All photographers at every level have a similar problem. How do you know how much to spend on a new camera?
It’s all centered around the proverbial question of how much camera you need versus how much camera you want. The answer to those two questions is very rarely the same. Of course, if money were no issue, we would all have 1000 MP large format cameras with telepathic autofocus and 16K video. And despite the fact that not a single photographer on Earth would really need those specifications, that wouldn’t stop us all from pining after them.
But, if you make your living from photography, you’ll learn that spending too much on gear can quickly put you out of business. Even if you don’t make your living via photography, spending more on your hobby than you do your children’s education may rightly find you put out of your own bedroom and sleeping on the couch.
So, let’s take a look at some scenarios and try to figure out when it is right to spend big and when it is right to spend sensibly. Since every photographer’s circumstance is different, I can’t possibly give a firm number on what to spend on a camera that will make sense for everyone. Like most things in life, the right amount to spend on a camera is all relative. So, I’ve broken this down into four types of photographers, since the approach to spending will be different for each. These categories are purely for this article and are intentionally simplistic. Clearly, you will have your own unique situation and may very well span several of these categories simultaneously. But, since I’ve never actually met you, I can’t drill down on your specific case. Personally, I’ve been every one of these photographers at some point during my life. Situations change. So, think of these more like very loose guidelines, which you can tailor to your own needs.
You don’t make your living from photography. You take photos because you enjoy it. But you did the sensible thing and followed your parents’ advice and became a doctor, giving you a lifetime free of worrying about things like licensing fees, client negotiations, and profit projections. Good for you. You are probably the happiest photographer on this list.
You are also freed from the demand that your camera purchase be considered an investment. An investment, by definition, is an outlay of money with the expectation that a greater amount of revenue will be generated in return. You, however, are not worried about revenue. You simply want to take the best pictures you can, which you will share with your friends and family. It’s unlikely you will be printing your pictures. Maybe you’d like to hang a print in your home, but you don’t need to plan for showing your work at the Museum of Modern Art. But still, you want a camera that can get you great results. So, how much should you spend?
This will depend, of course, on your income. If you are making six or seven figures a year in take-home pay, it’s likely that you can afford to purchase just about any camera you’d like. But, if you’re like most people, you will probably be pulling your camera money from the same fountain from which you pull your vacation money, your cable money, or your budget for buying Christmas gifts.
In this scenario, my suggestion is always to start with APS-C-sized cameras. Personally, I own a number of Fujifilm cameras with APS-C-sized sensors. But there are multiple brands on the market, from Sony to Nikon, each with their own offerings in this space.
While many growing photographers will somewhat subconsciously hold up full frame or even medium format as the holy grail when it comes to cameras, the truth is that APS-C sized cameras are more than capable of producing great images. I started my own career on the back of a 10 MP Nikon D200. Sharpness, bokeh, color science, and all the other buzzwords that you’ve heard can be generated from a crop sensor camera. And for far less money. Even better, since the camera bodies tend to cost less, the accessories that go along with those cameras will cost much less as well. So, you can often fill out an entire kit, with body and multiple lenses, maybe even a flash or two, for about the same price you’d likely pay for one middle class full frame body and a solid lens.
While you’re not hampered by a need to make money with your camera, that also means that you will not be making money with your camera. So, it’s all money out and no money in. So, spending less just makes sense.
When the Fujifilm chairman was asked recently why the company doesn’t produce full frame cameras, his response was that it was because APS-C was “good enough.” And while I’m not quite prepared to say that there are no advantages to full frame cameras, I will say, after having shot APS-C, full frame, and medium format cameras side by side on multiple occasions, the advantages of larger sensors and more expensive gear usually rest in convenience, design, and workflow as opposed to simple image quality. This is further true if we say that our hobbyist is unlikely to ever print his or her work and will be mostly viewing it on a computer screen or even simply scrolling to it on an iPhone.
The Up and Comer
In many ways, the Up and Comer shares many of the same traits as The Hobbyist. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll say that he or she is more than an advanced amateur. They’ve taken a big enough bite of the photography apple to realize that they’d like to make this into a career as opposed to just something they do on the weekends. They haven’t yet figured out the whole business side of things. Maybe they’ve done a paid shoot here or there, but they haven’t figured out how to generate enough consistent income to quit their day job.
For this photographer, I would suggest still staying in the realm of APS-C sensors. At this point, you may actually start printing your work in the form of your portfolio. But you are still not likely going to need enough resolution or sensor size to shoot a billboard in Times Square. You’ll get there, but you’re not there yet. And, even if Google did call tomorrow with such an assignment, you could always rent a larger camera for the job.
There is an argument to be made for moving into full frame at this stage of your career. If you’re going to be working professionally, it’s more than likely that you will eventually find yourself in full frame. But if you do decide to venture into full frame at this early stage, I would still suggest that you keep your investment to less expensive full frame bodies and lower megapixel counts.
Why? Simple. At this point in your career, you have absolutely no idea what specialty you will end up in. A wedding photographer needs a completely different set of tools than an advertising photographer. Likewise, a portrait photographer will need a different set of tools than an architectural photographer. At the moment, you’re still figuring out where you fit into the market. So, it makes no sense to spend all of your seed money on gear that after two or three years of career development may be completely useless to your process. It’s wiser at this point in your career to keep your gear budget at a minimum and instead, spend your money on developing your portfolio. Invest your money into shooting experiences so that you can both build your book and get a greater understanding of what lights your fire creatively.
Something at the high end of APS-C, like the Fujifilm X-T3, or at the lower end of full frame, like the Sony a7 III, would likely be the right balance of quality and investment, even better if you can find one of those systems used. They are great cameras capable of producing pearls. Yet, neither system will prevent you from making the strategic investments necessary to go from The Up and Comer to full-time professional.
The Retail Photographer and The Wholesale Photographer
I am going to discuss the next two types of photographers in the same section. Technically, both could be termed “commercial photographers,” but they serve very different markets. And there are key differences in their business models which will factor into the decision of how much to spend on equipment.
For the purposes of this discussion, I am using the term “retail” photographer to refer to a photographer who provides services directly to the end user. So, in this case, I’m referring to wedding photographers, family portrait photographers, actor’s headshot photographers, or anyone whose clients are also the subjects and ultimate users of the images created during the session.
They differ from what I would call The Wholesale Photographer in one very important way. In a retail transaction, the client is paying for your time to produce an image of them. If you are doing followup print sales, they may also be paying for ancillary products as well. But, generally, these are not buyers who spend a great deal of time thinking about photography. They are not people who make a career shopping for photography or really have any interest in a photographer’s business model. They have a need: to get great pictures to help them remember their wedding, and following the shoot, they will go on living their lives without thinking about photography again or at least until they need a newborn photography session.
The Wholesale Photographer, which is my own business, provides business-to-business services. The subjects he or she shoots are unlikely to be the clients themselves. Instead, The Wholesale Photographer is hired to create images that represent the client's brand. Most likely, the Wholesale Photographer will be hiring models, securing locations, and providing not only imagery, but a complete production including everything from the final images to the caterers on set.
His or her client will be a company and will be working with company employees with titles like Art Buyer, Art Producer, or Creative Director. Their clients do care about photography. The individual client representative you will be working with will more than likely find their job dependent on their ability to source the best photographer for the job. And unlike, for example, an actor’s headshot, the resources required for each assignment vary greatly based on the client’s needs. One client may need a gallery of images for social media. Another may have $2 million to spend on a handful of hero images and a motion campaign. In this business model, your clients aren’t coming to you asking for a preset photographic package where one size fits all. Instead, they are coming to you for a highly personalized bid with every line item dictated by their specific brief. You are less likely, in this scenario, to be selling physical goods like a print and more likely to be licensing your intellectual property for the client to use to then, in turn, market their own physical goods to the public.
The Retail Photographer and the Wholesale Photographer are both charging money for photography. But both the product and client expectations are different. This is important to understand, because it will help to determine how much you need to invest in your equipment and how you will recoup that investment.
This starts with the fact that, because, as the Wholesale Photographer, you are providing a customized product unique to their highly specific assignment, it is not a reasonable expectation to think that you would personally own every piece of photographic gear. Sure, I may have a camera in my office. But, I don’t just have an Arri Alexa setup chilling out in my living room. Nor do I have a backup Arri Alexa around just in case the first one goes down during the shoot. Of course, I don’t own those things. So, when I include a line item in a budget to rent those things, my clients don’t bat an eyelash. Well, sometimes they do, but that’s for another discussion.
In my own business model, owning those cameras would be all the more ridiculous, because they are not cameras that I need for every assignment. Same for stills. Often, I’ll write about how I switch between medium format and full frame when shooting stills for my clients. Some clients needs the benefits medium format has to offer. Others have microthin budgets and are more than happy for me to shoot the campaign with my Nikon D850. Again, certain clients have specific needs. The Wholesale Photographer’s job is to tailor his or her product to suit those specific needs.
In most cases, the Wholesale Photographer does this by passing along the cost of equipment to his client in the form of the equipment line item included in his or her bid. You can handle this in one of two ways. You can rent the camera you need from a rental house on a daily basis and then include the cost of the rental in the budget. So, the client pays you, you pay the rental house, and you break even on that line item. No harm, no foul.
Or, if it’s a camera you are going to use frequently, you can buy the camera yourself up front, then rent your own camera back to the production. This is more risky, because if you don’t book enough work requiring that camera, you will end up with a financial loss. But, it can be beneficial, as having the camera on you full-time can afford you a greater familiarity with your gear, so when game time comes, you will be well practiced.
Buying your camera can also provide you a potential revenue stream. If you plan correctly and do have enough potential jobs where you will be able to rent your camera to your own productions, you stand the chance of making back your initial investment. After that point, anytime you rent your gear to your production, you will be making all profit. So, in essence, you will actually make money by spending money.
Of course, finding the right amount to spend on a camera to ensure that it ends up turning a profit is a skill developed over years and years of practice and learning how to make accurate financial projections. Even an experienced photographer will miss once in a while. But, the goal is to invest in gear at a level that it will pay itself off or at least bring back enough in rentals to greatly offset the initial investment.
But what about the Retail Photographer? Try explaining to an actor why there is a line item on your bill for headshots charging them for your equipment, and it probably won’t go well. For some reason, the public seems to be under the impression that photographers are just gifted all of their gear upon birth and we are just shooting for fun. So, why would we need to recoup our investment?
But just because the Retail Photographer isn’t necessarily going to include the cost of his or her gear on the invoice doesn’t mean that one doesn’t have to factor it into the way one prices their services. The Retail Photographer still needs to recoup the initial investment they make in their camera. And, similar to the Wholesale Photographer, the Retail Photographer needs to base their camera purchases on the projected number of clients they will have, the fee paid by each client, and how many sessions they will need to shoot in order to recoup their investment.
So, just to give some very simple examples with completely unrealistic numbers that will make our math easier, let’s consider two situations.
In scenario number one, Phil shoots family portraits. Phil charges $10 per session. I told you the numbers would be unrealistic. Just follow the math. If Phil’s camera costs $100, then it would take 10 sessions before Phil breaks even. This, of course, is not even taking into account lights, computers, transportation to and from locations, marketing, and everything else that goes into running a business.
So, if Phil is going to book 50 sessions this year, then his revenue would be $500. So, his camera would account for 20% of his revenue. If he planned to use that camera over two years, and all else was identical, it would account for 10% of his revenue over that time span. Depending on other expenses, this may be too much or just about right. Ideally, the lower that percentage, the better, as it will allow Phil to pay off the camera more quickly and protect him in the event of slower than expected sales.
Now, let’s take Amy. Amy shoots advertising campaigns for soft drink companies. Coca-Cola approaches Amy to shoot a big campaign for them that will require multiple out-of-home advertisements and a huge billboard that will be mounted to the sides of city buses all across the country. To shoot this, she has decided that she needs to shoot with a Hasselblad medium format camera and a Phase One back. Let’s say that the system rents for $3,000 per day or can be purchased for $30,000 outright. Again, these are not accurate numbers.
She has two choices. If she rents her gear per job, she would bill the client for $3,000 per shooting day at the end of the shoot and would ultimately break even. She would have little risk and could put her own $30,000 into a savings account.
Or, she could invest that $30,000 into owning the system herself. Once she booked 10 such jobs for Coca-Cola, she would break even on that investment. Her creative fee and other revenue streams would come from a different pot, so we don’t necessarily need to account for those in this simple example. But, after she’s booked those 10 jobs at that rate, let’s say she books five more. So, she would have had 15 shoots and charged the production $3,000 each time, bringing revenue from the camera alone up to $45,000 versus a $30,000 investment. So, she has made a profit. But, conversely, if those Coca-Cola jobs fall through, leaving her with only five instead of 15, she runs the risk of losing money on the initial investment.
So, How Much Should You Spend?
I think it will be clear from the above examples that it is impossible to state an exact number that will suit every photographer. What you need to do is to first figure out where you fall in the photography world and come to a personal projection for the amount of revenue you realistically expect to generate with your gear. Added to this equation would be the expected lifespan of the gear. If, for example, you upgrade your camera every two years, then the camera needs to make its money back in two years.
You also need to figure out which conveniences will make you more efficient with your camera. Time is money. So, if a specific attribute of a camera will save you an hour of post-production, then that may factor into your choice as well.
Now, you need to understand your customers, their needs, and what their level of expectation is with regards to the final product. What will they be doing with the images you create? If you walk on set with either a medium format camera or a point-and-shoot, will they even notice?
You also need to have a look at your overall expense structure. Should your gear really be the largest percentage of your annual expenses? Every business requires money to make money. But might yours be better spent on marketing or portfolio-building rather than a new camera?
Only you can answer these questions. But hopefully, this article will at least give you some things to consider before making your purchase. I know I’ve made some smart investments over the years as well as some truly stupid ones. I’m sure it’s not the last time I’ll do either. But, it is incredibly important to look at your cameras as an investment that will generate income first and as a fun toy second. Unless, of course, you are a hobbyist. In which case, have fun and go wild. Just don’t blame me if your spouse hides the credit cards next time that extra big box from B&H shows up on your doorstep.