Be Careful Who You Buy From

camera photo
It's one thing to buy some flash units or lights from overseas, but don't risk it for cameras and lenses

As the world gets smaller and shipping gets easier, a new phenomenon is appearing in the camera market: Web sites that appear to be stores located in the U.S., U.K., or Canada that are actually storefronts for operations in other countries. For many of the cameras and camera electronics, the vendors are located in Hong Kong.

First off, there’s nothing at all wrong with shopping for camera gear outside the country, provided you know that’s where you’re shopping and are prepared to take the risk. I routinely shop at DealExtreme, one of those sites that ships from Hong Kong, because the discounts are pretty good and shipping is free. I know whatever I’m going to buy from them is going to take between 2 and 3 weeks to arrive and I’m okay with that.

I buy a lot of my flash units and strobes from Hong Kong vendors and quite a few of my video lights came from overseas, but buy a high end camera or expensive lens through them? No way!

The biggest issue for me is making sure I have a valid warranty here in the U.S. When you buy from vendors in Hong Kong, you may be getting grey market products, refurbished units, or products with menus in another language. What you won’t be getting in any case is a valid factory warranty where you live.

I probably see two or three sob stories every week from people who purchased products from an overseas vendor only to realize they would have to send the product back to China if they need warranty service. Most of those people were just trying to save a buck or two on their camera purchase.

Sometimes it’s worth paying a little more to be sure of who you’re dealing with and that you’re getting a top shelf product. When it comes to camera and video gear, I only shop three places:

B&H Photo Video

I’ve never had a problem with a return or exchange at B&H Photo, ever. You could buy a turkey from B&H, bring them a bag of bones the day after Thanksgiving and they’d still probably give your money back if you weren’t happy.

Shopping through Amazon you’re sometimes paying a higher price than direct through the vendor, but that means the vendor has to adhere to Amazon’s return policies. That’s a big friend to have on your side and the convenience of one-stop shopping is a time saver.

Snapsort only sells products through reputable sources, so you can shop with ease.

Sometimes it’s just not worth the price difference to shop with vendors you haven’t worked with before. There’s a reason companies like B&H have been around for years and have an excellent reputation in the professional community.  If you want to save a few bucks on a site that doesn’t have that reputation, you’re taking your chances.


Full Frame vs Crop Sensor

Canon 5d mk ii
The Canon 5D MK II has a full frame sensor and a recently reduced price tag

The discussion of a full frame DSLR versus a crop sensor (APS-C) camera just got more interesting when B&H Photo decided to offer an eye-popping discount on the Canon 5D MK II, offering the body-only with a 16 GB CF card for under $2,000 around Christmas (now back up to $2500).

While I can live without a full frame sensor, the concepts of “need” and “want” become jumbled at times, like when B&H offers a big discount on a full frame camera that I wanted anyway. So, it’s good to go back over the differences and remember why you select one over the other.

First, it might be good to understand where the term “full frame” comes from in the first place. Full frame means the camera’s image sensor is roughly the same size as 35mm film, or 24mm x 36mm. That, my friends, is a big sensor. And, when it comes to sensors, size matters.

Interestingly, one of the reasons you frequently find a Canon 7D being used on a movie set like Black Swan, instead of a full frame Canon 5D MK II, is because the APS-C chip also approximates a film stock used widely in motion picture production called academy 4-perf. PL movie lenses cover 16mm x 22mm and take a wild guess how big an APS-C sensor is? If you guessed 13.8mm x 20.7mm, you were cheating.

The bottom line is a Canon 7D with a PL mount can accommodate all those marvelous movie lenses. There’s even a place that will permanently alter your 7D to be a PL mount movie camera!

It’s More Than Physical

The physical difference between the sensors is significant, with the full frame sensor being closer to twice as large. That is both good and bad depending on the circumstances. Since big chips are harder to manufacture and have a higher defect rate, they are vastly more expensive. So, if your wallet has anything to say about your camera selection, you’ll likely end up with an APS-C camera.

sensor size
You can see the APS-C chip is slightly less than half the size of a full frame 35mm sensor

The payoff for the extra cost of a full frame sensor is in the detail you get and the low light performance. At ISOs above 1600 a Canon 5D will simply blow the doors off my 7D. Even though I don’t do that much low light shooting, that’s my excuse for wanting a 5D MK II.

Also, if you’re shooting a lot of landscapes or other fine detail, a full frame camera will provide better resolution at distance.

Notice the qualifier “at distance”. Up close, like in a studio setting, the difference will be extremely difficult to notice with the biggest differences introduced by the quality of the lenses.

What Strange Magic Is This?

It’s not magic, just that at studio and portrait distances a full frame camera is shooting largely on the center of the sensor and you’ll likely be cropping out the edges anyway. That’s why I can shoot studio shots side-by-side with my friends owning 5D MK II’s and they’re surprised to see very little difference in our final shots. However, were we to walk across the street to the beach and shoot some landscapes, they would remember why the extra money was worth it.

That’s why it’s important for people to have an idea of what kind of photography they want to do before selecting their gear. Buying the camera before figuring out your photographic specialty is the tail wagging the dog.

My decision to go with a 7D is because most of my work is as a PJ. Lots of run and gun, a lot of being bumped, dumped and jostled, and occasionally working in the elements. An armor-plated crop sensor camera is well suited to that type of work, plus I shoot a lot of video.

I was perfectly happy with my APS-C crop sensor…until B&H put the full frame 5D MK II on sale. Curse you, B&H, curse you. 😉

Five Tips For Choosing a Wedding Photographer

bride photo
This is not the time to find out you don't have rights to your wedding images - By iluvrhinestones

My nephew recently got married and I got a bad feeling about the photography from family snapshots that showed the photographer in the background. The equipment I saw concerned me and their engagement photos lacked anything resembling imagination.

Recently we got to see some of the actual pictures at a family event. For a second I thought it was a proof book, but those were the actual delivered pictures. I had to leave the room to keep from saying anything. The pictures were beyond merely bad, they were hideous and the photographer showed a peculiar fondness for the Topaz Photoshop plugin and I confirmed that if you’re a poor photographer, Topaz will not fix what’s wrong.

I felt bad for not being able to make it. Even in the role of “Uncle Bob” I might have been able to get some decent shots. Few photographers could have done any worse. Yet when I looked at the photographer’s web site I saw a portfolio that any photographer would envy. It was gorgeous. So what happened? And, more importantly, how do you keep that kind of “bait and switch” from happening to you?

Don’t Be Fooled By a Web Site

Anyone can put together a decent web site, the photos don’t even have to be theirs. Any photographer in the business long enough will have actual photo books you can sit down and page through.

You may not be able to completely trust photos in any medium, but you can ask to see proofs from recent weddings, particularly if you’re trying to arrange a wedding out of town.

Also keep in mind that sometimes web sites are actually produced by a front company that does nothing but refer jobs to vendors in particular areas.

Read That Contract And Check References!

Don’t sign anything until you know exactly what you’re getting and the terms and conditions attached to it. Understand exactly what’s included for the price and the itemized costs.

Read that contract carefully and don’t be afraid to make changes. If any photographer tries to tell you the terms are non-negotiable, leave. Everything is negotiable.

In most countries and jurisdictions in the US, if you make margin notes on a contract, the hand written notes take precedence over the typed copy, but don’t count on that. Don’t be afraid to X through anything you don’t like.

A reference check is a no-brainer.  Pick one or two brides from the portfolio pictures and call them directly.

Don’t Allow Substitutions

One of the clauses to look for is the one that allows the photographer to send someone else. Now, you don’t want your photographer showing up sick or not having a substitute lined up if they end up under a bus. What you can do then is modify the language to say that in the event of serious illness or injury, the photographer can select from an approved list of alternates. That means screening the portfolios of each of the alternates and being able to live with the substitute but it will prevent a complete stranger from showing up on your wedding day.

Think Carefully About Exclusive Agreements

One of the bigger trends in wedding photography today is having two photographers. It costs more, but the peace of mind is priceless.

This is one point that will chaff many professional photographers, most of whom try to slip in language that says they’ll be the only pro working the gig. Many will pass on jobs where they have to work with another photographer, so you might have to keep looking until you get the people you want.

It is a pain to work around another photographer and it adds time to the job, so you can decide on how important this is, but having two photographers helps insure at least one of them will be competent.

Understand Your Image Rights

Make sure that as part of the deliverables you get full resolution images and that you have the rights to republish and reprint them. If you’re going to be a bridezilla about anything, make it on this point. Make sure your wedding photos are your images and that you can have them printed anywhere you want.

The most common reason photographers give about not releasing print rights is that they want to control the print quality, which is 90 percent horse manure. The real reason is they want to keep the rights is to make you go to a web storefront on a site like Zenfolio that returns a portion of the print cost to the photographer. That residual income is a big part of their salary, so don’t be surprised if you get a fight on this point.

With all of these issues, understand that some photographers may pass on the job. You can either hold out or negotiate a compromise to get the photographer you want. But if you do compromise or give in, at least you do so knowingly and it doesn’t come as a rude surprise 72 hours after you sign the contracts.

Notice the dress shot in this video that the dress is on a cheap plastic hangar?  That’s why I always carry a spare decorative hangar for the dress shots!

Photography Type Influences Gear Choices

long lens photo
Photojournalists and nature photographers are the most likely to invest in big glass

I get a lot of questions every week about what kind of camera to buy and what gear someone new to the business would want to have in their bag. I almost always have to answer those questions with another question of my own: What type of photography interests you the most?

For sure there will be quite a bit of overlap between fields. A photojournalist might find they have a lot of equipment in common with a wedding photographer. In fact, one style of wedding photography is sometimes referred to as “journalistic”. Other than the occasional overlap, most fields of photography will employ specialized equipment unique to that field. So your area of interest will influence how you spend your gear budget.

When it comes to cameras, that will be dictated more by your budget, but these days with modern DSLRs it’s far more likely a single camera can be used across different photography fields.

Portrait Photography

Portrait photographers are going to sink the most money into lighting and lenses. While portrait photographers are probably going to want a camera with a full frame sensor like the Canon 5D MK II or Nikon D700, it’s not a requirement. You can shoot perfectly good portraits with almost any camera, full frame or crop sensor.

For portraits lighting will be key and portrait photographers are more likely to invest big bucks in strobes and floor lighting.

Portrait photographers, along with DSLR video shooters, are also more likely to invest in prime lenses. Even though zoom lens quality is more than adequate for portraits today, shooting portraits is all about consistency, and for that primes are hard to beat.

Wedding Photography

Again, wedding photographers will likely employ a high end DSLR with either a full frame or crop sensor, the biggest differences will be the lenses and lighting.

A wedding photographer will almost certainly be using a high end zoom lens and, instead of floor lighting, will be investing their money in external portable lighting instead of studio lights.


PJs will need to be light and fast and they’ll favor lenses at both extremes. For working close in a crowd they’ll use the wide end of the scale and for sporting events and event coverage, they’ll have extremely long and very expensive glass.

If PJs carry a flash at all it will be compact, as they’re more likely to favor faster lenses and cameras with bigger sensors for shooting in low light than rely on flash units.

For PJs it’s all about the speed and the weight.

That’s one of the reasons photography questions are so hard to answer. The type of photography you choose will make a big difference in equipment selection.

The Hazards of Photgraphy

rock climbing photo
The best pictures are at the top. Ready? Go! - By Michele Campeotto

There’s a big difference between doing anything as a hobby and doing it as a career. That applies to a lot of activities but particularly to photography.

Not only do you have to take amazing photos, the kind of pictures that make people go, “Wow!” but you have to be good at business, understand contracts and be willing to go to incredible lengths for photos.

Anyone who thinks making a living as a photographer is easy is most likely a hobbyist dreaming of going pro or in another line of work.

Just in my own experience I have been punched, elbowed, tripped, jostled and spit on and those are just the ones I can attribute to other photographers. I’ve been threatened with arrest, more than once, teargassed even though it was aimed in another direction, camped in the pouring rain, had frozen feet from standing in ice cold mountain streams, been lost in the wilderness, pitched around in a helicopter, gotten food poisoning, been air sick and so seasick I had to alternate between throwing up and taking pictures. I could have easily ended up at the bottom of a cliff buried under a backpack full of camera gear on several occasions. Yet, compared to these guys working for National Geographic, I’ve had it easy.

If that isn’t bad enough, you’re also dealing with a business climate of continuously diminishing opportunities and constant pressure from low-price competitors. Very few organizations are hiring photographers and the few that are have a massive amount of talent to choose from.

Many companies that were traditional sources of contracts for photographers are now buying their photography from stock photo and microstock photography agencies. Even those agencies are being challenged by services like TwitPics, which reserves the right to sell images without compensation.

And, through all that, you still have to take pictures, even when you don’t feel like it.

I’m not trying to rain on any dreams of becoming a photographer, just trying to inject some reality into the dream. You’re not going to get there with a Nikon and a kit lens and it’s going to be a constant fight to make ends meet.

On the other hand, when it all does come together and you get one of those photos that changes the world, all the struggle seems worthwhile.