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How To Get Started in Photography When You Don’t Have a Camera Yet

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This article about how to get started in photography was inspired by one of our new subscribers, Shruti, who asked, “I want to pursue a career in landscape, street, and architectural photography. However, I don’t have a camera right now and I’ve never used a DSLR before.”

This is actually a great question. So many photography articles (mine included) start with what to do after you have the camera and/or have at least used one.

But what if your journey is starting before that? Here’s a very basic overview-level discussion about where to start.

What not to do

Do not get camera fever and go out and buy an expensive camera you heard some YouTuber rave about “just because.”

Believe me, that’s something I regretted doing. This camera is the hottest, most expensive thing right now? Must be the one I want!

Not so fast.

If you’re going to get started in photography right, you’ll need to slow down and be methodical about this. This is going to be a big investment in your time and, unfortunately, money, depending on your budget.

So before you go out and start “collecting gear” you don’t know how to use, read on.

What are your passions?

What brings you joy?

No one really gets into photography for the money. That’s like learning the bagpipes to attract women (been there, done that too, doesn’t work).

You’re going to have to do this because you like it. Granted, there are some niche fields (high-end wedding & commercial photographers, for example) that make some great money.

But as a general rule, this is something we do because we enjoy it, and hopefully, as an added bonus it can give us a comfortable life.

Now, you also have to temper that by looking at how your passions will end up when mixed with business. I fell into this trap too. Wanted to make a living as a landscape photographer. I love being outdoors, hiking, miles away from another person. It’s how I recharge and reset. Why not bring my camera while I’m at it?

I soon started falling out of love with the outdoors though. Forcing creativity and money out of something that was a religious experience for me just ruined it all. Thankfully some documentary projects overlapped during this time and I found my photography passion was really in telling stories through photography. Now I save the outdoor experiences for me. You can read more about that journey here.

Why is it important to consider all of this as a first step? Because it’s going to dictate a lot of other things when you get started in photography. The gear you choose to buy. The educational paths you begin to take. The practice you do. The post-processing techniques you need to learn, if any.

teaching photography
Once I started doing more documentary photography rather than landscape photography, I found I enjoyed photography more as a whole, and this changed the skillset I needed and the gear I chose to use (which, incidentally, is not my camera in this photo).

What are your goals?

Do you even want to make money? Maybe you’re just looking for a side-gig and you don’t need to have a huge collection of gear or need a huge budget.

Or if this is going to be your primary business, you’ll also need to account for all of the other business costs like insurance, office/studio rent, advertising, and so on. Make a list of these things so you’ll have some realistic expectations about what’s involved in running a business. It’s not just “I take pictures and make money.” You’ll need to start saving for those business expenses now for the day you do make the leap as a full-time photographer. You will realistically not even break even in your first year, or even two. Prepare for that.

Do you have big dreams of being published in National Geographic or something like that? That’s awesome! Start building your networking skills now. Networking is an important skill to have in that industry.

Your goals will, like your passions, dictate what you do early on. And goals can change! But it helps to have some when you get started in photography so you can set yourself up for success from the beginning.

Equipment – start small!

Okay, now we’ll talk about camera gear. Finally.

Why did I save this for towards the end? Because that’s how much of a priority it is. Not much. At least not immediately when you get started in photography.

You don’t need the most expensive camera you can buy when getting your first. Nor should you.

What happens when you buy a fancy, expensive camera as your first camera?

First, you don’t have any money left for anything else. No money left for a good lens, photography education, travel, or building up a business.

Second, fancy expensive cameras tend to be complex. Overwhelming. All of those features can frustrate you to the point that you may even want to just give up on it all. And it makes learning the basics difficult.

My best advice is to spend your money on a good lens.

Lenses last forever. They rarely become “outdated,” at least nowhere near how cameras tend to become outdated. Besides, if you buy a crappy lens because you spent all of your money on an expensive camera, that camera is only going to record crappy light because it has to go through that crappy lens first. Get a good lens.

I don’t want to get anywhere near which brand, which model in this article because that’s a little too specific. I did write about this decision-making process for buying a Fujifilm camera here, but the methodology explained in this article can be applied to any brand. It goes into looking at desired camera features based on your passions, goals, and genres. There’s also a follow-up article about how to build a lens kit. Follow the philosophical approach and apply it to your brand of choice.

And before going to the next section, I just want to point out that my highest-selling stock photo was created with an APS-C Sony a6000 with a kit lens. Not the “best camera” or “best lens” but still produced an image that brings me the highest amount of recurring passive income through stock sales. That’s because I…

Learn, practice, and learn some more

Education is priceless. So is practice.

Don’t think you can just buy a good camera and start making good images. Getting to the point of creating good images takes years, and is something that can be done with any camera.

That’s why I’d rather you spend your money on a good lens and then just get an entry-level camera – like, not the flagship model – and just get the basics down. Putting the cart before the horse is the worst thing you can do when you get started in photography.

Learn when and how to use aperture and shutter speed. Learn what makes a good image (hint: it’s not megapixels). Find your creative eye through experimenting with different compositional techniques. “Learn the rules and break them,” as the saying goes. Practice finding the right moment. Learn how to see rather than just look. You can take 20% off of my photography courses with the code “blog20” to get started.

And practice this every day. Even if it’s just going out to your front or back yard, or even a different room in the house. Just practice these things. No one ever got good at anything without practice.

Learning and practice are something you’re going to do for the rest of your life. But once you have those basics down, and you feel out your passions and your goals, and you figure out what it takes to run a photography business, then you can trade in that consumer camera for the prosumer model.

And then you’re off to the races!

Any of you old veterans have anything to add?

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Curt Brooks

Thursday 17th of February 2022

Good and practical advice, as always, John. I have never had the desire to "go pro" but have thought about being able to sell some of my "better" images, although I don't feel that I'm there even now.

And, yes, to all "newbies" (or even experienced photographers) who may be reading this - please do yourself a favor and follow John's advice about not spending all of your money chasing the "best" (read - expensive) camera - lenses are so much more important. I've spent (wasted) thousands of dollars doing just that. And, good photography is truly about the art of seeing and how to capture light - it is our form of art.

That said...

...I do have 2 questions for you, John (neither serious). 1) Is that "Mr. Fujifilm" himself shooting a Canon? Such heresy!! lol. 2) When are we going to see that video of you playing the bagpipes wooing some young lass??? :)

John Peltier

Thursday 17th of February 2022

1) If you look carefully you can see another strap over my shoulder - my X-T2! I was demonstrating something with another students camera and felt somewhat qualified having shot Canon for a decade :) 2) All photo and video evidence is locked away for life.

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