My Professional Photography Equipment List for Travel & Food Photography
Some product links are affiliate links but all are where I make my gear purchases.
Photography gear can be seriously baffling when you’re starting out. I remember spending hours looking at tripods completely confused by the differences. Some tripods looked identical but were hundreds of dollars apart in price point. Also, it took me a while to realize that tripods were occasionally sold as 2 separate parts, which explained the price difference sometimes. Then once I started to understand gear, it became so difficult not to fall into gear lust with every new camera body or lens release.
When I was starting out a friend of mine told me that I should only buy a piece of equipment when I knew that I would make back the cost 4 to 5 times in income or if I had rented something more than 4 times. While, I haven’t stuck to those rules perfectly they have helped me make strategic purchases of photography equipment over time instead of splurging every time I had a bit of extra cash around.
I’ve been working as a photographer in some capacity for the last 5 years. The last year and a half, I’ve been working full time as a professional photographer. I’ve accumulated a lot of stuff at this point. Before you dive into all that I want to point out that I started off with one camera body and one decent lens and that’s all I had for the first 2 years. Also, I used my camera to make gifs and cinemagraphs but most of my early photographers were honestly shot on my iPhone, which has a great camera if you’re just starting out. Equipment can definitely improve your image quality but you can also create incredible stuff with really simple equipment.
Initially, I learned photography on my then boyfriend’s (now husband) entry level DSLR Nikon. When I decided to buy my first camera, I made the switch to Canon and I’ve stuck with them ever since. Currently, I have the Canon 5d mk iii as a backup camera body and the Canon 5d mk iv as my main camera body.
When I was trying to decide between upgrading to a better Nikon or making the switch to Fuji, Sony or Canon, I read a ton of camera reviews. While I took in all of the stats on DPREVIEW and spent more time looking through Ken Rockwell reviews than I’d care to admit, what helped me decide was looking through photos on Flickr. Each time I found myself swooning over some photo, I’d check the EXIF data of the image to see what camera it was taken on. For whatever most of the photos I loved were taken on Canons so that’s what I switched to. I’ve read that during blind tests people can’t actually tell apart photos by camera brands so perhaps this was just happenstance but it’s what helped me make a decision. My first “pro” camera was a Canon 7d and I’ve mostly stuck with Canon ever since. While my reasoning for going with Canon may have been a little convoluted, I’ve stuck with it because I really appreciate the ergonomics of the camera. It’s easy for me to shoot in manual and quickly adjust all of my settings. With Nikons, I get frustrated by the slight friction of changing ISO (but the Nikon D850 is incredible). With Sonys, I didn’t like shooting mirrorless even though I really appreciated the lightness and overall quality. Fuji was a close second to Canon for me.
At the end of the day, I feel like photo quality has gotten so good and most of the time we’re consuming images on such small screens that small difference in specs don’t really matter. I always recommend that people rent camera gear for a trip to see how it feels and to make their decision that way.
SD cards and hard drives
Always invest in good storage. There is nothing worse than losing work because of a shitty SD card or glitchy hard drive. A lot of my early work required me to shoot video so I’ve always used Extreme Pro SanDisk SD cards and CompactFlash cards. They’re great. I’ve never had a single problem with them and I’ve never lost photos because of a faulty card. If you’re early in your career, you might be tempted to save a few bucks and go for one of the lower quality cards. Don’t do it! Spend the extra $20, it’s worth it. Don’t get a Lexar card. Also, if you're card starts acting up, replace it!
If you use external hard drives, get the LaCie rugged hard drives. I literally have an entire drawer with hard drives that have crapped out on me. My passport, seagate, buffalo, whatever, I’ve tried them all and LaCie is the only one I don’t hate. Additionally, I have a dropbox business account with 2TB of cloud storage and Lightroom CC with 1TB of cloud storage. A lot of it’s redundant but losing work is the worst. About once a year, I go through and archive and organize everything but it’s a constant battle.
Once you have a decent camera body, lenses will have the biggest impact on your overall image quality. Currently, I have 4 lenses: Sigma 35mm for Canon, Sigma 50mm for Canon, Zeiss 15mm and a Canon 100-400 (EDIT: I got a 5th lens shortly after writing this). At the moment, I’m thinking about selling my Sigma 35mm and Zeiss 15mm and switching to a Canon 16-35mm. I recently rented it for a project and while I’ve historically preferred prime lenses, I happened to really enjoy this lens. These days, it generally takes me months to decide on a gear purchase because I have a decent setup. I need time to figure out if I’m just smitten with a piece of gear or if it’ll legitimately improve my work or my workflow. I’ll report back in a few months if I make any changes.
Reporting back - I didn't sell my prime lens and have been relatively happy about that, especially my Sigma 35mm because it's been my work horse for years and I've developed a sentimental attachment. I ended up not getting the Canon 16-35mm and went for the Canon 24-70mm instead.
I have so many thoughts on tripods! First, why are there so many variations?! Second, why are so many of them not good?! All of my initial commercial work was for cinemagraphs for which I needed a few seconds of smooth footage. While over the years, I’ve learned a lot of post-processing tricks to smooth out footage and to creatively mask things to make them appear smooth, life is a lot easier if I start out with smooth footage.
My first tripod was a Vanguard Alta Pro. It’s sturdy and works well for tabletop food photography, especially if you’re working in one location all day. A few years ago, I lugged it to Iceland and shot a number of cinemagraphs with it. That trip really highlighted the biggest downside of this tripod, which is that it’s large, bulky and pretty heavy. It’s fine for a studio setting but if you’re traveling with it then your shoulders will cry by the end of the day. Hiking with this thing in Iceland was miserable. If you just need an office or studio tripod, especially for food photography, this is a decent bet. It’s also relatively speaking pretty cheap for a tripod. If you need something that you can bring on location or travel with then this won’t be great.
Next after insane amounts of research, I decided to try out the Gitzo Traveler Tripod. I kept it for about a week and then sent it back in. On a sidetone, I purchase most of my equipment via Amazon because of how easy it is to make returns. There are benefits to buying from other locations though. For example B&H doesn’t charge a sales tax (unless you live in New York) and my local camera shop provides a rental camera if you have to send your body in. Anyway, back to tripods, I have a strong preference for snap locks on tripods and found myself cursing every time I had to untwist all 9 locks on the Gitzo. If you are a more patient human than me then this is a great tripod. It’s very lightweight but still stable. It can be easily packed into just about any bag. One major downside is the cost but this will last you for a very long time as long as you take decent care of it.
Eli actually discovered the next tripod I purchased, which has been my go-to for most things. It’s the Sirui ET-1204. The tripod is great. It’s very light, really stable and packs up really small. It came with a case when I bought it, which has been surprisingly useful. Plus, it has snap locks! There have been 2 major downsides to this tripod. One, the ballhead has been very inconsistent. My first ballhead started to slip after about 2 years of use. I’m currently on ballhead #3 and it’s working okay at the moment. Two, the company is Chinese based and trying to get help from Sirui USA for the warranty is a nightmare. As in, I have given up getting any help from them and just purchase a new ballhead about once a year.
Recently, my Sirui tripod has also developed a funny glitch where one of the legs will randomly collapse about one out of every 25 times I use it. It’s not a big issue but it made me think that I should take another gander at the tripod landscape. This time around I canvassed other photographers for suggestions and decided to look at Manfrotto tripods (fun fact: Manfrotto and Gitzo are owned by the same company). At this point, I’ve definitely put in my 10,000 hours of staring at tripods on the internet. I bought a Manfrotto tripod with a ridiculously long name. It’s lighter than the Vanguard but heavier than the Sirui. It’s stable. I’m honestly lukewarm on it and have found myself going back to the Sirui most of the time for a couple of reasons. One, it’s not quite light enough to use as a travel tripod. Two, brand new out of the box one of the rotational knobs was already sticky. Three, for the price, I’m just not thrilled with the quality. I’m holding on to it for now for projects that are on location but don’t require me to move around too much. That’s a slim use case but I've used it enough to justify holding onto it.
My ultimate conclusion is that there is no perfect tripod out there but the Sirui ET-1204 is the best compromise option if, like me, you need something that will travel well but still have decent stability. If you have made it this far, I seriously applaud you and wish that I had some sort of tripod certificate to give you. You have certainly earned it.
Photo Lighting Equipment
Like many photographers that have no idea how to work with artificial light, I tried to mentally justify the situation by thinking of myself as a natural light photographer. That was a lie. I just had no idea how to use lights. As in, any lights. I’d like to tell you that I became curious and figured things but in reality, Eli became interested in studio lighting and I picked up some basics from him. Then I assisted on a bunch of shoots and started to understand how lights works, sort of. To this day, I will occasionally text Eli with questions about light. While I’m the photographer, he’s the one that really enjoys the technical aspect of photography. It’s great because it pushes me to think beyond aesthetics and whether or not I like the feel of an image.
Anyway, most decent lights are expensive. They’re often also heavy. Those two aspects kept me from buying any sort of lighting equipment for a long time. Eventually I decided to pick up a speed light. It opened up some new possibilities with my photography. I could finally shoot in the Chicago winter in a basement restaurant.
For a year or two, I contemplated buying Profoto B2s but held off because of price and weight. When profoto came out with the a1, I finally made the jump. It’s great and works well with my current skill level and workflow. Since I shoot on location so often, committing to a large lighting setup wouldn’t have been practical. The a1 is expensive and I wouldn’t recommend getting it if you aren’t doing photography professionally because of the price point, unless money is no object in which case knock yourself out. It’s a great piece of equipment.
In general, if you’re getting lights for photography I’d recommend checking out profoto. For video, I haven’t used these but I’ve been very intrigued by hive lighting. Lighting is one aspect of photography that I’m actively working to improve on so this will likely get updated periodically.
Watch out for accessories. They’re great but after looking at $3,000 camera bodies and $1,500 camera lenses, a $80 camera strap can seem like pocket change. These things add up. Trust me. Budget for small purchases.
Personally, I have camera straps on both of my cameras. On my Canon 5d mkiii I have a disptch strap. It’s fine. It’s subtle, which I appreciate. On my Canon 5d mk iv, I have a sling strap, which I love and hate. It’s great on shoots but it’s really annoying when I want to use my tripod since it requires me to unscrew the strap and screw on the tripod plate. With my dispatch strap, I usually just leave tripod plate on at all times.
Lens filters are great. They protect your lens. I am not very gentle with my equipment so anything I can do to make it more durable is helpful. Just make sure that when you're buying a lens filter, you get the right thread size for your lens.
I also have a bunch of camera wraps, which are great since they’re super versatile and I use them for everything. They keep my equipment from getting dinged up when I'm moving things around.
As with tripods, I have way more bags than is really necessary. I also feel that somewhere out there is the perfect bag and I just haven’t found it yet. One day.
Anyway, I have 4 bags I use regularly. My only classic camera bag is the Incase DSLR Pro Pack. It’s well padded and easy to organize. I only use it for large projects when I need to bring multiple camera bodies and lenses. For day to day use, I usually leave it at home because it’s bulky and screams “hey, I’m carrying thousands of dollars of photography equipment”. Over the last 5 years, I’ve personally known 4 photographers that have had their camera bags stolen so I’m cautious.
Aside from that I have 2 regular backpacks that were both gifts so I’ll skip linking them. One is a tumi bag that I like because it’s pretty small and forces me to choose my gear very thoughtfully. The other is a soft canvas bag which is a bit problematic because I tend to overstuff it and it’s unstructured so all of my stuff bumps around in it. This is actually why I originally bought the camera wraps.
Finally, whenever I'm traveling, I stuff a soft tote back in my bag to use on location. Currently, I'm into my free New Yorker tote. It's the perfect size. Sometimes I use it for typical vacation outings like getting down to the beach with sunscreen and a book. For photography, I like to have it if I think a location will be squirrely about photos. It helps create an artificial separation between me the person and me the photographer so I can talk and get permission as me the person without having the camera become a focal point. Also, if I want to shoot but then go out right away, it's nice to have a tote so I don't have my camera out and about.
Photography gear that I couldn't resist
I wasn't sure what to call this section so here we are in the not sortable region.
Number one: the DJI mavic drone. This is a a very fun piece of equipment but I wouldn't get for professional purposes unless you are also willing to go through the required licensing process because the consequences can be painfully expensive. These days, I occasionally use my drone for fun but the DJI software has so many updates and the flying can be so glitchy sometimes, that I only use it intermittently. If you're tempted, I would first try to borrow one for a few test flights because it's honestly a bit of a pain. I no longer travel with my drone. If you want to get one anyway, here's my guide on how to get started without crashing.
Next: I have 2 iPads. Most of my equipment purchases now lower my taxes so this is not the sort of purchase I would have made prior to forming a corporate structure. Anyway, I have an iPad mini that I predominately use for reading. I try to keep unnecessary apps off of it so I don't get constantly. Additionally, I have an iPad pro for photo editing, to use on shoots and for sharing my portfolio. It renders photos beautifully and I appreciate having a digital portfolio that I can update regularly vs a printed portfolio.
Finally: the Fujifilm Instax. Working in digital most of the time, I occasionally want to see my images in the physical world. The instax is really fun and feels like a nice change of pace from my usual photography work. Additionally, I sometimes put together stacks of images that I share.
Don't let gear keep you from creating the sort of work you're striving towards. There's a fine balance between understanding equipment, buying the things that will improve your imagery and getting too focused on having the right stuff. Photography is so subjective. I understand that sometimes we try to control for the variation in taste, experience and confidence. Whatever you currently have, go out and create. If you decide to jump into photography full-time, you'll be surprised how quickly you accumulate stuff. It happens over time as you need to pick up a lens for this job and a new camera body for that job. Don't worry about it. Learn your equipment and then forget about it and just go shoot.