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As photographers, we need our gear. Without it, we’re just people with highly visual imaginations and restless index fingers. However, the conundrum of all photographers is acquiring the right combination of equipment without blowing their budgets. In reality, there’s no “right” or “standard” selection of gear—everyone’s creative vision and needs are different. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a beginner, putting together a cost-effective kit that still offers you the freedom and flexibility to exercise your photography as you see fit, can be a real challenge.
To help you navigate this perpetual dance, let’s see how I built my camera bag over the years. Please note that these ideas do not represent the opinions and needs of the other 2,459,276,483 photographers out there, who will probably disagree with me.
As a professional Nikon user who shoots a combination of action, adventure, locations and outdoor subjects, my primary need has always been having gear that produces high-quality imagery, but doesn't weigh me down.
For cameras, I’ve always gone with the highest-end ‘compact’ body in the Nikon lineup. Although my first camera was an all-manual Nikon FM2, when I turned pro, I went for Nikon’s then-top-end, non-battery-grip body, the N90, the N90s, and later the F100. When I eventually made the jump to digital, I bought the D200, and then the D300. Currently, my main body is the D700.
Simple: price, size and weight.
I often run, ski and hike with my camera, and a smaller DSLR means that I can move faster through the wilderness. I bought an F5 back in 2000, but found that I didn’t use it very often, for the reasons described above.
Chances are good that I will upgrade to the D800, or to whatever Nikon releases next, but for now, my D700 still performs flawlessly, delivering professional-grade photos in all of the situations where I’m shooting.
With my resourceful, make-do mentality which comes from being self employed, I tend to spend my money on good gear, and then use it for years, often until it wears out or is no longer compatible with my current needs and/or technology. This is more applicable to my lens selection than my digital cameras. Cameras need to be upgraded much more often than they used to back in the days of film.
Many of the lenses in my bag are the same ones I bought when I first turned pro. Here are my main lenses, all of which I’ve owned for years.
- AF 80-200mm f/2.8
However, I didn’t get them all at once. When I first started out, I slowly built a collection of manual lenses with the 50mm, 28mm and 105mm. Between the time I upgraded to AF bodies and the time I went full-time pro, I also owned a couple of slower zoom lenses, a 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 and a 70-210mm f/4-5.6. Over time, I came to prefer using fixed lenses for the shorter focal lengths, and upgraded to the 24mm, 50mm and 85mm.
My early ultra-wide choice was a Tokina AF17mm lens that I used for many years, mostly because it was considerably smaller and less expensive than the Nikon 14mm f/2.8. I don’t use that Tokina much anymore, but I still think that third-party lenses are a great choice if you’re on a budget. At the time, that Tokina cost about 1/3 of the comparable Nikon model.
Even though I like to go with lightweight gear, I consider my 80-200mm f/2.8 to be one of my bread-and-butter lenses. It’s heavy and expensive, but it’s fast, and it produces fantastic results. I will eventually upgrade to one of the AF-S VR versions of this lens, but as I said above, when I find something that works, I keep using it as long as it gets the job done. Over a decade later, it still delivers.
I started out years ago with a single Nikon speedlight, used that for a year or two, and then got a second. When I started expanding my creative and technical lighting skills, I got a couple of cheap umbrellas and some Pocket Wizards, and worked with them until I got the hang of basic camera lighting techniques. As I progressed, I added a few more flashes and a few more light modifiers. My main kit today includes the following items, all of which I chose for reliability, durability, portability and cost:
- Nikon SB800 & SB 900 flashes
- Photoflex OcotDome NXT softboxes
- Photoflex WhiteDomes
- Lumiquest Softbox III and LtP
- PocketWizard Plus II radios
As with any of my gear, I don’t carry it all everywhere I go. I usually strip down to the smallest selection of items that I think will get the job done in any given situation. Sometimes, that may only be a body and one lens, other times it might be the whole bag.
Over the years, I’ve pared my camera gear down to the lenses and accessories that I use on a semi-regular basis, or those tools that serve a particular purpose. I don’t have very many items that I don’t use very often. That's because I don't generally buy something unless I think it’s really going to come in handy. Rather, I’ll borrow or rent it. I do upgrade, though, and usually buy at least one major piece of gear a year, depending on my budget and the scope of work that I’m producing at the time.
Upgrading is indeed necessary, especially in the world of digital photography. As you progress in your abilities and experience, you’ll be able to justify and afford better equipment. However, don’t feel that you need to upgrade every single time a new piece of gear comes out. You can fall into the trap of thinking that you need all the latest gear, but in reality, style and creative identity comes from having a specific selection of gear, and really knowing how to use it. In the end, a great photographer with one or two lenses will always do better than someone who just has all the toys.
My bottom-line advice is to start with a small and reasonable selection of good-quality gear, and slowly work up. You don’t need the best when you’re starting out, but don’t get the bottom-end stuff either. If you can afford only one pro-quality item, make it a lens. A great lens on a midrange body will do better than going the other way around, plus, it will save you money that you can put towards more gear in the future.
You can read more by Dan Bailey at his blog.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of B&H Photo, Video, Pro Audio