My last blog entry, exploring gear and goals left me thinking about my own gear acquisition history. I have written before about how, these days, I tend to be slow to adopt new gear. I only displace technology that works well for me if the newer technology is a notable improvement. (DSLRs that capture video are one example of a notable technology shift.) I will be first to admit this was not always the case. In college and during my first few years as a freelancer, I churned through different sets of gear. I was trying to figure out who I was as a photographer (and which technology would help me make the photographs I wanted to make.) In looking back, I have noted that certain pieces of gear have stayed with me throughout over my career, including some that have been with me a very long time.
I am defining gear rather loosely, but I mean any piece of technology that helps me when I am pursuing my photography. With that in mind, without a doubt the oldest piece of photo-related technology I own is a 27 year-old North Face brand, Gore-Tex raincoat that I had customized for use when doing photography. I purchased the largest size they made and then I had gussets added to the sides. I did this so the entire rain coat could, if need be, keep me and all my newspaper photojournalist’s camera gear dry in a rain storm. The gussets were folded up inside the jacket and held in place by Velcro covered zippers. It looks like a garish orange raincoat with blue stripes under my arms, which is where the gussets actually sit. I initially chose a bright orange jacket to get people’s attention when I was covering traffic accidents in Southern California. They may have doubted my sense of color but they always saw me, which was all that mattered.
I have used that same rain coat over the subsequent decades, including covering news events like Hurricane Gloria’s impact on Long island, NY in 1985. I also wore it when I was photographing deep-sea fishermen in Massachusetts and later Quahoggers in Rhode Island. It kept me dry on the various boats I was on. It would also have made me easy to spot had I fallen overboard. I know new technologies exist to do the same job but this one has worked for me for so long I see no reason to change it (or spend more money.)
Like most photographers, I spent years using my in-camera light meter, which excelled at giving me reflected light readings. When I switched to working in color slides for magazines, I needed to learn and then practice incident light meter reading. It took me a couple tries, but way back in 1990, I settled on what was the perfect hand-held light meter for me, the Sekonic Flashmate. It was (and still is) very small, easy to use. It reads both continuous light and electronic flash. I used it happily until 2003, when the changing nature of the publication for market for photography forced me to “go digital.” The Flashmate still serves as the hand held light meter that my wife uses when she is photographing with her Holgas. She uses it to determine which camera, with which speed of black and white film should be used for a given situation.
Years ago someone gave me a Leatherman brand multi-tool as gift. I immediately saw the value in having one and I wore one on my belt for years, whether or not I was working on an assignment. I often felt almost naked without one. Changes in airport security rules meant that I had to put that in my checked bag, so if I was flying shorter distances and I did not check a bag, my belt was not sporting a Leatherman multi-tool. I eventually found the Leatherman to be less than ideal and so, like any gear-head, I started researching other options. A decade ago, I bought my first Gerber brand multi-tool. I found the Gerber to be better made and better able to take the abuse I gave it. I have bought a couple Gerber multi-tools since, but that was only because I lost one, had one stolen and broke one when I needed to use it as a hammer in a minor emergency. The one I currently use solves all my problems and then some, because it now has a corkscrew. Opening wine bottles for my wife may not directly relate to my photography but it sure helps out in terms of my happiness.
I cannot remember when I started using a table-top tripod but is has to be more than ten years ago. Many of my earliest film cameras had removable penta-prisms so I could rest the camera on the ground and still see through the lens. I used to be a master at using small things like pens or keys to lift up one corner of the camera, to tweak my compositions as it rested on the ground. The move away from cameras with removable penta-prisms led to a brief period when I actually would lay on the ground as I tried to look through the viewfinder. I usually got the picture I wanted and I always got dirt in my hair or my ear, or both.
I long ago stopped using a regular tripod in the field because they were such a pain to carry around and they ended up being used so rarely. When I saw my first table-top tripod I immediately recognized how I could use it to aid me as I rested my camera on the ground. It would enable me to look through the viewfinder without putting my head in the dirt, like I used to have to do. As time went on, I also discovered how important a table-top tripods can be for holding the camera steady during longer exposures. Most recently, they have been instrumental in my various multi-media projects, where I need to lock the camera in place in order to do time-lapse work.
It took me a couple years of experimentation to settle on exactly which ball head and table-top tripod legs to use, but the system I have in place now works perfectly, for me. I have both podcasted and blogged about which table-top tripod legs and ball head I use and why. Over the last decade, I have bought a couple new table-top tripods, but that was only because I tend to break them every couple years. I press on them so hard in order to keep them in place that the aluminum legs eventually fracture.
These are the oldest pieces of gear that I own. They have earned that status by solving a given problem and then getting out of the way, so I can do what I do best. That is what all gear should do in most any technologically based pursuit.
What are the oldest pieces of gear that you have? How did you settle on them? What do they do for you so well? Do you ever think of replacing them with something newer?