So you want to take photos but you have no money to spend? There are ways to get started in photography without spending any money, but you will have to be resourceful.
Getting a camera (for nothing)
At the bare minimum, you will need a camera. Unfortunately, top quality cameras and lenses are expensive. Unless you are very lucky, you will have to settle for lower end gear. The good news: with a combination of hustling and resourcefulness, you should be able to scrape something together.
Can you find a DSLR?
Your best (and most unlikely) option is to get your hands on a DSLR (or mirrorless camera). Unfortunately even second hand DSLRs run into hundred of dollars/pounds/euros. One option is to borrow one. Schools and sometimes libraries have photography departments with equipment that they will loan out. Perhaps a family member or friend will let you borrow one (or give you one if you are very lucky).
Do you already own a camera?
You may have a mobile phone, and unless it is very basic or very old, it will have a camera. The quality of pictures that you can take with a mobile varies wildly from model to model – an old Nokia flip phone is going to be problematic, but the latest iPhone will take award winning shots if you handle it skillfully. There are a good resources out there for getting the most out of your phone’s camera.
No mobile camera? Do you have an old digital camera collecting dust at home? Older digital cameras have been overtaken by the latest technology, but they can still take good photos. Megan V. Blazier is a great example of a photographer who takes stunning photos without a DSLR (she uses a 12 MP point-and-shoot). The Youtube channel Digital Rev have a series of videos where they challenge pro photographers to take great pictures with terrible digital cameras. Don’t own a camera? Try asking around friends and family. You’ll probably find someone with an old camera that they haven’t used in years.
Still no luck? You’re going to need a camera for the next step in this guide, and I’m running out of suggestions. Do you have a birthday coming up? Try trawling a site where people give away stuff for free, like Craigslist (USA), or Gumtree (UK). Or go dumpster diving.
Getting the most from your camera
1. Shoot RAW, if you can
This may be impossible is you are using an old or cheap camera, but it’s worth digging out your camera’s manual to see if it’s possible. You might be surprised: most Android phones released in the past year can now shoot RAW DNG files, as can Apple mobile devices since iOS 10.
It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to save RAW photos on a point-and-shoot (unless its a very high end one), so if you don’t have the option then TIFF or PNG formats are prefereable to JPGs if you plan to do any editing (and you should). Make sure you save the photos using the highest resolution possible.
2. Work on your skills
A pro with a terrible camera can take better photos than a novice with a pro DSLR. The question is: how do you develop awesome photography skills?
I am a fan of the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours school: the more you practice, the better you’ll become.
Of course, not all practice is created equal, and if you go about it the right way, you’ll get better at photography a lot faster. Deliberate practice beats unstructured messing around (although it requires more discipline). Deliberate practice is when set out to become better over time by strategically focussing on areas where you will gain maximum improvement for the least effort. For most people, these areas are their weaknesses.
Of course, it’s usually not very fun to focus on our weaknesses, because we prefer to do things that we are good at. Most people stick to taking photos of what they are comfortable with, and this limits how fast they can improve.
It is doubly hard to get better at photography, because it is requires both technical and creative skill. Technical skill can be improved by rote practice, but creativity requires thinking in new ways about old things (also known as the “Photographer’s Eye”) and that is much harder to practice.
Fortunately for you, I have created a master list of the best photography practice exercises from all over the web.
3. Shoot interesting subjects
Ultimately, there’s only so many ways you can be creative with something that’s boring. To create truly interesting pictures you need to shoot things that matter.
If you look at collections of top rated photographs, you’ll find that they are often pictures of sunsets over magnificent mountain ranges. Why didn’t these photographers just stay home and capture the sun setting over their own back garden? Because it’s boring. You need to get out there and find interesting things.
Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially if you live far from spectacular natural wonders and have no money. But it’s not impossible, you’ll just have to be more creative. There may not be a huge waterfall, but water must fall from something nearby: pay it a visit, slow down your shutter speed, and capture your own “waterfall”.
Become an editing maestro
Every picture can be improved by a little editing (and sometimes a lot). If you are shooting RAW, edit in darktable or RawTherapee. If not, get familiar with GIMP (also useful for more serious editing of RAW photos).
You may also be able to find a free version of Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop: try a library or a school computer, as these often have Adobe Creative Cloud installed.
If you don’t have access to a computer, or can’t install any of these programs on it, then it is also possible to edit RAW or JPG photos on a phone or tablet.