Thursday, February 26, 2009

Starting Off Part 4: The Stuff

Niche: check!
Legal: check!
Brand: check!

You know what you're going to shoot, are legal to shoot, and know how you're going to brand your shooting. Now, you need to figure out what are you shooting with! I've noticed from all the myriad posts on the photography forums that many starting photographers have a hard time determining what gear they need to make great photos. I'll give my opinion on a few of the problems they have, and give you, once and for all, the actual, true list of what equipment you need for your shoots.

It's not the size of the boat....

First off, don't stress out over megapixels. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say something that both Canon and Nikon don't want me to say: You don't need the newest camera body. In fact, the 4 megapixel (yes, four!) original Canon 1D produces some of the best images out there, and works well enough for 90% of the professionals.

Yes, 4 megapixels is enough. Surprised? The reason is, it's not the number of pixels that matters, it's the quality of the pixels that matters, and the quality of the light that hits those pixels. In fact, if you need to invest money, invest it in your glass (lenses), not bodies, unless there's some good reason to get a new one (and I'll get to those reasons later).

Also, remember that if you take the professional camera away from Anne Geddes and give her a Kodak point-and-shoot, you'll still get professional photos, and much better photos than if 99% of the population would shoot with her camera. So don't fret too much over your camera, and don't worry if you don't have the top-of-the-line camera, either. Until you are outshooting your current camera body, don't bother.

If it's worth having, it's worth having twice.

One key thing that most people starting fail to realize (and, in fact, several established professionals are also in this group) is that if you only have one of something, it's really like not having it at all. Or, as they say about real estate: backups, backups, backups!

Do you need two of everything? No, not everything, but you really need to have suitable replacements for every critical item. For example, in my niche of youth sports, my Canon 1D Mark II is my work-horse, and if it goes down and I don't have a replacement, I'm, well, screwed. Do I need to have another exact same body? No, but it's better if I do. For a year, I used a 20D as a suitable backup, and it worked; not nearly as good in autofocus, but it got the job done. Now, I have four camera bodies: two main bodies as I often supply a camera body to someone shooting for me, and two suitable backups. And one of those backups is the original Canon 1D (yes, the 4 megapixel marvel I mentioned above) and I'll grab that one before the 8.2 megapixel 20D 90% of the time, so even here, it's not about megapixels.

When it comes to lenses, you don't necessarily need exact backups, but you really need to have the focal lengths covered. If your main lens is the Canon 50mm f/1.2L lens, you don't need to splurge $1200+ to get an exact backup, but can consider the 50mm f/1.4 or even the 24-70 f/2.8
L as a suitable backup. If your main lens is the 24-70 f/2.8L lens, perhaps the Tamron 28-75 f/2.8 lens as a suitable backup. What you're aiming for here is the ability to reasonably be able to get the shot you want without the gear you generally use.

Why do you need backups? Perhaps I should introduce you to Murphy's Law, but I'm fairly sure you're already familiar with the concept. I've had a shutter break at an inopportune time, gear falls, strobe tubes blow, cables get tripped over and broken, flashes fail, let alone the issue of outright theft.

Now, realize that backups are requirements for some photographers (sports, wedding, PJ), but for others (wildlife, landscape), it may not make sense to get these backups. After all, it's hard to recapture a sporting event or a wedding, but that mountain isn't going to disappear overnight (although the shooting conditions will!). However, I always advise having a second camera body, if for nothing else, to have your second-most-used lens on it, ready for use without having to swap lenses in the field.

So, if you only have one camera body, then you DO need to buy a second one, maybe even a new one if you can justify it. Don't know if you really need it? Read on....

New, newer, newest.

Do not think you need the newest camera body because you need the megapixels. As stated above, the lowly 4 megapixel Canon 1D is still in my bag as a backup. Before you shell out hard-earned bucks for a top-of-the-line camera body, first answer the question:

What does my current camera body not do that I need?

Note this doesn't say "want", but "need." Do you really need higher ISO capability? Do you really need faster frame rates? Do you really need more megapixels? Do you really need a better autofocus? Once you've truthfully answered this question, you can determine what camera bodies would meet your needs, then make sure you get one of them. Not necessarily the newest, but what you need.

Now, for lenses, look at your most commonly used focal lengths (and f/stop combinations), and see if you're well covered. Make sure you can cover any critical focal length at least twice; I prefer once with a prime and once with a zoom, but that's just me.

Equipment: the (semi-)definitive list.

I promised a list of what you need for your shoots, so here it is.
  • At least two camera bodies
  • All critical focal lengths, covered twice
  • If you use a flash, a backup flash
  • If you use off-camera flash, a backup radio transmitter and receiver (or transceiver) and cable-set
  • Your required "tools of the trade" such as tripods and filters for landscape photographers, tripod and gimble heads for wildlife photographers, reflectors, strobes, etc.
  • Three complete sets of camera batteries (including backups) and flash batteries
  • Twice as many CompactFlash cards as you'd use in a single shoot
  • If you shoot with strobes, a spare flash-tube
  • All required battery chargers and cables (a spare cable might not hurt)
  • Lens "cleaning" supplies such as a microfiber cloth or a "lens pen"
  • Your artistic eye
Given the above list, I know I can cover any shoot I am at. I may not have the luxury have having the more esoteric items, but I know I can accomplish my shoot given the above list.

What do you feel is a must for your shooting?

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