Trusting Your Equipment

I’ve got to get something off my chest.
I don’t trust my camera and it’s put me off my game.

There was a time, not long ago that I used to sleep well at night, knowing that at a moment’s notice I could just jump out of bed, grab my bag, and know that when I got to my shoot and picked up my camera that everything would work as expected. Unfortunately, something has changed in the past year and it has me worried. I’ve got a new and recent sense of anxiety about my equipment. 

Let me start out by saying that I’m not a gear whore by any means. Over the years I’ve collected a hodgepodge of lights, stands, modifiers, cases, cables, connectors, and cabooses. Ok, I made that last one up. The point is that I try to keep my kit small, tight, and versatile. I should also point out that while I use Canon for my camera and lenses for historical reasons I’m not a snob and that what I say below isn’t about specific brand or gear, just examples of the kind of reliability issues I’m talking about. 

When possible I try to buy equipment that’s going to hold up. I bought a bunch of Canon L prime lenses years ago and haven’t had to buy a piece of glass sense. That way I don’t have to worry about it. This is the reason why pro gear exists. Often it doesn’t do much more than the consumer stuff, but it’s built in a way that is more likely to work every time after being bumped around in your bag for a couple of years. You’ve got enough to think about creatively without having to worry about whether your flash is going to fire, but here I am worrying about whether my flash is going to fire half the time. We’ll get back to that in a bit. First let’s start with the basics.

Being a typical New Yorker, I don’t own a car, so I often have to carry or roll my gear between trains, onto planes, and up 4 flights of stairs. Because of this, and the fact that I alway liked the X Wing more than the Falcon, I tend use smaller bodies like the Canon 5D. In fact I've been using an iteration of the 5D for the last seven years (with a short 1Ds Mark III intermission), and while all of them capture amazing files, my latest Mark III is a bit of a lemon. The rubber grip is coming loose in places, I’ve had joystick nub fall off and had to send it in for repair more than once to get it back to ship shape. And for some reason my batteries just die on me sometimes. I’ll go pick up the camera and it’s just dead. Perhaps I forget to use the On/Off switch and somehow bump the live view button (which is too easy to do with no way to disable) and it’s chewing up the charge when I’m not looking or while sitting in my bag. Either way it’s not good. Speaking of which, why did they move the On/Off switch to the upper left anyway? Now instead of using the thumb of the one hand that’s already gripping the camera, you’ve got to have your other hand free to turn the damn thing on. Stupid.

Also, I don’t trust the screen. Except in the most banal of situations, what I see on the rear screen of my 5D III is not a good representation of what I’m going to be working with when I import the RAW file into my computer. You might be saying that I should use the histogram anyway, which I do, however Canon histograms are based on the in-camera JPEG conversion from the RAW file and not the RAW file itself, so your current ‘picture style’ affects what you see in the histogram even if you’re not saving JPEGs at all! So I use a custom style with the contrast all the way down, but it’s still not enough to accurately show me what the shadows are going to look like. It’s to the point where I have to translate in my head what I see on the rear screen and know through experience that I will be able to get what I need out of the file. This is nuts on a body that cost $3500.

To be sure, there were things about my Mark II that drove me nuts too, like the super slow mirror blackout time, smaller viewfinder, and clunky sounding shutter. However I never worried whether it was going to be ready to go when I picked it up. I used to take two week trips without a charger. Now I don’t go to a shoot without an extra battery in the bag. Yet another thing for the todo list.

Oh and back to the flash thing. I’ve got three Plus II transceivers I’ve had for years. You know, the industry standard ones that every rental house and studio seems to have a box full of. For what they are, a small board with a few commodity chips and an antenna, they cost a fortune. I think they were $199 each when I bought them. If they code $10 each to make, I’d be surprised. But you and I buy them because they’re reliable, right?. Well mine are well cared for but one of them will receive but not send anymore, and the remaining two have started to act unreliably. Every shoot I go on there are at least a half dozen shots which are dark frames because the flash doesn’t get triggered, and I’m standing a maximum of ten feet from the lights using freshly charged Eneloop batteries. Makes me want to pull my hair out. If not for indestructibleness, what did I give you $600 for when there are plenty of cheaper options out there? 

I’ve even started to get funny results from the most dependable gear out there, my standard issue 50mm f/1.4 lens. On a shoot last week, I was working with available light and so was stuck with a relatively shallow depth of field, but the camera kept back focusing on me. I didn’t trust that either my 50 nor my goto 28/1.8 which I was using as well were doing what I wanted them to do. I spent much of the shoot double checking their work like a micromanaging boss instead of engaging the subject and doing me best work. I guess I’ll have to carry my heavy f/1.2 lenses with me next time.

I’m not entirely sure what’s going on. Is it too much to ask that my camera 'just works'? Maybe it’s entropy, a natural decay over time. An expiration date that passed which means I’ve got go through my cabinets to throw everything out and restock the basics. Maybe it’s about time that I pulled EVERYTHING out of my closet to be stripped down, cleaned, and tested like a soldier in the field with my rifle. Everything that isn’t completely vital or working perfectly gets the boot. Start fresh and clean house. I’ll let you know how it goes.