This photography on a budget guide will help frugal photographers see how a modest investment in camera gear can often achieve excellent results. You can save lots of money and still take excellent quality photos! First, let’s consider inexpensive vs ‘professional’ lenses as they are usually the most expensive items in a photographer’s kit.
The photo above was shot with a 3 megapixels DSLR camera (Canon D30) purchased used for less than $50 (US) and a cheap auxiliary close-up filter ($16 for a 3 filter set).
Do I Need To Buy Expensive ‘Pro’ Lenses?
“Kit” lenses are the standard zoom lenses that are typically bundled with low-to-modestly priced DSLR and mirrorless digital cameras. The truth is, there is little difference in sharpness when comparing professional lenses with high price tags to lower priced lenses bundled with cameras. In 2003, Popular Photography Magazine, in an article entitled “Zoom Lenses: Cheap vs Expensive” compared expensive professional lenses offered by Nikon, Canon, and Minolta to their cheaper, consumer level equivalents. Note their observations after comparative testing: “Sharpness, usually considered the single most desirable quality in a lens, varied little between the $1,000–$1,500 pro and $100–$450 entry-level zooms. In fact, based on sharpness alone, we couldn’t determine whether 11×14 test prints were made with budget or pro glass. And that’s only half the story. . .” The conclusion? When it comes to sharpness, there is no clear advantage in buying pro grade lenses.
“Based on sharpness alone, we could not determine whether 11×14 test prints were made with budget or pro glass…” -Popular Photography
The photo above was shot with a 42-year-old manual focus zoom lens (Kiron 80-200mm F4.5) on a 8 megapixels DSLR camera (Canon 20D). The lens was purchased used on eBay for $25.
More expensive lenses usually have more durable construction needed by busy pros and wider / faster apertures (e.g. f:1.4 pro lens maximum aperture vs F:3.5 in consumer lenses). The heavier construction, larger glass elements (needed to let in more light for wider apertures), and fancier coatings add greatly to the cost of professional lenses. These are specialized features that are highly valued by pros who do portrait or wedding photography. Wider apertures produce the smoothly blurred backgrounds and “bokeh” that are often seen in wedding photography. And, the sturdier construction is important to hard-working pros who use their equipment on a daily basis.
What Do The Pros Say About Lenses?
A helpful article in this regard is “Why I Need Pro Lenses” by Steven Bedell in Shutterbug Magazine. A professional portrait photographer, he explains the key benefits of pro lenses. However, these special qualities may not matter much to casual photographers! In most photography, the two key qualities needed from a lens are sharpness, and, sufficient depth of field to keep the entire landscape in sharp focus. Those two demands are easily met by most well-designed kit or consumer grade lenses. Lack of sharpness is simply not an issue in modern lens design. The depth of field at the sharpest apertures (F:8 – F:11) of most modern lenses will render a landscape in sharp focus. Take the money you save by not buying expensive glass, and visit some of the faraway places worth photographing!
The lens used to shoot the photo above is a 40-year-old Tokina manual lens purchased on eBay for only $5.00!
There are, arguably, more esoteric benefits of expensive lenses such as more complex coatings that enhance contrast, minimize aberrations and control flare. Also, use of glass with special qualities may provide small enhancements to image quality. And, the beautiful, soft background blur that comes with lenses with apertures of F1.8 or wider cannot be duplicated with slower lenses. However, these benefits are subtle at best and are not essential to creating great photos. Skillful post-processing of raw image captures can also address many of these minor image flaws. Truthfully, capturing an interesting subject, along with good light and composition are far more important than these minor technical issues.
Of course, I am not against professional lenses. The point is to stop worrying about what you own or can afford. You can do excellent photography with affordable consumer quality lenses and digital cameras. The lens is not what makes a great photographer. Your eye is still the best lens you can own.
If you photos are blurry, its probably your technique, not the price you paid for your lens!
This is a topic fraught with controversy and, at times, raw emotions. Nothing makes some owners of expensive lenses more upset than suggesting that moderately priced lenses can be just as effective under most conditions. I was once thrown off an online photography forum for daring to suggest that you can get pro quality results from consumer grade lenses used within their limitations. However, if you are not demanding sharp results when shooting wide open (sharpness at the widest apertures is a weakness of most inexpensive lenses) you can get competitive results from consumer lenses by stopping down the aperture to F:8. If you do not need faster lenses for freezing action in poor light, then the results from your consumer grade lenses should be virtually indistinguishable in a print at normal viewing distances and viewing online.
Most likely, if you are getting blurred photos it is either because of not keeping the camera steady, or having a moving subject at slow shutter speeds. Learn how to use your kit lenses properly, carry a tripod when needed (to ensure maximum sharpness), and make some great photos!
Do You Really Need To Upgrade Your Camera Whenever An Upgraded Model Is Released?
Upgrading our digital cameras has become a new religion. We eagerly await the première of each new model, certain that it contains the added pixels or odd feature that is the cure for all our photographic ills. New models now appear annually, incrementally adding specifications that can be measured in a lab but are seldom of much value in day-to-day shooting. Yet, what matters most about the craft of photography is often pushed into the background.
The photo above was shot with a 8-megapixel Olympus Evolt E-300 (with kit lens) made in 2004 and purchased used for under $100.
This is a relatively new phenomenon, a byproduct of the digital age and the (seeming) speed of innovation. It also reflects a change in marketing, with the concept of yearly obsolescence being force-fed into our psyches by advertisers. During the film era, an SLR camera typically had a market life of five to ten years and usability that extended into decades. The film SLR camera you wanted today would most likely still be in the stores two to five years from now. Once you purchased a film camera, you had years to focus on the craft of making photos before your lust was stirred for the ‘new and improved’ model.
A 6 or 8 megapixels DSLR camera is all that most hobbyist photographers really need
The truth is that an ancient 6 or 8 megapixels DSLR can do all that you need a camera to do up to a typical 13×19 print, and larger. Real photographers know this… An honest admission is offered by renowned photographer Bob Krist in a column in Outdoor Photographer Jan 1, 2008, entitled Dodging The Magic Bullet: “It’s not the number of megapixels in your camera, it’s what you do with them.” He discusses a challenge made by National Geographic that drove home the point:
Keith Bellows, the editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler, wanted an entirely digitally produced issue for the yearly photography annual. All the regular freelancers were on-board with this project, but Keith had another caveat. Everyone who received an assignment would be required to shoot with the entry-level DSLR camera of whatever brand he or she wished. Photographers who normally shot exclusively with top-of-the-line DSLR camera with big megapixel counts were reduced to using entry-level 6 megapixel variants. However, beautiful photography came out of that challenge, and the project was a huge success.
Pintail Duck Photographed With a 6 Megapixels Nikon D40 & Nikon 55-200mm Telephoto Zoom Lens
Thom Hogan, author of numerous How-to Guides for Nikon cameras, made an observation regarding the most important upgrade for any photographer in his article Blame The Equipment. He stated, “Upgrade the photographer! Technique has the biggest and most observable impact on results.”
Now, there are some of us who buy cameras for love of technology. You’re in it for the gear, not the craft. That’s fine. However, if you are in photography for the craft, try treating your DSLR more like a film camera. Buy one and forget about upgrading for a few years. Focus on your craft. Most likely, you will become a much better photographer!
Why You Should (Almost) Always Buy Used Camera Gear
Why not? Digital photography reached a level of maturity nearly a decade ago that makes any gear introduced since then largely superfluous. If you want to do photography on a budget take heart! You do not need the latest and greatest camera gear to create amazing photos! A DSLR camera body with 10-12 megapixels from any major manufacturer of the past decade will have all of the capability most photographers require. Camera upgrades are driven by marketing principles that demand new models be released every year. The incremental improvements made are not needed by most of us. This is especially true of camera lenses. You can find lenses made nearly 40 years ago that will produce high quality results for a fraction of the price of their new equivalents.
The camera used to make this photo cost $45.00 used. The lens is 40 years old and cost $35.00.
Frugal Photography is Smart.
You remain the master of your hobby, not the advertisers that bait you into jumping on the infinite treadmill of constant upgrades. We are taught from youth on the fallacy that buying new stuff will make you happier. Consumerism is the belief that at the center of happiness is consumption and material possessions. I remember buying a new camera from a leading brand a few years ago and while filling out the warranty card seeing the questions “How does this camera make you feel?” “How does owning this brand of camera make you feel?” Don’t fall for the lie. There is no connection between true happiness and buying new camera gear.
For many of us, frugality is a necessity. Take heart! You can enjoy the hobby of photography on a limited budget.
The used marketplace has a glut of camera gear with decades of usable life left. Few of us will ever ‘wear out’ a camera. Most cameras on the used market are simply the victims of needless upgrades or boredom by their former owners. Therein lies the secret to frugal photography!
The lens used for this photo cost $15 (used) on eBay. Can you tell the cost of the lens by looking at this photo?
Here are four top reasons to always buy used camera gear:
All cameras are good enough! If you have a DSLR camera that provides 6-megapixels of resolution or higher, you’re good to go. Shoot with what you have. Truthfully, it will do even more than your skill as a photographer demands, and for quite some time. Stuffing more megapixels into a camera does not mean you will be able to capture a better photo. Focus on developing your craft, not on your gear. You will be much happier with the photos you create.
Used camera gear offers amazing value! Because major camera manufacturers now introduce new models on a yearly basis, there is a glut of barely used DSLR and mirrorless cameras on the used market. Most of them are eagerly traded in and sold by consumers who buy with their heart, not their head. Digital cameras depreciate rapidly and are, on the whole, very reliable. Just be sure to buy from a reputable dealer and use all the money you save to see camera-worthy places.
A camera is a tool, not jewelry. Often when people buy the latest high priced gear, they are afraid to drop it, lose it, or have it stolen. They treat it like a piece of jewelry, not a photographic tool. That hinders your photographic freedom. When you buy cheaper used camera gear, you tend to treat it more like a tool, and less like an heirloom. You worry less about your gear and more about getting great photos. That makes you a better photographer.
It’s only a hobby. Unless you earn your income as a photographer, why spend more than you need to on camera gear?
I am a cheapskate, and I love to create great photos with inexpensive camera gear. By tapping into the used camera market, and looking for low-cost and free image processing software, you can create images that are every bit as compelling as those shot with professional gear. Spend your money on experiences, not gear, and you will have more memorable photos to share! [email protected]
Where To Buy Used Camera Gear
Here are my top recommendations for online stores selling reliable used camera gear.
If you’re going to be a true cheapskate photographer, then you must enter the jungles of the used camera market! It is not as daunting as you may think if you know where to go. I have only purchased one new camera in the decades I have been in the hobby, (a Nikon D40 more than a decade ago). Every other camera (I’ve owned about 15 or so) was purchased used. Only one used camera out of all that I purchased turned out to be a dud (purchased on eBay six years ago – I was refunded). Otherwise, I have had great success in obtaining reliable used cameras and lenses at rock-bottom prices.
Here are some of the most trustworthy sources for used camera gear (in the United States). Your best option is purchasing from a source that offers a 14-30 day money-back return policy. If there is any problem with the camera, it will show up during that period. Just be sure to test the camera thoroughly shortly after purchasing it. The sources I list below are recommended based on personal experience.
1. Adorama.com. This is my top recommendation. This is a highly reputable New York-based camera dealer that also sells online. They rate their used cameras and lenses condition conservatively and back them 100% with a 30-day return policy. I have been buying used equipment from Adorama for nearly 40 years and never had a bad experience. You may be able to find a slightly cheaper price elsewhere. However, you can be certain that when you purchase from Adorama you are getting reliable camera gear at a fair price. They also offer excellent deals on manufacturer refurbished Canon and Nikon cameras.
2. Bhphotovideo.com. B & H Photo is New York City’s largest camera store (Adorama is #2). Like Adorama, it has a rock solid reputation. I find that B & H used camera prices are consistently higher than Adorama, so I tend to favor Adorama for that reason alone. B & H sells reliable used camera gear with a 30-day return policy.
3. KEH.com. KEH sells used camera gear primarily and is solely an online dealer. This is also a great source for older and vintage cameras. They back what they sell, offer a 14-day return policy, and can have some great sales during the year worth watching out for.
What about eBay and Craigslist?
On eBay, your best option is buying gear from a seller offering a 14-30 day money-back return policy. Make sure to test the camera or lens throughly before the return period expires. Read descriptions carefully and know what you are buying. Personally, I have found that camera gear on Craigslist tends to be overpriced, and you have no protection as a buyer if you get a raw deal.
Where to buy camera filters and accessories
If you are planning to buy filters, camera bags, and other non-technical camera accessories, check out Amazon.com and Aliexpress.com. They both have Chinese manufacturers that sell directly to consumers. The savings can be impressive when buying this way. You may wait a bit longer because items are shipped from China. I buy all of my filters, lens cleaning supplies, etc., this way.
Whenever your purchase used camera gear, be sure to test all functions as soon as you receive it. Generally, if you don’t find any problems during the first 14-30 days, you’re good to go. I never buy extended warranties. I’ve never needed one. Once you buy used, you will be hooked on the savings!
About the Author
Now retired from my occupation as a freelance web designer, I spend more time than ever shooting photos with inexpensive camera gear! I’ve been happily shooting with used cameras and lenses for over 40 years. -Don