Be a photographer, not a business person!

So, people ask me all the time, “What do I need to do to make money taking pictures?” I usually try to be very helpful, because I truly want everyone to succeed and do well. But it occurred to me the other day that maybe I shouldn’t encourage people to enter the portrait photography market. It’s not the only way to make money in photography, but it’s the one people usually ask me about.

I think, instead, that I should encourage people to sharpen their photography skills for pure enjoyment. I recently talked to a very successful, well-known, high-level photographer. I asked this person what his/her plan is for improving their photo skills. This person’s answer: “I don’t. I’m a business person, not a photographer.” That’s when it hit me that success for a photo studio is not about the quality of photos, but about the quality of the business that you can build around your photos. That’s not bad news for me; I enjoy running a business (most of the time).

But it is bad for my artistically-minded friends who would rather take cool pictures than play with spreadsheets. Here are some useful questions to ask if you’re thinking about doing portrait photography for money:

  • Do I have a good grasp of accounting?
  • Would I rather make art, or figure out merchandising strategy?
  • Do I like to sleep?
  • How strong are my computer skills? They’ll have to be well above average for portrait photography.
  • Am I any good at setting up systems for workflow, accounting, computer networks, business analysis, etc?
  • Now, setting up a business is not rocket science. Most people can do it with enough time and determination. But you should know, if you’re thinking about getting into portrait photography as a business, that you’re doing business, not just photography. Even if you’re working out of your home. It seems like something you can get into on a very small scale, but it won’t be like that for long. For a whole host of reasons that experience alone can explain, it’s far more complicated than you think. It’s more like setting up a manufacturing operation than opening a retail business.

    No, I haven’t given up on the idea of art, and yes, I do get to use nice camera equipment. But I just want to be totally honest and not encourage people to try something they may regret in the long term. Instead of opening a business, try making images that you love. Work hard on them. Learn all you can. Don’t feel like you have to be professional to be a great photographer. Just be a great photographer!

    Which camera should I buy, Andrew?

    It’s kind of like asking which car you should drive. There are lots of them out there in different price ranges, and many serve different functions. I may recommend a sporty little Honda when you were looking for a Lotus. Or a Mini Cooper when you wanted a big 4×4 Yukon. But there’s one thing everyone wants from a camera, and that’s good pictures. Here are two cameras that come with the Andrew Stamp Of Approval ™. I’ll try to elucidate the use cases for each one to aid in your buying decision.

    Panasonic Lumix LX3

    This is the camera you buy if you want something that fits in your pocket.  It’s not the cheapest camera you can buy that’ll fit in your pocket, but it’s probably the best in this class.  They retail for just under $500, and I’d like to shoot this camera for a while.  It’s essentially a Leica camera (snobby art student camera brand) with a cheaper brand name on it.  One of the biggest benefits to buying this camera is that you won’t be tempted to buy any lenses for it; it doesn’t change lenses.  You can buy some adapters to make it act like it has a wide-angle or telephoto lens, but you won’t be tempted to plunk down another 4 grand to buy the good glass.

    Nikon D-90 / Nikon D-40

    These are the cameras you want if you’d like to really learn photography.  I think an SLR camera (one you can change the lenses on) is the best way to put yourself in the driver’s seat.  You say you’d rather buy Canon cameras?  Well, those will work just fine, too.  The best camera brand to buy is the one that all your friends shoot.  You can swap lenses and advice with each other most easily that way.  The D40 is in the $400-$500 range, while the D90 will set you back about a Grand.  With either of these cameras, you’ll have the opportunity to buy lenses later on.  Even though lenses can be wicked-expensive, they really unlock a lot of the potential in your camera.  You can do some neat stuff with good glass.

    Nikon D3X

    This is the camera to buy if you’re buying a gift for me.  🙂

    But, seriously, people make good picture, not cameras.  I had a great time a week or two ago shooting a Pentax K-1000.  It’s old and manual-everything, but I shoot it to remind myself that I can make good photos without a computer, and without my fancy cameras.  So no matter what camera you have or which you end up buying, go enjoy taking pictures with it.  I promise that more pixels don’t equate to more joy.  Mostly.

    Beginning Photography Workshop in Reedley

    Stephen Abbas is hosting a free photography workshop this Saturday at Church in the Basement at 7 p.m.  Here’s the address for CITB:  1208 L ST, Reedly, CA, 93654.  Stephen’s a well-educated and artistic photographer.  I’d love to go to the workshop, but I’ll be out of town.  Contact him at for more information!