So you want to be a photographer?

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!? But…

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.



  1. says

    Good article, man. I think, despite the dissipation of the media, all aspiring photographers should first learn the slow way, with a 35 mm film camera, never using the “auto” feature. Learn how a camera actually works, learn how to genuinely take a good photo, sans digital editing and you will learn to be a “good photographer” .

    • says

      Exactly. Well, I can’t really say exactly to the 35 mm part because I never really went down that road. However, if someone’s pictures require Photoshop to do the heavy lifting in order to be “good” they aren’t good to begin with.

  2. says

    Hi Chad, I found this via David DuChemin this morning and thought it was very well articulated, and definitely closer to passionate than angry 😉 I think this is one of the reasons I flip back to shooting only with a prime lens with relative frequency; it forces me to think – and see – differently. Not quite as

    And after four sweet years, I’ve only hit one limitation with my trusty D80 – too much noise at any ISO over 320. That’s the only reason I’m now looking to upgrade.

    • says

      Thanks, Sylvia. That’s the one limitation I’ve hit of the D300. The high-iso noise is irritating when compared with a D700/D3. However, I’m not shooting as many weddings as I used to, so it’s not quite as big a deal. Most of my shoots now involve completely controlling all the lighting, so that helps.

  3. says


    That is a great article, loved the way you explain those things, I am even more impressed that I am at a level now that I understand everything you say, except the references to some Nikon thing…ugh 🙂

    I started to take this seriously this year and it had been very interesting, I completely understand what you are saying, if you but the latest gear from the beginning it will give you a harder time, there are just too many variables to juggle on your head and only with lots and lots of practice you start getting any good and to control all those technicalities and you start thinking about the photograph itself and not the ISO, f stops, speed, lenses, composition rules, etc.

  4. says

    Good article… Informative as well..

    Am just playing around with my Cybershot ,hoping to learn more about photography, and then upgrade…


  5. says

    Hi Chad,
    yeah, it’s true – this is a comment coming from far away – there’s a whole ocean in between us, because I live in Germany.
    I realized your article via my best friend and via the internet place I’m working at within a great team of passionate photographers – the spread it via twitter.
    So here I am, because I was deeply touched by your words.
    They are so true and so few believe it.
    Over here, in my country, very many think they know about photography. But mostly there is nothing more going on than discussions about gear and trademarks. It’s so ridiculous, one can’t describe it. Sometimes you think battles ar fought or a war has started, trademark A versus B or versus C. So many just think having a specific trademark as well as the “most expensive” gear they know about photography. And it’s even more ridiculous to read comments like “Ah the photo was taken with trademark A,B – can be seen because of its quality.”
    Well, they just see the surface and never get behind it.
    And photography is so much more.
    For me it’s a passion and love. It can tear you into pieces, it can take away your self-concidence, it can drive you right into desperation – but it can also give you freedom, beauty and personal success, kicking your feelings right into space, when you have managed to get “the” shot.
    As you have described it yourself over here.
    It’s a pity, that over here so few really understand about photography, its backgrounds, about vision and craft, about the amount of topics, that have to do with photography as well. But all this leads to photos not being forgotten.
    Not the gear itself.
    What I would love to do is to take this article over here and translate it into German and present it on my website.
    The more people like you trying to teach about what photography really is, the more there maybe a chance one day, that photography in all its elements will be better understood.
    I’m trying to do it at my website, at my working place. And I think, I’ll never stop trying it.
    Maybe some will listen and take it by heart.
    And that would be a real success – photography is worth all these efforts.
    It very much helps to know, that there are others around in internet and wherever else doing the same.
    So for now I send my best regards to you
    bye and see you soon

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