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I operate my photography business on a shoe string budget. This started out of necessity, but continued because it became abundantly clear to me early on, that I would rather spend the money I earn from photography towards black t-shirts, home décor, five dollar lattes, and bills. Mainly bills, but no sense in pretending the other indulgences don’t factor into my take-home pay.
I started my portrait business with a Canon Rebel, kit glass, and a prayer. As my business grew I invested in a 30D, and later a 5D. One particularly good tax refund, and a little generosity from my mother around my birthday, found me the proud new owner of a Canon 50mm L-series lens. I didn’t even know what the L stood for (to be honest, I still don’t), I just knew that all the photography blogs I read at the time called it the end-all, be-all lens. The It Lens. The Portrait Lens. I also had a seasoned pro tell me that I should spend as much money as possible on good glass, and it doesn’t get any better than this one.
It’s also important to mention that I was at a place with both photography, and my confidence, that I would listen to just about anyone who even pretended they knew what they were talking about. Had she told me that my pictures would be better if I carried a frog in my pocket, I would have carried two, and a lizard in my shoe just in case.
I am going to tell you all a secret. I am going to answer the question I always get asked when I pull out my big, fancy lens that is mounted to my camera body, which to be clear is the Canon 5D model from 4 models ago: does that snazzy lens make photos better? Brace yourselves because, yes. Yes, it does. So much so in fact that I don’t even own another lens.
I had a fixed 24mm lens for a few years, but it did nothing more than take up space in my bag. Space that I prefer to give to gum and bug spray. So I sold it to increase my coffee and black yoga pants budget. Zoom lenses have never been my favorite, so that narrows down my choices considerably, and a 50mm just feels like the right length for me—I’m close to my subjects but not breathing in their face, even if my breath is minty fresh from my bulk gum purchases.
Can you live without a lens that costs three times what my first car did? You bet. But I’ll tell you another thing—you can live without an entire bag of lenses just as easily. A back-up body and lens is nice—some may even say essential (particularly if you are a wedding photographer), and I suppose if you do certain types of photography, you may need a few different lenses. But I am here to tell you that I have operated a very successful portrait and wedding photography business with my one, albeit super fancy, lens and done just fine, thank you very much. I can count on one hand the times I’ve needed a different lens, and each time it was easy to either borrow or rent, and much more cost effective.
I know my 50. I named my 50, if we are being honest (its name is Seth—it work well with Nancy my MacBook, and Monte my iMac). At this point it just feels like an extension of my arm, or eyeball. I know what I will see in the viewfinder by the time I get my camera to my face. Since my feet are the zoom, I know exactly where I need to stand to get the frame I want.
Prime lenses are fast and sharp. If this means I have to walk around a bit more, then I can call it my exercise for the day (okay, fine: week) as well. The bulk of my business is photographing kids, so no matter what, I am going to be on the move. I’d just rather know that upfront, than mess with a zoom and continuously risk less than tack-sharp focus. This isn’t even counting the fact that by not spending a great deal on equipment I am able to be well caffeinated on expensive coffee during shoots, and sit at a very pretty desk while I edit.
The other plus of counting on one great lens for everything? I invest my money back into my business in other places, beyond expensive equipment. Places that I feel reach farther than a bag full of stuff. I have a bold website and eye-catching business cards. My clients get their images in top-of-the-line professional packaging. I have a ShootSac and buy lollipops in bulk. I wear the most expensive contact lenses on the market, and you should see my hair tie-back selection.
I can only afford these things because I’m not up to my expensive contact lens-wearing eyeballs in debt over fancy equipment. Additionally, my fees are not so outrageous that my client base is only a select few. My overhead being lower than average, allows me to continue photographing the families that supported my business when I was just starting. Families that otherwise may not be able to afford my services if I was dealing with extraordinary costs.
My mom taught me to buy quality; to save my money and buy a good pair of jeans, instead of the cheapest pair that fit. Sadly this lesson didn’t stick and at this very moment I am dressed head to toe in Target. However, it’s true here; buy the nicest lens you can afford and make it work for you. It’s your paintbrush, your potters wheel, your knives (I’ve heard big-time chefs bring their own knives to everything); make it the best possible one and make it the only one you need.
Have you invested in top quality lenses or “glass”? What is your go-to lens and why?
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