Several students are graduating soon and about to start their photography careers. Some of them have asked me how to save up for cameras and gear they need.
This week I talked with Akili Ramsess, executive director of NPPA, for ideas. She worked for years as a staff photographer at a newspaper, then working as an independent photographer in addition to her full-time editing job. Now she takes photo assignments when she can, while heading up the foremost organization for visual journalists.
Akili-Casundria Ramsess, photo by Melissa Lyttle
1. Determine what you will photograph. “Unless you plan on shooting sports, you don’t need the top of the line pro model,” says Ramsess. If you’re doing weddings and portraits, you probably need lights. On the other hand, if your goal is sports photography, plan to invest in the toughest cameras and longest lenses.
2. Make a realistic list of equipment. Choose one brand and stick to it. Usually, it’s Canon or Nikon. But Sony is making a play for professionals’ attention.”Review the cameras that will fulfill most of your daily needs with the type of assignments you plan to cover,” Ramsess says. “I didn’t have as much as I wanted to get started. I went with the Canon 60D (updated version would be the 80D) and made the choice the invest in high end lenses. A 24 – 70mm F2.8 and the 70 – 200 F2.8. I was able to eventually add the Canon 5D Mark III body. But I shot the 1st two years freelancing with just that one body and two lenses.” Ramsess and I agree on a strategy: I buy the minimum camera that will serve my purpose, then I put my real money into glass. These days, I think of a camera like a computer. Technology changes so fast, I’m going to want to update it every 3 – 5 years. But I’ve had lenses 10+ years that stand the test of time. Personally, I own a 70 – 200 mm F2.8 lens and a 1.4x teleconverter, which I call the poor woman’s 300mm lens. But Ramsess eventually bought a 300mm F2.8 lens.
3. Think about a budget and finance. This could easily be the first item on your list. “At this point,” says Ramsess, “there are no [camera companies] that offer student or new-career discounts.” You’ll have to find a deal through a retailer.
If your job requires photography, they should provide the equipment. Some employers own the gear and pay for repairs. Newspapers might expect employees to own their own gear, but they pay a monthly stipend to keep it updated.
“Early in my career,” Ramsess says, “before I got my first staff job, I would literally plan each piece of equipment I would buy, setting aside money every payday until I achieved my goal. My tax refunds were always my bonus to take me over the edge to get what was next on my list.”
Loans are tempting but risky. Some photo students have successfully petitioned that photography equipment is part of their cost of being a student, and receive student loans to cover the first bulk expense. If it’s a low-interest loan, it can be a good investment. Personally, I got a small business loan when I graduated, and that’s how I converted from film to digital cameras. But it was rough paying it off.
4. Buy used, but be careful. “There are also very good used camera brokers like KEH.com. They are very reputable and very much like buying a certified used car from a dealership. I have brought a few used pieces from them over the years and have never been disappointed,” says Ramsess. One thing to remember–photojournalists are the hardest on their equipment, as they photograph in any weather or conditions. Buyer beware.
5. Borrow or rent. Canon Professional Service (CPS) or Nikon Professional Service (NPS) offer expedited repairs and rentals to preferred customers. Be sure to join. If you need a special lens or camera, there are lots of mail-order rental houses. In fact, most videographers don’t own any of their gear. They rent everything when they get a job. If you own your gear, you may be able to “rent it” to the client on your invoice, as a legitimate way of covering your costs and depreciation. Alternatively, you can rent or borrow it from a colleague. It’s one more good reason to network with fellow photographers in your market area.
6. Plan for the future. There will always be new technology or new equipment. The current trends are drones and 360˚ cameras. They all require maintenance and training. There’s always new software and hardware. Save for tomorrow, and don’t get in over your head.
How did you get the gear to start your professional career? What is your must-have starter list? Share your ideas for graduating students.