This lesson is part of the How To Photograph Life – FREE Course. To see the full list of lessons, and learn more about the course, click here for the index.
I’m lazy. And I don’t just mean that our pizza delivery guy has started asking “What? You don’t want to cook again?” every time he shows up. Seriously, guy!
What I mean is that if my camera is upstairs, and I’m downstairs, my kid better be doing backflips (and real ones, not those pretend toddler ones) if I’m going to be hauling my butt up there to get it.
And so brings me to one of my very biggest challenges with documenting my life (and a challenge I know vexes many other photographers): actually having a camera on hand to capture those moments when they happen. So simple. And yet so very very tough.
Part of the solution is indeed finding the motivation to get that camera out, as we just discussed in the last lesson. But the other half is having the right camera. And the right gear. So in this lesson, we’re going to chat about the big ideas behind the camera gear you need for capturing your life, when each type of camera excels (and when they don’t), other types of gear that you’ll find handy, and what we’re rocking in our own camera bags these days.
The Big Ideas
When it comes to choosing the gear that you’ll use to take photos of your adventures and your everyday, it’s a tricky balancing act. Some like to say that the best camera is the one you have on you. I think this doesn’t paint the whole picture. You get to choose which camera to take with you, or have nearby, so which one to grab?
Here’s what I think:
You want to pick the camera that is convenient enough to actually bring with you, while still producing images that are high enough quality that you can print out and enjoy for years to come.
Later on in this course we’re going to dive deep into printing, and all the joys it will bring to your life, but let’s just leave it at this: you’re going to want to print these photos, so as much as that old school camera phone is easy to carry, and the photos look decent enough on the screen, it might not hold up when you’re actually trying to print the image at a reasonable size.
Now the sweet spot between quality and convenience will be different for everyone. Some can manage to carry their DSLR everywhere. Others (like wimpy old me) cannot.
So what to do? How to balance it all? Well, I can be sure that down the road you’re going to care more about moments captured than megapixels used. So don’t think that you don’t have a good enough camera to do serious life documenting with.
But the balance is: don’t get too lazy. The resolution on computer and phone screens is increasing rapidly. Soon your images are going to look pretty low quality if you’re using a low quality camera. Remember: this is your most important assignment. Take it seriously, and use the best gear you reasonably can.
Now let’s look at the different options out there.
Where Does Each Camera Excel?
One key to effectively documenting your life is choosing the right camera for the right scenario. So let’s take a quick look at the main types of cameras, and what they do best.
The big kahuna. DSLR stands for digital single lens reflex. These are the big black camera bodies that can have different lenses attached to them. They’re pricey, heavy, and, in a word, awesome.
- Best image quality
- Manual controls let you adjust the look for full creative control, and quickly handle tricky light
- Interchangeable lenses give you more variety
- Multiple lenses takes up lots of space in a bag
BEST SUITED FOR:
The DSLR shines in tough situations – low light, fast action, or subjects that are very far away. Since you have more variety in lens selection, it works particularly well when shooting portraits, allowing you to choose a lens that’s more flattering for faces.
Pull this guy out when you’re shooting in tricky situations, or wanting to be certain you can create top notch images.
OUR TOP PICKS:
The Canon 6D and the Nikon D610
The everyday carry. Camera phones are quickly improving in quality, and offering an incredibly convenient method of documenting your everyday life.
- Small size
- Easy to share images
- Quality is variable, from bad to pretty good (but not as good as a DSLR)
- Often hard to adjust settings on stock camera apps
- Don’t have interchangeable lenses, limiting variety
BEST SUITED FOR:
Camera phones perform best in ideal conditions – good light, generally outdoors, with subjects that are close to medium distances away. They are also ideal for shots where you want a wider depth of field (more in focus).
They really shine in situations where a large camera may be impractical – say, for a quick trip to the grocery store, or out to dinner with friends. These are times when a great photo may be had, but you don’t want to bring the DSLR. Perfect for a camera phone.
OUR TOP PICKS:
A newer breed of camera: a mirrorless lacks the physical mirror of a DSLR, giving you great quality in a much smaller package.
- Smaller than DSLRs (easier to carry around)
- High image quality
- Manual controls give you full creative control and the ability to handle tricky light quickly
- Interchangeable lenses give you more variety
- Slower autofocus compared to DSLRs
- Most systems don’t have the same variety of lenses as DLSRs
- Some options don’t have sensors as large as big DSLRs, limiting image quality a bit
- Smaller size sometimes comes at the expense of good ergonomics
BEST SUITED FOR:
These cameras are quickly becoming a fantastic option for documenting life. Smaller than the standard DSLRS, while retaining great quality, they offer the best of both portability and quality. Though they don’t have the same range of lenses available, they are quickly expanding and are definitely worth looking at.
OUR TOP PICKS:
The Olympus OM-D E-M5 MKII and the Sony a5000
The inbetweeners. More than a camera phone, but not quite as much as a mirrorless or DSLR. It’s hard to find a spot in the bag for these guys anymore.
- More variety than a camera phone, with zoom capabilities
- Bigger sensors than a camera phone, so generally better quality and low light performance
- More control over settings than a camera phone
- No interchangeable lenses
- Generally slow lenses (don’t let in much light)
- Larger than a camera phone, so not as pocketable
- Not as many controls as a DSLR or mirrorless
BEST SUITED FOR:
If all you have is a point and shoot or bridge camera, don’t despair, they’ll do just fine. But these days we have a hard time recommending these guy when camera phones and mirrorless cameras are better for portability and quality, respectively.
An exception is the Sony RX100IV, a premium point and shoot that has incredible image quality, in a small package. Last year we travelled to Rio de Janeiro, shooting with nothing but the RX100III (the earlier version). Read more about that here.
OUR TOP PICKS:
The Sony RX100IV
Travelling with the Sony RX100
This little camera delivers great colour, contrast, sharpness and an impressive lens! All in a teeny-tiny package.
What I’m Shooting With
So, as I alluded to in the previous lesson, my own gear has changed very recently. When I was writing this course, I was shooting mostly with my iPhone 6s.
These days we usually have our arms full with two young children (and all the assorted paraphernalia they come with). So small size is a high priority while I’m out. The iPhone seemed like the best bet (and had the price tag to boot) But, to be honest, I just wasn’t thrilled about the quality. It’s not the easiest to shoot with, especially in tricky light, and when we would zoom in, we were disappointed with what it was doing to the files (a weird mix of over-sharpening and over-smoothing, getting rid of lots of detail).
But after spending countless hours working on this course, I found a renewed passion for doing this work. So I asked for a new camera for my birthday. After much research, I settled on the Olympus OM-D E-M5 MKII with the 17mm f/1.8 lens.
It’s a camera that was never on our radar, because it’s a Micro 4/3 sensor. That’s much smaller than our big DSLR, so we figured the reduction in quality wasn’t worth it.
But the more I read about this little guy, the more I was intrigued. It has a ton of devoted fans for a very important reason: it’s fun to shoot with.
Yes, that’s what sold me. I want a camera I enjoy using. One that makes me happy to pick it up, and excited to go out with it in my bag.
And I’m thrilled to report that this one definitely measures up in that realm. It’s a joy to use, and has all sorts of amazing features that make shooting so much easier.
I’ve also been very pleased with the quality of the photos. Are they as good as the ones taken with my huge DSLR and expensive lenses? No. But am I getting more shots, that will look beautiful when printed at any reasonable size? Definitely. That’s what it’s all about, after all. So here’s what’s in my bag.
My Everyday Shooting Kit
Here’s what I’m carrying around every day to document life. The main camera is the Olympus OM-D E-M5 MK II, with a 17mm f/1.8 lens, and a Peak Design Slide LITE strap. I also use the iPhone 6S. I carry a LensPen and microfibre cloth to keep things clean, and a pen and my Photography Logbooks for notes (grab the Logbooks free here). And also, apparently, a tiny toy rhinoceros. You can never be too prepared. I carry it all in a Kelly Moore camera purse.
Our Gear When Travelling
The gear we take when travelling constantly changes. In India, we brought everything and the kitchen sink. Serious. We had multiple bodies, huge zoom lenses, a tilt shift, a macro, external flashes…That was a mistake.
In Peru, we took less, but still a lot. Big DSLRs, a bevy of lenses, and tons of film gear as well. We got a lot of amazing images, but it was definitely a burden to carry it all.
Now that we have kids, we’ve had to really cut back on what we carry. In Rio de Janeiro we took only a point and shoot, mostly because we were nervous about walking around with big expensive-looking camera. The Sony RX100III that we used took amazing photos, and we didn’t regret it. But it was certainly limiting.
Our last trip was to Hawaii, and we brought the point and shoot, along with our DSLR, the Canon 6D. We brought a few lenses, and really enjoyed using the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8. This mix of cameras let us easily carry one around wherever we were, and then break out the big guy for more serious shooting.
We’re still not sure what we’ll take next time (now that we have TWO children to pack for). We’re moving towards mirrorless, and will probably soon switch over to that. It’s lighter, and is quickly catching up with DSLRs in almost all ways.
Lenses for Life
If you have a camera that lets you change your lenses, you’ll find yourself in the position of trying to decide which ones to buy, and which ones to keep on the camera. I’ve tried a very large number of lenses in my day, but ended up selling a good many of them. There are two, however, that I will never part with, and that I think are ideally suited to documenting life:
This focal length is just magic. It’s slightly longer than what we normally see, so the images look a little different than real life. That’s a great way to help your photos stand out. Plus the 50mm comes in a variety of flavours when it comes to the maximum aperture. My favourite is the 50 mm f/1.4. It has a wide enough aperture to get amazing depth of field, and shoot in low light, while still being affordable. I’ve shot with the 50mm f/1.2 and didn’t find it to be all that different (though that’s just my own opinion, lots of folks love that lens). If the 50 f/1.4 is out of your budget, the 50mm f/1.8 is crazy affordable and definitely a great place to start.
A perfect everyday shooter. This is the lens that lives on our DSLR, and rarely comes off. It’s wide enough on the wide end to get shots of a whole room, and long enough on the long side to get a really flattering portraits, or zoom in when my subject is far away. I shoot with the Canon 24-70 f/2.8 MKII, and the f/2.8 means I can shoot in pretty low light too. The color and contrast on this particular lens is fantastic, meaning I have to do very little post-processing (if any), which saves me tons of time. It’s not a cheap lens, but it’s definitely been worth it for me.
A portrait taken with the nifty 50 at f/1.8. I love this lens, and nearly cried when Rob once dropped mine on the ground. (He bought me a new one, then I was happy.)
A wide angle helps you get more of the scene in the frame, and is incredibly handy when shooting indoors.
The longer focal length is great for portraits – it is flattering for faces, and helps to create the appearance of a shallower depth of field, making the subject pop.
Here are a few other pieces of gear that we have found useful:
Life may be messy, but your camera shouldn’t be. Use a rocket blower to get dust off the lens and sensor, a micro fibre cloth to clean the body, and a lens pen to keep that lens free from dust and smudges.
Memory cards and batteries
You can’t have too many memory cards and batteries when it comes to documenting life, and especially when traveling. Missing a shot because your card is full, or the battery dead? Yep, you’ll regret that moment for years to come. Stock up on these. We like to use super large memory cards in our cameras so that we don’t have to change them often (but we still upload the images frequently to avoid loosing them)!
As I’ve mentioned, if you want to do a great job of documenting your life, you need to have your camera with you at all times! A great camera bag will help you with this, by keeping your camera easily accessible, and always on your shoulder. Right now I use the Kelly Moore camera bags because they double as a purse, so I can get it all done. They’re on the heavy side, however, which isn’t my favourite. When traveling, we often use a regular backpack, and put a camera insert into it, so that we can have the space of the backpack, and the protection on the gear. Whatever you do, test the bag and think about all the things you’ll need to carry with it. We’ve gone through so many camera bags looking for the perfect one. It remains elusive, but we’re still looking for it.
We’re going to talk later about the importance of getting yourself in the shot. One great way to do this is by having a remote for your camera. We use this guy: the Vello Shutterboss. A bit pricey, but reliable and easy to use. It lets us take a ton of self-portraits without having to run back and reset the camera.
I have a love/hate relationship with tripods. They are so big and heavy, and that really lessens my likelihood of using them. But when we do lug one along, we’re often very glad we did. They can be especially useful doing self-portraits, which is something we’ve come to do more and more of as a family. For us, we like the meFOTO line. We brought the Roadtrip to Hawaii. It’s light, and, very importantly, compact.
A lot of folks will buy an external camera flash when they first get a serious camera, thinking that it’s necessary. While I used a flash all the time as a wedding photographer, now that my main subject is my life, I haven’t used one in years. They can certainly help add some great light to a dim room, but at a cost: they are intrusive. Unless you already have one, I’d hold off on investing in one. Chances are, once you learn to work with the available light around you, you’ll find you don’t really need it.
Rob and His Trusty Tripod
On our recent trip to Hawaii, Rob brought along a tripod so that we could grab a few family portraits. It added bulk to our bag for sure, but the results were worth it!
Remote Shutter Release
Rob also brought along a remote shutter release, so that he could snap the shot remotely and save himself from having to run in and out of the frame.
The results? Irreplaceable family photos that we love!
In my eyes, the most important quality with your camera gear is trust. Simply put: Can you trust your camera to get the shot you want, with the quality you need?
I’ve used a lot of cameras that I just didn’t trust. They either were too clunky to control, leaving me to watch the moment pass by as I struggled to get my settings. Or I’d get the shot, but ultimately be disappointed in the quality when I went to view it on the big screen or print it out. Both situations were very disappointing, because, as you know, we often just get once chance to capture the moment. When I find myself not trusting my camera, or often becoming frustrated with it, I tend not to bring it out as much. And that’s sad.
So don’t let your gear limit you. Find a camera you trust and that you’ll take with you. You might find the ideal situation is to have a couple different cameras (a great camera phone, and a mirrorless for example) and then choose the option that best suits the situation.
Whatever you do, get your gear out, and shoot with it – lots!
P.S. If you want more gear talk, we got you covered! We have a super extensive Recommended Gear List, as well as our free Ultimate Guide to Buying a New Camera. Check them out!
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- The Creativity Field Guide
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Coming Up Next…
So tomorrow we’re going to shake things up. We’ve been talking about photography (of course) but now we’re going to go to a new realm – video. Yep, video is an incredibly powerful way to document your life, but it requires a different mindset than photography. Get ready for a super duper crash course! Don’t miss it!
Learn how to stay motivated, and keep clicking, even when your brain and your body are fighting against you.
Get a crash course in how to use your camera to create videos and start documenting your life in an exciting new way!