Essential Equipment for the Serious Photographer

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By Steve Russell

For discussion purposes let’s assume that a year or two ago you decided to take the plunge and upgrade from a point & shoot camera to DSLR. The first thing you probably learned was that in the beginning your photos weren’t any better with the DSLR and in some cases not as good. Fortunately, you persevered and learned how to exploit all the features the DSLR offered over the P&S camera and along the way, you began to develop an “eye” for what makes a “good” photo and the quality of your photos improved greatly. By now you might have entered one or more photography contests or you’ve produced some prints, had them framed and hung them on a wall in your home. Now you’re starting to feel really good about your photography and you’re wondering what equipment you should have to take the next step toward becoming a serious, accomplished photographer.

Many, maybe even most, photographers have a real weakness when it comes to gear. Most of us are guilty of having those “gearhead” moments especially when the latest and greatest equipment is introduced. See Tiffany’s article last week on Canon’s new 5D Mark III camera body. You can bet that I was salivating when the announcement was released. Hopefully, in this article I can balance a little common sense with the love of the latest and greatest camera gear.

Let me start by saying that I don’t work for any camera company. I personally believe that Canon and Nikon equipment is superior but the other manufacturers offer products that are very capable of taking absolutely awesome photographs. I happen to use Canon and have a lot of money invested in camera bodies and lenses. I could just as easily use Nikon if someone was willing to buy it for me, so I’m not suggesting that my equipment is superior to any other brand.

Second Camera Body – Some of you are going to think, “Are you kidding me? Why on Earth would I need a second camera body? I can only use one at a time so the second one would just be dead weight.” Here’s why you should have two. I know a photographer that went on a once in a lifetime African photo safari. The cost of a trip like this makes the new 5D Mark III at approximately $3,500 seem very inexpensive. Anyway, the first day in Africa his camera broke. Broke! The shutter wouldn’t operate. He’s in the bush, looking at elephants, lions, cheetahs, cape buffalo, antelope, etc., and his camera broke. Fortunately since there wasn’t any place to get the camera repaired, he had a second camera body that made it through the entire trip so all wasn’t lost. You don’t have to be in Africa for this to happen. It could be your daughter’s or son’s first birthday party. Or worse, a wedding you’ve been hired to photograph.

Another reason a second camera body is a good idea is when you’re in a situation where you need both a long telephoto lens and a shorter lens. Look at the sideline photographers the next time you watch a football game on TV. Most of them have a camera with a big honkin’ telephoto lens and at least a second camera hanging around their neck with a much smaller lens. The action moves so fast that they don’t have time to change lenses back and forth on a single camera.

You want both camera bodies to be from the same manufacturer and so the lenses are interchangeable. For example, having a Nikon and a Canon would mean you have to carry two sets of lenses.

Wide Angle Lens – A good wide angle lens is absolutely necessary if you want to capture good landscape images. They can also be very useful if you’re photographing large groups of people and other similar photographic challenges. I would strongly recommend a prime lens if you’re going to be photographing a lot of landscape. I use a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L and it’s a great all-purpose lens. Yes, I have a wide angle prime lens on my list but with the zoom and my Canon 5D Mark II I can capture good landscape images at the 24mm end of the lens.

Telephoto Lens – There are times when you can’t get close enough to your subject to capture the image you really want. This is where a telephoto lens saves the day. I wouldn’t suggest starting out with a super-telephoto lens like a 500mm unless you’re going to specialize in bird photography or something similar. I absolutely love my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L II Lens. If that price is a little too steep for you right now, you can get the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L lens for less than $700. That’s a steal for an “L” (Canon’s designation for professional quality glass lenses) quality lens.

Macro Lens – A good macro lens will open up a new world of photography for you. I’ve known photographers that have purchased a new macro lens and it changed their entire approach to photography from zero macro to over half their work in macro. The highest quality lens you can buy is really important in macro. I have the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L 1-to-1 Macro Lensand absolutely love it.

Tripod – A tripod is an absolute must in macro photography. Yes, you can take some macro photos hand holding your camera but most of the times you need a tripod to keep the camera perfectly still. A tripod is also indispensable when using a telephoto lens. It’s true that many lenses today have some sort of image stabilization and there’s a lot you can do without a tripod and fast shutter speeds. However, in macro and telephoto photography, there are many times when you’re going to be using slower shutter speeds (less than 1/60 second) and at those speeds image stabilization won’t help you very much.

A Sturdy, Rugged Camera Case – We have reviewed a number of quality cases on Beyond Megapixels. A good case is indispensable. Don’t skimp on this purchase. A good case is more comfortable to carry, will last longer, will protect your gear and make you very happy in the long run.

A Good Strobe Flash – Many cameras come with a built in flash. Professional grade cameras don’t. There’s a reason; built in flashes produce crappy flash photography. With a flash attachment like the Canon 580EX II you get more light with more control and a lot less red-eye because the light source is at a different angle to the subject than the lens. You can also get a cord that allows you to take the flash off the camera and move it to a completely different angle. This is especially important in macro photography when you want to use the flash to change the lighting or when you want to stop the motion of your subject.

A Word on Lenses – Buy professional quality lenses. Why? Because they contain a much higher quality glass and they capture much sharper images. Keep in mind the subject matter of this article; serious photography.

A Word on Tripods – Get a good one. Don’t go to some big box store and buy a tripod that costs about $90. You’re better off saving the $90 and hand holding the camera. A $90 tripod is usually a plastic and thin aluminum piece of junk and it will eventually break with gentle use. I have a Manfrotto that cost almost $300. When I finally get my 500mm lens, I will buy a Gitzo that costs around $800. Really Right Stuff makes excellent tripods as well. A good tripod will hold your camera and lens completely still to allow you to capture tack sharp images. It’s also important to keep in mind that if you have a $2,000+ camera body and a $1,500+ lens, you probably don’t want to trust a $90 plastic tripod with your $3,500 worth of gear.

A Word on Flash Attachments – Buy your flash from the same manufacturer that made your camera body. That way you will be assured that all the electronic connections and controls will work the way their supposed to work.

Most importantly, no matter how serious you are about photography, never stop having fun and never stop being amazed at your really good images.

Photo Credits:

Malawi Landscape by ILRI on Flickr Creative Commons
Burrowing Owl and Bee on Basket Flower by Steve Russell

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  • Anonymous

    Great article Steve! Another point on having a second camera body – it’s a good idea to have a body that has a full frame sensor if your “main” camera is a crop sensor, or vice-versa.  There are some applications that apply better toward one or the other.

  • Anonymous

    Great article Steve! Another point on having a second camera body – it’s a good idea to have a body that has a full frame sensor if your “main” camera is a crop sensor, or vice-versa.  There are some applications that apply better toward one or the other.

  • pashminu

    Very good and comprehensive list of items.