The Upgrade Path From the Amateur to the Pro Kit

The Upgrade Path
The Upgrade Path

The Upgrade Path

While this is really a choose-your-own-adventure and depends on what kind of photography you focus on, there are some guidelines. Take a look at this list for some ideas of one good order and why, and mix it up from there based on what you need.

First off the inspiration for this piece comes from a previous comment:

“I was just reading the first look at the Vanguard Alta pro article and the first line really jumped out at me, stating that the writer recommends a tripod before many things that i would place more important. And I don’t believe that Phoblographer has done an article on essential equipment people should have, and in what order you believe should be purchased for those who can’t afford everything at once. I know this would differ from person to person, but I’d really like to know what the staff think with your experiences.”


I’m going to start with a few assumptions: I’m going to assume that you’re starting with a mid-level consumer/prosumer DSLR Kit such as a Canon Rebel XSi with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 or Nikon D3100 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6. I’m also going to assume that you will try out a bunch of different aspects of photography as you figure out what you like to shoot best and what your style is. The third assumption is that you’re not planning on remortgaging your house to support your photography and that you’re not sure how serious you want to get with it yet, so you’re planning on picking up a bigger more expensive piece once in a while and fill in your kit with smaller items in between.

Pick up an extra Memory Card or two.

Not only do you not want to run out of space before getting to download your images, do it for reliability as well. I always have a minimum of two cards on me when I shoot and I habitually rotate back and forth between them. If a card gets lost, stolen or damaged at least I don’t lose everything.

Upgrade your lens

One of the best things you can do to improve your work is to upgrade your main lens. Good options for this would be the 24-105mm f/4L with Canon, 24-120mm f/4 with Nikon. If you don’t have the money for one of these or just don’t want to spend it, the Tamron 28-70mm f/2.8 is a very good lens for less than half the price of those, gives a faster aperture and is available for both Canon and Nikon users.

Get a lens hood

If your lens didn’t come with a hood, get one for it, put it on and use it all the time. If I was a more aggressive person I would slap every photographer I see that’s not using a hood. There are times when light refracting on the outer glass of a lens is obvious and creates colored spots or halos in the image, but there are many more times when you don’t see the effects but it’s still degrading your image. There are two primary types of hoods, hard plastic and soft rubber. If you’re often in places where your camera might get bumped the hard plastic option provides a buffer before the front of your lens gets hit, while if that’s not a worry for you the rubber ones fold back when not in use and are a bit more convenient. Make sure you get the right size for your lens.


At this point it’s probably time to get a tripod. If you do still life photos or low light work you’ll use it a lot, while if you prefer working with people you probably won’t use it as much, but no matter what there will be times you’ll need one. Don’t bother with a lightweight one that will blow over with a gust of wind or be knocked over easily it’s not worth it. It doesn’t need to be super high end, just forget about the ones that are more of a danger than a help.  Of note I’ll say that by lightweight I don’t necessarily mean the tripod’s weight, I mean the weight and strain it can handle. A Gorillapod can be a great tool in certain situations, while the larger tripods that come in “starter kits” are practically useless. We recently reviewed the Vanguard Alta Pro and that’s certainly one good option.

Find the right bag

If at this point you don’t have a bag you really like, now is the time to start looking around. For day trips I’ve pretty much settled on the Crumpler Barge for a few reasons that make sense for me. The two most likely items for me to have at the same time are my caqmera and my MacBook Pro, and this is the most compact bag I’ve found that carries both. I tend to do more walking than shooting in a day so a backpack is more comfortable. The third reason is I like to put myself in situations where I don’t necessarily want to advertise the fact that I’m walking around with thousands of dollars in gear, and the Crumpler doesn’t look like a camera bag. If your camera tends to come in and out a lot you might prefer a holster or shoulder bag. If you find yourself in corporate environments there are bags that look like briefcases. Think about why you’re choosing a bag and what you need to fit in it.


Now is likely a good time to add a flash to your arsenal. It will open up and I would suggest going for a brand flash that’s at least as new as your camera. Aftermarket brands often advertise compatibility but what they won’t tell you is that there are some things that don’t work or don’t work as well as the manufacturer’s version. You can probably get any flash to give acceptable results but without proper communication between your camera and flash you’re just asking for frustrations that will probably result in avoiding using your flash.

An extra battery

Pick up an extra battery so you know you have enough power between charges. You can have the best camera in the world but if the battery is dead you won’t get the shot.

Add a second lens

By now you should have a pretty good idea of what you like to shoot most and that will dictate what kind of lens to get. If it’s nature or events you’ll probably lean towards a telephoto lens. If you like to shoot buildings and scenes you’re probably leaning towards a wide angle. If you do portraits or a lot of low light work maybe you’ll go for a prime lens such as a 50mm 1.4. Maybe macro ability is important. Eventually it’s great to have a whole arsenal of lenses, but your second lens should be dictated by what you like to shoot.

Upgrade your body

You now have all the essentials and you’ve probably picked up a bunch of other odds and ends not listed here. If along this journey you’ve become more serious about your work, you’ve also started to discover things your camera can’t do that you wish it could. My general rule of thumb here is if there are 3 or 4 things I wish it did and doesn’t or if there’s even 1 really essential feature missing it’s time to upgrade – but I don’t do it until I know why. Some of the things that inspired my last upgrade were better noise in low light and long exposures, the ability to have a vertical grip and a lot more focus points. The final move came when my body started being unreliable and I couldn’t have that on jobs. An unreliable or nonfunctioning body is of course another reason to upgrade.

The good news is that nearly everything you’ve purchased along the way will work on your new body. Put your lens and flash on your new body, maybe even your cards and spare battery are still compatible, attach it to your tripod or drop it in your bag – and you’re ready to shoot. Even better news is that if you weren’t desperate enough to make this happen or had a failing body, you now have a backup body, something that’s always great to have.


While your upgrade path may happen in a different order and there may be things you find a need for that aren’t listed here, upgrading as you know your needs and selecting equipment that will be compatible with higher end gear will help you buy each item only once. In the beginning all the options can be daunting, but by the time you’ve gotten through this list you will have a very good idea of where to go from here, what your most pressing needs as a photographer are.

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