Everyone wants to be a photographer.
Well, not everyone. I’m sure there is someone out there who thinks it’s dumb, but I’ve never met them. It’s almost like working in the movie business because it’s in this mythical category of “the most amazing jobs you could ever have.” At least that’s the impression that I get. I talk to a lot of people that want to be photographers. As in almost every time I meet a new person. Invariably, the conversation starts exactly the same.
“Oh, you’re a photographer, I want to be one too. I just have a crappy old (insert camera name here) but what I really want to get is a (insert latest and greatest camera name here).
What usually proceeds after that is a 20-minute talk about camera specs and lens selection. And look, I’m not saying I’m any different. When I decide to take up a hobby, the first thing I want to do is go buy everything I’ll ever need for it. Sadly that act usually takes the place of, you know, actually doing the hobby. And honestly, I think a lot of aspiring photographers substitute time spent lusting after camera specs online for actually getting out there and working on the art of photography.
If I was teaching someone photography, I would make them start with an iPhone. And I would never let them upgrade until they maxed it out. Start with a camera that wouldn’t know a bell or a whistle if they came up and slapped it. Learn to make great photos with all its limitations. Start with a camera that doesn’t zoom. Start with a camera that has no lighting control or even flash. Most people are going to spend a fortune on a nice camera and then just stick it in automatic mode anyway. Why not start with one that does that at a fraction of the cost?
But, shooting with my iPhone doesn’t look professional. I’ll never get hired for shooting with an iPhone.
No, you won’t, but I’ve never been hired because I shoot with higher-end gear either. I get hired because I have pictures to show that are shiny. Those don’t come in the fancy camera box.
Ok, I used my iPhone and shot about a million photos and they are good, now what?
You still don’t get to upgrade. Have you hit the limits of what the camera will do? Have you thought a thousand times while shooting, “hey, if only this thing had (insert feature here), then it would make my photo do (insert effect of feature here). If not, no upgrade for you. The point of shooting within limitations is not just to make pretty pictures. It’s to learn how to make them despite limits. That will then get your brain working in the opposite direction. Let’s say you’ve set up a beautiful shot. Since there is no zoom, you moved your body into the perfect position. Since there is no flash, you’ve utilized available light as best you can. Your head should be running through the myriad things that would happen to your photo if you had more features.
If I had a flash, I could position it here for maximum effect. If I had a zoom, I could stand back a little and that would allow the light to be here, which would do (insert benefit of feature here).
Hey, nice job, you’re getting it finally. Now, if that goes through your head on almost every photo you take, it’s time to upgrade.
Nikon D3s, here I come.
Um, no. Let’s talk some more about that. Instead of going straight to the $5,000 body, how about we start with the cheapest DSLR you can buy. And buy it used.
Used. You know where I bought my main camera I use now? eBay. I didn’t want to pay full retail. A few years ago I bought a Nikon D300 with battery grip and extra batteries for $1,300. I saved about $700. See, as a “professional” you not only have to have one good body and a few great lenses, you have to have two bodies. It’s called backup my friend, and you will appreciate it when one of your cameras completely craps out on a paid shoot. You have two choices. You either call off the shoot, apologize to your client and pray they don’t ask for their money back because you have kids to feed. Or, you can confidently pull your backup camera out of the pack and keep shooting. And don’t get me started on the cost of lighting gear. And that is what will make a huge difference in your photography career.
Lighting? You mean like a flash? That thing scares me.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention all the lighting. It’s like learning to shoot all over again. But it’s good, trust me.
That sounds like a lot of money for everything.
Look, I’m not saying everyone should buy used gear. I am saying that if you are not to a level where you can charge real money for your work, don’t spend a fortune on a camera. Do you even know what manual controls are? No? Then you probably don’t need that kind of body yet, do you? Learn on something affordable. Why? Because one day you might get what you want. You might become a real professional photographer, and you might discover it’s not what you wanted after all.
But it looks like it would be a lot of fun to be a photographer.
Oh it is, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also like every other job in the world. There are moments of unbridled excitement when you get that perfect photo. In between those moment, though, photography is a lot of other things. It is struggling to find clients that share your vision. It is learning to tell people they can’t have a discount. It is learning to set expectations. It is spending more time prepping gear and planning shoots than you spend actually shooting. It is constantly networking to bring in new business. It is going into a shoot with no clue how it’s going to turn out. It is pretending you always know what you are doing despite feeling like a complete hack. It is constantly questioning your style. It is comparing yourself to others and always finding yourself lacking. It is sacrificing your body for your art. It is a life of uncertainty and questioning.
And then you get that perfect shot. You realize that you are laying in a mud puddle, in a nasty alleyway, five feet from where a junky probably shot up the night before but it doesn’t matter because you got that perfect picture. And it makes it all worth it.
That sounds a lot like my job, minus the scary alleys.
It is. Photography is not some magical unicorn of a profession. It is just like everything else. There are days, weeks and months filled with things completely unrelated to pressing that shutter release, that allow you to actually spend a little time shooting. If it’s meant to be, if you really are supposed to be a photographer, you’ll deal with all those other things, because that moment of artistic euphoria is worth it. It will drive you.
Wow, that’s…I have a lot to think about now.
Yes, you do. Instead of spending your time looking at cameras on B&H, how about you spend time thinking through all that, and working on the art of photography? If it’s meant to be, it will happen through more hard work than you’ve ever done, and none of it will come in a box with a new camera. It’s all about the photos. You have to remember that. Everything else is secondary to that. Cameras, lenses, lights, struggles. None of it matters compared to the photo. If you want to be a photographer, become one. Take millions of photos. Show them off to people. If you get to charge for your art one day, great. If not, it’s all about the photo. Remember that. The perfect photo is the culmination of a lot of different factors. The biggest is your experience. The smallest is your camera. Don’t switch them.
That’s a lot to take in. And you sound slightly angry. Are you sure you still want to be a photographer?
I was going for passionate more than angry. And yes, yes I do.