Posted on February 2, 2012
One of the questions I am asked most frequently is what camera and lenses I use. So let me start by saying I really love my Nikon camera and lenses. They are amazing tools that help me make the images I see in my head a reality. But I’d like to state for the record what you already know. The camera, lenses and gear are not what make a great image – the person using it does. There are so many things that you need to pair with that great gear to realize a fabulous photograph … knowing how to compose your image and create unique art, how to capture true emotions, how to achieve proper exposure, how to nail your focus, how to process your images well, etc., etc. I do believe, however, that having the right tools to do your job as a photographer will definitely improve your final results and in some instances give you more creative freedom to get the shots you are dreaming of. I think there is a balance between “the camera doesn’t matter at all – an artist can create beauty from absolutely any gear” and “you must have the latest and greatest expensive gear to take good photographs.”
Writing this post has made me realize I have *way* too many lenses and need to sell some of them, especially since I only actually pull out about four or five of them on a regular basis (I left the most unused lenses out of the photos). Focusing on creating your art, educating yourself and growing in your photography and processing will always be the truest road to creating better photographs. It’s not the camera that makes the photo, it’s the photographer. Now, with all that said … let me introduce you to my large family of tools that do such a splendid job in helping me create my images. ;)
Note: this is part one and just about what I personally use. Part two will have recommendations for those on a tight budget and for those shooting with Canon gear. I tend to ramble and include a lot (too much?) information, so I didn’t want this post to be overwhelming. For those wanting to see what I used to use when I used to shoot in the studio (when I was forced to take my shooting indoors in the middle of our Oregon winters), see my Studio Spotlight.
Click name to jump to more information, example images and details on each item.
The camera bodies
The miscellany gadgets and helpers:
Photovision Digital Target (For Checking Exposure)
Function and Fashion
Belle in Turquoise, Lola in Red, and Stella in Gray
First, let me say that every photographer loves different lenses for different reasons. While some lenses may be suited better for some situations, it highly depends on your individual needs and style … there is rarely one “right” lens for any given need. I am a prime lens girl all the way (this is a fixed focal length lens). They are incredibly sharp lenses and we know they are faster which allows for a few things including better shooting in low light situations. They also allow me to shoot wide open at an aperture of around f1.4 when possible, which has has become a signature part of my style.
For the very reason some prefer zooms is another reason I love primes … you need to use your “feet” to zoom. For me this means I have to constantly be moving around and finding new perspectives and ways of “seeing.” I think sometimes you can get a bit “lazy” creatively with a zoom lens, or at least that is what my experience was personally. Of course others may have a totally different experience with zooms, love them for their versatility, etc. It’s a highly personal choice (and many use both zooms and primes). Remember that it very much depends on the actual lenses you are comparing … you can’t very well say that Nikon’s lowest end prime lens is going to be comparable to it’s top of the line pro zoom lens. You’ll see I only have one zoom lens in my stash, the 24-70mm 2.8, which is a super sharp and lovely lens but it’s only still in there because I’ve been too busy to get around to selling it. I used it briefly for studio only work while I was shooting with a cropped frame body. I shot with a Nikon D300 before upgrading to the full frame Nikon D700 (which is my backup camera now) – it was a lovely camera and much of my work on Flickr was taken with the D300.
Keep in mind while looking over the lenses I use, love and recommend that I shoot with a full frame camera. If you’re using a cropped sensor your experience and lens needs will differ greatly because of the crop factor. Some of this will be covered in part two of this feature.
Another question I hear a lot is what do I actually carry with me in my bag. I admit, it’s a lot (but only roughly half of what’s shown in the main photo – the other half is inside the cabinet you see my baby peeking out of). I happen to think that putting one or two more lenses in the bag isn’t going to make any discernible difference in weight or difficulty carrying the bag around (or in some cases, having my assistant – aka, my husband – carry it for me). And because I’m awful at narrowing things down I tend to carry all my favorites with me all the time. I don’t necessarily use all of the lenses I bring, and if I’m not working and at a client’s session then sometimes I haul the bag around and never even take the camera out – but at least I know I have it just in case. I tend to always have my D3s with the 85mm 1.4G on it, the 35mm 1.4G, the 135mm 2.0, the 16mm fisheye and sometimes the tilt-shift (unless I know there is no chance of taking a more “artful” photo, then I leave it behind because it’s too spendy and heavy to tote around for the heck of it). And note that I really USE my gear … I take excellent care of everything, but it’s definitely not coddled or ever left behind for fear of damaging it. This Nikon gear takes a beating and does it beautifully – it’s built to handle much rougher assignments than chasing around little ones and families.
I recently upgraded from the D700 to the D3s and just adore it. I’m finding the high ISO performance is much improved (ahhhh-mazing low light capabilities with minimal noise), and my general experience has been more accurate metering and smoother color and tonal gradations. The low light handling with so little noise is really important to me because I never shoot with a flash and love natural light … however, I live in Oregon and it’s dark, rainy and gray here 6-months of the year. Being able to crank up my ISO without worrying about noise is wonderful. The video function on the D3s is lacking for those wanting serious video, but is fun for taking quickie videos of the kids or for a “just for fun” video for clients. It also has the benefits of a much longer battery life (I rarely even think about the battery even though I always carry a charged back up with me as well as one sitting on the charger in the studio) and two storage card slots. And, finally, even though I’m not a sports photographer in any sense of the word, I love the faster continuous shooting when working with speedy little ones. Being able to shoot 9fps versus 5fps can mean the difference between getting the perfect shot and getting one with eyes closed or a finger up the nose.
I really love the D700 … I have nothing but fabulous things to say about this camera body. It also has the benefit of being much less expensive than the D3s (and lighter, however, I always used the battery grip with mine so the size difference was minimal when I upgraded). A fabulous camera for portrait photography and handles high ISO and low light situations beautifully.
The 85mm 1.4G is my favorite lens – I never go anywhere without this one. Absolutely dreamy bokeh that looks like smooth velvet with your subject popping off the background … images can look almost three dimensional when you’re nailing your focus at a wide aperture (and I almost always shoot in the f1.4 to f2 range unless shooting more than one subject). It’s also a fabulous focal length for flattering portraits, fantastic in low light and very sharp.
Following are a few examples using my Nikon 85mm 1.4G. The first was shot at ISO 200, f1.4, 1/2000 second (it was pretty bright out and right before the sun was slipping away so my shutter speed was very high). Look at that yummy bokeh (and the cute baby is pretty yummy too)! Processed with Wonderland and Picture Perfect.
Nikon 85 1.4G – shot at ISO 200, f1.4, 1/200 second.
Some detail shots turning one … Nikon 85 1.4G – shot at ISO 250, f1.4, 1/160 second.
Another example of the pretty bokeh from the 85mm – f1.4, ISO 200, 1/250 second.
Shot at sunset with the 85mm at f1.4, ISO 200, 1/500 second.
This lens is a go to lens for times when I need a good “walking around” lens and need to either be in close range of my subjects (babies or little ones that speed away from me too quickly) or need something that will capture full body shots easily and take in the surrounding environment as well. It’s a wider angle lens, and therefore has a bit of distortion that can be noted especially when taking photos at close range. This bit of distortion with children’s photos can be cute and add a bit of whimsy to the photo, but point a 35mm up close to an adult and you’ll end up with a not so flattering portrait that widens and distorts the face. I use this one a lot for group shots or for those images where you want the entire scene and story captured along with your subject. It’s fabulous in low light conditions, produces pretty bokeh and is super sharp, is my main lens for shooting sun flare shots and is light weight. It produces beautiful images and is a good “essential” lens to own.
Below are a few images shot with the Nikon 35mm 1.4G.
This is one of my favorites of my girls … shot just as the sun was going down and you can see how beautifully the 35mm did with the sun flare. Nikon 35mm 1.4G – taken at ISO 200, f1.4, 1/1000 sec. Processed with Fresh Wonderland 2.
Nikon 35mm 1.4G. Shot at ISO 1000, f1.8, 1/160 second. Processed with Wonderland.
This was definitely one of those times where my need to be up close to my subject was apparent. Yes, I’m bonkers to bring my big camera up there on a crazy fast, spinning ride … but it was so worth it to catch her expression on her very first big girl ride! Note that the lighting was horrendous (either pitch dark or neon green and orange flashing lights as we spun around). Nikon 35mm 1.4G – shot at ISO 2500, f1.4, 1/160 second.
Nikon 35mm 1.4G – shot at ISO 200, f1.4, 1/640 second.
I adore this lens. I would say it might be my favorite lens, but all things considered (like the fact that many times with babies and young children I don’t have the ability to get enough distance from my subjects) it has to remain a tie between the 135mm 2.0 and the 85mm 1.4G. It’s one of Nikon’s pro limited-production lenses, and therefore sometimes hard to find in stock (and there has been rumors of it being discontinued). It’s the sharpest lens I own and the bokeh is out of this world. An AMAZING portrait lens. It also has a specialized feature called Defocus Control. It’s been designed (and this feature is patented) for exceptional bokeh (for those who are new bokeh is the appearance of the out-of-focus areas) and helps give your bokeh an extra creaminess and smooth feel. Even without the DC feature this would definitely be my favorite lens if it weren’t for the fact that I find it a little too long for my shooting style sometimes. I like to get up close and personal with my subjects, whether it’s with my kids or my clients, so the 85mm 1.4G allows me to do this better. Otherwise, this one would be at the top of my lens loves list.
Below are a few shots taken with the Nikon 135mm 2.0.
Nikon 135mm 2.0 – shot at ISO 200, f2.0, 1/400 second.
Nikon 135mm 2.0 – taken at ISO 320, f2.0, 1/500 second.
The close up of my daughter here with the 135mm 2.0 was taken at ISO 250, f2.0, 1/200 second.
Tilt-Shift lenses are frequently used for architectural photography to control perspective, however, they have recently become very popular among portrait photographers for achieving beautiful selective focus by using the tilt feature. It’s a very distinct look and one that I personally adore. I believe it’s best used sparingly and with intention. I can tilt the plane of focus to create just a sliver of the frame as my focus point with a very unique bokeh in the out of focus areas. They are manual focus lenses and also take some time getting used to, but are really worth the extra special touch they can add to a photo.
Below are a few examples of the 45mm Tilt-Shift lens. The left photo’s settings were ISO 400, f2.8, 1/160 second. The sun was going down (evidenced by Mr. Moon already peeking out to say hello), so it was rather dark out. On the image on the right the settings were ISO 640, f/4.0 and 1/250 second.
This third example of the 45mm Tilt-Shift lens was set at ISO 800, f2.8, and 1/250 second.
Fisheye lenses are definitely a lot of fun, but a novelty lens for most cases (not that a novelty lens can’t be an integral part of a photographer’s style puzzle). A fisheye will take an ultra wide angle (most of the time 180 degree) with a very distorted, hemispherical result. I think they can really be fun for kid’s portraits because they match the carefree, silly nature of childhood and add to the personality of those shots. You really have to have a “vision” of how your shot will be and how the fisheye distortion will come into play and enhance your shot. Taking your standard portrait with a fisheye won’t generally give you pleasing results. It can produce some really artistic styles, but give a thought to *all* your surroundings because it captures every little detail. I also like mine for family snapshots when I want to take in *everything* and also stay right in the action.
And another example of a silly snapshot taken with my 16mm fisheye lens. I like how it captures every “real life” detail with the surroundings of your subject and the “lollipop head” distortion just adds to the emotion the viewer feels at seeing her happy laugh.
Not just a fabulous macro lens, but the 105mm is a great portrait lens as well. I don’t do a lot of true macro photography (such as water droplets or teeny tiny spider eyes), but I love getting up close and personal with small details. It’s a great lens for baby bits … the little eyelashes and chubby toes. It’s also fun for floral and nature photography.
Below are a few examples using the 105mm 2.8 macro lens.
Nikon 105mm 2.8 Macro at ISO 250, f3.2, 1/160 second.
Nikon 105mm 2.8 Macro – taken at ISO 320, f3.2, 1/160 second.
Nikon 105mm 2.8 Macro – taken at ISO 200, f3.2, 1/250 second.
And in this close up shot you can see the 105mm does amazing portraits.
The Nikon 24-70mm 2.8 is a really great lens if you are a lover of zooms. It’s nice and sharp, but I just prefer prime lenses and, therefore, sold it several years ago. I used it primarily for studio shots when I used to shoot in a studio with a cropped sensor camera because it gave me the extra room I needed in my tiny studio.
This example uses the Nikon 24-70mm 2.8 at ISO 200, f5.6, 24mm and 1/250 second.
The 50mm 1.4 is a fabulous little prime lens and affordable too. I tend to never use it simply because I love my 85mm and 135mm more and if I need to have more room than the 85mm gives me then I love the 35mm focal length. The 50mm is a great starter lens for those moving into the world of prime lenses and is one of the first I recommend to those who are beginning their lens collection (and I think it’s just a must have for most photographers to have in their bag – it’s a staple lens). It creates beautiful bokeh, is fast and very sharp.
Nikon 50mm 1.4G lens – taken at ISO 200, f4.5, 1/250 second.
This entire session was shot with my D700 and 50mm 1.4G lens.
Another (in studio) shot with the 50mm 1.4G.
A great macro and portrait lens, but something I only used with my cropped sensor body (which was the D300). Creates very pretty portraits as well as detail and macro shots. It’s a wonderful starter macro lens. For a full frame camera or very minute details I would recommend the 105mm over the 60mm.
Very fun little lens to play with, however, I haven’t put it on my camera since getting the tilt-shift lens last year. It’s manual focus and also takes some time playing around with finding the “sweet spot” but can be a nice novelty lens to own if you want to get artistic.
I rarely use the light meter. I first bought it to use in the studio when I was forced inside under my soft boxes and Alien Bees. If I think I’m getting an inaccurate meter reading in natural light, I’ll bring it out very rarely (I use spot metering, so I’m usually pretty right on with exposure using the in camera meter).
Three Epiphanie Bags: Belle, Lola and Stella
I don’t carry or really care for purses … I carry pretty camera bags packed with all my gear, my iPhone, iPad and small wallet (my one girly allowance is lip gloss … which my six year old uses more than I do). I love my Epiphanie bags. I have tried almost all the major brands out there. The ones I’ve purchased (and ended up either re-selling or returning) are mostly the “pretty” camera bags, but I started out with a very functional and very ugly, black Lowepro sling backpack. On family outings and sessions my husband will end up carrying my beautiful camera bag – thankfully he’s man enough to feel secure even while toting a bright turquoise “purse” with flower hair clips pinned to the side. He still begs me to please go back to the ugly, black backpack. ;)
So, I was saying how I’ve tried all the bags out there over the years and I keep going back to Epiphanie. As I stated above, I like to carry the whole shebang around with me in my bag and also need to have my lens attached to my camera body so I can grab it at a moment’s notice. The Epiphanie bags give me everything I need … lots of room, plenty of customizable compartments for whatever my needs are, easy access to my camera so I can sneak it out in seconds for unexpected moments that beg to be captured and they are gorgeous. I’ve never talked with the company personally and don’t really do “sponsor” type partnerships because I don’t want my customers and fans to ever feel like I’ve “sold out” or am just trying to plug products to them, so I am sharing all this information out of a pure love for their product.
I use the Expodisc to set my custom white balance every time I shoot. It’s super duper easy and takes seconds. I have the 77mm size disc and am lazy so I usually just hold it up to my lens (owning the largest size allows me to use it with all my lenses) and take my shot. If there is a lighting change or change in color temperature – for instance, moving from sun to open shade – I’ll take a new shot and set it again.
I love my little wristlets from My Funky Camera. I find a neck strap gets in my way and were uncomfortable for me to wear. These are an extra security measure without having a noose around my neck. She also has lovely neck straps. Even my little girl has one for her camera – and pink and sparkly is right up my alley.
I’ll sometimes use this target to check exposure … simply taking a photo of the target (subject holds the target up where they will be standing) and checking my histogram for exposure.
A handful of 32GB Sandisk CF Cards
I don’t really have a strong preference for one brand of card over the other. I do carry a handful around with me in varying sizes, my two main cards I usually keep in the camera are 32GB sizes.
A circular polarizer filter will absorb light, helping to deepen colors and take glare off water and reflective surfaces. It’s used a lot in landscape photography. I like to use it on very bright days (I usually only shoot during the golden hour, but sometimes it can still be very bright) in order to be able to continue to shoot with a wide aperture and to help keep more detail and color in my skies.
The Color Checker Passport is something I recently purchased and haven’t been able to really sit down and explore/experiment too much with it yet. It helps you create a custom camera profile for using with RAW images. I don’t use it for white balance, just the RAW camera profiles. The jury is still out on whether this was a good purchase or not … it wasn’t inexpensive so I’m hoping to see some improvements in my image color when importing my RAW files.
Miscellany Stuff – candy, wild hair tamers, pony clips, the fun sign, lamp and cabinet. ;)
You also notice I have a bit of candy (for bribes) and a few hair clips on my bag strap (I have to have my hair back and completely out of the way while shooting lest a stray hair get blown in front of the lens and ruin a shot). Other miscellaneous items include pony clips (big clamps) for everything from holding up props or backdrops (like quilts on outdoor shoots, etc.), microfiber cleaning cloths and a lens pen, some spare cash, business cards, and my usual iPhone, iPad, etc. I do have a separate bag of “emergency supplies” in my car for location shoots (which is pretty much 99% of them) which includes baby wipes, bubbles, cute toys like wooden trucks and vintage teddies, a bunch of hats and other accessories, emergency snacks for cranky and tired kiddos (I swear I never break into the Z Bars for kids, cough, cough), a reflector I never use, a few vintage cameras (adorable in tiny hands and it keeps them in one spot for a few minutes while they explore it – then even cuter when they start playing photographer with you), hair brush and hair clips, and other little bits for touch ups and those frequent mishaps kids playing will have (I even have a couple changes of clothes for the ones that explore the pond a little too closely).
For those asking … the yellow sign in the top photo with all my gear is a hand painted wooden sign you can find here. The lamp is from Pottery Barn Teen (yes, I’m just a 14 year old girl at heart). The rustic cabinet is made from old reclaimed barn wood and I found it on Haute Look.
Disclosure: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I *only* recommend products or services I love and use personally and believe will add value for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
By Annie Manning