Friday, December 26, 2008

Tools: These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

Photography can be a gadget-heavy business. From the cameras to the computers, there's a lot of stuff that you can utilize in your business activities.

I started thinking about the items that are most useful to me. I won't list the camera, because that's kind of a given. I shoot with the Canon 30D. I'll work out from there, and highlight my favorite 10 things that have made my business better over the last years. I'll do this like a Letterman Top 10 list:

My Top 10 Tools:

10 - Credit Card Account. I use Midwest Transaction Group for credit card ordering. This streamlines the orders I take for many of my customer sales, and it legitimizes me as a businessman to many. The card reader and automatic 2-day deposit are well worth the low fees and rates that I pay. I waited 3 years to get this and I should have done it earlier. I pay under $10/month and a couple of percent on transaction fees, and the return on this investment is high.

9 - Zoombrowser EX. This is a key tool in my workflow. I use it to triage the images quickly, to assign ratings of one to three stars. Then I scrub down that 3-star list until it has my very best images. Once I have done this, the 3-star list becomes my working set of images. It saves me many hours. This is a Canon utility. I believe that Windows Vista will do this now, allowing you to choose 1-5 stars. I didn't spend any money on this one; it came with the camera.

8 - Proshow Producer. I make many slide shows each year, for dance, seniors, band, weddings and more. This program is very productive and lets you make impressive slide shows with lots of great effects. I started with Proshow Gold for the first year and then upgraded to Producer. I also have the plug-in pack for High School Seniors which works well. I think I paid around $300 for Producer and upgrades.

7 - Jalbum and Fotoplayer. Jalbum is a Flash-based website photo viewer application that you can run from your website, or you can host it elsewhere. Fotoplayer is a skin or plugin that works with Jalbum, and provides great browsing, watermarking, ecard and shopping capabilities. Using these tools, I now host my own online galleries for customer viewing and ordering. Jalbum is free and Fotoplayer is around $80. Given that I spent hundreds of dollars per year hosting albums with EventPix and PhotoReflect, the payback was just a couple of months. I have customized the albums and provided login security and online ordering, including shipping, discounts and coupon codes. It takes me about 10 minutes to build and upload a new gallery and tie it into my website. Check out this album of some of my scenic work for a taste of what these products do (no pasword is required). Incidentally I use all royalty-free music on my web galleries and slide shows...and I'm writing and recording some of my own stuff now!

6 - JTL's 5-in-1 66" collapsible reflector. I use this on many of my outoor shoots. It has white, black, silver and gold reflectors, and a diffuser as well. It folds down to about a 24" circle, and opens up large enough to light a sitting family or a standing senior. It takes a bit of practice to learn how to re-collapse it, but once you get the hang of it, this reflector is a must-have on outdoor shoots. This reflector is about $110.

5 - Monopod and Manfrotto Tilt Head. Outside the studio setting, more than 80% of my shots are made using a monopod and tilt head. This is a great blend of portability and stability. The Bogen Manfrotto Tilt Head is sturdy and allows me to switch from portrait to landscape with a twist of a locking nut. I have a couple of monopods; they are generally under $30, and the tilt head is under $40.

4 - Tamron f/2.8 lenses. I have three: The 17-50mm, the 28-75mm and the 70-200mm. These are all sturdy, accurate, and they come with great customer service and warranty. I had one lens quit on me owing to sand in the barrel, and Tamron repaired it under their 6 year warranty. The fast fixed f/2.8 over the zoom range allows me to get shots with shallow depth of focus, great bokeh and great performance in low light. These great lenses are quite affordable for their capabilities - the 70-200mm for example is right around $799.

3 - Canon Speedlite 430 EX and Gary Fong Lightsphere. I have used the 430 EX for years, in situations where I need a touch of fill light or indoors. It's essential for good sunset shots, and other situations where I need to balance ambient light with flash. The flash runs about $200. I just received the Lightsphere and I'm confident that it will further enhance my attached-flash work. Various components of the Lightsphere system are available from $50-150.

2 - X-rite Eye-one display for computer color calibration. I use this every day, in that my monitors are always color corrected. This means that I see the true color of the image on the screen. I can't tell you how important this is. I worked for 2 years with out it, and my print color accuracy suffered. You absolutely must invest in this early! I think I spent around $250 for my solution; there are other good ones out there.

And my #1 favorite tool is...

1 - Corel Paint Shop Pro X2. You probably know by now that I am not a Photoshop person. I got my start with PaintShop Pro version 6 and I am so used to the software now that it would kill me to change. Version X2 is so feature laden that I it meets all of my editing needs. I use this every day, and am quite adept at editing, layout and automation using this tool. And it runs all of the plugins I have ever needed. For more reasons why I think PSP/X2 is better than Photoshop, you can read my article here. This software is a steal at $80 and is often much cheaper than that. My favorite capability is the cosmetic editing, which makes quick work of face, teeth and hair edits for portraits.

So you can see what makes me tick. I don't often go for the top end or most expensive equipment or software, but what I do have I use like crazy and I get a lot of value from it.

I'd be interested in hearing about other peoples' top 10 lists!


  1. I see many of those items would be useful in my learning as well. I ran into a few issues on Christmas Eve when I was "asked" to shoot the family photos this year. Long story short, I ended up severely dismayed at the results.

  2. Oooh, I had to add that I LOVE Adorama!