I wish I'd known.

In Freelance and Business by David17 Comments


I got this in an email from one of my students recently and it gave me a chuckle:

“You know you’re an amateur when you get your first email from a stranger who wants you to do business  portraits, and your flip your lid- I’m getting paid for this?! SWEET!   Then you promptly head to the local  camera store to purchase the gear you will need to do the shoot,  which of course is more than you’re getting paid.”

Oh to return to those heady, carefree days of total financial irresponsibility in the name of art. 🙂

In my past life I went bankrupt. Actual legal bankruptcy. It was not one of my shining moments. The months leading up to the bankruptcy were pretty dehumanizing and I realized very quickly I had never taken the How Not To Be a Moron class that others seem to have taken. I comforted myself with the oft-quoted fact that many successful business people have declared bankruptcy at least once before they found success, when in fact they had been risk-takers and I’d just been an idiot. Oh the list of things I didn’t know then. Well I know them now.

If I were doing the curriculum for the course Finances: How Not To Be A Moron, here’s some of the classes that would make it into the syllabus:

1. Basic Math. If you spend more than you make, you’re operating at a loss. This is not usually good. Since money doesn’t grow on trees some people use credit cards. This also is not good. Spend less than you make. Seriously.

2. Buy Low. Your business is not a game and it’s not about ego. If you don’t need a top o’ the line Hasselblad, but just really, really want one so you can say you have one, that’s heading into Moron territory and your accountant or spouse needs to open a can of Dumb-Ass on you.

Rent gear you won’t use much and charge it to the client. If you don’t need cutting edge gear, buy trailing edge gear. If you don’t need new Pocket Wizards, buy used ones when someone less savvy than you buys the shiny new ones. That’s the thing about photography – some people buy new gear the moment it comes out just because it’s new. And then they sell the old stuff, which is probably in pretty good shape since they obviously aren’t buying this stuff to make actual photographs. In fact, if you tell them how awesome they are for having the latest and greatest, they might give you a deal.

3. Sell High. Price your services accordingly. You can’t compete solely on price. Don’t believe me, try competing with Wal Mart and get back to me in a year if you’re still solvent. Set your prices appropriately high.

4. Assets and Liabilities – If it makes you money, it’s an asset. If it doesn’t – even if you bought it pretending hoping really, really hard that it would – it’s a liability. Liabilities are bad for the bottom line. Avoid them if you can, sell them if you already have them and put that money into assets. Like a savings account. Or better marketing materials. Or a professionally designed logo. Already have assets? Keep them around as long as it makes sense. I like to keep my computers for 3 years, wouldn’t make sense to replace them every year. Sure, it’s an asset, but only once it has made more than it costs.

5. Taxes. If you follow these tidbits you’ll eventually hear your accountant (tell me you have an accountant…) at year end say “Well, I have good news and I have bad news.” The good news will be that you made money. The bad news will be that the Fed wants a piece of the action. Make this as painless as possible:

  • Put something into a savings account with every invoice that gets paid, and leave it there specifically for taxes. No, you can’t dip into it because Nikon just released the D4x and it has HD video AND makes fruit smoothies.
  • Know what you can and can’t write off and jealously keep track of expenses and receipts. If you can write off a portion of your home rent, do so. If you can be writing off automotive expenses, make sure you’re tracking mileage and keeping receipts.
  • Put something away against retirement; it’s a write-off. In Canada it’s an RRSP, in the U.S. I believe it’s a 401K. If you’re going to give money to the government why not put a chunk of it into a savings account instead? Ask your accountant how much you can sensibly contribute and consider making it an automatic monthly debit.

6. Make A Plan, Stan. It’s not rare that anyone goes into business with a vague plan like, “Hey! I know; I’ll get a camera and take pictures for a living!” but it’s very rare that these people actually see that plan bear any fruit. Not without learning some hard lessons first, anyways. Sit down and take a hard look at how much money – actual dollars – you need to make a living. Rent, heat, internet, phones, groceries, taxes, every penny that you need to spend on a monthly basis. If it’s a big number, you need to make an even bigger number every month. How are you going to do this? How much do you need to charge? Sticking your head under the covers and hoping the monster magically goes away is not going to help. Make an actual plan, with real numbers and stuff.

Those are the first five classes I’d put on offer. They’re the ones I’ve learned the hard way.  Why do I keep going on about this stuff? It’s not because I’m obsessed with money. In fact few things drive me up the wall like MLM people with “opportunities” to discuss with me while talking non-stop about money. Money is a means to an end, and not the end in itself. If I could do what I do without ever thinking of money again, I would. But going through a bankruptcy is a fast way of snapping back to this hard reality: if you aren’t wise about this money stuff you won’t have a fighting chance of doing what you love. That’s all I’m sayin’.

Feel like sharing your own nuggets of hard-learned financial wisdom? Comments are open.


  1. Well said, although in my opinion, number 6 should be on top. It sums up most of the other points.

    I actually had to make a buisness plan for my journalism study. Fiction of course, but it was really useful, although a bit boring.

    Even though I don’t have my own business yet, I’d advice people to make a good plan and show it to someone who has experience with starting a business.

    Oh, and make sure your math is right 😛

  2. good one!
    i think the only reason i didn’t go bankrupt is b/c i know i still need to keep my main job for income before photography becomes a reality, and with this economy -might take a little longer. So till then i am a full blown amateur 🙂

  3. I upgrade as little as possible. I use to have a rule that I still try to follow and that is don’t upgrade unless you’re doubling the specs. This is harder to define with todays technology but an upgrade for me still needs to be significant or required.

  4. This is probably one of the main reasons you find very few successful young photographers. Most do go belly up, and those that don’t have the drive to stick with it even if they are eating macaroni and cheese seven nights a week. What I see far more often is people who pursue their life’s dream AFTER retiring from something else. The kids are grown and gone, money no longer is tight, the wife is saying “Go find something useful to do and get out of my hair,” etc.

  5. Lots of good stuff here. I think in the states our RRSP equivalent is a Roth IRA. I’m not American, but I think the 401k is an employer pension plan, where the employer might match your contributions.

    Also, even if high schools did offer that course, we’d all be too cool to pay attention to it anyways.

  6. When I turned 21 my mom bought me a copy of ‘The Wealthy Barber’ by David Chilton. The information I gleaned from this book is summed up reasonably well in point’s #1 and #5. Years later my mom bought me a copy of ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’ by Robert Kiyosaki – What I gleaned from this book is summed up in point #4.

    The reality that school (and what’s worse society) doesn’t actually teach you much about money means that to have some degree of success with it you need to educate yourself a bit. These two books are a good start, but re-wiring the way you think about money is critical.

    If your successful at creating positive cash flow by getting your money to work for you instead of you working for your money you will be very well served in the long run. Eventually, if you create enough passive income it will allow you to pursue the things you love with out financial barriers getting in your way. Easy to say, harder to achieve, but the reality that money is a stumbling block for most people in the world perhaps suggests that spending a bit of time on acquiring some money sense is something that’s worth making a bit of an effort towards.

  7. If I might add one more tip, it is to network, network, network. Everyone is a possible lead to business, and not fully taking advantage of this fact is to waste possible future business. This doesn’t mean handing out your business card (you have a card, right!?) to just everyone, but everyone who might have a need for your services.

  8. This article reminds me of your motto: gear is good, vision is better. Earlier this week I had the change of buying a used Hasselblad digital back for a considerable “low” price. After some thought and asking advice from a friend of mine, I decided not to buy the digital back because sometimes I’m still too much focused on gear while this digital back won’t make me a better photographer at once. So I should focus more on the development of my personal vision, using the gear I already have at this moment. And today I read your article and it’s very complementary to the decision I made.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  9. Great advice David thanks 🙂
    I’ve only recently started down this path, but I’ve already started to learn that it’s organisation that’ll grease the wheels and ensure the creativity can flow when IT wants to 🙂

  10. Yet again a wonderful article.

    I was tempted to buy a new lens (an expensive one) just for an upcoming and small job. It would take me about 10 jobs to get the money back on the investment if I bought it but I don’t have any future jobs lined up. But I still found myself trying to convince myself that I needed it! I’m sure it’s some kind of sickness.

    Needless to say, I’m going to rent it instead.

  11. Pingback: Weekend Perusing: Buy Some Art! | Your Photo Tips

  12. I went trailing edge. Got a 1DMKII after my rebel XT (that’s a JUMP!) but it certainly wasn’t new – it was affordable and really helped me step up my game with all those great buttons on the outside instead of burried inside. It takes great, salable photos and does a bunch of other junk I’ve barely had the chance to test.

    It also taught me where I want to go – I do better with large prints, portraits, I’m not much of a sports shooter (using a sports camera) – so maybe I do need (read: want) more resolution (or maybe some software like Genuine fractals will do the trick for a fraction of the cost).

    Weigh your options, distinguish between want and need (really – do we NEED anything?) and find friends with better gear than you – then BORROW IT! Right now I’m that friend – and I’m fine with it – but it’s certainly cost me thousands more than it’ll cost you.

  13. Photography is not my business. It is hard for me to justify new equipment for marginal gains. Most of the stuff I buy now are accessory type stuff that I save up for. I also try to stay at least one generation behind. I don’t need the latest and greatest, I need to learn the craft part of the equipment.

  14. Hey David,
    This is very well written and great advice. I love seeing you advocate this style of shooting. 🙂 Would make a great chapter in your next book!

    For a whole year before I bought my 5D, I shot with an Olympus SP-350 ( with manual settings ) and just rented a 5D whenever I needed it for a portrait session. I still have some favorite images in my portfolio that were shot experimenting with that little olympus camera and, to this day, I’m grateful for the year of waiting and what it taught me about what the equipment can do and what I can do myself.

  15. Another great thing about renting is the rental guys usually really know their stuff and they can turn you on to great equipment that wouldn’t have occurred to you.
    And then– because you haven’t tied up all your resources in buying– you have the $ to try a whole variety of equipment and explore! It’s a lot of fun and good for breaking out of creative ruts. I.e., you can rent that $2000.00 85/1.2 and go night shooting or take out a super macro lens for the weekend and shoot ants. It’s like having a whole arsenal at your disposal rather than just the one or two (or three or four) pieces of nice glass that your credit limit will allow at one go.

  16. Any recommendations for renting? (shipping in Canada) Renting would be great option but from what I’ve seen, not available unless you live in a major Canadian city or willing to pay very high shipping costs.

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