We all get stressed about our gear at some point in our careers. Knowing how much and what quality of photography gear you need is complicated. This will help shed some light on exactly how much equipment a professional photographer needs.
Photography is a very broad profession, from passport photographs to elaborate advertisement jobs with massive production costs. So giving exact advise on the Internet is pretty pointless. Even if I was just going to focus on one genre, there is no one-size-fits-all. However, there are some key pointers that can help guide you.
How Many Cameras Do You Need?
All of us will need a camera in order to shoot. But we don’t actually need to own it, we merely need access to one. For big jobs, a lot of photographers rent their cameras from rental houses. Owning $125,000 of Hassleblad kit isn’t viable for everyone. And if you need that sort of kit you are probably shooting less often but at a very high day rate, so having $125,000 of gear sitting around doesn't make great sense when you can let someone else worry about it and simply rent it in for the job. If you shoot on a daily basis, then you are going to need to own your gear. The cost of renting is no longer a viable option, but where do you even start in terms of quality and quantity of cameras?
For most of us, we need at least two cameras. If you shoot events, it's very practical in order to avoid constant lens changes. If you work in a studio, it’s nice to have a backup camera in case something goes wrong. Ideally your backup camera will be exactly the same as your main camera. This rule applies pretty much up until you need to buy a medium-format camera where the cost of owning two digital backs becomes unrealistic. At that point you probably want your main camera and a very good backup from Canon, Nikon, or Sony.
If I was a full-time wedding photographer, I would be sure to own three identical bodies. I worked out that over the lifetime of a camera, the number of repairs an average camera needs and the daily cost of renting a spare when the camera is back in the workshop, it’s far cheaper to own three.
Buying three Canon 1D X Mark II bodies is no small investment. But, if I could afford one Canon 1D X Mark II or three Canon 5D Mark II or Mark III bodies for my work, I would buy the three Canon 5D Mark II or Mark III cameras. It makes better business sense.
How Many Lenses Do You Need?
Much like cameras, you want back ups for lenses. This doesn't mean owning three 50mm f/1.2 lenses. What it can mean, though, is having a few options should something go wrong. For example, my Canon system has a 17-40mm L, 28mm, and 35mm lens that can all be swapped around in a tight spot. I then have a 24-70mm, 35mm, and 85mm that can all be used in a similar situation at times, and finally an 85mm, 100mm, and 70-200mm lens that have cross over. There is always the ideal lens, but if I smash my 100mm lens during a product shoot in the studio, the 70-200mm will be making an last minute substitution.
My Canon setup is what I use 90 percent of the time when I need to get the job done. The lenses I have cover pretty much everything. Anything more specialized, I either use a medium-format system or I rent tilt-shift lenses. If I were a family portrait photographer, I would probably want a 50mm lens, 85mm lens, and a 24-105mm f/4. Then once I worked out if I wanted something a bit more niche or that I really liked the wider shots, I would go out and buy a 35mm or 24mm prime lens, knowing that my 24-105mm would cover me for everything else should something go wrong. So in the same way as the camera bodies, this is very much about mitigating against risk. Being sure that is you drop and smash something on the job, you can carry on as if nothing happened.
There are photographers who have an entire career based on one lens. Some photographers have only ever shot a 50mm lens or a 35mm lens, for example. This isn’t something that works for me because I have to do what my client asks as a commercial photographer. But, if you are in the fortunate position where clients book you for your vision and this is what you have created, then maybe owning a backup of that one lens isn’t the worst idea in the world.
What About Lights?
Lights tend to be a bit more temperamental than lenses and cameras, in my experience. I own two main types of photography lights. I have a selection of six Canon speedlights for events, small location lights, and any time I need to hide a light somewhere very small.
I then have a really odd mix of 10 Bowens lights, a few off-brand lights, and a couple of Broncolor Pulso heads and a pack for them. Most of my shoots use one or two lights, at a push I pull out a third light. But I do have the odd client where 10 lights make an appearance. I also rent out my studio space to other photographers, so having the additional kit makes sense. If I were just doing my usual food work in there where I use one to three lights, I would probably own four or five. If you work as a one light kind of photographer, owning two or three would make perfect sense.
Computers and Hard Drives
In the digital age, nothing can be done without a computer. I require two machines for my job. One in the studio for editing and delivering images from which stays on almost 24-7, constantly sending a barrage of TIFF files to the servers. The other is a laptop that I have just upgraded that comes on location and allows me to work from home and at cafes. I then have a home backup system and a studio backup system with 4 TB drives at either end. Both drives and computers then also sync to BackBlaze on a daily basis to make sure I am fully up to speed. Working with one computer and drive wouldn't be ideal for me. If you only work in one place, then a home drive, one that travels in your bag in case of break-ins, and a system like BackBlaze is probably a sufficient system. If my work increased by 25 percent I would be moving into the world of render machines to manage the volume of work I have been producing this year. Going up that extra step in costs would make perfect sense at that point with the change in income. However, going in with a top of the line machine currently would make my next day deliveries happen slightly faster, cost a lot more, and the client still wouldn't see them until 9 a.m. the following day.
How risky is your job? If you run a passport service where the camera and lens never move, you probably won't have any major issues with your gear. If you are shooting football in the pouring rain and throwing masses of kit into the back of a car in a rush, then the chances of a camera failing on you will be far higher. If there is a high chance of failure, you are going to want to mitigate against that by having a backup plus an additional backup for when you current kit is in the repair shop. This also needs to be cost effective, so owning the best kit and most up to date camera isn't always a viable business plan.
Weddings have always scared me with camera reliability. I won't ever be seen at a wedding with fewer than two cameras on my person. The thought of my camera freezing during the first kiss and not being able to instantly pick up an identical body and get a photograph is far from ideal. Likewise, if a job has to be completed on a set day and there is no way to recreate the shot, make sure you have at least one backup set of kit.
Value of the Job
If you are going out working for $500 a day, you probably don’t need to be taking loads of spare kit with you. If you charge $1,000 a day or more, then having enough kit and enough spares will be both expected, and will make financial sense. A $1,000 a day shoot is probably costing the client between $5,000 and $10,000 once staffing and all of the behind-the-scenes work is taken into account. They don't want to be paying for that twice because your camera died.
Buying kit is as much about mitigation as it is about image quality; something that is easy to forget with the barrage of new camera and lens reviews that are constantly out there. It is often worth getting older cameras and more of them for your business than one of the latest and a mismatched backup body. Changing sensors and processors halfway through a job is a nightmare of image continuity.
How do you work out what equipment you need for your career?