be because that's as clear as it was.

Much of the rest of this day was spent watching the photographer try to figure out the students' various cameras of brands different to their own and then rotating one by one to snap the disenchanted face of the bored subject. In around the third hour, I decided there was no value in throwing good time after bad, made my excuses, and left, with hours to go. I learned valuable lessons that day, arguably worth the money I paid, but none were on photography.

What Is the Worst Thing You Have Bought as a Photographer?

It's over to you now. I'll just state I would like the items at least tenuously linked to the photography industry. And keep it light — this isn't your chance to exact vengeance on a brand you perceive to have wronged you.

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18 Comments

Ben Chan's picture

This was when I was still very new to photography many years ago. I bought a Gary Fong "diffuser" for my speedlight, hoping that the light would get soften. Of course it didn't work as expected, and I returned it for refund as soon as I could. I spent the money on Christopher Grey's Master Lighting Guide instead, and couldn't be happier.

Robert Nurse's picture

I've got one too, LOL. Complete with the orange cap. Once I moved to OCF, there wasn't much need for it. I still keep it around for when I do snapshots with on-camera flash. But, that's rare. My other bonehead purchase are mostly speedlite related modifiers and accessories.

user 65983's picture

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Brian Tokuyoshi's picture

I bought 3 clones because I was thinking of using them to fire towards the ceiling to light the room at events. But I still think I overpaid

Lee Christiansen's picture

I've used the Fong many times, and actually it is very good at doing what it is supposed to do. It isn't really designed to create softer light, (although it can), but rather it illuminates the room as a whole and so this multi-relected light gives a more natural result.

Used incorrectly, it can be useless, but like most things, in the right circumstances it is the perfect tool.

I believe nowadays it is much more expensive than it was originally, but the thing is well made, it grips like a grippy thing and there's a collapse-able version. Let's remember that there are RnD costs to get the mouldings right and it is a lower volume, niche product. And once you take off RnD, shipping, dealer markups, tax, business expenses, advertising, exhibition costs... profits are a fraction.

Sure a plastic tub with a bit of gaffa tape stuck on is cheaper, but not as sturdy, not as aesthetic and doesn't really do the job as well.

I used mine successfully on many events, only changing it when I changed my on-camera flash technique.

Greg Wilson's picture

For me:

The worst: 800mm catadioptric lens (likely Samyang) at a bargain price.
As useless as it was unique.

The best: 1. Leica Q. 2. RNI All Films 5 - film profiles for LR.
Both rather expensive but useful beyond my initial expectations.

Lewis Hirschberg's picture

I bought a wide angle zoom that was soft all over except for 5.6 to 8 f stops. I never really used it as it wasn't worth the weight to carry. And a few small items like cheap tripods.

David Austerberry's picture

Back in the film days, and before Photoshop there were all manner of absurd optical filters. I had a green glass one with a hole in the middle, no idea what it was for. The star filters were popular with TV light entertainment shows, but their filters were very expensive, and created great stars, if you like that sort of thing.

Carl Viktor's picture

I was drawn into the action camera world and purchased my first GoPro. It was full of bugs that could only be fixed by upgrading to the next version. It in turn was filled with problems that could only be solved by upgrading to the next model.
Now I have stopped my upgrading madness and I publishing photo books instead. This is much more fun and give more value for the money.

Daniel Cseke's picture

Back when I bought my Canon 1100D after a number of tips for beginners videos I've bought a bunch of decent ND filters.
ND2, ND4, ND8, ND16 and ND1000. Saying that a decent collection can be used with more expensive gear as well, as it has decent optical qualities...
Well, I've just found them after 4 years, collecting dust. They're on sale right now :'D

Also, a Lensball. I've fell for the hype train as well

Gary Maltsberger's picture

Without doubt, a KODAK dye sublimation printer. KODAK bought it from JVC and outsourced paper and ribbon for it. Did not hold up to production, any little dust artifact would ruin a print.

Scott McDonald's picture

"You get what you pay for..." I purchased a number of 'photography' products years ago because I was under the impression that I could get the same bang for the buck as the more popular name brands but at a discount price. How wrong I was...I bought a cheap auto-focus 35mm lens (can't even pronounce the brand) and used it for a very short part of a day. Haven't touched it since. It looks and performs like something my neighbors' kids may have put together in their garage out of old hair spray bottles, Tupperware containers, and reading glasses from the drug store...

Justin Sharp's picture

Many times when trying to save money. The budget option for gear is usually a let down (with a few exceptions) and I end up buying what I should have bought in the first place. Now I try to spend money on exactly what I need. It may cost more but I usually end up saving money.

Hector Belfort's picture

For me worst buys
Fuji X100s. A beautiful looking camera, I went on and bought a 28mm adapter and 50mm adapter but all three I used very little. I should have sold it but still own it and it lies unusued.
Olympus OM-D 10 Mark II and associated lens. In concept a good idea - light camera with relatively light lens for travel. In the end once you got full frame its hard for micro 4/3 to compete. A terrible menu didn't help usuability. Still have them all should also have moved them on.
I also have a big ring flash thing that isn't a ring flash on its own you need to put a flash in it. - Ridiculous size and weight. Almost any sort of small flash modifier is a waste of money. A rogue flash bender is the best I bought
A Peak Design messenger bag - I think this was their first kickstarter project. Lots of nice touches but the most uncomfortable back ever to carry things around it
Canon 11-24mm - very expensive lens - very heavy with a bulbous front. Its' actually very good but often not practicle.
Canon 7DII - not sure if I had a poor copy but I have never been totally happy with it. Images tend to be noisy even at low ISO . It has served me well but never loved.

Tundrus Photo's picture

Worst purchases in no particular order: Canon 7D- even Canon’s repair centre could get rid of the horrendous noise in the files. Universal al lens hood- didn’t fit any lens I own. A cheap aluminum tripod- as stable as an 90-year old with Parkinson’s disease. Adobe Bridge- what the heck is it good for?.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Buying huge 210cm softbox at the start of my photo career was a huge mistake.

I wanted soft light, but with big softbox comes big responsibility…

I didn’t manage to produce inspiring light from it and now, in the age of huge and portable umbrellas, it is in the basement as noone wants to buy this monster.

Andrew Broekhuijsen's picture

An M39 screw mount to EF adapter. Granted, I wasn't expecting it to be some kind of game changer. I just wanted to try putting my Industar-50 on my 5D2 for kicks. It looked as ridiculous as you think it would (extended or not), the rear element bonked into the mirror when I tried to retract it, and it was too far from the sensor to achieve infinity focus, unsurprisingly. I put it on, giggled for a bit, and then dumped the adapter in a junk bin, never to be touched since.

I guess along these same lines, a Zorki C. I lived in Russia for 2 years and have a soft spot for Soviet cameras. Always wanted to try out a Leica clone and see what all the fuss was about. I had just had a lot of fun with a Moskva-5 I ordered to play with 6x9 format. But I don't buy shelf queens, I only want a camera if I can get it in working order and then shoot with it. Long story short, I can shoot with my Zorki C, but I have no more desire to do so after a single roll of film. Loading the film from the bottom is a nightmare even though I know exactly how it's supposed to work. Composing in one viewfinder and focusing in another with a dim rangefinder is terrible. The images come out pretty meh. The Industar-50 is weak compared to basically any other 50mm lens I have on any camera. And while the camera itself has a high "cool" factor, it's not any more compact or lightweight than my Olympus SLR. Give me conveniently located controls, split screen focusing, and SLR viewfinder with DoF preview any day of the week.

ed visions's picture

a prism