Model photography is one of the most enviable activities you can publicly engage in, and for good reason, it is intensely enjoyable. While there’s no ideal set of camera gear (in fact, I don’t think it’s ever even the same from shoot to shoot), there is a set of essentials that after years of shooting models, I feel I can wholeheartedly certify should be with you on every shoot.
First and Foremost, the Camera.
Ever since I started watching photography tutorials and attending workshops, invariably I would hear something to the effect of, “And remember, the camera doesn’t take the photo, the photographer does.” Perhaps it’s sound advice to not discourage would be photographers without thousands of dollars of disposable income, but I strongly disagree! The right camera makes a huge difference. Sensor quality, sensor size, ergonomics (including features that make it more likely to avoid common errors) and durability all come along with higher priced cameras. I also believe the aesthetics of a more expensive camera also provide a psychological impact, both in your model and you the photographer. If you don’t believe this psychological impact is real, imagine how you might feel waking up around 5:00 am to prepare for a photoshoot and when you arrive, you notice a less than impressive camera. I am convinced if the camera doesn’t at least look the part, it greatly affects motivation during a shoot.
In my opinion, the lowest cost product that achieves acceptable levels of the above mentioned camera qualities is the Sony Alpha A7 II Mirrorless Digital Camera. It’s 24 MP, full frame sensor was previously the stuff of dreams at the sub $2,000 price point, and on top of that it provides 5-axis in body stabilization to drastically reduce blur due to hand shake. While it’s debatable whether similar offerings from Canon and Nikon offer superior image quality, they are more expensive, almost double in fact. The Sony also gives you smartphone integration, built in intervalometer for time lapse videos, and remote smartphone control. The Sony can be inexpensively adapted to all the best glass from the likes of Canon, Nikon and even Leica. It even has programmable face detection and auto eye focusing. Quite a value indeed.
On the downside, the body is on the small side. This is touted as a major benefit of mirrorless cameras, but for swimsuit photography, I find it’s not an appreciable gain once you add a quality lens to the camera. In fact, even the smaller 85mm lenses I use sometimes are heavy enough to make me wish for a bit more camera to grab. This ergonomic shortcoming along with my other complaint of short battery life can both be solved with the available (though quite expensive) vertical grip accessory. A more egregious flaw of the Sony mirrorless camera system vs longstanding leaders in photography like Canon and Nikon is that it only has a single memory card slot. As production costs and associated complexity increase in my photography career, I get more and more nervous about a catastrophic error happening in a given memory card. It’s terrifying to think that all the hard work of an entire team is riding on the reliability of a single memory card. I believe that is the main feature keeping the Sony mirrorless cameras from being widely accepted as a viable option for a professional photographer. After issuing that warning, I DO feel comfortable recommending the Sony for any swimsuit photographer below the most elite of levels. I can say that in two years of using the same Sony A7 II, I have yet to have any memory card issues or otherwise show stoppers. The great thing about swimsuit photography, production costs are relatively low and if a reshoot is necessary due to equipment failure, it’s not usually that much of a catastrophe.
I shoot primarily through the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Lens. I adapt this to my Sony using the Canon EF Lens to Sony E Mount T Smart Adapter (Mark IV). This lens has a cult-like following among Canon photographers and for good reason. It features buttery smooth transitions from the subject to the background, including a healthy amount of bokeh in your background. It grabs all the detail and clarity I need and more (I can see detail in the model’s iris on full body shots). It’s weather sealed and reasonably durable as well. The Canon’s versatile focal range also delivers above-average captures in almost every situation with very little distortion.
Despite the Canon living up to its legendary hype, it is tempting to examine the alternative, native 24-70 G master lens Sony now offers. The G Master lens requires no adapter and thus faster auto focus can be realized. It also has a programmable side button on the lens barrel which can be mapped to trigger the auto Eye Focus. That sounds like portrait nirvana.
Ultimately though, the Canon lens can be more readily found online or at a local camera store for a lower cost, especially when pursuing a used copy of the lens.
The only other lens I ever carry during a photoshoot is the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM Lens . The Canon 85 produces amazing clarity and contrast. It also renders portraits that exhibit proportions more closely matched to how the naked eye sees faces. In my mind, it’s the finest portrait lens available, though it is also perhaps one of the most expensive. It also is NOT weather sealed and is a total slug focusing. Still, I love using it and if possible, I greatly prefer having it with me during a photoshoot.
I think it’s possible to only carry a single lens on swimsuit photoshoots. In fact, I did for several years, relying solely on the 24-70 mentioned above. The major advantage of carrying only a single lens was that all of the valuable equipment on set is strapped to my body. This makes things more comfortable when shooting since I don’t have to keep an eye on anything. The downside is of course, as with the single SD card slot, it puts the entire shoot at risk to coming to an abrupt end should an energetic enough wave arrive unexpected. As mentioned before, I think it’s an easily tolerable risk until bigger productions render such a failure more than just embarrassing but financially or logistically catastrophic.
I keep things simple when it comes to lighting. The Selens 5-in-1 39.4 Inch Triangle Reflector with Handle is the only essential piece of lighting equipment I take to a swimsuit shoot. You can find cheaper reflectors in the world, but I would recommend buying one with a handle built in. The handle really makes a difference when used in windy conditions, but even when there isn’t a battle against wind, the handle let’s an assistant more easily orient the reflector above their head to give you a better angle of light on your model. I use the reflector two different ways during a shoot. In the early morning when the sun is rising, I pose the model with their back to the sun and I ask my assistant to use the silver or gold reflector to add subtle light to the model’s front side. I also use the reflector when there is harsh light on the subject later in the morning. I can usually get away with using the core of this reflector as a diffusion screen, but as the sun gets closer to noon time height, I use the black side to block out the sun completely. Often, I use the 7’ shoot through umbrella from Westcott for similar shading purposes. It provides professional level diffusion and covers an ample area of the scene. The downside is it becomes difficult to hold during windy days. It also draws a lot of unwanted attention. A giant white parabolic umbrella makes everyone immediately more interested in your shoot. This includes life guards and city officials that may want to ask you questions or worse ask you for a shoot permit.
Before recently upgrading to the Lowepro Protactic 450 AW, I spent three years with what proved to be a great camera bag from Manfrotto. Truth be told, I would probably still carry the Manfrotto Advanced Active Backpack I as my photoshoot companion if I hadn’t felt compelled to start carrying backup camera systems. This means not only an extra camera body, but also at least one extra lens, extra batteries, adaptors, memory, etc. Apart from not really being big enough for more than one camera, the Manfrotto didn’t really make it easy to quickly draw out my camera without completely taking it off my back. Also, I want to be able to draw out my camera without showing everyone in my vicinity my bag’s contents. Most camera specific bags are notorious for this. Maybe it’s my paranoia, but it just always feels like a bad idea to totally open up a bag and show everyone on the beach or in the airport that I have several expensive cameras, lenses, and gear in a bag I ultimately have to leave somewhat unattended while I shoot.
I was pleasantly surprised when I came across the Lowepro Protactic 450 AW bag since it provided all of the things I wanted in a camera bag plus it had a scalable exterior loop system. Additional benefits of the Lowepro include an opening system the keeps the region that touches my back off the ground. A design which also makes it extremely difficult for someone to open my bag without me noticing since they would have to physically separate my back from the bag to gain access to my gear. The Lowepro also has downpour rain protection, not less than three discreet camera draw locations and one of the largest carry-on sized backpack interior volumes available. I really enjoy the discreet appearance as well. The gripes I have with this bag is that it doesn’t have a dedicated tablet slot on top of a laptop slot. In fact, the laptop slot is cramped with a relatively slim Dell XPS 13. Also, the straps aren’t anywhere near as comfortable as the Manfrotto bag’s. Even with those drawbacks though, the Lowepro’s unique design, size, and build quality make it my go to choice.
Apart from those main pieces of gear, I bring the following on every swimsuit shoot: Sunbounce Wardrobe Changing Tunnel, X-Rite ColorChecker Passport Photo, Hoodman 2 Stage Lens Cleanse Natural Cleaning Kit (may be the best way for a photographer to spend $1), Black Rapid RS2 Sport Slim Shoulder Sling Strap, thick tooth hair comb, extra NP-450 batteries from Sony, and the UE BOOM 2 Phantom Wireless Mobile Bluetooth Speaker. A cheap, but highly useful item I also always bring to a swimsuit shoot is a set of 2” x 2” protective plastic sleeves with printed visual references inside. I started printing out visual references and placing them into these plastic sleeves about a year ago. Prior to that, I used to attempt memorize the poses for the entire shoot. I believed at the time part of my job as a photographer was to somehow organically come up with attractive poses in situ. More power to anyone that can do that, but showing a model a quick visual reference is much easier. You can also keep the visual in a sequence that keeps you on track with schedule. It quickly proved to be much easier to show a model an image versus attempting to describe a pose with words or worse, attempting to show the model by posing my own body. It only took one embarrassing behind the scenes photo of this to make me aggressively pursue a better method. In practice, what having the visuals handy on set achieves is a strong and immediate initial pose from the model. The model’s own personality eventually takes over and the pose evolves, so you shouldn’t worry that you are sacrificing originality or creativity by using visual references. It might feel mechanical when you are cutting out little images and putting them into plastic sleeves the night before the shoot, but I believe it will provide a feeling of professionalism and efficiency on set, and ultimately will help generate better results in your photography.
All together, these essentials make for a relatively lightweight and easy to carry bag. Convenience and access is what I value most from my gear during a swimwear shoot. Having to fumble around and not having gear readily available is unpleasant. It also creates a flustered feeling. I think you’ll find the more you avoid flustered feelings during a swimwear shoot, the more comfortable you and the model will be. The best way to avoid fumbling around is two fold. First, pack only essentials. Even if it means sacrificing a look, pose or idea on that particular shoot. Minimalism will not only make things that you DO bring more accessible, it also gives you less to worry about. Secondly, use gear that has a history of being tried and true. It’s worth the extra research and investment to acquire gear that won’t let you down.