Is Amateur and Professional Photography Possible on a Low Budget?

Is Amateur and Professional Photography Possible on a Low Budget?

Like any specialist occupation, photography is an expensive one. There are big savings that can make it affordable for the professional, some of which can help the amateur too.

There’s an unhealthy attitude by some in the industry that successful professional photographers make a lot of money and have the best of everything. That isn’t the case. Many photographers struggle to make a living, especially when they start out. Several talented professionals I know have second jobs; the income from their photography alone isn’t enough to feed their families. Nevertheless, their clients are happy, and their photography is first-class. To me, that means they are successful.

It’s a daunting thing setting up any business, especially becoming a professional photographer. I’m not telling you this to discourage you from joining the profession; it’s hugely rewarding working for yourself. But it isn’t something anyone should do lightly. Many small businesses fail in the first year because of a lack of money.

Being frugal helps your bottom line, and the good news is that there are ways you can save that will also help streamline your business, saving you valuable time.

Cameras and Lenses

You must own the latest Canikonympusji (not a real brand), or so the photography snobs tell you. Not so. There’s a lot of nonsense spouted about certain brands and formats being better than others. However, so long as you can take the photos of the quality you need with your camera and lens combination, then that is all that matters. Great photos have more to do with you than your gear.

There are superb photographers in every field that use every format and every brand. Each has their own style that is partially influenced by the system they are using. Photos shot with other brands are not better or worse, they are just different. Furthermore, your clients are not photographers. They won’t know or care if your cameras are not the very latest model. The results you deliver are what concern them, not the camera you are using.

Saying that, lens quality does make a big difference. If you feel compelled to upgrade your kit, then upgrade the lenses first.

Buying Second Hand

Huge savings can be made by buying the previous generation of pro-cameras, like this OM-D E-M1 Mark II, which is still available new, even though it's superseded by the Mark III and the E-M1 X. When cameras are replaced with newer models, the previous version floods the second hand market too.

If you must buy another camera, consider the reliable retailers in the used camera market. After all, the Mark I version of that Canikonympusji camera was perfectly good enough a handful of years ago, and it hasn’t deteriorated. Yes, the new version has a few extra bells and whistles, but the old one still works.

Keeping on Top of the Paperwork

A big chunk of your time will have nothing to do with photography. Days will go by when you don’t pick up your camera, but you’ll spend hours in front of a screen writing ads, keeping on top of your finances, and being in control of your social media.

Organization is important and there are admin tools that will help you manage those.

Desktop publishing programs are great for creating advertisements, fliers, and newsletters. Scribus is completely free and will probably do everything you need.

If your admin is limited to word processing, creating a spreadsheet, or doing a presentation online, then Google offers a free service. Once you have signed up to a Google account, you get Gmail and access to Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides, plus a very limited 15 GB of cloud storage. For many people, the free Google apps are fine, and a great alternative to Microsoft Office 365. However, Microsoft also offers free cloud-based versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

A screenshot showing one of the many free templates available in Google Docs.

When your needs grow, you can either upgrade to the premium Google Workspace with packages varying from $6/user/month, or Microsoft Office 365 from $5/user/month. Both options come with 1 TB cloud storage.

There is another alternative. If you require something a little more sophisticated than the basic MS Office or Google software but cannot afford the upgrade, and if are happy with a program that runs on your computer and not cloud computing, then there is another free option: LibreOffice, is free, open-source software available for Windows, Mac OS, and Linux.

Function

Libre Office

Microsoft Office

Google

Word Processor

Writer (Free)

Word (Free cloud-based or Subscription)

Docs (Free or Subscription)

Spreadsheet

Calc (Free)

Excel (Free cloud-based or Subscription)

Sheets (Free or Subscription)

Presentation

Impress (Free)

PowerPoint (Free cloud-based or Subscription)

Slides (Free or Subscription)

Database

Base (Free)

Access (Subscription)

Graphics and Diagrams

Draw (Free)

Equations and Formulas

Math

Chart Creation

Chart

Excel (Free cloud-based or Subscription)

A much more in-depth comparison can be found here.

Libre has its limitations. As there are no cloud services, so no simultaneous document collaboration. It doesn’t have an email client, but there are alternatives to those. Likewise, there is no chat service but, once again, free options exist for that too.

Email and Websites

Ideally, in business, it’s most professional if you have an email address tied to your domain name, as opposed to a generic one, such as those ending in outlook.com or gmail.com. So, it’s worth considering buying a unique domain name from a webspace provider that offers an email service, especially as you are going to want a website to promote your business too. Pick something short, easy to remember, and relevant to your business.

Lots of companies register domain names, and it is worth checking their costs before buying from them. Some big names include WordPress, Wix, Squarespace, and Ionos. These all provide simple templates for websites that may be adequate to begin with if you just want pages to advertise your services. However, in time, you might want to build your own bespoke site, or have one built for you, with more functionality, and so access to server space may be important.

Some companies offer do completely free web services, but they all have drawbacks including limited functionality, lack of security, and slow loading time. So, I am not going to recommend any, but this article lists a few to consider if you are really pushed for funds. 

Another consideration is the program that handles emails. Windows is bundled with the Mail App, which has its issues, and like the cloud-based Microsoft Outlook, is free and includes a basic calendar synchronization. There are plenty of apps available for Macs.

Do look at Thunderbird by Mozilla, who also makes the Firefox browser. It’s free and can be fully integrated with the Lightning Calendar, which also has a tasks list function. Thunderbird offers unrivaled customization with extensions and themes.

Thunderbird is a powerful and secure email client.

Accounts Management

Keeping accounts is a bind for most of us, and an accounting program really helps. I recently reviewed Light Blue, which is a first-class product, and there are others on the market aimed at photographers. But for one-man-bands just starting out, they may seem expensive.

There’s good news though.  Express Accounts by NCH is a superb accounting program. For small businesses, it’s free but with limited functionality. The single computer perpetual license is currently discounted to around $80. It saves huge amounts of time creating invoices and emailing them to clients. It’s not as versatile and doesn’t have as much functionality as Light Blue, but is excellent, nonetheless.

Cloud Storage

Cloud storage can seem expensive. Having our photos remotely backed up gives us the security against loss we wouldn’t have if everything was stored at our home or office.   Once committed to a cloud service, the probability is that we will stay with them for the long term.

One of the best value cloud services I’ve found for still photos is Amazon Photos. You get unlimited storage space as part of Amazon Prime membership. Nevertheless, if you have subscribed to MS Office, you do get 1TB per person included in the package.

Online Meetings

Many people are familiar with Zoom now. I use it for delivering remote one-to-one workshops, but there are other options. Microsoft Teams is available for free, as is Google Meet.

Cataloging, Developing, and Editing Photographs

There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to find a photo that you shot two or maybe three years ago. This is where a powerful asset management system comes into its own.

Lightroom Classic is an exceptional program for cataloging images, and the great thing is, even if a trial subscription has expired, the library module still works. However, that does slow down your workflow as it means jumping between apps. On1 Photo Raw is available as a stand-alone package, and it's superb value. With its latest update, the browse module is possibly even more powerful than Lightroom.

On1 Photo Raw is a raw development and photo editing program with millions of users worldwide. It is more cost-effective than its Adobe rival.

For raw development and editing, there are free options, but this is an area I would not scrimp on. All the well-known premium programs produce good, if differing, results. Free ones seem clunky in comparison. If you must choose free software, then look at your camera manufacturer’s own offering, with Lightzone, getpaint.net, and Gimp as possible alternatives.

Have you got any money-saving tips that will help others get their photography business rolling? What are your experiences with the apps I have mentioned? It would be good of you to share your views.

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32 Comments
Tom Reichner's picture

I photograph wildlife on a semi-professional level. By "semi-professional" I mean that I make about 25% of my total annual income from selling my wildlife photos.

I have done this wildlife photography on a very limited budget.

I travel extensively to photo graph wildlife all around the United States. My car is an old Toyota Corolla that I bought used for $5,000, 4 1/2 years ago with 141,000 miles on it. It now has 270,000 miles on it - almost all of that mileage has been road-tripping for wildlife photography. The Corolla gets 35 miles per gallon, is cheap to insure, and almost never needs any repairs or maintenance.

For lodging, I tent camp often, especially if I can find a place to tent camp that has showers available. I also stay in hotels, but usually negotiate a much lower rate for lengthy stays. Some very nice places will give you a real bargain if you stay for an entire month. For instance, I just stayed at a very nice place in Montana where I photograph Whitetail Deer during the November rut (breeding season). The hotel's normal rate is $120 / night. Yet they gave me a rate of $1,200 for the entire month of November. That's just $40 / night, or 1/3 the normal rate.

As for gear, I have yesteryear's best gear. By that I mean that I am using older cameras and lenses, but that those cameras and lenses were among the best available back when they were first released. The Sigma 300-800mm lens that I use has been discontinued, and as such it is available on the used market for around $3,000, which is a lot of lens for the money. The other lenses I use I also bought used, for a fraction of the original price. The Canon bodies that I use are older models, and I bought each of them for less than half of the original release price.

My computer is a 27" iMac which I bought directly from Apple back in 2015, and I ordered it as a refurb, but completely specced out. It cost a lot of money, as a current high end computer is the one thing that I do not think is possible to be had at a bargain price. But I keep my computers for many years before updating them with a new model, so even though I pay a lot for them, they do not cost too much on a "per year of usage" basis.

Software is something that I have never had any need to spend much on. Topaz bundle for a hundred bucks. Adobe gives me the Creative Suite with Lightroom and Photoshop for free, because I sell through Adobe Stock. I don't use Lightroom, but PS comes in handy for cloning tasks. For all other editing, I just use the program "Photos" that comes already installed on Apple computers when you buy them. Photos is sufficient for most of my file management and editing needs.

I think I've done pretty well at figuring out how to photograph wildlife on a shoestring budget. I am truly poor, by any definition, and yet I road-trip extensively every year and photograph all kinds of mammals, birds, and herps throughout the U.S. ..... and I don't spend much money doing it. And despite using old discontinued gear, hundreds of publishers have thought that my photos were good enough to use in their magazines, books, packaging, and advertisements.

I encourage others to look for ways to do what they dream of doing, even if they think they don't have enough money to do it. There's always a way!

Gary Pardy's picture

Great to see a detailed breakdown of how you make things work for your craft, Tom :)

Ivor Rackham's picture

That's great and useful information, as always, Tom. Thank you for generously sharing it.

S M's picture

Often times I see your very thorough and detailed responses on my smartphone and get very overwhelmed by the length. This time though I am glad I sat down and read your process on my computer, as I would have never thought to approach it the same. Thank you for sharing, Tom!

I am curious though about the free Adobe plan by selling on Adobe Stock. How does that work?

Tom Reichner's picture

One day last winter I just saw on my Adobe Stock Contributor Dashboard that I was eligible to get the Creative Suite for free, because I had sold a certain number of downloads. I forget what the number was. I think I may have gotten an email from them, too, notifying me that I qualify for a free Creative Suite subscription.

Deleted Account's picture

Good article, thanks for posting, Ivor.

Re RAW development, I just use the software that came with the camera (both Nikon and Sony). Then I most often use Nik. I imagine the Nik RAW development software is good (I've not used it), and Darktable is good too.

I don't think I'd bother with PS (I only use PS because of LAB), instead I'd run Gimp. If you must have PS, buy a used version.

I built a pretty decent workstation about 5 years ago, using my old chassis, and will probably not rebuild it for another 5 years.

These days you can get a lot of computer for not a lot of money, but cost will largely be driven by output; you'll need much less bang if you are producing 12MP stills than 60MP stills, similarly for video.

I'm still producing high quality 20x30" prints from the Nikon D300 (2007) and D700 (2008) - both 12MP, and 30x40" prints with a Sony A6000. I'm currently eyeing off the Nikon D800, as they are really cheap, and excellent cameras.

As often as not I use old Nikon manual glass, which I've had forever, and can be bought for bugger all. And I have Sigma f/2.8 primes for the Sony. You can get a lot of lens for not huge money second hand.

Psychologically savvy marketers have invested a lot of effort convincing us we *need* new shiny gear, we simply don't.

Rich Umfleet's picture

What if I don't think I need new and shiny gear, but want new and shiny gear because I can afford it? Is that because of psycholoically savvy marketers?

Deleted Account's picture

Unless you are pathological; yes.

Now, those marketers are leveraging our psychologies (hence "savvy"); the point stands.

Rich Umfleet's picture

So, buying a lens that fits a need in my lineup of lenses is determined by savvy marketers and not myself. Is that what you're saying?

Deleted Account's picture

That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying marketers exploit our psychological biases; as opposed to being causal.

Timothy Gasper's picture

I understand what you're saying. In such a situation it's best NOT to let your wallet talk to your head. Look at it from the perspective of what you truly need. You will be happier and your wallet will only grow larger. Save it for emergencies or something (someone) more in need. You married? Think along those lines.

Ivor Rackham's picture

That's an interesting observation, thanks, William. I agree with that, and from an environmental perspective yours is a healthy approach too. Thank you.

Rich Umfleet's picture

All that "professional" means is that you sell your work. So, it doesn't matter if you take a salable pic with a cheap or expensive camera, just that it gets sold.

Tom Reichner's picture

Actually, "professional" means that one makes the majority of their income from photography.
So, 49% of income from photography - not professional or "semi-professional".
51% of income from photography - professional.
Period.

Rich Umfleet's picture

My tax attorney says it's profession if I sell even 1 picture.

Tom Reichner's picture

Wrong. Your tax attorney doesn't say that to you.
Just because you have to pay income tax on earnings does not mean that those earnings came from a profession.
I have several streams of income that I pay taxes on, and none of them are a profession, with the exception that in some years, over 50% of my income is from firefighting, so then in those years I do firefighting professionally, but in the years when my firefighting income does not equal 50% or more of my total income, it is not a profession.

Rich Umfleet's picture

I'm not talking about the tax. I do it for the deductions. I hardly ever sell anything, but all my vacations are tax deductible. I get per diem. I depreciate my equipment. Etc... I can't do that if it's a hobby or if I'm a semi-pro, they make you prorate the pro use minus the personal use for everything. My only problem was that during an audit, years ago, the auditor told me I needed a more visible marketing plan than just having a few prints that were for sale in my desk drawer. I answered, "That might be why I don't make more money at it."

Ivor Rackham's picture

Hi Rich, from my perspective, there is an expectation that a professional photographer has work, or a service, that is good enough to sell. Irrespective of the exact definition, if their work isn't good enough, then they won't have customers. There is a commonly held and incorrect belief that a professional must have the "best" of everything to be good enough. My article makes the point that it isn't necessarily so. Would you agree with that point of view?

Rich Umfleet's picture

My photos have graced some respectable walls and I used to do it as a full time profession. Because I now do it mostly for self fulfillment doesn't make me any less professional.

But my point is, if you take pictures with the intention of selling some of them or all of them, you are a professional. Whether you have a studio or not. Whether it's your main money maker or not. You are a professional photographer.

Jenny Rich's picture

I think photography on a budget is a pretty common and very much possible concept especially for the beginners. There are second handed cameras that are fine and online courses that could be bought with discounts or codes and wallet-friendly photo editors that do not follow the subscription model (I remember Fstoppers writing about one of those, too- https://fstoppers.com/originals/automatic-photo-editor-photoworks-refres... ) or free software like Gimp or Photodiva, etc. It's good for the starters and if you are only an amateur there is no need in splurging on a latest Canikonympusji (special lols at that, thanks!) even if tons of ads tell you overwise. You are not becoming a better photographer if you buy fancier gear but believeng that is certainly easier than putting time and effort into learning.

Ivor Rackham's picture

That's absolutely right, Jenny. (I played around with the names for a while to get Canikonympusji! Glad you liked it! :) )

charles hoffman's picture

you're talking pennies, when the real costs of professional photography can be measured in thousands

Tom Reichner's picture

Charles,

Ivor is showing us that although professional photography can be measured in thousands, it does not have to be. People can begin to make money with their photography without spending thousands, and I appreciate Ivor showing how that can be done.

Deleted Account's picture

There's a big difference between buying a new Z9, R3, A1, GFX100S, or Phase One IQ4, and a second hand D3 or D700 (or anything in that class).

Ivor Rackham's picture

Hi Charles. Thanks for the comment. You are right, it can be, but it doesn't necessarily have to be. It's a point I make in the second paragraph, and I know plenty of pro photographers around the world that don't earn top bucks.

Malcolm Wright's picture

Hi Ivor,

Thanks for a great article, it definitely beats the usual video trailers, well done for making good points, well put.

I'm with you in the cheap seats, travelling second or third class on an aeroplane, ship or train, doesn't mean you arrive any later at your destination (although they might not allow you to alight first).

There's a debate in your replies about the definition of a Profession, I was always told that a Profession grows strong by excluding the World and a Union grows strong by embracing it. That sort of sums up in my mind what is going on in photography and camera manufacturers. Photography is first and foremost an Art form. We're not all Great Artists.

However if a camera manufacturer can persuade you that buying their latest and greatest will make you and anyone else in the World a Great Artist, then they sell more cameras. Welcome to the Union state of mind.

I've no doubt in my mind that a Professional photographer who makes 100% of their income from Photography, because they're also a Great Artist, doesn't swap and change their camera or brand of camera every time a manufacturer releases a new, 'this will make you a greater artist camera'.

They probably keep hold of that camera that is making them their living until such time that it starts to fail on them, or they become worried if it can go on producing the goods.

Don't get me wrong I love the people who buy new kit regularly and sell on their nearly new kit as that's the kit I might buy.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Hello Malcolm,

Thank you for the great comment. I like that quote, which I hadn't heard before. It seems very true, and I think that a lot of people make the mistake of setting out in a profession to make money. Indeed, a lot of the business courses I've been on concentrate on that. For me, money is a by-product. The main thing is enjoying providing a great service. Earning a living from it is just a pleasant bonus.

I didn't write the article intending to create a debate about what a professional is or isn't, and I don't think it really matters.

My collection of lenses comprises mostly second hand models. And one of my cameras was a swap with a friend who wanted something smaller, and I needed the features of her camera. This not only saves me money, but it's food for the environment too.

As for "a great artist", perhaps that's the topic of another article.

Glad you enjoyed this one.

Timothy Gasper's picture

I have read a lot of comments here on what qualifies as 'professional'. Now my stomach is turning. Whenever I go out to shoot I never, let me repeat that, NEVER think that I am a professional. Even when I was doing work for the agencies I used to work with. I just went out and looked for the most pleasing or thought-provoking or meaningful photos I could find. I never considered myself a professional and never will. To go out and say to yourself, ' I am going to take photos today so I can sell them' sets yourself up for failure. At least from the point of view of the one who spoke those words. I take photos because it pleases me, because I saw something which spoke to me and maybe someone else, because I see an uncommon or rare beauty in a scene, because I see a story which I feel should be conveyed. If I look closely and can capture that moment then the image(s) will speak for themselves. Don't give a shit about 'professional'.

Tom Reichner's picture

Timothy Gasper said,

"To go out and say to yourself, ' I am going to take photos today so I can sell them' sets yourself up for failure."

Timothy, what about those of us how HAVE to sell the photos we take in order to pay our monthly bills? Have you ever been in that position? Or do you have some other source of income that covers all of your basic living expenses?

If one must have income derived from their photography in order to survive, then why do you think it is such a wretchedly horrible thing to have the mindset of going out and shooting so that one can earn a livelihood from the images one takes?

People like you, who are so quick to criticize others, have often never been in the shoes of those who you put down.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Well if you read correctly, I said I never... I, me. As for you or anyone else, do as you wish. And it's not a criticism. It's my personal point of view. Perhaps you and maybe others are too quick to come to your conclusions without reading the words that have been written. Please, it's not an afront to anyone. It's how I go about taking photos.

Tom Reichner's picture

Ok.

I thought you meant that the thought of another photographer going out with that mindset made your stomach turn.

So based on your clarification, I will wisely assume that you are totally fine and in agreement with another photographer thinking, "Today I am going to go out and take photos that I can sell" ..... but that the thought of you thinking that way yourself makes your stomach turn.

Is this a correct assumption? I just want to know that you are totally fine with me having the mindset that I have, and that you do not have any problems or criticisms with the way that I think, and that you are not finding any fault with the way I think.

I take any criticism very seriously and it rocks me to my very core. That is why I need to know that you are completely okay with me thinking the way I do when it comes to selling my photos.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Lol. Ok. But don't ever say assume. Better just say presume. I learned my lesson on that a long time ago. But yeah...I was not directing anything towards you specifically. I have been in that situation myself while doing weddings/portraits and then fashion and modeling. After decades of that crap I finally started doing what I really wanted to....landscapes, historical documentary, current event stories, etc. No more worrying if I would be making money for the work. I guess the reputation took care of that, but looking back, I wonder if I had the same outlook I have now....if it would have had a different outcome on my work. I will never know, but I certainly understand your concerns. Hey, why not give it a shot too. Or just play that you're doing a job for someone, go out and 'fun' shooting and see what happens. I'd be interested in the outcome. Have a nice time shooting.