Anyway, because of those years on tour and how I've been living recently, I'm accustomed to shaving my hardware down to the leanest possible setup. Even my photography kit is designed around efficiency - I've found a few lenses that can suit pretty much any photographic purpose, and I don't need to lug around anything more.
So keep all of that in mind: This is a list of my vital tools, the bare minimum I feel I need to tackle any project no matter where I am. I lug this rig with me in the RV, on planes, into hotels, I even bring it home for the holidays to my Mom's house where I am right now. If I had a dedicated studio right now I might have a much longer, more frivolous list of toys to share with you, but I think it's probably more helpful to list just the things I absolutely need and can bring with me.
Disclaimer: I'm not a gear-head. I don't fetishize new gear, I don't devote much time to thinking about it, I don't get every new model of everything and drool over small new features. Hardware is just tools, and having more or fancier tools isn't going to make you a better artist. If you work in a highly technical field like cinematography, then yes, knowing all the details of every lens and camera and having access to hundreds of them is valuable. I am not that type of artist, I freestyle and make whatever I have with me work for what I'm trying to achieve. And I love working with DPs, cinematographers, colorists, editors, and every other type of creative technical wizard whose skills make my work so much better. But if you're someone creative who gets overwhelmed by the world of gear-heads, then just ignore it - you don't need it, at least initially. The beauty of modern technology is that everyone has a super powerful photo studio right in their pocket, and even old shitty laptops can run Photoshop and edit video. If you aspire to be a visual technician of any kind, then high-end gear is important and this list is not for you, and that's okay, because people like me rely heavily on people like you for the skills and knowledge that we lack.
Other disclaimer: I'm a Mac user, but you could adapt any of these recommendations to PC pretty easily.
Okay one more disclaimer: Although I utilize Amazon's associate program, none of the recommendations or links here are sponsored in any way. I only will ever recommend things I genuinely use and enjoy, I won't shill for a company that I don't believe in (but if any of the companies I believe in want to pay me to shill for them, please, do, email me, srsly). Also although I use Apple products, I don't, despite popular misconceptions, work for Apple. I left Beats Music when Apple bought them and I chose not to migrate to Cupertino, for a lot of reasons. Apple is an imperfect company and they aren't what they used to be, but I still feel like they make the best hardware in a lot of spaces. If you prefer PC computers or Android phones, you're not wrong - just take the general points of my recommendations and transpose them to your preferred brand of hardware/software. Use what you're comfortable with, and don't be self-righteous or judgmental about what others use. The Mac/PC iPhone/Android debate is so boring and tired and a total waste of your time. I have my preferences, but everything is more or less the same now and the spirit behind my preferences can be applied easily to yours.
Computer: Mac Pro (Late 2013), the trashcan one. 3GHz 8-core Intel Xeon E5 processor, 64 GB of RAM, AMD FirePro D700 6144MB graphics card. I've had this computer for a few years, and it handles everything I need for now, including high-resolution motion graphics and 4k video editing. You can absolutely do pro work with a laptop, you don't necessarily need an expensive machine like this. I splurged on the most upgraded version of it money could buy when I needed to make a ton of motion graphics quickly for the Puscifer tour in 2015-17, and I appreciate its power. But I've also made underpowered laptops work for all sorts of projects when I've had to.
Monitor: Wacom Cintiq 22HDT. This is a large, expensive display tablet, it's more than most people need; but again, in building a "portable" (this tablet isn't meant to be lugged around, but I do it anyway) workstation, it covered a lot of bases for me in one piece of hardware. Wacom tablets are essential for getting serious about digital art. You can get by doing retouching & graphic design stuff without them, as I often do when I only have my laptop with me, but it's going to make your life so much easier and open up so many more skills if you have a pen tablet. That doesn't mean you need a huge display tablet like this one. The display tablets are crucial if you do digital painting/illustration, but if you're just doing photo editing or graphic design, you can get by just fine with a cheaper non-display Wacom like the Intuos or the super-portable Bamboo. Even if you're just into photography, a pen tablet is going to help so much, they're cheaper than ever before and well worth your money. When I have a studio again I'll put my Apple cinema display back as my primary monitor. Using the Cintiq 22HDT as my main work screen is efficient but not ideal, because the colors and vibrancy on Wacom's displays don't even come close to matching Apple's. So when I make images on the Wacom I have to double-check them on other screens (these days the best screens to check your digital work on are iPhones/iPads, because they're all calibrated the same and a huge swath of your audience will be viewing your work on those exact screens, for better or worse).
Hard drives: Highpoint Thunderbolt Storage Dock. My relationships with hard drives is chaotic and unorganized. I have hundreds of them, many unlabeled, and all my best attempts to organize them in some way have fallen apart over the years in the final days of every huge data-heavy deadline-intense project I've done. Sometimes you just need more space and you can't be bothered with where to put stuff, so you just put it anywhere and hope you'll organize it later, and then you don't. I should be better about that, but organization isn't one of my strengths. One thing I did learn some years back that's changed my hard drive life is storage docks (external hard drive readers). I have this one (it's Thunderbolt, but you can get USB 3.0 versions as well), and it means I can buy internal drives like these ones which come in sizes up to 8tb. This is a cost-effective way to stay organized with hard drives for specific projects, backup drives, a drive labeled "work stuff" where you keep all your porn, etc. Far better than over-paying for external drives, and fast enough that you can do any kind of graphics work on them. You should still have a solid-state internal drive to work off of, but that's not practical for huge video projects or long-term storage.
On a side note, my favorite hard drive that I have is a 500gb drive encased in a gold Legend Of Zelda NES cartridge, made by this Etsy shop. It's a fun way to store your ROMs & emulators, if you're into that sort of thing.
Tablet: iPad Pro. iPads are great to have with you for a lot of reasons. As I said before, they're useful for test-viewing your digital work on. It's going to be the most common type of display your work will be seen on. You need to make sure your work looks good on an iPad. Other tablets could work I'm sure, but iPads are ideal because they use the same display tech as iPhones, so you can know it will look good on those too.
One of the things I learned from Trent Reznor and Alan Moulder when they were mixing albums, is how in their insanely high-end recording studio they'd also have a cheap boombox, and they'd play their mixes first through the perfectly-tuned sound system but then through the cheap boombox, to make sure it sounded good on both because a cheap boombox is how a lot of people would inevitably hear the songs on the radio. Then they'd listen to it in their car stereos, to make sure it sounded good there too. An iPad is the cheap boombox or car stereo for your digital art. I mean, it's not exactly cheap, and its display is really high-end (I find it makes artwork look really good), but it's the common baseline for how many people will see your work. I've sometimes moved images from my Wacom to the iPad and have been shocked to see little details I fucked up on that were suddenly glaringly obvious on the Apple display. So it's important to think not just about your own setup, but about the setup that your audience will be using.
The real thing I love about the iPad Pro though, is what a great sketchpad it makes (specifically the Pro model that's compatible with the pencil). The Apple Pencil has been so much fun for me, I try to bring it everywhere and thanks to powerful apps like Procreate I can sketch in a coffee shop with far more professional painterly tools than any paper sketchbook could offer me. I still love paper sketchpads too, I use them mostly for writing/note-taking these days - but the iPad Pro + Apple Pencil is the way to go for portable art. They aren't necessary if you're only into photography/video stuff, but if you love sketching or painting, it will change your life. And if you do photography/film stuff you should still get a regular iPad, because it has many helpful professional uses.
Camera: Canon 5D Mark III. I've just always been a Canon guy, I've had this camera for years and I'm sure I'll upgrade it at some point but for now it suits my needs. Honestly though, pro/prosumer digital cameras are good enough now that a lot of it depends on personal preference, so if you're more comfortable with Nikon or whatever, go with that. My recommendations here will be Canon-centric but they're easily applied to Nikon. Really all that matters is that you splurge a bit on a DSLR with a good sensor, and beyond that it's on you and your lenses to take good photos. I love the unique way the 5DM3 films video, I've used it over and over again. It's by no means the best way to film digital video, but I'm not a cinematographer so I'm not going to even try and get into professional video gear here. When I need anything better than the 5DM3's capabilities, I turn to a DP/cinematographer. Know your strengths, outsource your weaknesses, always.
Lenses: I keep my lens kit very lean. If you're a technical photographer or work in professional photo studios, you don't need my help here. But if you're a beginner or like to shoot in the wild, maybe this will help. I shoot loose and on-the-move, I don't like to bring multiple lenses with me if I don't have to, but if I *do* have to I like to keep no more than three lenses in my camera bag at any given time. Often when I'm heading out in the world, I throw my camera over my shoulder with only one lens on it, knowing it will be perfect for 90% of whatever photos I might want to take while I'm off adventuring. That lens is The Canon EF 24-70mm F2.8. This lens is so versatile it's the only one I adventure with, and it took all the photos in my "Wander" series. It's expensive as fuck, I know, but it's worth it. Of course though, there are MUCH cheaper lenses with similar focal ranges, and I used them for years and got great results. This lens is expensive because of the EF quality and the (really helpful) low aperture, but it doesn't mean you can't take great photos with a cheaper version. The versatility of the focal range is what's important to focus on if you're looking for an all-purpose lens.
The second lens I keep handy: For portraits and great video with a lot of depth to them, I use the Canon EF 50mm 1.4. It's a gorgeous lens that picks up light like nothing else, and can make even the most boring videos look professional. All the NIN on-stage videos I filmed were done with this lens - it's super hard to work the manual focus at this low aperture, but it's a great effect once you get the hang of it. The famously cheap version of this lens, the 1.8 "Nifty Fifty," also served me well for years before I upgraded to the 1.4. The 1.8 really can do so much of what the 1.4 can do for half the price. There's also the high-end 1.2 model, which I haven't used and I'm sure is lovely but I can't see how it's worth the huge price jump.
My third go-to lens, depending on the circumstance, is the Canon EF 70-200mm (or whatever the Nikon equivalent is, of course). This is an insanely expensive pro lens, and I would only recommend getting it if you're doing pro concert/event photography. It's invaluable for live concert photos, and was used for most of the live NIN photos you see here. The quality of the lens, versatility of the zoom, and most importantly the fixed 2.8 aperture, make it a perfect concert/nature/event lens (without taking the next $1000 step up to crazy pro levels), but it's not worth wasting your money if you don't have those specific photographic needs. It's huge and heavy and I only bring it with me if I really need it - but when I do need it it's amazing.
One more: If you're into photographic art, graphic design, motion graphics, or any other artistic field that benefits from abstract visuals, I highly recommend picking up a macro lens. I've had this one for years, but any decent pro macro lens will do - even the ones for your phone. A macro lens opens up tons of creative opportunities, you'll find yourself pulling artistic images out of the most mundane textures, and filming cool video of it as well. Point it at any random thing in your house and you'll suddenly see a new world open up (just make sure you have lots of light). Pick one up when you can and play around with it relentlessly, I've utilized mine to create many creative elements over the years.
If you find macro photography fun or like to shoot miniature stuff, consider picking up a table top photo studio. I have this one, and it's great but it's limited by the white-only backdrop, so next time I'm going to pick up a more versatile setup - this popular one on Amazon seems good. I've used mine for a lot of fun little projects that can turn any corner of a table into a professional product photography lab. It's especially great for shooting small objects or experimenting with macro photography.
Lights: Philips Hue. Again, if you're working in professional photo studios and have access to pro lighting and lighting directors and assistants and all that great stuff, you already have this covered. But if you're trying to make cool shit on your own, as I mostly do, you can't ask for a better lighting setup on the cheap than Philips Hue. I have about ten Hue lights now, and the ability to program and control them all individually has been a godsend for DIY photo projects. Get some tripod lamps and you can move lights of any color anywhere you need to film and photograph any creative lighting setup you can imagine. I used Hue lights for The Black Queen's Ice To Never video (and their concert visuals), and for portraits like this and this. A cool thing about Hue lights is that they have an SDK so there are a ton of apps available for controlling them, both on your phone and your computer. The New Regime's We Rise, We Fall video was lit entirely with Hue lights, and I used a third party Mac app to program color shifts along with the music so they would be consistent across multiple takes of filming, a key element to the video's concept.
Software: Adobe Creative Cloud is obviously essential, there's no way around it. It sucks that it's a subscription model now, but what can you do, it's the most incredible professional creative toolkit on the market, you're going to need at least some part of it. You can get all the tools with the yearly plan for the best deal, but if you aren't into video editing or motion graphics, you can skip the full package and just get the photography plan (Photoshop/Lightroom).
Photo Software: Refer to my previous post about Alien Skin Exposure for my most-used photo tool. It's really, really awesome. Spend some time with it (it has a free trial) and it will up your photo game significantly.
Video Software: I'm not a full-time professional video/motion graphics guy, so don't look here for the most current or complete recommendations, but one indispensable tool I love is Red Giant's Software. If you're shooting/editing video, their Magic Bullet Suite has a powerful toolkit including "Looks," which has super easy-to-use, customizable presets for video treatments that are basically like Alien Skin Exposure for video. I might make a more detailed post about Red Giant's tools in the future, but for now, take advantage of their free trial downloads and experiment for yourself. Also, Red Giant makes BY FAR the best faux-VHS filter on the market. It was made by sampling actual VHS artifacts and includes a ton of controls and unlike even authentic hardware-based options it can recreate a VHS look in HD. Have you seen "Kung Fury"? That's Red Giant's VHS filter.
Digital Art Software: Corel Painter. This is a personal preference, I got used to Painter circa 2000 when I got my first Wacom tablet, and I still use it when I want to really feel like I'm painting on my computer (this and this and this and this and this were primarily hand-drawn in Painter). A lot of digital artists more talented than I make all of their work in Photoshop, and sometimes I do too; but I grew up drawing/painting with pencils and paintbrushes, so I love how Painter recreates the physics and texture of tactile tools. With Painter you can, among other things, blend in colors of paint even from underlying layers - it's the most naturalistic drawing tool I've worked with. I still return to Photoshop to finish my illustrations, but Painter is where I do the real hand-drawn core of them.
iPad Software: As I mentioned before, if you have an iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil, Procreate is my favorite drawing/sketching/painting app. I use it all the time to sketch out ideas that I later take to Photoshop/Painter on my Wacom tablet. This and this and this were done pretty much entirely in Procreate on an iPad, while this and this and this were sketched/inked in Procreate before being transferred to Photoshop for coloring and effects.
Travel Gear: This doesn't apply to everyone, but I have to bring all this crap with me all the time, so travel gear is important for me. I could probably get into a lot of highly-specific travel gadgets, but the most important things for me are carrying cases. I went through quite a few inferior laptop travel bags before I found Swiss Gear's laptop backpack. That link is a newer version than the one I have, but I haven't had to get a new one for ten years because mine has held up insanely well. I've dragged this backpack everywhere, all around the world, and I'm not the most careful traveler. I regularly travel with this bag (as a carry-on) stuffed with, at minimum: Laptop, multiple hard drives, iPad, charging/USB/HDMI cables, at least two portable game consoles, headphones, memory cards/readers, sketchbooks, book books, unpaid bills, gummy bears, whiskey flasks, etc. I've dropped it multiple times while pulling my bag out of overhead compartments or tour bus bays, and nothing in it has ever broken. The straps haven't even started to tear after years of abuse. It's such a good bag I've had it for ten years and can't imagine replacing it anytime soon. In short: If you travel aggressively and bring portable computer technology with you, Swiss Gear will be your friend.
Now, as I've mentioned I have a unique situation where I travel all the time with not just a laptop, but with a full desktop production suite. For that, Pelican cases are the way to go. I got this case and carved out custom spaces in it for my Mac Pro, my camera, a bunch of hard drives, and some accessories. Pelican cases are trusted by touring professionals more than anything else; you don't need one if you don't frequently travel with professional equipment, but if you do that, you should get Pelican cases.
Okay, that's part one. I'll do a follow-up post at some point talking about more software and also more specific hardware, like encoding devices for VHS glitch art and stuff like that. But this is my must-have gear for lean, professional production on-the-go. Hopefully it gave you some ideas!