Photo Gear–How much Do you really need?

camera_batteryI now have 3 digital SLR bodies.

They are all serviceable and working but the extent that I pick one body over the next inevitably comes down to its age.

Once you move to digital, you’ll do the same I’m afraid.

That’s the path you’ll take out of necessity.

Newer means more megapixels ( I can hear my hard drives straining as they fill to capacity faster)

Newer also means lower noise in high ISO situations. (this is a good thing, no doubt about it)

Hopefully newer doesn’t mean a different kind of battery for your new “baby.”

Why buy a battery grip?–In digital photography where you are totally dependent of battery power, when you run out of juice, your camera is a useless paperweight. With the battery grip, you now have ability to use AA batteries which are readily available. ensuring you’ll never have a problem when Canon’s proprietary battery runs out of power.

My closets are full of chargers and AC adapters. I have so many I’ve absolutely lost track of which charger/AC adapter works with what.

That’s why when I consider the purchase of any new hardware, I always see if I have to buy something new like a different battery.

You guessed it, new proprietary battery means yet another different battery charger.

You think that’s the least of my problems, right? Wait till I show my drawer of old cellphones.

So what does the average photographer need? First off, there is no such thing as “enough gear.”

It’s all in how well you can hide those purchases from your spouse and slyly introduce them casually when they least suspect it.

My wife has her own “m.o” She keeps her purchases in the trunk and they magically appear, so there you go!

In all seriousness, there are some pieces of equipment you’ll need if you plan to do any photo job.

As with most things you read here, these are only my suggestions. Feel free to add yours by commenting. I can use all the help I can get.

Portrait session


Location portraiture need not take a whole lot of equipment if you are observant and know where to set up. This one of local Riverside attorney Mary Daniels was done with just available light from a doorway.

One body is sufficient for a session with a static subject. Doing kids? Hmm… maybe 2 bodies: each body with different lenses. Good luck trying to get spontaneous pictures switching lenses back and forth on one body.

External flash. It doesn’t have to be original manufacturer’s brand of flash. What’s important is you need a flash with capability to shoot at different power settings giving you a way to adjust its power output.

Radio Slaves. This may sound expensive but they are actually cheaper than if you get a long extension sync cord. Compare what Canon charges for their cord and what you pay for one of these cheap, made in China, radio slaves. It’s a no-brainer. So, you don’t get the fancy E-TTL and features like that. But those features end up costing you a lot more.

If you have deep pockets, try the new version Pocket Wizards. There is a documented  flaw unfortunately reducing the operating range caused by Electro-Magnetic Frequency interference with the Canon Speedlites 580EX and 580 EX II. I wouldn’t go so far as call that flaw a deal-breaker. Keep in mind, most photographers don’t need to have that kind of range. Besides, if you set up your remote flash to trigger remotely in questionable neighborhood, it may develop legs and walk away!

Lenses. 50 mm lens f 1.8 is good, f1.4 is better. f 1.2L (The “L” designation from Canon might stand for lidiculous, as one of my phonetically-challenged Asian brothers might pronounce ridiculous). When you see the price difference between these 3 lenses, you’ll agree.
Longer focal length zooms (anything from 70 mm) give nicer perspectives and allow you to blur out backgrounds because of their shallow depth-of-fields.

Extra memory cards. The more the merrier. If you don’t have a long zoom lens, having more memory cards allow you to shoot RAW. That means you can now crop in and still be able to make some very nice enlargements.
I shoot both RAW and jpegs simultaneously but I only look over the jpegs.  But I archive the RAW file  just in case clients come back and saw they want 40 x 30 print.

One light stand if you’re working alone, this provides a way to light off-camera whether to diffuse the light by shooting through a white umbrella or into an umbrella.

Growing an extra arm would be nice, but you can opt for one of these LiteDisc holders to hold reflectors or diffusers in place.


During overcast conditions, a simple reflector with a gold fabric can introduce a nice warmth without much fuss. My heartfelt gratitude to my friend Ted Kulesa for sharing this image from a recent wedding where he assisted me.

Collapsible reflectors are worthwhile purchases but worthless when it’s windy out. They can be extremely unwielding when it’s windy, but they are worth their money when you need to throw light into a scene and you don’t have a lot of time to bring in supplementary lights.

Backdrop. This can be any large fabric which you can use to eliminate distracting backgrounds, for use as ground sheet when you or your subject needs to lay down.

Other miscellaneous stuff. Among your “stuff” should be some gaffer tape, not duct tape. They are different. Unlike its ugly cousin duct tape, gaffer leaves no residue when you peel it off. Big powerful clamps are invaluable for keeping backdrops in place.

Stay tuned. This is such a broad topic and we haven’t even considered the post production end of things.

Ah… with digital, your computer or digital darkroom is also now part of your photo gear and there’s even more toys to buy for that.

Next time I’ll have some suggestions on what I think you’ll need to shoot a terrestrial wedding, as in firm ground, successfully. And yes, there is another kind of wedding–one which takes place totally on board a yacht. I survived one and lived to tell about it.

12 thoughts on “Photo Gear–How much Do you really need?”

  1. Joe,
    Thanks for your kind words. A tote to hold it all is pretty tough to recommend. I tend to think about where I’ll be going and pack accordingly.

    For instance, if it’s out in the boonies, my first choice–something with wheels, won’t be very useful.

    I always consider how close I can park to the location where I am working and whether there are sidewalks.

    But generally speaking having too much when you have no assistant is a hinderance.

    Fudging with gear too much and not establishing a rapport with your subject can make it difficult to have them relax when it comes time to take the pictures.

    I like this bag because it can hold quite a bit. It should hold 2 lightstands, backdrop if it’s a soft fabric, clamps easily.

    I have a little cart I use if it’s a location where wheels will work. Again, planning time of day of shoot, knowing the lighting in the location can go a long way to helping you decide what you need to bring.

    You can bring a lot and leave it in the trunk. I tend to do that. Hope this helps.

  2. Great piece, as are most of your posts, Pete. Is there a single “tote” device (carrying case, bag, etc.) you could recommend to portage all the lighting equipment, especially if one goes “light” on the gear … say, reflector(s), umbrella, light stand, radio slaves and a backdrop? Or is there too much … or too diverse in size … that any single thing could package it all?

  3. Kevin,
    Thank you for stopping by and adding your suggestions. I intend to get the 5D MK2. It’s on the top of my wish list but so is a good large format printer.

    My purchase of that high ticket item is contingent on many things like:

    • 1.non of the major home appliances meeting an untimely demise
    • 2.the approval of the General of the house, my wife. I’m just a Major (outranked). I only make the “major decisions”
  4. Hi,

    I’m glad I’m not the only one going through the pain of trying to only select the right kit and only what you really need.

    Up until 2 months ago I would almost completely agree with you. Spend your money on the best glass you can as it is that that makes the biggest impact to your picture quality (taking the idiot behind the camera out of the equation 🙂 ). Personally I can not recommend the Canon L-series lenses enough as I’ve never had a second thought about buying them, after the initial shock of the price.

    From your list I would really recommend a 2nd speedlite or the such like, as it really opens up opportunities for creative lighting, is relative cheap and is light / portable for locations.

    Now why I think you might reconsider the body. I’ve shot with a 20D for around 5-6 years and have been very happy with the results. HOWEVER, I’ve just upgraded to the Canon 5D MK2…..

    OK, again not the cheapest option, but omg it really is worth every single penny. The difference it offers in quality, tones/contrast, shooting options is head and shoulders above my expectations. This is one camera that is seriously snapping at the heels of the 1Ds MK3 and the more expensive medium format cameras.

    My recommendation, based on my personal experience, buy the best glass you can and once you have a reasonable collection get yourself a 5D MK2 (you don’t really need that summer holiday, new car….)

    Happy shooting

  5. Pete,
    I see it as a catch 22.
    Having 2 of the same bodies was great when I did a photoshoot this weekend. With Olympus, they don’t release pro level bodies as often as Canon or Nikon.
    For instance, if I owned a Canon 40D, I can see buying a 50D as a second body because its basically the same layout, etc.
    Same with a Nikon D200/300.

  6. Anthony,
    I’ve gone back and forth on the wisdom on having 2 identical bodies. It makes familiarization easier but the downside is both bodies become obsolete about the same time.

    These days I tend to have different bodies. Since I mostly shoot on manual exposure but auto focus, the number of settings I change are minimized. The settings I tend to mess with are mostly ISO, White Balance, Aperture and Shutter Speed settings. Anytime I don’t have to go into the multiple layered menus, I don’t. Usually that’s to do an occasional Custom White Balance. Having 2 identical bodies can be a blessing when you’re shooting quick. When I worked at the newspaper, I was alway issued 2 identical bodies for that reason.

    We both know when you’re self-employed you probably will replace your bodies only when you have to. There’s always a newer, faster more impressive body around the corner. (usually 6 to 8 months)

    I used Photo Mechanic when I was at the newspaper. It’s a very good tool. These days I use Lightroom mostly. Thanks for sharing Anthony.

  7. as a Olympus user, what started out with my E-500 two lens kit for the family has turned into a business, with 2 E3’s added to my system, the lower end flash replaced by 2 higher end flash units, 27gb of memory cards, hyperdrive, strobes, wireless trigger, backdrop, etc.
    Worst was dropping 2000 grand on a lens.
    I rented it from a local shop to see if it would fit my needs or if it was just a want. Turns out it was both, but it is tremendous for shooting low light events.
    The problem is when is how much is enough.
    I believe its a never ending cycle.
    Even though I have two E3’s, and use the consumer/ prosumer E500 for family outings, that still comes with me to events in case something goes wrong.
    I have at least two of everything and cannot stress that enough.
    As an avid Photoshop user and opponent to Lightroom, one piece of simple yet necessary software I found Pete is Photo Mechanic.
    To tag/ import raw files in seconds and preview them is simply amazing!

  8. David and Curtis,
    Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I appreciate the kind words. Gets boring when there’s no feedback on a blog, too much like when I’m teaching. How was it described what a teacher does?

    A professor is one who talks in someone else’s sleep.

    I forgot to mentioned “renting gear.” I can always think of buying more glass but bottom line is this: how often is a piece of equipment really needed? If I buy a lens that I’ll need once a year, it may be a better idea to rent it.

    Sort of like those super wide angle lenses. There are only that many occasions when I’ll find myself photographing a wedding in a hot air balloon? I’m being facetious but only to make a point.

  9. Nice article! Well written, practical and informative. This is an excellent checklist for budding photographers to know what products they will need and what for. Thanks for sharing!


  10. You put a lot of fantastic information in this post. I especially liked the fact that you mentioned there is no such thing as “too much gear”. Then I had to laugh “My wife has her own “m.o” She keeps her purchases in the trunk and they magically appear, so there you go!”

    I like your style. I will be back to check out more later. Thanks for such a wonderful blog!

    David Cooper

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