Ten Items Photographers Should Never Buy Cheaply

Ten Items Photographers Should Never Buy Cheaply

Who doesn't love a photography related bargain? The problem is that some of those cheaper deals could cause you some serious headaches further down the line. Here are ten items which you should always avoid buying on the cheap.

I'm sure you're already aware that the cost of being a photographer can be a rather pricey pursuit. It's understandable that those on a budget will try to cut corners to save money. Unfortunately, not all cost cutting exercises are equal and some could do much more harm than good.

1. Memory Cards

Buying memory cards online can be a minefield as there are so many fakes out there. Not only do these inferior cards quite often not hold as many images as they claim to, but there is no guarantee on their reliability either. I've heard horror stories from photographers losing important images on a shoot because a cheap card failed on them. If a deal is too good to be true then it probably is. If you're not sure what to look out for when buying memory cards or you're worried you may have bought a fake one already, this article explains in great detail what to look for. Out of everything on this list the memory card is the one thing you should definitely not cut corners on.   

2. Batteries

I have to admit that I have a mix of both cheap and expensive camera batteries in my bag and without exception, the cheaper ones always last considerably less time and need replacing more often. The same goes for the rechargeable AA batteries that I use in my triggers. If you buy cheap when it comes to batteries you will indeed pay twice as you'll have to replace them more frequently. Just like dodgy memory cards, unreliable batteries can easily derail a photo shoot and if that shoot is in a professional context then the financial implications will be considerably more than the few dollars you saved by purchasing cheap batteries.   

3. Lenses

This might seem like an obvious one but I still see photographers buying cheap lenses and then complaining about the image quality. Camera lenses are not made equal and if image quality and reliability are important to you then it's best to spend as much as you can on them. While I appreciate lenses can get expensive they do tend to last a very long time and if you intend to stay with the same camera manufacture those lenses can easily outlive the various camera bodies you will get through over the years of your career. Decent lenses in good condition do tend to hold their resale value rather well so if you do change camera brands or realize you no longer need a particular lens, then you should be able to recoup some of that initial investment by selling it on. Be sure to keep the boxes as this can really help to maximize your return when selling. 

4. Camera Body Caps

The tape didn't come with the cheap purchase

This might seem like an insignificant one as the item is already reasonably cheap to buy but some third-party camera body caps don't stay in place as well as the official ones. I speak from experience having found one of these cheaper body caps had worked its way loose in my camera bag. The result was that the camera in question needed a deep clean to the sensor.

5. People, Props, and Places

Thanks to miserly clients this might not always be in your control, but the quality of your images is directly linked to your team and what you put in front of the camera. A good actor, outfit, location, model, or prop will always make your job as a photographer so much easier. It really doesn't matter how many megapixels your camera shoots at if your subject is lacking your pictures also will be. Throwing more money at a shoot won't always make better pictures, but trying to penny-pinch in these areas will always have a negative effect on your work.

6. Monitor

You don't have to look far to find some amazing deals on computer monitors but not all screens are made to be used for photo editing. If you're not sure what to look for when it comes to buying a monitor this introduction is a great place to start. While I appreciate that a decent monitor can cost a small fortune it really is a worthy investment if you're serious about photography. If you have commercial clients or plan on printing your work, then the image you see on screen needs to be as accurate as possible. Cutting corners on a monitor will either lose you clients, cost you money in reprinting, or increase the amount of time sat in front of the computer correcting images.

7. Printed Material

Printing on the cheapest paper and printer you can find will never do your images or business any favors. If you want to make a good impression then your printed material should scream quality rather than resemble the local takeaway menu. I have printed my portfolio and marketing material for many years with various third-party printers and have always had headaches when I've used companies which were more on the cheap side. In my experience, the less you pay the more likely you'll run into issues with colors being wrong or prints being badly handled etc. Getting things reprinted takes time and money so find yourself a good printer and get it done right the first time around.

8. Lens Filters

Filters can be a photographer's best friend but again they are not all made equal. While I appreciate some can be eye-wateringly expensive there is a huge difference between a $10 and $160 filter. The way I always like to explain using cheap filters to people is with the analogy of a person using a pair of binoculars. It doesn't matter how good your eyes are, if you are looking through something which is inferior then what will be seen will also be second-rate. In addition to this, cheaply made filters can sometimes have a habit of getting stuck on your lens. While there are tools to help remove them its another headache not worth having.  

9. Insurance

Having dedicated insurance for you and your photography is a must and you should never rely on your house insurance to cover all eventualities as a photographer. Insurance companies love to worm their way out of paying for claims so you really need to make sure you read the small print to ensure all bases are covered.

10. Tripod

Considering the tripod is the place your expensive camera will often live unattended, you'd be surprised how many photographers short change on this particular item. I have seen cheap tripods betray their owners in the past and the aftermath was never pretty and always costly. If you shoot on location or around clumsy people then the more robust the tripod is the safer your camera will be. Like with many items in this list, there is a false economy in trying to buy cheap products. Combine this with the added risk a low-end tripod brings to your camera and the thought of buying cheaply begins to sound like a really bad idea.

So there you have it, some of the items you may have thought you could cut corners on as a photographer but probably shouldn't. While I appreciate how expensive being a photographer is, there are some areas where penny-pinching could seriously harm your images and career. Buy cheap, buy twice is a popular saying and it seems especially relevant to us photographers.

Over to You

Have you regretted any cheap photography related purchases that caused you major problems further down the line? Anything crucial you think I missed off the list? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.

Lead image by ndemello via Pixabay used under Creative Commons.

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Previous comments
JetCity Ninja's picture

apparently cheaper is better, so just use flash powder. :)

Paul Adshead's picture

Great to hear you find UV filters are all the same. I don't use them myself but if I did I'd feel more happy to buy a cheaper one now so thanks for the recommendation.

JetCity Ninja's picture

i have a UV filter for each of my lenses but i rarely use them. they go on when i know there's a fair chance the front element could contact something on that day's plan or i plan to be in the rain. but generally i dont like stacking more glass atop a lens that wasn't designed for an additional element. even the best clear filter will negatively affect IQ. it may be imperceptible, but it does, so if it's not needed, why add it? however, a scratched or dirty front element is worse than a clear filter. otherwise, the lens hood or the cap usually work just fine for me in most cases.

as for the UV blocking, the protective glass over the image sensor already performs that function and so does the front element of most any modern lens.

Charles Burgess's picture

Flash powder is not as cheap as you think. Gearing up with the hardware of the late 1800's is quite pricey - not to mention you have to learn the chemistry to mix your own emulsion and apply them onto glass plates.

Paul Adshead's picture

Excellent point Alexander. I genuinely forgot about strobes!

While they should be on the list above, the cheaper strobe market has definitely got much better & much more reliable & the gap has closed between the low & high end.

If I was buying my kit today I'd be tempted by the cheaper ones to be honest.

Alex Yakimov's picture

My take is that a mean price of a good off camera battery-powered strobe would always gravitate towards €1k mark (std dev of €500). Good: service + reliability + durability + features + upgradability.

Paul Adshead's picture

Sounds like a good bet to me. I've never had lights fail on a shoot but the cost of it happening is not worth thinking about...

"a good off camera battery-powered strobe would always gravitate towards €1k mark"

But you can get a used four-head, bomb-proof, industrial pack-and-head system for a quarter of that.

Alex Yakimov's picture

Of course, we could, Jan. Could you fetch some eBay/other source offering that you would deem a worthwhile try?

I chose to learn about Speedotron pack/head systems, but there are others.

You can do an eBay search for "Speedotron" to get an idea. You can set up the search to send you email whenever there is a new hit.

Speedotron has two lines of pack/head strobes: "Brown" and "Black."

The Brownline strobes are not as powerful, and make a more economical choice for small studios and amateur home use. I have seen these on eBay for under $300 for pack and four heads, complete with stands and brollies.

The Blackline top end (4.800 joules) is three times as powerful as the Brownline high end (1,600 joules) and there are many more head choices, including fresnel spot strobes and numerous light modifiers.

There are perhaps a half-dozen other pack/head vendors. I picked Speedotron because they are the most widely used for pro use, and thus there are a lot of used units available. But there are surely good reasons to choose other systems — perhaps the same system a friend uses, so you can loan each other bits, for example.

Charles Burgess's picture

What is cheap or expensive is all relative to your budget for gear at your phase of career development. Buy the best that is within your budget. As your career expands (i.e. revenue), your gear budget also increases.

I recommend covering the brand and/or model identifiers on your gear. Why? I have two primary reasons:

#1 To lengthen the risk/reward OODA decision loop a potential mugger makes to stall him/her long enough to deter an attempt - if it is too long the loop just keep recycling until the perp decided it's not worth the risk due to the unknown factor of what the gear is really worth. For example: A potential mugger cannot tell if my Nikon DSLR is a cheap pro-sumer one from walmart or an expensive pro body model, same with lenses (covering the FX/DX label).

#2 To reduce a client's tendency to judge my capability to deliver based upon what brand/model of gear I use. It keeps the discussion on topic instead of spiraling into debates on what gear is superior.

Additionally, by covering the brand/model/logo with painter's masking tape, I can use BTS photos without any releases from the manufacturers. While that is seldom an issue in the past or present, who knows what the IP landscape and battlelines will be in the future.

Like you said, many of the less expensive brands of strobes are nearly identical in functionality as the premium brands. This state of current affairs is that the primary criteria on strobe selection is will a particular model meet your photography needs? The only other factor is the snob factor, that from the photographer and just as often a client as well. A little Duck Tape fixes that too...well, maybe Gaffer tape if being a little snobby is OK.

"What about strobes?"

There are some amazing values out there in used pack-and-head systems. I got 9,600 joules of used Speedotron gear for about 1/10th the cost of 96 new Chinese speed lights! And I can light a blimp in a hangar with it, if necessary!

I love working with non-automatic strobes. You get a better feel for light intensity and duration than you do if you just push the "auto" button. Need a stop less light? Just move the lights twice as far away. Need an extra stop for more DoF? Just move the lights to half their distance.

Paying a small fortune for the Styles pack on Capture One. Ouch that was an expe aive mistake.

Gion-Andri Derungs's picture

Me too... I really regret that.

Paul Adshead's picture

Good point. Lots of free ones out there to get you started. Can I ask how much you paid?

A lot of sensible advice here, but I would argue that the need for an expensive lens is not always the case. Many of the 50mm f1.8 lenses are very cheap and have a surprisingly good image quality. I'm also very happy with my Samyang 14mm f2.8 that is very far from expensive. Of course it depends a lot on what kind of lenses you are looking for and which functionality you are expecting, but I wouldn't place lenses in a typical "don't cheap out" category.

Paul Adshead's picture

I hear what you say about cheap lens & have used the "plastic fantastic" lens myself. The problem with cheaper plastic built lenses is they do tend to break more easily & I'm sure side by side comparisons of image quality will show a difference.

You're also gonna struggle to sell a cheap lens where as a decent lens in its box will help you to recoup a lot of your initial investment if you choose to sell it.

So for all that I'd still be on the side of don't buy cheap lenses. Doesn't mean others shouldn't or you can't make amazing images with cheap lenses though. I just think expensive ones are more future proof all round... :)

Buying the best lense you can afford that fulfills the need of your particular type of photography is always a good investment unlike camera bodies which are obsolete/cheaper a few years after they are made.

I've been pretty surprised at the prices I've gotten for my cheap Canon lenses on Ebay. My main problem with the cheaper ones is, the AF isn't as good or as quiet. And that gets to be very annoying. But they're fine to start off with.

"Many of the 50mm f1.8 lenses are very cheap and have a surprisingly good image quality."

This may be an "apples and oranges" comparison. I think Paul was referring to new equipment.

I committed the same sin in comparing used pack-and-head strobes with new ones.

Personally, I LOVE good, old, manual-focus adapted lenses! Some of these that were world leaders in their day can be had for a fraction of the cost of a new plastic lens!

Funny the part about tripod, a few days after Fstoppers published an article claiming the exact opposite... I’m slightly puzzled.

Agreed with all the items mentioned.

Paul Adshead's picture

Yeah I read that article too. :) There are definitely pluses & minuses to both. I think a decent tripod will last you a very long time & you can always sell it. You can't guarantee the same for a cheap one.

Fully agree. But having two articles in a couple a days with giving opposite advice makes me strongly question how reliable is Fstoppers as a source of advice... as a source of news it is ok, but advice... not so much.

Paul Adshead's picture

The writers of the two articles you are referring to are very different ages, live on completely different continents, work in very different fields of photography, and have lived very different lives.

Why is it so troubling to you that two people have different views on the importance tripod?

Both arguments are equally valid.

So Fstoppers is just a forum? There is no Fstoppers editorial line?
The problem is there. From what you say, there is no Fstoppers. There is a bunch of different people with their own opinions who don’t talk and just publish on the same website.
No I know why I won’t read this website anymore.

Joel Manes's picture

For sure - tripod and filters. Don't cheap out on these.

Paul Adshead's picture

Anything you think I missed off the list Joel?

Replacement lens caps. They go hand in hand with body caps, in fact.

David Arthur's picture

Wasn't there just an article a couple days ago about how "this cheap tripod does just as good as the expensive tripods!"? It seems like every other fstoppers writer is trying to argue another fstoppers writer through articles.

Paul Adshead's picture

Hey David, aryicles are written and secduled weeks in advance so it's just a coincidence on this occasion. There is bound to be crossover & conflicting views in articles from time-to-time but debate is good. Everyone is entitled to their opinion... Thanks for stopping by. :)

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