Camera. You’re going to want to step up and over cameras with permanently affixed lenses in favor of interchangeable-lens cameras. If small size and low weight are paramount, consider a mirrorless camera. If you’re feeling more comfortable with a traditional form factor, a DSLR might be a better fit. You don’t necessarily need the latest and greatest camera, but you might want to consider something that was top-of-the line a generation ago, or maybe just a beloved camera that has piles of rave reviews. Whatever the make and model, my advice is to choose a full-frame camera unless you’re especially dedicated to the smaller sensor size, simply because I love my full-frame setup (the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, pictured here), and I can’t imagine going to something smaller.
Lens. Chances are good that your camera may come as part of a kit, and included in that kit will be other essentials, like a lens. On entry-level cameras, these “kit lenses” are typically zooms in the wide to medium telephoto range—say, a 24-70mm lens or an 18-55mm lens. These lenses are incredibly versatile, but you might want something of a bit more quality—like the Canon EF 24-70mm L series lens, pictured here. In fact, I’ve shot multi-day assignments without ever removing my 24-70mm zoom. If you only have one lens, this type of versatile zoom is a great place to start.
Media. CompactFlash and/or SD cards are essential if you’d like to actually use your camera for taking pictures. The bigger the card, the better. I can shoot full-size RAW files for days on my 64 GB cards; 32 GB cards can be had for a song these days, so I don’t see a reason to get a card smaller than this. Even better is a huge card with a 256 GB capacity that can hold literally tens of thousands of image files. If you’re going to shoot video, ensure you have a big card, or several big cards, and make sure they’re fast enough to read and write the data efficiently. Get the latest and greatest cards with the fastest transfer rates—like Class 10 cards with U3 speed ratings. You might consider whether you’ll be better served by using two smaller cards rather than just one big one, so you’ll always have a backup. Some prefer this while others want one big card so they never have to worry about running out of space.
Battery And Charger. Your camera came with a battery and a charger. If it didn’t, boy, did you find a real discount seller. It’s imperative that you have a battery and charger for your camera to work. I would argue that a second battery is essential, as well, though you might think of it as an upgrade.
Bag. Everybody needs a camera bag. It could be a shoulder bag or a backpack or a rolling case or a fanny pack. Camera bags are as personal as anything, so choose whatever appeals to you. With that, you’ve crafted the basic camera kit.
Tripod. If it’s not essential, it’s only because you’re shooting fast-moving subjects for which a tripod is impractical. A tripod is about as useful and necessary as it gets, though, especially for a dedicated photographer. It’s the first upgrade I would add to my kit. It doesn’t have to be huge, and it doesn’t have to be fancy, but it has to be stable. If you’re a hiker, get a compact and lightweight tripod. If you plan to use your camera around the house in a studio scenario, or for landscape shooting mere steps from the car, you can afford a bigger, sturdier stand with a heavy-duty head. (My favorite tripod upgrade, by the way, is a geared head. These make fine-tuning compositions super-easy.)
Telephoto Zoom Lens. If you already have wide to medium telephoto covered with something like a 24-70mm lens, you might want to expand your reach by adding a telephoto zoom lens. One of the most popular is the 70-200mm or 80-200mm range. Paired with the wide to medium zoom, you’ll now have seamless coverage from wide to telephoto, meaning you can photograph practically anything with one of the two lenses in your bag. If you think you’re likely to spend more time photographing sports or wildlife, you may want to extend that reach even further to 300mm or even 400mm, focal lengths that are available in medium to long telephoto zooms. To save weight, and cost, consider a 70-200mm zoom with an ƒ/4 or slower maximum aperture. Fast ƒ/2.8 versions of the lens, while great, are considerably bigger and more expensive.
Card Reader. One might say that a card reader (the thing that connects to your computer so you can insert your media and download your pictures) is an essential, but the fact is, your camera came with a cable for connecting it directly to the computer, and that makes an alternate download approach—which in my experience is preferable and much more efficient—an upgrade rather than a must-have necessity. You can get card readers that will accommodate multiple card formats, but as long as you choose one that accommodates the format you use, you’ll be fine. Word to the wise: Don’t skimp on connectivity, because the difference between USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 in practice might be the difference between a download that takes a couple of minutes and one that requires you to come back after lunch in hopes that it’s finally finished.
Off-Camera Flash. A hot-shoe-mountable flash is one of the most valuable upgrades you can make. These can be had for about $100 if you don’t mind off brands or basic manual controls, or several hundred dollars in dedicated systems that are adjustable right from the back of the camera and that allow multiple flashes to communicate with one another. Stick that flash on the camera, and you have instant light, wherever you go. Just be sure to read up on all the ways to turn on-camera flash into something more appealing than a bucket of light—like holding it at arm’s length or mounting it to a stand and triggering it remotely.
Collapsible Reflector. Even before you get that flash, you actually might want to consider a reflector. These collapsible discs frequently feature a white side and a silver side for bouncing softer or more specular light on the subject. For first steps into serious lighting control, a reflector is about as easy and affordable as it gets.
Extras That Are Special
Polarizing Filter. I’m not calling a polarizing filter an essential, but, boy, you could make a case for it. Anytime I’m shooting outdoors, I’m hopeful I can use a polarizer to cut through scattered light and reveal vivid colors and stronger contrast. They deepen blue skies and make everything generally richer and more vibrant, though in rare cases, that may make a scene contrastier than you’d like. In general, though, when I’m using a filter of any kind, nine times out of 10, it’s a polarizer.
Cable Release. Want to use your camera on a tripod for long exposures or multiple exposures or any other scenario in which a steady camera is paramount? Well, then, you can upgrade from using the camera’s built-in timer in favor of a nice cable release. These days, many of them are actually wireless—you plug one device into the camera and the other you just hold in your hand—and that’s a surprisingly nice benefit. Or, they incorporate features such as interval timing, multiple exposures and ultra-long exposure control. Whatever you have in mind, for long exposures or super-steady situations, a cable release is a tremendous upgrade.
TTL Flash Cable. If you’ve been reading my tips for a while, you know what a fan I am of getting the flash off the camera. The simplest way to do this is with a cable that allows you to hold the flash at arm’s length and still communicate with the camera. A dedicated TTL cable goes one better than a standard “dumb” cable (which just fires the flash), because it maintains all the TTL metering and automatic exposure controls as if the flash was mounted directly to the camera’s hot-shoe.
Light Stand, Umbrella, Mounting Bracket And Wireless Transmitter. This group of accessories falls under one single heading because, taken together, they revolutionize your lighting capabilities. First is the light stand, which allows you to position a strobe far from your camera. The bracket is used to mount a hot-shoe strobe and an umbrella to your stand. An umbrella—either a white shoot-through or a silver bounce umbrella—is essential for photographers who want to make soft light that’s especially appealing for portraits. One nice thing about umbrellas instead of softboxes is that they’re quicker and easier to set up and take down, and they produce seriously beautiful light. Lastly, the wireless transceiver system—something like the PocketWizard PlusX—pairs transceivers affixed to the camera and the strobe so you can fire your strobe remotely, or even at a significant distance. With this setup, you can incorporate off-camera lighting, modified beautifully and under your total control, to upgrade the quality of the image you’re able to make since you’re no longer beholden to beautiful light that you find and instead you can now make that light on demand.
Now that you know the stuff you need, stick around read up on what to do with it once you have your kit complete.