I’ve written about this before, but I think it bears repeating. Don’t let a lack of finances convince you that you can’t achieve your goals as a photographer.
I’ve been there before. Sitting at my computer, pouring over every blog and YouTube review of the latest and greatest gear. Watching all the behind the scenes videos where all of my photographic idols recount the stories of their latest shoot for clients I could only dream of having. Behind them as they discuss their process, you can see what seems like a small armada worth of grip trucks, crew members, and gear more valuable than my house. Oh, who am I kidding? More like my studio apartment.
I looked at the final images plastered across all the famous magazines. I looked at all the tools they had at their disposal. I looked at the promo email I received six months ago from that camera company announcing the one camera capable of curing cancer and that every truly “professional” photographer needed to have, forgetting for a moment that even with the promo discount (long since expired), I still didn’t have anywhere near enough money to ever actually purchase a camera like that. Oh well, I thought. I guess that means I can’t be a professional. I guess that means I can never reach that level.
I might even have fallen into the common trap of fooling myself into thinking that the only reason that that photographer did reach that level was because he or she was able to afford all that gear in the first place. Surely, it had nothing to do with their talent, hard work, marketing efforts, or willingly sacrificed sleepless nights. It had to be about the camera. Or so I could easily fool myself into thinking.
The truth is, of course, far more straightforward. The truth is that every photographer, successful or otherwise, starts out exactly where you are today. Sure, one or two may claim a Rockefeller as a distant relative. But the odds are most of the shooters you know and have come to admire didn’t start with much more money in the bank than you.
They too probably started with a point-and-shoot, an entry-level DSLR, or maybe even a cellphone and a dream. They worked hard. They practiced. They got better. They got a few breaks along the way. Those breaks were most likely countered by a far greater number of setbacks. They had doors slammed in their face. They presented their best work at the time only to have an art director look back with an unintentionally patronizing smile and tell them that perhaps this wasn’t the right career for them.
Yes, they got a break or two along the way. But I imagine if you think hard enough, you’ll see that you’ve gotten a break or two as well. Maybe your break wasn’t bumping into the editor of Vanity Fair in the supermarket. But usually, it’s the far less glamorous encounters that build the ladder to your success.
Those people that reached the top of the ladder didn’t get there by climbing a straight line. The game of life more closely resembles the Chutes and Ladders board game. No straight line to the top. Just a bunch of small diagonal climbs constantly menaced by the potential of a crooked slide all the way back down to the bottom.
Those who reach the level of their potential don’t arrive there because of deep bank accounts or silver spoon-fed connections. They get there because they seized on their small opportunities until they added up to a big one. They got there because when they inevitably did slip and fall into one of life’s many wells, time and time again, they found a way to crawl back up. They refused to stay down and allow their current circumstances to determine their future success.
If you refuse to drown long enough, eventually, you will learn to float. The world has a way of surrendering to people who don’t take no for an answer.
And all that fancy gear that is absolutely necessary to becoming a “professional” photographer? Yeah, that will come with time.
The time will come when you’ve taken enough bad pictures with whatever capture device you started with that your pictures will eventually start to become somewhat good. Eventually, they will be good enough that someone will offer to pay you to do it again. Once enough people start paying you to do it again, you’ll suddenly realize that you can afford a better camera. Maybe not “the” camera yet. But at least one nice enough to impress your friends.
You’ll keep climbing the ladder by building your business on talent, hard work, and execution. You may not have the camera you want, but you’ll have the camera you need. Eventually, your career will begin to grow to the point where you have the kind of clients where you do need to have that five-figure camera to satisfy your customers' needs. Notice, I said “need.”
By the time you “need” to actually own an expensive camera, you will already have a business that makes the camera pay for itself. You won’t be buying an expensive piece of gear hoping that it will make you a professional. You will already be a professional, simply investing in a tool that literally makes you money versus costing you money.
You will look back on the days when you yearned after a camera as a symbol of legitimacy and smile. You’ll also look back on all those test shoots and practice sessions you put in with your entry-level camera and present a much wider ear-to-ear grin. Your hard work is what made you. Not the gear. You made it. And you deserve it.
Of course, we all lust for the coolest combinations of metal and glass. Hobbyist to photographic icon, no one is immune to gear envy. But, especially for those of us for whom the phrase “disposable income” sounds like a foreign language, just remember that only you can determine the level of your own creativity. You can’t wish it into existence. You can’t buy it online. You have to go out and work for it.
Gear helps. But in the end, it’s only a tool. Go out and create the work that only you can make. And don’t take no for an answer.