For most of my time as a photographer, I’ve been on a strict budget, from my days as a student to my current attempts to save for a house and car. I’m sure I’ve spent more than necessary along the way – but I’ve also learned how to navigate the landscape of gear on today’s market and save whenever possible. This detailed guide covers all my tips to spend less money on camera equipment, which is as much of an art as a science.
Table of Contents
Choice of Equipment
The best way to save money on camera gear is to choose your equipment intelligently in the first place. On some pieces of equipment, you can “cheap out” safely; on others, you shouldn’t even consider it. I’ll go through those considerations here.
Your camera can be one of the best places to cheap out as a photographer, as surprising as that may sound. I still strongly recommend a DSLR or mirrorless camera instead of a point-and-shoot or phone, but beyond that, you may not need much.
The reason is that image quality is no longer an issue with any current DSLR or mirrorless camera. High ISO performance and dynamic range are so good that they’re approaching physical limits. Resolution is higher than ever, with a baseline these days of 20 megapixels, more than enough for detailed 16×24” prints and larger.
That said, your ability to cheap out on a camera depends on the subject you shoot. You can get away with a lower-end camera more easily if you’re a landscape photographer, portrait photographer, macro photographer, street photographer, or studio photographer. For these subjects, most of the improvements on high-end cameras are “nice to have,” rather than “must-have.” (One exception is better build quality if you frequently shoot in adverse conditions.)
On the other hand, if you photograph weddings, sports, or wildlife, an advanced camera can be more impactful. Dual memory card slots are one of the biggest things to consider if you shoot weddings for clients. Beyond that, if you’re shooting quick-moving action, everything from the camera’s autofocus system to its buffer size can make a meaningful difference in the number of keepers you get.
All in all, you’re likely to get better results if you buy a cheaper camera and use good lenses, tripods, and accessories than the other way around. But the more demanding your subject is, the more the calculation can lean in the direction of cameras.
The common advice in photography is to spend your budget on the lenses, not the camera. Even though I largely agree, that doesn’t mean you need to spend a fortune on lenses, either.
There is plenty of cheap, high-quality glass to be found if you accept some limitations. The classic example is a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens. There isn’t a bad 50mm f/1.8 from any major company right now, and there probably hasn’t been for about 50 years. These unassuming lenses can be found for about $100 on the used market, and they’re a great choice for portraiture and street photography. They also double as good macro lenses if you use inexpensive extension tubes.
If you’re not enamored with the 50mm focal length, inexpensive zooms are also better than they’ve ever been. For landscape photography, where you’ll tend to be using near-universally sharp apertures like f/8 or f/11, there isn’t a single kit lens on the market that I’d refuse to use. That includes even the cheapest 18-55mm variable aperture zooms, which I’ve used to take some of my favorite photos – photos with plenty of sharpness upon close inspection.
The issue with cheaping out on lenses occurs when you step outside the basic midrange of about 24mm to 85mm (full-frame equivalent). There are very few inexpensive ultra-wides with good image quality, for example, and fewer still if you intend to shoot demanding subjects like astrophotography.
Meanwhile, if you need a fast aperture beyond about the 85mm focal length, you’ll be paying through the roof. There’s just no way to get a 300mm f/2.8 for anything less than thousands of dollars, even used, unless you go with such an old generation of the lens that it no longer has autofocus.
I still think that cheaping out on lenses is possible with good results. But you need to be smart about how you use them. It’s easiest to get good image quality out of cheap lenses when you stick to midrange focal lengths and don’t try to use zooms at their widest apertures. The moment you step outside those requirements, you’ll be paying more for the privilege.
Buy cheap, buy twice. That’s the truth behind tripods. The difference between a good and bad tripod (including the tripod head) can be bigger than that of almost any other equipment in photography.
As a landscape photographer, I guarantee that I would get sharper results on balance with a good tripod and a cheap camera setup than the other way around. I’d pick a Nikon D3500, 18-55mm kit lens, and high-end tripod over a Nikon Z9, 24-70mm f/2.8, and $50 plastic sticks any day.
Unfortunately, a high-end tripod is usually a $750-1000 purchase, and this article is about cheaping out on your camera gear. I can’t just recommend a Gitzo or RRS willy-nilly.
So, here’s my suggestion instead. If you’re buying a tripod on a budget, go with something under $200 including the tripod head. Make sure to get a tripod with twist-locking legs rather than flip-locks. (Flip-lock tripods are usually flimsier, harder to use, and susceptible to sand and grit. High-end ones can be fine, but I’ve never seen a decent flip-lock tripod in this price range.)
A sub-$200 tripod is inevitably a compromise. The head will sag after you lock it, the tripod will shake in the wind when extended, and the whole setup may not be possible to disassemble and clean. But it gets your foot in the door. If you find yourself using the tripod all the time despite these issues, sell it after a couple of years, and bite the bullet on a Gitzo or RRS (used is fine to save money).
On the other hand, if you realize that tripod-based photography isn’t for you, or is only something you do occasionally, you’ve just saved hundreds of dollars. Even a cheap tripod is fine on occasion. Portrait photographers, among others, may never need to upgrade it.
There are countless other photography accessories. I’ll go through some of the biggest one-by-one.
- Post-Processing Software: My preference for photo editing software is the $10/month bundle of Photoshop and Lightroom. To this day, it’s the best deal on high-end editing software available. However, if you’re on a tight budget, free options like Darktable and GIMP are getting outrageously good. You can definitely save money in this area if you need to.
- Computer and Monitor: No matter what computer you have, get an IPS monitor for editing. I strongly recommend that you don’t cheap out here. IPS monitors can be inexpensive, under $150 new and under $100 used these days. As for the computer, it all depends on how quickly you need to edit and sort through your photos. If your camera shoots 24 megapixels or less, and you don’t need to edit videos, you’re probably safe with your existing setup.
- Color Calibration: It’s vital that you color calibrate your monitor. Some cheap calibration options exist, and the most budget friendly (short of borrowing a photographer friend’s calibration gear) is to buy one of these devices, use it, and resell it on eBay. Monitors drift in color accuracy over time, but even calibrating just once will give you a valuable improvement over an uncalibrated monitor.
- Filters: Don’t skimp here. It’s better to use no filters (and instead use HDR and other post-processing corrections) than a bad one. I ruined one of my early successful photos by slapping a $6 UV filter on my lens. A rule of thumb is that if your filter adds any flare when pointing it at a normal indoor light, it’s a bad filter.
- Extra Batteries: You’ll need at least one extra battery, but in my experience, going third-party is fine. If you shop around, you can sometimes buy three or four off-brand batteries for the price of a single one from the manufacturer. Downsides are (potentially) a slight loss in battery life and unknown compatibility with future cameras.
- Memory Card: If you don’t shoot fast action, a cheap memory card is fine. If you do, I wouldn’t skimp here, because a slow card will substantially shrink your buffer.
- Flashes and Lighting Modifiers: If you shoot portraits or studio shots, you’ll want good, flexible, artificial light. The used and third-party markets are massive for flashes and lighting modifiers, so you don’t necessarily need to buy that $500+ Nikon or Canon-brand flash. You can save much more money if you get an older flash without TTL capabilities (basically, no Auto mode), but I lean toward saying this is a bad area to skimp, especially if you expect to shoot with artificial light a lot.
- Camera Bag: Get something cheap and comfortable. Bags are one of the easiest things to overspend on. If you already have a comfortable backpack or shoulder bag, just use that. Lots of “photography bags” are heavier, bulkier, and less comfortable than a $20 bag you’ll find at Walmart or a garage sale – and, naturally, more expensive.
This scratches the surface of the various photography accessories you may be considering. If you get into niches like astrophotography, macro photography, underwater photography, etc., the number of potential accessories might go way up. A lot of these products will improve your shots by marginal amounts at best, whereas practicing and learning more skills will make your photos better by leaps and bounds.
Next, let me turn my attention to the buying process itself. Not all retailers will sell the same equipment at the same prices, especially if you’re planning to buy used. There are also specific considerations when buying new, refurbished, or used, that may not be obvious at first glance. I’ll go through each of these in more detail and explain how to save money at each step.
Some photographers choose to buy most of their equipment new, whether for reasons of warranty, peace of mind, or availability. Since most retailers sell new gear at identical prices to one another, you may not have as much room to save money here.
That said, I still recommend shopping around. Just because you see a lens at $1000 on one reputable website doesn’t mean you’re doomed to pay that much.
One seemingly obvious hint, but easy to forget, is that sales happen all the time on pretty much all photography equipment. They also happen year-round, with every major holiday sporting plenty of photography deals.
If you’re buying new on a budget, I’d go so far as to not recommend buying any big-ticket photography gear that isn’t on a seasonal sale. And I do mean a seasonal sale – plenty of gear is on a permanent “discount” that isn’t actually something special. If a $3000 camera has been on sale for $2700 for two years straight, it’s a $2700 camera.
The exception to my “only buy on sale” suggestion is for equipment that’s brand new to the market and still in very high demand. I’m not sure that a $5500 camera like the Nikon Z9 fits into this budget article, but nonetheless, I expect it to stay at $5500 for a long time without sales because the demand is so high.
If you’re after new, high-demand equipment like this, you won’t be able to save much money no matter where you buy. That said, you should still compare the options from various big-name retailers like B&H, Adorama, and Amazon. Often, one of them will offer better bundles of free accessories like memory cards and camera bags. It can be enough of a difference to pick one over the other.
There’s also the matter of rewards programs and credit cards from various companies. These are best handled with care, since the companies wouldn’t offer them if they lost money on the average consumer. Buying camera gear on credit is a quick way to spend far more on gear over time.
However, if you have autopay set up to the full balance each month, you can get some minor discounts on new gear this way. I get about 5% off anything I buy on Amazon and 7% off anything I buy at B&H by doing so, but it only works because I’m diligent about not missing each month’s full payment. Also, a few retailers like Adorama have rewards programs that give you a small percentage back per purchase.
On balance, though – even if you chase sales and rewards – you won’t have much flexibility in saving money when you buy new. That’s why, to pay less for camera gear overall, you should consider buying refurbished or used on occasion instead.
The best way to get a “new-like” product for lower than MSRP is to go refurbished. Often, the condition of refurbished products will be indistinguishable from new, and even have a warranty in place (and practically always have a return policy). I’ve bought tons of refurbished gear over the years and never regretted it.
Most of what I said about new gear also applies to refurbished. Some retailers have better deals than others, and sales aren’t uncommon here, either. I won’t repeat what I’ve already said.
The only thing I’ll mention is that, unlike new gear, different retailers tend to sell refurbished equipment at different prices. I encourage you to do a quick Google search before buying any equipment, but especially refurbished gear, to ensure that you’ve found the best price from a reliable store.
It goes without saying that the best prices on camera equipment are almost always going to be found on the used market. I’ll go into detail in this section, because there are a lot of finer points that can save you significant money in the long run.
1. Buying Previous Generations
A not-so-secret secret in the photography world is that a lot of current products are very similar to those of previous generation. Nikon’s D3200, D3300, D3400, and D3500 are almost interchangeable. Canon’s RF 400mm f/2.8 and RF 600mm f/4 are 99% the same as the EF versions of the lenses, just with a built-in EF-to-RF lens adapter. And so on.
Even when companies improve upon the previous generation in meaningful ways, it doesn’t mean the previous generation is bad. For instance, many of the G2 versions of Tamron’s lenses are optically similar to their previous G1 generation, but they have faster autofocus, newer coatings, and better build quality. I’d argue that these are meaningful upgrades – but they’re most likely not necessary for photographers on a tight budget.
That’s why, if you’re trying to pay less for camera gear, I not only suggest buying used, but also jumping back to previous generations. Instead of a used Nikon Z7 II, get a used Z7 – or, better yet, a used Nikon D810 or even D800. All of these are professional-level cameras, and all are capable of great results in the right hands.
2. Condition of the Item
I’ve bought some pretty beat-up used equipment over the years. My general policy is that if the item is in fully functional order, I don’t mind any cosmetic issues. However, if there are meaningful problems with performance – such as a big scratch on a lens, or a camera with 200,000+ shutter actuations – I will nearly always avoid it.
This means that from used gear companies like KEH, I don’t mind the “bargain” or even “ugly” rated camera equipment, depending on what exactly I’m buying. Likewise on eBay if the price is meaningfully lower (which it isn’t always). However, both KEH and eBay have good buyer protections and return policies. I’m always more stringent on condition when buying from an individual, especially if they live overseas where a return would be difficult.
3. Where to Buy Used Gear?
Everyone knows that eBay is home to a lot of used gear at cheap prices (and plenty of gear at unreasonably expensive prices, too).
There are other sites where I’d rather buy used gear, such as FredMiranda, since prices are usually higher on eBay. But some rare or unusual camera equipment is only found on eBay, so it pays to know how to get the lowest possible prices there.
Also, if you play your cards right, you can sometimes buy a product from big-name retailers like Adorama on their own eBay stores for less than the price on their website. I’ll explain how to do that in this section.
1. Buy It Now
The most likely way to overpay for used gear is to purchase it at a seller’s “Buy It Now” price on eBay. Every once in a while, a good Buy It Now price pops up, but usually you’ll find the exact same item for cheaper on a different website or forum.
The exception is if you’re looking for rare equipment that shows up online no more than a few times a year. In that case, you’ll still probably be overpaying on Buy It Now, but it’s justifiable if that’s the only way to get the piece of equipment you need.
If there’s something you want on Buy It Now that you can’t find anywhere else for a lower price, I still don’t recommend clicking that button immediately! Instead, add the product to your eBay account’s Watchlist. In my experience, within a few days, about 30% of sellers will send a lower offer to everyone who has the product in their Watchlist, and not show it publicly. The discount they offer can be substantial.
eBay’s famous auction format is still the best way to get a low price on the platform. If the same product is offered on Buy It Now and Auction, you’ll usually save a good 10-20% by waiting a few days for the auction to conclude.
Auction Fever is a real thing, and eBay exploits it. Each time a bid is placed on an item, all the other bidders get an email from eBay alerting them about it. This drives prices higher and higher.
Because of that, the best way to win an item on an eBay auction is to place your bid in the last 15-30 seconds so that there’s no time to alert the other interested parties and give them Auction Fever. (I’ve found that any later than about 15 seconds and my bid doesn’t always go through, even with a good internet connection.)
I’ve also found, to my dismay on an uncommon item that I missed, that you can’t leave the “place bid” screen open too long before placing your bid. It’s best to refresh the page about a minute before the bidding is done, then type your bid and hit submit in quick succession around the 20 second mark.
Make sure that your bid is the highest price you’d be willing to pay for the item. Not the highest price you’d like to pay – but the price at which, if it sells for even a dollar more, you’d say “that guy must be crazy, and I’m glad I didn’t win.” Thankfully, eBay automatically keeps your bid as low as possible – i.e., just a dollar higher than the highest bid from anyone else. So, 99% of the time, you won’t end up paying anywhere near your maximum. You’ll either pay substantially less, or you’ll be outbid by someone crazy who paid an unreasonable price.
You may laugh at how specific all this sounds, but following this method, I’ve rarely lost an auction, and when I’ve won, I’ve always paid much less than my maximum price.
3. Make Offer
The sneakiest way to save money on eBay is the “Make Offer” button. Not all listings have this button, since it depends upon the seller. Sellers can accept or reject your offer, and they can also make a counteroffer of their own (which they usually will).
Make Offer is exactly what it sounds like. Any time you see this button, do not pay the Buy It Now price. The seller wouldn’t have added the Make Offer button if they weren’t willing to give you some sort of discount.
I can’t say the Make Offer discount is always huge, but any lower price is welcome. I’ve found that most sellers tend to meet me halfway in their counteroffer; they average together my offer and their Buy It Now price. Do with that information what you will. Personally, if I see something for $600 on Buy It Now, I’ll offer $400 with the expectation that the final sale price will be $500.
My favorite part about Make Offer is that some big-name used gear retailers – like Adorama, Robert’s Camera, CatLabs, and more – will include this button on their used equipment on eBay, allowing you to spend less than the price on their official websites.
Case in point, I recently bought a rare filter from Robert’s Camera for $100 on eBay when it was $115 on their website. (It was $115 on their eBay store, too, but it had the Make Offer button.) Likewise for some used gear from Adorama that was $100, which I bought for $90 thanks to Make Offer.
You’re unlikely to get more than a 10-15% discount from these big stores with with Make Offer, but that’s much better than nothing. It also tends to apply only to used gear.
Because eBay takes a fairly large cut of each sale, a lot of photographers choose to list their equipment elsewhere at lower prices. As a rule of thumb, when you’re dealing with individual photographers, you can usually find better prices and have more room to negotiate compared to eBay (especially if you’re buying multiple items from them at a time).
Facebook groups and FredMiranda are the two biggest forums for used photography gear, but depending on your niche, you can probably find even better prices elsewhere. For instance, the Luminous Landscape forum usually has the cheapest prices on medium format equipment, and the Large Format Photography Forum is my favorite place to buy inexpensive gear for my view cameras.
There are also some dedicated photography websites that sell used camera gear, with KEH being the biggest (and one of the better-priced). A quick Google search will usually show the used options from these retailers at a glance. But make sure to do this search each time you buy equipment, since it’s easy to get Buyer’s Fever and purchase something at a higher price without seeing all your options.
Four times out of five, the best price for used camera gear will be somewhere other than eBay. However, the private forums can be hard to find, since their buy/sell posts usually don’t appear on Google. If you don’t take the time to register for these groups in advance, whether on Facebook, FredMiranda, or elsewhere, you might not even know when the piece of equipment you’re after goes up for sale.
As a general rule, the longer you’re willing to wait, the lower price you’ll find. A particular camera may be abundant on eBay’s Buy It Now, uncommon on KEH or eBay’s Auction, and only up for sale once a month on FredMiranda. But each of these options is cheaper than the last. Good things come to those who wait.
That’s the sum total of what I’ve learned about saving money as a photographer. Part of the key is to pick your camera gear intelligently in the first place, and the rest is down to the buying process itself. The used market in particular can be anything from a great tool to a money-burning pit, depending on how you approach it. My hope is that the tips here will be useful next time you need to expand your kit! Let me know below if you have any questions or suggestions to photographers who may be in a similar boat.