How to Spend Money Wisely as a Photographer

How to Spend Money Wisely as a Photographer

With 2018 being the year of mirrorless, it is tempting for many of us to fall into the trap of trying to spend our way to good photography rather than using our own talents. And while having appropriate gear is essential to the trade, it’s equally important to think twice before sacrificing your business for the latest trends.

“Be a producer, not a consumer.” This is one of the smartest sentences I’ve heard over the last couple years. Just a throwaway line in a longer speech by Eric Thomas, these six words have stuck with me for months. And while he wasn’t necessarily referring to photography, I can think of few other occupations where the advice would be more relevant.

As photographers, we are constantly bombarded by new product announcements. New cameras. New lenses. New gimbals. New lights. They all promise they will make our jobs faster, easier, and transform us into better photographers simply by their presence in our camera bags. They tell an effective story. They tell it well. It’s their job to tell that story well. They exist to sell product. If, by chance, the claims are true and the product really does help transform your business, then that is truly a cherry on top. But priority number one for them, as it should be, is to get you to buy the product. That’s how they make money and put their kids through school.

As photographers, it’s easy sometimes to forget that spending money is not how we put our own kids through school. We are in business to provide assets that satisfy customer needs. Even if your admirable goal is to provide your clients with service above and beyond their expectation, this still means that your purchasing decisions should be driven by what you “need” to meet that standard, not by what you “want” simply because you desire it and have read cool things about it online.

As a basic example, it would be like McDonalds replacing all of their hamburger meat with lobster. Sure, lobster is amazing. But they are in business to provide low-cost hamburgers quickly with a high profit margin. Headquarters may love the taste of lobster, but it wouldn’t actually help them in their business.

Not that it’s always easy to say no to the latest and greatest sales pitch. One of my mother’s constant refrains growing up was that I had “expensive taste.” No matter what store we wandered into and no matter how limited my knowledge of the product on the shelf, I would inevitably be drawn to the most expensive choice. As a grown man running my own business, I would love to be able to say that tendency has gone away. But sadly, after years of hits and misses with my photography purchases, my first instinct is still always to purchase the top of the line.

Sometimes, that’s the right call. My investments in my lighting kit, top lenses, and various camera bodies have definitely paid off over the years and been well worth the investment. At the same time, many in-between purchases (items that promised the functionality I needed but maybe skimped on some of the details to come out at a lower price point) have been less successful at establishing themselves as my go-to tools on most shoots. However, before jumping to the conclusion that expensive equals better, it would be criminal not to mention the vast number of cheap, non-descript tools I’ve found on Amazon or random garage sales that have ended up being permanent fixtures in my tool kit.

So, how do you know beforehand if you’re spending your money on a perennial all-star or a future benchwarmer? It’s an art, not a science. But try asking yourself these basic questions before you buy and you are likely to improve your batting average.

Do You Already Have a Player on Your Roster Who Can Serve the Same Role?

There’s a reason I launched into the sports metaphors in the last paragraph. Building your photography gear kit is similar to building a successful athletic team. You are assembling a squad of players, all with their own specialties, which will collectively add up to a successful unit. Some players are more important than others. Some score goals. Some are just support players. Some are lower profile players, sitting on the bench, with hidden talents just waiting to be shown once given a chance.

A lot of times, when I find that I am in need of a new piece of gear to solve a particular photographic problem, my first impulse is to head to B&H and shop for a solution. But often, I find I can save that money by first scouring the gear that I already have. Do I really need to buy that fancy new scrim kit with a frame, stand, and carrying case? Why not just use that 6x6 piece of diffusion I bought ten years ago but never really used, make my own frame with a visit to Home Depot, and mount it to any of the multiple discarded light stands currently collecting cobwebs inside my shed?  

The other day, I was looking online for a better solution for handholding my Canon EOS C200 to help me steady my video shots. I had multiple options in my shopping cart, when suddenly, I had a look across the room and noticed my old Mamiya C330 twin lens reflex camera from the 1970s starring back at me. Specifically, I noticed the left handed L-shaped handle that I’d bought used years back that has, for a decade, done little other than complete the display in my living room. On a whim, I took the handle off the C330, mounted it to the bottom of the C200 nearly 50 years its junior, and suddenly, I had discovered the perfect solution for my particular need without having to spend a dime.

What Else Could You Buy With That Money?

This question has been a real help to me in fighting back my urge to splurge. Let’s face it: as photographers, there are a lot of tools we wish we had in our tool kit. And not all our desires are frivolous. There are certain tools we just need to achieve the results that we want. But, unless you are made of money, buying everything you want the moment you decide you want it is unlikely to be a winning financial strategy.

So, what do I do when my the siren call of the shopping cart is yelling my name? I make use of wishlists.

Yes, wishlists are meant to just be a bullpen to hold your desired items before you can no longer fight the urge to move them into your shopping cart. But, I find that there is an added benefit. By loading up my wishlist with every possible item I think could help me as a photographer, it provides a number of benefits. First, it puts one more step between you and the purchase button. That means you have to take one more action before you buy. That also means you have to take one more second to think about your purchase. If it truly is a frivolous purchase, this extra second can be enough to talk you off the ledge.

The real benefit of the wishlist for me, however, is that it allows me to see all of the things I want all in one place. Just as easy as buying a big ticket item that breaks your budget is fooling yourself into thinking you are being pennywise by instead purchasing a series of lower cost items that collectively have the same budgetary result. Whether you buy one item for ten thousand dollars or ten items for one thousand dollars each, the hit to your bottom line is still the same. When you collect all your desired items into one wishlist and look at the grand total of your desire, it gives your a concrete number to compare to your allotted equipment budget.

If your gear budget for the year is $5,000 and you have $50,000 worth of wishlist items, clearly something is going to have to give. All of which leads to the most valuable part of the wishlist, prioritizing.

Most retailers allow you to move items around in your wishlist. So, once I’ve gotten over the shock of the total cost of all items in my wishlist, I then reorder it to focus on priorities. If, hypothetically, I have a wishlist containing a $3,000 camera, a $1,000 gimbal, a $2,000 lens, and a $,4000 lighting kit, but only have a $5,000 budget, I’m probably going to need to spend that budget on the camera and lens, since the other items would be rather useless in their absence.  

Obviously, that is a very simple example, but say you are primarily a portrait photographer and your wishlist is full of items meant for wildlife photography. Or maybe your are a still shooter but your cart is divided between still items and gear more dedicated for video. Depending on your business needs, prioritizing can help to make sure you are spending your limited budget in the right places.

Is It a Need or a Want?

This last question in the most basic, but also the most important. Like our initial McDonalds example, we have to remember that investing in our business is just that, investing. We are putting out money with the aim of it generating money for us in the future. If our object of desire isn’t going to actually increase our revenue, then is it really a necessity?

I, for instance, shoot with a Nikon D850. It does everything I need as a commercial lifestyle, fitness, and activewear photographer, and my clients get the assets they desire. But of course, as a Nikonian, I was as intrigued by anyone about the recent announcement of the Z6 and Z7 mirrorless line. I’m not adverse to carrying around less weight when I shoot, and I expect within a handful of years, most new cameras will be mirrorless and I too will make the change. But would buying one of the new cameras now be a business advantage to me? Would it somehow increase my business or lead to great cost efficiencies? For me, based on my own current circumstances, the answer is no. So, no matter how much I may like the new camera, I realize that purchasing it would be serving a want and not fulfilling a specific need.  

I’m not making the decision based on perceived value of the product, but rather on my own business objectives. It may be far less fun that way, but your bottom line will thank you.

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Only cameras with Eye AF deserve my precious bag of gear :)

Deleted Account's picture

I'm not sure who the "you" is, you're addressing but for "me", it's gotta be Nikon. :-) The number of slots depends on the situation but, sure, two is good.

Simon Patterson's picture

A long battery life never mattered to me before but now it's essential.

Carl Murray's picture

Pffft. Everyone knows real pro photographers only use Canon. XD

Only Canon has real color science. Color science of other brands is fake.

Your all so cookie cutter, real artists use Fuji.

michaeljin's picture

Simple. Get married to someone that has absolutely zero interest in photography and doesn't respect it as a serious hobby or a profession and let your spouse handle all of the money. If you want to level up from there, have a kid or two, too.

John Skinner's picture

"How to Spend Money Wisely as a Photographer"

The best GLASS... GLASS... and GLASS.

Did I happen to mention GLASS?

michaeljin's picture

But then they release better glass...

Juan carlos Chu Zhang's picture

how to spend wisely: buy second hand
all my fuji cameras and lenses were bought second hand at good condition, for a fraction of price
with the money saved i buy godox flashes and glow softboxes

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

Nice article. I take particular note of your mention of Wishlists. I find I use them in ways you noted. I've also noticed how much money I've saved on many items that I managed to do without for several years.