Through the Gadling Lens: 5 photography items I’m glad I blew money on

In my family, I’m definitely the saver, while my husband is definitely the spender. I’m always the one who can “make do” with what I have, whereas my husband is always looking to purchase the latest and greatest gadget available. So back when I was doing photography solely as a hobby, I could always count on him to buy me the coolest photography-related gadgets on the market. I’d complain how much money he spent, but secretly, I loved it.

Now that my profession, in great part, involves photography, I tend to buy all of my equipment myself, and I always find myself torn: should I succumb to my generally frugal nature, and look for the great deal? Or should I instead follow my husband’s footsteps, go all out and splurge on the best? My struggle with this is constant; however, I thought this week I would share a few items on which I’m thrilled that either I or my husband went ahead and spent the money. A couple of these items are wildly expensive; others, not so much — however, I suspect I’ll be using all of them for many years to come.
1. My manual 50mm lens. When I first started in photography about 15 years ago, I took a photographer friend with me to buy my first second-hand camera. At the time, I remember him warning me that I wouldn’t spend less than US$ 500, an amount that seemed exorbitant to me for a used camera. But he was right: I spent $501, and $275 of that amount was on the lens: a used, fully manual, fixed focal length 50mm 1.4 lens. The lens was already about 10 years old at the time of purchase, and being fully manual means that I have to manually adjust the focus and the aperture, the camera won’t automatically do it for me.

But oh, my heavens, how I love this lens. I don’t have any other lens that can create the beautiful bokeh (depth of field) that this lens can, and while manually focusing can sometimes be difficult (particularly with a wiggly subject), when I get the image, boy do I ever get the image. It remains my very favourite lens in my collection.

Moral of the story: If you’re ever in a camera store, torn whether or not to purchase an old second-hand lens, if it’s in good shape, I say go for it. You’ll end up learning far more about photography than you would likely learn on your own with a fully automatic lens, and I have yet to see similar results from a newer, more modern, fully-automatic lens. Best $275 I’ve ever reluctantly spent in my life.

2. My Jill-e rolling camera bag. Not too long ago, I wrote about my search for the perfect travel bag. I’m thrilled to report that my recent purchase has met and exceeded my expectations. I will admit to you that the US$ 300 price tag made me balk considerably before shelling out the cash, but the truth is that the bag has performed admirably. The wheels make maneuvering in crowded airports relatively easy. I love that the design of the bag doesn’t scream “EXPENSIVE CAMERA EQUIPMENT HERE.” And when I’m not traveling, the compartments provide great camera storage in a corner of my studio/office, ready to go at a moment’s notice. It’s a great bag.

Moral of the story: If you plan on taking lots of photography equipment (and your laptop) with you when you travel, go ahead and splurge on a good travel camera bag, particularly one with wheels. You’re going to want to buy a bag that you know will survive the general battery and abuse of travel, while still protecting your expensive gear, and this rarely comes cheap. Spend the extra cash — you won’t regret it.

3. My 60mm macro lens. Several years ago, my husband bought me a macro lens, because I mentioned it might be cool to have one, on a whim. I will tell you that if he hadn’t bought it for me, I probably wouldn’t have purchased it myself: spending around $500 on a lens solely for the purpose of taking close-up shots of things seemed a bit excessive. Still, I’m hardly one to turn down photography-related gifts, so I accepted it gratefully.

Little did I know how much I would grow to adore this lens — shooting images so close up opens up an entire new world of photography that I didn’t know existed. In addition, when I’m not shooting things very close up, the lens acts like a normal lens; in other words, it behaves very much like my 50mm manual lens (that I spoke of, above), except it’s fully automatic, and I’ve taken some very respectable images using it in this manner.

Moral of the story: If you think you might be into macro photography, you won’t regret spending the money on a macro lens — because, remember, the lens can be used like a regular lens of its focal length. Don’t let the “macro” in the name fool you — it’s more versatile than it sounds.

4. My vintage Kodak Duaflex camera. About a year ago, I was on vacation with some friends, when I saw my friend Andrea aiming her camera through a makeshift, cardboard contraction, the end of which was taped to an old, antique camera.

“What in God’s name are you doing?” I delicately asked.

“Oh, it’s a technique called Through the Viewfinder,” she responded. You simply aim your digital camera through this tube, which is attached to a twin-lens reflex camera. The result is a digital image which has the vintage look of the antique camera — very timeless.”

I was skeptical, but when she told me that dual lens reflex cameras could be purchased at antique stores or online on eBay for anywhere between US$20 and US$50, I became intrigued. It didn’t seem like a lot of money to risk, so when I returned home, I started searching eBay for a Kodak Duaflex, the twin-lens reflex she recommended.

Once it arrived, and with the help of some duct tape we had lying around, my husband turned an old cardboard box a pair of boots came in into the tube necessary to attach to the camera. I’ve absolutely loved shooting with this thing, and eventually, a collection of the images I shot at a friend’s ranch became my first major exhibit at a gallery. I’m officially hooked.

Moral of the story: If you’re looking to expand your photography skills by using a different technique or lens, you can’t really go wrong with trying out the Through the Viewfinder technique. I wrote a bit about it at the bottom of this post (which includes some links to get you started), and the best part? If you decided you’re not that into the TtV method, for $25 you’ve managed to score yourself a cool vin
tage camera to display on your bookshelves, giving guests the signal that you’re a Bona Fide Photography Buff. That has to count for something.

5. My 70-200mm zoom lens. Okay, so I’ve saved the most shockingly expensive item for last — and believe you me, when my husband showed up with this puppy at our house, I gave him a SERIOUS talking-to about spending that kind of money on a lens. In fact, just typing that last sentence, and linking to the price on Amazon just sent a pang of rage through my little tightwad heart. This is really the sort of lens that should be saved for SERIOUS pros, and the only reason that I didn’t make him return it immediately was because he’d ordered it from the States, and at the time, we were living in Trinidad — there was really no store to which to return the damned thing, without risking it being damaged in shipment.

So it remained.

And I have to admit, this lens has become my absolute pride and joy. It is positively perfect for taking beautiful portraits of people from far away, so that they’re not even really aware that you’re taking their photograph, much less capturing such lovely tight shots. It is my go-to lens when I attend weddings, my tool for my standard wedding gift of an album of candid images. And of course, now that photography is part of my profession, I’m thrilled to own it. When it comes to going to festivals or other public events, there really is no comparison.

Moral of the story: Do not spend the money on this lens unless you have some serious cash burning your pocket. But if you can afford it, and you’re the type of person who likes to travel to visit the famous festivals of the world and capture close-up expressions of the faces you see around you, you’ll be swooning at the results you can get with this bad boy. It’s an excellent lens.

So those are my will-never-regret photography purchases — how about you? Are there any photography-related items that you’re so happy you spent the money on? If so, please share them in the comments, below. And as always, if you have any questions or suggestions, you can always contact me directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom – and I’m happy to address them in upcoming Through the Gadling Lens posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.