What photography equipment does it take to become an amateur or professional photographer? We’ll help you learn!
Maybe you’ve been taking pictures for a few years and are thinking of turning professional. Or maybe you’ve never held a camera but want to become a professional photographer and own your own business. Your first questions are probably about photography equipment; what do I need and what will it cost me? Follow along as I outline what photography equipment amateurs and professionals need, what photography equipment is helpful but not essential, how much it costs and a few options for a beginner camera.
What equipment do you need for professional photography?
When I head out to a photoshoot, I usually pack my camera, two or three lenses, a stool, extra batteries, a reflector, memory cards and a tripod. If it’s an indoor shoot, I might also have light stands, flashes, batteries, modifiers and more.
Here’s a secret, though. I really only need three pieces of photography equipment.
- A camera with a working battery
- A lens
- A memory card or film
That’s it. The rest of it? All that other gear falls under the category of want. I have lots of other equipment that helps me create the images I want. But at the core of any photographer’s kit, professional or otherwise, is a camera, lens and memory card. You, me, the guy shooting cheetahs on safari in Africa, the woman shooting high society weddings in New York City…we are all using the same basic photography equipment.
There are different levels of quality when it comes to all of those 3 basic pieces of equipment, and you’ll need to have a camera, lens and memory card that meet your needs. But as long as you have the basics covered, you can begin your journey of becoming a photographer.
Other photography equipment professionals want and use
There are literally thousands of pieces of photography equipment you could choose to buy, from remotes and lens cloths to gobos and snoots. As you get more advanced with your technique, you may find you need different equipment to help you accomplish the vision in your head. I’ll outline some basic photography equipment, grouped together by skill level. You can certainly add pieces of equipment from other levels, and there’s nothing saying you need every single item of equipment. And I’ve left out the business related equipment and subscriptions professional photographers need, like gallery hosting, insurance, websites or office supplies crucial to running a small business. But this should give you a basic idea of what to start with and an understanding of how photographers grow their “kit” as they grow their skills.
You want to move beyond a cell phone camera and want a basic setup. You want to take pictures of your family, vacations, adventures, etc. but don’t want a complicated system to learn.
- Entry-level DSLR such as a Nikon D3500 or Canon EOS Rebel 7i
- Kit lens, such as an 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 lens
- Entry level memory card
- Small camera bag
You’ve been shooting a while now and are learning more about photography and how to create images with a more compelling composition or purposeful use of light. You are interested in getting away from shooting in automatic mode but still need the camera’s help every now and again. If you might also be trying to shoot in low light conditions such as in dark gymnasiums or meeting rooms and find that your current camera/lens combo isn’t cutting it.
- Mid-level DSLR such as a Nikon D7500 or Canon EOS 80D
- Mid-level lenses like a 50 mm f/1.8 or 85 mm f/1.8
- Larger camera bag for more lenses
- Larger and faster memory cards like the San Disk Extremes
- Tripod for image stabilization
- Remote trigger or shutter release cable
- Basic filters like polarizing filters, UV filters or ND filters
- A computer and software for basic digital editing
Beginning professional photographer
You’ve weighed the pros and cons and are ready to hang out your shingle as a professional photographer. That may not necessarily mean an upgrade to your photography equipment, but you’ll find more powerful cameras, faster lenses and other higher-end equipment helps take your work to the next level.
- Full-frame camera like the Nikon D750 or Canon EOS 7D Mark II
- Faster lenses like a Sigma ART 35 mm f/1.4, Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 or Canon 70-200 f/2.8
- Backup batteries and backup camera bodies for events
- Speedlight such as the Godox v860ii with HSS and TTL
- More and larger and faster memory cards like the San Disk Extreme Pro
- External hard drives for photo storage
- White balance or exposure tool for consistent images like a gray card or EXPO Disc
- A reflector kit with white, silver and gold covers
- A higher-end computer for digital editing with additional RAM and processing speed
- Advanced editing and organization software like Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop
Advance professional photographer
You’ve been shooting professionally for a while and have a steady income coming in. You’re ready to up the creative challenge and the quality of your equipment and understand what equipment you need to try new techniques. You invest in photography equipment that will help you speed up your workflow or improve your work.
- Full-frame camera like the Nikon D850, Nikon D5, or Canon 1DX Mk II
- Niche specific lenses like a super telephoto lens, macro lens or tilt-shift lens
- External lighting like speedlights and strobes as well as triggers and receivers to make them talk to one another
- Lighting modifiers like umbrellas, softboxes, stripboxes, snoots, grids or light spheres
- Backdrop stands and backdrops
- Cases and carts to haul all that lighting gear around
- More robust photo storage systems like a RAID hard drive array for storing multiple years worth of photos and sessions
- Photography props specific to your niche, like wraps for newborn photographers, decorations for kids’ mini-sessions or blankets and chairs for family sessions or headshots
- Advanced editing tools like a graphics tablet
What does photography equipment cost?
Photography equipment can be a major investment, especially if you try to acquire a lot of gear up front. The top of the line Canon full frame camera, the Canon 1DX MxII, runs about $6,000. A super telephoto wildlife lens like the Canon EF 600 mm f/4 IS II USM lens is a whopping $11,500! Very few of us have that kind of cash just lying around to invest in photography equipment, especially if we’re not entirely sure it’s a hobby or profession we will maintain for the long haul.
I also don’t advocate for going into debt if you can at all help it. Better to save for several months and pay cash than to get upside down with creditors. That old adage of “you’ve got to spend money to make money” may have some truth, but it doesn’t say you have to go into debt and risk your financial health to make money. Plan your purchases, consider used or older model gear and think long and hard about needs vs. wants. Okay, financial lecture complete.
So what does it all cost?
Beginning photographer kit – $400-600
A basic beginning/everyday photography kit like I described above will run about $400-$500. If you shop around and compare deals, you can often find companies offering packages that include a camera, lens, camera bag, memory card and some other fun extras for little more than the camera itself costs. One cost-saving method is to look for a used camera and lens combination. Oftentimes you can score a like-new camera and lens at deep discounts because a photographer has either moved on to a new hobby or upgraded their equipment and wants to sell gear they don’t use anymore. Ebay, KEH.com, B&H Photo, Adorama and even Amazon all sell used photography equipment. You can also find deals in Facebook buy and sell groups. Just beware there are scammers out there, so do your research and make sure you protect yourself.
You can also buy an older model for cost savings. The equipment might not have all the bells and whistles but it could serve your needs at a fraction of the cost!
Intermediate/hobbyist photographer kit – $1,000-$2,000
As you increase the volume and quality of your equipment, the price does go up. An intermediate/hobbyist photographer photography equipment kit as described would cost between $1,000 and $2,000 depending on the brand and model of camera you buy as well as the quality of your accessories. For example, you can purchase a $40 tripod at Target or Walmart that might suit your needs if you’re a hobbyist shooting food shots for Instagram but won’t last a single season if you’re hauling it up a mountain chasing bighorn sheep. For that, you’d want and need, a much more durable tripod, one that starts at around $150 and is priced up to $2,000 depending on it’s construction and options.
Beginning professional photographer – $2,500 and up
If you want to get started as a beginning professional photographer and don’t already own some of this equipment, the kit I describe above is going to cost between $2,500 and $4,000, again depending on the make and model of your camera and lens. Expect to pay a minimum of $1,500 for a full-frame camera body alone, with lenses ranging from $300 to $2,000 depending on speed and focal length. If you don’t already own a computer, that will also be a major investment.
I can’t really give you a cost estimate on an advanced professional photographers kit. There are well-compensated, successful photographers out there with kits that are probably less than $10,000 in total as well as photogs with kits that probably top the $100,000 mark. If I totaled up ALL of my equipment, it would probably be around $8,000 worth of photography equipment acquired over a period of four or five years. Some is new, some is used and most is mid-range quality – not the cheapest but not the top-of-the-line.
The important thing is to know the purpose behind any piece of equipment and to understand why you need it. For example, why should you invest in a 70-200 f/2.8 lens that costs $2,000? “Because it will make my pictures better” or “everyone on the photography blog is raving about it” are not acceptable answers. Your answer should be more precise and thoughtful, such as “I shoot sports handheld in poorly-lit gyms and need a fast, long lens to shoot at higher shutter speeds like 1/800 or 1/1000.”
Don’t waste your hard earned money on gear you don’t fully understand how to use or don’t really need!
What camera should a beginner photographer get?
If you’re just getting started in photography, I always recommend starting with an entry-level Nikon or Canon. Yes, you might eventually outgrow these cameras and be ready for something more advanced. But these cameras are at a price point that most people can afford without taking on debt and will get you some great shots. These cameras aren’t junk! They produce beautiful images if you take the time to learn how to use them properly.
If your talent eventually does outpace your photography equipment, you can keep your entry-level as a backup, gift it to another budding photographer like a child or student, or sell it and put the money toward an upgrade. By then, you’ve probably gotten the $300 or $400 you’ve invested in it anyway!
Best beginner Nikon
My choice for the best beginner Nikon is the Nikon D3500. The D3500 is Nikon’s newest entry-level model with 27.4 megapixels and a crop-sensor format that can shoot up to 5 frames per second. It fits snugly in your hand, the autofocus is fast and fairly accurate and it does give you the option to shoot in manual and fully control your exposures once you’re ready to try it. It also offers 1080 P full HD video. This camera is light, pretty durable and a great beginner camera. There is no remote option, but the D3500 does work with apps that connect via wifi with a smart device.
The D3500 is the new version of the Nikon D3300 and D3400, and while the D3500 does offer some advantages over the other two, you can save some money by buying an older model. If you’re looking for a bargain, it’s worth checking out the earlier versions!
Best beginner Canon
A great start for a Canon shooter is the Canon T6 EOS. This camera has 18MP and also shoots video. It is small, lightweight and you’ll notice a definite improvement in both color and quality over smartphone images. I reall like the swivel LCD panel, which is something Nikon doens’t offer on its entry-level DSLRs, but is definitely hand for shooting video or composing in live view. The camera only shoots 3 frames per second, however, so if you like to burst shoot kids or sports, you might find this model lagging behind.