One of the most frustrating things about getting started as a professional photographer? Finding out what gear you really need.
When they’re not trying to up-sell you, photography equipment guides are often unhelpfully vague. That’s because the truth is that what you need depends on the nature of your business, what kinds of photos you intend to take, and what tools you already possess.
But if you’re on a tight budget and are looking for some all-around, bare minimum essentials, here are the six pieces of equipment you absolutely must have:
- a camera
- a lens
- a memory card
- a carrying case
- a computer
- access to editing software
You don’t need the most expensive camera to shoot stunning images (though it does help). The most important factor is your comfort. As with bikes and guitars, different cameras cater to different experience levels, industries, technical demands, and photographer profiles.
A digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera is perhaps the best general-purpose choice, though micro four thirds cameras (MFT or M43) have emerged over the last few years as a respectable alternative. MFTs are smaller than DSLRs in terms of not only physical bulk and weight, but frame size and capacity. That means they’re easier to carry around, but can’t always deliver the highest-quality images. I’m only scratching the surface here—for a fuller comparison between DSLR and MFT, check out TechRadar.
Your camera choice also hinges on your specialty. If you intend to do portrait or wedding photography, your kit may not look anything like that of a photographer who specializes in landscapes. And then there’s sports, wildlife, architecture, advertising, education… the list goes on. Let the elements of your technique guide your purchasing decisions. In other words, buy your camera based on how useful it is for your particular field rather than the product’s “wow” factor.
Whatever camera you buy, make sure to consider its condition, body shape and size, and manufacturer. Nikon and Canon are trusted brands for a reason—they create reliable products that integrate well with a variety of lenses and add-ons (MFTs are even more customizable)—but be aware that if you choose one for your camera, you’ll need to stick with it for basically everything else.
As most professional photographers will tell you, your lenses are a bigger deal than your camera. They’re probably also going to cost you more.
Beginners only need one good lens to jumpstart their careers. Your kit lens is what’s included with your camera, and likely the lens you’ll be using the most, at least while starting out. These standard lenses typically have large focal lengths and are designed for medium- to close-range photography, making them a decent all-around option.
However, if you have the money to spend, you may want to consider investing in a couple alternatives, such as a prime portrait lens and a wide angle zoom lens.
A prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal length, meaning it doesn’t let you zoom in or out. Prime lenses come in all focal lengths, from 14mm to 500mm, but unless you intend to shoot enormous nature scenes or intense sports or wildlife action, go with a standard or portrait (85mm) lens. Your portraits will look sharper and you’ll be able to take them faster—an ideal combination for weddings and parties.
Again, you have plenty of options. A telephoto lens (70-200mm) can also produce superb portraits, but may cost thousands. Both Canon and Nikon offer fairly priced 50mm lenses that outperform any kit lens, and which many photographers completely overlook. Finally, with a wide angle zoom lens, you’ll be able to produce outstanding landscape photography, as well as anything that necessitates a large depth of field.
No matter what, do your homework before buying lenses for your kit. Lenses vary wildly by zoom level, aperture size, and—of course—price, as well as use: a lens might be made for macro photography, images taken from a great distance, rapidly moving subjects, or discreet shots.
In regards to memory cards, the major differentiating factor is size. Cards with larger capacities hold more images, but smaller cards are cheaper. I recommend starting with multiple smaller cards in the 8–16GB range. Although you get more storage room for your buck on the mid- to large-sized end (32–64GB), you won’t lose all of your photos if a memory card malfunctions. (Can you tell I’m speaking from personal experience?)
Even if you don’t intend to travel more than five miles from your home, you need some kind of carrying case. Between backpacks, shoulder bags, and suitcases, you have several options. My advice? Buy something new, lightweight, and waterproof, with padded dividers. What matters is that it holds up and doesn’t weigh you or your gear down. Don’t spend more than $100 unless you plan on taking a flight every weekend.
It’s 2016, and no one really cares if you use a Mac or PC. Whatever your brand preference, make sure you’re using a computer with enough RAM to handle photo editing software.
Whether you’re using a laptop or not, a good monitor is essential. If you have an old monitor (think pre-2013), you’re going to need a new one. Choose one with a sizable screen (the bigger the better) and high resolution (2560×1440 or above), and make sure it can accurately display colors.
Clients expect you to post-process their images, so if you intend to work as a photographer you need access to editing software. Photoshop remains the norm, and many professionals supplement it with Lightroom—another Adobe application that allows you to organize your work, create presets, and batch process your images.
Photoshop and Lightroom alternatives do exist, however, and one may be a better fit for your needs if you’re low on cash and don’t need as many features.
If you have some room left over in your budget after buying your camera, lenses, memory card, carrying case, computer, monitor, and software, think about purchasing one or all of the following:
- off camera flash
- a tripod
- an image editing tablet and pen
- an external hard drive or cloud storage (e.g. Dropbox) plan
- backup equipment
Duplicate gear may seem wholly unnecessary, but consider what would happen if your camera broke, your lens cracked, or you lost your memory card. When you’re traveling and managing multiple pieces of equipment, backups can mean the difference between an uninterrupted shoot and the loss of a $5,000 gig—on top of the price of replacements. Alternatively, you can buy insurance for your equipment, so you’re covered for the unexpected.
What did we miss? Tell us what equipment you can’t live without in the comments, or share your tips with the community on Twitter or Facebook.