Shooting photos on a shoestring

Being a student photographer can sometimes feel like a short-sighted proposition, ironic as that seems. After all, tuition and books are costly enough, and adding cameras and lenses into the mix certainly doesn’t help. However, there are ways to save, and I’ll try and share some of the things I’ve learned.

First, buy used gear. My current primary camera is a Nikon D300, which was introduced in August 2007. If I had purchased it new at the time, it would have cost around $2 000 with taxes. I bought mine in July 2012 for $570 on Used Victoria. The pricing reflects its rough cosmetic condition, but it’s in perfect working order. Camera bodies depreciate like no tomorrow, and it’s just not worth it to keep absorbing that cost if you don’t need the latest and greatest. Yes, there are advantages like a manufacturer’s warranty and return policy, but if you do your research, you can get some great bargains. Practically all my cameras, lenses and flashes are used, and I’ve been able to stretch my dollars significantly by doing so.

If you are considering a used camera body, ask about the number of shutter actuations. The camera’s shutter block is designed to tolerate a certain number of uses before it breaks down. On consumer cameras, it can vary between 50 000 to 100 000, and on professional cameras like the Canon EOS-1D X, it can be as high as 400 000 exposures. If the seller doesn’t cite a number, it can be checked by shooting a picture (in RAW) and uploading it to a website  that scans the image metadata for the number. ShutterCounter.com works well for Nikon and Canon cameras released post-2007. You don’t want a camera that is in imminent need of a new shutter. Other than that, make sure the seller includes the essential accessories (box, strap, charger, manuals, batteries and all the little necessary plastic bits and bobs). The manual will provide a contents list, so make sure it’s as complete as possible. It’s also a good idea to make sure there is no discrepancy between the box’s serial number and the camera’s. This is sometimes an issue when a seller is parting with several copies of the same thing and mixes up the boxes.

Check to make sure the price is reasonable by comparing the asking price with the selling price at used camera stores like KEH.com. If it’s a little lower than the price of a commercial seller, you’ll know you won’t be ripped off, but if it’s too low, you might need to question the seller’s motivations. It’s better to pay a little more upfront than to find out later that it doesn’t work. Asking the seller specific questions about the product (what accessories it comes with, motivation for selling, etc.) can help. And don’t forget to check local camera shops like Camera Traders (560 Johnson St.); they check over the gear they sell so you can have peace of mind knowing that the equipment you buy will work in the long run.

Next, look for high-quality generics, particularly when it comes lighting gear. Retailers like B&H and Adorama have an enormous selection of generic umbrellas, softboxes and other light modifiers for less than the cost of the branded products (as a side note, any photographer taking a trip to New York should see the B&H Superstore; it is a sight to behold). Both retailers are highly reputable and have reasonable shipping rates to Canada. My light stand and umbrellas are all made by Impact, one of the house brands at B&H, and they are as durable and reliable as their name brand equivalents. I actually prefer my Impact-brand umbrellas over their Westcott equivalents. Unlike the Westcotts, they are single fold, so they are less portable, but they are noticeably sturdier and less frustrating to use.

Sometimes I wish there was money inside this homemade wallet.

For the extra thrifty but super handy student inclined to create softboxes from scratch, a website called DIYPhotography.net has all sorts of interesting projects. Certain ones like making your own background stands out of PVC pipe are beyond me, but there are projects for every skill level. I’m not very handy, but even I have some homemade photo equipment that I use. I’m particularly fond of the duct tape wallet sewn together with dental floss that I use to hold my flash gels. A small piece of black craft foam from Michael’s has been an excellent substitute for a store-bought snoot (but an old Pringles can with a hole in the bottom will also suffice).

If you’re really brave, check out eBay for even lower prices on certain light modifiers, LED video and small flashes. A company called Yongnuo has recently been getting a lot of attention online for its low-cost offerings, but I can’t really provide a definitive statement on the brand (or on anything for that matter) as I only have one product from them (a YN-560 III), but I’ve been pleased with it so far, especially since this $80 flash is built better than my name brand flashes.

For the non-digital photographer, rather than buying a new Nikon FM10 (one of the last reasonably priced manual focus camera still manufactured), why not consider buying a classic camera with more retro charm and a significantly lower price? For Canon shooters, buying a camera with the discontinued FD mount like the AE-1 can net you cheap yet high quality lenses since they don’t fit the current EOS mount. For the price-conscious Nikon user, try and find Series E lenses. Made in the 1980s as a budget line to complement the company’s premium Nikkor lenses, they feature first-rate optics but slightly lower build quality, and because of that budget stigma, they are excellent value for money.

Before you go out buying the first $20 Spotmatic you see on Craigslist, though, a word of warning. In my experience, it’s better to buy vintage film cameras from a reputable local store rather than an online classifieds site because a store can test the cameras to make sure they’re in full working order before they are sold. These vintage cameras have probably spent decades in a musty hallway closet, and mechanical problems can only be accurately diagnosed by testing the cameras with film, which would be impractical if purchasing off Used Victoria. There is a small premium of course, but it sure beats buying a lemon and spending five times your purchase price to fix it.

I often wish I could just have the kit of my dreams, but for many students, it’s impossible to assemble such a kit without selling a kidney, so bargain hunting is the next best thing. It’s not quite extreme couponing, but I’d rather end up with a nice vintage camera than 50 cases of toilet paper anyway.

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