You’ve taken the big leap and purchased your very first interchangeable lens camera, congratulations! I know you’ve already done a ton of research figuring out whether to go mirrorless or DSLR. Not to mention the overwhelming choice in brands and sensor sizes. You probably chose a kit that came with a zoom lens or two and thought your big expenditures were done, right? I know I did when I bought my first DSLR several years ago. However, there’s still some essential pieces of photography equipment you’re going to need to get started.
Now that you’re hooked on the good stuff, your Amazon “Top Picks For You” list has become a confusing barrage of products. Do you really need a graduated neutral density filter or a speedlight? Which products should you start saving up for first, and which ones can wait?
Photography Equipment You Can’t Do Without
Here’s a list of photography equipment every photographer needs. Whether you plan to photograph indoors or outdoors; tiny objects or sweeping landscapes, you need these items in your bag. Oh, and of course, you’ll also need a bag to hold all your photography equipment.
Most of these items are relatively inexpensive or have inexpensive options available, but they do add up. I’ve arranged my list to start with the things you’ll absolutely need to get started, then on to the stuff that can wait a little while. But, in my opinion, these are all essentials.
1. Fast Memory Cards
You’re not going to get very far without a memory card in your camera. Oh look, these 16 GB cards are on sale for $5.99. Sweet! You can just buy a bunch of those, right? Not so fast! Those cards are only rated class 4, which means they will be very slow writing your data to the card. About 4MB/second.
Remember how you chose your camera because of its ability to shoot 7 frames per second? You’ll be lucky to capture two of those frames before the camera stops (right in the middle of the action) to write that info onto a slow sd card. Ouch.
Related Article: Best Memory Card for Camera
A better choice would be this class 10 card, for only a few dollars more and with a speed of 80MB/sec. If you plan on shooting 4k video, you are going to need an even faster card, with a lot more storage. Ideally, you should stick with the big name brands like Sandisk and Lexar. Reliability is too important in a memory card and those brands offer recovery software with their pro level cards.
Imagine losing all of the photos you took on your vacation or worse at a wedding you’re being paid to shoot, because your no name brand memory card failed at the wrong moment. Memory gets cheaper all the time (I can remember paying over $100 for my first, 1GB memory card!), so buy the fastest card you can afford, from one of the well-known brands.
2. Extra Camera Battery
Depending on your camera, you’re going to need at least one and possibly more extra batteries. Some of the mirrorless cameras can be real battery hogs. I know I’ve seen a big difference in battery consumption, even in my own DSLR cameras. You’ll have to judge how many extras you need, but you’ll always want at least one fully charged backup battery in your bag. Just in case.
3. Lens Cleaning Gear
No matter how careful you are, your lenses will get dust and smears on them. Resist the urge to wipe them off with your sleeve. (Which I do, all the time, and my lenses show it with many tiny scratches). You will need an air blower to remove dust without touching the glass, a Lenspen type brush for when that doesn’t work, and some microfibre cleaning cloths for when your lens gets wet.
4. Photo Editing Software
I’ve got a little secret for you. All those gorgeous photos you drool over online? They didn’t come straight out of the camera looking that way. I know it’s shocking, right? You’ve spent all that money on a professional camera, but the RAW photos it produces don’t even look as good as your cell phone photos.
The truth is, the .jpeg files you produce with your cell phone or point and shoot camera already have settings like contrast, sharpening, and saturation added to them and a whole bunch of information has been discarded, without your permission.
That’s the beauty of the RAW file, now it’s all up to you. No choices have been made for you and no information has been lost. The best part is, as long as you’re using a non-destructive editing program like Adobe Lightroom, you’ll even be able to return to your early edits years later, shake your head and say “what was I thinking?” and start over from scratch.
Although it may appear there are some competing products, there really isn’t any real choice to be made. Sooner or later, you are going to end up using Adobe products, either Photoshop or Lightroom or (most likely), both. The overwhelming majority of presets, plugins, actions, and online training are made for Adobe products and knowing your way around these programs is a resume worthy skill.
These days, you can get your foot in the door for the very reasonable price of $9.99/mo. Plus, you’ll always have the most up to date versions of both programs. If money is very tight, or if you object to paying for an ongoing subscription, you can pick up Photoshop Elements. Use it with Adobe Bridge and Camera RAW for a slightly watered down, but still very capable photo editing solution.
5. A Backup System
Nobody wants to think (or talk) about this stuff. It’s only slightly more pleasant than medical insurance or planning your will, but (in all three cases), you really must have a plan. You’d hate to lose all of your vacation and family photos, but once you start making money from your photography and storing photos for paying clients, you REALLY can’t afford to have your head in the sand.
What if your hard drive fails? Or, what if your computer gets a virus. Perhaps a disaster could strike and your home is destroyed. When people are asked what they would take from their home if it were on fire and all the living creatures were safe, most will answer “the photos”. Well, now the photos tend to live on a hard drive, and hard drives are neither indestructible nor infallible.
The safest backup plan is to have two copies in your home, on different hard drives and an additional offsite copy, either in the cloud or at a friend or family member’s house. You will need an external hard drive for your local backup.
For your offsite backup, there are many cloud storage services available. It may take a long time to get large photo libraries uploaded, so the sooner you start, the better. I personally use a service called CrashPlan, which is very affordable. One of the compelling features of CrashPlan is you can use their service to back up to a hard drive in another location for FREE.
6. Camera Bag
Now that you’ve acquired all this photography equipment, you’re going to need a place to keep it safe and organized. Preferably something that makes carrying your photography equipment easy. This problem can be solved simply and inexpensively by purchasing a customizable, padded insert for a bag or backpack you already own, right on up to huge, waterproof, virtually indestructible cases with wheels.
Related Article: Best camera backpacks
What kind of bag you choose is going to depend a lot on your lifestyle and what type of photography you will be doing. Some things to consider are whether you’ll be flying with your camera bag. Will it be checked luggage or carry on?
Will you be doing a lot of hiking? You’ll need to look for comfort, weather resistance, and room for accessories like a hydration pack and a jacket.
Are you going to be shooting in areas with a lot of tourist traffic, where theft and pickpockets are a concern? Choose a bag that doesn’t look so much like a camera bag. For example, this one that looks like an old, beat-up backpack or messenger bag with an insert.
7. Camera Strap
As soon as you possibly can, you are going to want to get rid of the horrible strap that came with your camera. Really, your neck will thank you. I use this sling style strap from Joby and I love it so much that I bought a second one, for my second camera body. This Black Rapid strap has a similar design and is also very popular. There are also chest harnesses and holster belts. Which style you choose is less important than getting that weight off your neck.
Related Article: Best Camera Straps
8. Fast Prime
If you purchased your camera with a kit lens or two, you may soon find yourself frustrated by limitations.
Maybe you bought the camera because you wanted to take fast action shots at your children’s sports activities. Now you just can’t seem to get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action. Perhaps you wanted the beautiful look of the creamy soft backgrounds you’ve seen others achieve in portraits , but even with your aperture wide open, your photos just don’t look like that.
Once you’ve got a handle on the exposure triangle and basic operation of your camera, the problem actually might not be you. Kit lenses tend to have variable apertures that are f3.5 on the wide end at best. They may go up as high as f6.3 when zoomed in. That size aperture just isn’t letting in enough light to use a very fast shutter speed or get a beautifully blurred background.
If you’ve reached this point in your photography journey, a fast (f1.8) prime lens could make a world of difference for you. The best news is, they are relatively inexpensive, with the “nifty fifty”, a 50mm f1.8 available for most systems at under $150.
Even with that wide-open aperture on your new prime lens, sometimes you still just don’t have enough light. Other times, you need more depth of field and can’t use your widest aperture. You need to add light to your photos, but the pop-up flash on your camera makes everything look awful.
Many people are intimidated by learning to use speedlights on and off camera. It’s possibly the one thing you can do that will make the single biggest difference in the look and quality of your photos. You don’t even need to buy the expensive speedlights from Canon or Nikon. Light is light. When just starting out, inexpensive off-brand flashes like these popular ones from Yongnuo will do just fine.
10. Light Modifier
Now that you’re adding light to your photos, you’re going to want to start controlling it. The most common light modifiers (and the easiest for beginners to use) are those intended to make your light source bigger and softer. You can’t go too far wrong with a shoot through umbrella, or 5 in 1 reflector. But in a pinch, bounce the light from your flash off of any large white surface, like a wall, the ceiling, or a piece of white foam core. All of these options will spread the light out and change the direction the light is coming from. This makes a much more flattering look than what is achieved when the light is blasting straight ahead off the camera.
As you begin to refine your interest in photography, you might find yourself afflicted with GAS–Gear Acquisition Syndrome. It’s a natural part of your photography
obsession progression. There’s a lot of specialized equipment you may require for your chosen genre. You’re probably going to end up purchasing a whole bunch of stuff you rarely or never use. But you won’t regret investing in any of the items on this list. For all the rest…there’s always Kijiji!
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