Photography core gear and accessories are very personal decisions for each individual photographer. Selection of gear is dependent upon expertise, experience, type and frequency of shooting, specifications and features, brand loyalty, budget, and personal preferences. This page is intended to give those moving up the photography food chain a structure upon which to consider new gear purchases. I do not recommend specific brands or specific gear in this article.
A camera is usually the first choice facing a photographer. The age of high-quality digital cameras has created many choices for features and costs. Most people starting in photography for the first time will start with an entry level camera and work up to greater capabilities as their knowledge and experience increase. The "gold standard" for comparing modern cameras has been the digital single lens reflex camera (dSLR.) However, the world of high-quality cameras is rapidly changing and mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (MILC) are rapidly gaining in popularity, features, and quality.
Digital single lens reflex cameras use a retractable mirror behind the lens to direct the image to an optical view finder so the photographer can see an exact view of the image no matter what lens is attached to the camera. When the shutter is activated the mirror flips up so the sensor behind the shutter is exposed. These cameras have had the greatest range of sensor sizes, overall quality, exposure adjustments, and options available to photographers with all levels of expertise and experience. They are large, relatively heavy, and capable of photographing in the most demanding conditions.
Mirrorless interchangable lens cameras are relatively new in the advanced / high end market. These cameras use an electronic viewfinder to preview the image and eliminate the mechanical mirror. It has taken a number of years to make the quality of of the viewfinders so that a near instantaneous image is seen. These cameras have unique lens mounts since the lens is closer to the sensor and an adapter is needed to use them with dSLR lenses. The camera bodies are smaller and lighter than the dSLR and are available with a variety of sensor sizes and features.
Point & shoot & viewfinder
These cameras usually have an electronic zoom lens that cannot be changed or removed from the camera. Most points and shoot cameras are seen as entry level cameras but often have exposure controls similar to their more expensive counterparts. They tend to be lighter, less robust, and significantly less expensive. Some viewfinder cameras are of very high quality and cost.
It is often said that the best camera is the one you have with you and for this reason phone cameras are the most popular on the planet. Phones are hampered by by smaller sensors and fixed focal length lenses but can have many adjustments that give good quality images.
Once a camera is selected, the next choice is usually for lenses. Lenses will be the most expensive and longest lasting part of many photographer's gear. It is often prudent to spend money on higher quality "glass" than on a better camera body. A low quality lens will never allow great images while even a moderate quality camera body can allow for superb images.
Prime versus zoom
Lenses are defined as prime or fixed focal length versus zoom or variable focal length. The focal length determines the angle of view or "reach" of a lens. Prime lenses are usually smaller, lighter, and higher quality than their zoom equivalents. They tend to have a larger maximum aperture that allows more light to reach the sensor. High quality zoom lenses tend to be very expensive. Zoom lenses with a very wide range of focal lengths tend to be convenient because only one lens is needed for a variety of shots but also tend to be of lower quality and have a small maximum aperture.
A "normal" focal length lens approximates what our eyes normally see. A standard field of view for the human eye is about 50-60 degrees and the eye has a focal length of only about 18mm. The field of view for a camera is determined by the sensor size and the focal length of the lens. For a full frame (36x24mm) sensor, a lens with a focal length of about 45mm gives a normal field of view of about 60 degrees. For smaller (so called "crop") sensors it takes a shorter focal length to achieve the same field of view so in many crop sensor dSLR camers a 24-35mm lens would be considered standard. Standard lenses have been available for a long time and they are light weight, affordable and usually have a very large aperture to allow maximum light to the sensor.
Wide-angle lenses have a greater field of view than normal. Generally, a lens is considered to be wide-angle if its focal length is less than about 35mm of a full frame sensor camera. Wide-angle lenses show a larger scene and allow a greater depth (range of focus) at the cost of greater distortion - close items appear large and distant item appear small. Wide-angle lenses can have extremely short focal lengths of about 10mm. The widest angle lenses are called fisheyes and can have an angle of view of up to about 180 degrees. Wide-angle lenses are often used for landscape and scenic photography.
Telephoto lenses have a narrow angle of view and are used to limit the scene captured by the sensor. A lens is considered to be telephoto if its focal length exceeds about 135mm on a full frame sensor camera. Telephoto lenses can have extremely long focal length up to about 600 or even 800mm giving a n angle of view of less than 6 degrees. Limiting the angle of view makes object appear closer to the camera. Short telephoto lenses are used for portraits and longer telephoto lenses for sports and wildlife photography.
Lugging photography gear around and storing it safely requires some form of "camera bag." The bag should protect the gear from damage and the environment and allow easy transfer in and our of your vehicle and to new photographic locations. Design, size, and construction are all important considerations.
Camera bags are available in all shapes and sizes in both soft and rigid models. Sizes vary from small shoulder bags to large cases for shipping professional gear. Small camera bags are a convenient way to carry a camera and lens or two but can be uncomfortable for carrying large amounts of gear to more remote locations.
Most advanced or serious photographers carry their field gear in a well=padded back pack. This protects delicate gear and frees your hands for shooting. Back packs come in many sizes and can carry a back up camera and several lenses, accessories, and even a tripod.
Almost any camera and lens combination will allow a hand-held capture of a quality image in perfect lighting conditions. When light is less than perfect or a creative image is planned, some sort of camera stabilization is necessary. Your choice for stabilization gear is dependent upon the camera/lens combination and the type of image you want to capture.
A good tripod is your most versatile camera stabilization tool. Decisions for tripod selection include: minimum and maximum height, snap or twist lock legs, aluminum or carbon fiber, center extension, weight, stability, and cost. A good quality tripod is essential for photographers wanting tack-sharp images in all conditions.
Monopods are an inexpensive, light weight option to support the weight of a heavy camera/lens combination. Monopods add some stability but are primarily used to relieve strain on the photographer.
A mounting head is attached to tripod legs to hold the camera stable and allow re-composition of an image without moving the whole tripod. The most common head is a ball head that allows the camera to pan, tilt, or rotate by loosening only one adjustment knob. Other common heads are a movie style panning head and a gimbal head for very heavy lenses.
Quick release systems
Various proprietary and universal systems allow a quick attachment of the camera or lens to the tripod. The most common quick release is the ARCA-Swiss system.
Remote shutter releases
The final element to improve camera stability is a remote shutter release. These can be wired or wireless and can be a simple button or a handheld device that controls multiple exposures and supplemental lighting.
Optical accessories / filters
There are probably more optical accessories that attach to lenses than possible lenses for any camera. Optical accessories are used to protect lenses and to modify the light entering a lens for special types of photography. Quality of these accessories may vary greatly and it is hard to justify placing a low-quality accessory over a high-quality lens.
Circular polarizing filter
A polarizing filter is used to reduce reflections, darken the sky, and reduce glare. It is the only filter than cannot be replicated in post-processing software. Good quality polarizing filters are relatively expensive.
UV / haze filter
UV / haze filters are an extra piece of glass in front of your lens. They are remnants of the film age and are unnecessary except to protect the front of the lens from dust, salt spray, and scratches. These filters typically induce lens flare when shooting into harsh light.
Neutral density filter
ND filters reduce the light coming to the sensor and allow slower (longer) shutter speeds. These filters have a fixed amount of darkening and come in various strengths. Variable (adjustable) ND filters are also available.
Graduated neutral density filter
Grad filters are large Usually rectangular filters that attach with a bracket at the end of the lens. One edge of the filter gives the maximum attenuation of light until it approaches the center of the filter while the other edge of the filter is clear giving no light attenuation. The transition from maximum to no attenuation may be hard (narrow) or soft (wide.) These are typically used to attenuate a bright sky in landscape shots.
Tinted filters are left-overs from the film days. They can be used for color correction or to create drama in black and white images. Tinted filters have been almost completely replaced by post-processing software adjustments.
A tele-converter is an optical device that is placed between the camera and some telephoto lenses to effectively increase the focal length of the lens. Most cameras accept a 1.4x or 2x converters. The converters reduce the amount light reaching the lens by 1 or 2 exposure values (EV or stops.)
Extension tubes / bellows
Extension tubes and bellows are non-optical devices that move the lens farther from the camera sensor thus allowing closer focusing distance for macro and close-up shots.
Portable supplemental lighting can make photography under difficult light conditions both possible and exceptional. Not all photographers need complex supplemental lighting and often a simple flash can improve low-light images.
A pop-up, on-camera flash is available on some cameras. These tend to have relatively low light output and are usually used as a fill light for distances up to about 8-10 feet.
Strobe / speed light
External strobes or speed lights are portable flash systems that can mount on the camera or be moved farther away with a cord or wireless trigger device. These can be quite powerful and used with other flashes at distances of up to about 30 feet or so.
Light modifiers are devices that mount on or near a light source to soften, focus, direct, or tint the light for artistic effects. Some of these are as simple as a reflector and others are complex link umbrellas or soft boxes that need special stands for support. One modifies focuses the light in a narrow beam to extend the useful range of a portable strobe.
External light systems can be triggered by light (such as an on-camera flash), cables, or wireless flash connectors. Generally, more pleasing effects can be obtained when the primary light source is away from the camera.
Computer and hardware
Today's digital images can be amazing right out of the camera but high-quality images generally benefit from some post-processing to make them really outstanding. All photographers taking large numbers of images need a computer and software to organize the images so they can be recovered at a later point in time. A fast and capable computer can take your images to new highs.
Desktop computers tend to be faster, more powerful, and have more device connectivity than the other types of computers. They are easily connected to external hard drive for massive image storage capability and work well with external graphics tablets for very precise editing. For photo processing the minimal computer requirements include a multi-core processor, at least 16 GB of RAM, about 1 TP of internal solid state drive storage, and a large high definition monitor (or two.)
laptop computers are very helpful when traveling or when connected to a large monitor for work at home. The same computing power is needed and a rugged external hard drive or SSD device is needed for large numbers of photos.
A tablet computer is nice for showing photos and doing very limited editing. Serious editing needs to be on a real computer.
Drives and storage systems
External hard drives are needed to store images. At least two drives should be maintained at all times in case of a drive failure. Ideally, a third drive should be stored off-site and backed-up frequently.
The TPC has avoided mentioning or recommending brand names in nearly all of the gear discussed here. The notable exception is for processing software. Until recently there were only two photography processing packages that stood the test of time. Today there are more and more options but nearly all must be compared to the "gold standards" produced by Adobe.
Lightroom is the "gold standard" for about 80-85% of experienced photographers. It combines an image database, search engine, ram file converter, image editing, and multiple image outputs. Edits produced in Lightroom are nondestructive and never alter the original image file. It is currently available by subscription only and a package combined with Photoshop is about $10/month.
Photoshop is a complete graphics program that has been used to edit photos for more than 20 years. It is capable of editing at the pixel level and most edits are destructive and will alter the original image if not saved as a new file. The program is capable of almost any editing imaginable and works well with Lightroom for basic editing. It is available in a subscription package with Lightroom.
Elements is a low end version of Photoshop that is available as a one time purchase. It is designed more for photography than graphic arts but does not have all of the features of Photoshop.
Other editing software
There are many new and highly functional editing programs available. The prices and capabilities vary among products and many will serve most photographers well. For details on this ever expanding field, it is best to search the web for the latest information.
Other gear considerations
The list for addition accessories and gadgets can go on forever but there are a few things that all serious photographers need to have available from the start.
Additional batteries / chargers
Memory cards and readers
A blower, brush, and lens cleaning cloth and solution