Making the move to being pro is fraught with the anxieties of not having the right equipment. So what equipment do commercial photographers use? Being a commercial photographer is pretty much as vague a job description as being an administrative assistant.
So with this in mind, I am going to mostly draw on my own experiences of being a commercial photographer who specializes in food. I do believe that the principles remain the same in most fields, but there are a few very specific things hiding out there that I am 99.9% certainly going to miss (let me know in the comments). The role of the commercial photographer is a mix of problem solving the creatives dreams and offering a good return on investment. In order to achieve this, most of us need a huge amount of kit, and it doesn’t end with cameras and lights. For the lucky few or those who have really made a name for themselves with their style, they have the joys of working with one camera, one lens and maybe a light. For me though, this is not a reality that is likely to ever be the case.
For the work I do, I need resolution. Printing a 6 sheet is possible from most modern cameras, but having the client decide on a massive crop a week after the shoot can make this tricky. For the average shoot I use a Canon 5ds which is the brands high resolution offer. Any other 35mm camera brands high res offering will be just as good or slightly better, I have just always used Canon, so I stuck with it, rather than spending another 10 years learning a new camera, sensor and lens system from scratch, but the resolution is key in the commercial world that I live in, I struggled with 20 mega pixels for far to long and racked up some pretty impressive rental fees. When I have really big jobs, I rent the Phase One system to make sure I have the best IQ available to me. Hasselblad make great medium format cameras to, I just don’t have local rental access to them, so the Phase One is the most economical and practical option. My rental guys over in the UK are also amazing!
My work is all shot with artificial light and almost always from a tripod, so the resolution is the only real big deciding factor for me when it comes to choosing a camera in 2019. After that it comes down to color bit depth, to make sure I can achieve as accurate a gradient of color as possible. ISO, Auto Focus, and dual card slots are not requirements for me. I don't actually use memory cards at all in the studio, instead opting for on the spot back up to drives and clouds whilst shooting.
Being able to manually focus a lens whilst using capture one live view is far more valuable that 100 AF points in my field of work. Although if you are a life style commercial photographer, this would be very different and you would probably be looking more into dual card slots and you might be looking more toward one of the sports cameras. Once you know what your niche is going to be, the choices that you have available to you in terms of which camera system you can buy will probably give you only one option, or maybe a particular model in each brand that would work, but little else.
Most of the lenses I have need to resolve a pretty highly due to the camera selection, in spite of this, I am not a photographer who chases sharpness, I would rather a nice aesthetic, which is why my current 50mm lens will soon be changed to something else that renders images more accurately to what is in my head when I take the shot. I own a load of zoom lenses and other primes to, but for the actual shoots and the big prints, these are the lenses I have opted for. The lenses I use most for my food photography are the Canon TS-E 45mm F2.8 Tilt Shift Lens and Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8 Tilt-Shift Lens . These lenses let me do some crazy things with focus, allowing me to shoot at f/5.6 whilst having everything I want in focus that is of importance to my shot. They also give me the option to make big composite with the Canon system to create very high resolution food images for huge prints at expos etc. when the clients budget doesn't reach medium format camera levels. Apart from that I use a 35mm, 50mm, and 100mm primes, which allow me to do large flat lays in tight spaces through to macro photos of food. Now these choices are specific to my style of work. If you focused on people in commercial photography I am pretty sure that you would want an 85mm lens in there and if you worked with interior photography a 24mm tilt shift lens or even a bellows system would be part of your 35mm camera kit. When I am working with medium format I tend to use a 45mm, 80mm, and 120mm macro lens. This gives me very similar coverage to my 35mm camera system. Having something that translates well really helps me with the composition of my shots when changing systems day to day.
Following on with my vague answers, lighting is more diverse than the camera options. For me personally, having a lot of lights is key. I have around 10 500 watt lights and 3 3200 watt lights. The biggest thing that I had noted was that once I was shooting for creative directors, there requests for how the image should look would eat up lights compared to working for small independent businesses. They want the glare removing in the right hand corner of the frame, but to remain in the left foreground. Out would come the polarizing gels and filters and in comes another 2000 watts of light. Then the amount of modifiers and the types of modifiers changed dramatically. Most of my light modifiers are either DIY jobs or purchases that I have later modified for specific jobs. It turns out that the shops don’t sell that many problem solving modifiers that work in a way that my clients want their images to look. Having a workbench in my studio to help me build, modify, and generally adapt my gear to do the job I need has been as important as buying the gear in the first place. Then for those who need the speed, a good t0.1 score is vital. This speed and high power pretty much puts you into some large packs and heads that cost a great deal of money, which is why the pros use such expensive kit. For me, I don’t need the speed so I use Bowens heads which are thankfully very cheap and only available second hand atm. They are very robust (most of mine are nearly a decade old) and have the features I need, which are very basic. If I shot splashes or people jumping about I would probably need Broncolor, Elinchrom or Profoto's flagship studio pack offerings, which come with a price tag that make me feel a little nauseous. Once you know what your requirements are, the choice is really quickly narrowed down, so when you are choosing, be really frank about the problem that you are trying to solve, there will be an exact light for it. Try not to buy into the marketing hype and reviews from photographers who do not do the exact same work that you do. Be sure to buy something reliable to, the lights are as important as your camera and lens.
If you are a working commercial photographer, you are probably going to want a studio. This might be a spare room in your house to work from so that your work life doesn’t pollute your home life. Or it could be a huge space that you could drive a truck into. Much like with lighting, what you need will be so obvious that you don’t really have to think too much about it. Work out the problems you face and find the solution, then you can begin the painful task of looking for a property. For me, I have an office and storage space where I edit from and hide the bigger bags etc. Then the main shooting area consist of a large open space with a pretty rough and ready kitchen (obvious requirement for a food photographer) and as my work has evolved, I am now in the process of taking on a storage space to put all of the junk I have collected over the years that I do need from time to time. The biggest change to my studio in recent years has been the workbench, which I will do an article/video on at some point. I end up having to modify so much equipment and make backgrounds so often that it just made more sense to have it out all of the time. I probably use a power tool at least once a week, so having it all out and ready to go makes a great deal of sense.
For me, a styling kit is key. This will obviously differ for each genre of commercial photography. It may be that you need nothing, or it may be that you need the full kit to strip and re brand a bottle. In my particular genre, I work with food stylists who bring their own kit, but I still keep a kit in my studio and take it on every job with me just incase something goes missing. It is really easy for the stylist to have had their scissors pinched or maybe they left a bottle of some magic potion at their previous job. I also have a few things mixed up the exact way that I like them, rather than chancing someone else's product on the food that I might not be so on board with. Making sure that the shoot runs smoothly is entirely on your shoulders as the photographer, so I like to make sure that I have all bases covered.
What do you use in your commercial photography niche?
Nice write up Scott!! Really enjoyed it! For me grip gear is very important, being able to put the lights, cameras, flags, props where you need them are crucial. Especially on location. Good tripods and geared heads are also very important for what I do.
Thanks. Yeah I have a lot of grip. Its amazing how much you end up spending on it all.
Unbelievable. Can't believe you didn't mention having a seperate phone just for your Snapchat stories.
Who uses snapchat anymore, that died years ago. hahah
I still don't understand snapchat haha
I never understood snapchat, and i suspect i never will. :-)
Imagine Instagram but... not as good. I suspect that you're just too old Scott ;)
thanks for good article
Glad you enjoyed it
I have the 5DS as well and love it, but for a lot of my work that will be limited to the web or a 17" magazine spread I still use my 7D2. I don't need the higher resolution or shallow DOF, but do need the reach. So I find the two a good complement to each other. And as frustrated as I am by Canon sometimes, I love that the two cameras are almost 100% identical in their interface and share the same battery.
Yeah the similar button and menu lay outs and identical camera batteries for Canons higher end models are really appreciated.
Oh man. The staples that I'm always buying: Clips, Clamps, Silks and Foam Core boards. I've started making my own flag frames that hold a foam-core board.
I used to look at a photographers kit and say "Woah, those lights and softboxes are legit." Now I'm just envious over how many sandbags I see people have at lot sales...
When you have a lot of sandbags, I know you've seen some shit.
I am all about the C stands and massive studio tripod envy haha. Cameras give me so little joy now days and lenses are not much further up the ladder.
I hear ya. This guy was having a lot sale near me, and I picked up 4 c’s, 6 sand bags, a boom, two rollers.
A little excessive but as you know, these things are the meat and potatoes of equipment.
I just did my inventory for my insurance company. I didn't list every individual clip and clamp but there are 105 line items which include strobe and LED lighting, grip, Sony, Canon and a Nikon cameras and a few more lenses than I need. Some lenses I use a few times a year like my 14, TS/E or 300 2.8, but when I need them, I need them. Seven (!) tripods ranging from too small to be useful to too big and heavy to carry around LoL. Most of my work is on location with cars and trucks. But I used to have a studio so there are still quite a bit more grip items than I need...but when it's pennies on the dollar I may as well keep it.
Good article and some solid, if general, advice.
I shoot interiors and, like you, use a boatload of lighting and modifiers. My “go to” are Speedotron 2400 and 4800 w/s packs and typically anywhere from 2 to 6 102 heads with various modifiers. Then there are the cheap speed light “kickers” for accents here or there. I also have two home-built collapsible 4x8 white translucent flats to light through or bounce from.
My camera of choice is the Nikon D-800. Like you, I will rent medium format for some projects, but it’s too expensive to own. The ROI just doesn’t work.
I don’t do the t/s lens thing. It’s too expensive. The only adjustment that is worth having for my work is the shift and an extra $3k for something I’ll use once in a while, not so much. The “go to” is a 24-70 f/2.8 with the 17-35 f/2.8 being a close second. I have primes too, but rarely use them.
The most important thing is really to have a good grasp of business. The equipment stuff will sort itself out over time.
Really enjoy a read about commercial photography, find it interesting to see what kit others have made along the way.
I shoot shoes, I’m still on Bowens lights too (6 heads) like yourself, they do everything I need from a flash head.
The ability to make a background or surface to shoot on is a massive point, power tools and paint are also on hand all the time.
Among the handiest ‘tools’ I use are cocktail sticks and tissue paper - they’re proven to be the most efficient way to stuff and shape a shoe correctly. I’m currently making a studio cart to tether to - it’s a mobile desk with storage for all the little handy helpers I could need for a shoot, it’s a winner!
golden rule .. get what you need every day/shoot and rent the rest.
Informative. Though, I don't believe that that Francis Francis got enough of a shout out!