Photography 101: Proper Kit for a Pro Shooter

Stephen F. Dennstedt

What is the best photography kit for a working professional? I define a professional photographer as someone who makes money with their photography, either full-time or part-time. They accept and shoot assignments for money.

I’ve snapped shutters for sixty-three years and finally turned professional in 2009. Since then I have been the staff photographer at The Yucatan Times newspaper in Mexico and a registered freelance photographer with the Boston Globe.

I was also the unofficial official photographer (it’s a long story) for the Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve and Puuc Jaguar Conservation. I’ve been an itinerant expatriate for almost seven years and have been on the road travelling (365 days a year) for the past five years. While I was a resident in Merida, Yucatan I sold my work through Soho Galleries and Cafe La Boheme as well as my online store at Being a successful professional photographer has as much to do with being a business person as it does with being an artist.

Photo Shoot for The Yucatan Times: Grand Opening for Remodelled Hacienda (Merida, Yucatan, Mexico)

I know many serious amateur photographers who can shoot rings around some professional photographers so it’s not all about artistic talent. And I know artistically talented professionals who go broke in their first year because they have no business experience or acumen. To be successful the professional photographer must be able to bridge both aspects of the business: the artistic and the day-to-day routine operations of running a business (not everyone is cut out to do that). And sometimes when you turn your passion into a business the passion dies away and leaves you with just a job.

Photo Shoot for The Yucatan Times: Local Zoo (Merida, Yucatan, Mexico)

But this article is not about the business of photography, it’s about what kit (what photography gear) you should have to be a working professional. If you’re a serious amateur photographer your equipment considerations aren’t quite so important—you can take great photos with almost any platform. When you accept paid gigs from clients your priorities will change, you will have deadlines to meet and expectations to fulfill—you will no longer be your own boss. You will be shooting for the client and not for yourself. Failure is not an option, you will be paid to perform.

Real Estate Shoot: Local Home (Antigua, Guatemala)

Equipment reliability and redundancy will be paramount. A feature-rich camera is no good if it overheats, burns through batteries, succumbs to the weather or completely breaks down. Not only will your client be pissed but you might be in legal jeopardy because of Breach of Contract and get sued (do you have liability insurance?). Try telling a bride you don’t have her photos because your camera malfunctioned during the wedding. When I think of professional equipment I think Canon and Nikon. Some pros are switching to Sony but I don’t think they’re quite there yet (Check out the video at the end of this article).

Real Estate Shoot: Local Home (Antigua, Guatemala)

The working professional will need robust, reliable equipment that can be serviced anywhere in the world. Again that says Canon or Nikon to me. I’m talking large magnesium-alloy bodied (not plastic) DSLRs completely weather-sealed against the elements and equally robust and reliable pro-level lenses. And I’m talking, at minimum, two pro-level bodies and an array of lenses. The cameras must have dual-card slots for added protection and you don’t want to cheap out on your cards and batteries—buy the best you can afford (and have lots of extras).

Family Shoot (Boquete, Panama)

I’m a Canon shooter and have been since 2009. I am heavily invested in their equipment and it would make no sense to switch brands mid-stream. I have good friends in the same boat but with Nikon equipment—continually chasing brands is both ludicrous and financially irresponsible. Stay with who brung you to the dance. For the grammar police: the use of brung is both a colloquial expression and intentional on my part (so don’t judge me). If I was advising a prospective professional on what equipment to buy today I would first recommend Canon or Nikon.

Family Shoot (Boquete, Panama)

If that person was going to specialise in photojournalism, sports or wildlife I might suggest the two flagships: the Canon 1Dx Mark II at $6,000 US or the Nikon D5 at $6,500 US. A better solution for a generalist photographer might be a Canon 5D Mark IV with a 7D Mark II as a backup or the Nikon D850 with a D500 as a backup. The 5D Mark IV and D850 both come in at about $3,200 US leaving you money for your backup shooter (buying two cameras for the price of one). Lenses are going to be another huge outlay of money so be prepared.

Photo Shoot for the Boston Globe (STAT Magazine): Roberto Mejides, M.D. (Merida, Yucatan, Mexico)

My current kit is valued at about $15,000 US and includes two camera bodies (Canon 5D Mark IV and 7D Mark II) and five lenses (four zooms and one prime) plus all the accessories. Photography, especially at the professional level, ain’t cheap. But like I said early on, when you’re getting paid by a client failure is not an option. There is a lot of freedom in being a serious amateur—you can experience the pleasure of photography without the headaches. Shooting professionally sounds like a dream come true but in reality it’s hard work and can easily become a job instead of a passion.

Photo Shoot for the Boston Globe (STAT Magazine): Roberto Mejides, M.D. (Merida, Yucatan, Mexico)

Field Notes: I just came across this very interesting video (after I wrote this article) that put three top pro cameras through a rather extensive weather-sealing test (Canon 5D Mark IV, Nikon D850 and Sony A7R III). As I suspected Sony failed the test and I felt the Canon 5D Mark IV did better than the Nikon D850. In the overall camera evaluation the Nikon D850 scored number one but in the weather-sealing event I think Canon was the clear winner. The results for a Canon 1Dx Mark II and Nikon D5 would have been about the same. My recommendation stands: stay with Canon or Nikon at the pro-level. SFD  

4 responses to “Photography 101: Proper Kit for a Pro Shooter

    • I know . . . intentionally hosing down all of that expensive gear really set my teeth on edge too. I do everything I can to protect my stuff (including a Storm Jacket) in the rain so to do that on purpose . . . ouch. It’s reassuring to see how well the Canon and Nikon stuff held up to the abuse though. I think when you shoot paid gigs equipment reliability and robustness trumps features every time (nice to have both though . . . reliability and features). 🙂

  1. After you have all the above, the right pack (or two). I say two since at my age being out shooting wildlife switching back packs can save the associated aches and pains. Or at least move them around.

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