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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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.

Kirk Darling's picture

"As a photographer, I think I spend more time at a computer than I do behind a camera."

Back in the 70s and 80s, I certainly spent more time in the darkroom than I spent behind the camera.

Jim Bolen's picture

Yeah, good point. Plus, we are running a business which is heavy computer work- managing our website, marketing, etc.

I always had a love hate relationship with darkroom work. Much more hate than love.
And the lab down the street running E6 wasn't a lot of fun either.
For the most part I enjoy working in LR, PS and C1.

Kirk Darling's picture

If I wasn't in a big hurry, I found BW darkroom work very relaxing. Color was always tedious, both film processing and printing. These days, I laugh out loud when I watch a color print rolling off my Canon and think about the toil it took to get a good print off that old Kodak stainless steel "high speed" drum.

Scott Choucino's picture

Colour printing is the worst ! Haha

Ross Alexander's picture

These days you can get really good results with cheap used gear. A friend of mine wanted to get a camera. I told her to get a used Canon 6D MkI and a used Canon 50mm 1.8 lens. She also got a used Canon 70-200 f4L on my recommendation. You can get amazing results with that setup.

When I first got some studio lighting, I was amazed how much detail you can get in your images, so it just goes to show, even with a budget camera, when you have the right light you can get very detailed images, even on an old camera body.

The trouble is we are bombarded with marketing telling us that we need this or that, but you can get by on very little if you can quieten the voices of temptation.

We're lucky that we can bypass many mistakes in the early stages of photography these days, as there are so many free videos to watch online about how to use your kit properly.

Kim Baxter's picture

Of course good gear is the essential, however, it doesn't have to come oft the Star Trek Enterprise.....Learning your way around a DSLR at first can be oh, so frustrating when you're teaching yourself...I've had mine for about 6 years and don't regret it. It's just mid-range Nikon DSLR, but if you know what your doing with F stops, aperture, manual mode, and there are a few more "built in modes". I've been able to pull some really tasty photos with that camera...plus knowing your way around post is the yummy cream on the cake. It's not that difficult....a little intimidating at first, but as soon as you start pulling in better photos, it's a great feeling, then you get to go home and "play" with your image...my favorite part. I'm still using my kit lenses....couldn't afford anything else. Now I can shop around for a good lense. I'm keeping my Nikon body....I don't see the point in spending another $1000 to $2000 or so, I can put great lenses on it, I know how to edit & and compose my shots.

Different lenses are great, but know what you're getting into....will they be your "go to" lenses, or pull them out here & there? Maybe try a lens extender.... mine have always been really handy & not over the top. Wish you Luck Daniel.......

Livia NYC's picture

thank you for sharing :)

The best advice in this article is 'patience'.