Let me save you $3,320 on gear

Jessica Walsh (via Kottke) wrote up a nice little guide for designers on the equipment needed to take pictures of your work. It's a good resource and there are many useful links, but I think she goes way out there on the gear. Here's what she suggests: 

  • Camera: $2,250
  • Lens: $600
  • SpeedLights: $500 x 4 = 2,000
  • Light Stands & Brackets: $150
  • C Stand: $150
  • Backdrop Stand: $150
  • Seamless paper: $30
  • Camera Control Pro: $150
  • Lightroom 3: $250

For a total of $5,730!! She acknowledges that it's expensive and suggests renting or buying used gear to cut costs. Let's get more specific about that.

The camera

She's using a Nikon D300, a 12-megapixel semi-pro camera. That's a lot of overkill. If your pictures are going to be on a website, you definitely don't need that much detail. A (much) older 6-megapixel camera should do you just fine. You can pick up a used D40 for about $300 or less. If you want autofocus but want to use a lens that doesn't have an autofocus motor (more on this later), you could go even with a D50, D70, or D80 for not much more.

If you prefer Canon, any used Digital Rebel model should do. You don't have to worry about lens compatibilities.

If you want to make enormous prints (by 'enormous' I mean that you're measuring the prints in feet, not inches), hire a pro, find someone who's good at enlarging digital files, or break down and get more camera. But for day-to-day stuff in a studio, all those extra megapixels, focus points, ISOs, and frames-per-second will be wasted.

Savings: let's say you settle on a perfectly good last-year's-model camera for $650, so you just saved $1,600.

The lens

A short tele-macro lens (she's using a 60mm, I assume this one) is a good choice for a small studio. For Nikon, you can save $100–200 immediately and go for the older non-AF-S 60mm. However, if you're using a body without an AF motor (D40, D40X, D60, D3000, etc), you'll have to focus that lens manually, which can suck but might be all right given that your subjects won't be moving.

For Canon, they make a 60mm macro, but they also make a 50mm macro which will be pretty comparable and is $150 cheaper.

She also mentions (but doesn't add to the price) that she occasionally uses a $1750 24–70/2.8 zoom lens. In a studio with strobes and a seamless background you're not going to need f/2.8, so you might find that the dinky $150 18-55mm kit lens that came with your camera will do nicely. Of course, a nicer lens is a nicer lens, but in a controlled situation almost any lens will be plenty sharp.

Savings: $150 (not counting the zoom lens)

The flashes

She's using 4 Nikon SB-800s, 3 slaved in umbrellas and I assume one on her camera to trigger them. If you're not going to need the advanced TTL and wireless control that you can do with proprietary gear, you can go way, way, way cheaper. Most any flash can be fired as a slave (as in, they'll fire when they 'see' the light from another flash). You're losing the ability to control everything wirelessly from the camera, but, hey, it's a lot of money.

I mean, for pictures of static subjects on a table, why wouldn't you just set everything manually? It's not like you have changing conditions.

For this kind of setup, almost any flash with a slave mode and manual controls that takes 4 AA batteries (to keep the recycle time reasonable) could be just fine. You don't need a lot of bells and whistles. With Strobist disciples snapping up acceptable flashes left and right, you probably can't find an decent unit for less than $100.

This Vivitar flash is pretty comparable in power to an SB-800. Or pick up an all-manual LumoPro. They're $160 each, against $450 for Nikon's latest.

Actually, if you're just in need of something to trigger the slaves, you don't need an external flash on your camera; you can just use the pop-up flash. Boom, another $450 saved.

Savings: $1,520

Lightroom

Look for any photo clubs near you. Larger ones often negotiate for a group discount, which could save you $50-100 or so. Meetup.com is your friend.

You could also try Aperture, which in the Mac App Store is down to an absurdly low $80.

Totals

Conservatively, I just saved you $3,320, or over half Jessica's total. You're welcome. I suggest buying a nice tripod and ball head with the money you saved on the camera alone. Start here.

And, look, I know that good gear costs money, but a little common sense and an evaluation of your needs can save you a lot.

Am I doing it wrong?

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