You really want to become a photographer. Always have. But you’ve heard that photography gear is horribly expensive. Well, it is! I have to admit, this post is horribly selfish. You see, I’m writing it for the Kevin from 3 years ago. I want that Kevin to know what he should buy. It’s quite easy to spend money chasing rabbit trails. I’ve done a lot of chasing and I’d like “Back-To-The-Future Kevin” to know what the most efficient use of his precious dollars should be spent on, in the search to acquire the necessary gear to become a professional photographer.
I’ve captured in one place the items I consider essential for starting a photography business that can deliver for its’ clients. A pro, by definition, is one that can charge for his or her services….and people will actually buy those services (an important qualifier). I’m sure I have left some items off this list and you may disagree with some of my selections, but this is a pretty tight list that will help get you started. At the bottom of this list I’ll explain why I selected these items. One important note: I’m going to assume you have a computer. If you don’t, you’ll need one and you’ll need to backup your images on a separate drive. I didn’t include either here, but you’ll need a computer and backup. Also, I’ve listed the most recent price. These can change at any point, so the listed prices should be considered a ballpark. Here we go…
1) Canon EOS Rebel T2i – ($800) For bang-for-the-buck, this is a fantastic camera. I have chosen to take the Canon path on the old Canon vs. Nikon argument. Really, both camera brands are great. Just take one and stick with it. They’re both going to be around for awhile. I would start with this camera body, because it can get you in the door of SLR photography. 18MP of resolution and it shoots in HD Video. Very nice. I now shoot the Canon 5DmkII, because I favor the full-frame sensor, but I would have no shame using this body. If you opt to buy the kit with the existing 18-55mm lens, you might as well toss that in the trash. That lens is crap.
2) Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM – ($1,100) If you don’t know, you’re about to find out that lenses are expensive! For instance, this lens costs more than the camera. Don’t worry about why, just accept that fact. So what lens should you get in the beginning? I believe that this is the best beginner professional (L lens) because it let’s you shoot fairly wide (24mm) and allows you to shoot at good portraiture length (105mm). It also, has Image Stabilization (IS), which is nice. I wish it was a 2.8 aperture, but the IS really helps you to shoot at a lower shutter speed and make up some of the difference in low light conditions. It’s a great walk-around lens and one that I trust.
3) Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II – ($120) Do you ever see that person in a photo who has a razor sharp eye, but everything else behind them and in front of them is blurry (in a good way)? That fall-off of sharpness is called bokeh. The lower the aperture, 1.8 in this case, the shallower the Depth of Field (DOF) exists and the more likely you are to have a nice bokeh. Usually, it costs a lot to get low aperture, but for some reason it’s easier to manufacture a lens in 50mm that has the low aperture and that doesn’t cost that much. This lens is a no-brainer at right around $120. You will love experimenting with it, and the fact that it’s a “prime” (fixed length lens) will cause you to use your legs as a zoom. Meaning, you will have to keep moving. A key to becoming a better photographer.
4) Canon LP-E8 Battery Pack – ($40) Some of these smaller ticket items, I’ve included because I want you to realize the importance of preparation. Always have a backup battery with you. Always. You can have everything set up on a photoshoot: lighting, model, hair and makeup, and your camera is dead?!? That’s just unacceptable, but it happens to amateurs more than you’d think. Pros have done it, too, when they were amateurs. It’s just that the humiliation was so great, they vowed to never do it again, so they bought about 50 extra batteries and spread them all over their house, car, and backyard.
5) 16GB SD Memory Card (x2) – ($30×2=$60) 16MB should give you more memory than you need on a given photoshoot. But again, have a backup!
6) Lexar Memory Card Reader – ($30) Just leave it hooked up to your computer. This makes it easy to pop the card out after a shoot and plug it right in.
7) Canon 580EX II Flash – ($450) Lighting. So many things to say here, but I’ll be brief. You HAVE to have a strobe if you want to charge people for portraits. If you rely on the sun being in the perfect position, you’re going to be rescheduling a lot of photoshoots. I recommend getting this strobe over the 430EX II, because you want to have as much power as possible to give you as many options when you’re out in the field. It’s worth the extra $200, trust me.
8 ) Flash Zebra E-TTL Cord (24 Ft.) – ($60) Canon’s E-TTL system is a language that your camera and your flash use to get the right amount of lighting without you having to set it manually. Nikon has the i-TTL system. Same thing. This cord allows you to place your flash out of the way and obscure it behind something and still send the E-TTL signal back to your camera so you can control it. This way, you can dial in exposure compensation if you need to make adjustments. You’ll be hearing about “Pocket Wizards” and “Radio Poppers”, both are brands of radio-controlled remote E-TTL triggers. For now, just know that they’re expensive and you don’t have to have them.
9) Lowepro Flipside 400 AW Backpack – ($150) You have all this awesome camera gear, but it’s just laying around randomly in your closet. Unacceptable. I’ve had photoshoots break down because I couldn’t find one little part for a bracket on a stand, and that changed my entire lighting configuration. Buy a good bag to secure your camera, lenses, flashes, etc. This is a good starter bag. It allows you to get out on the street and shoot portably.
10) Lastolite 33-Inch TriFlip Kit – ($130) Most often all you’ll need for lighting is to redirect a bit of sunlight with a reflector or to just diffuse the direct sunlight. I love Lastolite Tri-Grips for this purpose. It’s design allows you to hold it up yourself and continue shooting with the other hand. This kit enable your tri-grip to be a reflector, diffuser, or flag. You’ll love it.
11) Manfrotto 055XPROB Pro Tripod Legs – ($150) If you want to shoot anything without flash or below about 1/250 of a second, it’s a good idea to shoot on a tripod to get that extra bit of sharpness. Cheap tripods can collapse and destroy your nice camera and lens. Don’t cheap out on this. Manfrotto is the benchmark in the industry. This particular item is called the Tripod Legs. Their are tripod legs and tripod heads. You can get various legs and heads. But, you’ll need both.
12) Manfrotto 498RC2 Ball Head with Quick Release – ($110) Nice tripod ball head. The quick release is key. I won’t use a tripod without one. You need to be able to quickly pop off your camera and free-hand it and then pop it back in.
13) Westcott 45in. Umbrella – Optical White Satin with Removable Black Cover – ($30) There are many different type of light modifiers. The first one you need is an umbrella. They’re cheap and versatile. A no-brainer. With this size you can light up a group, if need be. Move on to softboxes next. But for now, this will get you by quite well. An added bonus is that it can become a “shoot-through” white satin umbrella by simply removing the outer cover. 2 for 1.
14) Westcott 750 Light Stand – ($30) Light stands are pretty standard. Westcott is a good brand. This is solid. You don’t have to spend a ton on these.
15) Light & Umbrella Shoe Mount Clamp – ($30) You have to get a pivoting shoe mount to go on your light stand and to seat your umbrella and small flash.
16) Lightroom – ($300) I know that people are going to say, what about Photoshop? Yes, you’ll want that eventually, BUT you can get by without it for now. Lightroom is essential, though. About 2 years ago, I tried out Lighroom and fell in love with it. It absolutely changed my workflow. Heck, it gave me a workflow. I can now sort through, select, and process about 500 photos in an hour because of Lightroom. Try this 30 day trial and see what you think. You’ll need it for being able to catalog, select, edit, and export your images.
17) SmugMug – ($150) Let’s say you have a bunch of photos from a shoot and you need to get them in front of your client to select. This is called proofing. SmugMug is an online service that allows you to upload your images and give your clients a way to select their favorites. After the selection, and your subsequent edits, you can then upload the final images and your clients can order prints. You won’t have to have anything to do with the process. This “fulfillment” process is automated. It’s amazing. You just sit back and collect checks. SmugMug is a great website for this necessary step in the photographer-client process. Note: Most photographers prefer proofing and ordering prints face-to-face with their clients. SmugMug works for me, because I don’t have time for that. But if I were putting food on the table with my photography, I would do face-to-face.
18) ProPhoto Blog – ($200) Every photographer needs a website. Many of the photographers I know use this WordPress template as their blog template. Quite a few also use it as their portfolio. I do. It’s amazingly easy to customize and is made for photographers, so the image uploading and viewing functionality is perfect. I am so happy I bought this.
19) Moo Cards – ($30 for 50 cards) When you’re out and about and you mention that you’re a photographer, you’ll need to give people your information quickly. Thus, you need a business card. However, these are not standard business cards. Moo cards allows you to print your images in beautiful, full color on heavy stock paper. They are cheap. You can print a new image on each card if you like, too. I’ve seen many photographers spread them out like comic books on a table and offer them as a sort of collectible.
So there you have it. If you bought every item on this list, it would cost you $3,970. The nature of this industry is incremental, though. You buy something, save up for something, trade something. You’re not just going to buy everything at once, but this should give you a good starting point. I will be updating this site as I remember the obvious things and as new items present themselves. If you feel that I have left something off, or you have a suggestion, please leave me a note in the comments section. Good luck and good shooting!