When I first opened the doors to my portrait studio, my camera bag was stocked. But after years of working in news photography and doing freelance work on the side, I’ve learned how to streamline my kit.
During long days of traveling the countryside covering features and sports, I didn’t want to break my back carrying all of my cameras, lenses and accessories to each assignment. I quickly learned a few major freelance photography tips, including how to determine what gear I really do — and do not — need.
Tight Budget, Lean Bag
When you’re just starting out in the photography business, it can be tempting to drool over all the fancy new digital toys on the market. But you really don’t have to own the latest camera body model or a bunch of specialty lenses to take great images.
Pro tip: Buy at least two camera bodies that fit your budget. For years, my second body was my older camera, and it never failed me. A second camera body is imperative when you’re getting paid to take pictures. If your first camera fails, you have a backup to get the job done.
A second body also comes in handy when you need two types of lenses available and ready to shoot at any moment. For example, if you’re covering a basketball game, a long, telephoto lens will be great to capture close-ups at mid-court, but you’ll want to be able to quickly grab the second body and stand behind the hoop with a wide angle lens to frame jumping players as they dunk the ball.
Here are the essentials you’ll need in your first camera bag:
Two camera bodies: These can be digital or film-based, depending on the type of photography you’re doing.
Two lenses: An all-purpose, super zoom lens that goes from 28-300mm is convenient and compact. But you may also want to have one wide lens (24-70mm) and one that shoots closer up (70-200mm).
Digital media or film: Tuck away several rolls of film or media cards so you never run out of space to record images.
Flash attachment: An external flash helps you illuminate dark scenes, both indoors and out. But if you’re only photographing daytime landscapes, you can skip this gear.
Laptop: Digital images require editing. Wedding photographers often use a wireless digital camera/laptop system to edit photos taken pre-ceremony to share at the wedding reception. Now, that’s service! If you shoot film, a film scanner lets you turn your images into a digital format ready for proofing, editing and sharing.
Pro tip: If you’re doing portrait work, start out like I did and work with nature and urban landscapes for your backdrops. Trees, brick walls, old buildings, lakes and gardens work well for portraits of families, high school seniors and kids.
Growing Business, Expanding Gear
As your customers start coming back for more and your calendar begins to fill up, you can justify some extra gear. But each item you add to your arsenal should have a useful purpose that makes your images more unique or gives you a one-up on your local competition. After all, if you can now offer indoor studio portraits, complete with professional lighting and canvas backdrops, you will get more bookings than the guy across town who photographs people at the local park.
When you’re ready to make a few investments, I’d recommend exploring the following gear:
Specialty lenses: Consider getting a 1:1 macro lens for super close-up shots. These are essential for stock agency and documentary work. Or consider splurging on an extreme wide-angle 12mm fisheye lens to expand your fine art photography field of vision.
Editing software: If you’re taking pictures of people, you’ll likely get requests to retouch imperfections or drop in digital backgrounds. Look into photo manipulation software like Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop, PaintShop Pro, Dx0 OpticsPro and Corel PaintShop.
Cool camera bags: When I updated my standard over-the-shoulder bag to a backpack, my lower back thanked me. I also really enjoy a waist-pack style bag when I need both hands free sporadically, like when I’m on a nature hike.
Support systems: A solid tripod allows you to take long exposures of the stars at night. You may also want to consider investing in a one-leg monopod to make working with long, heavy lenses easier.
Professional lighting: Portable lighting stands, wireless radio triggers and lights allow you to set up a studio situation anywhere. At one point, I offered on-location pet photography, turning backrooms of retail stores into instant portrait studios to make easy weekend income.
Backdrops: If portraits are your bread and butter, you’ll need simple, clean backdrops. Start with paper or linen, then upgrade to hand-painted canvas or remodel a wall with fresh paint and a faux window (illuminated by an “always sunny outside” lightbox).
Long ago, a friend shared a few freelance photography tips with me: It doesn’t matter what gear you have, as long as you always keep looking for new angles and ideas with your eyes. And, you are the photographer, not your gear. You can create incredible images with a bare-bone set up. Over the years, I’ve actually scaled down my camera bag, and now I feel more creative since I’m relying on my skills, not gadgets. Starting out with a lean, mean camera bag will help you hone your craft and keep your expenses low. Shoot sharp!