Where To Invest Your Money as a Photographer

Where To Invest Your Money as a Photographer

In today’s article, I’ll share a few thoughts on what has and has not proven to be worth the investment for me as a photographer.

I love being a professional photographer. I fell in love with the craft as a hobby a couple of decades ago and have been fortunate enough to go on to shoot for the clients of my dreams. But one thing has always driven me plum crazy about the industry we are in. Is it just me, or does it seem as though the photo industry is set up to make money from photographers instead of making money for photographers?

I mean, think about it. Early in your journey, you are ambushed by nothing but videos and articles saying how you can’t be a professional if you don’t buy this product or that one. Hopefully, you grow out of that phase at some point. Then, in order to start getting jobs, you need to prove that you can do the job. It’s a bit of a catch-22. So, ultimately, the best way to prove your worth to potential paying customers is to create personal projects of your own. Eventually, as your ambitions grow, those personal projects tend to start costing you money on top of all the money you’ve already spent on the latest and greatest gear. Then, once you have something to show, you have to spend money to show it. Websites, paid portfolio reviews, print and digital promos, sales trips to visit clients. Then there are contests you might want to enter to get your work in front of the right people. Printing costs to make your promos or put on an exhibition. Just the other day, while being barraged by the usual daily deluge of spam emails I get asking me to submit to this competition or that one, or shop at this outlet or that one, it dawned on me that I could easily spend $100/day just on “opportunities” to get “exposure.” And, even though a solid 99% of them are absolutely useless to actually building a career, there are 1% of them that present genuine opportunities. It’s hard to know when you're spending your money for your own benefit or just to line the pockets of yet another startup who has built their business model by preying on vulnerable photographers hoping for any way to have their voice heard through the clutter.

Realistically, if you want to get rich in the photo business, the smart move may be to start a company that sells products to photographers rather than trying to become one yourself. But, most of you are probably like me in that your draw to the business was the art itself, rather than just the potential revenue. Lord knows there are far easier ways to make a living.

So, after two decades of marketers trying to peel off a piece of my limited operating expenses, I thought it might be a good time to reflect as objectively as possible on what was actually worthwhile to spend money on, and what turned out just to be a way for me to line someone else’s pockets. Fair warning, some of this might not apply to you and your particular business model. This advice is based on my own path and ambitions as an artist. Results may vary.

Do Spend Money On: Personal Projects

It may seem illogical to spend money on something without a specific return on investment. When you make a personal project, you are, by definition, creating something for yourself. You’re ultimately going to share it with potential clients. But, the benefit of doing a personal project is the personal development it brings you as an artist and the opportunity it gives you to create the type of images you want to make. Not the images being dictated to you by a client’s creative director. But the images that are 100% you.

Keeping in mind that you’re unlikely to see a financial return on the project, it does make sense to minimize costs where possible. But, ultimately, these personal projects are the ones your client is going to end up hiring you for. Having had more portfolio reviews than I care to remember, one constant is true. The images that intrigue reviewers most are inevitably the ones I create for personal projects. It’s nice to show them some client work as well. But, what is really going to get them going is the stuff where you let your own creativity shine through. Because that’s what you bring to the table. That is why they are hiring you and not someone else. Not just the technical execution of someone else’s ideas. They want to see what ideas you have yourself.

Personal projects are the single most important marketing tool you have as they allow you to announce to the world why you are so special.

Don’t Spend Money On: Cameras

Of course, you will likely need to own a camera to work as a professional photographer. Probably at least two. So I’m not saying you shouldn’t own a camera at all. Although I do have colleagues who have gone that route. Rather, what I’m saying is that spending a small fortune every year to keep updating your camera is unlikely to make mathematical sense in the end. It might be fun to play with new toys. But, from an investment perspective, unless you are able to make your money back on that camera (by renting it back to yourself/the customer as part of the bidding process), a new camera is likely to simply be a loss leader. Again, I’m not saying not to buy a new camera. What I am saying is that if you are spending a few thousand dollars a year on new cameras and glass, but you’re not recouping that investment on a relatively timely basis, you can easily end up spending yourself out of business.

It’s okay not to upgrade every time a new camera comes out. You don’t have to keep switching camera brands every time someone adds more megapixels. Your clients are not hiring you for your gear. They are hiring you for your skill. If you’re using the latest and greatest mirrorless camera with 800 MP or a 10-year-old DSLR with 45 MP, as long as you cross the minimum threshold for the kind of work you do, the type of tool you use to build the house is of no concern to the occupant. They only care that it be well made and meets/exceeds their needs and expectations.

Do Spend Money On: Support Equipment

Why do I rail against constant camera fascination but suggest that spending money on support equipment is, in fact, worthwhile? Simple math. Due to the rate of technological advancement, in order for you to make your money back on camera purchase, you likely need to have it pay for itself inside of 2-3 years. That means either making money back from renting to your own productions, renting it to other people, or the ultimate resale value when you go to trade it in at the end of its life cycle. That’s a pretty quick financial turnaround.

Conversely, when you put money into something as unexciting as a C-stand, it might not spur you to want to brag about it on Instagram, but that product is likely to last you your entire career. Lighting products can be used for decades over the span of multiple camera upgrades. Diffusion, light shaping tools, and all the other stuff that actually determines how good an image looks (as opposed to just buying a new camera) can last you an eternity and stay in use for years. A couple of years ago, as I moved more and more into building my filmmaking lighting kit which consists of much heavier gear than photo flashes, I began investing in heavy combo stands and other supports that could hold the larger payload. These things weren’t super cheap up front. But they are built like tanks, will last for decades, and likely still retain their resale value well into the future. Oh, and a couple of the stands are even crank stands which allow me to raise super heavy lights high in the air with a simple crank rather than needing to lift them myself. I know that doesn’t save me on upfront costs. But it did save me some medical bills as I was dealing with a torn rotator cuff. So, yay, even more indirect financial benefit.

Whatever support tools work best for your type of photography, it tends to be a better financial investment to focus on those tools that will serve you for a long period of time. That gives you a longer period of time to recoup your initial investment. And, even if your goal isn’t to recoup directly, spreading your investment over a longer life cycle just makes financial sense.

Do Spend Money On: (High-Return) Marketing

There’s no way around it. The only way for you to reap the benefits of all your hard work to grow your skill as a photographer is for clients to know about it. Usually, that is going to cost money. How much money and where you spend that money will vary depending on your business model. If you are a retail photographer, for example, family portraits, actors' headshots, weddings, etc., then you may need to reach your customers through paid advertising to get as many eyeballs on your service as possible. If you are a B2B photographer, advertising, editorial, etc., then your marketing efforts are likely more in the realm of promo pieces to specific art buyers, in-person portfolio reviews, and so forth. What’s effective for one photographer might not be useful for another.

I, for example, am a B2B commercial photographer. I market to a very small set of specific creatives at ad agencies and brands. It makes no sense for me to take out a paid social media ad as that’s not where my clients reside. But I do have to spend money on things like my website, portfolio reviews, print promos, email marketing, traveling to meet clients, and even the odd photo competition or two.

The trick is not only having the money to spend, but knowing what to spend money on or not to spend money on. There are hundreds of photography competitions around the world promising you high-level exposure if you submit your images. But, the truth of the matter is that there are really only like five or six that actually matter to potential buyers in my sector of the business. So, as much as my ego would love the praise, it does me no good to spend money on a small regional photo competition that nobody has ever heard of. It simply won’t matter to the people I’m marketing to and thus makes no sense for me to pay the entry fee. Now, that might be different if, for example, my client base was largely based in that region and the competition would have name recognition that I could build on in my marketing. But, for the clients I’m aiming at, there are really a very limited number of contests or publications that can really move the needle. So, it makes sense to focus my investments there for the biggest potential return.

Likewise, especially since the pandemic, there has been a rapid rise in the number of paid portfolio reviews which promise you meetings with high-level clients. These can be excellent ways to expand your network and get face time with potential clients who might not respond to your direct emails. The only problem being that now, with so many portfolio reviews in existence, you can quickly go broke if you try to attend them all. So, again, you have to be scientific in your approach to deciding which are worth your investment and which you can stand to miss out on.

This can be a difficult decision. All humans have FOMO (fear of missing out). Photographers especially. We want to be visible at every opportunity. So, the idea of willingly not attending one of these events or entering one of these competitions can bring out our competitive impulse. Marketers are counting on that to boost sales to those events. And, like I said, some of them are absolutely worth the money. You just have to do your homework. Which are likely to actually initiate a meaningful relationship with a client creative? And which are just charging way too much for something you can get at another review or perhaps even get through a direct email straight to the client themselves? It’s a hard choice. But you will ultimately have to make that choice in order to spend wisely.

Do Spend Money On: Your Website

This one is easy. Have a website. A social media feed is not a website. A page on some third-party photo site is not your own website. Get your own website. They are relatively cheap. They take five minutes to set up. They are the first place most serious buyers will look to access your skills. They keep marketing your services even when you are asleep. They are essential. Have a website.


In a landscape seemingly designed to sap photographers of money rather than make us money, it can be hard to know where to spend your limited funds. And you will definitely make some mistakes along the way. I speak from experience. But, the simple way to think of it is that you need to invest in material that best displays your artistic capabilities. Then you need to spend to make sure potential clients see that work and have a chance to recognize your capabilities. But those investments, along with which gear you do or do not add to your kit, are part of a long-term investment strategy with the goal of creating a sustainable business. It’s not about the glitz and glamour. It’s about the dollars and cents.

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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Good points, and I am glad the you changed to spending and not investing. Gear is an expense, not really an investment. YMMV

I am often reminded of the Steve Forbes quote on investing, "You can make money selling the advice, than you can by following it"

All good points, but I think I was also expecting to see advice on making sure to invest in retirement, since full time photographers may not have that setup like they would working for other companies.

Good suggestion