Breaking Down My Gear

I’ve always debated a post like this, one where I share with readers what camera equipment I use. Mostly because I’ve seen so many other photographers detail their gear, that I’ve long thought I had nothing new to offer to the conversation. But then I realized: 1) People always love to hear about other people’s gear, even if it’s the same variation of the same combination of equipment in all our bags and  2) I field this question enough (at least 10-12 times a year) from people who comment on the blog and from photographers who email me, that it’ll be nice to put my answers in one place for easy reference! So, without further ado, let me introduce to you what’s in my camera bag:

My Body: Canon 5D Mkii

When I first starting studying photography as a serious hobbyist, I bought a Canon Rebel body (that links to a recent version; mine was an older model circa 2006, but they’re all just about the same). I tell aspiring photographers over and over again than when they are looking for that first DSLR, they need to go with purchasing JUST the body (not a kit with a lens), and then go with the fixed 50 mm 1.8 lens for their starter lens. For the money, this is the best first-gear set-up you can get your hands on! (Then buy Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Exposure, the best guide to learning manual I’ve ever found).

From my Rebel, I purchased an original Canon 5D and it was love at first sight. I STILL love that camera, six years later. It’s my second body now at weddings and, because I’m so sentimental about it, I still shoot with it quite a bit (and have a third 5D body as my back-up to my back-up!) In 2011, I upgraded to the MkII and have found it to be a excellent camera body as well. They say the best camera is the one in your hands, and I’ve been lucky with every body I’ve ever purchased from Canon—I find that nothing beats the color quality from them (though I know my Nikon friends try to win me over on focus factor!)

My workhorse lens: Canon 50 mm 1.2 and Canon 35 mm 1.4

If I only had two lens to carry with me for the rest of my life, these would be it. I’m a 50 girl–it’s my favorite focal distance to shoot and for large chunks of a wedding day, you’ll see this lens on my camera body, especially for portraits of the bride and groom. I actually bought my 50 mm 1.2 (after upgrading from the 1.4, which is a nice step up from the 1.8) used from, a site I HIGHLY recommend if you’re looking to try out new gear (you can rent it first) and/or are interested in investing in used gear (since photography is, well, you know, definitely not cheap). As for my 35 mm 1.4, I just LOVE this focal length. This is also the lens that Annie Leibovitz loves best too. (So, you know, this means I’m just as qualified to shoot Vanity Fair covers now, right? Ha!). It allows for more of the environment around a subject to enter the frame and so, when I travel, it’s usually the lens I keep on my camera most, for street photography in particular. It’s the perfect lens for how the eye “sees” the world.

My wedding day wonder lens: Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L and Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro

I know people who do it, but I don’t recommend shooting weddings or sports events without a great telephoto lens. I have friends who swear by the 135mm (the bokeh on that lens IS divine), but the standard workhorse is the 70-200. It’s a good thing that this bad boy has image stabilization, because it’s a BEAST of a lens. I often find that my arm/wrist is killing me after a ceremony where I’ve been using it heavily. (This seems to happen most with Catholic masses; those ceremonies are typically an hour-plus, combined with many of the churches requiring photographers to stay far back from the action, so it’s essential to use a zoom lens.) I purchased my macro lens about four years ago and really love it for detail shots, though I really don’t use it for much else. I always tell myself I’ll pull it out for more nature photography (I think close-ups with it of flowers and dewy grass are just incredible), but never have the time!

So there you have it—those are the tried and true lens in my bag. I also own a 85mm lens that I seldom use (I know some photographers love it, but it’s too much of a crop for me); a 28mm lens that I use mostly for group portraits during a wedding’s family portrait time (having an extra wide lens for large groupings on a wedding day makes this lens worth it alone); and a fisheye lens that I still like to pop on at least a couple of times at receptions, just to add a little zany variety to those shots of people getting down on the dance floor! (for which I also use my 28)

One last thing to note: I have always bought lens that were Canon, being a firm believer in sticking with the brand I know best and the brand that fits the camera body intended. Also, with the exception of a 24-135mm lens I bought shortly after I got into photography (and sold at a loss less than a year later, its ability to get down only to a 3.5 f-stop proving a severe limitation) and my 70-200, my lens purchases have all been fixed (prime) lens. I’m a big believer that these are all-around the best lens you can work with, so even if it means I’m changing them out more in my bag, it’s worth it for the look and feel they give me in providing the body of work that defines my photographic style.

Got more questions for me about gear? Let me have ‘em … just know I’ll be adding on to this post so I can come back to it for those who need help and/or advice from me on the subject in the future!

All the Pens …

Some of you might have noticed me writing recently on the blog and Facebook about freshening up some of my marketing materials for 2014 (remember those awesome flash drives?) Well, earlier this month I was ordering some new customized mailing labels (which are necessary for any business) and Post-Its (which are totally NOT but come on…I mean, who doesn’t LOVE those?) when I saw the company I use also advertising customized pens. “Well, I have to have some of THOSE!” I thought, giddy at the idea (because I’m kind of a sucker for pens—at trade shows, I tend to come away with about 20 of them in my bag….who’s with me?) So I quickly processed my order (I’m a mom now which means the adjective I can best use to describe most of my actions is ‘quickly’), not thinking too much more of it. Then, about two weeks later, when the box showed up, I was all, “Wow, this is kind of heavy,” as I carried it inside the house. Then …. well, then I opened it up and started laughing.

Because Internet, I HAVE ORDERED ALL THE PENS. I mean, we’re not talking like, 100 here … no …. there might be at least 1,000 in that big ‘ol box I shoved in my supply closet. Enough that I’ll never need to buy another pen again. Enough that (and forgive me, some of you sensitive hearts out there) when my friends attend my funeral, they can sign the log book with one of these things.

I’m already planning of the numerous ways in the months years ahead I can make use of these pens. If I ever decide to run for office, I’m set for what to hand out while canvassing. Also covered? Halloween hand-outs and Christmas stocking stuffers. And if I’m ever struck with amnesia, well, it’s nice to know I’ll have something to carry around to help identify me.

Jokes aside for a minute: Business is business and I know that these can be a great marketing tool for my brand, so I am most definitely looking forward to sneaking a few into each package I’ll be sending out in the mail this year to all my incredible clients. My next order, of course, is when I turn my attention to ALL THE MAGNETS.


March 2014 Self-Portrait: The Write Stuff

It’s no secret to anyone who follows me here that I’m a writer. That I always have been, even as a kid. But in high school, I turned to journalism because it was safer (and easier) for me to. Writing about other people? I could do that. Creating my own characters? SO MUCH HARDER (and far more revealing), not to mention I always felt I could never come up with any great ideas. Recently I read an interview with Mad Men creator Matt Weiner where he lamented about his teenage years, “I’m a very conventional person … I’m middle-class … I kept wishing I had grown up interesting so I could be a great writer.” Boy could I relate! Until my 30s, I let that sentiment drive why I’d never tried to write any fiction of my own.

For years, I chased journalism instead: Writing first for newspapers and now, at my day job at Ball State, penning feature stories and press releases and articles for our alumni magazine. With the exception of photography, my jobs have always centered on journalistic writing—and I continue to love doing it, every day—but still, I’ve never quit wanting to write fiction. A while back I resigned myself to the idea that it would be a hobby I pursued someday. Like, when my kid(s) were grown. When life calmed down. When I actually had something (anything) worth writing about. When I was old and gray, I told myself, I could fulfill this dream, indulging in it while relaxing with a cup of coffee inside that other dream of mine: the Airstream Nick and I intend to buy in retirement, driving it cross-country, stopping here and there, but parking most often along the scenic overlooks of northern California.

That plan changed on me when, last fall, and totally on a whim, I decided to “sign up” for Cathy Day‘s novel writing course at Ball State. Cathy’s an English professor at the university, someone I’ve come to know and appreciate immensely in recent years, having worked with her on a number of projects. When she posted to Facebook that she was going to experiment with sharing her course materials online, and that those of us ambitious enough could follow along, I looked at her words and thought, “Oh hell … why not?” I didn’t have a preexisting idea for a novel, hadn’t a clue where to turn for inspiration in finding one, and was naive in my belief I could pull it off, but I jumped in anyway, giddy as the girl who picked up a camera six years ago telling herself, “You love this, why don’t you stop thinking you can’t do it and start believing you can?”

It’s been a long winter, friends, but here’s why it’s been such a good one for me: Because the seed of an idea that germinated in Cathy’s class has turned into a true novel in-progress. An accomplishment that carries even greater significance knowing that, after all these years, it’s finally given me the confidence to believe I can actually do this: I CAN WRITE A BOOK. Had you sat me down a year ago and said, “Gail, next year at this time, you’ll have 275 pages of a novel written,” I would have laughed in your face. But now? Now I wouldn’t dare because slowly, one word at a time (all pounded out wayyyy past my bedtime), it’s what I’ve been doing.

Why share all this with you for my March self-portrait? Because it’s the month that, in many ways, I finally decided to stop pussy-footing around, to be honest with myself in believing that I am a writer. Not just of other people’s stories, but of my own. Two weeks ago, I sat in a manuscript workshop where the book I’ve been working on was critiqued by published authors in front of nearly two dozen of my peers. It was scary, it was nerve-wrecking, but also? Immensely satisfying. I felt like I had arrived, found my tribe, belonged with those people who were there. And that felt so so good. So while I have no idea where this current novel of mine will end up, I know a few things about my intentions as they relate to it:

1) I intend to publish it. I’ll try traditional routes first, ones that, autiodidact that I am, I’ve been researching all about in equal parts excitement and trepidation. Because I’m a pragmatist who, at the same time, is equally committed to her main characters, if and when those doors close for me, I’ll turn to self-publishing instead and here’s why: I really, really want you all to meet Emily and Adam. I hope you come to love them as much as they’ve grown on me; I might cry when I finish this book because that’s how hard it’ll be for me to part with them. Eight months is a long time to spend with anyone—fictional or otherwise—and imagining having to say goodbye now? It’s already getting to me and I haven’t even written their ending yet!

2) I intend to keep writing. Writing this first novel of mine has been such an incredible journey. I’ve enjoyed the process immensely—and learned so much about myself along the way—that any plans or aspirations I have for publication are secondary forms of accomplishment. It’s true what they say about writing as much as anything: When you commit to it, practice it, live it, the ideas start to flow. And so I already have several more in mind for future story material. I’ve gotta say, it’s SUCH a thrill to think the mental wall I built up for myself all those years ago (the one with the whiny ‘But what will I write about?‘ graffiti written all over it) got delivered a take down Kool-Aid man style in all of this.

3) I intend to inspire others along the way. If that sounds arrogant, please know what I really mean is this: That if I can do this—a mother of a toddler who holds down a day job but makes the time to write (because you’re never going to find the time), then you can do it too. And maybe your passion isn’t writing but baking, or knitting, or making jewelry or graphic posters or homemade jam and selling them on Etsy, but whatever it is, you deserve to chase it every bit as much as I do. Damn the excuses we keep telling ourselves. Am I right or am I write?

Also, for anyone who may have wondered why I’ve blogged far less as of late (if you even noticed!), just know it’s been because of this book of mine!

What I’m Loving Round-up: March 2014
What I’m Loving Round-up: March 2014

A new album release from an electric rock duo that has me Shazamin' their tracks in the car, the latest young adult adaptation to hit movie theaters with one heck of a good looking love interest (Four!) and a new collection of short stories that made me laugh out loud more than a few times ... here's a peek at a few of the things I was loving this month.

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Dean: 17 Months

We’ve hit the 17 month mark with you Dean which basically means your mama is at this weird point in your existence where when someone asks how old you are, she has to scratch her head for a minute and think about it. At this stage, it’s just so hard to forget (but for the record, I CAN do math…just don’t expect me to help you some day with your trigonometry).

002_deanmarch2014 004_deanmarch2014 Sometimes (a lot of times) I feel like I”m not doing enough to document your life. Your baby book hasn’t been updated in so long there’s dust coating its jacket cover and I can’t remember the last time I ordered physical photos of you (your birthday maybe? see that was 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, SEVEN months ago). So sometimes I feel like these letters to you should be a run down of bullet points detailing how big you are each month (about 20 pounds at the moment..and barely on the growth curve, you string bean!), what teeth are coming in (first molars, which are so so not fun but hopefully you’ll never remember this) and what food groups you’re presently eschewing (mainly meat, particularly chicken, an aversion of which you share with my dad—can that be genetic?)

011_deanmarch2014 013_deanmarch2014 But then I think how much I want to capture more of the little memories that, at first, seem so fleeting and insignificant. It’s only later, as I’m sitting on the edge of the tub, curling my hair in the morning before you wake up, or washing your bottles late at night (you still take one in the morning), that I think how much they are the stuff this parenting gig is made of. The first revolves around a lunch hour I spent with you earlier this month. It was nothing special: I think I served you cottage cheese, orange slices, and maybe a cut-up hot dog (every mom has her shortcuts; there just happens to be a little sodium nitrate in mine). Out of nowhere, you just started giggling HYSTERICALLY. It wasn’t because I was making a funny face or a farting noise (both of which I regularly bust out to get a rise from you) but just like, this … adult kind of laughter. Like we had some kind of hidden joke going between us. And the next thing I knew, I was laughing too, which made you laugh harder, and then I just thought: This is so cool. YOU are so cool. And it blew my mind a little bit, you see, because getting those glimpses of the person you’re becoming (not the baby, but the boy) is like getting a peek into the future and what a thrill that is. 017_deanmarch2014 Then there is this: Not too long ago, I picked you up out of your crib after you’d woken up, and you reached up and slung your arms around my neck and squeezed tight. And again, this is nothing special, you do it now every day, just a physical reaction to being held. But the first time you did it, my eyes welled up with tears. Because you hugged me back, you see? And I know I have said this before about different milestones and memories we’ve made with you these past 17 months, but truly, that one millisecond of a moment is seared into my brain now for life—it was that good. And already I’m looking forward to what you’ll do next to top it. 032_deanmarch2014