Forget All the Fancy Photo Gear, Here Is What a Truly Minimalistic Photographer Looks Like

Forget All the Fancy Photo Gear, Here Is What a Truly Minimalistic Photographer Looks Like

As a follow up to my most recent article about making a living using nothing more than an iPhone camera, I wanted to dig a little deeper into my entire gear setup. Yes, contrary to popular belief I do own more than just an iPhone, though as primarily a mobile photographer the limitation of the phone can be both a blessing and a curse. With just a few more pieces I have been able to absolutely perfect a minimalist photography setup for any all-around professional shooter.

I truly don't care what camera I use to produce an image. Whether that is for professional campaign work or my own personal hobby of shooting anything and everything I find of interest to me. I simply look to produce the best image possible, period. The tools I use to take that image are simply that, a tool. Yes, I do understand that a more professional level cameras offer greater dynamic range and adding the right lens can create sharper images with plenty of delicious bokeh. Let's get right into what I use and where I use it and how it works perfect for my needs.

Get What You Need, Not What You Want

I'll admit I have fantasized about grabbing the biggest and the best camera body and snatching up any prime lens that holds the fabled 1.2 aperture, but it's worthless in my mind. I will always hunt for the perfect setup that will create the best results for what I want every single time over what everyone else is using or what the industry finds the norm. I never let gear limit what or where I shoot, including a professional soccer game here in Indianapolis, example shot below. I shot this game using a single fast prime lens paired with a Canon 60D. My iPhone was my primary camera for speed as the client asked for shots to be edited and uploaded immediately while on the go. Using what I had you can see shooting through an Olloclip lens attachment was a simple way to bring something new to the look and feel of the teams page. 

Focus.

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Starting out just four years ago, I used my iPhone to explore the world of photography and build upon that. I then moved into my first camera, a respectable Canon T3 and kit lens. It didn't take long before I found the limitations in this entry level cameras features, including poor ISO performance, lack of full white balance control, and sadly build quality. The lens was garbage so I grabbed a 50mm 1.4. I was fully aware of some of the T3's limitations but didn't quite understand that would hurt simple shooting in the long run. That brought me to the absolute perfect setup at very little cost starting out.

Getting to The Perfect DSLR Setup

I first picked up Canon for the overall feel and the ease of use in the interface, as well as knowing a handful of people that used Canon that were gracious enough to allow me to borrow and play with various lenses through my second and third years shooting. My father-in-law in particular had a strong hobby for photography as well as the money to back it. For years 2-3 I kept the borrowed 50 1.4 glued to my camera body while also using the iPhone as a very capable backup in wider situations. 

A look into my mobile photography setup just before last nights impromptu photo walk // @igersindy

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Next up was the camera setup that has lasted me the just over a year and built a hobby and career I could have only dreamed about in those first three years. I held strong with my 60D even though urges and other pros were pushing me to the full frame market. I searched high and low for one lens to be the perfect all around lens. The Sigma 30 1.4 was perfection. With the surge in Sigma's lineup the last couple years especially in prime lenses it was the simple choice considering it was half the cost of the highly toted 35 1.4

Do work // #InMyONA

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Pictured above is a setup I played with for a few weekends and it was a test of sorts to see what all the fuss was about while using the top end Canon gear on the market. In my workflow I found quite a few issues but overall these are incredibly capable options for any shooter but when it comes down to it they were just so far over priced for what I can get for a fraction of the cost in a mid range DSLR and solid lens option I mentioned before. For me many factors go into play with selecting the perfect setup. A few things I look for are listed below. 

  • Cost
  • Image Quality
  • User Interface/ Functionality
  • Weight

Some of these might seem generic but overall cost plays a huge factor in any photographer whether starting out or going full time freelance. You don't want to go too far and lose money in your investment while you also don't want to fall behind and grab cheap gear. Image quality is always a discussion and one I feel is strong with many camera systems. Right now I find micro 4/3 through full frame to be solid and fully capable sensor sizes for great image quality but with the right app you can create outstandingly sharp shots with a solid smartphone. Overall look, feel, and functionality need to be easily understood and accessible to me when I need it without question. Weight is at the bottom of this list but don't count it less important than the first three. When creating the perfect kit you want to be sure it won't weigh you down when on the go especially for travel or long shoot days. 

iPhone is Still King

This last year has been by far my most successful and most freeing creatively thanks to limiting my options in lenses, and sticking with my trusty, and highly capable, older camera body. I can't stress enough though the most important tool in my kit, and the camera I use more professionally than any other, is my iPhone. People always ask me what camera equipment I use, or how many lenses I have as if I will quickly answer with this huge list of fancy and expensive camera gear. I am far from rich and a realist when it comes to what I can afford and should purchase when it comes to photography. 

It's the little things in life that make it all worth while. Merry Christmas everyone! What did Santa bring you?

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The gear I have to compliment my iPhone include two Moment lenses, a 60mm and 18mm, which in my opinion are the best mobile lenses on the market. On top of that I have added a Joby tripod and an Anker portable charger since my camera just happens to also be my most used device for editing, email, texting, calling, and so on. This setup is what I have on me everywhere I go and has easily trumped the DSLR setup in my mind for most of my shoots.

The limitation in gear overall has helped me become a better photographer and produce the best work possible for myself and my clients. What do you think? Do I have too little gear? Too much? Have you found that less gear has produced far better results in the end with creating a vision for a project?  

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23 Comments

Bryan Minear's picture

I can definitely agree with you man. Stellar write-up. I chased gear for so long, swapping lenses on eBay to create the "perfect canon setup" (for me). And while that lasted me for quite a while, when i got my first fuji x camera, i fell in love with the quality and portability. My gear-brain kept saying things like BUT ITS NOT FULL FRAME. And come to find out, that really doesn't matter in the slightest. Everyone is very different and as it turns out, i can accomplish all that i need to, personally and professionally, which fuji x cameras and my iPhone. For me, the portability is far superior to anything else on the market, and i don't feel like I'm having to sacrifice quality at all. I'm sure there are plenty of people that feel like they can't deliver professional work unless they are shooting with the current canon or nikon flagship DSLR, but thats all in their heads as far as i am concerned. Cant wait for my moment case + wide lens to arrive later this week, going to be using my phone more than ever.

Andrew Griswold's picture

Totally agree man. Thanks for the message! As of this article I sold off my Canon body and lens to play with the mirrorless market a but and snagged a deal with Olympus. This thing is incredible! I've got the 12-40 2.8 pro lens with it and I'm just blown away. I haven't used a zoom lens in years so it's kinda nice having the stretch. Gonna play with this little guy for a couple months and ponder if I want to go back to Canon. I've fallen in love with Canons overall button layout and UI so it's a tough call for as much as I love the Olympus now. It's an OM-D EM5 ii in case yo were curious. Wifi and water sealing is a huge pro for a social media guy like myself. I'm still eyeing a single canon body and lens as my ideal setup though so gonna be a tough decision coming up!

Ariel Martini's picture

that 50 1.2 is screaming minimalistic

Sarah Williams's picture

minimalistic ≠ cheap

Andrew Griswold's picture

Ha! I was wondering when someone would spot the cover photo. That was actually some gear that was rented for a few weekends in a row for an article and partnership with a local camera shop. The body and lenses were borrowed. That 50 1.2 is the most worthless and least practical lens of all time. Ha!

Really, Andrew? I was thinking of buying the 50 1.2. Never owned a prime lens and wandered how more sharp they really are. Also, do you travel with a laptop and tablet? I'm travelling now and feel I over packed.

Andrew Griswold's picture

Personally for me the lens is a total waste of money. You can get plenty of sharpness out of other prime lenses on the market (check out Sigma's new art series) to save quite a bit of money. The 1.2 is pretty incredible but I snagged focus in good condition less than 20% of the time. It was just not practical for me. I do travel a bit and I have a maxed out 13 inch mac book pro as well as an iPad Air 2. Both of which I have used to transfer images from my camera and edit them to post to social.

Christian Hartmann's picture

This is really personal preference. :) If you want f1.2 and money is not an issue I'd definitely go for the 50 f1.2. Build quality and focus are great. I even use it on an old EOS 3 Body and it works just perfectly. Basically it is the only lens I use on EOS-Cameras when not shooting professionally. When you want more sharpness and better price I'd take a look at the Sigma "Art" options as Andrew already said. For me the lens was totally worth the money. Personally I don't like taking pictures with a mobile phone. So paying 600+ bucks for one is a total waste for money for me. :) For travelling and personal stuff I usually carry a Canon A1 with a 50 f1.4 and a few rolls of film.

Dan Popa's picture

Great article and great photos. But "iPhone is still king" ? I think that you should consider trying a few Samsung phones, Note 4, S6, Note 5 :)

Andrew Griswold's picture

I've played with other phones including Nokia and Motorola as well as the Galaxy line. I've not been blown away just yet but I'm always intrigued since the tech specs are usually better than the phone. The biggest thing for me is the ecosystem that Apple has created and all the connectivity they have made at such a simple level.

Jeff McCollough's picture

I think you told me before that the iPhone sensor must be bigger. My Xperia z3 compact has 21MP but the photos look like crap compaired to iPhone photos.

Andrew Griswold's picture

Yea, I think when it comes to many camera systems the sensor and the software that renders the image (almost like post processing by the OS itself) combine to create an image and for me the iPhone seems to have the best quality over some others. Though ever since the 5s update I have noticed a bit too much processing and it almost looks as if you dont have noise or grain when zooming to 500% you get this paint brush texture that almost loses more detail than creates it.

Your xperia's pictures look terrible *because* 21MP have been crowded into a small sensor, not in spite of this. As a general rule try to avoid any device with a sensor pixel pitch less than a Panasonic LX5's - and if possible go for the same pitch as a 16MP m43 sensor because that gets you (if implemented well) film-like dynamic range but lower noise than 35mm.

Nick Dors's picture

For travel: Canon 6D + 40mm 2.8 pancake // For work: Canon 6D + Sigma 50mm 1.4 ART and Elichrom Quadra with Octa

The 6D + 40mm is my tradeshow setup. Light, fast, Wifi.

Jeff McCollough's picture

Currently I am using a Canon 6D with a 24-105mm F/4 lens and my Sony Xperia Z3 Compact. I am gonna get a Canon 85mm 1.8 this month and a Gopro Hero 4 Session as the price dropped and a speedlight setup. I like the idea of a mirroless for street/travel as I currently live in Bolivia.

The minimalistic approach is great but it really boils down to what projects you will be working on and how your budget is.

My DSLR rig is simple: a Canon 5D Mk III w/ 24-105 f4L, two filters (skylight, polarizer), and a battery grip. My film SLR is not minimal since I've had that the longest; I've added a Canon Auto Bellows and Macrophoto 28mm f3.5 to my A-1 and F-1N. There's a few Canon FD lenses and a flash.

I don't get why you use an iPhone for speed of delivery when there are so many wifi enabled cameras. I just bought a GM1 because I got a stupid deal on it and it has wifi, sensor quality about equal to an OMD, takes serious - but still lightweight - lenses. The body is about the size of a deck of playing cards and weighs 250g; a decent telephoto is another 200. And the kit 12-32 kit lens covers everything else, weighs about the same as a candy bar, and is crazy sharp. The thing that would scare me with the iPhone is shots being ruined by lack of dynamic range - but then I'm in the UK so I spend a lot of time with ISO pushed up high.

Full frame is now strictly for poster size prints, bokeh nerds (can't get enough of those shots of heads against blurry backgrounds!) and specialist low light gear.

Andrew Griswold's picture

Hey Jack,

To start, a camera is a camera and a tool in which I take a photo. Really great argument as you dive into various other camera types though but in a nutshell, that is all it is to me and no matter how I take the photo doesn't matter but the ease and power of which I can take that photo is very important to me.

With the iPhone I am able to keep simplicity and power at the forefront using various apps and tricks to maximize on both of these fronts. At the end of the day if I take an award winning photo with a potato (150g) then I will have taken an aware winning photo no matter what. Time and time again photographers and pros alike have forged their way with nothing but an iPhone. They are VERY capable cameras in this day and age and one I have simply found a way to make a living using as my tool of choice. Yes, I have found various ways to push the limits of the iPhone in my advantage and in many cases delete the issues you seem to have by wanting to use a more pro level camera, which is what you seem to want me to start using and for what? To prove that I NEED to go out and buy a bigger camera to create better more technically correct images? Not my thing, I will do what I can with what I am given and that feels good to me to create the best photo possible. Simple, I love it!

Now, on to the idea that for simply a bit more money and more weight added to my already lightweight and powerful setup you mention at 250g's I can get a GM1, surely a great little camera and fully capable of doing wonders to an images resolution. To argue that point that your GM1 at 250g without a lens mind you is quite a big difference from my 149g iPhone 6s Plus with an added lens set of Moment Lenses that are roughly 30-50g. That is if I need to use a lens, the built in lens is fan-fucking-tastic!

To say a lens is lightweight at the size of a candy bar (42g) and a deck of cards (94g) I will be ok with my Moment attachments. Its pretty lightweight.

If you want to get into the more techy dive with how far I can push the print quality and dynamic range of an image taken with my iPhone, I am cool with that. The iPhone can take a simple snapshot straight up and create a print at 11x14 at full 300dpi. I have in a few spots pushed that size to 24x36 poster prints with out any issue. You have to know where those prints will be used of course because at maybe 150dpi at 24x36 hanging on a wall from 6-25 feet away it will be seen at no loss to the viewer as our eyes can't tell the difference from that distance. Pretty wild!

Now, if I want to push the limits of the phone then apps are where it's at for image quality. I will pair the phone with apps like Cortex Cam which snaps dozens of exposures instantly and blend them together to create a very sharp and low noise image even in super dark situations. I have easily blown those prints up to 18x24 and even 24x36 with incredible image quality for viewing at various distances.

So in the end like I stated at the beginning when it comes to keeping to the subject of simplify and keep it minimal I will always go to the least amount of gear that will generate a good solid quality image, not talking specs necessarily as the concept, the creation, and the overall vision of my photos will hopefully speak further than the camera I shot it on.

>>To start, a camera is a camera and a tool in which I take a photo.<<

Well, yes. The question is how you select your tools. The first thing for me is that I want a camera that can match the dynamic range of the human eye in the light I shoot in while being small enough to carry. A GM1 can more or less do this; an iPhone not nearly. It's not about "how I take the photo not mattering" it's about the improvement in the result for the extra effort - which is minute. Of course if you have better light or don't mind the effect of reduced dynamic range on image, that's fine. But anyone wanting to shoot with the benefits you describe could get all of them from a small camera with wifi - and better image quality - and would probably spend less money, assuming that he wasn't a high-end phone addict anyway.

>>Now, if I want to push the limits of the phone then apps are where it's at for image quality. I will pair the phone with apps like Cortex Cam which snaps dozens of exposures instantly<<

I have to point out that there's no such app. Quickly, yes. Instantly no - important difference in some situations, just like it's important to remember rolling shutter effects. Each exposure takes time and a bigger sensor with a greater sensor pitch will play the same game better - with fewer exposures taken more nearly instantly - combining in-camera if it has the right firmware or you can transfer to a tablet or phone and do the job there.

Again, I get that what you are doing is obviously adequate. I just think that's worth remembering that you could get all the advantages you describe for no noticeable extra weight - and probably no extra cost. Plus with a GM1 - or the various equivalents, this isn't a Panasonic ad, a little more weight would get an Olly with ibis - you wouldn't have to fiddle changing lenses. You could zoom quite a long by enlarging once you reached the limit of the pancake zoom and still match the iPhone's quality.

So, with great respect to your considerable achievement, I still don't see the phone as optimal. Especially given that I believe people react very differently emotionally to eye-level DR - it's what a lot of the romance of film as opposed to digital is about. (Ignoring the fact that digital has now finally caught up.) Shots that match the DR range of our eye feel like part of our sensory data, dreams or memories; that's a big asset. Even if clients don't know what DR is, they sense the difference - and so does the audience.

The bottom line, to me, is yes, a camera is a tool - and its one for producing emotions not images. And the tool you have chosen, because of a technical limitation, is one that will be impaired in this task. I still can't understand why when the cost of passing the critical threshold is not 1.25kg of dslr and lens but about 300g.

...When I look at the flickriver for the iPhone I see some excellent shots. But 80% of the colour work is technically compromised in a way that reduces emotional impact:

http://www.flickriver.com/groups/ifone/pool/interesting/

By comparison here's the river for a small 35mm camera, the T2

http://www.flickriver.com/groups/contax_t2/pool/interesting/

The iPhone shots look like bad lomography; the film looks memories, dreams, something you could walk into.

Here's a page of GM1 shots:

http://robinwong.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/close-encounter-with-panasonic-g...

..They easily match the 35mm. If Apple released a camera that could match 35mm or m43, people would pay a fortune to upgrade and I can't believe you wouldn't be one of them.

So - and this is curiosity not criticism, because you're a smart guy making a career for himself - I can't understand why you won't put up with a slightly large bulge in your pocket to get the extra quality of the GM1? Or for a few more cubic cm you could carry an EP5 body with the Pan 12-32. You wouldn't get better image quality but now you'd have close to steadicam stabilization for video, which would open even more options with clients.

(I was actually expecting you to say that clients WANTED something that had the hallmarks of being shot with a phone for marketing reasons, to be honest.)

Eric Knorpp's picture

I agree with trying to keep it simple as much as possible,when traveling, but saying an iPhone even compares to a DSLR is stupid. No professional is going to shoot with an iPhone. Try and print something big from an iPhone. Anyone with an iPhone are now professional photographers?? I went from Zooms to all primes a fews year back as I hated the 24-70 L Version 1, went through several and they were all junk, about a year ago I bought the Version 2 24-70 and will now sell all my primes except the 100 2.8 IS macro. The newer zoom is more than awesome and very sharp at 2.8. I will probably go for the 16-35LII 2.8 if it is anything like the V2 24-70 and rounding off my kit with 16-35,24-70,70-200 LII 2.8 IS. For Jobs I go with a lot of gear, simple shots just take the 5DMIII and 24-70 battery grip and I am set.

The guy you are talking to IS a professional. He DOES shoot with an iPhone. Ming Thein has had images accepted at Getty Stock that he took with a phone. Not all professional work requires excellent technical standards - and iPhones can get excellent shots in good light (their DR varies a lot with ISO as you'd except from the sensor size.)

As for prints... a lot of work these days is about the web and you forget about prints. I just question an iPhone because it doesn't do *good* web images - at least in the light I have to work with.

...I do admire your systematic gear choice though. I'm wondering if I'll go the same way for m43 with the Panasonic pancake zoom and an Olympus f1.8mm 45mm. But making a lens choice in a UK winter is always hard - the light's so bad that you wonder if you're missing both flaws and strengths.