Photography on a Budget: How to Do It Without Spending a Fortune

Photography on a Budget: How to Do It Without Spending a Fortune

It’s easy to feel that we have great ideas for our images, but that we simply don’t have the budget to execute them to the standard we’re picturing in our minds. You should always try to find ways to be creative on a budget, so here’s how and why you don't have to spend a fortune to produce good results.

Photography is an expensive hobby, let alone a career. We tend to justify our spending by reminding ourselves it’s an investment, before dropping several hundred (if not thousand) on a new piece of equipment. When you’re a photographer by trade, any spare funds tend to go towards expenses or replenishing essential equipment, meaning any expendable income is rarely dedicated to endorsing personal projects. But it doesn't always have to be expensive.

Mind Over Matter

Camera gear costs a lot. And I’ve met many photographers who obsess over the technical aspects, always quick to question anyone using gear less expensive than their own. There are types who turn their nose up at anyone not using the latest models; the good news is that if you show them any two photos taken on cameras with staggeringly different price tags, it’s unlikely they can tell the difference. Editing and post-processing techniques used on the image can often make an enormous difference, and it goes without saying that editing is make or break for a good photo. But you needn’t break the bank to have a solid kit to get you started in photography. The camera I use has come down staggeringly in price over the last couple of years. Does that mean it’s any less brilliant than when it first went on the market? Of course not. If you’re fine using a model that’s considered old because newer models have been released, but still produces perfectly good results, try investing in one that was released a few years ago. I discovered a site a few years back that has helped me numerous times in researching and comparing camera models. Snapsort allows you to input any camera model and check out the specifications, so you can find a camera that suits your specific shooting needs. Similarly, if you’re torn between two similar models, you can also compare both to see which comes out on top, and again, determine which is the better model for you. It's less about having top-of-the-range equipment and more about what you can do with it. Don't allow yourself to be pressured into feeling like you don't stand up against your peers because their camera cost more than yours.

Teach Yourself How to Edit

Where there's a will, there's a way. I'm going to assume two things: firstly, that you take pictures because you enjoy doing so and second, you want the results to be the best they possibly can be. This is where Photoshop comes in. It's true, editing cannot make a bad photo good. But it can make a good photo great. I know many creatives — myself included — who didn't study photography, but instead, took it upon themselves to learn. When it comes to editing, I enjoy experimenting with different tools to see the varying results that are possible. Even to this day, in trying to achieve different effects, I am still discovering new things I didn't know were possible. I remember the techniques I used on my first set of photos, which includes a couple of tools I no longer use. It's all about experimentation and doesn't necessarily require a costly course. There are also plenty of tutorials online to teach you the basics, from which you can then experiment until you achieve the desired effect that seems right for your photo. I used to try tutorials similar to this one, before taking the techniques I've learned and altering them to what I felt was better. Thus, my signature style was born.

"I'd love to shoot film, but it's so expensive."

Let’s talk about film. It’s not really that expensive, is it? Of course, these days, it’s probably not so practical for day-to-day shoots, when clients are paying good money and often want results on short notice. But speaking as someone who tries to shoot film purely for the love of doing so whenever possible, there are certainly ways and means to make it work. Here in the UK, there are many chain shops that sell film rolls for as little as £1.

£1/$1.50 film, £3/$4 disposable

Your initial impression may be that this film can’t be of great quality, but let’s be honest: if you’re wanting high quality images, you’re probably better off avoiding film altogether. For me, the joy of film lies not only with taking greater focus and efforts to compose each shot, but also in the general quality and aesthetic being not entirely perfect.

Mamiya 645, 1/1000s

Mamiya 645, 1/1000s

There’re also plenty of cameras that complement this cheap film: some reasonably sized ones that are practical for day-to-day use, such as the Nikon F-801 or similar, which I’ve used for everyday snapshots, including the below.

Nikon F-801 and £1 film

Nikon F-801 and £1 film

Nikon F-801 and £1 film

While everyone’s fussing over film, let’s not forget disposable cameras. Again, if you’re using a disposable, it’s not because you’re seeking high quality photos. There’s an air of nostalgia that comes with shooting disposables; it’s a visual that can’t be faked with digital.

Disposable camera

Add "Stylist" to Your Resume

One of the best ways to save yourself a lot of stress is to get involved in the styling of your model. If you don’t have the budget to fund a stylist, or the eye to do it yourself, a great solution is to select outfits from your model’s Facebook photos. If you have the advantage of already being their Facebook friend, scroll through their photos and make outfit recommendations. After all, wardrobe style is a large part of a person’s appearance, and the likelihood is that their fashion sense is part of what attracted you to want to photograph them in the first place. One other perk is they won't feel out of place if they're dressed in their own clothes. Styling is important and can really offset a picture if executed incorrectly, but it needn’t be a financial burden. 

DIY

There are so many aspects of a photoshoot that can be put together on a DIY basis. Studios are expensive to hire; even the most reasonably priced are way out of reach if you’re working with a budget of absolutely zero, as is often the case. I recently decided that it would be a smart move to spend a little bit of my own money and purchase the bare bones of what I’d need to execute a studio-style shoot.

Shot at my home studio, using a set of relatively inexpensive portable lights, some colour gels, a bedsheet, and a smoke machine

To be able to use my flat as a base for shoots has proven invaluable. Locations can sometimes be problematic to secure, and the London weather as we all know is unpredictable at best. Luckily for me, I have plenty of white walls to choose from at my flat. I also invested in some grey and black bedsheets to serve as my make-do studio backdrop, as well as a plain black backless stool, which is perfect for taking headshots. The sheets are inexpensive, with the perks being that they can be straightened out to look like a paper backdrop, or can be laid out so that they’re quite obviously a piece of material, with the ripples giving a different look. This is a subtle way in which you can shake up studio shoots, which can easily become repetitive. It takes a little getting used to, but good photography comes from confidence. Start shooting; begin with a close friend if you’re nervous, and you’ll figure it out. I certainly had to style out the bedsheets, but now, it’s a setup that works more than adequately for portrait shoots, and it means I can offer more than just one background color.

Another home studio shot

One more, headshot style

In terms of lighting, I also use a relatively cheap, basic set of lights when shooting indoors and away from natural light sources. My go-to lighting setup is one that seems to generate interest from many clients when they see me using them on a set; they’re intrigued by the portability. My lights are a set of three portable softboxes (a total of 15 bulbs) with stands that pack down to fit inside a regular-sized suitcase. They’re so convenient, and I use them for everything from the aforementioned studio-style shoots at my flat to venues all over London. This kit produces soft, continuous light, which tends to suit my subjects well and is much less invasive than flash. I take these lights with me as a backup to every studio shoot too, since it’s a setup that I’m familiar with. They've more than paid for themselves.

And if your living situation means you're unable to set up a shooting space at home, never underestimate the power of a wall outdoors. Before my home studio, I often found a plain white wall for headshots. Check out the below, which was shot outside with natural light. Your subject or client may need a little more convincing, but it's the same principle in that the results will still be great, and no one can tell the difference.

Shot outdoors, against a plain white wall

The Office

This brings me to working from home. Much of my time is spent sifting through photos, selecting the best, and Photoshopping them to perfection. Often, people ask about or expect me to have my own office. But the truth is: why would I spend the money renting a workspace for something I can do perfectly reasonably from home? Occasionally, I'll visit a local coffee shop or the library to work there instead. And there's no shame in it. I find working in different surroundings helps keep my mind rejuvenated through big workloads and keeps costs down.

Photo-Related Favors

When you’re a photographer, photos become a form of currency. During the first few years I was taking photos, I shot outdoors using natural light. More recently and when working with paying clients, there’s often a practicality for an indoor venue: sometimes due to adverse weather conditions, other times due to the privacy that comes with being behind closed doors. Often, I just prefer the change of scenery or want to experiment with lighting setups other than the sun. The only problem is many magazine-commissioned jobs involve working with small budgets, if any at all. Instead, I find that many bars, restaurants, and hotels are willing to make a trade. Many are open to letting you use their space in return for being credited in print, but what can really swing the deal in your favor is offering to take a few photos of the venue while you’re in there shooting as a means of compensation. Venues will be grateful for the offer and remember the good deed; you never know when you may need a last-minute venue in the future, and your gesture of good will can go a long way. It's about mutual respect.

Do Things Your Way

The long and short of what I’m trying to stress is that you should never be ashamed about what setup you’re using or if you’re doing things on the cheap, as long as the end result is the same. Have confidence in your methods; for the longest time, I tortured myself for not feeling as adequate as those people who have seventeen different lenses or own their own studio. There's no right or wrong way to do things, so if it works for you, keep doing it. The reality is it’s only made me more resourceful, and even from using a DIY setup, it’s clear the end result is just as damn great as anyone else’s.

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14 Comments

Jeff McCollough's picture

Nice tip about shooting in bars, restaurants, and hotels.

Sean Shimmel's picture

Jack,

Thank you.

Such an intriguingly open-ended topic and such an interestingly detailed outworking.

Here's a smattering of shoots within which I simply experimented... with lighting, blocking, reflecting and simply seeing things differently... all in the same mundane spot in and around our suburban home:

http://lifeascinema.blogspot.com/2016/03/my-song.html

http://lifeascinema.blogspot.com/2016/03/citizen-kane.html

http://lifeascinema.blogspot.com/2016/02/gracefully.html

http://lifeascinema.blogspot.com/2015/04/california-dreamin.html

http://lifeascinema.blogspot.com/2015/04/miami-magic.html

http://lifeascinema.blogspot.com/2014/12/here-comes-sun.html

Deirdre Ryan's picture

Love these, I would take these off of blogspot and put them on a free Wordpress site. You can move them over with the help of some Wordpress apps.

Henry Louey's picture

I totally agree in that you don't need the latest or greatest to get what good images

While I would love to shoot with Broncolor, budget just wont allow and i got Profoto instead.

I find the Zeiss lenses on the Sony Lineup expensive for the return so shoot with the G or G Master Series instead.

It's all about compromise!

Anyway on a serious note. This was shot with a cheap ring light

https://fstoppers.com/photo/115984

It's still one of my favorite images

Anonymous's picture

I agree, you don't need expensive gear to produce great Images. Expensive gear has the advantage to be more reliable on a day to day basis where you push it really hard. But that doesn't mean cheap gear won't work either. As for cameras, the cheapest current DSLRs produce absolutely great Images and whenever I use my flat as a Studio, I only use a 150€ Jinbei Light with 250Ws and a 120cm Jinbei Softbox for 100€. That's enough to produce absolutely high quality Images. Also Windowlight will get you stunning results too. But it's never wrong to invest in expensive gear if you will use it regulary.

Paul Watt's picture

Good article but I have a small thought about what you said about editing. Your post talks about photoshop but how about the free alternatives? In my mind, glass is everything and with the money saved by not buying a older version of ps or subscribing to cc you could buy a lovely lens for whatever body you have. Yes, they're not as easy to use or intuitive as adobe's offerings and there's a steep learning curve but it's still possible to create great images. For the record, I use (and recommend ) the Adobe suite now but for a long time I was using The GIMP and Darktable on a Linux computer - free, capable and fully legal.

Roger Paige's picture

Thanks for the good info Jack. Cheers.

Jack Alexander's picture

My pleasure. Hope it was useful in some way

A 15 bulb set up less invasive than a few tiny strobes w/ umbrellas (no plugs required)? The Strobist website has shot down that theory time and time again.

Jack Alexander's picture

Works perfectly for me. Many of my clients have professed to having quite sensitive eyes; I take a lot of frames and it works better for everyone when I can manoeuvre around and keep taking shots without a bright flash firing every few seconds. Also means there's nothing distinctive dinstinguishing between when each frame each shot, which means my subject is more at ease. I can see what the lighting looks like without taking a photo as well. Endless shoots I have done have proved this theory time and time again.

Marija Smanja's picture

I used Oly e520 (one of the worst cameras imo) for almost 5 years while saving for 6D. Because Oly had so many faults it pushed me to learn constantly just to overcome them.

I shoot with one camera and one lens, that's it. It never crossed my mind to feel inadequate.

For me, it's not about the gear, it's about learning your gear's limitations. When you learn that, you can relax and use your gear for almost everything.

Practice and learning is the key, not new, better or more gear.

Jack Alexander's picture

That's amazing! My sentiments exactly.

Marija Smanja's picture

Glad to hear that... I guess that makes our opinion the right one... right? :)

Learning things hard way has numerous advantages imo.

I'm not sure this set of mind is only photography related tbh. I try to do best with what I have in life in general instead of thinking what I don't have. Sometimes that's easy to do, sometimes it's not...

I've seen what people do with much much less expensive camera and Gimp and I know I'll never be able to be that creative (being creative is what I strive to, not having another lens) ... but I can keep trying