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

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

Workflow

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.

Prints

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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47 Comments

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.

Deleted Account's picture

For plateau try to have some fun with film ;)

Mr Blah's picture

Travel.

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 :)

Mr Blah's picture

Attaboy!

Gaelle Schwimmer's picture

This is so true !!

Deleted Account'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

Deleted Account'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.

Deleted Account'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.

Deleted Account'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.

Deleted Account'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.

Hans Rosemond's picture

You seem very angry.

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.

Justabeginner photographer's picture

Maybe you're just not as good as others and you wanted to prove that you are. If you can't improve your image quality with expensive gear you just don't have it with you. Period. Accept it. if you want to disprove me take an old RebelT2i and show me how you handle low light situations with that camera without intoducing noise. I'll be happy to hear you rant about the crappy AFand that the focus shifts considerably and that your pictures are all focused on everything else than the eyes when shooting wide open. And again do all that without professional lighting and models etc. let's see what you can do. Take some pictures of your family and make them look like magazine shots.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Listen, you seem to be upset at me for some reason, and that's fine. The point is to empower beginners, not upset them. You seem to be skipping over the part of the article where I say, "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…." There's another part to this article where prints are compared as well. That's what I mean by real world. I'm not talking about working as a professional, nailing shots at a wedding or other gig, etc. When you are earning money from your work having professional gear that is newer and more capable is much more important. This article is not aimed at working professionals. So if you'd like to continue to be angry, so be it. This article isn't what you needed. I'm ok with that.

Louis Tinsley's picture

Great article. my only camera is a Canon T3i a beginner camera for sure. But all the work in my portfolio has been shot with my boss' medium format camera. I've been meaning to upgrade but I still don't have the money to spare yet smh.

That being said the T3i is still a great camera. relatively cheap and good for beginners but once your out of the beginners phase you realize its limitations. not that you still can't good images out of it

Ralph Hightower's picture

Although I bought my first DSLR with my first Canon L lens in 2013, I will continue to use my Canon A-1 that I bought new in 1980 and a F-1N that I bought used in 2013.
Why? Because both film cameras still work and film is still available. Sure, digital offers immediate gratification, but I also enjoy the process of using film.
Looking in a 1982 Calumet catalog, a Canon F-1N body with AE Finder FN sold for $548, the AE Motor Drive FN sold for $390. I bought a used F-1N with AE Finder FN and AE Motor Drive FN, plus a partial metering screen and spot metering screen for $400 in 2013.
Film still works. I placed second in a local camera club's photojournalism contest shooting B&W film; until the last entry, there was a three-way tie for first.
I haven't done the financial analysis of it, but I would have to shoot a lot of film with a used camera before the purchase price of a new Canon 5D Mk III with EF 24-105 f4L crosses over.

tim gard's picture

Great article! I love the processing, could you quickly explain what you adjusted to get the colours and tone? Thanks!

Hans Rosemond's picture

For simpicity's sake in the article I just brought the images into C1, applied "Color Effects - Creative 3" tweaked for levels, and done.

Scott Mccusker's picture

first, let me applaud you for this article, it is easy to follow, communicates its point well, and I agree with the message that a "beginner" camera body is a great way to start out. one thing that this article makes me notice is that your shoot was done right in the center of the "performance envelope" of both cameras. by that I mean the lighting was favorable, you were at low ISO, moderate shutter speeds and apertures, still subject, and no significant cropping. at web resolutions, I would suspect that just about every camera on the market (even with cheap glass in front of it) would have essentially indistinguishable results, or at least passable. the differences between cameras start to show up when you push them to the edges of their performance, i.e. high ISO, big crops, contrasty light, moving subjects (focus tracking or lack thereof), and when you try to make big prints from those situations. a lot of beginners take a lot of bad photos by getting themselves into those situations inadvertently (fashion shoot at high noon on a cloudless day), but for some photographers, especially those that focus on wildlife or sports, the edge of the envelope is where every one of your images will be taken. so I guess I would say if the hypothetical beginner knows for sure that their interests lie with a certain genre, perhaps they should take that into account when choosing their gear. trouble is, many beginners don't know what they want to photograph, only that they like taking pictures. anyway, thanks for sharing this and I would love to see the follow-up with the prints comparison. I started out borrowing my wife's d40x and now shoot a d800 so this article definitely hit home for me. :) I never shot the two side-by-side with equal conditions, but I know that all my prints from the d800 look a whole lot better, although much of that is probably that I'm a better photographer now.

Hans Rosemond's picture

I think the great part about buying something cheap when you're starting out is that it's scalable to your needs without the massive investment in tech. So when you're first starting out, a D40x (just as an example) is a great starting camera to get your bearings. After that, say your interests have been gravitating toward sports photography and weddings. Easy answer? Pick up a used Nikon D3. They can be found in excellent condition for less than $1500. Still significantly less than any of Nikon's top tier cameras (and FAR less than a D4s) and plenty good enough to get fantastic shots with fast AF, awesome low light, etc.
On the Canon side, a used 5D Mark I and original 7D can be had TOGETHER for less than $1200.

Oliver Oettli's picture

Honestly, all pro photographers know its the Lens that makes the picture. However, I can clearly say that the three first pictures have a better bokeh and nicer all over mood. Also, if you make this comparison, you shouldn't retouch the picture, in my opinion.
Having said all that, you did an excellent job with the photos. They look lovely. And even if I like the D800 shots better, you show clearly that its the photographer, not the body that matters :)

Hans Rosemond's picture

Thanks for the compliment! You know, I went back and forth for a while about whether or not to retouch the images as I would in my normal process. Eventually I settled on keeping it consistent because I wanted the results to reflect the real world. With either camera I wouldn't throw a RAW file, or a JPG for that matter, up without tweaking it. I think someone who has a D40x is going to attempt to make their images look as best they can, as would a D800 owner. That's real world and useful to me. RAW files are just that. They're a part of the process. But the focus of this article is the result, and not the process.

Prefers Film's picture

Great article, and valid points in the comments too. I shot film on medium format cameras for years, and my simple kit cost over $10k. But when I moved to another state with an entirely different demographic, it seemed everyone wanted digital, and didn't care about quality. So I got out of the business.

A couple years ago, I was asked to shoot a wedding. I had my lone DSLR, and one lens. I picked up a used backup body for $280, plus an extra flash. Before I knew it, I was back in business. After wearing out one shutter, I've purchased a few more cameras. Now I have a studio in my home, and about 15 lenses, either primes or L series zooms. But I still shoot with last year's bodies. For portrait work, it's all about the glass - focus points and meters mean nothing to me. And when I am shooting wildlife, the familiarity of having every body set up the same way is all I care about. Canon can make a better sensor, faster processor, and do all they want with exposure and focus, but if the change the layout, I will not buy a new camera until forced to. New photographers don't need the latest and greatest to learn on, and even seasoned veterans can make great images with an older box that captures light.

Todd Davis's picture

...

Perry Kong's picture

Thank you Hans. I enjoyed your images, and this write-up. I still use my D40 almost daily which I purchased new for college in 2007 for @ 700 bucks CDN. I also shot for our local paper. At 6.1 megapixels, it is the predecessor to the D40X. I followed some online advice to leave out the mid-priced cameras and buy cheap until I can save up for the one I want. At that time, the D200 was my holy grail. By the time I had saved enough money (2009), the D300 had been released and the advanced technology justified the expense ($1,700) so I bought it for my photography business after graduating, with the D40 as back up. And we still have a second, almost new D40 that my wife purchased on my recommendation in 2008. It was before we started dating. It also was replaced no charge by Nikon in 2010 for a faulty flash. My go-to lenses are 35mm 1.8DX on the D40 and 50mm 1.4D on the D300. I swap as needed, and have an assortment of DX and older zooms. Still freelancing, my 300 is amazing for concert and event photography, while the D40 is more than adequate for foyer grip-and-grins. I use both for weddings. Some of my best and favorite images are from my earlier days when I only had the D40 and 18-55mm DX kit. I later bought a 70-300mm G lens, and still had a 28-80mm G from my N65 film camera. Up until 2007, I used my Canon AE-1 film camera for press and weddings. I remember expecting to be really wowed by going digital but the 18-55mm DX kit was no match for the 50mm and 28mm primes on my Canon. That was my first lesson on cameras and lenses.

Justabeginner photographer's picture

If you zoom in all the way you can really see the difference. He D800 produces a creamier texture if that makes sense. I don't like the way you approached this. You should have taken the same pictures at the same time with two tripods tand lenses that have the same quality without editing them. We don't know how much you he to trick to get the pictures to look alike. What is shadow/highlight recovery like ? Dynamic range? Noise? Bokeh? Did you have to change the lighting? Where are the unedited files SOOC?

Justabeginner photographer's picture

I should add this as a quote

" 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. "

Yes, real life? So why is it that in real life you need the image quality of a pro camera to keep up with the industry? I'm still waiting for an answer. Show the raw files and show us how you processed each and what you had to change and trick to make the pictures look similar. My images are shitty and everyone thinks they are professional pictures but I still updated to a 5dmark yesterday because I was tired of how my Rebel performs. I'll bet you my images will look better just by using this camera because I have more freedom when composing and my success rate of in focus pictures will be higher.

Also why is it that you guys need all that expensive equipment when your client doesn't care ? You might as well use your iPhone. This is so hypocritical and contradictory.

Mark Pierson's picture

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Timothy Gasper's picture

It's all about the lens(es). The heart of the camera. BTW...which lenses or lens did you use?