How Much Equipment Does a Professional Photographer Need?

How Much Equipment Does a Professional Photographer Need?

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.

Risk

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.

Time Sensitivity

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?

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24 Comments

How many photographers does a professional gear need? How many pianos does a professional piano player need? A well meaning article but preposterous.

but how is this perposterous? also answering a question with a question does not make you more intelligent or more woke.

Scott Choucino's picture

I think its a topic that a lot of new photographers would like guidance on.

Apologies for my harsh comment. To make my view clearer, I think the right gear for any photographer is very dependent on what kind of job(s) one is assign to. I agree, however, that new photographers may benefit from reading the article. But I believe it does not apply to professionals who, for the most part, have moved beyond basic gear choices.

I think from the “new” photographer position its a decent article. It misses the most basic premise that any new photogrpaher needs to know. You can and should rent things to try them out. Get a feel and see if it works for you.

I am specifically talking about camera, lenses and lights. You can get blasted with what to buy and what every sponsored pro tell you to buy. When I started back in the 90’s (omg I’m old) the marketing just didnt exist and you bought the used gear from who I assisted for.

I was prepared to hate the presumption but it's a very good and well thought out article. I can't find any fault with it! The fact you included my particular scenario doesn't hurt, either! :-)

Scott Choucino's picture

Glad you enjoyed it Sam

I'm more of an enthusiast. I've been hired for maybe 10-12 jobs since I started shooting. I've done a ton of free stuff to get my name out there.

I probably own anywhere from 12-$16K of equipment. Some of the stuff I haven't used yet but much of it comes in handy when the time comes.

I shot a wedding in June with my cousin who was supposed to be the main shooter. I brought out my softboxes and light meter and before you know it I was shooting the entire wedding. Gear definitely helps if you have the right kind.

Scott Choucino's picture

It's amazing how quickly you end up doing jobs by mistake when your friends see that you have the kit haha

Motti Bembaron's picture

Not as much as I thought is needed when I started my photography business :-).

Scott Choucino's picture

Yeah, I think a lot of us assume we need Chase Jarvis levels of kit to do the job.

Richard Bradbury's picture

The gear I own now has built up and evolved over time.

Now that I have 3 identical camera bodies (5D II) in the kit for my work I feel much more comfortable.

IMO a minimum for any working photographer is two bodies no matter what you are shooting.

When adding the 3rd body I could of gone for a Canon 5Ds and whilst I did eye it up a few times that £2k+ has gone towards the 3rd 5DII and a few other things including investment in my skill set by attending workshops.

The lighting kit has been upgraded because the older studio heads were costing time in post and frankly pissing me off.

With 3 bodies, 7 lenses and 11 ( 8 studio / 4 Location ) lights I am all good. I have redundancy across the board.

I have also been a big advocate of having at least two of the bodies in a working kit being identical and shudder to think at what that would of cost with 5D III bodies let alone 5Ds, or 5DIV. nope.

Thanks for the article Scott, some great points made.

Scott Choucino's picture

Glad you liked it Richard. Are you at the workshop on Friday?

Richard Bradbury's picture

Yup all booked in. Looking forward to it.

I have all the gear I need. Several bodies, the lenses and lights I need along with all the miscellaneous kit necessary to do any job I might get hired for.
However, I do covet your camera stand. The one that serves me decently (solid, doesn't move) lacks the height and horizontal arm that makes so much studio work a much better experience.
Every year, I scour the used gear ads and every year it is just too expensive for the volume of studio work I do.

Scott Choucino's picture

The best way to find one is sadly to find commercial studios going out of business. Otherwise they are very expensive. The studio stands save me hours of work and back ache. I would highly recommend one when it comes up at the right price.

Michael Jin's picture

You need exactly as much as you need to ensure that you get the job done at the quality that you're selling it for. This includes redundancies to cover for time-sensitive jobs (eg. a wedding photographer can't exactly run out to Adorama Rentals in the middle of an event if their camera or lens craps out while some other jobs might not be time sensitive at all).

Scott Choucino's picture

100%. I think the confusion with beginners is that they are selling cheap products, with limited but very high end kit and are unable to mitigate the risk of their sole Canon 1dxmk2 failing mid shoot.

Just a phone...right?

Marion -'s picture

If you buy good quality lenses they can definitely take a hit and I feel like it's completely unnecessary to have the latest type of everything. I would genuinely be ashamed to show you the 70-200 I work with. It's about 8 years old and is completely full of scratches, damaged rubbers, the focusing ring does not move and it just generally looks dead. However all I need it to do is focus.. and it does.
My cameras are just like that. I work with D300s bodies that go for €300 used. I don't have to be careful with it, I can throw them around because they're cheap and extremely durable.

Carl Kruse's picture

I don't find the question preposterous at all but one that any photographer, indeed any artist or craftsman, constantly wrestles with.

Steve Gould's picture

I find the answer to that question to be 'one more piece of equipment than I currently own'.

michael buehrle's picture

enough to get the job done.

Dana Goldstein's picture

I find that the longer I’ve been shooting and the more I’ve refined and zeroed in on my style, the less gear I need. I know I use a couple of lenses almost exclusively, and as long as I have an acceptable backup option for each, and a couple of lighting options (both lights and modifiers), and of course two bodies as mentioned, I’m good to go. I might enjoy a particular legacy lens for fun or just bc I was able to get a great deal on it, but chips down, I know exactly what I will be shooting with. Solid advice and well-written!