Going Pro – How to Prioritize Gear Purchases

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Unfortunately, most of us work with a limited budget when it comes to purchasing photography gear. Once we consider taking our photography to the next level and going pro, having the right gear becomes even more important. Not only is it important to have the right gear to capture the shots, it is also important to have the right gear to present a professional appearance to our clients.

Let’s say you have what you consider to be the minimum amount of gear to begin your adventures into professional photography – a good camera, a couple of quality lenses, and good working knowledge of post-processing. From there, your wish list has grown to epic proportions and includes everything from a back-up camera body to studio lighting and lenses galore. So how do you know what you really need, and in what order do you prioritize your purchases?

1. Ask yourself the right questions.

What kind of a professional photographer do you want to be? Do you want to take studio portraits or work on-location? Do you want to capture landscape or wildlife photography? Are you going to be traveling great distances, or staying close to home? Will you have a home studio or a rented space, or will you be working out of your car? All of these questions are key aspects of discerning what kind of gear you need to prioritize.

2. Protect your client’s photos.

First and foremost, get yourself an external hard drive to back up your photos. Consider backing up your backup, too! Choose a reputable on-line backup resource like Mozy, CrashPlan, or Carbonite. Since you are now going to be providing a service to paying customers, it is ESSENTIAL that your photography projects are stored safely.

3. Get the colors right.

Make sure you are working with a calibrated monitor and printer – you can’t get the colors right for your clients unless you’re working with properly calibrated displays! Purchase color calibration software and tools, and repeat the calibration process occasionally to make sure your colors continue to be accurate.

4. Develop your Essentials Kit.

Your Essentials Kit should include a selection of memory cards, spare batteries, microfiber cloths, lens caps, white balance cards, UV filters, lens hoods, and other odds and ends. Make up a kit for every camera bag you use, plus an additional kit for your storage cabinet. As you use a battery and plug it in to charge, IMMEDIATELY replace it with a charged battery. As you pull out a memory card for post-processing, IMMEDIATELY replace it with a blank one. By doing this you will seriously decrease the odds of being without an essential item when you’re out in the field.

5. Achieve the bare minimum.

Understand the BARE MINIMUM amount of gear you absolutely need to have, and prioritize those purchases over anything else. For instance:

- Portrait Photography: A basic three-light setup is essential, or two lights and a good reflector. The bottom line is, for portrait photography you absolutely need off-camera flash. Buy quality equipment and resist the urge to purchase cheap, flimsy kits. Get a softbox and an umbrella that can act as either a reflector or a shoot-through diffuser. Purchase with an eye toward traveling with your gear, if that is the route you’re going to take. You’ll also need remote transmitter/transceivers, like those you can get from Pocketwizard. Finally, invest in a quality light meter.

- Wedding Photography: Invest in “fast” lenses that work well in low light – get a wide-angle and a medium-length telephoto (such as the oft-recommended 70-200mm f/2.8). Many wedding photographers swear by the “three lens prime kit” – the 28mm, 50mm, and 85mm. Accompany those lenses with a Speedlight or two, which are highly portable and flexible. Have a light stand and a light modifier for each Speedlight, and remote flash triggering. If you have a full-frame camera body, consider a crop-sensor body as your backup (and vice-versa).

- Landscape Photography: You’ll probably want to prioritize lens purchases to make sure you have a full range of focal length capability. Always purchase lenses with an eye towards quality – the better the lens, the better the photos. A backup camera body is also essential to be prepared for any mishaps. Full-sensor cameras are highly recommended for wide-angle landscape photography. You’ll need a rugged tripod, one that is designed to be used out in the field. Finally, you will need a hardy, weather-proof travel case or two in which to store your gear.

- Wildlife Photography: Once you have a quality DSLR in hand, it’s all about the lens when it comes to capturing photos of elusive wildlife. Start with a high quality telephoto zoom lens, then add on with telephoto prime lenses. Get a rugged tripod, one that is capable of resting on uneven ground. Consider a crop-sensor camera body as your backup – they have the added benefit of adding on to the effective focal length of telephoto lenses. Choose a light weight but sturdy weather-proof backpack for your gear.

- Architectural/Real Estate Photography: Prioritize the purchase of an extreme wide-angle lens, or a tilt-shift lens. Choose a couple of portable strobes and battery packs, with enough power to light dim corners and large spaces. Your tripod should have a ball head and spirit level.

- Product Photography: Get a couple of high quality macro lenses – one with a 1:1 ratio and one with more extreme magnification. Powerful light sources are essential, whether they be constant lights for use with light boxes, or studio strobes. Buy light boxes of various sizes, and consider getting something like a Lastolite 7′x8′ HiLite for larger subjects.

6. Take notes.

As you gain experience in your chosen genre of photography, you will quickly learn about what works and what doesn’t work. Take notes on every photo shoot that you perform, with an eye toward simplifying everything from the amount of gear you need, to the amount of time it takes to set everything up. Figure out the gear that you bring but DON’T use, or the gear that you left behind that would have come in handy. As the essentials become obvious, you will continue to re-prioritize your list of gear purchases to suit your circumstances.

Photo credits (in order of appearance):
- “Randi in Wedding Dress” by Walt Stoneburner on Flickr Creative Commons.
- “Monument Valley” by Marco Bellucci on Flickr Creative Commons.
- “Female Great Horned Owl” by Tiffany Joyce.
- “Spiral Stairs” by Icelight on Flickr Creative Commons.

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  • Anonymous

    Woops! I just noticed that I put the color calibration tip under the header for protecting your client’s photos.  Fixed and updated!

  • cooperimages

    Nice write up.

  • http://twitter.com/ohnostudio ohno studio

    While this is a nice baseline list outlining some needs, let me offer some sage advice. You should never buy gear without an exact purpose and knowing exactly what the item does.  This goes for cameras, lights, anything. The most stupid questions I have been asked include “What lighting kit should I buy?”, Should I buy a Nikon D3s?” The stupidest recent comment I have heard is “I need to upgrade to Photoshop 6 when it comes out”.

    For lighting kits, you can get away with domed worklamps from the Home Depot as long as you know HOW LIGHT WORKS and how to modify light as needed. The light modifiers in a lot of cases becomes more important than the gear, and they don’t need to have high end price tags. I saw one published fashion shooter rig an extra softbox out of cardboard, copy paper, and kitchen foil. Purchased solutions are not the best solutions if you can’t make them do exactly what you need. I know a guy who has the big Lastolite mega box and he still doesn’t know how to use it. He thought it was an instant solution to his lighting problems and he was wrong.

    And on the Nikon D3s or any other camera model that will set you back thousands, if you have to ask Should I buy one? – then trust me you’re nowhere near ready for this camera. You need to quantify what advantages the camera or any piece of gear will give you as well as return on your investment.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent points!!!!  You can take fantastic photos with very little/very inexpensive “workaround” gear.  Conversely, you can still take bad photos with the most expensive gear and the most elaborate studio!  Knowing the principles of photography and lighting, and exactly what you need to be successful, is very important.  Thanks for your comment!

  • http://twitter.com/ohnostudio ohno studio

    There are rumors abound about the new 30+ megapixel cams upcoming. You’ll still suck, but you’ll suck at a much higher resolution ;-)

    Happy Holidays to All!

  • http://twitter.com/ohnostudio ohno studio

    There are rumors abound about the new 30+ megapixel cams upcoming. You’ll still suck, but you’ll suck at a much higher resolution ;-)

    Happy Holidays to All!