Quality Gear That Won’t Break The Bank

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I often get requests from folks to recommend photography gear – cameras, lenses, accessories – that won’t “break the bank”. You don’t need the most expensive, latest and greatest wizzy-bang gadget for GREAT photography! You just need great working knowledge of photographic principles, and practice practice practice. There is no such thing as “making due” with what you have, you only have to find new, better and more creative ways to use your equipment! That process will continue throughout your life, no matter how expensive your gear gets. So if you’re just starting out and you think you have to spend thousands of dollars to take great pictures, put that worry out of your mind!

Best DSLR cameras for under $600

The Nikon D5100 hits the top of the list with great low light performance, high color depth and dynamic range resulting in better image quality, and HD video capabilities. Also included in this price range are the Sony Alpha SLT-a35, the Pentax K-r, and the Canon EOS Rebel T3i. They’re all excellent beginner-level DSLR’s with fully automatic as well as full manual capabilities. Keep your eye out for deals on these cameras, because often times you can find a body-and-lens kit for around $600.

Best inexpensive all-around lens

Canon – The Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS can be found for under $500, and I know a TON of photographers that swear by it. The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II is around $200 and takes FANTASTIC photos – the image quality between it and the f/1.4 is not worth the extra $250 you’d spend for the f/1.4, in my opinion.

Nikon – The Nikon 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6G ED-IF AF-S DX can be tracked down for under $600 and is a great walking-around lens.

Sigma – The 18-200 f/3.5-6.3 DC AF OS (for Canon / for Nikon / for Minolta and Sony / for Pentax and Samsung) is wildly popular and fantastically inexpensive at around $250.

Tamron – The AF 28-75mm f/2.8 SP XR DI LD (for Canon / for Nikon / for Konica Minolta and Sony has received many excellent reviews and at under $500 is a great high-speed lens that works well in low light.

Go with a teleconverter

A 1.4x, 1.7x or 2x teleconverter is a great option for expanding the reach of your lens without depleting the balance of your checking account. Teleconverters work best with fast lenses (anything f/2.8 and under) since they slow the lens down exponentially. With a 2x teleconverter your 50mm f/1.4 becomes a 100mm f/2.8. Your 100mm f/2.8 becomes a 200mm f/5.6. If you have several teleconverters and several lenses you can really open up the focal range of your lens collection.

Canon – 1.4X III, 2.0X III

Nikon – 1.4x, 1.7x, 2x

Olympus – 1.4x, 2x

Go with an older model flash

A bunch of companies are announcing new “flagship” speedlights or off-camera flash, which means the older models will be reducing in price. If you just need a simple, quality, reliable flash that you can use on-camera or take off-camera, the following are highly recommended:

- The Canon Speedlite 430EX II is now down to under $300!

- The Nikon SB-700 is also now around $300!

- The Sony HVL-F43AM is now around $350.

- The Pentax AF 360 FGZ has dropped to under $300.

- The Olympus FL-50R is about $400.

Guess what? You don’t HAVE TO have Photoshop.

Don’t get me wrong, Photoshop is pretty darned awesome. But most photographers don’t actually NEED all of the post-processing power that Photoshop provides. Try one of these options instead:

- Adobe made a very interesting move by offering Lightroom 4 at half the cost of its predecessor. Sharpen, crop, adjust exposure, make changes to hue and saturation, apply filters, and a whole bunch more for just $149.

- Corel PaintShop Pro X4 is just $50. I reviewed version X3 a while back, and they’ve only improved upon the functonality.

- Adobe Photoshop Elements 10 is a scaled back version of Photoshop, and is under $100.

- The highly popular Aperture 3 for Mac computers is selling for $150, and offers photo organization and photo editing features.

Best low cost, high quality tripod

Manfrotto and Really Right Stuff aren’t the end all, be all of existence. Sure, they’re awesome and are widely used by professional photographers. But there are PLENTY of other options out there that cost under $100. AND you don’t have to buy the tripod and the head separately. Here are a couple of examples:

- The Ravelli Professional 65″ Ball Head Tripod comes with a quick release plate and a carrying bag. It’s light, adaptable, and simple to use. AND it’s under $50.

- The Dolica AX620B100 62-Inch Proline Tripod and Ball Head is also around $50, can support over 13 pounds, and is hugely popular.

Best inexpensive light modifiers

Do you know how much you can do with just a simple reflector? Hmm… just gave myself a good idea for an article. I have a Flashpoint 22″ 5-in-1 which I bought for $15, and a Flashpoint 32″ 5-in-1 which I bought for $25. They both have panels in white, black, silver and gold, plus a translucent panel for diffusing light. Use one of these babies to change the quality of light whether you’re shooting outdoors or inside.

If you have a speedlight, get a shoot through umbrella, umbrella adapter, and light stand. I talked about setting up an inexpensive speedlight studio back in November. The Impact Air-Cushioned 9.5′ Heavy Duty Light Stand is $46, the Manfrotto 026 Swivel Lite-Tite Umbrella Adapter is $28, and the CowboyStudio 40in White Satin Umbrella with Reflective Silver Backing and Removable Black Cover is now just $20. So for under a hundred bucks you can hugely expand upon your lighting capabilities.

Then there’s the Gary Fong GFLSC01 LightSphere Collapsible Flash Diffuser for $60, which fits directly onto your speedlight, as does the Gary Fong LSU-PS PowerSnoot High Power Focused Beam for $48. They’re tiny, portable, easy to use, and can make a huge difference in light quality. Opteka also makes the SB-1 Mini Universal Studio Soft Box Flash Diffuser for pretty much every brand of external flash, and it’s on sale for $10 right now (usually around $50).

So there you have it! A bunch of quality, easy to use lighting gear that won’t make you poor. Do you have any other inexpensive photography gear to recommend? Tell us in the comments or leave us a note on our Facebook Page.

Photo credits (in order of appearance):
- “Lenses for sale” by Daniel Domolky on Flickr Creative Commons.
- “x1.4″ by Andreas Levers on Flickr Creative Commons.
- “Vintage Quick-Set Tripod” by KDavid Clark on Flickr Creative Commons.

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  • Anonymous

    There’s no reason to pay that much for aperture when it’s available on the Mac app store for 79.99. Way better deal than buying it from amazon.com.

  • Mully410

    Be careful with teleconverters.  Be sure to check the lens compatibility charts on the manufacturer’s website.  Many shorter focal length lenses have elements that will touch and scratch the element on the TC and many combos won’t meter or auto-focus. 

  • http://www.specialimages.co.uk/blog/ Corporate photographer

    I can recommend the Ravelli tripod, pretty good bit of kit.

  • Gustavo

    I recommend the Hähnel tripods if you’re in europe. The best tripod i’ve ever seen for less than 60 euros.



  • guest1

    please do not ever spend close to $200 for the canon 1.8 mk ii. I see them for sale all the time for just over $100 new, and between $80-90 used.

  • no name

    I think it’s ironic that the top image above the article displays Canon’s professional grade L lenses. Also considering the most optimistic approach you will still spend over 1K – with a 600 dollar camera, portrait lens, external flash (you could have also mentioned manual flashes), and may be a tripod.