Don't Let a Lack of Money Prevent You From Reaching Your Dreams

Don't Let a Lack of Money Prevent You From Reaching Your Dreams

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.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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hmm... GFX-100S right now then :-D


And what about the idea of renting a camera/equipment? (Of course maybe don't pick up a camera rental on the way to a job, not at least without bringing your usual camera as well!)

Here in the UK there's a couple of very good person-to-person gear rental sites. A few years ago I tried renting some filming equipment, but being an 'industry outsider' I was out of luck. Since then I've found places you can rent anything from a nifty fifty to a RED Dragon.

Rental equipment (lighting, lenses, grip) is rarely a bad idea, and can often easily be buried in your bottom-line figure even for smaller clients.

Cameras, on the other hand, are generally quite expensive to rent. It's doable for the major job here and there, especially for the larger kinds of clients that treat expenses as a below-the-line figure, but you're going to have a really hard time bidding and winning jobs if every estimate has to cover a $250/day 5D/A7/D850/whatever rental (or two) on top of your creative fee and licensing.

Rent *more* cameras, sure, but owning one is pretty much a prerequisite.

Renting is always a good idea. Many photographers actually make this the basis of their gear policy rather than owning.

Very nicely explained. Gear is important but is should not stop you from getting the right shot.

Great article and very inspiring! It's a hard internal battle when there are millions of marketing dollars spent every year to convince us that it *is* the gear that makes the difference.

Great article from a man who went through all of the trials, self-doubt and depression to the professional level with the ability to pass on his experience to wannabes.

Bravo! After years of following this site, I registered an account just to comment on this article.

Learning photography is about building on success and failure. It's about not giving up. You have to make connections and always learn. It's not all about gear, though having good gear does help immensely.

I read an article about a study on successful people a few years back, and they analyzed a number of factors that go into success. What they found is that successful people in any field shared only one thing: they never gave up.

I don't know about other photogs, but in my experience, I was able to overcome a lack of budget, a lack of talent, and a lack of experience by never giving up. I was able to build my gear, and more importantly my experience, by hard work and effort.

What I've learned over the years can be summed up as; never give up, build upon success, learn how to do business, build a
network, and do the best you can with what you can afford. It pays off eventually.

Gear is only a minor (but important) part of being a photographer.

I did a shoot yesterday. I knew it would be an emotional one, and I knew I wanted to get all of those emotions into my images. Yes I used a nice dslr and a prime lens, but I could easily have used my little pocket point-n-shoot for this one. It was about being deeply moved by a subject, and expressing those emotions through my photography.

It was about getting down on the ground. It was about trying different angles. It was about moving back and, when that wasn't enough, it was about moving back farther. It was about returning for a few more shots after I thought I'd done everything but felt I didn't. I was emotionally drained at the end of the shoot, but knew I'd done the best I could. I told my story.

"Better gear" wouldn't have improved the photography in this project. Yes you need gear to take photos, but that's not enough. You need what's inside you to make photos.

Well said