How to take stunning photos without expensive equipment

Published January 11, 2017   Posted in Having some fun

Taking stunning photos doesn’t require expensive equipment. On a reader’s request, this article describes my very simple process of making kick-ass photographs without spending stupid money on equipment that won’t do a thing to improve my photography.

Along the coast in Baja California, MX | Photo made July, 2016

Here’s the key: In my view, the best camera system is whatever one that you feel the most comfortable using. After all, virtually every major camera manufacturer produces high-quality equipment capable of recording stunning images on [digital] film. Nikon, Canon, Sony, Panasonic, Fuji, Olympus – for the most part, it just doesn’t matter. They all make wonderful equipment.

But, there is a lot more that goes into photography than the camera. The camera is the tool, but the photographer is the one who presses the shutter button and takes the shot. It’s the photographer who decides when to snap the shutter and expose the [digital] film to the scene.

My photography equipment

Sunrise over Scottsdale, AZ | Photo made December 24th, 2016

I used to use expensive photography equipment. I fell into the trap by believing that a $2,000 camera is what I needed to get good results. Sadly, it wasn’t. It’s not the money that you spend. It’s your eye.

Here’s my complete list of equipment and software I use for photography and videography. Please note that some of these links are affiliate links.

Table 1: My photography equipment

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The camera that I use is less than $400, new, through Amazon. The lens, in fact, is more expensive than the camera. Lenses are more important than cameras.

Tricks of the photo-making trade

A view inside Rocky Mountain National Park | Photo made August, 2016

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of choosing a camera, a few items worth mentioning.

Lenses are almost always more important than the camera. You will get better results with a higher quality lens on a cheaper camera body than a cheaper lens on an expensive camera.

The wider the lens’s aperture (smaller f-stop number), the more flexible the lens will be. For example, an f/2.8 lens will allow in more light than an f/4 lens. More light means the lens can be used in a wider array of photographic situations. These lenses also tend to be more expensive.

Buy used whenever you can. However, I don’t buy off of Craigslist. Instead, I generally use for most of my used photography needs; I have had good luck buying on eBay, too. I’ve saved thousands of dollars over the years buying used instead of new.

Don’t be afraid to snap that shutter! The more photos you take, the greater the potential for capturing that magazine-quality stunner. Especially when using digital equipment, snap that shutter. Keep making pictures.

You don’t “take” pictures; you MAKE pictures. You “make” pictures by using your creative juices to capture those amazing scenes. The lighting. The angles. The post-processing touch-ups. You’re making each photograph.

How to choose a camera system

Desert road through Saguaro National Park | Photo made Summer, 2016

The worst way to choose a camera system is by looking at what everybody else is using. Remember, their needs may not match yours, and a LOT of people aren’t using the capabilities that they paid good money to buy – sometimes because their photo situations don’t call for them, but most of the time, they just don’t know how. Many believe that expensive equipment makes them better photographers.

It doesn’t.

Instead, ask yourself a few questions about the style of photography that you intend to shoot, then make a decision that maximizes your dollar spent. Resist the temptation to over buy.

For example:

  • Are you okay with switching lenses, or would you rather work with a built-in lens?
  • What type of photography do you enjoy the most? For example:
    • Abstract
    • Landscape
    • Macro and nature
    • Your kids / dogs / family
    • Portraits
    • Sports or other fast action
  • How much weight are you okay carrying around with you?
  • How much money are you looking to spend?

All of these questions (and probably a few more) can help you make the best decision possible.

Oh, a quick note about “formats”: Different types of camera “formats” exist. For example, the digital camera is by far the most popular camera format today because digital cameras are generally cheap enough to afford and they eliminate the time and expense of messing with film. However, 35mm and medium format film cameras exist and are still in use today, especially among “old-school” photographers, magazines or other studio services that need maximum quality out of every shot.

For the purposes of this article, we will examine digital cameras because they are the most common camera in use today. Digital cameras come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some digital cameras are SLRs (lenses can be changed but are also bigger in size) while others are point-and-shoot (built-in lenses that are typically zoomable, but much smaller in size). Instead of using film, digital cameras record images on sensors, and these sensors also come in a variety of sizes.

Full frame sensors mimic the traditional 35mm film size. Crop sensors are smaller sensor units than the full frame option but are often cheaper to buy and manufacturer. A detailed look at sensor sizes is well beyond the scope of this post but refer to this well-written GizMag article on sensor sizes for more information.

Photographic situations and scenarios

Sunset over Nuevo Vallarta | Photo made Winter, 2016

Choosing the right camera system for you depends a lot on how you intend to use your equipment. Let’s take a look at several scenarios of photography and discuss some of the options that are available. This should give you a better idea of your options and the direction that you may wish to head.

Scenario #1: You travel and need to bring your equipment everywhere you go

To most travelers, weight is critically important. Consider a mirrorless digital camera to help reduce the weight and overall bulk of your camera system. Most camera manufacturers offer mirrorless options, like the Sony A6000, Canon EOS M3, Nikon 1 and Panasonic Lumix series.

Panasonic Lumix GH4 digital camera

Panasonic Lumix GH4 digital camera

Mirrorless cameras like the Canon EOS M3 are still fully capable DSLRs with the same sensors, but lack a mirror inside the camera and a traditional through-the-lens viewfinder. Instead, these cameras typically use electronic viewfinders and/or an LCD screen on the back of the camera that displays the “live” scene as it would look on a traditional mirrored camera.

The resulting photograph is just as high quality as a mirrored equivalent, but the lack of a mirror inside the camera makes these camera bodies both smaller and lighter, reducing the equipment footprint substantially. I recently switched from Nikon over to Sony’s mirrorless camera lineup to reduce the footprint of my photo equipment and generally love the new setup. The micro 4/3rds camera system is even smaller than mirrorless cameras, but also contain smaller sensors. In general, the larger the sensor, the better the image quality – especially in low light.

Of course, there are mirrored cameras that are small and lightweight, like point-and-shoot cameras with built-in lenses, but they may not offer the flexibility and image quality that you are looking for. Instead, DSLRs like the Nikon D3300 might be a good compromise between features and overall size of the camera, but remember that your lenses will contribute to your photo footprint.

Scenario #2: You shoot professionally at weddings or other important celebrations

Canon 5d Mark III digital camera

Canon 5d Mark III digital camera

Professional photography situations require getting it right the first time, often under adverse conditions (weather, stress, tempo, etc). You need a dependable and durable camera system that will keep up with you at every turn. While most cameras are capable of producing high-quality imagery, some are more durable than others.

A few quick considerations when the pressure is on to get the best photos possible: What if you get caught in rain – is your camera weather-sealed? Can you easily see the camera’s LCD screen in sunlight? Will the camera allow you to zoom into photos straight on the LCD to inspect sharpness and image quality? Does the camera system support external flash units that can fire in unison when the shutter is snapped?

In this scenario, I wouldn’t worry as much about the manufacturer as much as I would the camera’s individual performance characteristics. Mid-range megapixels (between 16 and 24MP) is typical for weddings, but low light performance might be more critical than, say, whether the manufacturer’s wide angle lens option starts at 12mm instead of 10mm. Often, lighting at weddings is dark, requiring cameras with larger sensors (ie: full frame) to capture more light during each exposure.

Tip: When photographing weddings, low light performance is often critical!

All major camera manufacturers offer full frame digital cameras, like the Nikon D810, Canon 5D and Sony A7r. While full frame digital cameras tend to be more expensive than their crop sensor cousins, the larger sensor delivers better low light performance and maximizes image quality.

Remember that as a professional wedding photographer, you aren’t just walking around taking pictures (okay, maybe your assistant photographer is doing that). Rather, you are setting up and staging photographs. At times, natural lighting will be tough. Focal distance might be compact. Shadows may be dark while highlights bright. Executing your vision requires near expert-level knowledge of whatever camera system you’re using and your photographic situation.

Scenario #3: You want a camera to capture those memorable family moments

You want to be your family’s photographer! While a $6,500 Nikon D5 probably isn’t required to be your family’s official photographer, a cheap camera might not be able to keep up with playing kids or running dogs, either.

As far as I’m concerned, family photography is one step away from a full-blown sports photojournalism. In most families, things are happening – especially during those times when photos are being taken. The kids are white water rafting or playing baseball. Your two-year-old is tearing into a birthday gift amid an explosion of wrapping paper. Your dogs are playing in the dog park.

Sony A6000 digital camera

Sony A6000 digital camera

Whatever the case, chances are people will be moving quickly, and your camera will need to keep up with them, not only in its ability to quickly calculate exposure but also in its focus speed. The last thing you want are blurry kids. Slow cameras WILL miss some of these critical shots.

Tip: Family photography requires fast focusing and focus tracking

Look for cameras that focus quickly and, more importantly, track focus. For example, many cameras on the market – like the Sony A6000 – can track moving faces throughout a scene to keep focus where it matters most. Face recognition is becoming common among today’s digital cameras, and we don’t have to spend a lot of money to get it.

Scenario #4: You want to make a professional documentary with video

The inclusion of video adds an additional element to consider in your camera system. While nearly all digital cameras can record video, not all record at the same quality, and some cameras offer better audio capabilities than others. Audio is very, very important when taking professional, high-quality video!

This means cameras like the Sony A6000 may not be the best choice due to its inability to accept an audio input (ie: an external microphone), while other cameras like the Sony A7s or Canon 5D do. Also, battery life could be a concern with shooting longer video segments, so pay attention to how fast the camera burns through batteries. In studio applications, you may find that plugging your camera directly into A/C power is possible – depending on the camera.

Canon XA30 video camera

Canon XA30 video camera

Also, cheaper cameras can overheat when recording continuous video, requiring the camera to be turned off for several minutes to allow it to cool. This can literally destroy your production.

Video quality will be different among digital cameras, so pay attention to the camera’s video recording capabilities, like 1080 vs. 720, or 24fps (frames per second) vs. 60fps vs. something higher. If you want slow motion video, look for cameras capable of capturing video at least at 120fps. In my opinion, the Sony A7S II is one of the best mid-range video cameras on the market, but it also isn’t cheap (around $3k new).

The Nikon D7100 is an impressive low-budget performer in the video category, capable of producing 1080p video at 60p (60 frames per second).

Dedicated video cameras, like the Canon XA-30 pictured above, may be more desirable depending on whether you’d like to reuse the camera for traditional still photography. These cameras are generally more ergonomically designed for video applications rather than both photo and video and are typically equipped with large LCD screens, XLR audio jacks, wide dynamic range, dual memory card slots and other features that videographers need. If video is all you’ll be doing with the camera, consider a dedicated video camera instead of a DSLR with video capabilities.

Fuji X30 Digital Camera

Fuji X30 Digital Camera

Scenario #5: You just want a basic, “bum-around” camera for anything

If all you are looking for is a basic camera to take a variety of pictures with, then your demands on the camera’s features will probably be quite a bit less. Get something like the Sony A6000, Nikon D3300 or Canon Rebel T5, which are all DSLRs in the $500 price range and offer very good image and video quality for the money. Lens kits are generally available, too, for these cameras (remember, DSLRs accept detachable lenses – they aren’t built-in).

If you want a pocket-sized camera, consider the Sony RX100. It is one of the best point-and-shoot cameras on the market – but sits at a higher price point. For cheaper options, consider the Canon PowerShot G7X or Fujifilm X-30 instead.

I sincerely hope that this helps! How many photographers are out there? Any other words of wisdom about making stunning photographs without spending a ton of money?

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49 responses to “How to take stunning photos without expensive equipment”

  1. That was quite an informative post. I used to have a Canon Elf, but these days I just use my iPhone. It does a great job outdoors. I have always loved snapping spur-of-the-moment pics of family and friends and could probably benefit from having an actual camera. You just never know when your kid or cat is going to do something photo-worthy 🙂 I think I’ll delve a little deeper into this article when I have more time today to see your recommendations. Thanks for this!

    Mrs. Mad Money Monster

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for the comment. The iPhone does a pretty darn good job, especially for a camera phone. I have a 5s and generally like the picture quality for quick shots when I don’t have my equipment with me.

  2. Interesting article Steve. I’ll point out again 2 very important thingsyou stated. First the more pictures you take the more likely a good one falls out. Honestly the realm of digital photography makes taking an additional shot free. Use the edit room floor to cut down to a manageable amount. I’m personally not a great photographer, but I’d like to think I have some good looking pictures I took on my site. Those are ones of hundreds.

    The second key one you highlighted was focus. I have 2 friends with photography side hustles with different focuses, one does people and one does cars. For our wedding we brought in both as a cheap photography solution. It had a dual purpose of also funding one of their cross country trips. The results should be obvious. The people focused photographer did light years better pictures for the wedding. And yet the car photographer has pictures published in car and driver while the picture photographer does weddings.

  3. Love this post Steve! Thanks for sharing so much of what you’ve learned over the years. It doesn’t have to be crazy expensive to make great shots! I am terrible at photography and I don’t have any equipment at this point. I am bookmarking this to add to the “post-retirement” reads since we are going to be traveling a lot. We’re a scenario #5 kind of family 🙂

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Vicki, and perfect! Traveling is ripe for some photography. With so many different things to see and places to go, having a camera nearby is always a nice thing. Gives us something to remember those moments by!

  4. Awesome post Steve. I have to admit that we just use our phones to take pictures now. We bought a Nikon J1 for our trip to Europe about 4 years ago and I don’t think we’ve pulled it out since. I honestly don’t know much about photography, but after seeing some of your photos, we may have to reconsider. Those are some awesome shots!

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks so much for your kind words, Go F Yourself. Honestly, phones these days produce perfectly capable shots for MOST of our applications. And, they are always with us, so our ability to shoot quietly and conveniently is definitely aided by our camera phones. 🙂

  5. Awesome photos! My brother-in-law is really good at photography too and I’ve been thinking about getting into it. Some great tips here. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Apathy Ends says:

    Timely post Steve, we have been talking about buying a decent camera (I have a feeling we will be taking a ton of pictures coming up) bookmarking this one for later!

    Appreciate you taking the time to put this together – since I know we can trust ya!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Apathy! This was one of my favorite articles to write, in fact. It’s kinda like a challenge for me to capture the best of what our country has to offer without spending an arm and a leg on the equipment to do it! 🙂

  7. ESI Money says:

    Wow, awesome post!

    My photo skills are almost non-existent, so reading much of this is like reading a foreign language to me.

    How about you just follow me around and I’ll tell you when to take a shot? 🙂 There was a beautiful opportunity this morning in Colorado as the moon was setting over the mountains with a few clouds mixed in.

    • Steve says:

      Ha! Colorado has some amazing scenery, and I can only imagine the sunrises and sunsets that you get to witness. Here in southern Arizona, we’ve been treated to quite a number of them over the past few days because we’ve actually had clouds. Imagine that…clouds!

  8. This is awesome! I’m kicking myself because Mr. Picky Pincher sold his old badass camera on Craigslist last year. And now that I blog, the dang thing would have actually come in handy!

    In the meantime, though, I’m stuck using my cell phone. Do you recommend lenses that can attach to phones for better pictures? I’m trying to focus more on light and angles since I’m working with what I have.

    • Steve says:

      Nothing wrong with using your cell phone for a lot of applications, especially blogging work. There are some interesting camera phone accessories out there, but honestly, I haven’t used very many of them. I’ve heard good things about fish eye and macro lens attachments, though. Cell phones already have pretty decent macro capabilities…

  9. Justin says:

    Gonna share this with Mrs. Root of Good since she’s picked up photography as a post-FIRE hobby. Though it might cost me a thousand bucks if she suddenly develops a “need” for all those lenses you mention 🙂 Pretty pictures make my blog better, right?

  10. Mrs. BITA says:

    Your pictures are stunning Steve.

    I’m an iPhone photographer myself because I believe that the best camera for me is one I will actually have on me and use regularly. Have you seen the results of the IPPAWARDS (iPhone photography awards)? Very impressive, and gives me hope for my own photos.

    There is a fun and very possibly untrue story about Hemingway and Ansel Adams that budding photographers should think about:
    Hemingway is supposed to have praised Adams’ photographs, saying, “You take the most amazing pictures. What kind of camera do you use?”

    Adams frowned and then replied, “You write the most amazing stories. What kind of typewriter do you use?”

    • Steve says:

      Thanks BITA. Yup, those iPhones are pretty amazing devices with very respectable cameras. And funny story – but very, very accurate. Honestly, I hope it’s true. 🙂

  11. We have a Canon T3i with a 50mm f1.8 lens and a kit lens. Not expensive equipment, but more than what we need. This is one of those hobbies where you can really get caught up trying to upgrade your skills with expensive equipment. But if you really want to be good, it’s still more about your skill than it is about the equipment.

    Nice shots, and great rundown 🙂

    • Steve says:

      That sounds like a perfectly fine setup to me. The f/1.8 aperture will give you the ability to shoot in almost any light. The 50 or 35 at f/1.8 or below is always a great option. 🙂

  12. Great article, Steve!

    I recently purchased a Sony a6000 myself to learn more about the ropes after upgrading from my cell phone camera. It might not be the best camera out there, but it was highly rated and relatively cheap.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for your comment! The A6000 is a very nice little camera. Records 1080p video and its 24MPs provides every bit the quality necessary for huge enlargements. I had a 40×60 canvas made of one of my shots with the A6000 and it turned out great.

  13. Wow…. that sunset photo is AMAZING!

  14. My iPhone 5 Plus takes really good pictures. 🙂 And I always have it with me when I want to snap a pic of something (which happens a lot).

  15. Steve, love the shift toward your post-retirement passion! I’ve got a decent, older, Canon Rebel, but it’s just too inconvenient to lug it around. Love your Sony A6000, and will seriously consider it when we hit FIRE in 18 months. Great, and helpful post. Added it to my Evernote, so it must be good!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Fritz – you noticed the shift! I”ll probably get back to talking more about financial stuff, but I’m always looking for an opportunity to write about something else, too. 🙂

      Sony has the A6300 and A6500 out now, so you’ll probably be in the market for the replacement to my A6000. Mirror-less makes them smaller and lighter, which is always a good thing…especially when you travel! 🙂

  16. Joe says:

    I have an older Canon Rebel DSLR. I love it, but I hate lugging it around so it’s mostly at home these days. I use it to take pictures at home and just around the neighborhood. I’ll definitely get a smaller camera next time.
    We got the Sony RX100 for general use, but it is making a lot of motor noise now. I need to figure out how to fix it.
    Your photos are really awesome. I haven’t been able to capture images like this. Probably need to learn more about composition and post processing.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Joe – the RX100 is a great camera – strange that it’s making a motor noise. Definitely shouldn’t be doing that! But yeah, post processing is an important element of photography. Naturally, you want to get the best shot you can *before* post processing, but editing afterwards is definitely an element in this equation of maximizing your results.

  17. Argh, I’m awful at taking pictures. I keep trying to take better pictures for the room we list up on Airbnb, but everytime I take it, it still doesn’t look very good! I gotta remember – you need to make the picture!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for the comment, FP. Lighting is your friend with indoor photography. Make sure every window is open and light is on, and always shoot AWAY from the light, not into it. A post-processing photo application like Photoshop will help shore up your shots, and if your camera supports shooting in “raw”, do that. Compression will limit your post-processing capabilities.

  18. Stockbeard says:

    The sunset picture is simply awesome!

  19. Lots of great tips here Steve, love it! Makes me want to buy a new camera.

    The best photographer doesn’t have to have the best camera of course…that’s what I keep telling myself, but I still lust over those new cameras.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for the comment, Mr. Tako. Honestly, I lust over the nicer cameras too. I know they won’t improve my photography, but yeah, there is some amazing photographic technology out there.

  20. Jef says:

    Great tips here Steve! Can I see a side hustle coming on? 😉 haha
    Awesome pics as well, liking what you’ve got here

  21. This is a really helpful post! I’ve never actually owned a DSLR camera and just rely on my phone. Buying a decent camera is on my list of things I want to buy this year though. My phone is ok bit when it comes to action shots or lowlight it just doesn’t cut it.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for your comment, Sarah – you’re exactly right…the phone is good for most shots, but any kind of specialty photography, you’ll probably want some kind of an SLR with fast focusing. Most DSLRs out there have very respectable focusing systems.

  22. Dude, stoked your part of the Sony Alpha family !
    I have been running the a6000 for over two years. My go to is the 10-18mm f4 and then the 55-210mm f4 telephoto … of course the kit lens is in there too.
    I chose the Sony because of its size and weight. As you know I do extensive hikes and climbs where pack weight is precious but I still want a powerful camera.
    Well put together little article that should help a lot of people.

    • Steve says:

      Great minds think alike! I’ve heard nothing but good things about the 10-18mm, and honestly, I’d have one too if it wasn’t so darn expensive. The 8mm Rokinon does a more than adequate job at providing my wide angle capability, at least for the time being. Manual focus only, though. 🙂

      But I agree, the A6000 is a nice little camera. I don’t like the battery life, and I also don’t like the delay before the camera is ready to shoot a picture after initially turning it on, but all in all, it was a good purchase.

  23. I use Sony as well! I have the Sony a5100. I regret not getting the a6000. I literally just want it for the sole reason that it has a viewfinder and the a5100 does not, haha. But at the time of buying my camera, I didn’t have a lot of money and the the 5100 was $150 cheaper, so…

    A few months back I finally upgraded from the kit lense and have been using a f/1.8 50mm and it’s been rocking my world! I love it so much. I love having a mirrorless since it weighs a lot less. Now if only the lenses would be smaller!

    • Steve says:

      Yeah, the viewfinder was one of the reasons why I opted for the A6000. The 50 f/1.8 is a nice lens from pretty much every manufacturer. The lens that you can’t really go wrong with – on a crop sensor camera like ours, it’s more like a 75mm f/1.8, though! 🙂

  24. The sunset picture is simply amazing. lovely photography.

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