This post is for all the aspiring professional photographers, amateurs and Moms I receive phone calls, Facebook messages, Instagram messages and texts from asking about what gear I use and what they need to buy to get the job done…whether that be a new-to-the-business photographer getting their first clients, or the hobbyist Mom trying to get a great shot of her son on the football field during a night game, or her daughter in a dance recital. This is not a technical post on how to light, shoot and compose artistically. (Shooting skills are really best discussed in a personal one-one-one mentoring session, which I offer for a fee.) This is a post about the tools of the trade. God gave me any talent I have, and I know He wants me to share the gifts He gave me with others.
In the beginning of my business over 14 years ago, I remember staying up til 2:00 AM night after night searching the internet for information on how to shoot, what to shoot, what film to use, and what equipment and software I needed. I spent so much time educating myself with books, other photographer’s informational blog posts, websites, YouTube videos and manufacturers’ “How To” guides. It was exhausting, but I was SO hungry for information and so eager to hone my photography skills and business model.
When I first started in this business, several experienced professional photographers jumped right in to gladly help me, answering phone calls and emails from this desperate new photographer, new to the business and in search of answers. I’m forever indebted to them for all of their advice and teaching and I want to pay that kindness forward. I’m a big believer that collaboration is so much better than competition. The more pros help each other, and those new to the business, the better quality product we deliver to our clients and protect our industry.
I’m a Nikon user. It’s what I started with 14 years ago and I love Nikon products. There are many Canon users out there too. You really can’t go wrong with either brand. They are both the choice of pros worldwide. I’m not one of those arguers about which brand is superior. I think you need to use what makes sense to you. But, once you buy one brand or the other, you must stick to it, because the lens mounts are specific to the brand. If you buy all pro lenses for one brand and then try to switch, it’s a very expensive change and used equipment doesn’t always sell quickly. So, when you decide to make your camera and lens investments, do the research and go with whichever brand you plan to use for a long time.
As for bodies vs. lens investments, every pro will tell you to invest in glass right away. I never buy anything but Nikon lenses because I want the Nikon glass. And, I use UV filters to protect the glass in case of a bump or drop. Camera bodies change much more frequently than lenses. They come and go. Buy the best body you can afford at the time, then really start pouring your money into good professional lenses. By that, I mean, purchase the lenses that are fast…usually f/1.4 to f/2.8 apertures wide open. This will afford you much more leeway with your shutter speed in low light situations. You pay more for pro lenses, but trust me, they are so worth it. I love prime (fixed focal length) lenses too because they are tack sharp.
Most people who come to me frustrated about their shots shouldn’t be frustrated as much in their own abilities and eye for the shot as they should be with the limitations caused by the specific equipment they are using. There are many Moms and amateurs who have a great eye for composition and subject matter, but are limited by what their lens can do artistically in low light. Lenses that only go to f/4.5 or f/5.6 wide open just can’t get the job done like the faster lenses can, especially in low light situations like night football games, dance recitals, wedding receptions, etc. And remember, shutter speed is relative to focal length. Camera shake will produce blurry images if your shutter speed is much slower than the focal length you are shooting…unless you have a lens with VR (vibration reduction), then you can shoot with a shutter up to 2 stops slower. If you have the choice of a VR lens. Get it. What do I mean by shutter speed relative to focal length? If you are using a 50mm lens or a lens set at 50mm focal length, make sure your shutter isn’t slower than 1/50 second and so on. This is especially important if you don’t have a very steady hand. Some people can shoot one to two stops slower than relative focal length because they are extremely steady handed. Accidental camera shake blur is much more obvious that purposeful blur for artistic effect. It can destroy an amazing shot.
So, what’s in my bag? It has definitely evolved over time. And I wasn’t able to jump right into the business and purchase $15k-$25k worth of equipment from the get go. Be patient, invest correctly and you will have gear that will serve you well for a very long time. I only change camera bodies about every 5 years or so, when there is a big jump in the technology (even though I would love to have every new one that comes out!). I won’t cover lighting other than to tell you what speedlight flashes I own. On camera flash, off camera flash and strobe lighting is an entirely separate and more technical post. I’m a big believer in off camera lighting for wedding receptions, and strobes and modifiers for editorial and commercial shoots. They can take you to entirely different places artistically in your shooting. But again, that information is for a separate post.
Let’s start with the actual bag…
BAGS & BELT
Wedding Day & Portrait Session Shoot Sac
I love this cross body Shoot Sac bag. It’s comfortable, lays and moulds on my hip so it doesn’t get in the way, and gives me quick and easy access to my lenses. I added two small pouches, which hang on the sides, for mints, lipstick and an extra pair of contacts. When you have a long wedding day, those are all things you want handy. Unfortunately I can’t remember the brand of the pouches. I purchased them at the WPPI trade show in Las Vegas years ago. I also attach a memory card pouch, which I purchased from B&H Photo. I highly recommend one that securely attaches to your bag for quick flash card changes. It’s important to choose one with several velcro closures for card safety. I also like that mine has little red flaps you can pull over the cards you have used so you don’t accidentally grab one that’s already used/full.
My opinion on bags (and straps for that matter) with girly prints and colors?…just don’t do it. I’m not a huge fan of prints of any kind so I may not be the best opinion, but unless your main subjects are babies and kids, just stick to black. It’s more professional. I don’t want to stand out on a wedding day. My goal is to be stealthy and blend in. If I have a flashy bag, that screams notice me.
There are many other bag choices (and I’ve tried a lot of them), but they were bulkier and more stiff. They kept getting in the way, so I kept coming back to the Shoot Sac. It’s what works for me, but I certainly believe that what works for me might not always be the best choice for someone else. Shop around and see what suits you.
Here’s some shots of me wearing The Shoot Sac so you can see how it hangs…
Pro Sports Belt Lowepro Street & Field Series
When I shoot pro sports I use a different system, called the Lowepro Street & Field Series. You can read more about it here. When shooting on a golf course, at a race track, or stadium, all of the gear you want to use must be on you. You can stash lights and stands in the media room for the interviews later, but while shooting the action, everything must be accessible. So, I have this belt (Let’s not call it a fanny pack, okay?). Most sports shooters use a belt system. You can configure it many different ways and add on different lens attachments, flash and water bottle holders. It also has built in rain covers you can pull over the entire lens pouch. I’ve had to use the rain protection several times during PGA Golf tournaments. Pro sports shooters still have to shoot in the rain, unless their is lightening or thunder, so our expensive gear must be protected.
Here’s some shots of me wearing the belt for sports shooting…so feminine and fashionable! 😉
(With Hale Erwin at the Regions Tradition, PGA Champions Tour)(Shooting the Honda Indy Grand Prix race at Barber Motorsports)(Shooting the Magic City Classic football game at Legion Field)
Think Tank Hydrophobia
Think Tank makes the absolute best solution for protecting your camera and lens while shooting in the rain. I’ve had to use this system while shooting two PGA Golf tournaments. They work. It’s not as convenient to get to your dials with it on, but when you are working in the rain for hours it’s a must to keep your gear dry.
While In France and London shooting for a client a few months ago, I chose to carry a Lululemon black, water resistant backpack that also fits my laptop, when needed. The link I included here is not for the exact one I purchased, but it is similar. We walked all day, every day and I needed something comfortable that would even out the load I was carrying, with enough compartments for my passport, money and other necessities, easily accessible. Plus, black backpacks like these are everywhere in Europe, so it didn’t scream “pro photographer with expensive equipment” to potential thieves.
(Shooting in the little village of Minerve in Southern France)
(Shooting on Tower Bridge in London)
Think Tank International 2.0 Carry On Rolling Bag
Think Tank really does think of everything you need when in the design of their products. This bag is approved as carry on for International Travel and has combination locks all over it to prevent theft. I carried this bag on the plane to France and London last year. There are cable locks to attach it to something and then locks on the zippers. This way, not only can a thief not get into it, they can’t carry it off to get into it somewhere else. It also has adjustable and customizable padded and velcro’d compartments for all of your bodies, lenses and accessories. I also carry this bag on all shoots with extra gear in it. Highly recommend. This and the Lululemon backpack was all I needed to carry on my gear and laptop on the plane. And, it’s a good thing I did, because our luggage didn’t make our connecting flight from Paris to Toulouse and we didn’t get it for 6 days! Can you imagine arriving overseas to shoot for a client and not having any of your gear? Always choose your gear over clothes. You can buy clothes there. In my case, Delta and my Chase credit card reimbursed me for my expenses to purchase makeup, clothes and necessities to get by. Was it as ideal as carrying a few necessities on the plane? No. But I was able to deliver the job I was hired to do with the equipment I needed to do it.
I love this camera for lots of reasons. Mainly the autofocus system and it’s fast…11 frames per second fast, so it’s great for sports and fast moving action. It was the flagship Nikon body until they came out with the D5 last year. I also always carry backup camera bodies in case of emergency. Or, sometimes I have to shoot with two bodies on me and different lenses attached in the case of fast moving pro sports. Occasionally I will carry two bodies on me during a wedding day.
Black Rapid Curved Strap
Not all the time, but sometimes I use this Black Rapid strap on wedding days. It stays out of my way and moves with me as I shoot. The strap can be adjusted so that your camera hangs right at your hip for quick draw. Again, my opinion on girly prints and colorful straps? Just say no. Unless your main subjects are babies and kids, skip them. Black is more professional and versatile.
These are the lenses I own. All Nikon brand. There will occasionally be an upgrade or the addition of VR to a lens, but I could really use just these lenses the rest of my life and be just fine. Why? Because I purchased professional lenses with excellent glass. I do love getting new equipment though! Who doesn’t?!
Nikon 50mm f/1.4
I love this prime lens. It’s the one on my camera if I want lightweight and versatility…and, bonus…it’s inexpensive! We lovingly call it the “thrifty fifty”. It’s great for 3/4, full length and group portraits in low light. I can shoot at 1/50th sec shutter and still be fine. I also use it for details, like table settings and invitation suites. I don’t use it for headshots due to the focal length face distortion.
Nikon 85mm f/1.8
This is one of the first lenses I ever purchased. It has beautiful bokeh and is great for portraits. The upgrade came out a few years ago and for over $1100 more you can go from the f1/8 to the f/1.4. Just haven’t pulled that trigger yet. Can’t justify the expense.
Nikon 105mm VR Macro Lens
Oh how much do I love this lens! It’s a fantastic macro lens for ring shots, flowers, invitations and other tight detail shots, but also an amazing portrait lens because of the lack of distortion. It’s on my camera a lot.
Can I just be honest? This is my least favorite lens, but it’s a must. It’s the go to for most group shots and wide ceremony and sendoff shots. It just doesn’t excite me like my other lenses do. I’d rather work at a greater distance, if available, and use the 70-200mm. Don’t get me wrong, beautiful things can happen with this lens too, it’s just usually not my first choice.
Nikon 17-35 mm f/2.8
This wide angle lens is great for tight rooms when you need to get everything in the frame, landscapes, live music shows and interiors. Be careful of the distortion wide open at the 17mm focal length and don’t put any people at the edges of the frame or they will look really strange. If you are going for a tricked out crazy shot at a concert or on the dance floor then the distortion can be really fun and artistic.
I plan to upgrade to the 14-24mm, which is what I should have bought in the beginning, but was trying to save a buck. I only had to learn that lesson once. I want that extra room, especially when I am shooting interiors. Buy right the first time.
Nikon 70-200mm VR
This is absolutely one of my very favorite lenses. Zoomed in at 200mm it gives such gorgeous compression to the backgrounds. I love it for portraits, especially during the First Look, because you can work at a distance so the bride and groom don’t feel like you are all up in their personal moment. It’s the lens I use to get closer for ceremony shots too, like exchanging rings. I switch back and forth between the 24-70mm and the 70-200mm for ceremony shots, because I want to capture the ambiance of the room and guests with the wide shots, and feel the intimacy of the moment with the tight shots. The only drawback is that this lens is super heavy. You definitely will get a workout if you carry it around for a 10 hour wedding day…and I always do. It’s always in my bag. It’s also my lens for pro sports. Sometimes I add a converter and switch to my DX crop, allowing me to get even closer to the action because I don’t own a 300mm or 400mm lens. If I shot pro sports full time I would invest in those. But I don’t, so the use doesn’t justify the expense.
I plan to purchase the 14-24mm and a tilt shift lens for architecture and interiors, which I shoot a lot of for magazine work, contractors and interior designers.
SPEEDLIGHTS/FLASHES & BATTERIES
Nikon Speedlight SB-910
I purchased a few of these years ago. Don’t buy the SB900–new or used. It pays to read reviews. I was about to buy the 900 and read that it kept overheating and wouldn’t fire, so I purchased the more expensive SB-910 and it fires away with no issues.
A few years ago I purchased two Lumipro 180 manual flashes and I love them! I always use manual flash, so it wasn’t a big deal to me that the Lumipros don’t have TTL (auto mode). Plus, because they don’t have TTL technology, they are cheaper than the Nikons! Why pay for something you never use?
Sanyo Eneloop AA Batteries
You know the Energizer battery commercials that say they keep going and going and going… Well I used them very early in my career and realized that just wasn’t so. I’ve been using Sanyo Eneloop rechargeable batteries for years, and they just never die. I always write the dates on them when I purchase new ones, and I swear I can’t really tell the difference between ones I bought 3 years ago and ones I bought 3 months ago. Just trust me on this. Plus, I rarely use them at full power because I don’t want to over power the ambient light in the room. Usually one set of batteries in each of my flashes will last me an entire wedding reception. Eneloops are the only rechargeable AA battery for pro photographers (or for anyone wanting rechargeables for their electronic equipment). They last. And, you will need lots of them if you use radio triggers and off camera speedlights at wedding receptions (see Pocketwizard Radio Triggers below).
Maha Powerex Battery Charger
Best battery charger, hands down is the Maha Powerex Charger. Charges 8 batteries at a time with an indicator of each individual’s battery’s charge at any time. I have one. I need two more. Battery charging the night before a wedding takes a while.
PocketWizard III Tranceivers
I love my PocketWizard Plus IIIs and own 5 of them. I want to buy 2 more for backup. I don’t slave for wedding receptions because I never want to trust line of site for my flashes to fire. What if someone jumps in front during the first dance shot at a wedding reception? Plus if you have a second shooter, slaving will cause your flash to go off when your second shooter triggers hers and so the shot you want may not happen within the recycle time. Nope. Not the way I like to work. I don’t hope for the shot, I plan on the shot. I only trust radio triggers. The radio frequency does not need line of site and can even trigger through walls. This is where off camera lighting starts to get more technical, so I’ll save that for another post.
A few more things you need
to get the job done…
30 inch Reflector
A reflector is not necessarily IN my bag, but always nearby in case I need it. I highly recommend the white and silver combo. The white side is softer and gives a more natural look. The silver side adds more drama and contrast for a high fashion look. Reflectors can turn a pretty shot into an amazing shot. Use reflectors to grab the sun and bounce light back onto your subject. They also help to add nice catchlights to the eyes. Always face the sun with your reflector and put your subject between the reflector and the sun. Depending on the direction you need the light to go, you can hold the reflector at 45 degrees, underneath your subject, or off to the side. Best way to figure it out is to grab a friend, go outside and try it out. Sometimes I defuse the sun with my reflector to soften the light a little or even block it completely. Other times, I set it off to the side of my subject for just the tiniest bit of fill light. They really are a very useful tool of the trade.
SanDisk Extreme 32 or 64GB Flash Cards
Don’t be cheap and buy the ones that aren’t Extreme. If you own a fairly new camera, and shoot in RAW format, the files are large, so it will buffer writing to the card and delay you continuing to shoot. You could miss an important shot while you are waiting on your card to write. Buy Extreme. They are pricey, but you won’t regret it. And more importantly, you won’t miss the shot.
Flash Card Holder
As I mentioned above, I really love the features of mine, but here is another example. And you must come up with a system for how you place used and unused cards in your holder, so you don’t get confused when you are in a hurry trying to change cards during a shoot or wedding day.
Lexar Multi Card Reader
I like the Lexar brand card reader. It’s reliable. I use a multi card reader because although I use all compact flash cards, some of my 2nd shooters have SD cards, so I need the ability to read and upload from both.
Apple Mac Book Pro
I use the Apple Mac Book Pro 15″ with Retina Display and each time I upgrade to a new computer, I purchase the best processor you can buy. I don’t skimp because technology changes too fast and files keep getting bigger. I’ve used a Mac since the early 1990s. I won’t use anything else. Apple gets creatives, how we think and how we work. Thank you, Steve Jobs and Tim Cook.
Portable External Hard Drive
Hitachi (HGST) has been rated one of the most reliable brands, so I now only buy G Drives (made by Hitachi). I use these portable drives as my work in progress and backup drives.
Desktop External Hard Drive used for
Time Machine Backup
I don’t keep everything on my internal hard drive because I don’t want to slow down my internal processor on my computer. I use external hard drives and back everything up to another, larger external hard drive I use as a Time Machine Backup.
Cloud Offsite Backup
Also in the background, everything is backing up to BackBlaze, which I use as my offsite cloud backup service. Backup your backups. Period. Don’t risk losing images. Hard drives fail. I’ve had many fail over the years, but have never lost images due to backups. Peace of mind, for you and your clients.
Adobe Creative Suite/ Creative Cloud
I use Adobe Lightroom Creative Cloud for editing and Jared Platt’s system for workflow. I only use Adobe Photoshop when absolutely needed for additional retouching. It’s the industry standard and will make your workflow faster and more efficient. I use Adobe In Design to create investment guides and marketing pieces.
For business management, including job tracking, communication and online contracts, I use 17hats. If you decide to sign up, please use my referral code.
EDUCATION & CONTINUING EDUCATION
WPPI and Imaging USA
If you are interested in workshops and trade shows, I highly recommend WPPI, which is held every year at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. PPA’s Imaging USA is held in a different location within the United States each year. If you are located in the southeast, it lands in Nashville and Atlanta pretty regularly.
Birmingham School of Photography
If you really and truly want to understand light and correct exposure, get my friend Bahman Farzad’s book The Confused Photographer’s Guide to Photographic Exposure and the Simplified Zone System. Bahman passed away last year, but his photography teaching and his friendship has impacted my life forever. He was my first photography instructor and the one who taught me the most about lighting. He was passionate about photography and his desire for his students to succeed. He is greatly missed. However, if you live near Birmingham, AL, you can take classes from his daughter Paris. His legacy lives on through her and Birmingham School of Photography, the school they started together.
BUSINESS CREDIT CARD
Also in my bag is my Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards VISA for all my business purchases, especially helpful when I travel abroad, because there is no foreign exchange fee. Make sure you choose a business credit card that gives you something back. Nothing better than earning miles to fly for free with no blackout dates or seat restrictions. I LOVE to travel! Work hard. Play hard.
Hill & Usher Package Choice
Last, but certainly not least, something that should always be with you is insurance. Insurance for liability and equipment. Make sure you and all of your investments are protected for accidents and theft. You hope you never have to use it; but when you do, you are quite thankful for it. Once, I had to make a claim on a $2400 lens that got dropped and bent the mount while I was shooting the SEC Baseball Championship. My insurance company at that time gave me a check immediately so I could order the lens, have it overnighted and continue to shoot the tournament without missing a beat. I recently changed to Hill & Usher Insurance. They offered me better benefits for less money a year than I had been paying. You want an insurance company that truly understands what photographers need and the urgency of when we need it.
PPA Photo Care
And, if you are a member of the PPA like me, you can opt in for their Photo Care Basic Equipment insurance, which gives you even more protection. See their coverage comparison for members.
Whew! I think that’s it for now.I hope you find this post helpful. I’ve officially shared all of my secrets and ask that you use the information for yourself and share it with others. I truly believe there is plenty of business for everyone and God gives me the clients he wants me to have. No need to keep the knowledge and not share it! Sharing is caring!
And if you are interested, I offer mentoring, tailored to your needs, which can be done in person, by phone or FaceTime. Feel free to contact me for pricing and information using the contact link at the top of this blog page.
A FINAL WORD
Be a great photographer, not just someone with great equipment. The images you take are much more about the person behind the camera, than the camera and equipment itself. Shoot. Shoot. And shoot some more. Shoot in Manual mode. For every mistake you make, figure out why you made it and get it right the next time. Making mistakes is okay if you learn from them. Don’t ever get complacent and feel like you’ve “arrived”. I believe there is always more to learn and there are new ways to be challenged every day, with every shoot. Keep on shooting…it’s a great big world out there with so many stories waiting to be told and opportunities to let your imagination and creativity soar!
If you are interested in a phone, FaceTime or in-person mentoring session, give me a shout at email@example.com. It’s always exciting to meet and work with new talent.