Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Equipment Needs for Starting Your Own Photography Business

No photo today, instead I'm answering the question I hear all the time, "If I want to be a professional photographer, what do I need?"  So today I'm playing  personal shopper.

Since I started shooting professionally my work habits and subsequently my equipment have evolved. With each new toy my style shifted towards a new method. For the bulk of my career I have been a location and event photographer. My desire to eat and pay off my school loans was more pressing then having my name displayed across a store front window. This last year was my chance to" have it all" you might say. I took advantage of the extreme desperation of many landlords in the commercial real estate market and got myself a studio. Unlike a lot of other photographers, I've never wanted to work for National Geographic or Rolling Stone. I always wanted to be my own boss and retire early thanks to the success of my portrait studio. This year I'm one step closer and feeling like I should generously share some of my wisdom with someone standing in the same spot I was 10 years ago.

If I had it all to do over again, and the desire to max out a credit card, this is what I'd buy to help me start my photography business. I'm cheep, so I chose affordable but quality products. That said; be prepared for sticker shock.

1. Camera:  Nikon D3s is what I'd but tomorrow if I needed another camera, even though it's a little weightier then I'd like. I would just need more VR lenses. Currently I'm using a D300 which I love, but it's missing a few things the D3s has, like a full frame sensor and HD video. $5,200.

2. Lighting equipment: I've looked into and used most equipment on the market. I used Speed-a-tron and Profoto almost exclusively in college. (So many trips to the rental counter at Glazers.) When I finally decided to jump in I bought a White Lighting monolight kit after months of research. For what I do (weddings and portraits) I've been very happy. I bought my equipment one piece at a time since that's all I could afford but the best deal is their professional package. I wouldn't use their light stands though, not my favorite. Price tag: just under $2400 for pretty much everything they offer in one package. You'll need to add a vagabond battery pack or two for $300 each to complete the shopping spree.

3. For when you plan to be a little more portable, I like the Nikon Speedlight series. I suggest having a half a dozen on hand if you plan on going this route and skipping the "big lights" all together. Buy a SB900 for it's ability to control all of the other units and the range, then finish out the group with SB600s since they will be just working on remote. You might also consider the R1C1 flash since this is great for fill on portraits as well as macro.

4. Lenses: Which lenses you buy depends on what you shoot. Portrait photographers can't be without a  85mm and 50mm. If you're shooting weddings like me, you'll want to add a wide angle, say 12mm) and a telephoto, like a 200mm (or whatever you like best) for those weddings where you can't leave the choir loft of the church. It's up to you if you decide to do zoom lenses or prime. This is where you want to spend your money though. Choose a lens with sharp glass that can open to at least F3.5. Here are some of my favorite lenses:

Nikon 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S DX Nikkor Lens

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G Autofocus Lens

Nikon AF-S Zoom Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED AF Lens

Nikon PC-E Micro Nikkor 45mm f/2.8D ED Manual Focus 

Nikon Telephoto AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D IF Autofocus Lens

 Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 II EX DG APO Macro HSM AF Lens for Nikon

 5. Reflectors! I've mentioned before you can use foam core for a white reflector and many craft stores sell these in large sizes. $20.00 is a nice price for a solution. You might also want to pick up a few collapsible reflectors. A silver and gold both can come in handy and having larger sizes help to light more people on location and in studio.($80 each) Most importantly, a large translucent reflector for when you need to use speedlights but you want to diffuse them over a wider distance. Smaller reflectors can come in handy too, plus fit into an overhead compartment.

6. For Backgrounds I use a white vinyl seamless since it's durable and easy to clean.($250) For a less expensive option you might try seamless paper, but be careful, one crease or puncture can equal many cumulative hours of post processing time you'll never get back. 

7. You'll also want to pick up wireless transmitters for the "big lights", light stands and modifiers and filters, a lifetime supply of duct and gaffer's tape, some very sturdy hard cases to hold your equipment, and a bachelor's in business management. 

I'm not kidding about the last one. Going pro isn't necessarily about being talented and hoping "the work will sell itself." That's your job. You'll need to study up on current marketing trends and write a business plan for the loan you'll be taking out to pay for all this junk. Once that's done you'll need to spend a lot of time praying! I promise you no successful small business owner is an atheist. The first thing you realize when you strike out on your own is that you need divine assistant if you're ever to get off the ground. No matter how talented you are or not, you have to be incredibly self motivated to work freelance or be a business owner. Be honest with yourself and analytical before committing to anything. You're in for more then a full time job, since you'll be an accountant, receptionist, customer service team, tech support, and if you're lucky you'll have time to shoot once and a while! So, why do I do it you ask? Because I wouldn't want to live any other way. To those that share my sentiment, I wish you great success and I hope to be reading your blog soon!

Last tip: Never stop learning. Read every blog, book, or magazine even remotely related to photography. Always try new things and constantly work to improve your portfolio. Challenge your self to do things differently and learn from every bad exposure. Be prepared to bore anyone that asks you a photo question with long winded answers that go above and beyond what they actually wanted to know, and hire an assistant that you want to hang out with. 

Tomorrow:  Now that you've decided against being your own boss, how to get a job as a photographer... Just kidding, those jobs are all taken. Semi colon right side parentheses. ;)




  1. The D300s has awesome video and is a LOT cheaper than the D3s... :)

    great post tho, I enjoy hearing what others use for various purposes... I'm loving the new Ray Flash attachment I bought recently to go with the SB900 speedlight - it does georgeous things to one's complexion!

  2. @ Kyle

    You are right about the D300s but I covet that full frame sensor in a biblical way!

    Thanks for reading. I'll have to check out the ray flash attachment you mentioned. I do love those speed-lights.