I received a question recently about camera gear - specifically lenses - which left me struggling to phrase a coherent response. The 'Gear Trap' is created by what I consider to be one of the great photography myths - better gear will make you a better photographer. Without denying it's obvious importance it comes a distant second to your own passions, vision and abilities.
Paraphrasing the question for brevity:
"I want a wow, this is a 'could make me money' lens. Would you suggest:
- Canon EF 100mm f2.8L IS macro - for macro obviously (which I enjoy) and portraits (probably outdoors)
- Canon EF 85mm f1.2L - for portraits (because there's no money in macro)
- Canon EF 24-105mm F4L IS - for versatility
I know I'm asking about different lenses that are intended for three different roles, but which one do you think would bring in more money to buy more kit?"
To be honest I didn't really know where to start with a response. Whilst the question may be well intentioned it is very anti- my way of thinking.
The short answer: the simple fact is that no lens or equipment will make you money, short of a money printing press.
The longer answer of course is a bit longer.
There are a couple of points that this question implies:
- good gear is required to make good pictures
- you should choose a genre of photography based on what makes money
Gear Makes You Better
Good and expensive gear exists for a reason, it's better.
However it's not better in a "take this crap picture and make it amazing" way. I think it's a common trap to think otherwise, "if only I had...". Yes, better equipment may be sharper in the corners, or give you an extra stop or two of light but when people look at your photos are they saying "awesome shot, shame about the soft corners!"? Probably not.
I like to think of gear as giving you an incremental (and increasingly expensive) improvement. It doesn't give you the massive, occasionally exponential leaps in improvement that working on your vision and your skills will bring. If you are making mediocre images then a new lens will just help you to make better mediocre images - and I'm not sure that's something any of us would aspire to. It's the icing on the cake, not the cake itself.
There are some cases where better gear is a requirement. For example if you want to do macro or wildlife photography you're going to be at a serious disadvantage without a macro or a super-telephoto lens.
You probably already own perfectly usable lenses that cover your immediate needs, you just need to get to work with it. Once you become proficient with your current gear you'll understand what you need from new gear. This is more important than chasing the impossible dream that gear will take your images to the next level.
Choosing a Genre
"Shoot what you love" is a common piece of guidance. This is the way I think, so choosing the type of photography based on money making potential just seems alien to me!
I don't do photography to make money. Photographing the landscape is something I love, for a whole variety of reasons. Making money from it would be fantastic but ultimately should all else fail I will still have my love for it.
Because I love (that word is going to appear a lot!) landscape photography, I get up in the dark to go out on a cold and wet mountainside for a shot I have in mind. I work hard to improve - reading, researching, looking, exploring, getting out there.
I know that I couldn't bring the same level of enthusiasm and hard work to, say, portraits. Sure I can for a time but when the initial enthusiasm wears off it's your passion that sustains you. It's the passion that keeps you going when things are tough, the weather is miserable and you're struggling to make shots you love.
I think without that you have nothing but a job. Sure, for some people photography is just a job and that's fine. But that's not for me. If all you want is a job to pay the bills, there are much easier and more lucrative avenues to explore before you come to photography. The phrase "starving artist" exists for a reason! You've got to be prepared to put up with hard times and a lot of non-photographic related stuff to make it work. I first saw this infographic on Chase Jarvis' site. If you haven't seen it before it may be eye opening!
So to me the question is just back to front. Putting the money first is a sure path to disappointment. You have to find the thing that you love and throw yourself into it, determined to make it work. I'd fully expect that a passionate, energised macro photographer would be more successful than a disinterested, lacklustre wedding photographer.
Of course I'm saying this from the perspective of being a non-working photographer (I have a full time job in IT). There are many professionals out there that have to work across several genres to make their business viable. The difference between them and the question is that the question is putting the money first. Those professionals are putting their love of the art first, and then finding a way to make it work. I'm sure if they didn't love what they are doing then they would have given it up a long time ago (though I'm sure there are more than a couple of dissatisfied photographers out there that may well disagree!).
I know that if I wanted to make this my full time job I'd be doing it because I'm following my passion and my dreams. I'm not interested in just exchanging a keyboard for a camera to still end up unhappy.
And so I say put first things first - find the thing you love, get damn good at it, and then try to monetize it. Anything else is built on shaky ground.
Finding What You Love
I remember having lots of questions like the one at the top when I started out. It felt like I was chasing answers and once I had them, everything would fall into place and I'd be set. Asking about gear, compositional "rules", tricks of the trade, etc lead you to believe that successful photography is an accumulation of knowledge.
But as a creative pursuit photography is about much more than knowledge. Don't read that to mean "ignore technique" which is vital. Rather I mean that knowledge and technique are merely the starting point, they're a given. From there the hard work starts.
That means shooting a lot of images (I have 50k in my catalog over 5 years), experimenting, finding things that interest you, understanding what you don't like, learning to make engaging images, and over time naturally being pulled toward the thing that you love.
For me it clicked when I found myself consistently getting up in the dark, going out in the wet and slogging up hills in pursuit of better images. Before that I would shoot everything I saw haphazardly, with no real plan or particular inclination. I think you have to go through that process. Some may go through it quicker than others, but I think it's still a necessary part of improving and finding yourself as a photographer. In some ways it never stops, you have to keep exploring and experimenting, you just become more focused over time.
I think once you've put in those hours and you've worked at your art and your craft questions like the above disappear into irrelevance, you develop an intution for what you need to do and the tools required to do it.
Becoming a better photographer is the key advancement you need to make. Gear is a distraction and it can be a crutch that you lean on when the truth is that hard work and dedication is what's required to improve.
If you did have £1000 to spend on new gear and you're struggling to work out what you wanted or what you wanted to shoot, I'd say forget about the gear and go on a workshop. I've previously posted about how fantastic I found a Bruce Percy workshop I attended and the improvements I made during and more importantly after it. There's not a single piece of gear that would have had the same effect. It's as close to a shortcut to better photographs as you will find. (Of course, you need to find out at least broadly what you want to shoot to be able to pick a workshop!)
A single piece of gear isn't going to make you money. A new lens might bring you an incremental improvement in image quality, but it won't bring huge improvements to the overall image in terms of how it engages the viewer.
Some genres of photography certainly have higher earning potential than others. But if you don't love it to the point of throwing your heart and soul into it, then when the chips are down I fear you'll fall short and hate it like any other job. Better to find the thing that you love, get awesome at it and see where it naturally leads you.
If you want to make money, you need to become a successful photographer. That means looking beyond the allure of gear, dedicating yourself to hard work and improving your images. In that sense the lens that will make you the most money is "the one in your eye" (thanks to @Anthony__Smith for the title suggestion!).
I'm conscious that this post may open a can of worms but I do fundamentally believe you've got to love what you do to make a real success of it. I'd rather do that than do something half hearted just to make some money. Agree/disagree? Leave a comment!
I'm a big fan of David duChemin's blog and his "Gear is good, Vision is better" manifesto. His Craft & Vision site has loads of affordable eBooks aimed at improving your vision. As a starting point I'd recommend his original eBook TEN, which I believe was originally titled "Ten ways to improve your photography without buying gear". I think the shorter title works better! Or if you want a free intro to C&V, check out Craft & Vision: 11 Ways to Improve Your Photography.
I've also enjoyed reading Steve Simon's The Passionate Photographer which is structured around 10 steps to improving your photography, including the need to find your passion and to shoot a volume of work.