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If I had a nickle for every time a friend said, “I would love to get into photography, but it’s just so dang expensive,” I would have… at least a couple of nickles. But I get it. Photography equipment isn’t cheap, and it’s far too easy to spend a small fortune on cameras, lenses and accessories. But I know from experience that it is possible to build up a decent kit without spending a ton of money, and today, I’m going to share some tips for how to find the right budget-friendly gear for you.
Before I get into gear nerd talk, I’m going to step up on a soapbox for a moment. A lot of people think that all it takes to be a photographer is a fancy, expensive camera. It drives me BATTY when people are like, “You take such nice photos. You must have a good camera.” Then they get their own and wonder why their photos still look like they were taken with a $100 point-and-shoot. Photography is loads more than just having the right gear. It’s knowing how to use that gear to it’s full potential (and it’s a lifelong journey, not something learned overnight), and developing an eye for composition. I’d say the latter is actually more important—I’ve seen some excellent photos taken with iPhones and point-and-shoots. (Granted, you can’t always print them super big, but compositionally, they’re great…)
I don’t want to sound like I don’t think you can do it—not at all! If you’re reading this, chances are you’re interested in learning photography. Either that, or you’re my mom (Hi, Mom!). I just want to be frank and remind you that it’s going to take a lot of learning and practice and thousands and thousands of bad shots before you start feeling like a photographer. I’ve been shooting for well over a decade and I still find myself looking at my work with an eye of disdain. All I’m saying is that photography is not a hobby to take lightly. Too many people spend LOTS of money on gear and then leave it in their closet collecting dust because they never take the time to learn how to be a photographer. It IS a big investment to make, especially if you’re not sure you’re ready to commit the time it takes to get good at photography,
So if you’re ready to take the time to practice and fail and practice some more, then read on. If not, here are some very nice fixed-lens cameras that handle color very well and are infinitely more affordable than dSLRs.
Where to Find Affordable Gear
My favorite source of affordable camera gear is KEH.com. They have an excellent selection of refurbished gear for better prices than you’ll find anywhere else. That is not an exaggeration—I’ve looked. Everything comes with a 6 month warranty, and their customer service is the absolute best customer service I’ve ever received anywhere.
And right now, they're currently offering 20% off Accessories & 10% off DSLRs with the code NOW10A. This is a great opportunity to pick up some affordable gear. The code is valid10/22/19 ONLY. If you miss the window, never fear! I try to keep this post updated with the current sales, so be sure to check back later.
What gear do you need?
The first thing to keep in mind is that there are two main elements at play: the camera body and the lens. You can get a kit that comes with both, or you can buy them separately. I prefer the latter option because I can pick my lens instead of just taking what’s kitted together, and it’s often a bit cheaper than buying the kit. But in the beginning, you might want to get a kit so you can learn what it is you’re looking for in a lens so you don’t risk investing in something that you’ll get frustrated with.
For a beginning body, I would highly recommend a camera that comes with standard auto settings (landscape, portrait, sports, etc.) and manual settings. That way, you can learn how to shoot in manual but have the option to fall back on the auto settings until you get the hang of aperture, f-stop, ISO, etc. Most entry level consumer dSLRs will have both types of settings. That said, if you’re serious about learning, you’ll want to throw yourself whole-heartedly into learning the manual settings ASAP. Auto settings give you snapshots, manual gives you photos (once you learn how to use it).
Here are some excellent camera bodies for the beginning photographer:
Another option could be the Micro 3/4 cameras (also called mirrorless), which still have interchangeable lenses, but are a lot smaller and lighter than dSLRs. They take pretty good photos, too, especially if you get lenses with good glass. I love my Canons, but there were times when I was traveling that I wished I had a smaller camera. If you’re not thinking you want to go pro, mirrorless is an excellent option. I even know a few pros who use them in certain situations.
Many kits these days come with a 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, but there are many options available if you decide to put your own kit together. The trickiest part is understanding what the lens numbers mean so you can get a lens that matches the type of photography you want to do.
There are two parts to a lens number:
- The first part (18-55mm) tells you your focal length range, or how wide you can go (i.e. how much you can see in the frame) and how far you can zoom. The smaller the first number, the wider the lens can go, and the bigger the second number, the closer your zoom. If there’s only one number, it’s a prime lens, which means no zooming.
- The second part of the lens number (f/…) tells you the aperture/f-stop range. The aperture controls how much light enters the camera. It’s a bit tricky to remember, but the smaller your f-stop number, the wider the shutter opens to let in light. Hence, a small f/ number is called a wide aperture.
|If you want to shoot…||Look for a lens with…|
|Portraits||A good close focal range and a super wide aperture.|
|Landscapes||A wide focal length|
|Wildlife||A long zoom and a wide aperture (Telephoto)|
|Urban/Street Scenes||A broad focal range, so you can capture subjects that are close or far.|
|Astrophotography||A wide focal length and a wide aperature (Prime)|
The 18-55 is a decent range for a beginner, but don’t expect any NatGeo-esque landscapes or close up shots of faraway things. My first kit actually came with a Canon 35-80mm F/4-5.6, and I personally like that range a little better. It’s a very affordable lens, so you can pick up a Canon version for about $35 (if you decide to go with Canon gear). My current walkaround (i.e. everyday) lens is a Canon 28-105 f/3.5-4.5. It’ll be a little more pricey, but it’s an excellent range and I use it more than any of my other lenses.
There are lots of very expensive tripods out there, but this is one area where you can get pretty basic until you need something more substantial. The biggest thing to look for is sturdiness—you want something heavy duty enough to trust with your new camera, but light enough to tote around with you. Additional tripod features that aren’t necessary but can be nice to have include ball head mounts (if you’re going to shoot a lot of video, ball heads make for nice, smooth movements), convertible feet (rubber bumpers for sensitive surfaces, picks for dirt/gravel), and bubble levels.
I have a handy wide angle/macro adapter that screws onto the front of my lens. It’s no substitute for a good dedicated wide angle or macro lens, but it’s an affordable fix for when I just need to get a little closer or further away.
Remote Shutter Release
These things are very affordable, and you won’t regret adding one to your arsenal. They are super handy for getting super crisp tripod shots, and some have a locking mechanism so that you can take multiple pictures back to back without having to press the shutter again. It is also required if your camera has a “bulb” setting, which is a long exposure setting where you determine how long the shutter stays open by how long you keep the shutter button down. It won’t work with the built-in shutter button on the camera itself, so if you want to use this setting, you’ll need a remote shutter release.
You will want extra batteries. I repeat: YOU WILL WANT EXTRA BATTERIES. Many cameras only come with one, and there’s nothing worse than being right on the cusp of the best shot of your life just to discover that your battery is dead. You will want extra batteries. (I usually keep a minimum of 3.)
Learning How to Use Your Gear
Once you have a camera, there are lots of great resources for learning how to use it. My personal favorites are:
- Digital Photography School – Their website is chock full of excellent information for beginners and experts alike. They even have weekly photo challenges that you can enter, and you can ask the forum for feedback on your work.
- Improve Photography – They offer a great podcast full of useful information, as well as lessons in the basics of beginning photography.
- Pinterest – Pinterest has lots of links to great tutorials and photography tips. Check out my Photography Tutorials and Ideas board for lots of inspiration.
What is your favorite source of affordable photography gear? What other questions do you have about getting started in photography?
If you found this post useful, please remember to share it! Thanks!
 And BTW, my mom is actually a talented photographer, too. She’s a big part of why I’m a photographer myself.
 Most cameras have a high burst setting that will also take multiple pictures back to back, but those will be in quick succession. The shutter release is handy if you want multiple slower shots.