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Gear, Photography

Essential Gear for Photographing Intimate Urban Weddings

Shooting weddings typically requires a fair amount of gear, but when photographing intimate urban weddings it’s essential to travel light. Having shot over 200 elopements in New York City in the past four years, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that less is definitely more. Leave the light stands, the flashes, and even the macro lens at home. Having the bare essentials not only saves your back as you trek around the city, but also saves your brain from getting fried as you debate which lens to use.

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This is the gear that I use to photograph every single elopement I have in NYC, and is also the same kit that I grab when shooting an engagement session. It’s something that organically grew out of my shooting style and has been dwindled down over the years until arriving at this minimalist set. I should also mention that when I do shoot full, traditional weddings that I use this same set of gear to photograph about 80% of the day.

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The Bag

What you chose to haul your gear in is a very personal, and important decision. I live in far Queens, which means to get to Manhattan I have to take a bus and then at least one subway. With all of the stairs, sidewalks, cobblestone streets, and crowds I have to navigate throughout the city, roller bags are not an option.

I’ve previously used a ThinkTank Streetwalker Harddrive backpack – which was great – but I found myself trying to stuff a lot of gear in there that I never ended up using. My ideal urban bag finally came along when the Peak Design Everyday Messenger was released last year. This bag perfectly holds my essential set of gear and also my 15″ Macbook Pro if I’m going to stay out and get some work done while I’m in the city. You’ll notice I also have a climbing carabiner hooked onto one side of it, as most of my couples usually have a bag I need to hold while we shoot and this makes it super easy to get it off everyone’s hands.

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While there are a lot of messengers out there that can hold the amount of gear I need, Peak Design’s Everyday Messenger really won out because of its smart design. I can crank down on the strap to pull it super close to my body, and even link up a stabilizer strap to hold it close to my back like a bike messenger would. This really helps distribute the load and keep my back happy. It also has a weatherproof waxed 500D Kodra shell and DWR undercoat, along with weatherproof zippers, so I don’t even need to drag a separate rain shield out. The quick access point also lets me swap out a lens without fully opening the bag.

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The Gear

The minimum amount of gear I will ever take out on a shoot is two camera bodies and two lenses. There’s always a chance that a piece of gear will fail, so having a backup for both my camera body and my lens is essential. With those in place, three pieces of gear would have to fail simultaneously for me to be up sh*t creek, which would be highly unlikely.

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While the exact camera models you use are not very important, I think it is important that they both have backup memory card slots. I’m a Nikon shooter, and my two cameras of choice are the Nikon D4s and the Nikon D750. I actually shoot 100% of my photos on the D4s and just carry the D750 as a backup camera. Because the body of the D4s is square and just a little bit wider than the Everyday Messenger, I pack the bag with a lens mounted on the D750 and not on the D4s, and then switch them when I get to where I’m shooting.

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I use a Sigma Art 35mm f/1.4 for about 90% of my work. It is definitely my favorite lens, not only for how sharp it is wide open but for its versatility. I shoot all of my candids with it, along with most of my portraits. I tend to shoot way more environmental portraits not only due to my own style, but because most couples getting married in NYC want to show off the city itself, which a 35mm focal length is perfectly suited for.

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I used to carry a macro lens for ring shots, but it seemed silly to carry a whole other lens for just a few photos. I found that my 35mm actually had the perfect balance of scenery and ring detail when used very close to its minimum focus distance, and at f/1.4 you could achieve a pretty unique look. You definitely have to be more deliberate with your stacking of the rings in order to showcase them well, and another piece of gear I detail later helps with this.

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The other lens I use is Nikon’s 85mm f/1.4, which is a fantastic portrait lens. It’s super sharp wide open and is great for the headshot-style portraits I capture. It’s also great when I just want some more compression in a scene. NYC can become a visual mess at times, so being able to slice out a nice section of background is sometimes only achieved with a longer lens. Between the 35mm and 85mm focal lengths, I can shoot anything.

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The Accessories

There are also a few accessories that I find are essential to complete this list of gear. The first is a combination of Peak Design’s Anchors and their Slide strap. Both cameras I shoot with have a set of the anchors, which just sit on the camera and can be clipped into a variety of places.

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I clip mine into the Slide strap, which is wide and comfy (they also sell a SlideLITE, which is thinner if that’s more up your alley). If I ever need to use the backup camera, I can quickly unclip the strap from my main body and clip it into the backup. This system saves me a little room by only needing to pack one strap, and also lets me use my camera strap-free if I wanted to.

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The last few accessories I bring along is an assortment of smaller items. The first of them is a pack of Elmer’s adhesive putty, which is my secret weapon for hard-to-stack rings. You just roll up a small piece, use it to anchor a stubborn ring, and then touch it out if needed. I also bring along a lens cleaning cloth, a pair of headphones for listening to music on my commute, and a pen (someone always needs a pen).

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The last item I bring is also one of the most important, because it helps ensure that my client’s images stay safe. I mentioned that both of my camera bodies have a backup memory card slot, and I am indeed shooting in backup mode so that both memory cards contain copies of the images. After we’re done shooting, I take the backup cards and put them in my ThinkTank Photo Pixel Pocket Rocket (which has my business card in it) and clip it to the front belt loop of my pants. The primary cards stay in my cameras and go back in my bag for the commute home. NYC is an incredibly safe city, but people still get robbed. This way I’ll at least still have my client’s images after I hand over my bag full of gear.

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What pieces of gear do you find essential to bring on your gigs?

Jon Lemon is the Editor-in-Chief of Resource Weddings and head of JC Lemon Photography, a wedding photography studio based in New York City. Known for capturing true moments of love in a modern and relaxed style, Jon also specializes in elopements (intimate weddings) in the NYC area. Being a self-taught photographer that slowly built up his business while working a desk job, he knows that any insight into running a better wedding photography business is advantageous in this competitive area of the photography industry.

  • Almost identical to the kit i carry to weddings except that I shoot 2 D750’s and I carry a multitool

    • A multitool is great to carry around, but unfortunately there are quite a few locations in NYC that scan bags and don’t allow knives. I’ve lost a few that way already. It does goes in my roller for full weddings, though!

  • jeffmcc

    My current setup includes:

    Canon 6D
    Canon 24-105 F/4L
    Canon 85 F/1.8
    Yongnuo IV Speedlight

    I want to get a 50mm soon as the 85 is just too tight for a lot of situations and the 24-105 aperture is small and the lens is sooo bulky.