Having the right gear for the job is essential in being able to handle the barrage of lighting scenarios that a wedding photographer will encounter on each outing. I, like many others, am constantly thinking about the next piece of gear. What lens, what camera, or what lighting system will allow me to take higher quality images and provide a better experience to my client? This led me to think, what do I really need to shoot a wedding? I mean in reality, to walk out my door and provide my bride with the images she expects, what are the bare essentials I really need?
Whether you are a seasoned professional who is always spending that next bit of extra money on a new lens or whether you are new photographer thinking about jumping into wedding photography, it's important to nail down your essentials-only gear list.
It might sound nice to some to have two Nikon D4Ss or D810s, every lens under the sky, and a full Profoto lighting system to take with you on every wedding, but is it really what you need? And even more importantly, is it even ideal?
The Minimum Gear
Let's start with camera bodies. First, do you need two camera bodies or one? I personally shoot with two bodies, but I love the idea of shooting with one. I do, however, think it's important to have two cameras on you just in case something happens to the first. Part of the job of wedding photography is being foolproof, meaning nothing can go wrong that would stop us from recording that day. Now, that doesn't mean there aren't photographers who don't carry only one body. There are in fact some very good ones that do that, but it's a risk. The chances of a body failing during a wedding (especially a new body) are very slim. So you decide if you want to take that risk, but I personally wouldn't recommend it at all.
My current camera body of choice on wedding days is the Nikon D750, which is currently selling for about $1,900 new on B&H. I've often said that Nikon has made this camera too good, because wedding photographers don't need to spend $6,000 to get the low-light capabilities of a model like the D4S that was previously the standard.
If you are looking for a less expensive option, I think you can still photograph in most lighting conditions with very professional results with the Nikon D610, which retails for about $1,500.
The Nikon D7000 series is also a good value, and I would have no qualms with a D7200 or D7100 being a backup camera body. They perform decently in low light and also do a fair job of focusing quickly. One should keep in mind though that these are crop sensors. That means they are not full frame, and you need to be mindful of that, especially when making lens selections.
Final Verdict: If you are looking for your main camera body and the cheapest option to start shooting weddings, I would recommend either the Nikon D610 or the Canon 6D, with the 6D coming in at about $100 less expensive.
And if not? If you are to attempt shooting a wedding with a lower model like the Nikon D7200, I would suggest — in order to protect yourself and in the bride's best interest — that you be up front. There are certainly countless examples of beginner, entry-level camera owners being asked to shoot a wedding. In fact, that is how many get started in wedding photography. But you should be clear to your couple that, while you are confident that you can take photos for them throughout the day, you are not a professional and your gear is not professional gear. Your cost should therefore be in-line with your skill set and gear capabilities. If you can't ensure you will get all the shots with professional quality you shouldn't be accepting professional rates.
You need to be able to basically do two different things: shoot wide and shoot far. The usual choice photographers have to make is whether to go with zoom lenses or prime lenses (fixed focal-length lenses). My personal lens list looks something like this:
- Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 - $2,400
- Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II - $2,100
- Sigma Art 50mm f/1.4 - $950
- Nikon 85mm f/1.4 - $1,600
- Nikon 105mm f/2.8 Macro Lens - $900
Full disclosure, here: I barely use my 70-200mm and only pack it just in case I need the longer focal length. Ninety percent of my wedding images are shot with either the 50mm or 85mm prime while a few images on each wedding are taken with the 24-70mm zoomed wide and the 105mm Macro. So, even on my own list, I could eliminate a couple of lenses if I needed to. What I need though is the ability to shoot wide at either 24mm or 35mm and the ability to zoom in with something like an 85mm. You also don't need the f/1.4 lenses if you are on a budget. Moving down in price range to the f/1.8 can work when dealing with primes. Note, however, that the difference in these lenses is not the two-thirds of a stop, it's the overall quality of the lens build and lens elements. If you would like to see my gear in action, check out some of my blog posts. All of my recent posts are using the D750 and D810 and this lens list.
You could probably make do with a Nikon 35mm f/1.8 (which retails for about $530) for your wider shots and a Nikon 85mm f/1.8 (which retails for about $500) when you need to punch in a bit. I would also recommend picking up a 50mm, mainly because the price point is so low for what you get. The Nikon 50mm f/1.8 retails for about $200, and the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G retails for about $450.
Also, let's look at the comparable Canon lenses and their approximate cost.
First, do you need a flash in order to shoot a wedding? My answer is yes. You are going to have to shoot in situations that are not ideal. Not every wedding is going to have the perfect outdoor ceremony followed by the perfectly lit reception. Most first dances happen on a dance floor that requires you to light the subject. The bottom line is, if you are walking out the door without any lighting, then you cannot shoot in any situation.
Second, do you have to be able to get the flash off-camera? And, my very hesitant response: No. You can light a group with your on camera flash -- not well, but you can do it. You can also light dark reception venues without having a light off-camera. It's not the look I like at all, but you can do it.
Also, keep in mind that if you only have one flash and no flash triggers, then you may be able to fire that flash with your on-camera pop-up flash. And while the pop-up flash isn't by any means the best, I have seen some pretty good first dance and exit photos using pop-up flash along with an off-camera flash as a backlight (this is a scenario where you only have one external flash).
Ideally, you should have two or three flashes and be able to shoot off-camera using a light stand, umbrella, and flash triggers. My wedding kit includes five flashes and an Einstein strobe with a couple of different modifiers.
For flashes, your two main options are brand or off-brand. The Nikon SB-910 runs about $550, and the lower end SB-700 runs about $325. In the Canon realm you can choose from the 600EX for about $470 or the 430EX for about $300. My other recommendation would be looking at a brand like Yongnuo. The newer model with iTTL for Nikon is around $100 and the Canon model is about $20 more. Yongnuo also sells a great set of triggers that allow you to change the flash power remotely. One transceiver and one controller combined go for around $85. Fellow writer Jason Vison recently put together a great article on them.
Also, I want to note that if you are shooting the wedding with only one on-camera flash, you need to know how to use it. Just pointing the flash straight at your subject is not going to cut it. Being able to bounce in multiple directions (left, right, up, back) and use the flash as a subtle fill in certain situations is essential to lighting and shooting in the constantly changing landscape of the wedding day.
The Bare-Bones Kit
Nikon D610 - $1,500
Nikon D7100 - $800
Nikon 35mm f/1.8 - $530
Nikon 85mm f/1.8 - $500
Yongnuo 568 EX - $100
Canon 6D - $1,400
Canon 70D - $1,000
Canon 35mm f/2 - $550
Canon 85mm f/1.8 - $370
Yongnuo 560EX - $120
I mentioned earlier that you could very well decide to not pick up the second camera body, but that is at your own risk, and I do not recommend it. Also, if you were looking to expand this kit just a bit, I would recommend picking up the 50mm f/1.8 or f/1.4, a second flash, a light stand, an umbrella, a set of triggers, and a 5-in-1 reflector. These additional items would probably run you about $500 and are well worth the money, given that they provide you with much more flexibility. You also need to keep in mind you will need memory cards for your camera, and I highly recommend extra batteries for your camera body. Heading out with one battery to shoot a wedding is asking for trouble. Lastly, you will also want something to carry your gear in as well. If I were going to build a starter kit that was a little bit more ideal, I would recommend setting aside about $10,000. But if you are looking to start off in wedding photography, you can set out with around $4,000.
Summary and Disclaimer
Finally, I want to again state that in my opinion if you are setting out with lesser camera bodies, without a flash (and the knowledge of how to light with only one flash), and without a wide and tight lens, you should be very upfront with your bride or groom. If for nothing else than to protect yourself. You don't want the expectations to be unsaid and then deliver images that are not what the client expected. (this statement is more for the beginners, I don't want anyone new misleading themselves and then getting themselves sued). As a wedding photographer the job is unique in that you need to be ready for any and all situations.
That being said, having all the best gear in the world does not replace knowledge and experience, nor predetermine success or "professionalism". Conversely, not having a D610 or D6 doesn't mean you can't shoot epic weddings, certainly skill and knowledge can over ride your gear budget (within reason), but having lower end gear, even with great skill, does mean you will be some what limited in particular situations. This article is simply a gear list intended for those looking to build their first kit, to have a starting point, or for those looking to stream line their wedding kit.