How to Become a Pro Photographer When You’re Broke

How to Become a Pro Photographer When You’re Broke

Photography is expensive. Even a budget camera is expensive, so for many of us, a career in professional photography seems out of our reach. Here are some tips for getting there.

Last week, I had a few jibes thrown my way about the amount of gear I own, how it’s easy to be a pro if you have all of that gear, and the general silver spoon accusations. I’m a big boy, but it got me thinking, when I first started out, I would have seen people in my position and thought the same thing. About 12 years ago, I had no money, no address, and no real prospects due to a string of bad situations playing out back to back. I wanted to start photography, but I couldn’t afford a digital camera. Getting from that point to having my own studio has been a real battle, but I learned a load of useful tips along the way, which can hopefully help fellow financially stunted and aspiring photographers along to where they want to be. 

The Camera

First up, you are going to need a camera. I spent so long researching cameras that were far out of my financial reach, because other people told me that they were what professionals had to have. In the end, my lovely uncle said I could borrow his Canon 450D. I borrowed it for three years! It was an entry-level camera, pretty old, and it had a lot of dead pixels, but it was a digital camera. Having never owned a digital camera before, I thought it was amazing. I had been practicing with an old Pentax ME Super and some black and white film I was given that I could develop for free in a dark room in Cardiff, so I already had a good understanding of how the camera worked, so straight away, I set about shooting for money. I think I charged $50 for my first photoshoot. I probably worked all day for that to, but as I continued to do these little jobs, I put the money aside so I could move away from the kit lens he had loaned me.

Three years later, I upgraded to the Canon 50D, which was a much better camera; the build quality was really good, and the high ISO performance was much better. I purchased this used, before moving to a used Canon 5D a year later, then a year later than that, a used Canon EOS 5D Mark II, which I ended up buying five of over the course of the next decade. All used, and all cheaper than the previous version, thanks to their devaluation. The last Canon 5D Mark II that I purchased was the same price as my Canon 50D years before. The most I ever spent on a camera body was $900, by which point I was working at $600 a day. But I was still pretty tight on cash, and buying anything new was out of the question. 

The Lens

Along with the Canon 450D that my uncle let me borrow, I had a cheap plastic zoom lens where the f-stop would change as you zoomed in and out. It was awful, really bad, and had to be shot at f/8 for any reasonable images to be produced. As soon as I had the money, I purchased the cheap Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens. I worked with this lens for years. It is the biggest bang for your buck that you can get in photography. Right through to owning the Canon 5D Mark II bodies, I was still using this lens. Up until very recently, my lens selection was very modest. I purchase a used Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens, Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8 USM Lens (version 1), Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens, and a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens. Now, this is a pretty nice selection of lenses, and if you are at the start of the journey, you really don’t need them; this was the result of working for about five years as a photographer on the side of a day job. By year 12 of my journey, I was buying far more extravagant lenses and camera bodies and renting out very high end gear. 

Computers

As a photographer, I think I spend more time at a computer than I do behind a camera. If you ask a person into computers what you need, they will tell you the specs for a machine that will break the bank. In reality, I worked on a cheap as chips PC for about 8 years until it pretty much imploded, then on a MacBook Air with very low specs (I got a good deal on it), and only recently have I ended up with four computers to work on that are of a reasonable spec. Yes, my old computer was slow, and all exports had to be done overnight, but it did the job, and I managed just fine. I was working on a $100 monitor where the colors were all over the place, but when you are starting out, these are the least of your worries. 

The Snowball Effect 

The point of the previous three sections is this: for a very long time, I had no money and very little gear. All of the gear that I have in my studio has been purchased in a relatively short and also recent period of time. In photography, like most careers, things tend to snowball. The difficulty of buying your first budget camera compared to buying three full frame DSLRs on the same day is huge. As the jobs get bigger and the money starts to be more respectable, the cost of a new camera is far more negligible than purchasing your first one. Buying my first nifty fifty for about $120 compared to a recent purchase of a Zeiss lens was about as much as a punch in the guts financially. Not because I am now Mr Money Bags, but because once you have a bit of financial momentum and a good string of clients coming back, things just seem a little easier and far less of a leap. 

Patience 

The one thing I wish I had realized when starting out was how patient I had to be and that you don’t need it all at once. For the first decade, most good camera gear will be wasted on you. You would be far better spending that time, money, and emotional stress of procuring gear you can’t afford on your actual craft. If anyone had simply told me that it would be a good 10 years of graft before I saw any real results, I would have felt a lot more easy about those years. 

So, if you are in that first decade, afraid that you are not keeping up with the Jones, try not to worry, spend this time working on your craft. If you ever want to feel better about having cheap gear, just remember, there are loads of kids on Instagram with a phone who take better photographs than most of us on here. 

Work on your photography, and the tools that you require to produce your work will find their way to you as clients start paying you more and more money. If you buy the gear first, you will still have to work to a point where you are good enough, the camera gear won’t make this any faster, and in some cases, having too much gear at the start will slow you down while you fumble over choices of lenses and lights. 

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39 Comments

Daniel McAvoy's picture

A 17-40, 85mm 1.8, and Sigma 35 1.4, is exactly the same set up I currently use and I'm a full time commercial food/drink/interiors photographer.

I constantly get quizzed by other photographers about why I don't buy this and that but I find it very hard to justify spending £1000's on a new lenses and cameras when I can do the job perfectly well with what I have. Yes a dedicated macro lens might be nice, or a slightly wider/sharper wide angle, but realistically the only people going to notice the difference is me. I've never once had a client say they weren't happy with the images.

Totally agree with you on worrying about your skills and techniques rather than the gear.

Far too many people these days who've spent silly money on gear and still wonder why they can't take a decent image.

Scott Choucino's picture

Good stuff Daniel.

I am lucky that my partner worked in advertising for a really big agency years back, so I always ask her opinion on image quality as she is the sort of person who would now be buying my work. The only time she ever commented on it was when I used a £45,000 camera set up. She said it looked like film and had beautiful tones, it did. But never had a negative word to say between Canon lenses of various prices.

It's good to have feedback from the client side especially if they were working during the film era so the know what to look for. IMO 90% of the film look talk is a lot of hot air. Especially when looking at an image on a monitor.

Clay Wegrzynowicz's picture

When I started doing Higher-Ed marketing, I had a 17-40, 85 1.8, and the canon 35 1.4. Great minds think alike!
But seriously, there's not much that can't be done with that kind of setup. For grins and giggles once I pulled out my old 5d Classic to use on a shoot, and no one was the wiser.

Scott Choucino's picture

If the 5d classic could still tether to my Mac, id still use them when I don't need 50 mega pixels. The skin tones from that sensor are amazing.

Daniel McAvoy's picture

I still use a 6D Mark 1, that sensor is great for low noise and the tones are gorgeous from it. I've compared it over the years to the 5D3 and 4, and honestly think it still outperforms them in some aspects, especially low light.

I'm only now upgrading to an EOS R because the shutter is on something like 600K+ and it's falling to pieces. But even after 5 years heavy use, a new PCB board and new Logic board it's still working away.

The few times I do a photography job (not alot of time for them anymore) I use a cheap 17-50mm f2.8, a cheap but new 70-200m f4 and a Nikon D7000 i've been using for years just recently added a Nikon D7500.
But it happens at almost every event that I see family and friends of the couple using combinations worth 3-4 times my setup (I've seen a guy with a Leica M10 and alot of lenses)!
But when I see their photo's afterwards on the socialmedia of the couple (I'm mostly friends with the couples) I always think by myself that they maybe should have taken a few classes or used their equipment more than buying that gear!

Scott Choucino's picture

I have the same when I go to do photography talks to aspiring pros. They always have better or at least newer gear than me haha.

I've been doing photography for about a year now and I'm working on getting a laptop to learn more about editing and retouching in Lightroom and what you said about using a computer with low specs has made me realise that I shouldn't be looking for the computer that I want, instead I should be looking for the computer that I need regardless of specs or brand.

Andy Work's picture

After installing a SSD in my cheap PC it runs PS and LR just fine.

Clay Wegrzynowicz's picture

You can edit with almost any computer, it'll just take a little while longer with an older one or with a lower-specced machine. I started editing on a 2007 macbook pro in 2012, so anything is possible lol

That's very encouraging

Scott Choucino's picture

yeah just go cheap. When I have big video work, I render overnight, so as long as it can get done in 8 hours its fine. When I use to have massive photo exports, I would line them all up and run them over night to. Editing was slow sometimes, but if you don't have the cash, you don't have the cash and you can absolutely make do with something very basic.

I just found a laptop being sold for $500 and that's what I'm going for. It doesn't have the best specs out there but it's got decent enough specs that it won't freeze when I open up Lightroom.

I’m in the same situation, I’m using PS Express on my IPad at present as my old laptop is useless but as I’m only a Hobby Photographer with no intention of going Pro I know I don’t need to rush hen buying new gear. I have a Canon 1300d and think that is where I need to upgrade, along with some decent quality ND Filters as these are something I do use regularly and find the cheap ones are just not giving me what I want,

We're in literally the same position. I also use PS Express on my phone and I too have an old useless laptop that's not worth $50. I too am a hobbyist photographer although I've had a few people ask me to do photoshoots for them but I don't think I have the skill yet. By the way I shoot on a canon 550d/rebel t2i that's 9 years old and I have lenses that are just as old.

Was asked by a friend to shoot their wedding, after a lot of persuasion I agreed, only after a few weeks of hard thinking and knowing that, like you, I don’t have the required skill, plus, I really didn’t want to. I don’t have the right gear now and had even less back then, crikey, I didn’t even have a flash gun. I have one now I picked up used for next to nothing, still haven’t used it. Anyway, even though she said I’d get paid, I knew in my own mind she would be after “mates rates”. Now, I had to take into account the travel and accommodation as she lived a fair distance away so I would probably be left out of pocket. I was so glad when I told her no, I’d been stressing over it and when it came down to it, the wedding didn’t happen.

Sophie Charlotte's picture

My computer is a fairly hefty priced model (6 grand) and I still struggle massively with Lightroom. Delayed responses and crashes and all sorts. When I was using a cheaper one I literally walked off and got a drink while it processed moving the saturation slider up 10 points.

Jim Bolen's picture

Something seriously sounds wrong. My computer is almost five years old, with 32gb of RAM, and I never have lags like that. In fact, it chews through LR pretty well.

Sophie Charlotte's picture

Well my previous computer is around 8 years old. But yes my current one is meant to be a graphics optimimised beast and still struggles. Maybe I should get it checked out.

Ross Alexander's picture

I got so sick of Lightroom. I had 5, then went to CC when I got a new camera and it was dog slow! I think things have improved now, but I got fed up with it and switched to Capture One 10 and it was a breath of fresh air! Tricky learning a new system, but I can edit two or three times as fast in C1 as I did in LR! I really don't miss Lightroom at all!

I'm currently on a 10 year old Mac Pro, dual 6 core machine with 64GB RAM.

Sophie Charlotte's picture

Hmm ok. Maybe I'll check Capture One out then when my Adobe subscription is up.

John Koster's picture

Great article. Nothing good comes easy.

I'll start off on saying that while i do understand that this is more of a blog post than an actually helpful article and is clickbait to an extent, posts like this create quite a lot of misconceptions among new photographers.

As a person who spent pretty much 1.5 years learning the theoretical side of photography as i had no money for gear but had unrestricted internet access and time i can very strongly disagree with the author on most points except "patience and hard work".

1.Make a distinction: PRO does not equal employed in photography. While there is a correlation between your professional level and your hourly rate, that's pretty much the only correlation there is. You can be insanely professional without ever making money off it or even owning a camera. Professionalism refers to a level of understanding the subject and being able to perform the required tasks.

2.Don't settle for mediocre gear: Get the gear that fits what you need.
Treat your first camera like your first anything you're serious about. Understand that it is a tool and it will have it's limitations unrelated to your skills(same goes for lenses). Save a bit more, don't get entry-level if you're aiming at becoming a pro. It is a tool for learning the trade and while some photographers make statements like "you're not ready for full frame" they are simply wrong. There is no "readyness level" to get a different tool. There is a learning curve to any camera or lens you'll get over your career, as they all perform differently under different shooting situations. There are also different needs according to what you're actually shooting(landscape, portrait, events..) and i think it is generally wiser to learn with a tool that's as close as possible to what is appropriate for shooting the content you want. Although switching to a better camera within the same manufacturer will have significantly lower learning curves than switching systems entierly, you'll still spend the first few photoshoots learning the nuances and limitations of your upgraded gear.

3.New isn't necessarily better - Pro-gear is usually better
The release date on gear items is almost meaningless, mostly in regards to camera bodies. A newer "enthusiast" crop camera may be outperformed by older(or WAY older) pro bodies but cost more because it's new and has miscellaneous functions like wifi.
I had to learn this the hard way when i got a canon 1d mark4 for a bit less than i paid for my 8 year newer 80D and saw how the AF system outperforms the newer camera by far.

4.Felxibility is the king of learning
If you're going for a cheap lens to learn on, get the most diverse focal range possible. I wish someone told me to get the 18-135 or 50-250 with my first camera, as those would allow me to figure out which focal lengths i actually enjoy shooting at a lot faster than it took me to learn with the 17-55 and 35 1.4.
Unless you're making a very educated purchase, you should treat your first lenses as learning gear of a semi-disposable nature, you will most likely replace them with better lenses for the focal lengths you actually want to use once upgrading gear is on the table.

5.Old is sometimes significantly better
Most online resources, especially those which discuss lenses tend to remain fixated on very few aspects - fstops, focal length, abberations, weigh, distortion. Almost none talk about things like microcontrast or rendering or the correlations between beautiful bokeh and the aperture mechanisms(beyond "9 blades for beautiful bokeh").
A full set of adapted old manual lenses can be bought for under 100$ a piece and deliver better results than a 10 times more expensive set of modern lenses simply because old glass was better. If you're ok with shooting manual then a bunch of Super Takumars and adapted pentax M lenses may save you quite a lot of entry dollars and allow you to produce sellable results faster.

6.Your gear matters
Your cameras or lenses will bottleneck you at certain shooting scenarios - iso performance, focal length, apertures, light transmittance and other technical factors will dictate what you can or cant shoot to a level of personal or client satisfaction. Better gear will just give you more flexibility, but any piece of gear has it's limits. Understanding what you actually need for what you want to shoot is critical to make the right choice, especially for technical photography such as macro or landscape.
While expensive gear tends to be better, it is not always the case and you may find yourself more comfortable with a good kit of value-for-money equipment that actually fits your needs. "Best" is very subjective.

7.Your competition and clients matter
Depending on where you are located, your gear may actually limit you in the jobs you can or cant take. I've seen countless ads looking for wedding photographers with full high-end gear, lighting setups and drones on top and at the same time i saw countless photographers doing club\bar\concert photography with mid-range crop cameras and kit zoom lenses while getting paid for their work. Among less tech-savy populations you may have significantly higher success rates as a "pro"(employed) photographer than in major cities with a higher rate of well equipped competition.

8.Post processing is complicated
This part of 'pro' photography is much more complicated than it seems. Software is expensive, plugins are expensive, good PC are expensive and it all has a huge learning curve to get actually decent results. Better(quality) camera gear and lenses will save a lot of post-processing time as you wont spend as much of it doing basic things like color correction or noise removal, or may even allow you to use out-of-camera results.
Good PCs will allow avoiding the insane frustration that's caused by working on hardware that cant handle your files. Post processing can also be outsourced to people who are actually equipped (technically and skill-wise) to do it and may initially fit your budget alot better than investing the time and money required to learn PP.

9.Patience:
Patience, hard work and the will to learn from all sources, including your own mistakes and external criticism are actually the things that will allow you to become "Pro" in shorter periods of time.

Scott Choucino's picture

Thanks for reading.

This is just my understanding of photography from what I have learnt from my career.

Solid advice!

I guess it depends on what you shoot.
I could go out with my Canon 5D2 and 85mm 1.8 lens combo with a pop up reflector and shoot headshots all day long and make money with a set up that cost $700
If I shoot real estate photos I need a wide lens with not much distortion and a camera with good dynamic range because if I shoot 6 houses (like a friend of mine does) a day I won't be setting up lights, it'll be HDR.
If I am shooting food, fashion, cars or products then I might need accurate color, higher quality lenses and a bunch of pixels.

You covered cameras, lenses, computers. But no mention of lights and grip, will you need strobes, speedlights or LED continuous lights. This stuff can cost more than the camera / lens / computer expenses.

Scott Choucino's picture

yeah for sure, some genres are more expensive than others. If you want to do reproduction work, you need money.

Yeah there is a lot more than camera, lens, and comp. But I had to limit it somewhere otherwise id be writing a book rather than an article. I might look at adding a part two about the studio side of things. I certainly have more money in my studio than my camera bag.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Mike, I was wondering the same thing. I don't think I would go out without considering if I need to bring lights or not and think about how I could benefit from having strobes handy. This to me translate into which lights to bring and again, I may decide not to use any. Between computer and lights, I think lights could have been the priority here.

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