Cheap and Used Versus the New Hotness: Why Buying a Cheap Camera is the Best Thing for Beginners

Cheap and Used Versus the New Hotness: Why Buying a Cheap Camera is the Best Thing for Beginners

As a fairly established photographer, many beginners ask me what camera to buy to get started. What’s more important: body or lenses? Or is it the brand? My standard advice has always been to buy a cheap, used body and save your money for quality lenses. A beginner just doesn't need a high-end camera. That’s easy to say, of course, when you shoot on a Nikon D800 with some pretty nice glass. Perhaps it was time to do a little experimenting of my own to see what, if any, difference there was between a top end camera and something cheap.

“Wow, what a great picture! That’s a really nice camera.” That phrase is one of the most annoying statements that the layperson can make when complementing a photographer. What we want to yell at the top of our lungs while shaking our would-be complimenter is, “It’s not the camera that’s good. It’s me!” After all, nobody wants to believe our work is the result of technology rather than skill.

Nikon D800 vs. Nikon D40x

Nikon D40x, Nikon 70-200 F4, and Nikon D800

Why a Nikon D800? It’s what I shoot with. Why a Nikon D40x? Honestly, it’s because there was no way I was going to go out and buy a cheap body for one article and my friend was nice enough to let me use his camera. The body is perfect though. It came out in 2007, is 10.2-megapixels of fun, and can be readily bought used for less than $150. This is the kind of camera I recommend to those just starting out.

Now what lenses to use for the comparison? I settled on a Nikon 70-200mm f/4, one of Nikon’s sharpest zooms and one of my favorite lenses to shoot with on my D800. This goes right along with my advice to buy cheap bodies and good glass.

So out I went with one of my model friends who was patient enough to let me experiment, switching bodies mid-setup.

The Shoot

We headed out in bright sunshine at about 3 p.m. using a simple setup of a strobe, fired remotely with PocketWizards, modified by a Photek Softlighter. I didn’t want to change up my workflow to accommodate one camera or another. The point of the article was to see if the D40x could hang. Could an 8-year-old, $150, cropped sensor camera compete with a 36-megapixel beast, known for exceedingly good image quality? Yes and no.

First and foremost, I want to say that the point of this article is not to say whether or not the D40x is as good of a camera as the D800. It isn’t. Not even close. The D800 is more customizable, delivers far better image quality and resolution, is much more versatile in low light, has more bells and whistles than you can shake a stick at, blah blah blah… The point is not to pixel peep. That’s why I’m not showing raw files, 100 percent crops, etc. I want to keep this as real to life as possible. No industry professional will be opening an email from you and checking your images for pixel level sharpness. Either they like the photos or they don’t. End of story.

But will the D40x do in a pinch? Will it deliver image quality that will enable a beginner to make images that they can be proud of? Perhaps even sell? Yes. Yes it will.

The Images

  1. Nikon D40x vs Nikon D800 1
  2. Nikon D40x vs Nikon D800 2
  3. Nikon D40x vs Nikon D800 3
  4. Nikon D40x vs Nikon D800 4
  5. Nikon D40x vs Nikon D800 5
  6. Nikon D40x vs Nikon D800 6


I brought the images into Capture One — my raw converter of choice — and did a few basic color edits, outputted to Photoshop, retouched blemishes, resized, saved for web, and done.

Two Parts To The Story

Web-Sized Images

After showing the images to a few people (not photographers), not one person could distinguish the $150 camera from the $2,000 camera. Not one. Can you? Web-sized photos are small though, and it’s hard to discern quality from such a small image. But it’s exactly these small images that will get you the meeting from buyers to show some prints. Which brings me to the next part of the story.


Of course, this result was obtained in a completely unscientific way and only covers one shoot with digital viewing. In the next part of this experiment I’ll be dealing with prints from the two different cameras. My lab is currently printing 12x18 inch samples of the shots that I will be taking to various industry professionals around town. I’m avoiding photographers for the most part because they pixel-peep! I’ll let the buyers, agents, and laypeople decide and report back with the results.

So far, though, David is standing up to Goliath just fine.

By the way, the images are:

  1. D800
  2. D800
  3. D800
  4. D40x
  5. D40x
  6. D40x
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Edward Porter's picture

A body gets remembered, but glass never dies.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Except for when you drop a $1400 lens...then if it doesn't die it at least has a severe limp.

alan carrillo's picture

I just got my lens back for nikon. $200 to replace M/A switch, Focus motor, focus ring and rubber rings. 70-200 2.8 I beat the crap out of it shooting "king of the hammers" off road race.

Jordan Randall's picture

Awesome. Like many others who are at a plateau I'm considering new gear, although I know it's not the gear haha. Good to see a camera even older than my D7000 can make good enough images.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

For plateau try to have some fun with film ;)

Mr Blah's picture


Take that 1400$ you would spend on a new body and get lost somewhere.

Buy experiences, not things! It'll solve your plateau in a heart beat!

Jordan Randall's picture

I'll be in Lisbon, London, Amsterdam, Munich, and Budapest in 3 months :)

Gaelle Schwimmer's picture

This is so true !!

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

For pictures presented on the web there is no need for expensive body or glass... and for most prints either.
Expensive equipment is good for its features that make it easier to work.

Andrzej Łuczak's picture

For 683x1020 px if that's all someone needs, don't buy used just use your phone :)
ps. used is ok, as long as it doesn't break

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

Phone may work very well, however you are limited with controls of exposure, DOF, external flash etc. But definitely, phones have very good cameras these days.

Craig Marshall's picture

I tested the 5 megapixel camera on my smart phone is good lighting. I was surprised at how well it captured details. I used Photoshop Express to process the image and got an interesting result. Regardless, I would still shoot with a compact camera rather than a smartphone because the lens distorts too much, that even post-processing cannot fix. When people take selfies most of the time it doesn't look like them unless they shoot full body length straight on. A 3mm lens is just too extreme.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

The distortion on selfies is a perspective distortion caused by distance. Smartphones field of view is usually around equivalent of 35mm focal length on FF. If you would use 35mm lens to shoot selfie it would be as much distorted as the one from iPhone ;)

Craig Marshall's picture

No the Smart Phone has bad distortion. I shoot with a 30mm all the time and images look great.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

from the same distance that you would shot selfie?

Craig Marshall's picture

We're comparing a 3mm to a 30mm, not to mention how small the 3mm lens is on the smart phone. Shoot a bust on a 30mm (or a 24mm on a cropped sensor) and images look great (as long as the person you're photographing doesn't have long narrow features), but the 3mm looks like crap no matter what. A portrait shot on a smart phone looks like a bad portrait or a funny mirror at a fairground.
On the first image taken on a smartphone distortions look like its taken on an extreme fisheye.
The second image was a lighting test. This one was taken on a 30mm APSC sensor. Sure a full frame will look a little different, but not looking anywhere near as bad as the smart phone image.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

There is just a small difference. I know what you think but physics are physics.
Btw. 30x1.6=48mm it is already "normal" lens where 35 is considered wide. If you really want to do experiment, set both cameras in the same, exact distance from the subject. 48will fill up frame more but perspective distortion will be the same.

Craig Marshall's picture

I've tried this at multiple distances. The images are always distorted. If you think there is only a slight difference here between these two images you should probably shoot everything with a cell phone, I'm sure you would be very happy. I shoot with a 24mm and don't get distortions like this. That would be equivalent 36mm. I fail to see what physics has to do with the nasty glass on a cell phone. Bad lens chews up the light then spits it out, what you get is bad. And yes I did shoot the images at the same distance. I had to crop the cell image in. You and I are not going to see eye to eye here regardless of how well you feel you understand physics.

Kalpesh Modi's picture

Who ever buys PW and light modifier when starting into photography? Maybe showing examples of pics taken in natural light with or without reflector with both cameras might be more helpful.

Those are really good pictures of beautiful model.

Just my two cents.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Hmm..perhaps I could do a shoot with beginning light modifiers as well? The same photo could be taken with a $35 flash and a $10 sync cord. As to the modifier, the softlighter can be had for $115, I believe. The point of the article was not to show how to attain the same result as me, but to see if the image quality of the budget camera could keep up. Maybe next time I will do a $1000 lighting setup vs a $100 one. Thanks for the idea!

Justabeginner photographer's picture

You are so annoying. The comment above hints at the fact that you as a 'pro' used professional lighting, a model and all that shit ( which a beginner doesn't have access to) and edited them to make the pictures look alike. If you're shooting in natural light or low light conditions without editing the pictures the pictures in the article wouldn't have turned out the same. And you know this for a fact!

What you proved in this article was that if you have knowledge and the access to models and lighting etc. you can make it look alike. This doesn't disprove what you inteted to prove though!

A real test includes a downsized raw image of both cameras without any artificial lighting and editing. Of course if you compare a 36mp picture picture with a 10mp one it's not fair which is why you downsize them to websize which is the most realistic size. You also should include AF points and how well the AF system performs. Can you land as many shots with a crappy AF system? No. Will you be as fast with a cheap camera? No. I could go on and on.

You are one of those photographers that desperately want to prove that you need to be super skilled to shoot average pictures as in your article shown. This is only partially true. If you're talenet but you are broke and you don't have access to models,lighting etc your pictures won't live up to what the industry demands. On the other hand if you have no clue what you're doing and you're being handed a pro camera your pictures will look better. Even a toddler could nail focus with a pro AF system in automatic mode.

Do another test. Give beginners a pro camera for one month with expensive lenses and then compare their new pictures to their old. You know for a fact that they would step up their game. If you then let them return to their old crappy cameras they would still have more insight and use that to improve their pictures. Why? Because a professional camera is actually harder to handle and you need a lot of knowledge to know what you're doing. So a pro camera can improve your photography skills.

Louis Leblanc's picture

Maybe that's the take away. Don't spend your whole budget on the newest and greatest body when starting out and get a decent all around kit instead. Save up to get some flashes, stand, remotes, modifiers, decent tripod, setup a spare room as a studio, make sure your editing computer is running ok and you have decent backup, classes, travel...

Hans Rosemond's picture

Exactly. For those starting out, saving $1650 on a body ($1800-$150) means a lot more freedom to buy other equipment. You have more freedom to experiment with focal lengths, style...hell if you're a landscape shooter that much money buys a few plane tickets to some interesting places. Once you have a firm grip on your skill and style, THEN invest in some high end gear.

Sergio Tello's picture

I bought a 1Ds Mark II for $700.00 and I'm amazed at the IQ. It's super cumbersome to use, but I still like it.

Spy Black's picture

I'd have to say that in this day and age buying used isn't that advantageous anymore. Looking at cameras like the D3xxx and D5xxx cameras, as well as their counterparts from Canon, Pentax, etc., there's really no point in it.

I'm talking optical viewfinder caneras here, never mind mirrorless. The new cameras, even in the budget range, have superior sensors, AF, etc compared to something like a D40.

Unless you're really broke I wouldn't recommend a used camera. If you insist on used a camera like the D5100 is a better investment and can be had very reasonably used or refurbished. The day of stuff like the D40 have finally come to pass.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Thanks! I appreciate it

Bill Binns's picture

This is good advice and is something almost any experienced shooter (pro or amateur) will tell someone who is getting started. The problem is, they absolutely do not want to hear it. I certainy didn't want to hear it. The first five years that I considered myself to be interested in photography, I was actually interested in cameras. I read magazine articles about cameras, read camera reviews, went to stores and fondled cameras I couldn't afford etc. I suspect that a great many people who consider themselves photographers are actually better described as camera collectors.

Every time I finally aquire a long sought-after camera, I tend to plateau or even walk away from photgraphy altogther. A camera can only capture what you point it at. Walking around with a new expensive camera taking slightly higher resolution versions of all the same shots you made with your old camera is depressing. This article shows that it's possible to do good work with a cheap camera. The opposite is also true, it's possible to take really bad photos with the best of cameras.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Well said! The lure of the latest and greatest gear is something that I definitely struggle with as well. I wonder if it's a numbers game. The megapixels keep going up, the ISO ranges keep going up, LCDs, you name it. Back in the film days you were limited by the format. The cameras could get faster and more responsive, but the image itself was stable.
The promise of a way to make my images "better" was and is alluring. I think that's why I wrote the article. Most beginners are better off focusing on squeezing every bit of learning out of a cheap camera than chasing the next big thing.

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