No Excuses: Beginners, Don't Blame Your Budget Gear for Your Crappy Pictures

No Excuses: Beginners, Don't Blame Your Budget Gear for Your Crappy Pictures

"I can't take a shot like that. My camera isn't good enough. Oh sure, you can talk all you want, but you have thousands of dollars in expensive equipment! Yeah, I know it's the photographer, not the camera, but let's get real: my beginner gear can't do that!" Excuses, excuses, excuses. A lot of people, especially those just starting out, use their lack of pro gear as a tether, holding them back from getting the shots they are capable of. Here are some reasons to push past your budget concerns and make the most of what you have.

Everyone Has to Start Somewhere

No matter the photographer, myself included, they started out taking a lot of crappy photos. Most of the icons of photography also started out shooting film, so they had to wait for film development to discover that their photos were crap. Double the fun! These days, we are fortunate enough to be able to learn on digital capture systems. We can see where we screwed up, fix it, take another shot, experiment more, and hopefully get the shot we want. Our learning potential increases exponentially, and we become better photographers a lot quicker. Well, at least that's how it should be. 

Shot with a Fuji X-E1

What happens here in the real world is that without the constraints of film limiting us, and that constant cha-ching ringing in our heads every time we take a shot, we have become lazy. We shoot and shoot until it looks good on the back of our LCD, then move on, not learning anything from the process and what it took to get there. Where's the note-taking? Where's the pre-visualization? What happened to nailing that shot in-camera? Instead, when we don't see what we want on the back of the camera and we can't make it work in Lightroom, where's the next place our head goes? "Well, I must need a better camera!"

Pick a Camera, Any Camera

Here's the thing: cameras these days are ridiculously good. The lowest DSLR camera on Nikon's roster can outshoot a top-of-the-line camera from 10 years ago with its hands tied behind its back — if it had hands. You know what I mean. The camera isn't the problem. A while ago, I wrote an article doing a shootout between a 36 MP camera and a 10 MP beginner camera, showcasing the differences (or lack thereof) in real-world image quality. Of course, the megapixel monster was the better camera, but the old doorstop camera held its own. "But I need a Profoto B1 with a blah blah blah to get good lighting for portraits." No, no you don't. "I can't get the shallow depth of field I need with crop sensor cameras." Yes, yes you can. "But I need at least 8 frames per second to shoot sports!" Nope.

Simple portrait with Fuji X-E1, Canon 24mm FD, cheap as hell flash, and even cheaper shoot-through umbrella

I hear these excuses all the time, and the fact is if you have a camera from a major manufacturer that was built in the the last five years, you can turn out some amazing imagery if you put your mind to it. It's time to roll up your sleeves and start to make the most of the equipment you have. I went out a few days ago and as part of a larger shoot, I took some shots using some cheap equipment: a Fuji X-E1 ($279.95), a Canon 24mm 2.8 FD prime ($149.95), FD to Fuji adapter ($29.95), Yongnuo wireless triggers ($32.90), Neewer flash ($32.99), and a cheap shoot-through umbrella ($8.95). The aim wasn't to make the best flashiest, glamorous shots ever, but to show that you can pull off a nice refined look with very inexpensive gear.

Behold the glory of the kit lens!

Don't Be Afraid of Kit Lenses

It hurts my cold, dead heart when I see beginners automatically sell off their kit lens without trying to use it first. Some of my favorite work produced has been from kit lenses. In fact, just last weekend, I shot the wedding of two world-class figure skaters, Chris Knierim and Alexa Scimeca, and did some of my favorite portraits with the Fuji kit lens. Yes, as far as kit lenses go, this one is very good, but still don't overlook yours if you're strapped for cash. 

Using the kit lens for a portrait

And for the groomsmen

You Don't Need a Full-Frame Camera

Yes, I know, they're nice. I love them too! But when you're just starting out, a modern full-frame camera may be a bit hard on the budget. If you're shooting mirrorless, you're in luck! You can get adapters that will let you use lenses from back in the day that will open up nice and wide with stellar image quality. If not, I guarantee you there are lenses out there that will allow you to get adequately shallow depth of field, no matter what your system of choice. Will it be as shallow as full frame? No, of course not. But do you need it to be? Do you need absolutely the shallowest depth of field ever? If so, why aren't you shooting with a large format film camera? They make a full-frame DSLR look like an iPhone. 90% of the time, the difference in depth from a full-frame to crop sensor just doesn't matter. If you must get a full-frame camera, have a look at the original Canon 5D or a Nikon D700. They are fantastic cameras that can really perform, and you can get them for less than $500 and $800, respectively. 

Taken with the original Canon 5D, available used for less than $500

What Else You Could Be Spending Your Money On

With the money you could save by sticking with your budget gear, what else could you be buying? Insurance? Custom website? Educational courses? Seminars? Tripod? Filters? Plane tickets to somewhere amazing to shoot some amazing pictures? The list goes on and on. Put your money where it's most needed. When the dollars start rolling in and you're making a decent amount of money from photography, then start to upgrade your gear. Before that, save some money and put some extra cheese on that Whopper!

Will the Equipment Pay for Itself

When you are making some money and it's time to upgrade, ask yourself if this purchase will pay for itself. Will you see more work because of it? Will you book more jobs? Will you sell more prints? Or is it that you just want the latest and greatest? Those are hard questions to answer honestly, as most people can rationalize an answer that gets them the gear they want. I've been known to do this on many an occasion, and I always feel like a chump later. Just ask my wife. Really be honest with yourself when you're investing in your business. You will know when it really is time to upgrade your gear.

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35 Comments

Joseph Drago's picture

I agree. Most beginners would be better served spending their money on a bounce reflector before they buy any other gear.

Jeff McCollough's picture

But not if you live at about 3000meters lol.

John Paraskevas's picture

i just use a big piece of white board :) (beginner)

Tedd Woodford's picture

I have heard car sun shade can work well as reflectors.

John Paraskevas's picture

That's sooo true

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

Wise words!
I wish I was allowed to buy no more than one prime lens every 3 years since I have started in photography.

Sheng Zheng's picture

i've ditched my d800 for a year and use fuji x100t + yongnuo 560III + flash disc as working horse, couldnt be any happier.

This approach works great while you shoot what you want. And then suddenly you need to shoot something you have to - late evening reception, baptising in dimmed church or 150 people shaking hands to one important person within 30 minutes. And then you understand that your kit lens is not that great in darkness, autofocus just goes back and forward on your beautiful mirrorless and your great in terms of price/power ratio flash turned on overheat protection after 20th shot.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

Someone who is hired to shoot important event shouldn't have problem described in the article.

Hans Rosemond's picture

yep. What you're saying mirrors the article. You will know when the kit lens is no longer adequate.

Mirrorless was not on my radar when I was researching digital cameras I 2013. I had a few requirements for my DSLR: that it matched the capabilities of my Canon A-1 and New F-1 with their respective motor drives: 35mm format, 6 FPS.
I talked my wife out of buying me a DSLR in 2011 when I found her budget was a Canon T3i. I thought that this would be the last DSLR that I would own and I wanted a camera with more capabilities.
I thought the Canon A-1 that I bought in 1980 would be my last camera; it still works today and I shoot with it. However, in 2013, I bought a used Canon New F-1 with AE Finder FN, AE Motor Drive FN, and two focusing screens. December 2013, my wife asked "What do you think about this?" "You're buying me a 5D?" "Yes" I said "Go for it". I'm looking for a camera that may be my last camera; the kit lens is the 24-1-5 f4L. I'm looking at other "L" lenses to get. Yea, I covet the 1Dx, but I won't use the features all the time.

Matthias Dengler's picture

Oh man, true words! You're speaking from my heart!
I shot for 5 years with a 450D/600D and a kit lens. Just after getting out the maximum of it, I started buying lenses and travel tripods. Nowadays, everybody feels the need of having a full-frame camera with the white tele lens - the perfect overcompensation - the perfect photographic penis. And then buying presets for Lightroom without even caring to know what they are doing. Instead of choosing between 3000 presets, I'm faster done editing it myself. I'm so fedd up with this. People photograph for one year and walk around with the heaviest gear. But the problem in the end is: Clients confuse gear and quality as well. Also quality does not sell anymore, since those people chase through every picture, clicking 1000 times per shooting and choosing randomly a preset - editing 5min --> Less work time --> mass production --> Shitty quality --> More clients --> No space for quality photography. It ruins the market. Or let's say at least the market for ordinary clients. I prefer refining my skills to make in the long run the big catch with big clients. I guess that's our only chance. :)

BTW: When my 600D broke, everybody recommended me to "finally go full frame". But for what? Every lens costs three times more than one for APSC, is much heavier, bigger and not handy for travelling at all. And if I want to have a "bigger picture" I just make a panorama. And for having "less noise" in the picture, I just use freeware NIK Collection plug-ins to perfectly get rid of all the grain (which all those people nowadays add unconsciously with all their presets)

Matthias Dengler's picture

For printing large the megapixels count. So my panorama taken with an APS-C camera can be printed larger than your normal shot with your fullframe. Just saying! :) And when you open your aperture e.g. to F 1.4 you let more light in, so you have less noise, as you can keep the ISO lower. but if you use F 3.5 then of course you'll have more noise as you have to bump up the ISO much more to keep it stable during the night.

Paul Watt's picture

I just shot a sport's event. My 5dmk2 and 70-200 "penis" performed brilliantly. The guy shooting next to me on a Sony mirrorless had to stop when his camera overheated after half an hour. My 5d just kept on going.

Paul Watt's picture

Nope, stills

Orwin SantaCruz's picture

Not surprising. I just got myself an a6300 (but unlike many, I am keeping my older Nikon setup) and was shooting some pics of a parade and I almost had to stop because of the overheating issue. Luckily I read tips about it so I swapped a nearly full battery for another and left the battery door open to finish up. This was only about a half hour of shooting in 80 degree weather!

Matthias Dengler's picture

I have nothing about sports photography and tele lenses. The article is about beginners. And I've met so many people who travel with that set, to take ordinary holiday shots.
Those are the people I talk about, not you as a professional sports photographer! :)

Paul Watt's picture

Fair point!

Chris Jones's picture

Lol replace that with a nikon 50mm ais and a yongnuo flash and that's legit my set up.

My entire kit is an original x100, xe-1, nikon 50mm f1.4 lens that's older than me which was my dad's old fe2 kit lens, a couple yongnuo flashes and triggers, amazon basic tripod that doubles as a light stand and a 20 dollar shoot through. I need to add the fuji kit lens so I have a zoom for event work but I've never felt limited unless I had to hold a reflector in one hand, but I made it work!

great article; take note of it newbies and the experienced

And may I add:
More gear = more confusion = less good photos
learn photography with one camera and one fixed focal lens
You don't have to have a DSLR to be good photographer. [I have sold my big FF gear and now use Lumix FZ200 with a Lumix FZ300 on order . www.facebook.com/Photos-by-Ian-Browne-226958724335034/ . I'm happy to help you there where and when I can; just ask.

For stationary subjects: limit yourself to one or maybe two photos only and learn from your mistakes . Use one click at a time instead of blazing away and hoping to get a photo. And using a tripod will make you a better photographer because the damn thing will SLOW you down

And Joseph; beginners IMO are better served by spending their money on education and training ;) . . Plenty of time for more gear later when they know what they actually need

One last one: don't make digital photography harder than it is, or has to be folks :)

Joseph Drago's picture

I'm just saying...nothing helps in photography more than getting the lighting where you need it to be. Start worrying about the light before you worry about the lens.

There is a lot less settings to worry about with simpler equipment (going from a D5100 to a D810 I'm speaking from experience). The only real reason to go full frame is to be able to crop the hell out of your photos and get something reasonable from doing so. Here's my beginner tips: 1.Go shoot photos alone, being rushed by others is frustrating. 2.Set out to craft the best photo ever of whatever you shoot. 3.Check your camera settings, histogram, ISO, and autofocus with a few test shots when you start shooting. Check again if the light changes then forget about it and focus on the subject/composition. 4.Have a good working knowledge of your camera, to the point of being able to make adjustments in the dark by feel. 5.In difficult lighting/action situations (especially where you cannot use a tripod, like a museum) holding the shutter release button down for continuous shooting is a perfectly good way to improve your chances of getting a good photo. 6.Leave your camera with your best/most versatile lens for action on it when you put it away.

When I was researching full frames improved sharpness was a big factor, but if I had checked how expensive good lenses were to take advantage of it's sharpness I would have stayed in the DX line, maybe with a D7100 with the 24mp sensor for printing large. Since, I have never printed larger than 24 X 36 inch canvas, I have lots of wiggle room to crop and recompose my photos without losing to much quality. Now, I have a DX mode on the D810 I can shoot with, but it feels wrong to not be using the camera to it's full potential. It's the same photo below, just one is cropped (I have to save up for a 600mm lens).

"1.Go shoot photos alone, being rushed by others is frustrating."

One of the best pieces of equipment I bought that improved my portrait lighting skills drastically only cost $50. It was a mannequin on eBay. She never complained and never got impatient as I took a shot, moved lighting, took another shot, moved lighting, took another shot. She was always even able to hold the exact same pose for direct comparison of different lighting positions. What a surprise!

The only problem is even though she's an attractive mannequin, she's creepy. When I go down to my basement studio, even though I know she's there when I leave her out, I always freak a bit seeing a body standing there. And the worst part is that I refer to the mannequin as a "she" instead of an "it."

I was in B&H trying out two Zeiss lenses. One of them was the Sony ZA 85 1.4. I took some random test shots of people shopping at the counters. The images were magical. I walked away thinking, yeah right, it's the photographer and not the gear. Uh-huh. I'm not saying that gear replaces years of practice and learning. I'm also not talking about having the most expensive triggers or flashes. I am talking about lenses. If you are serious about photography, why buy stuff you are going to outgrow? Why not learn on good stuff?

Hans Rosemond's picture

If you're buying gear used, especially lenses, you can usually sell them for the exact same price you bought them for. There's no point in someone who has been shooting for 6 months buying a Zeiss lens when you can get 90% of the performance out of a lens that is a fraction of the cost. At that level, any optical advantage the Zeiss has will be negated by the technique of the inexperienced. There's nothing wrong with that at all. Why get more gear than you need when there is absolutely no financial advantage?

I totally 100% agree. As a recently retired professional photographer, I recently "downgraded" from my Nikon Pro gear to a Fuji X-E2S. I am finding the small mirrorless camera equal to what my expensive Nikon gear could do. Able to reuse my Pocket Wizards and Nikon Speedlights when I do want to do some portrait work. Works great!

Bryan Cooper's picture

Well articulated! Less is more, more or less.
I remember all my fellow students were confused that I used a Canon Rebel XTi for my first year of photo school but managed to get higher marks on assignments by using lighting technique and creativity. Now most of them have sold off their expensive gear to get extra money now that they've given up photography altogether which is a shame. Again, excellent writing :)

Hans Rosemond's picture

Thank you, sir!

Aaron Bratkovics's picture

I just want to use my phone.