What's the Best Investment?
We’ve got a great accountant, had the same crazy guy since day one of our business, literally, since day one. I remember going into his office for the first time (and actually the only time) 29 years ago like it was yesterday. I was scared to death, how much this was all going to cost me just kept running through my mind as with lightning speed he tapped the keys of the adding machine (big box, bunch of buttons with paper that streamed out the backside), making this noise that just sounded like money being sucked out of my wallet. He looked at the figures I scrolled down on his form; he looked up at me, and then back down at the figures and hit those damn keys again. I sat there for about ten minutes as my meager paycheck went off to pay taxes.
He got down to the box containing the dollar amount for all the gear purchased that year when he stopped and looked up at me and said, “That’s All?!” “I’m just starting out…I don’t have any money to spend…I’m only 21, I can only do so much.” He sat there and looked at me, which by the way, a stare that was very unsettling. Then after a moment he said, “Is this your business plan, excuses why you can’t do something?” I wasn’t sure how to take that, I felt like crying. Then I built up enough courage to say, “But I simply don’t have the money, what am I to do?”
John sat there for a moment contemplating, what we now have to expect from him, that wise, fatherly advice which is why we’ve counted on him all these years, that has always steered us so well. “Well, if you don’t invest in yourself, who in the hell ever will?” “If you don’t get off your butt and make things happen, how will anything ever happen, you think it’s just going to walk into the door and get handed to you?” “The best investment you can ever make is in yourself, whether it’s education, equipment or both. The door has been opened and now you must walk through it!”
What door had been opened? At that moment in time, I couldn’t see it. Yeah, I had my first image published in Audubon and I had a couple, just a couple of clicks under my belt but looking back at it now, it’s easy to see what that door had been. That wasn’t the case then.
It’s amazing how such little things in life can have such out reaching ripples. The new TC-20e3 for example, a piece of insignificant gear I figured would barely warrant a blog mention. Yet, this little piece of gear seems to be incredibly important to many, for the simple financial reason it gives them the reach they think they need (to repeat, think they need) to get into the game of wildlife photography. When John gave me those great words of wisdom was just after I had just purchased the Nikkor 400f5.6 EDIF lens, the longest lens I had owned for the next four years. I bought it used and wore off the coating shooting with it. There are images in my upcoming book taken with that lens, there are images in our files shot with that lens that still garnish a good payday to this day. That lens taught me tons, much of what I share with you to this day.
When it comes to listing the offenders buying new gear when it first comes out, my name has to be in the top five, seriously. If there is even the slightest possibility it will solve a problem, bam, it’s on my desk the next day (yeah, the 24f1.4 is on that list). And while I make that financial investment in my gear and John still makes sure I stay in the black doing so, he also pushes the bigger investment and that’s in myself. I’m so proud that I can say I don’t have all the answers, that every day is a new opportunity to learn something new and in doing so making that investment that will pay big dividends someday down the road.
I take 270 pages (and growing daily) to spell this out in the book, but here it is in a real nutshell. Biological knowledge is worth at minimum 200mm in focal length. That $600 you’d spend on that TC-20e3 if invested instead into four solid weekends of shooting would more than pay for itself with images that are not just better, but subjects that are larger in the frame because you’ve learned how to get closer physically. I put in four years with the 400mm and the lessons it taught me I use to this day, every day and what got me to this point in my career. It takes gear to make the images, but it takes the person behind the gear driving through to make it sing and produce. And that’s the door that was opened for me within that first meeting with John. It’s all up to you, not your gear, to make the opportunity happen and make the image come to life.
With that knowledge, am I giving up my 600mm? I don’t think so. But rather, I feel even more pressure to make the most of that opportunity life has provided me. I was told by the very first editor who bought my image a piece of wisdom I still hold close. “You’re only as good as the last image you took.” That means there is always, always room for improvement. And coming back to that very important piece of business advice John gave me so many years ago made all that more relevant. The best investment is in yourself!