A Gear Guide For Going Freelance

I’ve read the articles and postings about newspaper layoffs, and I’ve gotten my share of e-mails from former staff photographers asking for guidance. As someone who’s been freelancing for most of my career, what’s the first advice I would give to those of you striking out on your own?

Get the right equipment.

A lot of corporate and editorial assignments require portrait work, for example — which requires lighting gear. But most new freelancers don’t realize they will need more than their one shoe mount strobe.

Others may have more or less gear than what I find works best. But here are my recommendations for the equipment you’ll need to fulfill the majority of requests from potential clients.

The Basics

I am able to complete 98 percent of my assignments with the following gear:

    1- Apple 15″ MacBook Pro computer (it is my only computer, as I have no desktop at home. I have Adobe Photoshop and Photo Mechanic installed to help me with my photo editing and workflow along with Microsoft Office for Mac. Also, the Apple Care extended warranty so that my repair costs are kept to a minimum.)

    2- Canon 1D, Mark III camera bodies (recently upgraded them in early 2008 from 2 Mark II bodies that I had used for roughly 4-5 years)

    1- Canon 16-35/2.8 Series II lens

    1- Canon 24-70/2.8 lens

    1- Canon 70-200/2.8 USM IS lens

    1- Canon 14mm lens

    1- Canon 15mm lens (this is a fish-eye, which I use occasionally for a different type effect)

    1- Canon 1.4x tele-converter

    1- Canon 580EX II flash (with an off-camera shoe cord)

    2- Norman 400B portable battery operated lights, which are equipped with built-in Pocket Wizard remote receivers and have a charger that operates 110/220 electricity. (I have a Multi-max transmitter/receiver, 2 Manfrotto portable light stands and 2 umbrellas packed into a Think Tank rolling case so that I can check it when I travel. I also have a Domke sling bag packed in with the lights, so that I can carry them around on my shoulder at locations if needed and not use the case.)

    1- Think Tank modular belt system to carry the gear on me as I am shooting an assignment.

    1- Think Tank Shape Shifter backpack to carry my laptop and other small items.

    1- LaCie 320 GB Rugged portable hard drive (to back up photos and have library of photos on hand.)

    1- iPhone with unlimited data plan (my version is unlocked so that I can change SIM cards when I travel.)

I am able to travel easily with this gear, which is important for me, since in Asia I must sometimes take taxis and other public transport. When I take my lights, I can rest the backpack on top of the rolling case, and wheel both at the same time.

Luxury Items

The other items that I have, when I need them (but which you won’t need to survive) are:

    1- Canon 1D, Mark IIn camera (an extra body)

    1- Canon 300/2.8 lens (very old, use it at most a few times a year)

    1- Canon 400/2.8 lens (also old, use it once or twice a year at most)

    1- Canon 580EX II flash (this is a back-up to my other one)

    1- Unlocked cellphone that is tri-band. (This is an older phone I use in some countries as a way of getting a local pre-paid SIM card, so that if I am someplace more that a day or two, clients in that country I may be shooting can reach me. I also avoid excessive roaming charges on local calls being made or received.)

I don’t shoot sports as often as I did when I worked for newspapers and wire services. I had a 300mm and 400mm of my own then, but they were the old Canon FD style, and I got rid of them when I made a full switch over to EOS style gear following Hong Kong’s 1997 handover to China. This was the last time I ever really needed my old-style 400/2.8 for something so significant, until shooting things like the Beijing Olympics.

Can You Light?

One of the most important skills I have had to learn in my freelance work is lighting — even if this means using only one light to illuminate a subject or object. I use my on-camera flash at times with an off-camera sync cord, but that does not always make a magazine-quality portrait that a client will like.

One of the first questions I ask people who want to go freelance is, “Can you light?”

The Norman 400B’s are great for me because they are portable, and I can set them up anywhere from an office to a farmer’s field, without worrying about electricity to operate them (except to recharge the batteries).

I used to have company-issued 200B’s when I worked at the Phoenix Gazette, back when we shot almost 100 percent slide film. But even with digital cameras being able to do so much with available light, this doesn’t mean that an editor or client wants to receive a poorly or non-lit portrait. Window-lit portraits and situations can only be done so often, and a window won’t follow you around a large factory.

In my next post, I’ll discuss nine essentials (beyond your camera equipment) you’ll need to launch your freelance career.

3 Responses to “A Gear Guide For Going Freelance”

  1. I am amazed at similar our gear is, although I am somewhat less well stocked on the big glass. But I do have the wide, medium and normal zooms, plus a brand new 50D to go with an original 1D that has very low mileage. As the daily newspaper staff job and a lot of viable freelance editorial work disappeared I built a light kit. I run with a Vivitar 285HV and a Photogenic 320B. No Pocket Wizards; I use Elinchrom Skyports. Smaller, simpler, cheaper, very reliable. A couple compact stands with swivels, a super clamp, two power cords, and the ac pack for the 285HV. A shoot-thru and a reflective umbrella plus a backup flash (420EZ?, yikes!). Gels to tone one light work very well. I use colored plastic wrap -- red, green and blue. Many times you just need one light setup. At work, I use one company Norman 400B to light up big groups from, high up, front and center, shot into an umbrella, or bounced of the ceiling a 400ma. I use the same setup to shoot closeup portraits at 18mm, just drop the light and move it a few degrees off-center. Keep that Norman charger handy, 'cause you'll need it. The light is clean, professional, predictable. And with a blue muslin, two stands and a pole always laid in the car I have an instant studio wherever, whenever, as long as the wind doesn't blow!

  2. One of the reasons I use name brand items such as Pocket Wizards, etc., is cause they are easy to fix or replace. By living overseas, I am not in a position to have as many places to repair things as in the US. Also, if something breaks and I need to replace it, I can find in multiple locations in the US or at times overseas.

  3. Hi David
    How can I buy replacement battery packs for my Norman 400B in Hong Kong? Name and telephone No.if at all possible.

    Best regards


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