What Are the Hardest Genres of Photography for Beginners to Shoot Well Without a Big Budget?

What Are the Hardest Genres of Photography for Beginners to Shoot Well Without a Big Budget?

Photography can be expensive, it can be cheap, and it's usually somewhere in-between. So, which genres are the hardest to shoot if you don't have much money for equipment?

A common platitude in the world of photography is that you don't need much to create great images. It's true enough, and there are areas I've even fought to make that known. While it is a useful piece of information to remember when you look at another photographer's work and kit bag and your eyes turn green, it isn't absolutely true.

The first area I found that had a complex gradient of results and equipment was macro photography. As anyone who has read some of my originals will know, I got into photography with the sole purpose of creating macro images of insects, like some friends of mine on a car forum were doing. When I first looked up the equipment one of the better photographers in this group was using, I almost prolapsed. He was using the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro lens, a Canon 5D Mark II, and a Canon MT-26EX-RT Macro Twin Lite. This was over a decade ago, and the total price for those three was around $5,000. I couldn't possibly raise those funds for a new hobby, so I bought a cheap Canon 350D secondhand on eBay that came with a kit lens, and then I bought a macro filter.

I only have two remaining shots from my 350D, kit lens, and macro filter trifecta, and this is one of them. I shot in JPEG and I had little understanding of settings, so this was largely luck.

To my surprise, I was able to pull off some images that I was proud of. No, I couldn't make the compound eye of a hoverfly look like a mesh fence, but I could still create photographs that were close enough to tiny subjects that I could see things my eyes were missing. I was proud of the shots, and I was creating them with about $300 worth of kit.

As time moved on, I got the typical urge photographers get regardless of genre: I wanted more of what I had. That is, as a macro photographer, I wanted to get closer to the subject. As a wildlife photographer, you want more reach on your lenses. As a portrait photographer, you want a wider maximum aperture, and so on. I invested in a secondhand, rather cheap macro lens and was then creating more images I was thrilled with. I decided all those people harping on about gear being relatively unimportant might have a point. But do they?

Well, yes, in some genres of photography you can pull off a lot with very little. Nowadays, we've seen myriad cover shoots of glamorous models taken with just an iPhone, to the point where the concept has become tired and unimpressive. But is this true of all genres? No, certainly not. So, which genres are the hardest for beginners to shoot on a low budget? Here is what I would consider being the three most difficult.

Sports

Image courtesy of our very own Alex Cooke.

Before I became a photographer myself, I was mesmerized by the work of one of my closest friends' Dad, who was an internationally published sports photographer with a number of photographers working under him too. His arsenal of the kit was utterly staggering and went from an ultra-wide-angle through to borderline f/2.8 telescopes. Unfortunately, with sport, you need to cover all sorts of different ranges, lights, and speeds of play, and it requires a preparedness that transcends experience alone.

Earlier this year, I interviewed San Francisco 49ers photographer Terrell Lloyd and got another glimpse into just how tricky it can be. He always has two or three bodies, each with a different length lens on it. Here are the lenses he takes to a game:

For bodies, he's always using Canon flagship cameras and has done so since 1996. His lens list is a veritable feast:

Canon 600mm f/4L IS III

Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS III

Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS II 

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III 

Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II 

Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L III

Canon 11-24mm f/4L

Canon 85mm f/1.4L

Canon 8-15mm f/4L

Now, this isn't to say that to do any sports photography, you need a used Mercedes worth of camera gear, but it's undeniably a difficult field to get good shots in as a beginner. If we overlook the technical difficulties of ever-changing light, distance, and weather in conjunction with the pace of most sports, you still have to have a lens with good reach to even get a shot in most scenarios. Certainly a genre of photography which, if you want to eventually be shooting high-end images, you will need deep pockets and investment.

Astrophotography

Astrophotography is at a strange point in time, not unlike many other genres. It's more accessible than ever before, with mobile phones entering the arena recently. However, the best astrophotography still requires a great many components. With regards to equipment, you will likely need a wide and fast lens, a body with a great sensor, a strong tripod, perhaps a star tracker, and so on. That's without the requisite need to travel to a dark spot, which can be anything from local for the lucky, isolated few, to long-haul flights! Much like the other categories, you can, of course, shoot this genre with entry-level equipment, but if you want to be shooting great images, you'll likely need to invest!

Wildlife

Wildlife photography is one of the most alluring genres for most people. If you live somewhere rich in species, then you'll constantly see opportunities to capture them. If, like me, the most interesting thing you'll see in the wild is a badger, going to places with diverse wildlife is exciting. In Costa Rica, at the start of this year, I wanted to capture everything I saw like I was in a live-action version of Pokémon. The problem was, if I'd been using my full frame body and my farthest-reaching zoom lens, I still wouldn't have been able to capture almost anything. You need such a long lens to get a remotely enjoyable image of wildlife that on a 35mm equivalent sensor, I'd have needed a lens of at the very least 300mm, but more realistically 600mm or more with a teleconverter. That sort of glass is about as expensive as it gets!

In addition to that, you'll need your long lens to be fast and still potentially need a body that can handle high ISO well. I was fortunate enough that in Costa Rica, I was shooting with the new Olympus OM-D E-M1 III, which has a micro four-thirds sensor, so when I was shooting with a 300mm prime and 2x teleconverter, I was shooting the full frame equivalent of 1,200mm!

Over to You

What genres do you think are the hardest for beginners to shoot well without lots of equipment? Is there a genre you struggled with when you first started? Did you find a way around the gear barriers some genres put up? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Log in or register to post comments

23 Comments

Architecture, sports, underwater, basically anything that requires specialized gear.

spencer robertson's picture

Cameras are certainly expensive but when you get into large scale commercial/fashion type of work the lights/grip and other crew are much more expensive. I’ve been on set with 30 pro 8a packs and 60 heads ($750k+) and all the other stuff.

If we're including ancillary things like that, then I'd say deep space photography would probably take first prize. We're probably getting pretty far away from the "photography beginners" part of the question, though.

spencer robertson's picture

We can all dream. When I was a beginner, that was the kind of photography that interested me.

Matthew Lacy's picture

Good picks for this one. You hit all of the ones I thought of when I saw the title, plus a few.

Nice article. Where was the cover photo taken?

Robert K Baggs's picture

Thanks, Miles. It was taken in Tokyo last year.

I’m an underwater photographer. Not only is the photography gear expensive (housings, ports, strobes, ancillaries basically double your gear investment), it also requires expensive scuba gear and usually expensive travel to suitable destinations. Then you need to be a certified scuba diver with enough experience to pay attention to staying alive in an environment that can kill you while trying to master an unfamiliar genre with unwieldy equipment, while floating in three dimensions, often in current or surge, while composing and shooting. It can be challenging but oh so rewarding. I love it.

Matthew Lacy's picture

That is a good one!

Robert K Baggs's picture

Great shout, I hadn't thought of that. Also a type of photography I'm still yet to try!

Let's not forget the limited amount of time you can spend on each dive which limits the number of images you have time to capture. On most of my dives I am lucky to exceed 200 images per dive. Other limitations include being restricted to one lens, if you are shooting macro and a whale peahens by you can only watch. Water is 800 times denser than air so you must get very close to your subject which requires expensive super wide lenses, about 18mm or wider. The list goes on and yet I have been doing now for over fifty years.

Hi Phil - I’m honored to read your reply! I’ve learned so much from your articles and reviews and photos over the years. Thanks for all you do to educate the community. The one-lens dilemma is always a struggle for sure. I shoot mostly macro and while I haven’t had a whale pass by, I’ve had to pass up a fair number of sharks, turtles, and beautiful reefscapes. But any hour spent under the waves is always a privilege.

Ben Harris's picture

I thought wildlife and astro was going to be cheaper when I started 😭
I thought wildlife would mostly involve patience and being able place yourself correctly. And astro I thought was mostly about getting dark skies and timing the milky way correctly. So naive.
The worst part was that I told my wife that photography was a cheap hobby to set up!

Walter Kovacs's picture

Scanning electron microscopy would be up there.

Jacques Cornell's picture

One of the hardest genres for beginners to shoot well, regardless of equipment, is weddings, which require skills ranging from food to action, portraiture, and product photography, often further complicated by the need for flash with zero setup time.
And yet, this is a market that too many amateurs select as their onramp to a career as a pro.
No amount of spending can prepare one for this. Sometimes, there's simply no substitute for experience, judgement, and technical expertise.

Walter Kovacs's picture

And the small matter of dealing with multiple (often intoxicated) stakeholders.

Tom Reichner's picture

As a wildlife photographer, I thought that the gear required for professional-level wildlife photos was expensive (and it is) ...... but then when I wanted to get into underwater photography, I was stunned at just how costly pro-level gear is.

I was interested in photographing underwater wildlife - seals, sea otters, salmon, whales, sharks, crabs, etc - in their deep sea environment. Sadly, I had to give up on my hopes of doing this type of underwater photography because there is simply no way I will be able to afford to do it at the level I want to do it at.

When I researched it and talked to those in the field, I found that in addition to the cameras and lenses, it would require:

Diving gear, including masks and fins and wetsuits and drysuits and oxygen tanks and gauges.

Underwater camera housings.

An underwater multi-light setup, and the means to power them.

A hired assistant to man the lights.

Diving lessons and obtaining the required licensure.

Chartering ocean-worthy boats with a competent operator and crew.

Ugh. No way, no how. No wonder so few people ever get into deep sea underwater photography.

Edward Crim's picture

Regarding the word "prolapsed" in your third paragraph. I do not think it means what you think it means (unless you are unusually prone to a rare and serious medical condition).

Tom Reichner's picture

I have always thought that "prolapsed" means when your inner anal tissue ruptures and comes out of your 'hole. I thought that was what the author meant when he used it in the 3rd paragraph, and it seemed appropriate in that context. I hear the word used as a slang / nonliteral term when people describe or intentionally exaggerate extreme surprise or shock. Similar to when people say, "I almost _ _ _ _ a brick!"

Ben Harris's picture

I thought it was a weird choice of phrase too, but tried to think little of it, because you know, a dropped anus is not a nice thing.

As an "advanced beginner" I took on an assignment to photograph my daughters school theater activities this past year. I have to say it was quite difficult. My camera (D500) seemed to really struggle with metering. I was mostly shooting from a brightly lit cafeteria into a stage with mostly tungsten colored stage lights and of course a huge black rear curtain. Matrix metering was out. Spot metering was inconsistent. I stumbled across the highlight-weighted metering and that helped somewhat. But still took a lot of work in post to make things realistic. It was a real learning experience.

Chris Fowler's picture

As a novice myself, I second the indoor/lowlight events category as well. Most kit lenses just don't have a wide enough aperture or long enough lens (or both) to capture the memories we want to capture at dimly lit events or indoor weddings. Thank goodness for borrowlenses.com (not sponsored, just found it useful to rent a nice lens instead of going further in debt to own one).

Robert Huerbsch's picture

Hardest / most challenging doesn’t necessarily equal costliest. But DeepSkyAstro $$$ (not MilkyWay) and underwater $$$ come to mind for sure.