The following advice is specific to Australia. Most Western countries have similar structures and the broad principles are similar. However, you should consult your own advisers for specific information.
Writing an introductory article on what equipment a professional photographer needs is like suggesting what someone should eat for dinner. There is no single - or simple - answer. It depends on what type of photography you shoot, what type of photographer you wish to be, and the market in which you wish to work.
Some of our most respected photographers began their careers with average quality, second-hand equipment and worked their way to the top. Others began in well-equipped studios and have always used the best cameras and lenses. However, most successful photographers end up using good quality equipment and that should be your aim as well.
Equipment alone does not make you a good photographer, but in professional photography it is just as important to ‘appear' professional as it is to be professional. While we might know the capabilities and limits of different types of equipment, our clients probably don't and so a big, professional looking camera may get you more jobs more often than a great portfolio full of sensational images, depending on your client base.
Some photographers will tell you to spend less on equipment and more on marketing or taking your clients out to lunch. Others will argue that by using the best equipment money can buy, you will attract a better calibre of customer. And if you can't afford to buy, borrow or lease, rent it on a daily basis if necessary.
So with this in mind, what equipment should a professional photographer own? Here's one recipe.
A digital SLR is a must, preferrably one that is ‘larger' than the model owned by your client. The current crop of 12-megapixel DSLRs can produce sufficient quality for over 90 percent of professional photography, but note the word ‘sufficient'. Photographers in high-end advertising and commercial photography may have clients who view ‘sufficient' as less than satisfactory. If this is the area you wish to work in, then a top of the range DSLR (21-25-megapixels) or a medium format digital back (22- to 60-megapixels) may be required.
Some wedding photographers claim that anything larger than 8-megapixels takes too long to process and is overkill for a wedding album. This is an arguable point - wedding photographers used to offer both 35mm and medium format, so there is definitely a market for high-end digital wedding capture as well.
Is there still room for film-based cameras? If you're starting out, the short answer is no. Certainly shooting with film can set you apart from the competition, but for 99 percent of new photographers shooting standard professional work, digital is the future and your clients will expect you to shoot with it.
The quality of your images is dependent on the image sensor and, just as importantly, the lenses. When preparing a budget for your equipment acquisitions, spend as much as you can on good quality lenses.
Constant aperture f2.8 zoom lenses are considered professional by our clients and should be considered a minimum standard for a professional photographer; purchase prime lenses with wider maximum apertures (f1.4 or f1.2) and you'll impress your clients even more.
Of course, good quality lenses cost a lot more, sometimes four to ten times more than a consumer-quality lens. Spend the money. While the cameras may be updated every year or so, good quality lenses will still last you a lifetime.
Wedding and portrait photographers can probably get away with a simple lighting outfit if they intend to shoot everything with available light and on location. Commercial photographers, however, will probably need something a little more substantial.
An on-camera flash for a DSLR can solve most of your problems, especially if it is used off-camera and with light shapers (such as a softbox or an umbrella).
However, once again we need to consider how we can differentiate what we do with what our clients can do with their own cameras. Very few of our clients will have or understand studio lighting. And studio lighting used expertly can produce a marvellous, distinctive result.
Most professionals should consider a basic studio outfit comprising two or three flash heads, an umbrella, a softbox, a snoot and some barndoors.
Monobloc heads might be more sensible than floor packs if you intend to work on location, or consider a portable model that runs on high capacity batteries as well as mains power. Once again, a good lighting outfit will last you many years.
Buying a digital camera outfit is just half the equation. In addition, you need a fast, powerful computer that can handle lots of large image files. Both Windows and Macintosh systems are used within the profession and most of the software can be purchased for both platforms. The choice is personal - but you can probably buy more power more cheaply with a Windows machine.
Most photographers need both a studio desktop computer and a laptop for working on location. In addition, you'll need a quality computer monitor, a colorimeter (to calibrate and profile the monitor), high-capacity storage (probably hard disks or maybe Gold DVDs) and a host of other peripherals.
An essential part of every job you do is to back up your files. Ask for advice, set up a workable system and stick to it. These days there is no excuse for losing files - it's just as bad as losing your negatives or trannies.
Just as you wouldn't want someone to use your photographs without paying for them, so you should be prepared to pay for the software you use.
Photographers need Photoshop. There is no other choice and you might as well buy Adobe's Creative Suite and learn how to use InDesign, Acrobat and Bridge as well. Adobe Lightroom is another useful tool, but not an alternative for Photoshop.
Other software can be purchased as the need arises - such as CaptureOne for high-end RAW file processing and ProSelect for portraiture sales and processing.
An accounting package like MYOB will help you produce your invoices, keep track of your expenses and prepare your BAS returns. Owning MYOB doesn't mean you have to use it - be sensible and hire a beancounter to help.
Not all photographers will need an inkjet printer, but given the price, it makes sense to own one. Epson and Canon have a range of good quality printers that can produce everything from proof prints to wall murals.
The advantage of owning a printer is that you can produce prints yourself if the need arises. However, busy studios will either hire staff to run the printer for them or continue to send their printing work out to a lab or bureau.
Don't forget to keep a supply of inks and papers.
So, with all this equipment, do you need to own or rent your own studio space?
Many photographers work from home or a small office, hiring studios when required. This has been a common approach in Europe and the States for many decades, and is now much more acceptable in Australia and New Zealand too.
However, simple mathematics comes into play if you are a busy photographer: if you're renting a studio on a daily basis, say two or three times a week, chances are you could rent your own space 52 weeks of the year for less (depending on a lot of factors).
The information in this article is general in nature and should not replace personal advice given by your own legal and financial advisers.