Photography Gear: A Guide to Choosing the Right Stuff

I kinda had a debate with myself on whether or not I should even write a post on choosing the “right” gear. Photography is so personal and each person has such different needs that it’s really hard to talk about what you should have in your bag. Sometimes I feel like I don’t even know what I need.

From the beginning I was pretty particular in picking my gear, though, and while some pieces have come and gone, the majority of my photo gear has stayed pretty much the same from Day 1. Here’s the photo equipment I currently own:

Kim Olson's Photography Gear

Not much, right? But I’ve managed to get by with this stuff most of the time. I’d say about 90% of my personal images were shot with this gear. (And for a while I also had a Canon 40D body before I upgraded to the 5D Mark II, which I now use exclusively.)

For the other 10% of images I take, I’m either using my phone, compact camera or faster lenses that I’ve rented for the one-off photo shoot (or weddings).

Choosing the Right Photo Gear

I like to use the term “right” photo gear pretty loosely because the problem for most photographers (beginners and pros alike) is that it’s hard to choose. I feel like it’s a constant struggle trying to figuring out what photo gear to buy, keep or get rid of, and I don’t think this problem will ever go away. Technological advances will only continue to improve the equipment and every few years I’m sure many of us will be tempted into upgrading.

But there are some must-have items that should be on the list of photo gear for an “average” minimalist shooter. (Or is there such a thing? Maybe not…)

For the photographer who values high-quality images but doesn’t want a bunch of stuff, I tried to come up with a good baseline to start with. And then I also have a couple of other lists for things that may be necessary or good to have depending on what you like to shoot most.

The Photo Gear Essentials

  • Camera Body (1) – Unless you’re a professional who always needs a backup body in case something goes wrong with your primary one, you probably only need one body. If budget is a concern (and it is for most), you’ll usually do just fine with an entry-level to mid-range body – at least to start. You can always upgrade down the road. If you do have a little extra money to spend and are wondering if you should get a better body or lens, it’s usually better to spring for a better lens, instead.
  • Lenses (1-3) – Lenses are where you won’t want to skimp. They really are the key ingredient (besides yourself) to making gorgeous, high-quality images. Stick with mid-range to pro-quality lenses and you’ll probably be way happier with the end result. (And you’ll want lens hoods, too, but the pro-level lenses will come with them so you shouldn’t have to worry about buying them separately.)
  • Memory Cards (handful) – One card isn’t enough. Never mind if they’re making 32gb cards and it’s more convenient. It’s not a good idea to use them because they don’t allow you to spread out your risk. What if you lose that one card or your card gets corrupted? You lose everything. Instead, I’d recommend having a few cards of varying sizes. I shoot RAW (larger file sizes than JPGs) so I prefer 8gb cards, though I do have a few 4gb and 2gb, too. If you shoot only images (and not a lot of video), roughly 3-4 cards ranging in size from 4gb to 8gb should work. But if you tend to shoot video or lots of RAW images, 4-8 cards ranging from 8gb to 16gb might work better.
  • Memory Card Holder – It’s important to keep your cards organized so you know which ones you’ve used, which ones need to be formatted, etc., so some type of holder will be way better than those little plastic cases they come in.
  • UV Filter (1-2) – Good lenses aren’t cheap and replacing (most of) them would cost a lot of money. So the best way I know to protect them is by using UV filters, which I tend to leave on some lenses at all times (except when I’m using a polarizing filter). Lens diameters vary so some of your lenses may require different filter sizes so make sure you get the right size(s).
  • Microfiber Cleaning Cloth (1-2) – No matter how much care you take, your lenses will get dirty. And you do not want to scratch up your lenses, so don’t even think about using your t-shirt for removing smudges. Instead, use a microfiber cloth to gently remove offenders.

The (Possible) Essentials

  • Battery (extra) – If you’re out camping or shoot a ton of images in a day without access to a charger, an extra battery may be required.
  • Bag (1-3) – If you only ever go out shooting with one body and lens, you may never need a bag. But if you want to be able to hide your camera or bring along other lenses or accessories, a bag will be necessary. I’m still in search of the perfect do-it-all bag, but for now I have a few I use for different occasions, depending on how much gear I need to bring with me.
  • Polarizing Filter (1-2) – If you really want to make the skies and colors pop, or have more definition in the water, a polarizing filter will be a must. And again, if you have lenses with different diameters, you’ll need to buy a different filter for each.
  • Camera Strap (1) – When I was shooting weddings, I had to carry my cameras and heavy-ass lenses on my shoulders for hours and hours. A more comfortable strap was absolutely worth the investment. The ones that come with most cameras are cheap and uncomfortable and I think most people will benefit from upgrading their straps. There’s also the hand-grip type for those who don’t like to carry their gear on their shoulders.
  • External Flash (1) – If, like me, you have a camera body with no built-in flash, you may need an external one to stick in the hot shoe. I didn’t put it in the “essential” list because even though I have a 5D Mark II with no built-in flash, I rarely bother to mount my flash. It’s so damned bulky, heavy and cumbersome that I do my best to work with the existing light.
  • Flash Batteries (?) – If you have an external flash, you’ll need to power it with something. I personally think regular batteries (as opposed to rechargeables) are the way to go because then you don’t have to carry around an extra battery charger and can get rid of dead batteries as you go.
  • Flash Diffuser – A big, external flash can be super powerful and emit a really harsh light. For times you want to tone it down or disperse some of the rays, I’d recommend popping on a flash diffuser. They’re typically inexpensive, small and lightweight and can really help soften the flash’s effect.

The Nice-to-Haves

  • Dust Blower (1) – this is one of those little purchases I got pretty early on thinking it was something I really needed. Turns out I don’t really use it much. Or at all, really. And I’m one to be really careful when cleaning my lenses, too, so it’s not because I’m lackadaisical about taking care of my lenses. But there have been times when I want to blow some dust off my lenses and this is the perfect tool (make sure you only use tools designed for cleaning camera equipment. Things like compressed air are big no-nos).
  • Tripod (1) – I wasn’t sure I should put this one on the list, but I’d probably be remiss if I omitted it. So here it is. If you feel like you just can’t find a way to workaround carrying this beast with you, then by all means, add it to your list.

And there you have it!

I went through my personal gear list and included everything I own.

From my experience, this is what I’d recommend to most people who like to travel light with their photo equipment, but as I said, it’s all going to be a pretty personal investment and the choices will be different for each person. But hopefully this list will help get you started on thinking about what you actually need versus what would just be nice to have.

What about you? Do you have any suggestions or was there something I left out? What do you consider essential for your shooting?

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