Essential Camera Gear for Beginners

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Basic Camera Gear What camera gear is essential? This is an interesting question with a lot of possible answers. It’s going to be different for every photographer and even from job to job. The question came from one of my Twitter contacts who saw one of my photos and asked, “What gear do you think is essential when you go shooting?” I told him it depended on what I was shooting and he then amended his question to, “what do you carry with you at all times…for a beginner to use?”

In motorsports, (redneck, North American motorsports, anyway) they say, “run what ya brung.” In other words, do the best you can with what you’ve got. And that’s a good rule to live by with photography (among other things). There’s always some piece of gear that would help you get a better shot. But we shouldn’t let that get in the way of doing the best we can with what we have on hand. So if you’ve got a 4-megapixel point-and-shoot digital camera, don’t let that stop you from creating masterpieces. Know your camera, use good technique, and you will take great pictures with any camera.

Getting back to the question – if I had to choose a minimal kit for a serious beginning photographer, it would include these things: a digital SLR, a wide-angle zoom lens, a telephoto zoom lens, lens shades, a tripod, polarizing filters, and a good bag to carry them all comfortably. I own a bunch of cameras and get to play with test cameras all the time. No matter what I’m using, I like to have a focal length range of 28mm to 200mm (35mm equivalent). With an APS-C sensor digital SLR like the Nikon D60, Canon XSi / 450D, Sony Alpha A350, etc., that would be approximately 18mm to 135mm. An alternative to two lenses is an 18-200mm or other superzoom. With the Nikon AF-S 18-200mm VR, the Canon EF-S 18-200mm IS, the Olympus Zuiko 18-180mm or other comparable superzoom lenses, you can get away with packing just one lens. There’s usually some optical compromise. But sometimes it’s worth it to lighten up your kit and not have to change lenses. I love my Canon EF-S 18-200mm IS lens for ski photography and anywhere else I want to travel light.
Essential Camera Gear
Essential camera gear for a serious beginning photographer: In this case, the Olympus E-30 DSLR, Olympus Zuiko Digital 12-60mm zoom lens, Olympus Zuiko Digital 70-300mm zoom lens, lens hoods, polarizers, camera bag, and the tripod you can’t see because it was used to take this picture :-)

Polarizing filters, lens hoods, and tripods probably aren’t on the top of most beginning photographer’s gear lists. Let me tell you why they should be. A tripod will allow you to shoot no matter what the lighting conditions. If you want to get really good sunset photos, a tripod is mandatory. A tripod will also improve your image quality by allowing you to shoot at low ISO settings all the time. If you don’t have to worry about camera shake, you can use really slow shutter speeds and keep your ISO settings low, pretty much eliminating noise from your photos. Buying an expensive tripod is not necessary. A big, carbon fiber tripod with a sweet ballhead is a beautiful thing. But for the most part, a $35 tripod will accomplish the exact same thing. As long as a tripod can support your camera and lens, it’s gonna get the job done. Spend your money on lenses before you buy a fancy tripod.

A polarizer is the only filter a digital photographer really needs. Everything else can be done with software now. But a polarizer does things you can’t do with Photoshop. Without getting technical, it adds contrast, color saturation, and most importantly for most of us – makes skies darker. If you want dark blue skies with clouds that really pop, you have to have a polarizing filter. That’s the only way you get that look. Lens shades are another often overlooked piece of photo equipment. They don’t always come with lenses or digital SLR kits. But I highly recommend investing in them for your lenses. I won’t shoot without them – at least not outdoors. The obvious thing they do is help avoid lens flare when you’re shooting towards the sun or other light sources. But that’s not all they do. Lens shades also help increase saturation and contrast. This may be even more important with less expensive lenses that don’t have sophisticated coatings to filter out stray light. It’s possible that a $30 lens shade will make your photos look dramatically better. I guarantee you’ll be able to tell the difference between outdoor photos taken with and without a lens shade.

So let me go over that list again. A serious beginning photographer’s camera bag should contain a digital SLR (35mm film is ok, too), one or two zoom lenses covering a range from 28mm to 200mm, a tripod, a polarizing filter, and lens shades. If you don’t have all that camera gear, don’t worry about it. Know your camera, shoot within its limitations, practice good photography technique (Rule of Thirds, good exposure, etc.) and save your money. And yeah, rules are made to be broken. So if you wanna tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about, have at it – post your comments below. But just make sure you’re taking damn good pictures with whatever camera you happen to be packing.

Related Content:
Digital SLR Reviews
Zoom Lens Reviews
Tripod Reviews
Filter Reviews
Digital SLRs Forum

About the author: Photo-John

Photo-John, a.k.a. John Shafer, is the managing editor of and has been since the site launched back in 1999. He's an avid outdoor enthusiast and spends as much time as possible on his mountain bike, hiking or skiing in the mountains. He's been taking pictures for ever and ever, and never goes anywhere without a camera.

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  • Hollis says:

    Use Your Hoods Outside, huh.
    I just learned something :D

    Thanks PJ

  • Wolfy says:

    I need a lens shade and a polarizer. Should have done that a long time ago.


  • Photo-John says:

    You can use the lens hood indoors. I use them all the time. But it’s outdoors that they make the most noticable difference. Do a test with an without your lens hood someday and see if you can tell the difference. It’s usually pretty obvious. Photos with the lens hood will be noticeably more contrasty and saturated with deepe, richer blacks.

  • sushigaijin says:

    My “fire” list includes an extra battery and memory card. I think of it like the spare tire I keep in the car. You may never need it, but you’ll be glad you have it when you do!

  • Greg McCary says:

    I agree with all above but also feel a good ND graduate filter is almost a must for anyone doing serious landscapes. I have one mounted on my camera most of the time. I rarely if ever use a polarizer any more, only when shooting over water or wet grass. There is nothing like getting things right in the field and cutting down of post processing trying to save a blown out sky or a dark foreground.

  • Photo-John says:

    Greg -
    I am not a fan of graduated ND filters. I can do a much, much better job of masking a sky in post processing. That solid line from a graduated filter rarely matches the content in my mountain landscapes.

  • Kelly says:

    I’m always hearing people wax poetic about this magical thing called a “prime” lens. I’ve never owned one, and can’t see its advantage over a zoom lens (for my purposes, anyway — travel photography). Is a prime lens something that I should set my sights on someday?

  • Hollis says:

    if you own a Canon camera & want to see what the fuss is about,
    buy the Canon 50mm 1.8 II “prime” lens (less than $100).
    its a good tight places travel lens.
    its cheap, small, compact, and a good low light lens.

  • Photo-John says:

    I thought about including the 50mm prime lens in this article and decided against it. It used to be that most zoom lenses had poor optics. There are a lot of optical compromises and tricks required to make good zoom lenses. Prime lenses are simpler and, at least in theory, optically superior. But zoom lenses have improved a ton in the past 20 years and for most people, there’s no reason not to use them. The offer a lot of flexibility that fixed focal length lenses don’t. For many of us older photographers (I can’t believe I just wrote that), there’s a soft spot in our hearts for the 50mm prime. It’s what most of us who learned on manual 35mm film SLRs had when we started. The 50mm prime also makes a wonderful portrait lens on a digital SLR. But in the end, it’s really a specialty lens now. I can’t consider it required equipment. It’s certainly nice to have. And if you’re a photographer who wants to shoot portraits or do a lot of low-light work, than a 50mm f/1.4 lens should be a serious consideration. But do you need it? I don’t think so.

    If you want to look more into prime (fixed focal length) lenses, here’s a link to our prime lens user reviews:

    Prime Lens User Reviews >>

    Thanks for your comment – it was a good one!

  • Sime says:

    Hey Kelly, I have many lenses (10mm to 400mm) and the one I use the most is my 50mm f1.4 prime – Such a lovely lens. Borrow one from a friend, rent one… Just try one

    Must have kit? Wow, I could go on for..well… days, but I won’t… I’d say a good sturdy 50mm lens and eyes that see things differently to how everyone else does. You know, really SEE your subject (I sound crazy, I know, but next time you take a photo, before you “snap a shot” actually take the time to look at your subject and think about how to take that shot. (Does this fall into the Must have kit : Good eyes? basket?)

    All the best,

  • Mike says:


    Can the hood help with chromatic aberration? I get that with my canon 17 – 85 but not all the time. If not is there any other way to minimize that?


  • Photo-John says:

    Learning to see what’s in front of you falls more into the skill basket than the gear basket. But with you on that. One of the things that sets a great photographer apart from a mediocre photographer is the ability to truly see what’s in front of them and then put it together in a compelling way in the viewfinder. Learning to really see is critical.

    Thanks for weighing in!

  • Photo-John says:

    I don’t think a lens hood will help with chromatic abberation. That’s actually an optical issue with your lens. It may help mask it a bit by making it darker and more saturated in some photos. The best way to deal with chromatic abberation is software. Lightroom, Camera Raw, and other RAW conversion programs often include powerful tools for correcting CA, now. I’ve used the tools in Lightroom and they work really well.

  • Kelly says:

    Hollis, I’m not seeing a lens like that for anywhere near $100 or less. Am I looking at the wrong thing? They start at $199 and go up.

  • Photo-John says:

    Here’s a link to the Compare Prices page for the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II:

    Some of the prices on that page are definitely on the high side. You should be able to find that lens for under $100. It really is a great deal for a wonderful lens.

  • patia says:

    Do you worry about vignetting when using a lens hood?

    This is a good article. I used to use a polarizer with my 35mm camera, but haven’t since I switched to digital. Thanks for the reminder.

  • sushigaijin says:


    The manufacturer lens hoods shouldn’t cause vignetting. If they do, that’s a serious problem. Some aftermarket hoods like the cheap flexible rubber ones may give you issues but the lens makers design the hoods specifically to avoid vignetting.

    The biggest problem with prime lenses is that they should spoil you on image quality so much that you want to sell all of your zooms. It becomes very difficult to go back to a zoom after shooting with a really stunning prime, even if your zooms are top grade gear.

  • Charlie says:

    Would add a fast 50mm prime to the list. Its a very versatile focal range (particularly accounting for APS conversion), and its great lens for beginners to learn about f-stops on.

  • Rivman (Randy Hunter) says:

    Excellent advice Photo-John.
    As an intermediate looking to step up to DSLR from P&S cameras, I rely on the experience of those who have the knowledge and expertise to steer me in the right direction, so I’m not wasting my limited budget on gear I may want, but don’t really need to make the transition to DSLR.
    . . . much appreciated !

  • bindi says:

    I would like to add my take on the little 50mm 1.8. I am a family snapshotter and just love this lens. My canon 40D came with a 17-85 zoom which cost about six times as much as the 50mm and is nowhere as sharp. And the background blur is streets ahead with the 50mm as is low light non flash work when taking photos at an indoor church wedding ceremony.

    I saw a review before I bought mine and they said the 50mm was cheap as chips and you won’t regret buying one, so I did and they were right!

    I still use my zoom enough too, but dollar for dollar value it is not in the same league.

    Another thing for a beginner would be to buy a Blue Crane instructional dvd for you camera as it gave me a great understanding on how to operate my camera on settings other than Auto and the presets. Well worth it.

  • Maite says:

    Necromancing here, but just adding in my two cents about bags. I prefer nowadays to get a very small camera bag with lots of padding, then drag all my gear in a duffle bag (army surplus is the best I’ve found, for durability/price/quality). Usually this means I can fit my tripod in – perhaps not the most important thing if you’re in a studio or taking shots close to your car, but I’m an equestrian photographer – I’m literally tramping 10-20km in a day to get shots /and/ I need a tripod. Added bonus of it looks less like a camera bag and more like an old, used, worn-out bag. (Also, I love the look and feel! Plus, when you’re at the surplus shop you can look at the lovely boots and stuff they always have on sale. SHOPPING.)

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