Thursday, July 12, 2012

Photography On A Shoestring Budget, Part 2: The Camera

Part 1

Cameras are often the most expensive thing about photography. The cost of a new camera can seem like an obstacle to becoming a photographer.

Almost everyone is on a tight budget these days, so who has thousands of dollars to spend on a "professional" camera and lenses? The fact is that the cost of a camera doesn't have to be an obstacle to becoming a photographer.

There are inexpensive and even free options out there that are more than adequate. Let's take a look, starting with free cameras.

Free Cameras
Overcoming Adversity - Palmdale, California
You may be wondering what kind of camera you can get for free. Well, chances are, you already have one of these free cameras in your pocket or purse right now!

Most people have a cell phone and most cell phones have a built-in digital camera. Many of these cell phones are free with a two-year contract. My free Samsung Galaxy S cell phone has a 5 megapixel camera, and I used it to create the image above.

A cell phone camera may not seem like a powerful enough photography tool to be taken seriously, but it is! Photojournalist Damon Winter prefers his cell phone to capture the war in Afghanistan. Street photographer Greg Schmigel uses a cell phone camera for real work. Chase Jarvis, who has worked for some very big clients, has a published book of cell phone photographs. There is even an annual iPhone photography contest.

What is far more important than the equipment you use is what you do with the equipment you use. The finished photograph is what matters and no one cares what camera was used to create it.

You most certainly can be a successful photographer with a cell phone camera as your primary tool if you have vision. The equipment you use is far less important than you think it is.

Another option is to ask your friends and family if they have any cameras that they no longer use or want. I got a perfectly fine Canon T70 SLR with this method.

Cameras Under $10
Afternoon Dream - Tehachapi, California
Another small budget option for photographers is the lowly disposable camera. This is not an efficient long-term solution, but if you don't have a camera and can't afford a camera, this is a good way to get started.

Some will scoff at the idea of using a disposable camera for serious photographs, but it most certainly can be used to make successful images. Photographer Tammy Dooley calls it her "secret weapon" for travel photography. Eric Kim used a $5 disposable camera for street photography. There's the New York Shots Project by Katie O'Beirne. I captured the above photograph using a disposable camera.

Don't worry about quality--the lomo aspect is a charm. Besides, if you get a good quality scan of the negative, you'll have a file size about the same as images captured with a full-frame DSLR. 

Cameras Under $25
Light Girl - Goodyear, Arizona
The Holga is China's "every man" camera. You may have to shop around to find a Holga camera for under $25--I paid $20 for mine including shipping from Hong Kong--so be sure to do some research.

This camera uses 120 film (there are some Holga cameras that use 35mm film), and the poor design and build quality allow for interesting surprises. I used a Holga 120N to capture the above photograph.

Lance Williams and David Burnett, both award-winning photographers, have used a Holga camera for serious work.

Another option is to make your own camera. Photographer Michael Chrisman made an amazing photograph of Toronto using a $20 home-made camera!

Cameras Under $50
Bridge Tunnel - Arlington, Arizona
There are plenty of good film cameras that you can find on eBay, Craigslist and at garage sales that cost under $50. Sometimes you can even find an older digital camera.

I found a Russian FED 5c camera with a lens for under $50 on eBay, and used that to create the image above. FED cameras are reversed-engineered Leica rangefinders. You can find them for very reasonable prices if you look around.

Cameras Under $150
Boat And Rock - Morro Bay, California
Suppose you have a little more money. What kind of camera can you get for around $150? A pocket digital camera! 

I used a Nikon S8100, which I found on sale for half price on Black Friday, to capture the image above. While these cameras don't quite have the same resolution, dynamic range and high-ISO capabilities of a DSLR, they can still produce surprisingly good images. 

If you know how to create great photographs, no one will ever be able to tell that you didn't use a more expensive camera.

Cameras Under $500
Man At Shoshone Point - Grand Canyon, Arizona
My favorite choice for under $500 is the Pentax K-x DSLR, which I used to capture this image. The K-x actually retails for $750, but if you shop around you can find it for less. I paid $490 for mine with a lens two years ago. 

The Sony Alpha 290 is another good option to consider.

Cameras Under $750
Old Life, New Life - Victorville, California
The absolute best camera for under $750 is the Nikon D3200 DSLR, which has an MSRP of $700 with a lens. This camera is every bit as good as cameras that cost over four-times as much money!

Another good option to consider is the Samsung NX200 digital compact interchangeable-lens camera. The NX200 has an MSRP of $900 with a lens, but if you shop around you can find it for around $700. This camera is not quite as good as the D3200, but it is smaller and weighs less, which is a plus for travel or street photography.

I used an NX200 to photograph the image above.


You don't need an expensive camera to craft great photographs. You can spend as much or as little as you'd like. You don't have to spend a single dollar if you don't want to. There is a perfectly capable camera for every budget.

What is more important than your camera is your ability to use the camera. Worry less about equipment and more about how to create great photographs.

Check back soon for Part 3, where we'll talk about tripods, filters and other accessories.

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