In talking with a lot of seasoned professionals over the years, when you start digging into mistakes they made early on, somewhere along the line equipment always comes up. Very few people seem to have done it right.
Before you buy any new gear, do you know how to use what you currently have? Great camera gear doesn't make you a professional. However, understanding how to use whatever you have in any situation and using it right defines a pro.
So, let’s start with some must-haves. There are great holiday specials going on right now at most of the imaging dealers.
You need back up gear, one of the biggest things new photographers miss. I know what the manufacturers tell you about their warranties and great replacement policies, but here's the reality: They’re not going to be there at midnight at a reception when you have a problem. And, gear problems come in all shapes and sizes from a camera being dropped, to a technical issue to "walking away."
So, have a backup body. It doesn’t need to have all the bells and whistles of your primary, just the features to get you through a crisis, sort of like that mini-spare in your trunk. You also don’t need to buy it new. Look around for photographers who are upgrading equipment. Check out eBay and check with your local camera retailers.
Most wedding photographers, if they only could afford one lens, would probably go for a 24-70mm or equivalent if you're shooting micro four thirds. Two lenses, they'd add in something longer, like a 70-200mm and three would be adding a 50mm. Pay attention to the quality of the glass and go for fast optics.
Depending on your shooting style, it’s always good to have back up lights, whether on-camera strobes or studio lights and extra power. You want to have a little depth, just in case. This is also where buying the best equipment you can afford really makes a difference. For example, it's so rare I ever hear of anybody having problems with Profoto gear.
Don’t forget about renting equipment you might not have, even for the most routine jobs. Let’s assume you’ve got an opportunity to shoot a reasonably big wedding and it’s early in your career. There’s nothing wrong with renting equipment to get you through the job, rather than buying it and tying up your cash flow.
Which brings me to the concept of leasing. You don’t have to own everything outright to grow your business and be able to shoot the way you’d like. You can lease, often with a minimal buy-out at the end of the lease. This also gives you the opportunity to use the leasing company’s assets without depleting yours.
Exotic lenses are a kick, but until your business volume is high enough to justify the cost, renting will serve you well. Just about every seasoned photographer has a story about something exotic they bought early on.
Joe Buissink, one of the finest wedding artists in the world, talks very openly about a tilt/shift lens he bought early on. He barely used it, and it tied up his cash flow when, just getting started in the business, he could have used on other things. He eventually sold it for a substantial loss.
One more solution to buying some of the more exotic equipment you need - find a friend! I've heard so many great stories about photographers working together and sharing the cost of specialized expensive gear, large format printers and even studio space.
The concept of back-up gear doesn't just apply to camera, lenses and lighting. Back in your office or studio, NEVER underestimate the ability of your computer to crash just when you need it the most. Back up your files!
I remember Don and Gary Blair telling me stories about when their studio blew up. This was before digital, and they lost everything. All their negative files were lost in a fire when a woman lost control of her car and drove through their studio’s front window, hitting a gas line. Imagine the position you’d be in today if you lost EVERYTHING.
Take a look at your system for backing up files, images – anything and everything that’s critical to your business! But let's take it one step further - What if you’re out of commission for an emergency. Who's your backup? Who handles your calls? Your email? Your phone messages? Have a back-up plan for yourself!
Now and then do a "fire drill" – and just like the drills when we were kids, you need to go through all the what-if scenarios. Sometimes being prepared will help you think through your entire workflow, including gear and support/backup systems.
Anybody not know Murphy’s Law? It’s simple: If anything can go wrong, it will. Now here’s Murphy’s Second Law: Murphy was an optimist!