4 Tips for Doing Photography on a Budget

Several times in the past few months people have asked me how to get into photography without spending a lot of money. I must admit the idea of emptying your wallet to get all the camera bodies, lenses, flashes, tripods, and other gear you need to do some serious photography can seem quite daunting, it certainly was for me when I first got bitten by the photography bug.

The good news is you don’t really need the latest, greatest, and most expensive gear to make some stunning images thanks to the magic of modern technology. In many cases all you need to do some serious picture-taking is the camera you probably already have with you: your smartphone. However as good as modern mobiles can be, they do have some serious limitations (particularly due to their small image sensors) like limited low-light capabilities, and non-zooming lenses. If you really want to up your game and take advantage of the bigger image sensors, larger lens selection, and incredible accessories available for DSLR or mirrorless camera without breaking the bank – here are a few options to get you started.

photographing-on-budget-beach-sparks

You don’t need a lot of money to take pictures like this. A basic camera and some creativity will do just fine.

1. Buy used gear

New cameras sure are nice, and I can certainly understand the desire to have a model with the most megapixels, best image sensor, highest ISO, fastest autofocus, and coolest bells and whistles. But, before you rush off to drop hundreds or thousands of dollars on a brand new model though, consider this – every picture you have ever seen was taken with a camera older than one you can buy today.

Think of the most famous photographs in history: A man facing down a row of tanks in Tiananmen Square. Muhammad Ali standing triumphant over a defeated Sonny Liston. The 1984 National Geographic photograph of a young woman from Afghanistan. These were all taken on film cameras, with capabilities outmatched in almost every possible way by even the cheapest digital camera today. Certainly new cameras make the act of taking pictures easier in many ways with bright screens, easy-to-use controls, and a host of other features designed to help you get the hang of your hobby. But if you’re pressed for cash buying an older, used camera can be just as good.

photographing-on-budget-cottonwood-borer

Photo of a cottonwood borer beetle taken with my old Nikon D200 that is far less capable than any new DSLR on the market today.

To put my money where my mouth is, I take most of the pictures on my weekly 50mm photo blog not with my new Nikon D7100, but with my ten-year-old Nikon D200, which can be found used online for a fraction of what a brand new camera costs today. It’s only 10 megapixels, and doesn’t have features like wi-fi, a tilting screen, or even the ability to use live view – but it allows me to take beautiful images and that’s often the only thing that matters.

Buying a camera just a few years old can save you significant amounts of money while giving you a high-tech photographic instrument that your photographic forebears from decades gone by would only have dreamed about. Older cameras like the Canon Rebel T2i, the Nikon D80, Olympus PEN E-P2 and many others don’t stack up to modern cameras when you look at marks on a checklist of features, but all of them are capable of producing amazing images, and can be purchased used for much cheaper than any new camera today. This applies to more than just camera bodies, and you can find very good prices on accessories like lenses, flashes, tripods, and other equipment too.

My brother took this shot with a ten-year-old DSLR and a macro lens he found when cleaning out his basement.

My brother took this shot with a ten-year-old DSLR and a macro lens he found when cleaning out his basement.

I prefer buying used equipment from sites that offer some type of warranty or trade-in period if you decide you don’t like what you receive. Two of my favorites in the United States are KEH.com and Adorama Used. Other sellers like B&H offer used cameras, and you can often buy refurbished equipment directly from camera manufacturers that even come with a warranty. Some photographers I know get a lot of high quality gear for cheap on sites like eBay and Craigslist as well. Be forewarned that sites like these often make no guarantees as to the quality of what you are buying, but as long as you are careful you can find some good deals.

For some buying tips read: How to buy used camera gear 

2. Make your own gear

If you’re like me you may find yourself scrolling through websites, or flipping through catalogs, dreaming of all the camera gear that you don’t have, mostly because so much of it is too expensive. While many common photography accessories can be purchased used, you can actually make your own versions for almost no money at all. These won’t stand up the the daily rigors of a professional photography environment, but most offer similar functionality as their full-priced name-brand counterparts for far less cash. From do-it-yourself tripods to homemade lighting kits, the internet is brimming with articles, videos, and tutorials for enterprising photographers looking to fashion their own equipment to save a buck or two. The end result might look the same as a professional product, but you may be quite surprised at what you can come up with to expand your photographic horizons with a bit of searching and a willingness to try making things by yourself.

Read these dPS articles for some DIY projects:

As an example, here’s a photo of a toy train I took with my son one morning before I left for work. It required no special equipment, and took about 10 minutes to set up.

A toy train, seen in a whole new light.

A toy train, seen in a whole new light.

You might think a photo like this would require an expensive camera, a fancy studio, and a lot of costly lighting rigs, but in truth it was quite the opposite. I shot this using my trusty D200 on our dining room table with a bit of aluminum foil taped to a board.

No fancy lighting or expensive equipment required.

No fancy lighting or expensive equipment required.

This is only one case scenario out of thousands, and just goes to show that a bit of out-of-the-box thinking, and some creativity, can net incredible results without requiring a trip to the bank. While spending money on additional gear and equipment can certainly boost your capabilities as a photographer, this is just one way to take you skills to the next level without breaking the bank.

3. Learn to use the equipment you already have

Recently I was talking about cameras with a fellow photography enthusiast who was a bit frustrated with his DSLR. He wanted to shoot in Aperture Priority but have his camera also take care of setting not just the shutter speed but the ISO as well. As he told me about the new camera he was thinking about buying and pondering how he could save enough money to get it. I asked if I could look through his camera menus a bit. A minute later I found that his camera did indeed have an Auto ISO setting which did exactly what he was hoping, and saved him hundreds of dollars right there on the spot.

This is only the most recent example of a phenomenon I have encountered many times; the camera you already have can probably do a lot more than you realize. If you’ve never sat down and read the manual for your camera, you might be in for a pleasant surprise when you find out how much it can actually do. You can almost always find online tutorials dealing with your specific camera with a bit of internet searching.

The equipment I used to shoot this was not expensive (a $100 pocket camera) but I did have to learn about lighting, posing, focal lengths, background compression, and other aspects of photography.

If you want to seriously enhance your photography skills without buying a single piece of new gear, one of the best routes you can take is to learn from others. Most cities have photography clubs where members meet regularly to teach workshops, share tips, or just gather to talk about their favorite hobby with fellow like-minded individuals. Often these groups and clubs require nothing of new members except a passion for photography. Those that do charge a fee usually keep it reasonable and have a good motive for doing so; membership dues give the group access to better facilities, early sneak peeks at new equipment, or even a notable guest speaker.

If you don’t have one of these groups in your area there are plenty of online forums as well, such as the ones right here at Digital Photography School. Joining a community, whether face-to-face or online, is a fantastic way to learn more about the capabilities of your gear, teach yourself about the principles of photography, and make personal connections that can help you when you need it. No new equipment is required – just a willingness to meet people, stretch yourself, and try something new.

4. Get out and shoot photos!

This might sound a bit silly, which is why I’m leaving this until the very end. I often have conversation with people who want to improve their photography skills but think they can only do it by spending money. One of the best ways to improve as a photographer is to actually go out and take pictures, and if  you already have a camera this requires spending no money at all.

It’s easy to think that buying a new camera, lens, flash, tripod, or camera bag will inspire you to get your creative juices flowing and take better pictures, but after a while all that gear will usually start collecting dust just like the camera equipment you already have. Whether you have a mobile phone, a pocket camera, or a full-fledged DLSR or mirrorless model, you are in possession of equipment that is light years beyond what your forebears had only a few decades ago. The secret to improving your photography is not about spending even more money on an ever-growing cache of equipment, but simply taking what you already have, going out into the world, and using it.

Capturing the beauty of nature with an old and relatively cheap iPhone 5.

Capturing the beauty of nature with an old and relatively cheap iPhone 5.

What about you? What are some of your favorite low-budget tips for improving your photography? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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