How to Start Your Photography Business [for Under $3,000]

JimmyChin_GearMost businesses require some investment at the outset. A photography business is no different. And while damn nice DSLRs are relatively affordable, adding lenses, accessories and memory can quickly drive that bill north of what you might be able to spend.

But a basic pro-level photography kit doesn’t have to be cost-prohibitive. I often get asked often what gear I would suggest to an aspiring photographer, and what follows are my suggestions.

First, let’s start with the stuff that won’t cost a cent.

The Free Stuff

Passion and motivation are free. These are the first things you’re going to need. I always tell folks it’s good to start out shooting something you’re passionate about. If you have an insiders perspective and deeper understanding of a topic or subject, you’ll be able to share something out of the ordinary. And if your passionate about something, the motivation will be there to get out early or to stay late for the good light, to carry a camera all the time, to pursue subjects, set up shoots, etc. I started with a DSLR and zoom lens, but more importantly I was passionate about climbing, skiing and being in the mountains. I had the idea of sharing my friends’ experiences - specifically, I wanted to share stories of expeditions in remote places. You’ll need passion for a topic, to travel, to find your perspective on the world and to share it. These things are free, but without them, you’ll be short on creative and motivational capital.

Ideas are also free. These days you can build a brand with your iPhone shooting photos for your Instagram account. It’s a pretty cool platform to get your work out or just to have fun with. It can certainly do both. San Fransisco art director Michael O’Neal basically launched his career using Instagram. Eventually his work was seen by Instagram and they started promoting him as a “suggested user.” Now he has over half a million followers and he routinely gets job offers because of content he posts to the social platform. (Check out O’Neal’s work here.) As cameras go, the iPhone is relatively cheap. The days of working your way into a magazine as the only way to share your work are over. Instagram and other social media outlets give you a platforms to get your work seen—potentially by a TON of people.

Sometimes motivation and passion aren’t enough. You’re going to need a decent Work Ethic, as in, get ready to work your ass off. Motivation may get you off the ground, and talent can get you noticed, but it’s your work ethic that will take you to the next level. Climbing is fun. Skiing is fun. Hiking is fun. But adding photography into all those activities—great photography—is hard work. It can be frustrating. It’s constantly challenging and there is a ton of talent out there who want the same thing you do. You can’t just rely on luck, good timing and talent to build a career or business.

Here’s some more free advice on adventure photography to consider before you open your wallet.

And now onto the shopping cart.

The Gear

As I said, I started with a single body and a zoom lens. The combinations available now are almost endless. I’ll be sticking to the camera body, lens and immediate accessories. I haven’t included a computer/laptop—which you’ll obviously need—as most people are already running with a machine that will suffice for those early days.

A nice DSLR body will set you back about $1,000-$2,000, and some of those packages will include a decent lens. But for the sake of keeping things under $2,500, let’s start you off with the Canon 7D, mainly for its versatility. You’ll get meaty stills with this body and a lens (below), but it can also serve up some decent video, too.

Camera Body: $1,299

A little while back I wrote a post about my all-time favorite lenses. Admittedly, a few of those just won’t fit into our budget. One will, though, and that’s the Canon 24-105mm f/4 L IS. It’s a very capable mid-range zoom that’s great for run & gun style shooting. Novices especially will benefit from a decent autofocus and solid image stabilization.

conradclimberLens: $1,149

I’d never weigh you down unnecessarily, but I couldn’t send you out into the field without a solid support system. Manfrotto has being consistent in their manufacturing of reliable, durable tripods and support for photographers and videographers. You can spend a lot of money on a tripod—but for now you’re better off spending a little extra on the lens and saving a bit on support. The Manfrotto 293 4-Section Carbon Fiber Tripod should be more than up to the task.

Support: $284.99

Lastly, you’ll need some memory cards to store your photos while on location. I’m recommending a handful of 32 GB SDHC cards from SanDisk. These are super fast (95MB read speed) and big enough that you shouldn’t run out of space during a day of shooting.

Memory: $149.85 (3 @ $49.95)

Grand Total: $2,882.84

Option #2

Fitting a nice lens to a DSLR is just one way to go about it. When I like to stay fast, light and connected I always throw my Olympus OM-D in the bag. One of many in the burgeoning mirrorless camera category, the OM-D is about a third the size of a DSLR but takes heavy-weight shots. It’s also weather-sealed and super compact (by comparison). An OM-D body/lens package will cost you about $1300.

Another great mirrorless camera to consider is the recently-released Sony Alpha a7. Like the OM-D, the a7 is a deal lighter and more compact than a DSLR, so it’s great for street photographer-type shoots, hikes and the like. A package including a FE 28-70mm lens sets you back $1999, which is still cheaper than the DSLR body/lens combo listed above. This gives you a little extra to spend on nicer support, accessories, etc.

So there you go. All you need to jump-start your photography business for under $3K. With either option you’ll still have some money left over to get some filters, a lens cleaning kit (which I highly recommend) or an extra battery.

But don’t get too hung up on gear. All that free stuff in the first section is what matters most.

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2 Responses to “How to Start Your Photography Business [for Under $3,000]”

  1. Carolyn Steingard Says:

    Great article with some very helpful tips. Thank you for sharing.

  2. MM Says:

    Great article with solid real-world advice. I’ve been using the 7D/24-105 f4 combo for years- its definitely a winner. Unfortunately the SDHC cards you recommend won’t help- the 7D takes Compact Flash cards. As the 7D is getting to be a fairly old model for Canon (overdue for an update), the 70D is another worthwhile choice for adventure/sports shooters getting started. Admittedly it has few drawbacks from the 7D, but the incredible new autofocus system could more than make up for that for many photographers. Thanks for constantly inspiring us Jimmy!

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