gearhead, sort of...

Occasionally I get asked what gear I use. I totally understand this question, I used to ask it all the time too. It can help, it can point to what is needed to achieve a finished result you aspire to. Of course, over time, you start to realize that the gear is not nearly as important as the result, and the maxim "whaever works" is totally true - it really doesn't matter if the results are good! What I have I use because it works for me, for what I do, at this time. Will it change someday? Will I? Perhaps, probably. But for now, it has settled into a method that I can depend on, and that helps - when the uncertainty factors are dialed down.
So, without further ado...
The MASTER SHOT - welcome to the dark basement of toys
In this shot, my "stage." a 9 foot roll of medium gray (dove gray) paper, about $65 per roll, and I get about two sessions with each roll. To the right, you see my 50" octabox diffuser, and this was my best purchase, and the most vital piece for my lighting. It's large enough to illuminate an average human standing, and it gives off a soft, beautiful light that wraps gently around a person's features. I side-light almost exclusively, so this is my key light, my main source, and it's large enough to spill over most of the background paper and illuminate it. To the left, is a long, thin softbox, I think it's 40" - and it has now replaced my smaller, 13" softboxes (on the far left) that were fine for faces, but not big enough for a secondary light for side-lighting. Over the expensive red chair prop from Pier 1, which you will see in many of my images (the Collective, for example), is the monster, the beast. It's a 16" beauty dish, named aptly, because when I do use it, oh my, the light is gorgeous (see:, but oh, it is a PAIN to use. It's very heavy, and it needs a counterweight, moving it is not easy, and as I prefer it to be an overhead, heavenly light, it is difficult to get up above it to adjust the flash head. there is a sweet spot for the light, but it takes time to find it, and I spend a long time adjusting both the model and the light when I use it.
Other than that, not much else is used! I will cover the lights themselves in a bit...
a closeup of the 50" octabox and the 40" tall diffuser...
A closeup of the difficult, but fantastic, 16" beauty dish...
And these are my lights. Three Canon Speedlites - two 580ex IIs and a 430ex II. Now, I have in my house two big, pro strobe kits with all the trimmings, but I never liked em (they're my partner's lights) - mainly because of all the wires and cords all over the place when you use them. But also, I LOVE these little flashes. I bought the first one (pictured below) because I was playing around with macro photography and thought it might illuminate those bugs. Once you get into external flashes like this, a little world opens up. You quickly realize off-camera flash is the way to go, and you find out how to do that. For me, I bought three very cheap receivers and a transmitter from Cowboy Studios. They are cheap, plastic, and take triple A batteries, but they work reliably, every time. You can see the receiver on the photo below, which also has connection hardware for mounting on the diffusers.
If there is a drawback to the speedlites, it's power consumption. They all take 4 double A batteries, and they can run down fast if you use them at full power. You learn very quickly that rechargable batteries are extremely vital to keeping the cost down! I now have a night-before-a-shoot ritual of charging up five sets of batteries for the length of my shoot. The light from them, however, I find to be pure and beatiful, and they were indeed a game-changer for me. Important note though, they are harsh and inadequate without the diffusers. All the diffusers I have I obtained from and are especially made to be compatible with Canon Speedlites.
Canon, are you listening? How about a sponsorship deal!
For most of my shots, I use two lights: a key light and one for fill. Both on the side of the model, more or less, and the ratios depend on composition and aesthetics, but genereally, if I shoot one at full power, the fill will be around 50%. Oh, and using my Canon 5D mk II with an ISO of 125 or so, I can get a decently exposed shot at 160 shutter speed and F11, so these little mircales give off plenty of light for my needs.
And that's about it! A couple more images show my shevles of props and such, and some wardrobe pieces I have collected and purchased over the last two years. You will probably recognize a few of them from some recent images, the bird houses for example, from "Puer Aeternus:"
Of course, the imagery obtained in this dark, slightly depressing little space is nothing without Photoshop manipulation, but also, and this is the most important part, the camera and lenses themselves are the most vital tool in the box. For years I used a Rebel, lately, a T2i, and was using cheap Canon and Sigma EFS zoom lenses. I was pining for a full-frame sensor for a long time, and in anticipation of that purchase, I upgraded my lenses to EF prime (non-zoom) lenses. Sure, I would love L glass, but way too pricey until that Canon sponsorshop kicks in! So, currently I have three EF lenses, a 50mm, an 85mm, and a 24mm.
I mainly use the 50mm - it's a good all-purpose lens, giving you "true-to-life" results without a lot of distortion of the parallax variety. The 85mm I use less, but it's a beautiful lens, and is amazing for tight shots or closeup portraits. The 24 I use even less, but it gives me a wide angle and some interesting distortion when I want a little bit of that dynamic. I shot all these quick snaps with it. All of them cost around $400 each.
I hope this helps a bit. All this gear cost me a lot an racked up a lot of debt in the space of two years, but I am sure all of you photogs out there understand the obsession with getting better and better images from your gear, and I am extremely pleased with the 5d full frame and these lenses. The clarity, jumping up from the cropped-sensor Rebel series, was light years better, but even before I went to the 5d, those lenses on my Rebel made a huge improvement. Non-zoom lenses rule - they simply are better for portraiture.
Thanks for reading. Cheers!
Michael Bilotta
June 20, 2013