We all know the phrase “All the gear and no idea’. Photography is nearly 200 years old, and in all that time, companies have been making cameras, lenses and accessories designed to make the process easier. There is now an enormous amount of choice from a wide range of brands, and every photographer you look to for inspiration uses a different set up.
It can feel very difficult to know what we need to buy to get ourselves started in our photographic career. It is natural to believe that we have to spend a fortune getting top class camera bodies and a range of expensive lenses, flashguns and assorted bits and bobs to go with them, but fortunately, successful photographs can be made with quite a simple selection.
If you intend to specialize in athletics or wildlife then the likelihood is that you will need some specialized equipment, but for most types of photography we need surprisingly little. A camera with a standard lens is enough to cover most things and certainly enough to get the budding photographer started.
1. The Camera
Some photographers make a successful career shooting on film, but to make your life easier, you are better off starting out with a digital camera. You don’t need a DSLR as most modern compact system cameras will be just as good for most subjects. More pixels are generally a good thing, but it is impossible to buy a new interchangeable-lens digital camera that doesn’t have enough resolution to make a salable picture. If you can, aim for new compact system cameras with 16 million pixels and DSLRs with 18 million – or more.
Both DSLRs and CSCs are good for almost every type of photography, but in general DSLRs are better for fast moving action – like football – and the size of CSCs makes them great to use for photographing people. The weight of compact system cameras also makes it easy to carrying one all day.
2. The Lens
For a very long time, photographers used just two or three focal lengths – a wide, a standard and something a little longer. Now we have a massive range of lenses to choose from, but that doesn’t mean that we need them all. If you heave just one fixed focal length standard lens, you would be able to shoot a huge range of subject matter from the perspective of someone standing right where it was all happening.
The standard lens for your camera depends on the size of the sensor, but for full frame cameras it is 50mm, for APS-C sensors it is about 30mm, and for micro four thirds cameras it is 25mm. This is the foundation lens for any format, and with it you can shoot portraits, landscapes, social documentary, street photography, architecture, sport and almost anything else. The lens delivers a view that matches what we can concentrate on with our eyes, so pictures taken with it feel realistic and viewers will feel as though they are present in the scene themselves.
Many photographers prefer a zoom to a fixed focal length lens as they can cover more styles of shooting without changing lens. For full frame workers a 24-70mm zoom is considered a ‘work horse’ as it works well for everything from wide views to close-to portraits. For APS-C cameras the 18-55mm lens does the same, and micro four thirds cameras need a 12-35mm. If you intend to get one of these lenses spend as much as you can and get one that has a constant maximum aperture – such as f/2.8 or f/4. If the constant aperture models are out of your price range then don’t worry, those with f/3.5-5.6 maximum apertures are good too, but not quite as flexible. It is amazing how many different subjects you can shoot with a lens like this.
3. The Flash
Not all photographers need a flash unit, but the need is more common that you’d imagine. You don’t need a powerful gun to start with, but one with TTL control will make your life easier. Each of the camera brands makes its own range of flash guns that are obviously fully compatible with their cameras, but there are a number of independent brands that make very good guns that sell for lower prices. Some sort of wireless control is useful for triggering the flash gun off the camera to create more interesting light, and radio controlled systems are more effective than traditional optical communications.
If you are short of funds, any flash will do, so long as it provides the means to control its output. Guns with aperture priority control are more convenient than those that are fully manual and tend to work pretty well, but aim for a guide number of about 30m/100ft at ISO 100.
It might sound simplistic to say that one camera, one lens and one flash unit is all you need to get yourself started in photography, but it is true. Obviously other lenses exist for a reason, but there is no need to buy anything until you come up against a problem that a new lens will solve.
If you can’t fit the subject in the frame and you can’t move further away then you need a wider lens, or if you can’t get close enough to fill the frame you need a longer lens – but sometimes finding another composition or vantage point and thinking differently about how you present your subject can get around these problems.
If you are learning, it is better to use a more limited selection of equipment and to work hard to get the most out of it rather than feel deprived and sorry for yourself about what you don’t have. Getting into the habit of thinking creatively with limited kit will make you a better photographer when you have more equipment. Remember, the best pictures are made in your head. The camera is just a spanner that helps to get the job done. In time you can grow your collection of equipment, but learning to use what you have is always a more pressing issue.