Photography is not a free hobby (at the bare minimum you need a camera). But, it doesn’t have to be an expensive one.

It is very easy to start running up huge bills on photography equipment: cameras, lenses, miscellaneous equipment, trips to exotic locations. But none of these are truly necessary and it’s perfectly possible to take stunning pictures with very little spending. Here are six suggestions for budget photography that I use to keep my own costs low.

1. Use free photo editors

Why spend hundreds per year on photo editing software when there are equally powerful options out there for free?

You can manage your photo library in software such as digiKam and edit RAW photos in RawTherapee without having to shell out for Lightroom. GIMP is a great alternative to Photoshop. And LuminanceHDR does the basics of HDR pretty well.

All these pieces of software are described in detail on this site. If you are new to the open-source photography editing scene, you might like to start with my overview of the best free, open source photo editors currently out there.

2. Avoid gear aquisition syndrome

It’s too easy to look at a great photo on Flickr or 500px and see that it was taken with Nikon’s latest, greatest body, or a $13,000 Canon lens. If only I had that body/lens/tripod/flash, you think to yourself mournfully.

Enough, I say. Enough.

Search for a similar picture on Flickr taken with your own gear. I can guarantee you’ll find some great shots. And have a look for pictures taken with that fancy full-frame that aren’t so great. They’ll be plenty out there.

The problem is that on these sites we disproportionately see the pictures taken by the best photographers. We don’t see the terrible shots taken by the same guys (because they don’t post them) or the mediocre shots taken by mediocre photographers with the same equipment (because they don’t get upvoted). And so we fall into the trap of thinking it must be the equipment.

But here’s the thing. Ansel Adams’s would have shot great landscapes with a Nikon D3000. General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a Vietcong Prisoner in Saigon is an iconic photo, but not because of the camera it was taken on (35mm film, in case you were wondering). Megan Blazier takes fantastic photos on a Canon PowerShot SX40HS, a 12MP point-and-shoot. And let’s go a step lower still: smart phones. Apple’s competition for the best photos taken with an iPhone is full of photos better than 90% of those taken by DSLR’s on Flickr.

Great photographers are made by their skill, not their equipment. Which brings us to point 3…

3. Upgrade your skills before your gear

A boring picture is boring on a smartphone camera or a full frame DSLR. The latter just makes it dull in better resolution.

There are plenty of ways to get better at taking consistently great shots with an OK camera.

  • Practice, practice, practice. Do exercises that push your comfort zone as a photographer. Consistent, deliberate practice has been shown to be the thing that separates pros from amateurs in almost every field of endeavour. Here’s a list of over 150 exercises to get you started.
  • Invest in knowledge rather than equipment. Gear will wear out and become obsolete but photographic skill is timeless.

4. Beg, borrow, or steal before buying

We often want stuff that we don’t need. It’s human nature to never be quite satisfied with what we have.

Before you rush out and grab that new lens, see if you can try it for free first. Borrow your friend’s tripod. Rent that $2000 lens. (You probably shouldn’t steal though.)

You may find that it’s not as great as you thought. Or you don’t use it as much as you anticipated. Or the pictures aren’t that much better than your existing lens. Great, you can put that cash towards improving your skills instead (see the previous point).

5. Buy cheaper brands

For whatever reason, you have to buy. Maybe that 18-55mm starter lens just won’t cut it for your favourite genre (e.g. shooting wildlife). You need a zoom. But there are a range of zooms available, and you don’t have to plump for the priciest.

Different brands sell for wildly different prices, but the difference in quality is usually much smaller than the gap in price. Nikon/Canon lenses retail for a lot more than comparable Sigma/Tamron lenses. You can get robust, good quality accessories (tripods, flashes, bags, etc.) from lesser name brands for a fraction of the cost of more famous brands.

The moral: shop around and compare different items to find the best deal.

6. Buy second hand

You can often save 50% by buying second hand. In fact this is often the best way to buy lenses, as lens values tend to plateau, so you if you stop using it, you can sell it on for about what you bought it for (or more if you got a great deal).

Many people are wary of buying a lens second-hand, but with a bit of care you will be fine. To avoid a lemon:

  • Shop on a trusted site
  • Make sure an independent seller (Amazon or eBay) has good reviews
  • Read the product description carefully, and save a copy before you buy
  • Know the website’s return policy
  • Bide your time. Track the price range for the item you want, and only buy when it’s in the lower end of the spectrum. Delayed gratification is good for the soul.

Note that you can also find camera equipment locally on Craigslist. This can often be a good deal, especially if someone is trying to get rid of something quickly. You also get to see it in the flesh before you buy.

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