Friday, 27 May 2011


Clematis macro taken with a $10 lens and $50 diopter.
I've been a digital and film photographer for ten years now, and have explored a variety of techniques from dSLRs through to 4x5 and 8x10 large format, and virtually everything in between (35mm, 6x4.5, 6x6, 6x7, 6x9, 9x12, 4x5, 8x10).  Pinholes, home made lenses, home made cameras, you name it.

I think along the way I have learned some money saving techniques you can use to get excellent results without spending a fortune on the latest and most expensive digital toys.

I am going to focus on Canon digital SLRs, simply because they are versatile (for technical reasons which I will describe below), established, and many bodies are old enough now that they can be purchased for very little money.  For example, the digital rebel XT can be bought for about $250 as I type this, and this value is dropping with time.  Newer bodies get progressively more expensive, but you can pick up a very capable 40D or 50D with a lot of excellent features for about $400-$600 depending on usage, wear, cosmetic condition, etc.

My city in winter, through a $15 lens.

I have a 50D, but have used a 350D / Rebel XT in the past.   If you want to be really cheap (and don't care about ultra-wide or other specialty lenses) this will be the most expensive part of your Budget Photographer's kit.

Why Canon?

There's nothing intrinsically superior about Canon.  They're just a company.  They make cameras; good ones.  No better than Nikon or Pentax, or any of the other big names.  Some of the advantages I list are shared by Sony's NEX, and Olympus & Panasonic's Micro-43 system.  I sold my Micro-43 Olympus E-P1 though to return to a Canon DSLR; I found the system cute, but difficult to manage (setting changes are very slow and cumbersome) and frankly too small (a big advantage when you're carrying it but not when you're using it!).


  • Cheap older used bodies (350D used for $250 or so, 50D for $500-600, 40D for less than that)
  • Short flange-sensor distance: you can stick adapters in between the body and a lens and not lose infinity focus.  In other words, camera bodies from a lot of other manufacturers (and legacy manufacturers) are *thicker* than the Canon SLR standard, so you have room to put in an adapter ring to end up with the correct final thickness for that particular lens.  Make sense?
  • Good metering with manual lenses.  Nikon is getting better with some of their bodies, but many of the low end ones will not meter without a Nikon electronic lens attached.  Canon does not have this limitation: you can stick a magnifying glass on a tube and take photos with it on a Canon body. 
  • NEX and Micro-43 have these advantages too, but they are more Point&Shoot like in operation.  Canon DSLRs have these advantages but are quick and easy to operate with robust controls.  Even the Rebel series, while sort of P&S-like, is very capable and easy / fast to operate once you get used to it.

Biggest costs

I have found a way to do virtually anything with very high quality from wide-angle to extreme telephoto for very little money.  But there are a couple of things that you pretty much have to spend money for.

First, obviously, the body.  Newer = more expensive.  Buy used from a reputable source.  A photography forum that you are a member of is a good bet, as you can check the seller's history and see if they are an active contributor and seem trustworthy or not.  You take some gambles on ebay, but of course they have pretty good buyer protection policies.  Local classifieds may be a good source but I find they tend to be filled with hopeless optimists / delusional sellers who list their cameras for twice market value and insist: "This is a high quality digital camera system that I paid over $1700 for new!".  Yeah, well, that was 5 years ago, and now it's worth $400.  You won't be getting $1200 for it.

Second: ultra wide.  There are some fairly good and fairly inexpensive options.  The best is probably the Tokina 12-24mm (for price) or 11-16mm (for price / quality).   But even here you're going to be spending $400+.  I actually paid $900 for my 11-16mm, because I wanted to purchase it locally, and it was brand new (rare on the used market).  This is the most valuable photographic thing I currently own, since even my camera body was cheaper.  I paid too much, but wanted it right away, and none of the remote dealers had it in stock.  Bottom line here is you can save some money by buying a used lens but nothing like the real budget options that I will discuss in upcoming blog posts.

Tripod.  Face it; a good tripod makes your life much easier.  I use a Manfrotto 055B (Bogen something in the USA) and a quick release ball head.   Total cost is over $200.  I could have bought something much cheaper but at a big weight and usability cost.  However, buying used is a good option for a tripod, if you can find a good one that suits your needs.


Most Important Skill

There is one thing you must have in order to best take advantage of the ridiculously inexpensive bargains out there, and that is technical competence.  If you do not know what an aperture is, you will have some trouble.  You can still get away with using some of the equipment I will recommend, but you will not do so optimally.  So... if you're looking to save money, step one is to learn as much as you possibly can about the technical elements of photography.

That means you have to know:

  • ISO
  • Aperture
  • Shutter speed
  • Focus
  • Depth of field
  • Metering
As a bare minimum.  If you understand these terms without any discomfort or mental haziness, you'll be fine.  If not, you need to do some reading.  This is not a "basics of photography" blog - those are plentiful, and you can find all kinds of excellent tutorials elsewhere.  Go take advantage of them and you'll get more out of this.

And besides; the goal of this blog is to help save you several thousand dollars by replacing expensive specialty equipment with cheaper alternatives.  If you're a novice with limited money, this doesn't really apply to you (rich novices can go buy all the ridiculous gear they want, on the other hand, even if they don't have a clue how to operate it).

No comments:

Post a Comment