Building Your Non-Profit Camera Kit

Photography (and video!) tips for non-profits, community colleges, and other organizations on a budget.

Photo credit: @abrandbox

Scroll through any blog about or marketing, and you’ll likely find advice somewhere about “niching down.” Brands with the strongest audiences stick to a message and seek to answer questions and solve problems for the people that follow them. Specializing in something is at the crux of creating and maintaining an engaged audience.

Unfortunately, this mentality can drip into the content creation side of the business, especially at the local level. Non-profit organizations or community colleges are often strapped for cash when it comes to hiring power. This means staff must stay up to date on a variety of skills to ensure the organization can have an effective presence across all platforms. Ad runners need to know some web development. Writers need to shoot some video.

Most of these skills are honed as simply as downloading a new program like Notepad++ or remembering to hold phones horizontally over vertically for certain shots. But when it comes to creating compelling content for social media, shooting on a phone might not cut it.

Learning digital photography doesn’t have to be daunting. Arguably the hardest part is figuring out which gear to use, and how not to break the bank in the process. With just a few pieces, you can start producing high-quality social photos and videos sure to wow your audience.

The Camera

Full disclosure: I’m a Canon fan. I got my start shooting on Canon’s and continue to do so now. That said the camera body you choose might be the least important part about your gear. Don’t get me wrong, depending on your budget, you can see noticeable differences between camera bodies. But I’ve found that knowing the gear you have is infinitely more useful than splurging on a $10,000 piece of rubberized plastic.

For smaller organizations looking to conquer both photography and video, a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera is the way to go. Having the option to both take stills and videos in one package is essential for budget conscious users, as well as those looking to keep their gear bags light.

The Canon EOS Rebel SL3 clocks in at a $599 MSRP — which means used bodies can be found cheaper. It’s intended to be one of Canon’s beginner focused models, capable of both 4k video in the brand’s smallest package to date.

Helping to keep costs down in the SL3 is the crop sensor. Essentially, DSLRs are marketed with three types of image sensors: full frame, crop, and mirrorless. Full frame sensors are the largest and are often geared towards professional or “prosumer” users. They provide a wider field of view and better low light performance.

Mirrorless cameras are relatively new. Rather than using a mirror to reflect what the image sensor sees into a viewfinder, mirrorless cameras use a panel on the back of the camera to display their images. This format has earned notoriety for being lightweight, cost friendly and great for video, at the expense of having fewer options for lenses and accessories.

Crop sensors then, are a personal favorite of mine and one that bridges the gap between full frame and mirrorless. Unlike mirrorless cameras, crop bodies like the SL3 have access to a larger range of lenses. In Canon’s case, that means using both EF (original line) and EF-S (crop sensor) lines of lenses.

For a media team at, say, a community college, a crop sensor camera can be effective for a variety of shooting situations. The smaller size of the crop sensor technically increases the focal length of lenses. In the case of the SL3 and the rest of Canon’s crop lineup, the sensor introduces a magnification factor of 1.6. Thus, a 50mm lens becomes an 80mm, a 200mm becomes a 320mm.

So, depending on which lenses you choose (more on that later), you can potentially streamline your gear for more situations, including sports, events, portraits, or landscapes.

The Camera: What to Look For

One of the key metrics to look for in picking a camera is the autofocus system. The SL3 features a 9-point system, with eye detection in video mode. This means that you can ensure that your video will stay sharp even without an innate sense for manually focusing.

Other considerations include the camera’s frame rate, measured in frames per second (FPS), which determines how many stills per second it can take. Something like the SL3 can manage five FPS, which should suffice for most situations. Depending on your niche, sports and wildlife might prove more challenging, with fast moving subjects requiring a higher FPS, but learning to follow the action can supplement any limitations set by the camera.

Beyond the SL3, Sony’s α68 and Nikon’s D5600 also feature solid performance at a sub $1,000 price tag. Personally, I’ve taken to shooting on the older, Canon 7D Mark II (discontinued in 2019), which features a 65-point autofocus system (I shoot a lot of sports).

Lastly, there is NO shame in renting or buying used camera bodies. Depending on your organizations needs and strategy, renting could prove useful, cutting costs when projects demand certain gear while ensuring they don’t rust away in a cabinet.

Canon EOS Rebel SL3: $599

Sony’s α68: $599

Nikon’s D5600: $599

Which Lenses Should You Pick?

Lenses are where the bulk of your investment in photo and video lay. High-end glass can easily rival the cost of the camera body. (Check out Canon’s $13,000 800mm lens that you could plop on to your $600 camera body).

There are features that can impact the cost of your lens, with many manufacturers offering higher and lower tiers depending on your price point.

First, the focal length of the lens, indicated by millimeters (mm) is the basis for your lens purchasing. Essentially, the higher the number, the longer the lens’ range. Images shot on a 200mm lens will appear closer than those shot from the same location on a 50mm lens. (We can get more complicated but that’s not important for now).

Next, let’s talk aperture. The aperture of a lens, represented by a whole or decimal number, denotes how much light is let into the sensor. Specifically, it is a ratio of the lens’ focal length to the diameter of its optical opening.

Essentially a lower number means the opening is wider, which lets more light into the camera and allows for a shallower depth of field. This impacts things like the blurring the background (or the effect “portrait mode” on phones creates) as well as improving low light performance.

The top image was taken at f/1.8 while the bottom was snapped at f/8. Notice the background of the upper image is blurrier than that of the lower.

When buying a lens, you’ll see the number displayed in one of two ways:

f/3.5

f/3.5–5.6

The former is reserved for prime lenses, which are set at single focal length, or zoom lenses with a fixed aperture (Like the Canon 70–200mm f/2.8)

The latter designates the aperture over the lens’ range of focal lengths. For example, Sony’s 28–70mm f/3.5–5.6 has an aperture of 3.5 at 28mm and 5.6 at 70mm. The lowest setting for the focal lengths in between those end points will be somewhere between 3.5 and 5.6.

Beyond focal length and aperture, you might also consider features like the type of motor in the lens, or whether it features image stabilization. These can be important considerations, but for a standard kit, I find covering a range of focal lengths is key.

In my experience in higher education, in which my photographic assignments range from headshots to lowlight events and sports, I’ve found three focal lengths that travel in my bag no matter what.

First, the EF 50mm F/1.8 has been my go-to for shooting company portraits for employees and athletes. At $125, its f/1.8 aperture is great for separating my subject from the background.

Next is the EF 24–70mm F/4, which I use whenever I need a catch all solution. The 24–70mm range gives me options for wide, group shots, as well as a modest zoom for podium close ups and candid photos. The F/4 aperture performs great during well-lit events and is half the price of the F/2.8 variant. (Lowlight performance could be better, but that is a consideration to make based on your shooting space.)

Finally, the EF 70–200mm F/2.8 IS II USM is the monster of the group, performing outstandingly for both athletics and night or theater photography. This is the priciest of the bunch, coming in at $1,800 new, though alternatives made by licensed manufacturers like Tamron or Sigma can drop that price significantly (more so if you buy used)!

You may have noticed some letters at the end of that last lens. With Canon lenses, IS refers to image stabilization, while USM refers to the UltraSonic Motor. Depending on your shooting conditions, image stabilization can be a worthwhile investment, particularly if you shoot in darker areas or are unable to use a tripod or monopod.

USM, which further raises a lens’ cost, increases its autofocus speed. Again, if sports and wildlife are your forte, a true ring USM lens can be worth the price of admission.

Alternatively, for video, STM lenses, which stands for Stepper Motor, are a solid choice for their smoother and near-silent autofocus. If you are shooting video with the camera’s on-body microphone, an STM lens like the EF-S 18–55mm F/3.5–5.6 can be an affordable option for video heavy departments.

Tripods

Have you ever heard that saying, “don’t cheap out on anything that separates you from the floor”? Well, think of your tripod like that, just for your camera.

My daily driver is this 61-inch Manfrotto tripod. It features a hybrid head, allowing me to mount either a digital camera or a phone with the swappable, snap-in foot.

Though a tripod is essential for most organizational video situations — you probably don’t want to handhold a series of testimonials or an address from your company president — there are options depending on both your budget and needs.

Flexible tripods, like the Joby GorillaPod, provide opportunities to mount your lightweight cameras in a variety or positions. These are great for shooting in small spaces, or when you to photograph something steadily from an unconventional angle.

You can also invest in gimbal head tripods, which are preferred for action or wildlife photography and do wonders (or physics) when balancing larger, more expensive lenses.

What’s key is that you know just how much your gear weighs, and whether your preferred tripod can support it!

Sound

What would be worse than shooting an incredible video and having tinny or flat-out incomprehensible sound?

Coordinating your microphone with your DSLR and video plans opens up a world of choices. For most situations that involve a talking head that you can be within feet from, a lavalier mic, pinned to the subject’s collar is an effective way to record uninterrupted audio.

Though you can spend big on digital recorders to accompany a lav, one of the cheapest options is sitting in your pocket. Some lavaliers, like this $20 model from PopVoice plug right into the 3.5mm jack on your phone (or into the dongle that plugs into your charge port) to record audio without the extra equipment. While some functionality, like monitoring sound levels might be limited, this is a simple and cost effective option to jumping into audio.

But what about when you’re moving about? Shotgun mics, which mount right on the hotshoe of your camera, are great for picking up sound in specific directions. During a podium speech or outdoors on site, a shotgun mic aimed at your subject can cut away much of the ambient noise allowing for crisp sound production. If you plan on shooting outdoors often, a mic with a deadcat or windscreen like on this Boya model can cut away blustery wind noise to ensure quality audio.

Backpack

The final piece of your inaugural camera set up won’t be helping you capture visuals or audio at all! There are plenty of styles of bag — duffle, messenger, fanny pack — but I’ve found a simple, compartmental backpack to be the way to go.

For the solo photographer, the $42 Estarer backpack can be a perfect fit for jaunting between photo jobs. It’s segmented interior provides flexible options depending on your personal gear set up, while the rear pouch is perfect for storing an editing laptop and reporting or idea notebook. Drawstrings on the sides can support a tripod (including the 61-inch Manfrotto from before!) an there’s even a handy pouch for water. Because you will get thirsty.

While some messenger bags might provide a bit more padding or protection than a backpack, being able to strap all of your gear to your back and move freely while shooting is an underrated feature that backpacks provide.

At the end of the day, the best way to figure out your gear set up is through trial and error. Sure, it’ll sting when you forget to pack your zoom lens, but the pain of experience will help you shape your set up to your liking.

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Brandon Johnson

Brandon Johnson

Forever hunting for my new favorite music sample. Founder of tripleot.com & abrandbox.com. 🌴🦩