Gearing Up | Stuff I Love, Stuff I Recommend

“What camera do you use?”

Seems like an innocent question, right? But a lot of photographers take offense to that question — they think it implies that anyone can be an amazing photographer, if they just buy the right equipment. And, yes, I’ve heard that question phrased in a less-than-tactful way (“Your camera takes great pictures,” or “I need to get a good camera so I can take photos like yours!”). But nine times out of ten, I think it’s a pretty innocent question. I don’t think most people expect to pick up a DSLR and instantly know how to take professional-quality portraits. Cameras can be a pricey investment, and I think most people just want to make sure they like what they buy.

If I were buying paints, I’d ask my artsy friend Beata for her favorite brands — not because I think I’ll magically be able to paint like her, but because she’ll know which brand is the best quality. When I was shopping for new foundation, I asked my makeup-artist cousin Kerry for advice — not because I think I’m a budding cosmetologist, but because I know she’s worked with everything. When I broke out in hives, I called my pharmacist friend Mital to ask if I should use topical Benadryl or tablets. And so on. My friends are all experts in something, and that’s an awesome resource to have.

So when my friends ask me for camera recommendations, I’m flattered. I don’t think, “Whoa Nelly, I spent 10,000 hours learning this stuff and they think they can just pick up a DSLR and take perfect photos?!” Nope. I think, “Wow. My friends value my opinion. They must think I’m actually, like, good at this.” If it’s late at night, I also think, “Yipppeeeee, procrastination time! I’m going to write the longest and most detailed reply ever!” …but that’s another story.

To be clear, I don’t think good gear can make someone a good photographer. There’s a lot more that goes into it — lighting, composition, style, connection, posing, knowing exactly when and why to click. But I do think gear is important.

There was a great blog post on MCP Actions today on this topic, so rather than belabor the point, I’ll just say — go read that post. Personally, I know Emeril Lagasse could outcook me with a rusty pot over a campfire any day, but give him All-Clad cookware and a Viking stove, and he’ll blow your mind. (BAM! and all that.)

So, with that said, here are my recommendations and my personal can’t-live-withouts. I’m speaking Canon language because that’s what I know, but honestly, you can’t go wrong with Canon or Nikon. And I know a few fab Pentax photogs too, so you’re not limited to the big two — but if you foresee this becoming a serious full-blown obsession someday, Canon and Nikon generally have the most room to grow and the best upwards compatibility (meaning if you buy a Canon EF lens for your Rebel, you can use it on a 1D Mark IV, too).


1. The best DSLR you can easily afford. If you have a $500 budget, don’t feel like you have to spend $1000. Get the base model Rebel or a used 40D. You can learn everything you need to know on these. If you get hooked on photography, you may outgrow them eventually, but you’ll never regret the investment. (If you have $1000, get a 60D. It’ll take longer to outgrow, and it has video.)

2. 50mm f/1.8 lens. Whether you go Canon or Nikon, this lens will change the game. You can shoot in low light without a flash, you can get beautiful background blur from the wide aperture, and just in case I lost you at “wide aperture”….

3. Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson. The key to good exposure is the triad of shutter speed (how long the lens is open), aperture (how wide the lens opens), and ISO (how fast the sensor records light). This book will drill the info into your head until it becomes second nature.

4. Lightscoop. This keeps your pop-up flash from creating yucky harsh light. If you’re not ready to spend $300+ on a shoe-mount external flash, this is $29.95 worth of awesomeness.

* The first three images are from, and link back to, B&H Photo, which is my personal favorite source for camera equipment. The last is from the Lightscoop web page.



I won’t bore you with images of every item on this list, but this is the latest iteration of my camera bag (and hopefully the last for awhile — I love my current setup and plan to hang on to it for awhile, which should make my wallet happy!:) )

  • Canon 5D Mark III. I think my hands shook for three hours after clicking the “submit order” button on this one. But it’s worth the money and the hype. I love it more than I’ve ever loved any inanimate object, and that includes my Ford Escort! And anyone who knew me circa 2004 can tell you how much I loved my Ford Escort.
  • Canon 5D Mark II. I swore I didn’t need this camera. I only bought it to get the lens it came bundled with, and planned on selling the body. Somewhere between clicking “submit order” and having it arrive on the doorstep, my apathy morphed into something like, “Wheeeeeee there’s a Mark II coming to my house and it’s miiiiiiiineee!” Thus began my obsession with full-frame. This is my backup camera.
  • Canon 50D. This is my holiday/party/vacation/adventure camera. I love it. It’s super-sturdy and does exactly what it’s supposed to.
  • Canon 135mm f/2L. I would marry this lens. Because of the long (and fixed) length, I find it best for portraits of cooperative subjects — older kids, engagement sessions, etc.
  • Canon 24-105 f/4L. I originally bought the 24-70 f/2.8L because of its stellar reputation, but I just couldn’t fall in love with it. When I sold it and bought this instead, I felt the instant “woohooo!” feeling that I expected from the 24-70. This lens gets the most action at weddings, and when chasing toddlers.
  • Canon 85mm f/1.8. My go-to lens for newborns and headshots — 85mm is a nice middle-of-the-road focal length for a full-frame camera. (I feel the same way about my 50mm on my 50D, see below.)
  • Canon 50mm f/1.4. This lens rocks on my 50D. I don’t use it quite as much on my Mark II, but it’ll always have a place in my bag. This is my other fave newborn lens.
  • Canon 40mm f/2.8 pancake. Just a fun wide-angle option and sits super-flush on my camera body. Great for vacations. Has some bugs, but hey, it’s cheap:)
  • Canon Speedlite 420EX. Barebones flash. I really only use it for wedding receptions and fun OCF shots like the one below. But it’s about six years old, so I have a 430 sitting in my bag just in case!
  • Canon S95. This is my point-and-shoot — I love it because the image quality is great for a compact digital, and it shoots in RAW so I can edit ’til my heart’s content. And p.s., when you’re choosing a point-and-shoot, I tend to look for fewer megapixels — 18MP on a tiny sensor may give you a grainier image than 12MP on the same sensor. So, sometimes less is more. Check Flickr or Amazon to search for images taken with the camera you’re thinking about purchasing — you’ll be able to see what the camera is (or isn’t) capable of.

Hope that’s helpful! I’m always happy to talk gear (especially if it’s a slow night on Pinterest, haha) so never hesitate to ask me equipment questions!


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