What's the best equipment for fine art and cultural heritage photography - on a budget?


Photo by Rhona Taylor

I'm introducing this blog post with a question because it's the same question I asked myself in the early days of setting up my own business as a freelance fine art and cultural heritage photographer. It's also a question which will be relevant to many others working in this industry because, frankly, money can be tight and funding is hard to come by for photography and digitisation within the arts and heritage sector. Commissioners, as well as photographers, often have to find ways to get things done on a tight budget. When it comes to buying equipment for photography work, there are ways to minimise spending without compromising in a meaningful way on the end result.


Yes, there are some (very few) institutions and even individuals who can afford to buy the latest and greatest gear from brands like Hasselblad, Phase One and Profoto, but for everyone else, those are out of reach. I'm sharing the equipment I use most regularly to show that, while you do need to make some key investments along the way (lights, camera and lenses being the main three), you can certainly make work to publication standards using mid-range or even, in some cases, relatively inexpensive equipment. And yes, it is all relative, and all of this gear still requires significant financial investment over time. I'm not, unfortunately, saying that you don't need any budget to achieve professional results. This is more about sharing my experiences of working with a range of pieces of equipment, many of which are on the more affordable end of the spectrum.


Secondly, I've tried and tested every piece of equipment on this list and would not recommend them if I didn't think they were useful and appropriate for the kind of work I do. Whether it's photographing sculptures outdoors, paintings in a studio, installations in a gallery, or people and performers at events and exhibition openings, these tools have got me through my first nine years as a freelance photographer. So, let's begin.



Who cares about equipment, anyway?


In my experience, most people don't care what cameras or lights I use for my work, as long as the end results look good. Sometimes clients will ask how large they can print my photos; this happens more often when I am photographing works of art or museum collections than for events work. To me, equipment is important, insofar as finding the right tools can help me to do my job more efficiently and, preferably, more affordably.


What follows is a list of the equipment I use regularly, and some brief comments on what I like or don't like about each piece.


Where possible, I've linked to product pages for each item (via Wex Photo Video, MPB, Essential Photo, Interfit and Amazon). If an item is out of production, I've linked to similar or upgraded versions of what I use. These are not sponsored product endorsements; there are no affiliate links here. I've tried to be honest when writing about each item's pros and cons.


And without further delay, here is the list:



Cameras


Canon EOS 5D Mark IV


A great all-rounder of a camera which can handle almost any situation. If I could afford to use two cameras, I'd have one high-resolution camera such as a Canon 5DS for studio work and one lower-resolution camera such as a Canon R6 for event photography, since lower-resolution cameras tend to perform better in low light at high ISO values, and event photographs seldom need to be reproduced at large sizes. There is one thing I don’t like about the 5D IV, which is its lack of a fully articulating screen. It can be difficult to see the screen in tight corners, or with the camera on the end of a horizontal arm for overhead work. A workaround is to tether to an external monitor, computer or even phone screen, but that’s not always ideal. Apart from that, it’s a brilliant camera; high ISO performance is very good and dual card slots mean I worry less about losing work.


The Canon R5 looks very strong as a replacement for the 5D Mark IV, but it's a costly upgrade, and the 5D Mark IV still does the job very well. The 30.4-megapixel resolution of the 5D Mark IV is high enough for the vast majority of print publications such as exhibition catalogues and journals, and high enough for online use. The main situation I can imagine requiring more resolution, in terms of fine art photography, would be in the production of very large giclée reproduction prints or, very rarely, billboard poster printing. In those situations, hiring a camera with a higher resolution is always an option.



Lenses


Tamron SP 24-70mm F/2.8 Di VC USD


Like bread and butter, this is my staple lens for all kinds of things. It's almost too much of a jack-of-all-trades, and in fact, I find myself using other more specialist lenses for a lot of my professional work. But I wouldn't do without it. I've considered using a Canon 24-105mm f/4 L instead since 70mm sometimes doesn't reach far enough when photographing events. But then, neither does f/4, so I've stuck with this for now. The 24-105mm might be a better choice if I only ever photographed objects in the studio, where light is controllable and it's usually preferable to use an aperture range of around f/8-f/16, negating the need for an f/2.8 lens.


Canon EF 85mm f1.8 USM


This isn't the most flashy lens, but when it hits the mark, it produces great-looking photos. I love the 85mm focal length for candid photography, so I use this mainly for events work. It's good in low light, too, but I really wish it had a vibration reduction feature, and it would be even better if it could focus a little more quickly. On the whole, though, many of my favourite event photos have been made with this lens. You just need to be mindful of its limitations; keep the shutter speed relatively fast when not using a tripod.


Canon EF 100mm f2.8L Macro IS USM


Possibly the best and sharpest lens I use in my work. I don't use this much for events, but I use it a lot for studio photography of objects and artworks. It's good for smaller objects, especially since it has such a small minimum focus distance. It's very sharp. There's nothing not to like about it. One thing, though: it’s quite expensive. For a lower-cost alternative, you could look at a used Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Macro lens, or maybe the Sigma 105mm f/2.8 Macro. I can’t comment on how they perform in comparison, but I did use an older version of the Tamron lens for a while and it worked very well.


Canon EF 70-300mm f4-5.6 IS II USM


I started using this lens halfway through a big sculpture digitisation project which involved photographing some sculptural features on buildings, outdoors. In those instances, it was impossible to get close, so I needed more range. It's actually very sharp for its price point. I don't need a faster aperture, most of the time, with this focal range. I've also used it for bird photography and it's good for that, too. It's speedy to focus. I like it.


Canon EF 17-40mm f4 L USM


This is the only lens I use wider than 24mm. If I'm honest, I'd rather recommend one of the 16-35mm lenses, which are a little more pricey; the 17-40 suffers a loss of sharpness in the corners of the frame, and an extra mm of focal width wouldn't hurt. But it's not really that noticeable unless you view the image at 100%, especially once the aperture is stopped down to the middle of the range, which, for interiors and gallery photography, it would be the majority of the time.



Lights


CITI600 Manual Battery Powered Studio Flash (Godox AD600BM)


I use two of these, made by PixaPro, a UK brand version of Godox. The best thing about them is that they're battery-powered. No need for a mains connection, meaning they can be used and moved around easily in any location. They're also fairly powerful. The modelling lights leave a lot to be desired, so for anything requiring continuous lighting, look elsewhere. The flash colour consistency is not 100%, but it's not noticeably bad. In reality, these lights have served me very well across a wide range of different scenarios and commissions.


Godox Ving V860 II (PixaPro Li-ION580III TTL Speedlite)


The best thing about these is the Li-ION battery. So much easier than needing a constant supply of AA batteries. They're powerful enough - obviously not nearly as strong as the Citi600s. I've used them for studio work when it's not possible to carry the bigger lights. Occasionally, they are not powerful enough for this kind of work, but a lot of the time, they are very capable.



Tripods, stands, studio gear


Giottos MTL 8360B Carbon Fibre Tripod


This is unfortunately no longer in production. I'm not sure if Giottos still exists. I got this many years ago, but I remember doing a lot of research before buying it, which must have paid off because I'm still using it more than a decade later. It's a good, medium size, relatively lightweight (for its size) carbon fibre tripod. I like the lever leg locks more than twisty ones, which is a personal preference. The central column extends horizontally, but I don't use that feature much on this tripod because it can become unstable in that position. A comparable tripod now might be something like the Manfrotto 190CXPRO4, linked above.


Manfrotto 410 Junior Geared Head


A geared tripod head is the best kind of tripod head, in my opinion, for the kind of work I do. Brilliant for any kind of studio photography of collections, artworks or interiors, exhibitions and architecture. You can fine-tune the composition to the millimetre. For a perfectionist like me, that's great. I use an arca-swiss plate adapter to make it compatible with my L-bracket. Manfrotto make an L-bracket, but it looks quite unnecessarily bulky. Benro makes a comparable geared head at a similar price (slightly less expensive, I think) which is arca-swiss compatible without any adapters; I've not used it so can't comment on the comparison.


Benbo 2 Tripod


A big, heavy, clunky tripod which I really only use for one purpose - overhead work in a studio. It's so big that I can put it over an entire 1.35m background roll (on the floor) and use the horizontal arm to photograph directly from above whatever it is I'm photographing. I have no worries about it falling over. I would probably never use it out and about anywhere because of its size and weight.


PixaPro Air-Cushioned Light Stands


The PixaPro air-cushioned stands are great. They're well made and designed, and not too pricey. I use the 240cm ones for lights (in most situations) and the 300cm ones for holding up background papers with a telescopic crossbar (available separately). You can't really go wrong, as long as you also have sandbags to weigh down the legs for stability. Having said that, I've also used some poorly made light stands in the past, and it makes a difference knowing they're solid and well-built. Otherwise, they inevitably end up at the recycling centre eventually. The PixaPro light stands strike the right balance between quality and affordability.


Manfrotto 420B Combi Boom Stand


This is a big stand with an adjustable boom. It's very useful and very well made, as you'd expect from Manfrotto. Sometimes I use it just to get a light that little bit higher over a photography table, and sometimes I just use it to assist with propping objects. It's a bit of a luxury item, and you could save the expense by using a cheaper PixaPro version or having a second pair of light stands and a second telescopic crossbar. Sometimes, having a horizontal pole across a table can be useful for propping objects, if you protect the pole (and object) with some paper/foam/Plastazote, and then remove the bar in Photoshop.


PixaPro and Interfit Soft Boxes


I've used soft boxes by both PixaPro and Interfit. The PixaPro softboxes I use are umbrella-style, easier to put together when out and about. The Interfit ones are classic DIY set up with poles and speedrings. The Interfit ones in particular are very well made. The PixaPro ones feel less solid, but saying that, they've lasted me years. I always prefer to buy them with a matching grid. I've found the grids useful in some situations where it's beneficial to avoid light spillage (photographing reflective surfaces, for example).


Colorama Paper Background Rolls


The gold industry-standard in paper background rolls. I buy them in 1.35m rolls, which means I can keep the cardboard tube they arrive in for protection. Another photographer I spoke to once pointed out to me that it's cheaper to buy the 2.72m roll and cut it in half. The colour I use most often is Storm Grey, linked above. I find grey is the most versatile and works with the widest range of objects, though that's not to say I wouldn't ever use any other colour.



Bags


Tenba DNA 13 Messenger Bag


This is a recent acquisition. It's very well made and designed. My favourite feature is the specially engineered Velcro which can be opened almost silently by pulling it down, then out. Nobody wants a loud Velcro sound interrupting a performance! The only thing I don't like about it, which is nothing to do with the bag's design or features, is that carrying heavy cameras and lenses over your shoulder can quickly become uncomfortable. I'd much rather always use a backpack, but when working in galleries and museums, backpacks aren't always allowed and having a messenger bag also means I can access things more easily when photographing events.


PixaPro 120cm Quad Stand Caddy Bag


It can be tiring carrying lots of stands around in multiple bags. Other, slightly cheaper stand bags I’ve used can accommodate two stands each and started to fall apart after a year or so’s use. This is a very sturdy bag which can hold four stands. Fewer things to carry, always good.


PixaPro Medium Roller Case 81x31x30cm


A big suitcase-style roller bag that is much more affordable than some of the major brand alternatives. It holds a lot. I'm worried it's going to fall apart one day, but if it does, at least it won't cost the earth to replace it. It’s lasted a good few years and so far it’s not failed me.


Neewer 2-in-1 Rolling Camera Backpack


A bit like a large camera backpack combined with a rolling suitcase. I only have one back, so having things in rolling cases helps spread the load when there's a lot to carry. I'm not sure my version of this bag is made anymore, but Neewer makes a similar version, available on Amazon.


Chaseley Extra Large Pole Bag 150 x 25 x 25 cm


Not strictly a photography bag, but that doesn't matter. I think it's designed for camping or fishing equipment, maybe. It's the only bag I could find that is long enough and wide enough to accommodate 1.35m background paper rolls in their cardboard boxes. They are always unwieldy and awkward to carry (especially when you have two or three of them) so having them all in one bag helps a lot.



Accessories


3 Legged Thing QR11-LG L Bracket


This is a great, simple way to orientate your camera in a vertical position on a tripod head. Because of the design of the geared head I use, if you don't use an L-bracket, you end up maxing out the adjustment range on the tripod head just to get the camera vertical, and then there's no wriggle room beyond that. An L-bracket solves that problem. If you are using a Manfrotto tripod head, or any head without an arca-swiss compatible plate, you will need to buy an arca-swiss adapter to use this L bracket. I have one made by Andoer.


Giottos Rocket Air Blower


I use this a lot when photographing objects. A lot of the time, dust and debris will find their way onto the background paper. Going around with this and blowing it all away once everything is in position for a photo saves a lot of time in Photoshop cleaning it all up in post.


Sekonic L308s Flashmate Light Meter


I don't use a light meter all that much, but there are some situations where it's necessary. Photographing paintings, for example, often requires lighting to be closely balanced on all sides of the painting, and using a light meter is the only way to tell for sure that the strength of the light is matched on each side.


Wacom Intuos M Bluetooth Graphics Tablet


A brilliant tool for Photoshop work. Using a mouse is like riding a bike with square wheels by comparison.


Calibrite ColorChecker Passport Photo 2


I had the original X-Rite version of this for a long time and have since refreshed it with a new Calibrite version. They can begin to fade or get dirty over time, meaning you may need to buy a new one after a few years' use. Using the supplied software and a photograph of this colour chart, you can calibrate the colours reproduced by your camera so they more closely match the colours seen in reality, according to colour science. I always use this when photographing artworks and, basically, anything in the studio.


Spyder 4 PRO Advanced Screen Colour Calibrator


Goes hand-in-hand with the ColorChecker Passport in the sense that it takes readings from your computer screen and calibrates your display with more accurate colour representation. There's no point (or, less of a point) in having calibrated photographs if you don't also have a calibrated display. An important part of the whole process of capturing, editing and printing.


Godox X1T-C Wireless Flash Trigger Transmitter


Does what it says on the tin. It's always good to have fewer cables lying around, in a studio, or anywhere, as far as I'm concerned.


Lastolite 75cm Gold/Silver Reflector


A classic foldable, pack-away silver and gold reflector, which I've had since my BA days. If I got another one, I'd get white and silver, as I don't find gold very useful for studio work, personally. I use it occasionally to lift shadows when photographing objects. I've used mirrors before, as well, for a similar purpose (more for highlighting than a shadow lift), but these are not so easy to carry around.



Finally...


When budgets are tight, another way to save a bit of cash is to buy your equipment second-hand. MPB and Wex Photo Video both offer a good range of used equipment. This is arguably also much better for the environment than always buying new gear. I would go for the best condition I can afford, ideally 'Like New' or 'Excellent', and if it's a camera body, look for a low shutter count, as well.


There are many other things which didn't make this list, all of which come in useful every now and again for different reasons. These are the things I turn to most often in my work, in the largest range of scenarios. I hope, if you've made it this far, this is helpful or interesting in some way. If it isn't, why are you still here?!