Photographers love their toys. But new lenses, PowerBooks, and image editors don’t come cheap. We gave a pro photographer a $5,000 budget to see how he’d kit himself out.

Photography is an expensive business, and it’s not always easy to decide what printers, lenses, and other perisherals you really need. To help you decide, we asked Derrick Story, a professional digital photographer, to show us how he would outfit himself if given $5,000 (around £2,750).

Derrick began with a $5,000 budget and a 17-inch iMac with a 1.6GHz G5 processor, a Combo drive, 256MB of RAM, an 80GB hard drive, and the iMac’s bundled software. We gave him the option of selling the iMac for the going rate and adding the profits to the budget. Because buying just one pro-level camera could blow the entire budget, we assumed that our photographer already owned his camera.

Even if your photo budget is nowhere near $5,000, there’s still a lot to learn from these expert choices. Although a portable media viewer or a second printer may not be a priority right now, smart, smaller purchases can keep you snapping happily for years to come.

The poor professional
Here’s how Derrick Story spent his budget…

At first, I created a shopping list based on the needs of a stereotypical media person – it included a dual-processor G5, for example. But that didn’t fit with how I actually operate. I might be working at home, at the office, on a park bench, or at the beach. Wherever I am, I want to transfer photos to my Mac, process them, and get them on the Internet – all as quickly as possible. And with the amount of data I generate, I don’t want to hassle with two computers. Those needs drove my final purchases.

Like many other pro photographers, I take pictures on-the-go, so I need a portable setup. I considered keeping the 17-inch iMac and buying an iBook for location work, but even at home, the iMac isn’t ideal because it’s not expandable enough.

So I sold the iMac and bought a 17-inch PowerBook as my only machine. My home computer is really a 23-inch Apple Cinema Display (I love the large screen when I’m editing images) and a 400GB LaCie Big Disk hard drive for those all-important backups. Both attach to the PowerBook when I’m not on the road.

I may have only one Mac, but I’ve got two printers. The Canon i9900 is my choice for enlargements (up to tabloid size) and fine-art prints, but it’s too cumbersome for 4-x-6-inch output. When I need to preview a couple of pictures as prints, I just connect to the Canon CP-220 and print; because it’s a dye-sub printer, the prints have a real photographic quality to them, and the UV coating is nice for handling. The CP-220 is even small enough to go on the road.

Image editing and creation

Adobe Photoshop CS is essential for photographic editing. To save a bit of money, you can buy a used copy from a reputable Web site (I went to Amazon). For creating motion graphics and dynamic slide shows from stills, I like Boinx Software’s FotoMagico. And I got QuickTime Pro to convert file formats, apply different types of compression, apply correction filters, add titles, edit, and stitch clips together. It’s also wonderful for playback.

Pros and serious amateurs shoot lots of pictures. On its own, iPhoto isn’t flexible enough to handle the quantity and variety of images we generate. Brian Webster’s iPhoto Library Manager lets me create separate libraries for specific projects, and it makes switching between the libraries easy. Performance is always excellent, and backup is a snap.

Delivering the goods

I prefer to deliver my digital jobs on CD or DVD, depending on the number of pictures. Some clients have Macs, but more have Windows PCs, so my discs must be cross-platform. I create each disc’s navigation system in HTML. Clients can use any computer with any browser to find and download images off the disc. Since I use iPhoto to catalog my images, creating the HTML directly out of this application is handy. iPhoto lets you export HTML, but its control is limited.

Drooling Cat Software’s BetterHTMLExport is sophisticated and gives me the options I need. iPhoto also lets me send a job to iDVD, where I can add even more production value and burn a disc that clients can play on their set-top DVD players.

I can also post this code on my Web site – a good site is critical for photographers. Clients can find me via my Internet storefront, look at my previous work, review my pricing, and, after their shoot, look at the images.

Faster than Photoshop

Even with a fast computer, Photoshop is slow. I don’t want to launch it just to view a file. With Pixture Studio’s QuickImageCM, I can simply control-click on the file and instantly view the picture. It’s a huge time-saver.

Cameras and lenses

Although I assumed that a serious photographer would already have a camera and lenses, I’ll recommend a few for people who may be in purchasing mode: the Nikon D70 and the Canon EOS 20D. Out of the box, they aren’t designed to produce great wide-angle shots, so it’s important to get a quality wide-angle lens as well.

I like the Canon EF 17mm–40mm f4 L USM ultrawide zoom lens. When I don’t need that lens’s breadth, my lens of choice is the Canon EF 28mm–135mm f3.5–5.6 IS USM zoom lens. Its image stabilizer makes handheld shots in dim lighting possible.

Bold move

My radical departure was choosing a PowerBook as my sole computer. The computer side of my digital photography work had to be as nimble and powerful as the picture-taking side. Photoshop, iPhoto, and the LaCie FireWire drives are also vital to my work.

If I had more money, I’d upgrade the dye-sub printer to the Canon CP-330, buy a second 400GB hard drive for backups in a separate location, upgrade to 1.5GB of RAM, and add two .Mac accounts (one with a password and one without) for client previews of shoots. And I’d love a quality film scanner for digitizing my slide collection.

Derrick Story is a professional photographer (www.storyphoto.com) and author (www.oreilly.com).