If someone gave you $1,000 and told you to buy a camera and lens combo, what would you do? Yes, it is hard to get a good kit for relatively little money. Yet, there are some hidden gems that are great to kickstart your career and offer an improvement over existing gear. When I started out taking pictures, at about 15-years-old, I couldn’t really afford to buy a digital camera or anything of that sort. I had to make do with what I had: a film camera and lens I took from my dad. Being quite young, I didn’t start photography in the good old days. I started shooting film and had to learn fast what to do and how to do it. Eventually, I managed to save up and I bought a digital camera: Canon 1D Mark II. Then, I saved up even more and sold my 1D Mark II for more than buying it, I bought a 5D Mark II. Paired with a good zoom lens, it was an amazing camera I shot plenty of jobs on. That was in 2019, after the release of the EOS R. A decade after the 5D Mark II was released, it was still an able camera that delivered.
Now, I recommend this combo to every single beginner photographer, almost regardless of what their genre is. Camera technology, in general, has improved a lot in the past decade, but to be honest, it is a marginal improvement every year. Long story short, there hasn’t been a bad camera since 2010. Lenses have also improved a lot; new glass is sharper, flange distance is shorter, and elements are better. Does that make a difference? If you’re a pixel-peeper yes. I shoot a 24-70 from 2007 on a Canon 5Ds body, and nobody has complained. So much so, that nobody notices me switch from a 5D Mark IV to a 5Ds and vice-versa.
So, let’s see why I think the 5D Mark II and a 24-105 f/4 IS is the best camera and lens combo under $1,000
Canon 5D Mark II ($300-400)
Released in 2009, this camera is a true legend. The specs are nothing special in 2022, but they were the latest and greatest in 2009 when the camera first came out. In a nutshell, here is the rundown of the specs of the famed Canon 5D Mark II.
Sensor-wise, you have 21MP to work with. It is very similar to the Canon 1Ds Mark III, which was a camera made specifically for studio work. Personally, unless you’re shooting big campaigns, you don’t need a higher-resolution sensor. From personal experience, my clients also didn’t really notice me switch from a 20 to a 30 and to a 50-megapixel sensor. The ISO goes from 100 to 6,400, which can be expanded to 50-25,600. This isn’t anything impressive, but if you’re shooting at ISO 6,400 all the time, you may want to consider a different camera. For simple folks who work in the range of 100-3,200, this will be perfect. The camera starts acting up past 1,000 ISO, so you want to be careful with that. Still, the grain is rather pleasant and nothing horrible.
Some notable features include live view, which does seem standard now, but was a massive change for me coming from a film and 1D Mark II background. On the bad side, the autofocus is horrible, and you can only rely on a single center point. This isn’t so bad if you're working with a mostly still subject, but as soon as it starts moving fast, you may want to look in the direction of the Canon 1D Mark IV, or the 1Dx. If you’re into video, you won't be too pleased, as the 5D Mark II is primarily a stills camera. I have shot very very small video projects on the 5D Mark II, and it performed okay, but there is no way I am bringing it to anything serious. It makes much more sense to rent a Blackmagic for video projects.
24-105 f/4 ($300-400)
This is not a special lens, you might say. It's a very special lens, I reply. The 24-105 f/4 IS is a low-cost professional option that can suit your needs for most shooting. Especially at the start of your career, when you are not sure about the focal lengths that you prefer, the 24-105 will provide ample variety in shots. From mid-telephoto to mid-wide-angle, this lens is very much “mid”. It won’t give you a crazy zoom, or crazy bokeh, it will however give you a stable and reliable lens that takes sharp images. It’s sort of a kit lens on steroids. And a very good one indeed. Featuring image stabilization, it will be perfect for those who want to take their shutter speeds a little down. Compared to version II, the original one is lighter and smaller. The only improvement the newer, more expensive lens has is the corner brightness, which can be fixed in post. Go figure out which one you will need.
What About the 24-70 f/2.8?
An attentive reader will ask why I shoot on the heavier 24-70 f/2.8? And the answer is rather simple, just because that is the lens I bought, and got stuck with using. At the same time, having shot work on a 24-105 as well, I would absolutely recommend it to anyone who wants a decent zoom but doesn’t want to spend ridiculous amounts of money. If you find a good deal, and feel that you don’t need anything beyond 70mm go for the 24-70, but be prepared to lose sharpness at wider apertures, as well as use a bigger and heavier piece of glass. Coming from someone whose hands hurt after a shooting sometimes, this is a very real concern.
So, there you have it, the Canon 5D Mark II, paired with a 24-105 f/4, or a 24-70 f/2.8 is a great starting combo for almost any professional photographer. Costing under $1,000 used, this gear can be purchased off Facebook Marketplace, various groups, as well as websites. I would strongly suggest buying the gear in person as sometimes remote purchases can lead to frustration and poor choices.