Getting Started in Stock Photography: Choosing Your Stock Photo Equipment Correctly

If you want to make a living creating stock photos you need to choose the right photographic equipment.

Let’s say you have made the commitment to join the world of stock photography, you have an excuse, and a valid one, to go out and buy some photography gear.  What I will share with you here is not necessarily the perfect answer as what to get, but what does work for me.  I can give you some guidelines, and tips, but in every case you will need to take into consideration your own situation, what and how you will be shooting, what your budget constraints are and a host of other personal considerations.

Cameras and lenses

Let’s start with cameras.  I have a fair number of would-be professionals ask me what cameras they should buy…and most of the time they end up putting price ahead of quality.  That is a mistake.  If you want to shoot professionally, and to compete with all of the others who are doing so, buy a professional caliber camera that meets the image quality requirements of the big agencies.  To fail to do so will be putting you at a significant disadvantage.

You can’t go wrong with the high-end cameras from Canon and Nikon.  The models and specs keep changing and improving, but if you go with one of their professional level models you well have spent your money wisely.  I, at the time of this writing, am shooting with a Canon 1ds MKII, a Canon 1ds MKIII, and a Canon 5d MKII. If I were starting out today I would buy the Canon 5d MKII. 

Visit a camera store

To determine which camera is best for you, you should go to a camera store and hold the top models, see how they feel and get an idea of what would be most comfortable for you.  If you shoot sports you will probably want a different model than if you shoot still life.  If you shoot in low light levels you might want a different model than if you shoot primarily in bright light. That is why you must do your research. BTW, the newest Canons and Nikons have truly remarkable low light performance that represent a sea change in photography.

Choose your lens

Your lenses are your next choice.  I could probably do all my stock photography with the Canon 24-105 IS L series lens.  That being said, I also find useful, pretty much in this sequence, the Canon 100-400 IS zoom L Series, the 16-35 Zoom, 70-200 f2.8 and a f2 135mm.  Buying Canon or Nikon lenses over third party lenses, in my experience, give you a bit more sharpness and a lot more ruggedness.  If you are on a budget, start with a lens in that 24-105 range, and use that until you find that you are consistently in need of something more.

Lighting equipment

It is my firm belief that if you are competing in the serious world of stock photography you will need some form of lighting equipment.  Even when there is plenty of light, say at 4:00pm on a sunny day at the beach, you can create images with more impact, and that will sell better, if you add additional lighting. 

It may be as simple as a reflector, or might involve strobes.  Recently I found myself back pedaling through the edge of the surf at the beach, shooting away at a model running towards me, while an assistant back pedaled alongside me holding a power pack in one hand and a strobe head in the other.  The added highlight from the flash provides that little extra something that sets that photograph apart from the countless other competing images.  My experience has consistently been that used intelligently, supplemental lighting invariably produces a better image than I can obtain without.  Even when shooting Padueng Tribal Women in remote regions of Myanmar (the ones with the “rings” around their necks) having an on camera flash to add a little pop in the dark confines of their huts made a huge difference.

Reflectors...don't leave home without one

Every stock shooter needs at least one reflector, and a collapsible 32” reflector with white on one side and gold on the other is a versatile workhorse that is large enough to handle a torso-sized subject and small enough to fit in your backpack.  Get one of those.  Personally, that one size has been invaluable for me and I always have one available when I am shooting.

As far as flash units go, over the years I have used Elinchrome, Balcar, Speedotron and Profoto.  They have all worked well for me.  At this point I am using Profoto 7bs.  Each pack can handle two heads with a total of 1200-watt seconds and have removable batteries, which can handle of 200 full power flashes. 

I am totally happy with these units.  I have taken them with me to Buenos Aires, Bangkok, Mexico and India.  Again, though, do your own research.  Check the forums, read the reviews, even better, rent some units and try them out. You will need to take into consideration the flexibility of the units, the weight and size, the power output, whether they are battery operated or not, and all the various features the different units offer. 

If you do end up using studio (and location) power packs I highly recommend radio triggers or “slaves”.  I use Pocket Wizards, but there are a number of brands and my lack of experience with other brands should not prevent you from checking the other ones out.  Once you go wireless, you can’t go back.

While I mostly rely on my “studio” power packs for my produced shoots, in certain situations on camera flashes play an important role for me. On my last trip to India to shoot stock photos I wanted to travel light, and relied on the Canon 580 EX unit supplemented with a Quantum Turbo SC battery. 

At one point we even had two photographers sharing the Quantum at the same time (it has two power outlets).  It was a great decision for the kind of photography and style of trip I had planned.

On occasion I have used hot lights too.  I own a pair of Lowel Tota Lights for the rare instances when I need continuous light. They are very portable and with a 1000-watt bulb put out a good amount of light (and a lot of heat too).  Don’t plug them in to a 220-volt source though; then they become flash units capable of only one flash, as I found out in a moment of inattention while shooting in Argentina.

The coming thing, however, might just be continuous fluorescent Lighting.  Google that term and you will find plenty of information on it.  The light is beautiful, but in the past when I have tried them I have found the low output a little limiting.  Now, however, with the new increased ISO speeds possible with the latest Canon and Nikon cameras, and possible advances with the lighting units themselves, they may be a great option for you.  Try them.  My advice is to try everything and find out what best meshes with your style of shooting and the look you are after.

I firmly believe in having the right tool for the job.  If you don’t or can’t own, rent.  But trying to skimp when you have the success of a shoot in the balance is false economy. 

Get the basics then start shooting and learning.  With the instant feedback of digital cameras you can make adjustments after each exposure until you get it right.  So what are you waiting for? Go shoot!