23 September 2017

Three Companies that Excel in Customer Service Part III: ProMaster

Sunrise at Bodie Island Lighthouse (Nags Head)
©2014 Terrell Neasley
"Exceed your customer's expectations. If you do, they'll come back over and over. Give them what they want - and a little more." 
~ Sam Walton

Continuing this series with another great photography-related company, I wanted to round things out with another company servicing a different aspect of photo. In Part I, I covered a camera manufacturer. Part II looked at details of one of the best run lighting companies out there. This time around, I wanted to focus on the next arena photographers seek to fulfill the remainder of their photographic wants. After you have your camera and lenses and you've taken care of all your lighting requirements, the next thing you look for are camera accessories.

ProMaster (Photographic Research Organization) has been around for almost 60 years as a privately held cooperative. That's right. Its owned by member retailers, like B&C Camera instead of being a single entity incorporated business. And one of the great benefits to being served by a company like this is that the "shareholders" are more than just a bunch of investors who sit back and stare at the bottom line. A business structure like this means its managed and owned by expert business retailers who actually know the markets they serve. Uniting together like this allows them to capitalize on the collective buying power that help influence the market and get us these great prices.

Mossy Oaks Next to Currituck Beach Lighthouse (Corolla)
©2014 Terrell Neasley
So what is it about ProMaster that I like? Well, for starters, focusing on the accessories market has pulled some attention away from the big name manufacturers in the photography industry. Maybe back in the day, a solid argument could be made that a better product could be had from buying original equipment manufacturer items, parts, and accessories. A Canon lens hood was designed exclusively for Canon lenses and a "knock-off" lens hood would "never do" as a replacement. But that meant you also paid a premium for branded equipment.

Well, that was in the past. Today, technology has leveled the playing field in two specific areas. One is in the material. Polycarbonate plastics have come a long way. Polymers and synthetics have advanced to improve engineering designs making them light-weight, durable, and inexpensive. Along with the materials, Computer-aided Design and Manufacturing  allows a company to quickly and efficiently use these new materials to manufacture products and shorten the time from sketch to a finished good. When you can now make a product that's as great a quality as what the big name manufacturer can do, then the only thing extra you pay for is the brand name and goodwill.

Looking out from Currituck Beach Lighthouse (Corolla)
©2014 Terrell Neasley
So that's where the buying power comes in. Presently, ProMaster can command quality and reasonable prices and truly compete with "Big Brands". When I need a cable release to do time-lapse, I can get a Canon for $180. OR, I can pick up the ProMaster Multi-Function RF Timer Remote for $100 and also do it wirelessly. See what I'm saying? Or if I don't need the timer feature, I can just get the Wired Remote Shutter Release Cable for $20 and it works! You can even buy just the cable attachment for it specific for your camera. As a photography instructor, I keep several Nikon, Canon, and Sony cable attachments just because students forget them. You'll pay $70 for the Canon RS-80. Ever lose that thing? What's it feel like to shell out another $70 bucks when you want to do some astrophotography and can't find it?

These guys have thousands of SKU's in their inventory under a plethora of product categories. They sell everything from SD card holders to bags, light stands, full studio lighting kits, filters, tripods, batteries for everything, battery grips, lens accessories, extension tubes...(with contacts to AF), and... tell you what...it'll be easier to just let you name something and play the odds. Chances are, they have it. But guess what! If they don't. Easy-Peasy! Because they are a private collective, they don't have the red-tape and politics of having to go through miles of paperwork and approvals to bring a new product to market. If they want it, they'll buy it or design fabricate it. Too easy.

Then you mix in the fact that ProMaster has no middlemen. Nope. Everything goes straight to the member retailers. Your in-store salespeople become the knowledgeable "reps" that bring you up to speed on your choices based on your individual need. All I'm saying is with ProMaster in the mix, you now have viable options. I don't know. You may not be like me, but for myself, I like options. With no middle men, having to take a piece of the pie, that means lower costs for you. Us. Er'body!

Tracie and I, sole occupants, spending the night on Shackleford Banks, NC
©2014 Terrell Neasley
Now, here is the nitty-gritty, though. They've got this pledge thing they call the "ProMaster Promise", which is a one-year unconditional warranty. And it goes a little something like this:

"Our promise of satisfaction; 
We want you to be 100% satisfied with our ProMaster products. If for any reason, your ProMaster product fails within one year of date of purchase, return the item to your ProMaster dealer and it will be exchanged for you at no charge."

Now tell me. Who does a guarantee like that? Show me someone else who does it and I'll show you a badass in the field of customer service. In most cases that warranty will hold up for 30 days...max, with other companies. These guys just said ONE YEAR...UNCONDITIONAL!! Let me break it down for you. Picture this: Ten months after you buy it, your tripod snaps. Okay, cool. Bring it back and get another one. There's no waiting period to conduct an investigation and maybe you'll get another one in six to eight weeks. Bring it in. They check it out at the store. They take the broke one to the back and come back with another new one in the box and say, "Have a nice day. Now get your butt back out there and shoot." How do I know this...because I own the carbon fiber XC-525c and that actually happened. I like carbon fiber. If you don't want to spring for CF, then go for the aluminum XC525 and pick your color.

And if you're in a member store like B&C Camera, just make sure they log your name and email address onto your receipt at time of purchase. 10 months down the road, you may not have kept up with your receipt. At B&C Camera, you can take it up there anyway and just have them look up your name and email and they can find everything you bought, reprint your receipt, and you're good to go. That promise goes for everything.

Inside Currituck Beach Lighthouse (Corolla)
©2014 Terrell Neasley
I've been most impressed with their tripods, LED and studio light kits, bags, and the HGX filters. I switched from B+W's and made all my UV filters HGX, or as we call them at the store, the Reds, because they come in a red case. I've lost a lens cap and just never bothered with a buying another one because I had the HGX filter on the front of it. If you ever scratch it, they'll replace it. They are THAT good and worth the extra cheese if you are putting it on a nice lens.

I've consulted for different businesses that need a studio set up to do product photography, portrait work, etc. I also do One on One Photography classes and toward the end of my week-long course, several students want an all-in-one lighting set up. Having the studio light kits that already include everything you need in one travel bag has proven essential. They make things easy, quick, and simple for both studio flash and LED lighting that adjusts both in power and color temperature. If you want, you can even RENT some ProMaster Light kits to try them out first.

I can't tell the difference between my Sony batteries and my ProMaster batteries at roughly half the cost. However, I did indeed notice a stark difference when we were out of both Sony AND ProMaster batteries. I went down the street and bought a no-name brand. The difference was strikingly different. I chucked it and waited on my ProMaster.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Outer Banks, NC
©2014 Terrell Neasley
So yeah, I'm a fan. But just like you, I've had questions from time to time, which is why I think I'll start recording videos of head to head tests of different ProMaster brand products. I'll be testing durability, accuracy, and the overall results I get from what ProMaster produces vs. the bigger name brand products. This will be done in "lab" fashion as well as actual results in the field. I plan to get back to my 3-month Southeast Asia plans soon and I think that'll be a good time for some field work...hopefully towards the end of November! I'll let you know what ProMaster gear I take with me.

And that's the series on Customer Service delivering more than they promise in genres of photography while serving the same people, like you and I. I hope you give these different companies your consideration and hopefully patronage. I am certain you will not find your trust misplaced.

Tracie and I, sole occupants, spending the night on Shackleford Banks, NC
©2014 Terrell Neasley

16 September 2017

Three Companies that Excel in Customer Service Part II: Paul C. Buff, INC

Beard Project, Jon R., ©2016 Terrell Neasley
Two Einstein 640's 

"You can get everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want."
~ Zig Ziglar

In this 3-part series, I'm covering photo companies that, in my opinion and experience, excel at customer service and have general policies that put the customer ahead of the dollar. Now don't get me wrong. I am not so naive as to not understand that companies are in business to make a profit. A big heart can make you bankrupt. That being understood, I can still appreciate businesses that make it their goal to make that profit by giving the customer what they want and then treating them with respect. In the last post, I covered a camera manufacturer. In this post, I'm going in on the next most important thing photographers have to be most aware of.

Art Model, Justine @2015 Terrell Neasley
Single overhead Einstein 640

And that would be lighting. Paul C. Buff is legendary in the field of lighting. Located in Nashville, TN, they've been serving the photographic community since 1982. Driven to provide great service and a quality product at a reasonable price, this "small" company put the big guys on notice. The competition from them brought costs down and opened the door to people like you and me to own high-end lights at much more reasonable prices. 

I own a couple of Einstein 640's and a White Lightning X3200, (both Paul C. Buff products) along with some of their soft boxes. This is what I can tell you. You can't make me switch to another light system. I'll never be without my Paul C. Buff gear. The Einsteins are so superbly made, any further improvements are inconsequential and imperceptible, although they've been recently upgraded. More on that in a bit. These things give me 640 watt-seconds and can still tone it down to 2.5ws on its lowest setting when you need that quick splash for minimal flash duration.

I sorta wish I had 3 Einsteins instead of the White Lightning, but I can't argue having a studio light pushing 1320 watt-seconds when you need it, but I don't use it as much. Okay, so I'll get a 3rd Einstein, because I would indeed use that. I tell you they are unbeatable. Yeah, you can get some battery-powered or TTL lights from other suppliers. I get that. But I've got 3 Vagabonds that give me all the power I need and I do NOT shoot TTL on my studio lights. 

Art Model, Trixie, ©2017 Terrell Neasley
Single Einstein 640 in Large Octobox
But they are more than just great product. I'm sold on these guys because I can call them up in Nashville and they answer the phone. Like...a human. You've heard me talk about a friend of mine who was out in the desert with a large soft box on his Einstein. Well, the wind can pick up unexpectedly when you live in a desert surrounded by mountains on all sided. It blew over his light and busted it. My friend called them up to get it fixed. They just replaced it even though it was out of warranty. 

As for me, well, I worked the hell out of one of my Einsteins and blew the fan in it. I had a jewelry gig that had me blasting this thing day and night for four months shooting a company's entire inventory. So of course, I called them up for instructions on sending it in and asked how much. Listen to this. They charged me $45, plus $15 for shipping to "fix it". The reason I put that in quotes, is because technically, they did fix it...because they rebuilt the whole thing. 

Ring Jewelry, ©2015 Terrell Neasley
One Einstein 640 overhead, Three Speedlites towards front and sides
Apparently the Einsteins have been upgraded since I bought mine FIVE years prior. So instead of just changing out the fan, they put in new circuits, cams, the fan, and everything to meet the new updated modifications, including a stronger and better sealed outer housing! That meant I got a new serial number as well. In all actuality, I'm really not so sure they truly "fixed" it. If you want my honest opinion, I think they just gave me a completely new Einstein for $60! I can't prove that, but I think it stands to reason to just replace the whole dam thing rather than to a complete rebuild. But that's me. At any rate, they dam sure excel at customer service.

Me ©2016 Terrell Neasley
One Einstein 640 on large soft box upper right side

13 September 2017

Three Companies that Excel in Customer Service Part I: Fujifilm

Anonymous Model in Nicaragua, Shot on Fujifilm X-E2, ©2014 Terrell Neasley

"Always render more and better service than is expected of you, no matter what your task may be." 

No matter the industry, there are companies in each that make a good product and suck at customer service. Often times its because of their product demand, like the iPhone or the size of the company like Bank of America. Canon and Nikon are the most well-known photography company brands and that brand is also factored into their product pricing models.

Right now, I'm going to give props to three photography related companies that I feel do an excellent job at delivering a great product and STILL provides a great customer experience to the consumers who purchase their products. First, in this Part I, I'm going to go all in a camera manufacturer.

Anonymous Model in Nicaragua, Shot on Fujifilm X-E2, ©2014 Terrell Neasley

I first picked up a Fujifilm X-E2 a few years back and took off to Nicaragua for about 3 months. I had become a fan of mirrorless tech and I started with them before eventually making Sony my main system. At the time, Sony had the full-frame mirrorless experience, but lacked the lens line-up that I needed. I did not expect much and bought the camera strictly for street photography work, but I learned it was capable of much more. After less than a week in country...I had a rather rough experience with ocean waves, large rocks, and a cliff. My poor Fuji spent hours in and out of the Pacific as I attempted to save my life.

I don't know of ANY camera system that can come back from that. It wasn't even weather-proof, yet after 5 days in a plastic bag full of rice, (and eventually ants), the camera came back to full functioning operation capability. both camera AND lens. Upon my return to the US, I stopped in Los Angeles to shoot the Black College Expo AND models in fashion apparel for a non-profit. I rented an X100S to pair with my X-E2. Upon returning home to Las Vegas and beginning my edits, I quickly realized there was absolutely no added benefit had I used my Nikon D800e. That's a 16mp crop sensor versus a 36mp full frame. No added benefit!

Anonymous Model in Nicaragua, Shot on Fujifilm X-E2, ©2014 Terrell Neasley

On top of that, I have to say that of all the camera manufacturers out there, Fujifilm is the one that listens to its customer base the most. They are firm believers in the Japanese philosophy of the Kaizen continuous improvement model. They'll usually add firmware to update your current camera, whereas other manufacturers will only add the more demanded features in subsequent models. The Fujifilm X-T1 came out only a few months after I bought my X-E2. It was more rugged and more frames per second. Fujifilm eliminated any buyer's remorse I might have acquired by issuing a firmware update that gave me almost the exact same features as the X-T1. Later on, they added more firmware upgrades that effectively gave me a brand new camera. When have you ever had a camera that had more functionality spec-wise three years after you bought it than at the time of purchase? Only Fujifilm has done this.

If you bought the X-Pro2 when it came out last summer, you bought yourself a good rangefinder-style mirrorless camera. Its the papa of the X-E series. Guess what, they've now just announced a firmware upgrade to make your camera do 4K video. See what I'm talking about? Can you feel me now? Most camera companies will use a firmware upgrade to fix a bug OR to make the camera more compatible with a new product from the same manufacturer. A camera maker might release a new lens and then do a firmware update on older cameras to accommodate said lens. Who the hell is dropping 4K functionality into a pre-existing system. Canon isn't doing that. Nikon isn't doing that. If Canon or Nikon had the X-Pro2 and wanted to add 4K video, they'd sit on that firmware upgrade for a year and then introduce the X-Pro3!

Anonymous Model in Nicaragua, Shot on Fujifilm X-E2,
©2014 Terrell Neasley
Fujifilm is definitely not paying me to say any of this. And like I mentioned, I shoot primarily with the Sony Alpha system and I love it. That full frame tech with the high ISO system (a7sII) along with the high resolution system (a7rII) is bad ass. Fujifilm only has APS-C senors in their mirrorless system. I've been full-on Canon. I've been full-on Nikon. I'm full-on Sony right now, but I am not above shooting two systems. In fact, I've got my eye on the Fujifilm X-T2, even though I'm also likely to upgrade my Sony a6300 to the a6500.

On top of that, if you didn't know before, then you know now. Fujifilm is in the medium format business. The Fujifilm GFX 50s is a 50MP medium format mirrorless camera system. Right now, its not where I need it to be to dive into it. Personally, I think there were a few missteps with this first attempt, but I have no doubt the next generation will be a hit. A leaf shutter, faster sync speed, and I definitely want to be able to shoot in bulb mode for longer than 60mins. I think I can adjust to a mechanical shutter that tops out at 1/4000th, but why? That, along with a deeper lens line-up, and I can easily see myself rocking dual systems. I see the GFX in my life moreso than the Sony a9 and I'm very likely to pull the trigger on the next version of this camera. They just released a new 120mm macro!  That makes 6 lenses in the line-up. A new wide prime is one thing I'm waiting for. They have a 23mm f/4, but can it get faster in medium format? Maybe I'm still thinking in full frame perspective.

Anonymous Model in Nicaragua, Shot on Fujifilm X-E2, ©2014 Terrell Neasley

04 September 2017

Last Call for the Milky Way

"This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments?"
~ Henry David Thoreau

Quick shot, 6 mins before moonrise, ©2016 Terrell Neasley

And just like that, summer is almost over and "Game of Thrones" is another year's wait. So much has been going on over the last few months, but that's another story. Right now, its all about getting that hustle and getting more gigs. So much to do for the remainder of the year. Can you believe its already September? Not many days in the year left. So if you want to shoot the Milky Way, you'd better get on it and do it now. Here's why:

Art Model Covenant, ©2016 Terrell Neasley

You can't shoot the Milky Way year around. You can shoot stars all year. And you can even shoot the Milky Way looking out away from the core. But you won't be shooting the core itself in about 5 weeks time and here's why.

Relative to the Milky Way, our solar system rotates on a different axis. The axis of the all the planets rotating around the sun is about 60 degrees relative to the Milky Way. During the winter months, we can't see the interior of the galactic core which is the largest concentration of stars that zoom around the super gigantic black hole in the center of our galaxy. The sun blocks the view because the earth is on the opposite side of it.

Art Model Covenant, ©2016 Terrell Neasley
So by mid to the 3rd week in October, all the way through til March, we can't see the galactic core of the Milky Way...at least not in the Northern Hemisphere. If you're in the Southern Hemisphere then you can begin to see it again by February. All that means by mid-October, you'd better have all your galactic core shots done.

Don't wait til the last minute on this. Do it as early as possible here in September. You'll need a tripod, a shutter release cable helps, and most importantly...fast glass. Ideally, you'd be better off using a wide-angle lens with a very large maximum aperture, such as a 24mm f/1.4 lens. You can get by with a lens that has a max aperture of f/2.8, but your exposure time will be longer. If the exposure time is too long, you'll get star trails in your Milky Way because of the rotation of the earth. Typically, I get my best exposure times at about 15 to 25 seconds depending on your camera's high ISO performance.

Art Model Covenant, ©2016 Terrell Neasley
A good camera that performs well at the higher ISOs will allow for a f/2.8 lens much better. The lower performance cameras will have to be helped out with faster glass. That's the trade off, but with a good camera AND fast glass, I've had exposures of only 10 seconds.

As I mentioned, you'll need a tripod for sure, however I said a shutter release cable would help. Since your exposure will typically be under 30 seconds, you don't technically need a shutter release cable because you can set the camera mode to shutter priority. You won't have to use the BULB mode for this. I still recommend a shutter release cable for the stability factor. Because you don't have to touch your camera you avoid the probability of introducing camera shake into your shot.

All that being said, get out and shoot some Milky Way shots before you have to wait another half year! Its Labor Day, so here are some Labor Day camping and Milky Way shots from on and around Labor Day of last year. Enjoy!

Art Model Covenant, ©2016 Terrell Neasley