The other day I was thinking to myself, “man, I wish we had some extra cash lying around to just pick up and go on a nice vacation on a whim.” I complained to my husband that we’ve never been to an all-inclusive resort or on a cruise together.
But of course, not soon after I was organizing my equipment in my giant new case…. and to say I felt silly is an understatement. We’ve got plenty of cash lying around if you just take a look at our camera gear, haha!
It struck me then how far I’ve come in this little business of mine, because lemme tell you, I did NOT start out with all this fancy stuff. My first paid gigs were done with a Canon Rebel and a kit lens (the lens that comes in the box with it from the store!). I look back at those photos and can’t believe someone paid me for them, but what a blessing it was to have people go out on a limb for me. :)
Anyway, I wanted to write a post about all of the equipment I use, what I use the different pieces for, and why. At the bottom I’ll explain about how I worked up to this list from that little $300 set I started out with. I hope this can be helpful for any budding photographers out there, or even some mamas who want to step up their game when taking photos of their kiddos!
Side note: I haven’t been paid to endorse any of these items. They’re just the pieces I’ve come to love and rely on!
What I Use Now
Canon 5D Mark iii + Canon 5D Mark iv
Any photographer will tell you that these are the Mac Daddy’s of the professional camera body world (when it comes to portraits and weddings). They’re obviously hi-res and full-frame, but some of my favorite features are the dual memory card slots (so they write to both at once, saving the images if one card gets corrupted), lots of autofocus points, the quality and size of the screen on the back, and the weighty feel they have in your hand.
Canon 6D (the backup)
I used this guy as my primary body for countless weddings before I upgraded to the 5D’s, and it will always hold a special place in my heart. To me, it’s like the 10-year-old Corolla that just keeps on going and will probably run forever. Not a lot of special bells and whistles (to me) other than its excellent performance in low light, but it’s a great body to purchase if you’re looking to make the jump from crop sensor to full-frame. It’s pretty affordable, too, but only has one memory card slot.
Canon 50mm f/1.2L USM
If I had to only use one lens to shoot an entire wedding with, it would be this one. I started out years ago with the f/1.8 version, so I got really comfortable with the 50mm focal length early on. But in 2017 I made the jump to the f/1.2, and golly… I’m just convinced there’s no better lens out there. The 50mm focal length is so versatile, the images are super sharp, and being able to go down to f/1.2 creates a dreamy depth of field look while also letting in lots of light in tricky environments. When I’m doing normal portrait sessions and not weddings, this guy is responsible for probably 85% of my images.
Canon 85mm f/1.4L IS USM
The other 15% of my portraits come from the 85mm f/1.4. I just got this in early 2019, and to me it’s kind of been a “treat yo self” purchase (brownie points to anyone who knows the Parks & Rec reference :) ). I honestly didn’t need the 85mm focal length added to my kit. It doesn’t do much in that regard that the 50mm can’t. But whenever you see images that have really super dreamy bokeh and just look rich in general — there’s a chance it came from this guy. The compression the 85mm offers is unreal, keeping the subject super sharp while making the background so creamy dreamy (compression really sets apart the foreground from the background). During couple’s portraits on a wedding day, and during family sessions, I usually have the 85mm and 50mm double-strapped so I can use them interchangeably.
Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM Telephoto Zoom
Ryan and I lovingly refer to this one as “the monster.” That’s literally the only thing we call it. It’s heavy and will make your hand cramp after a while, but a game changer when it comes to wedding ceremonies in particular. The zoom, image stabilization, and quality are wonderful for ceremonies where you want to stay discreet and farther away from the altar, which is something we really prioritize. The monster also has such beautiful, creamy compression that it’s what Ryan uses during couple’s portraits time to get some fun side angles while I shoot the couple straight-on. I’ve known some people who also use this one as a primary portrait lens during family sessions.
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art
Ever shot a bride and her girls getting ready in a hotel room? Or the guys in a groom’s suite in the basement of a wedding venue? Dungeons don’t do wonders for natural light photographers. This lens is a lifesaver in dark and tight situations, and for lifestyle or newborn sessions where there aren’t a lot of windows. If you’re like me, you try to avoid using flash when you can, and the f/1.4 on this lens has allowed me to use whatever minimal natural light is available so many times. I’ve also used this wide lens for family portraits if I’m tight for space or it’s a huge group. I’m not used to such a wide focal length for portraits, but some people love the artsy distortion it creates. It’s also served me well for in-home shoots where there isn’t always enough space for me to back up in order to use my 50mm.
Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM
I used to just put macro filters on another lens for ring shots, but gosh it’s so great to finally have this lens! I just got it earlier this year, and I love how quickly it focuses, how incredibly sharp it keeps the subject, and of course how close it lets you get to the subject. When we had our daughter, I also used this for photos of her little toes and eyelashes. :)
Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L USM (Mark I)
I call this one my reception lens. I’m a big believer in prime (no-zoom, or fixed focal length) lenses, but this is a good exception. I don’t love getting on the dance floor at receptions and risking my camera getting bumped, and I don’t like being too in-your-face during the first dances and toasts. This lens allows me to stand at the edges instead of being smack in the middle of the action. I can get full shots of the room or whole groups of dancers, or zoom in on the bride’s face as she dances with her dad. Oh and one other thing this guy is good for: a good wide shot during the ceremony.
Flashes & Accessories
Canon Speedlight 600EXII-RT
Y’all… when I finally learned off-camera flash, I was like, WHY DID I WAIT SO LONG!? Maybe one day I’ll do another post on how I set it up, but I put one of these on my camera, and another one on a stand, and my reception photos now are night and day better than they used to be. The beauty of the 600’s is that they can communicate and control each other without having to use a radio transmitter, which saves lots of setup time and headache on a wedding day.
Magmod flash diffuser
Not sure if this is appropriate for my website… but honestly this thing looks like a boob. But it does such a great job of softening light and distributing it evenly, and is really easy to take on and off of the flash because it’s magnetic. If there’s ever a flash on the camera body I’m using, this is on it.
Black Rapid Hybrid Breathe strap
I love that this strap lets me hold two cameras at once so I can have multiple lenses literally at my fingertips without having to stop and change them — but it also makes it easy to unclip one of the cameras if all I need is one. I’ve found it to be comfortable and functional, as long as I don’t bump into things when I have so much gear hanging on me. :)
Reflector/ sun shade
Every photographer needs one of these. Wedding day schedules in particular don’t always allow us to avoid shooting in bright sunlight, so it’s important to have something that can block the sun if you need to keep your clients from squinting. And for indoor shoots, it’s really useful for bouncing light coming from a window so it’s not just harsh on one side of the subject’s face. I also use it for flat lays to bounce the light evenly across the wedding stationery or whatever I’m shooting. Lots of people use these for pretty much every shot they ever take, but honestly that just seems like kind of a hassle to me. I only use mine to block harsh or splotchy lighting, or to reflect side-angled light.
Growing Your Toolkit
Started from the bottom now we’re here. :)
If you have a DSLR and a kit lens of some kind and want to start working your way up, my first piece of advice would be to purchase a Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens. Affectionately and commonly referred to as the “nifty fifty,” its versatile, a great step up for portraits, and an incredible bang for your buck. I think new it’s only like $100, and the f/1.8 will make you feel like a pro in no time when you see the depth of field you can now create in your images. This is also the lens I bought macro filters for and used for ring shots for a long time.
After that, it’s time to graduate your camera body. I personally went from a Canon Rebel XSi, to a Canon 70D, to a 6D, and then to the 5D Mark iii and Mark iv. I was AMAZED at the leap in photo quality I saw between each step. In hindsight, though, I wish I would’ve skipped the 70D and just saved up to get the 6D sooner. Going full-frame is, in my opinion, necessary to create professional-quality images.
Next, I added a Canon 24mm f/2.8, which I eventually replaced with the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art. I needed something wider than the “nifty fifty” in my kit.
I made the investment in the monster (the 70-200mm f/2.8) early on, and I’m SO glad I did. I saw the need for it in ceremonies pretty quickly, and have had it longer than I’ve had any other piece of equipment. A lot of people just rent this lens for weddings if they don’t need it for every one.
I didn’t upgrade to the L-series lenses (like the 50mm f/1.2 and the 85mm f/1.4) until I had the top-of-the-line bodies first — the 5D Mark iii and Mark iv. Working up your toolkit is all about incrementally deciding if it’s time to invest in a new lens or a new body. In general, I’d upgrade a body, upgrade or add 2-3 lenses, and then upgrade the body again, and repeat.
All of this is just what has worked for me. I’m finally to a point where I love every piece I own, and my equipment makes me feel so confident going into a wedding day or a family session!
If you have specific questions about what you should invest in next, or how I like certain gear, I would love to help however I can. :)