Saturday, April 28, 2012

EQUIPMENT 101 - The Basics for Candid Photography

Could You Sell This Photograph?

Now, this image could be sold to this little girl's parents, her grandparents, and sold multiple times through the sale of stock photography. The image has a broad appeal. It is cute, out of the ordinary, and could be used for a variety of print ads. Cute kid=multiple sales.

Now, I may be a little biased, because she's my granddaughter, Gionna--otherwise known as "The Princess." She loves to be photographed. This photograph was not taken with my digital Canon SLR (although a Canon camera was used). This image came from a Canon PowerShot SX 110 IS--a point-and-shoot camera. Well, okay, it's a top of the line point and shoot that has nearly the same exposure controls as my Canon SLR, but it is still classified as an amateur camera. With the addition of an additional flash unit, I could probably photograph weddings with this camera (Canon offers the High-Power Flash HF-DC1 for around $100 on-line). But I probably wouldn't--unless I was a guest. Why? Simple...

Perception. If I show up at a wedding with a point-and-shoot camera and some brother-in-law shows up with a Canon 60D, Nikon D800 (or worse yet, a Nikon D3x) I'm going to look downright foolish. I know it isn't fair, but perception IS reality. Plus the fact I would be limited to the single zoom range on the camera, and I wouldn't be able to easily use filters for special effects. On the flip side, no one sees what camera you use for stock photography, so you can use anything that will take an image of sufficient quality to be sold.

"Gee, so what equipment do I need to buy or have to make photographs I can sell?" I get asked this question pretty regularly. It is a lot like asking someone, "What do I need to become a painter?" It all pretty much depends on what type of painter you want to be:

  • House Painter? 
  • Automobile Painter? 
  • Portrait Painter? 
  • Watercolor Painter? 
  • Landscape Artist? 
  • Body Art Painter? 
As an aside, that last one was always my goal, but I couldn't find many customers! J

Well, obviously you need a camera, at least one lens (two is better), a memory card, and an external flash unit to get started at the bare minimum. You really should have TWO bodies, and at least a couple extra memory cards and batteries.

What I will cover in this post is what equipment is needed for the majority of candid photography. This is typically classified as event photography (such as weddings, parties, corporate functions, team photography, and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. I am not talking about shooting portraits, however with the addition of a simple background you could handle basic portraiture. If you want to do pro or semi-pro sports or animal/nature photography, this type of photography requires long telephoto lenses known as "super telephoto" lenses. The Canon 800mm f/5.6 L lens is $13, many would you like to order?

I am also going to assume you already have a computer and Photoshop (or other photo editing software). If you do not have these items, you can buy a legal version of Photoshop on eBay for $300-$400, Photoshop Elements 10 for $75, or other software for as low as $50. A computer with a QUALITY monitor 24-27" in size and calibration software will be around $1000-$2500. Don't buy a cheap monitor--quality counts here. A graphics (drawing) tablet is highly recommended if you are going to be doing your own retouching or editing--an Intuos tablet is about $150 on eBay. A scanner is another good add on, but not an absolute "must have" piece of equipment.

The brand of camera is not really all that important today. The more expensive the camera, the more features it has. And today, modern cameras have so many features most people never use 50% of them! I do not want to get too deep into camera selection, as camera models are changing rapidly because technology is changing rapidly. I use Canon cameras and so let's take a brief look at three current models.

The Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III is a top of the line professional model digital camera. It has a full frame 21 megapixel sensor. This means two things to the user: the lenses will have the same view as a normal 35mm film camera, and the image will be optimum thanks to the larger sensor. It is much heavier, due to it's heavy duty construction. This camera currently has a retail price of $6,999, and a street price of around $6000. If you can afford it, buy fact, buy two. Seriously, this is overkill for anyone other than full time pros, the founder of Facebook or Instagram, or a Columbian drug lord. Unless you fall into one of those categories, don't buy this camera.

Instead, take a good look at the Canon EOS 60D. It is what is called a "Prosumer" camera--it will be used by pros and consumers alike. It does not have a full size sensor. The 18 megapixel sensor is the smaller APS size sensor. This means a 35-100mm lens will be more like a 50-150mm lens in practice. This is an excellent camera at a reasonable retail price of $999.99, with a street price of around $800.

An entry level camera is the Canon Rebel T3: at $350, it is affordable, and its 12 megapixel APS size sensor is certainly good enough to produce prints to 16x20 or larger if you are careful with exposure.While it does not have the features of the previously mentioned cameras, it is a fine starter camera. The main difference between the cameras is size of sensor and the dynamic range of the camera. The 1Ds has an ISO or Exposure Index (EI) range of 50-3200, the 60D 100-6400 (12800 with custom function setting) and the Rebel 100-6400 with no expansion function available. The 1Ds and the 60D also function in lower light levels than the Rebel.

Many times people will ask me, "Could I buy the top of the line camera and then buy the entry level as a backup camera?" You can do anything you want, but I would discourage this. The reason is the features do not work the same on two different cameras. If you are in a pressure situation, such as a wedding or other candid event, you may make an error. The other thing is that you may find the differences in images to be bothersome. It is far wiser to purchase two of the 60D cameras. Remember, you can purchase used cameras on Craigslist and eBay. Many people decide to take up photography in December and by May they have moved on to kayaking (or stained glass making, etc.). You can buy a used camera in excellent shape--many nearly unused--on these venues. You can also buy previous models of cameras as well. Many people feel they simply MUST have the newest thing. A quick check of eBay as this is written finds a Canon 40D body for just $300. In any case, you will want two camera bodies--ignore this advice at your peril.

You will also need storage cards and a case for them unless your camera bag provides a space for them. Get at least 6 storage cards and a wallet.

More important than the camera body is the camera lens--it makes no sense to purchase an expensive camera and put a "no-name" generic cheapo lens on it! My two main lenses were the 16-35 USM f/2.8 "L" zoom lens ($1699 retail, about $995 on eBay) and the 24-105mm f/4 "L" zoom lens ($1149 retail, about $700 on eBay).These lenses--while expensive--hold the same aperture throughout the zoom range. The non-L lenses sell for half as much, but have varying apertures. Buy what you can afford. If you absolutely cannot afford a Canon lens (or Nikon lens if using Nikon), the Tamron XR Di lenses or the Sigma EX DG lenses are an acceptable substitute. I wouldn't waste my money on anything less.

Regardless of the lens you buy, put a UV filter on the front of each one. It cuts down UV radiation (important for digital photography especially) and it protects the front element of your lens. Cheap protection--don't skip it.

For candid photography, the Canon Speedlite 600 EX-RT is the top of the line ($630 retail), but the Speedlite 580 EX II ($499 retail, $400 on eBay) is more than adequate. The $299 Speedlite 430 EX II is about 1 f/sop less powerful than the 580, but will do the job. Again, I recommend you have at least two strobes (speedlites) and I recommend you have two of the same model. You can also find these used at big savings on eBay and similar sites. As I write this, the older 580 EX is available for just $130 on eBay!

I normally use a flash diffuser. My friend Gary Fong produces the LightSphere. Besides working great, they are manufactured right here in the good ol' US of A in Indiana. He offers a couple of models, check them out. He also offers the PowerSnoot that lets you do dramatic portrait photography effects or accent lighting with your portable speedlites. Note: I do not get paid if you buy from Gary. Well, at least right now, I don't--if readers buy a bunch of product from him I may make him pay! J

Another choice is the FlashRight. Many people like it. In the examples I have seen, it leaves the eyes a little dark, but the reviews have been good. Remember I have not used this item. You can visit them at I am not affiliated with these folks, either.

A lot of photographers put a little soft box on their speedlight, and ask me what I think about them. My reply is, "Not much." You still have a tiny light source. The LightSphere turns your speedlite into a larger, more diffuse light source. I have also never been a fan of bounce cards...just never liked the quality of light. IMHO, they are good for photojournalism, not as much for people photography--YMMV!

Another item that is indispensable is a digital field guide or"Magic Lantern" guide for your camera model. These are available at Amazon or on eBay. It lets you find directions on how to use features on your camera that you do not use all that often. Don't skip it.

A nice item to have is a portable reflector: they are normally white on one side and silver on the other, 32"-42" in size. A round reflector folds down to a very small portable size, and these are also available on eBay. A tripod is another good piece of equipment to have, although most of the time you will handhold your camera. A carbon fiber tripod is ultra light and sturdy, but can cost any where from $300 to $1000 new. An aluminum tripod will work fine, but is heavier. You will also need a tripod head. In any case, stay away from the cheapo tripods...they are worthless. Expect to spend $100 or more. Do NOT purchase a video tripod for still photography. You'll also want a good quality camera case or bag. Tenba makes a good bag ($50-$100), Porter Case makes a great hard shell rolling case (about $200).

Finally, you will want to purchase a couple extra batteries and a dual battery charger. These dual battery chargers will work with a wall outlet OR a 12V car power outlet...indispensable if you find yourself running low on battery power on a "Two Wedding Saturday!" The other nice thing about the Canon is that I could purchase 3rd party batteries on eBay super cheap. However, battery life was never a problem with Canon cameras. It was a problem when I used Fuji digital cameras...they used AA batteries and the Fuji sucked 'em dry big time. To be able to power flash and camera I normally needed to have about 24 batteries charged and ready to go! I finally ended up purchasing a battery module that connected to a Quantum battery pack to power the camera. It added weight and another cord, but it was dependable power.

Well, let's add everything up--I'll base the pricing on purchasing new, so keep in mind you could cut the cost by purchasing used:

2 Canon 60D camera bodies @ $800 each - $1600
1 Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L zoom lens - $ 995
1 Canon 24-105mm f/4 L zoom lens - $ 700
2 Canon Speedlite 580 EX II - $ 400
1 Porter Case - $ 200
1 Reflector - $ 50
1 Tripod and head - $ 100
1 Flash Diffuser - $ 50
2 77mm UV filters - $ 60
1 Digital Guide or Magic Lantern Guide - $ 10
Dual Battery Charger and 2 extra batteries - $ 50

Okay, your grand total is $4215. Once again, you could save money buy purchasing used and/or previous models on eBay and/or Craigslist. This also does not include a computer, a monitor, image editing software, calibration software, or a graphics tablet. You can see that even a bare bones, basic entry into a photography business will be $6,000 to $10,000. This is a pretty inexpensive way into your own business. When I started, it cost anywhere from $2,000 to $3500...but that was 35 years ago. You could buy a brand new car for about $4,000. What would one cost you today?

This does not include any cost for marketing our business, which we will discuss in future get togethers! Next time, I will do a rundown of equipment for those wishing to operate a portrait or commercial studio. Future posts will cover promotion, business practices, education, and more. Your questions are always welcome.

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