If you’ve ever wanted to become a professional photographer but felt limited by the lack of affordable equipment to create high quality art, here are a few tips and recommended products to help you do a great job, and not have to sell your soul (or completely empty your bank account) in the process. I hope you find this information useful, and don’t forget to check the bottom of this article for a full list of my products and resources you can use right away to become a professional photographer on a budget.
Being a professional photographer is one of the best jobs in the world. You get to be creative, have an excuse to interact with interesting people, and be your own boss.
As long as you take pictures in nice lighting and don’t give any brides-to-be a double chin, you’ll be on your way to finding your groove in the photography world.
Most professional photographers started with basic cameras and took pictures of their friends as a hobby. Then someone was getting married and you got the phone call,”Hey, John and Amanda are looking for a photographer for their wedding, do you want to do it?” And of course you said yes. And you even felt guilty about charging them $150.
Most of being a great photographer comes from being good with people and having a good “eye.” In the beginning, you’re often worried about people not believing that you’re legitimate so you rush through shoots, and don’t give many instructions. But as you progress, you realize that even at the highest level, there are no big secrets other than taking your time and instructing your subjects in order to get the shots that your talented eye wants to see.
Being a photographer is great for mobility, because your skills are useful anywhere in the world. Next time you have a freak out and decide you need to leave the country, you won’t be completely without a money maker. If you have a camera, you are useful.
The only setback is the initial start-up costs.
Let’s break them down:
Professional, full-frame cameras start around $2500 (Nikon D810) and can quickly scale to 5 or 10 grand (Nikon D5). And the lenses usually range from $500 – $3000 a pop (Nikon 85mm f 1.4 lens for $1600).
I couldn’t afford that kind of equipment when I started, and I didn’t really know who could.
My mom gave me my first camera when I was 14, a silver Pentax 35mm film camera, it probably retailed around $100 at the time. And I slowly progressed up the ranks from there.
When I converted to digital, I chose Nikon over Canon because I liked the design and it felt better in my hands. I bought a Nikon D40 over 10 years ago and I’ve never shot with anything other than Nikon since.
Two years ago, I wanted to buy a new camera. I was using the D5100, which retailed around $600 at the time, and shooting mostly HD videos. I loved that camera because it had the flip screen that let me see what I was filming from awkward angles. I also shot some photography with it and it did the job just fine.
If I’m being completely honest, one of the main reasons I wanted a new camera was because I wanted something with a bigger body so people looking at me would know I wasn’t some tourist with a Nikon around my neck, but a real, professional photographer. I’ve always been pretty vain, but that’s not a bad thing when you’re the person behind the camera.
Then I remembered the work of Casey Neistat (Nike, Mercedes, NYC bike lane), one of the most talented and engaging filmmakers in the world, who just so happens to shoot all of his videos on a $100 handheld, point-and-shoot camera. And I realized, it really is more about the eye and the story you tell with the camera than the equipment you’re using.
I decided to be a professional photographer on a budget in an attempt to prove that my skills were good enough to work on less expensive equipment.
I bought a Nikon D7100 for $1200 (body only) (it’s now under $700!). It was the highest ranking camera on the market before they jumped up to full-frame dslr cameras. I preferred this camera over the Nikon D5200 ($650 body only) because the body was a little bigger (ha!) and even the top photography pros said it was a high-performing camera for the price.
NOTE: They’ve just release a newer version of the intermediate camera:
The D7200 is a little faster and a little stronger with autofocus. I don’t notice a huge difference in quality for the price difference between the older D7100.
I didn’t want the stock lens it came with because it’s not very quality. It has an f stop of 3.5 which provides almost no ‘bokeh‘ effect unless shooting with a zoom lens. I was looking for something with an f stop of 2.8 or lower.
Many great portraits shots, where the subject looks crisp and the background is blurry, are taken with “prime lenses” – meaning, they have a fixed mm zoom. The most common lenses are 35mm prime and 50mm prime. Because of the fixed focal length, and more opened aperture ring (f/1.8 – f/1.4), prime lenses create a more shallow depth of field (sharp subject with drastic blurring in foreground and background).
Some of the best prime lenses are at an f stop of 1.4, even 1.2 on occasion, but again, they are $500 or more ($1600 for this Nikon 35mm f 1.4!). I did some research and found out that Nikon makes prime lenses at an f stop of 1.8. While you will lose a slight amount of bokeh effect, the 35mm retails for under $200 and the 50mm can be found around $100! All you have to do is decide if you want a wider angled lens or a tighter zoom. The 50mm will give you a little bit more bokeh, while the 35mm will allow for more space within the frame. You can compensate and create more bokeh with the 35mm by simply getting closer to your subjects (move your body, not the lens!).
Quick tip: Putting a prime lens on almost any camera will give your photos a mega boost. It’s much more affordable and effective than buying a new camera.
Professional photographers will often also carry more of a ‘utility’ lens that has a focal range between 15 – 70mm. The stock lens Nikon ships with its cameras is an 18-55mm and again, it’s crap (no offense Nikon). But Tamron makes a really nice 17-50mm lens at a 2.8 f stop for around $500. This is the lens that can be found on my camera the most because I get tired of changing back and forth between prime lenses when out in the field. Tamron makes this same lens with image stabilization for around $650. I didn’t notice a difference. Maybe film makers would want the stabilization but with all the editing software available I’m not sure it’s very necessary.
Between the 35mm, 50mm, and 17-50mm, you’ll be able to take professional grade portraits and landscapes no problem.
If you want to explore fisheye lenses for unique effects, or even films, there are some affordable options as well.
Rokinon (a Korean company founded in the early 70s) has an older lens still being used in the film world quite seriously. It’s an 8mm manual focus fisheye lens that allows for full 180 degree views around $300.
And a lens that I just picked up, that might be my favorite lens I’ve ever owned, is made by Tokina.
I KID YOU NOT – BUY THIS LENS. IF YOU DO NOTHING ELSE, BUY THIS LENS.
It’s an 11-16mm f/2.8 lens that has near 180 degree views without any of the line bowing or peripheral distortion that come from most fisheye lenses. It lets me take photos with incredibly unique compositions because there is more space within the frame. I love it. The view is like that out of our own eyes, it’s beautifully voyeuristic. And that set me back $475.
Every time I show someone a picture I’ve taken with this lens they are completely speechless. If you want a true difference maker, a lens that makes the most ordinary scene look completely original, then make the decision and throw down on this lens. It’s one of those items that I think about every day and never regret the money spent.
I started with the basics and have accumulated more pieces as I’ve needed them. I’m fortunate enough to get gigs with individuals and larger companies. My work has opened a lot of doors, and not once, has someone asked if I was shooting on a full-frame camera. An important thing I’ve learned along the way is that the lenses have a greater impact on image quality than the cameras. Get yourself a 35mm or 50mm prime lens and you’ll take great pictures on just about any camera.
You don’t have to spend a shitload of money on gear to get started as a photographer, you just have to know what you’re looking for.
I’ve attached links to the best prices for what I consider to be the most valuable products for anyone looking to become a professional photographer on a budget. These online prices for lenses tend to be significantly cheaper than in stores. The cameras themselves are usually set at fixed prices, so there won’t be too much discrepancy there.
Please feel free to comment with any questions you may have. I hope you have an incredible photography career and don’t get taken to school by some nerdy photography salesman trying to talk you into spending your fortune on equipment.
Nikon D5500 24.2 MP dSLR camera (body only) ($600)
TOTAL COST: $1,296 (prices will lower every year)
The Nikon D5500 along with these two lenses will give you what you need to book gigs.
My current kit:
Nikon D7100 24.1 MP dSLR camera (body only) ($700 – price just reduced!)
TOTAL COST: $2,314
I’ve accumulated more lenses as I’ve needed them. Often, when out doing a shoot, I’ve found myself wishing I was able to capture different angles. I’d then go home and research until I found something that was pro quality, but affordable.
Other items in my bag:
Benro A3580F Classic Tripod ($168)
Black Rapid Camera Strap ($61)
Altura Photo Flash Kit for Nikon ($79) – and worth every cent
You can hit the piggy bank hard over the next few months and find a way to come up with enough dough to get started. All it takes is a couple gigs to cover your start-up costs and this equipment will last you 5-10 years.
Be smart shoppers and don’t get suckered into buying the hype around camera equipment. Start with what you need and add on from there.
Happy shooting photographers!
For a list of professional DSLR cameras and photography equipment check out my other article HERE.
Kirk Hensler is a professional photographer and film maker as well as the creator of ‘Organizing Inspiration – How to bring your brilliant ideas to the world,’ a course for entrepreneurs and creatives to identify their brand, create a work process, and implement an intuitive working schedule.