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.


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.


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.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

  • ?????

    Nice and good explanation!

  • Pinakin Trivedi

    Great article. I am using Fuji S 1800 costed me 165 $ in 2010,Kodak z990 costed me 137 $ in 2012 refurbished,Used Nikon 80 cost 182$ in 2013 with Tokina atx 80-400mm cost 235$ .Visit my page on https://500px.com/pinakintrivedi for images taken by these non expensive camera & give feedback.You have rightly mentioned that you must have knowledge about light & function of camera.

  • lapasan

    One of the costliest investments a budding photographer can make are on lenses. Some of them are even more expensive than camera bodies. To reduce cost, one buys used lenses online. Despite the fact that lenses look sturdy, they are in fact a delicate piece of equipment. A fungus in the lens would ruin one’s investment and will make him being disappointed. A used lens might have fungus, and the previous owner might have repaired the lens and have the fungus removed to sell it. The buyer might be delighted to receive his new lens with a clear and clean optics. But once the lens is infected with fungus, the fungus will just keep coming back after some time. If it does, the new owner will find out that the lens that he has well taken care of have molds in the surface of the glass. Second hand equipment is cheap, and some of them are free of defects. But some time it pays to buy brand new to make sure that one’s purchases will live to his expectation. In addition brand new equipment comes with a warranty.

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  • wayward

    In regards to #3 the solution is generally very simple…RTFM…Read The Freaking (saying it nicely) Manual
    It’s amazing how many times folks will post questions/problems/issues etc about their gear on photo forums, that can simply be answered by taking 10 minutes to read the manual that came with it…Even if you bought it used and there is no paper manual, most manuf. have a pdf copy online…

  • Radbuch

    I’m not sure about everyone else, but I’ve found the manuals to be to techy for beginners. Those Magic Lantern books are a very good investment. The one for my D50(yes, I’ve been using a D50 since 2007) was much easier to understand than the manual that came with my camera. Of course since I’m more camera savvy now the manual makes more sense.

  • Radbuch

    Those are very nice shots on your site. Be honest now; how much post processing was put into them? If none, you rival the best photogs in the world.

  • Radbuch

    Since I dabble in photography on a very limited budget, I can relate to everything you’ve written. This is some sound advice for beginners. I have never graduated from my trusty Nikon D50 that I bought used off eBay, but I knew the seller and talked to her before bidding. She happened to be a fellow Flickr user and had beautiful photos from it. As for lenses, I have the 18-55 kit lens and a Tamron 28-300 lens. The Tamron is a very cheap lens yet I am very proud of some of my shots from it.
    Anyways, very good tips Simon.

  • Radbuch

    I was sort of thinking new might be the best bet on a quality lens. I have looked and drooled over the 70-200 2.8 VR but used usually runs 3/4 the price of new. Spend that extra 300-500 for a warranty is my opinion. Those lenses are very delicate. The nifty fifty even sells used for almost the price of new, maybe because it’s so durable, but still get the warranty instead of saving 10-20% of the new price. IMHO.

  • I would have a difficult time spending serious amounts of money on a used lens also. Like you said Radbuch, a couple hundred more dollars for a new lens with warranty is well worth it (in my opinion).

  • Thank you! I’m glad you had a good experience with eBay, and I certainly don’t want to dissuade anyone from buying used gear but I have had enough bad experiences that I generally prefer buying new. Or, if I am buying used gear I like to go with a like like KEH.com that has a like-it-or-return-it policy.

  • When I bought an SB-700 Speedlight it came with a quick reference card that would probably be useful to beginners, as it showed examples (in color!) of how to use different settings and what effects they had on the image.

  • Radbuch

    I’m sorry, I forgot to mention that you show a perfect example of why the latest gear is not mandatory, except maybe for large artwork reproductions.

  • Pinakin Trivedi

    Agree,If you are professional & making living out of photography.

  • Pinakin Trivedi

    I am doc & do not know much of post processing.I am using Picasa 3 for post processing images.

  • Radbuch

    Very, very nice work then.

  • Pinakin Trivedi

    Thanks Radbuch.I have got 500 nice shots out of 15000 images I have taken! One out of 30 !

  • fancycake

    I agree with this fully! There is nothing more annoying than to be seated anywhere near one of those ‘photographers’ with the thousand dollar outfits, who insist on using a pop-up flash from Row Q at a dance recital, or across the gym at a basketball game. Regarding tip #4, I would only add to take your camera out and play with it – take a shot, change something and try again. Is the picture better? Change something else and try again – if it isn’t better, you can always change it back. But you will learn your camera.

    My “good” camera is a Canon SX 160 that I’ve had for about a year – I’m still learning some of its tricks and how to cheat it into getting the results I want. When I use it within its limitations, it’s gives good results. The trick is to find out what they really are.

  • Thanks for a very useful and practical article and positive discussion. I like to travel light and on a budget, using cheap equipment. I carry a used Nikon 3100 body with a NIKKOR 50mm 1.8G prime lens, that’s all. Advantages: (i) low weight if you go hiking (see here: 50mm photo/travel blog of Annapurna base camp trek); (ii) easy to replace if it gets stolen, if it breaks, and/or if it wears down; (iii) more variability in your interactions with local people since you don’t frighten them with a big barrel (Last year, in the town centre of Bhaktapur in Nepal, I met a group of photographers with telephoto lenses worth a couple of thousands who shied away from establishing rapport with the locals and behaved as if they were visiting a human zoo. Very bizarre, indead. By watching them I could learn that expensive gear can sometimes become an excuse or an obstacle to good photos. See here: 50mm photo/travel blog on Bhaktapur, scroll down a bit. – Matt http://www.konniandmatt.blogspot.com.

  • WillyPs

    I’ve bought quite a few things through eBay, including my Canon 60D, lenses, flash, laptops, tools, household items… Never had an issue. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but I have had nothing but good experience.

    I do check seller ratings, and see what else they have for sale, and I try to get a feel for what the seller is up too. If I’m at all suspicious, well, there are plenty of other sellers selling the same thing.

  • ColininOz

    “Read the camera manual ” is such excellent advice that one wonders why a company like Nikon which produced my excellent D5100 a few years back, did not spend the extra ten dollars and include one. Oh yes – the info is all there – on a CD ! Saved themselves a couple of dollars. But how do you refer to a CD when you are on a Shanghai street, or on a beach, a yacht, a train, or even at home with less than a half an hour to spend booting up and then searching for what you want to know ? Or you can challenge your sanity in menus, sub menus, sub sub menus and yes/no answers in the camera’s built in excellent but cumbersome litany of directions. The tiger went home while you were looking. Fortunately, for people who really want to understand their camera, a modest thirty – forty dollars and a lack of pride at the silly name can buy “NIKON D whatever for DUMMIES ” or heaven knows how many other cameras, and you can then, at leisure. with your camera switched on as well, try out the features and have a reasonably unbiased lesson, or fifty, from a lady who knows how to teach as well as all about cameras. Any time. Any where. Provided you can read. Yours for keeps. Old fashioned and crazily named but a really good help. And no. I have no connection with Nikon other than liking their cameras, nor with the authoress/ authors of the ‘Dummies’ Bibles on how to use them to best advantage.

  • Jackie

    Great post

  • Radbuch

    I do all the same on eBay and I’m glad your experience was as good as mine. I have been buying and selling on eBay since 1998 with over 600 purchases. Still not recommending a newcomer to rush to eBay for a high dollar camera or lens. I’ve seen all kinds suspicious items listed over those years.

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  • Doug

    Some really nice photos. Given the subjects, and without a lot of time to study the animals, and watch over several days you will have difficulty improving your hit rate. or you could drop your high standards ; )

  • Pinakin Trivedi

    Thanks for suggestion! I never see hit rate,On social media like 500pix You need quality of image+ Post process skills+ Marketing techniques.I am poor at last two,till trying to get maximum out of my gear.I am still learning.

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  • king jone

    Such a great tips man. Thank you so much. Now i am learning Photoshop to edit the images

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  • Muhammad Afzal

    Hello. I wanted to ask one silly question. The only DSLR I have is Canon rebel D300. Old model. Although I have bought a 50mm lens for creativity but reading your article that you also use Nikon D200 what should I do? Keep it or go for the new one? Keeping in mind I am not a very regular photographer but am an enthusiast.

  • RM

    Great article!! Thanks.

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  • benkoerita

    Interesting article, however I find your point about analogue cameras contradictory. I myself desire an interchangeable lens camera instead of my compact BECAUSE I was trained on a completely manual instrument (good ol’ Praktica) and I miss the freedom of manual modes. Although I appreciate sometimes that I can make decent pictures at times when I do not have time to do all the settings. More often I want to decide focus, aperture and shutter speed – at least two of these parameters. A few more moths of saving, and I can buy a decent mirrorles with a 3x zoom lenses, and a mount for my Pancolar 50 mm f1.8 lens:-)

  • Good question Muhammad, and sorry it took so long to respond! If I were you I’d keep that Rebel D300 and 50mm lens for now. It’s a fantastic combination that will suit you quite well for a huge variety of situations, and if you decide after a while that you have a specific need (higher ISOs, faster shutter speeds, etc.) that a new camera would help with, then get one. But for now just use what you have and enjoy making pictures 🙂

  • I know what you mean about manuals. It seems like we’re lucky to get even so much as a quick-start guide anymore! My Nikon D7100 did come with a full printed manual, but what would really be nice is if it was in color. It’s not very useful to look at postage-stamp-sized black-and-white images in a manual to help me understand the different photography principles that it’s supposed to help me learn!

  • You’re right Matt, that camera + lens combination is incredibly versatile but for traveling I prefer my 35mm prime lens, though my reasons are about the same as yours. I just like the wider field of view it offers as compared to the 50mm lens.

  • Life’s a compromise…

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  • kevin mccabe

    I was given a Canon eos 10D body. I bought a 50mm lens for it. You are right about the manual. Small black and white pictures. The page that shows all the screens and buttons is so small it’s very difficult to see what feature is being pointed at. Its all Greek to me….

  • Dimitri Goderdzishvili

    First try for this kind of experiment.
    Money spent : 1.4 $ for steel wool and 0.8 $ for 9V battery to light it up.
    For more info or camera settings visit : https://www.flickr.com/photos/dgode/25386284403

  • jamesapril

    Good advice, though the example of the Nat Geo photo well, they didn’t have high quality digital in the 80s.

  • jamesapril

    There are basic DSLR cameras that you can set to manual mode. I shoot like that all the time with my DSLR.

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