Quitting Your Day Job: The Art of Purchasing Gear

Business Tips August 27th 2014 11:46 AM 18 Comments

Quitting Your Day Job

This is a un-sugarcoated look into what life is really like when you walk away from the steady paycheck and enter the world of being self employed. I will be sharing my experiences, thoughts, and anything else that comes my way as I navigate the waters of being a full-time photographer. I also hope to interview other full-time photographers to share their experiences with you as well. To see the rest of the articles in the series, click here.

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Investing In The Right Gear

What’s in my bag? I get this question from time to time and since my series is all about running a photography business as much as it is about life after quitting your day job, I wanted to talk about building a kit that works for you and the art of making smart choices when it comes to spending money on gear.

I’m a true believer that gear does not make the photographer, but more so the right gear is an essential tool to help a photographer do their job well. When running a full-time photography business, you need to be smart about purchasing gear. While you might really want to upgrade to that shiny new offering from Nikon, Canon, or Fuji, is it really going to help you do your job better (maybe), or more importantly, will it help you book more clients? Most likely, it won’t.

[REWIND: DESPITE WHAT MOST SAY, I FEEL GEAR DOES, IN FACT, MATTER…]

When I decided to buy better gear (than my Nikon D40 and kit lens) to start my photography business, I took a hard look at what I needed to do my job and I created the kit below. Note: I photograph weddings and create portraits for people and families.

My First Kit

As you see, my first kit did not contain a ton of top of the line gear, but it was gear that I knew would work well for my needs. It contained two very capable bodies (main and back up), two solid speedlights, and lenses that I knew could cover many different situations. I knew with the kit above, I could easily do portrait sessions, and handle most weddings. All of my gear choices were simply for financial reasons, and that’s an important thing to remember when we are talking about running a business – it always boils down to money. Always.

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Five Tips for Making Smart Choices When Investing in Gear

1. Only Buy Gear You Will Use All The Time

Photography gear is not cheap, so when deciding to make a purchase, you really need to know you’re going to use that piece of gear all the time. I knew when I started out, I needed two camera bodies, a main and a back up. That’s how I ended up with two Nikon D7000’s.

I really wanted a Nikon D800 at the time, but when I looked at my finances, it made no sense to sink so much money into one body and then not be able to purchase the other body or any more of the gear I needed. If I was just going to be shooting for fun, I would have bought the Nikon D800 I so desperately wanted, but I knew that would hurt me financially, and set me back in terms of funding right off the bat.

When investing a large chunk of capital in any piece of gear, make sure you need it for most of or all the work you do. You could be using that money you just spent on a new studio strobe set up you will use once on marketing, saving for retirement, or bills that need to be paid.

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2. Renting Gear Is Cool

I love renting gear! There are a lot of options out there for renting gear and I rented for a long time. When I was not shooting weddings regularly, I rented the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VRII for a long time. First, I didn’t really have the capital to purchase that lens, but secondly, I didn’t have a consistent need for it like I do now. Renting allowed me to have one of the best lenses in the game in my hands for a client’s wedding without breaking the bank.

The other thing I love about renting is that I can try different gear to see if it’s a good fit for me before I purchase it. While going to the local camera shop is fun and all to check out gear, you don’t get a real feel for how a piece of gear is going to perform until you have it out in the field with you. Renting it for a week or two will give you the time to decided if that new camera is a good fit for you or not.

So go ahead, rent to your heart’s content. Have fun trying the best gear out there, and when the time comes that you really need it, then go invest in it.

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3. Gear Does Not Impress Clients

If you shoot weddings or portraits like myself, gear is not going to impress clients. You and your images will impress clients. Not one client I have worked with has questioned the gear I use. Now, I don’t work in the commercial photography field, but I would have to imagine that top of the line gear is something those type of clients expect to see. My clients, though, care about great images, not what camera or lens I’m using to create those great images.

I’ve meet photographers who have the best, and I mean best, gear on the market and cannot create great images with it or get paid for their photography. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need the best gear in the game to do your job well. That is a bad disease to have. I have shot weddings where the guests have fancier camera bodies than me, and last time I checked, I was the one being paid to create amazing images and making a living from my photography.

4. Invest in Great Lenses (Glass)

I’m a true believer that if one piece of gear is going to make your images look better, it’s great glass. That’s why I rented the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II for so long. Professional level glass will make your images look better, that is a fact. When I was investing money into my gear, I focused on buying glass that, if treated well, would last forever and work with almost any new Nikon body that came out.

I knew that I was going to be shooting on crop sensor bodies, but I bought glass that would work on full frame bodies also, so when the time comes to upgrade to full frame, my lenses will work perfectly. Nikon and Canon’s top of the line lenses are expensive, but honestly, are worth every penny. I suggest investing in one or two professional level lenses from the start – they will work with a crop sensor body, and when you upgrade to full frame, will continue to work. Trust me on this one, buy good glass!

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Bonus Tip: Don’t buy the cheapest gear in town! There is something said for saving and buying the better piece of gear first. I did this with light stands, I went cheap and ended up spending more, because I had to replace those cheap light stands that broke quickly with better ones.

5. Only You Know What Gear Is Right For You

You’re the only one who really knows what you need to do your job. When you talk to a group of photographers who work with paying clients on a regular basis, you will find we all use different gear to achieve the same results. Some love studio strobes when in the field, others love speedlights (I’m a speedlight lover). Some photographers will tell you that you need to be shooting with a full frame body, and others like me will say if you’re creating great images, who cares what body you’re using.

If you’re in question about what to purchase, rent gear until you find what works best for you. Just never fall into the trap of blowing all your capital on gear that in the end, that is expensive and not a great fit for your workflow.

[RELATED: LUMOID: TRY IT BEFORE YOU BUY IT! MY RENT-TO-OWN CAMERA GEAR EXPERIENCE]

Conclusion

If you have the money to buy the best gear in the game, go for it! If you’re like me and are more concerned about booking more clients and investing money wisely into your business, then build a kit that gets the job done and only upgrade when you need to, not just because you want to.

Yes, I have upgraded my gear from my first kit listed above, but I still shoot on my beloved D7000’s and one day, will upgrade to full frame when I have the money to invest in two full frame bodies. All the gear I have added to my kit has a purpose; I purchased it because I needed it, not because I wanted it. As they say, gear does not make a great photo, the photographer does.

Till next time, keep shooting, building your business, and embrace the hustle!

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Chris Nachtwey

About

Chris Nachtwey is a full-time wedding and portrait photographer based in Connecticut. He is the founder and creator of 35to220 a website dedicated to showcasing the best film photography in the world. Chris loves to hear from readers, feel free to drop him a line via the contact page on his website! You can see his work here: Chris Nachtwey Photography

18 Comments

  1. Miguel Chavez

    All great tips Chris… Number 3 is very very true!

    • Greg Silver

      True…Good gear doesn’t necessarily impress clients. However, at professional level prices you had better not come to a shoot with a crappy camera. Even the most novice customer can see through a poor set up of equipment.

    • Chris Nachtwey

      I agree Greg, there is fine line between what’s good to get the job done and cheap gear that will fail you and your clients.

  2. Gregory Davidson

    I too started with a similar setup, except with D7000 and a D5100 (back-up). I now have a D610 with D7000 as back-up and plan to use the D5100 as a remote camera.

    • Chris Nachtwey

      Nice! I’m one of those people that likes two identical bodies, so I will go full-frame when I can afford two of the same body. I could afford two of the 610′s but now with the rumors of the 750 coming I shall wait just incase..lol. I like the idea of a remote camera, how do you plan on triggering it and where are you thinking of placing it for a wedding if you don’t mind me asking?

  3. Anthony Thurston

    Loving this series Chris, great stuff!

  4. Nick Viton

    I recently had to pick up a second body to shoot a friend’s wedding. I’ve been wanting to go full frame, but ended up going with a used (but virtually brand new) D7100. It performed better than expected and I saved over $1000 compared with getting a D610.

  5. Jesse Rinka

    Another great article in this series. I’ve been utilizing my full-time job/salary over the last bunch of years to slowly build up my gear kit. I will admit that even though I understand that the gear doesn’t make the photographer, I am still a big time gear guy. Since I am not yet relying on photography to pay my bills I have the luxury of splurging a bit more than most and hopefully when the time comes that I am ready to jump ship, I won’t really need to worry about gear except for when something wears down or stops performing as I expect.

  6. Daniel Thullen

    Another great addition to this series, Chris. Will you expand on renting equipment at some later time? I know renting is substantially cheaper than purchasing, but it still seems expensive. What are the alternatives for renting gear? Does the cost of renting the equipment figure into your pricing proposals?

    • Chris Nachtwey

      Thanks Daniel! For weddings I no longer need to rent, but if you needed to on a regular basis I would figure out the cost to you and make it part of your price for clients. Don’t make it a line item, just make it part of the package price. Having it as a line item could give a client the opportunity to question it and tell you they feel they should not pay for it. Renting does seem expensive, but when you look at the fact you can rent a 70-200 f/2.8 for around $100 plus shipping on a site like Lumoid for a week it’s way less money then buying that lens for I believe around $2,400. You could rent it 24 times before you would spent the amount to buy it. So if you’re just starting out and don’t have a ton of jobs yet it makes sense to rent, then when you’re using it all the time invest in it. That’s just one example. There is always buying used off a site like keh.com which is a great site for used gear, but I find if I’m not buying new, I will rent vs. used for a high end piece of gear like pro glass. For example if you really wanted to go full-frame and don’t mind having an older model camera you can get a Nikon D700 for around $1,200 used on keh.com….and there go all the used D700′s on keh.com..lol. Readers can always email me: [email protected] if they need some more detailed advice.

  7. Bokeh Monk

    My rule of thumb for equipment purchasing that an old sage taught me long ago has been …if you’ll rent it more than 8 times a year, then buy it…

  8. Ralph Hightower

    With apologies to Janis Joplin:
    Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Canon 1Dx,
    My friends all shoot Nikon D3x,
    I must make amends.

    When I was looking to buy a DSLR, I chose Canon as the brand to research. Okay, I am biased since I’ve been shooting a Canon A-1 for 34 years and still do. I chose the A-1 in 1980 because it was state of the art since it offered aperture-priority, shutter-priority, program, stopped-down metering, and manual. I thought that would be the last camera my wife would let me buy. Last year, I saw a used Canon F-1N for a reasonable price, mentioned it to my wife with the AE Finder FN and AE Motor Winder FN. She asked “That’s the pro model?” “Yes”, she said “Buy it”.

    Anyway, I thought an APS-C Canon would be what would fit in our budget. A week before Christmas 2013, my wife showed me this 5D Mk III package on a major internet retailing site for $4000. I went to my benchmark camera retailing site where I’ve bought film and found a similar package for $3500. I didn’t need the cheap tripod in the $4000 deal since I had a Manfrotto. So now, I own a 5D Mk III with a kit lens of 24-105 f4L, which is my first L lens. I know that my wife hopes that this is the last DSLR that I buy; but I don’t know what the lifetime of DSLRs are.

    BTW, I turned down her first offer to buy me a DSLR when I found her budget was a Canon T3i. As a consolation, she bought me a used Canon FD 28mm f2.8 which has become my favorite lens. The T3i just didn’t have the features that I wanted; that would not be my last DSLR.

    • Phil Bautista

      You can look it up but I think 150,000 shots easy for the 5D3 so unless you like taking time lapses, that DSLR will last you a long while (or til the Mark IV comes out).

  9. David Lara

    It seems I must have done the opposite of all your recommendations when starting out. lol. Great recommendations. The worst was having GAS (gear acquisition syndrome)… over the first 4-5 years I would buy just to buy because i could say i owned it… then it would sit in my bag for 6-9 months and only use it once in that time frame, then would sell it and get something else and repeat the cycle.

    Over the last year and 1/2, I’ve gotten to a basic system similar to yours and I use that for every shoot since then. It’s made me a better photographer I must say. Although I’ll be finally upgrading my camera body, it’s only because it’s needed and after I’ve saved up enough on the side to make the purchase and not affect anything else.

    Great article.

  10. Jeff Morrison

    Good read..

  11. Dre Rolle

    All of your articles have been really well thought out and written. It’s really nice for someone just getting into photography to get insight into how you professionals think and plan for the future. I’m a designer who’s just starting to really put effort into learning this and I love what you do, I plan on eventually opening my own studio and this (and your other article) helps blueprint what steps I can do to get there.

    If it’s not too much trouble can you take a look at some of my photos and give a little feedback. I haven’t posted much here but I can link to email them if you like. (Or just tell me drop in a hole and quit photography)

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