Wednesday, February 10, 2010

DSLR Photography on a Budget (a.k.a., Lessons Learned) – Updated February 10, 2009

One of the biggest complaints I get about my most popular article entitled Which DSLR should I buy? is that many people can't afford my recommendations. (NOTE: This is the "Volume II" of the Which DSLR should I buy? article, so read both if you have time or only this one if you don't.)

Believe it or not, I can understand your plight because when I finally bought my first DSLR camera on February 27, 2007 I had given myself what I thought was a huge budget of $2000. However, when the final total in my cart at B&H showed up, I was horrified to realize I had actually spent $4000.05, and that was just the beginning!!!! Continue reading to understand that when you enter the world of DSLR photography, there is much more than meets the eye when it comes to actual expenses you’ll face in this exciting activity.

NOTE: If you are short on time, jump here to get to the recommendations and they are a fraction of what I spent!

Beware the lure of the $675 camera

Little did I know when I started in this expensive endeavor that it is much like buying an ink jet printer - only exponentially worse. You know, you get a printer for $79 and then you buy the paper and replacement ink a few weeks later and before you know it you've spent $300!

Well, in digital photography this business model has been taken to new levels, so when I set out to buy my first DSLR - a Canon Rebel XTi - its $672.95 price tag (at the time) was just the beginning. I was new, so I bought the "starter" camera but before I knew it my cart was filled with $3327.10 of other items besides my camera and this "starter camera" would continue to drain my wallet like a Vegas casino for the next 22 months.

How could this happen? I'm not going to do that!!! (a.k.a, see how a $489 camera equals $2000)

Ah, yes, this is what we all say before we get the photography bug but without awareness and incredible self control, you too can fall victim of its tempting allure. To explain, I'll start by demonstrating how I got from $672 to $4000 in a pattern that is all too common.

When I set out to buy my camera and first lens I asked my good friend Leszek (my trusted Photography expert at the time) about which camera I should get. He quickly (and accurately) suggested that I invest my money in good lenses and spend the remainder on a less expensive body. He recommended this because bodies change frequently, but lenses last for decades.

This made good sense to me, so he suggested that I buy a Canon Rebel XT as it had been replaced by the XTi, and could be purchased for roughly $400 at the time. He also suggested I get the body only and use the remainder of my $2000 budget on getting a good general purpose lens and a good telephoto lens, so he suggested the following as a way to spend my first $2000 in Photography (shown with 2/07 prices - NOT RECOMMENDED for 2010):

This nicely designed package was fairly modest and came in at $2046.10 before shipping, so it fell pretty close to my budget. Take note that the camera itself was only $489.95, but with some basic accessories and two modest lenses that my whole $2000 budget was spent!

The Devil is in the Details

Leszek is a smart guy who knows his camera and electronic gear very well, so I asked him tons of questions and did more and more research. The more I researched, the more questions I had. I quickly discovered that everyone who owns a DSLR (like those who own computers) believes they are an expert and are happy to share their strong opinions with you based on they have learned. As a result, I started forming some opinions based on a combination of others opinions as well as my own research on the web. My questions were typical of what you've probably asked yourself:

  • Nikon or Canon?
  • Canon EF-S/ Nikon DX lenses versus Canon EF lenses / Nikon FX lenses?
  • Is Canon IS / Nikon VR worth an extra $500 on a lens?
  • Pro versus Consumer level lenses?
  • Do I need a hood?
  • Why isn't the built-in flash good enough?
  • What about lens filters?
  • How do I learn more about all of the lenses Canon offers?
  • Why is this stuff so expensive?
  • What do I keep all of this stuff in? (i.e., case –vs- backpack)
  • What about a tripod?
“I just want a starter kit, but I don't want to waste money on something I'll want to upgrade 3 months later”

I subscribe to the philosophy that you get what you pay for, so don't buy something that is crap to save money because you'll end up spending more money in the long run. I also have a critical eye, so I struggle to settle for mediocrity, so after reading reviews I came to the following conclusions to my questions listed above (which were my opinion at THAT POINT IN TIME):

  • Canon was the technology leader of the time and most pros used Canon, so my desire to only buy the best meant Canon was my only choice (this was before the release of the Nikon D300/D3)
  • The XT was a bad choice because the new enhancements in the XTi were worth a couple extra hundred dollars (it's just a couple hundred so why not? :-))
  • EF-S lenses wouldn't work with a higher end body like a 5D (which my friend Leszek owned and I lusted after) so why invest in something I will have to replace when I upgrade my camera?
  • Image Stabilization (IS/VR) means fewer blurry pictures (something I hated about my Sony DSC-H1) so I've gotta have IS
  • Buy a pro lens now and I'll never have to replace it, so it is a safe long-term investment
  • Hood's prevent flare and protect the lens, so why not get it - and pro lenses come with hood's so that's proof positive a hood is a must
  • Unanimous research suggested that the built-in flash was garbage, and high end bodies didn't even have a built-in flash so an external flash was a must
  • It was clear that you can't live without a circular polarizer filter and UV filters offered lens protection, so I needed them. I also realized that you don't put cheap filters on expensive lenses, so if you get good lenses then you need top quality filters.
  • Canon "EF LENS WORK" III guide book was the definitive resource on all of Canon's lens offerings so I could learn more and plan my strategy for lenses in the future ($$$ - proof positive the bug had bitten)
  • Quality costs, so you get what you pay for - spend more now so you don't have to rebuy in the future
  • Gosh, this is getting too expensive so let's just get an inexpensive backpack from a name I trust - Canon
  • Man, the expenses are killing me and tripods are expensive and bulky - let's just get a monopod which is great for sports too!

With all these things in mind, my new "starter kit" ended up looking like this (February 2007 prices) along with some thoughts:

There ya have it, $4000.05 after the $77.05 in shipping from B&H Photo - unanimously listed as the most trusted place to buy your photography gear. A entry level camera, a couple good lenses that I'll never need to replace, some filters to match the quality of the lenses (which fortunately fit on both lenses), and some bargain accessories from Canon that were MUCH cheaper than what everyone else was telling me I should get for hundreds more.

Ugh, I've spent twice my budget - and that was just the beginning

While I've been very fortunate financially speaking for about 10 years of my life (1997 – 2007), I grew up poor and I've worked since I was 10 years old (making $2.50/hr then). In fact, I have records that prove I was fully vested in Social Security at age 22, so growing up poor made me very frugal when it comes to spending. Despite that I was disgusted with myself for spending twice my budget, but when I looked at all of the cool gear that was on the way I felt confident that it was an investment that would pay off in the long run. I'm pleased to say that is true, but I'm sad to say that my first $4000 was only the beginning. I was a long way from recovering the cost of my gear in my semi-professional endeavors, so don't go into this field expecting to make a profit. A vast majority of DSLR owners will never recover the cost of their gear from photography related activities, no matter how talented they are.

As I got my gear and learned how to use it, I quickly discovered that there were many things that I didn't have that I "needed". There were things I bought that saved me money in the short run (i.e., backpack, monopod, flash, and cleaning kit) that ended up costing me much more in the long run. In fact, that damn backpack nearly ended up costing me thousands of dollars!

Over the month of March of 2007 I'd end up with 5 more orders from B&H for over $2300 and I'd returned my 100-400 lens for a EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM that everyone said was better. Of course, I ended up buying that 100-400 again down the road and still own it to this day!

Without knowledge comes indecision and buyers remorse, and that always spells more $$$!!!!! Read-on to minimize your losses!

Okay Ron, so you're a dip shit - so how are you going to help me from making the same mistakes?

So three years, and well over $20,000 later I've had my share of lessons learned. There are definitely places where you can try to save money, but  you'll cost yourself a fortunate in the long run (i.e., backpacks and tripods). There's also other places where you can accept the reality that you can't buy top of the line now and make some cost savings.

With all of this information in mind, I'll make some recommendations for both the Canon and Nikon buyer as to what I think a starter kit should look like. I'll start with how to spend the first $1500 (roughly) on gear and the accessories section will guide you as to where to spend your next $500 and up. Other articles like Which lens should I buy? will help you with where to put the rest of your money.

As I explained earlier, everyone in Photography claims to be an expert, myself included, so the ultimate decision is yours based on your own research. However, this is what I would do if I was starting over today.


I'll present several options including going with older camera bodies as well as the latest camera bodies. Of course, there's also the option of buying used gear, but that is hard to quantify in a blog so I'll leave that as an exercise for you. I'm wary of buying used gear myself, so if you go that route then be sure to buy from a trusted source (like Adorama’s used department) and ideally get gear that is still under warranty. Remember, buyer beware.

You'll also notice that I'm going to recommend some kits, even though I don't have those lenses listed in my Which lens should I buy? article. This is because the Which lens should I buy? article is targeted at providing advice on what I believe to be are excellent lenses for the long term, so price isn't a consideration. With only one exception that I know of (the 5Ds' 24-105mm lens), most kit lenses are going to be easy to grow out of, and their quality will be mediocre. Accept this reality now and you can stay within budget and buy more when you are in a better place financially later. This will give you time to learn if DSLR photography is right for you before making a huge commitment.

A word about pricing and exchange rates

The strength of the US Dollar against the Japanese Yen has not been good over the past couple of years, so it has caused Canon to raise its prices once (just recently) and Nikon multiple times. Generally when prices go up, they don’t come back down (although favorable exchange rates might result in a rebate program). This means that digtal SLR’s are getting more and more expensive as time goes on (by about 20% since my first version of this article a year ago). This means the prices here may vary wildly from the underlying links at some point, so use the configurations as the guide and the price figures as estimates.

For my large following in Europe, your in even worse shape. Generally speaking, it sure seems like Canon and Nikon simply take the digits used for the US price (i.e,. 1999.95) and put a Euro or British Pound symbol in front of it which results in an astronomical price difference from the US prices. My best advice for you is to buy from the US used market. This will mean you won’t have a warranty, but for roughly 50% off, who cares!

Canon Recommendations

I'm a Canon shooter so I consider this to be good advice based on everything I've learned up until today (and I'll update this article as things change). The prices are subject to change (including seasonal rebates that come and go) and are provided ONLY as a guide. For exact prices, you must click the links.

Option 1 - Latest Entry Level Gear (About $1700)

Canon EOS Rebel T1i (500D) Digital SLR Kit w/EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens ($749.95) - Here you get a nice state of the art camera and a 29 - 88mm (effective mm is * 1.6 crop factor) with image stabilization that has done well with reviewers. (NOTE: When the T2i is available for sale, it will replace this recommendation)

Canon EW-60C Lens Hood for 18-55mm ($23.95) - Unless you run into a problem when using your built-in flash, you should ALWAYS have a hood on your lens whenever you take a shot.

Canon Zoom Telephoto EF 70-200mm f/4.0L USM Lens ($639.00) - The EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM is the #1 choice of the pros and the 70-200 f/4 IS USM is the sharpest of the 70-200's (until the new EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM II is released in March 2010), but those lenses will blow your budget so this is a good lens to start off with for that all important telephoto. You'll have a lot of fun with this lens, just realize that you'll need a fast shutter speed (1/200 sec or greater) and/or support (i.e., tripod/monopod) for the best results with this lens.

Canon 430EX II Speedlite E-TTL II Shoe-Mount Flash ($280.00), but if you can possibly afford to get the Canon 580EX II Speedlite TTL ($445) then I'd HIGHLY recommend it instead. Now conventional wisdom would argue that the 430EX II is the better choice because it is cheaper and it provides sufficient light for the average indoor use. However, the 430 is so easy to outgrow once you start doing off-camera flash work (which you will likely do if you get a passion for photography) that it is better to pay the extra money now for the long term savings.

Option 2 - The Rebel Body with Better Flash but no big telephoto (About $1200)

Canon EOS Rebel T1i (500D) Digital SLR Kit w/EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens ($749.95) – See above. When the T2i is available for sale, the T1i will still be recommended here but its price should be lower by then making this a more affordable option.

Canon EW-60C Lens Hood for 18-55mm ($23.95) – See above.

Canon 580EX II Speedlite TTL ($445) - Flash photography is hard enough, but this flash evens the playing field just a little bit more by making the damn thing a little bit easier to use. When paired with a newer body you can control it via the camera which makes operation a snap. This is a flash you won't need to replace and it will serve you well.

Option 3 – Rock Bottom ($760)

This option is only for those who can’t possibly afford anything more and are willing to make a major sacrifice in performance (highly ISO noise primarily).

Canon EOS Rebel XS with 18-55mm Lens ($499.95) - Based on the outdated XTi, but with some minor improvements, this is a fun starter camera. Upgrading to the XSi would cost a bit more, but its a nice upgrade from this camera. If you can swing it, do the T1i as its high ISO noise performance is exceptionally better and you’ll understand how important that is within the first month or two of camera ownership.

Canon EW-60C Lens Hood for 18-55mm ($23.95) - See above.

Canon 430EX II Speedlite E-TTL II Shoe-Mount Flash ($280.00) - See above.

Don't forget about the accessories

Before you decide which option is for you, think about what accessories you are going to want to invest in to complete your kit. Little things like extra batteries, memory cards, etc... add up (usually AT LEAST $500) and are required so plan accordingly.

Nikon Recommendations

Nikon gear is more expensive than Canon, especially when it comes to lenses. The budget conscious types might find Canon a better value in the long run as Nikon has also had more price increases over the last 18 months than Canon (as of the time of this writing).

DISCLAIMER: I'm not a Nikon shooter, so my opinions are only based on research I've done when I've considered switching to the Nikon camp. It is also based on observations of other Nikon users I known and their personal opinions. I consider it to be less accurate than the Canon advice, but better than you'll get from most people who have been shooting with Nikon for less than a year. I'll probably outrage plenty of Nikon bargain hunters with my suggestions, so I'll update this list as I find compelling arguments to do so.

Option 1 - Latest Gear ($1749.90)

D90 25446

Nikon D90 SLR Digital Camera Kit with 18-200mm VR II Lens ($1749.90) - This is a tough because with just a body and lens you blow most of your pre-accessory budget, but in this case you are investing in a great state of the art camera which is arguably as good as (and some say better than) its D300 sibling. The 18-200mm kit lens has great range (27-300mm effective range when considering the 1.5x crop factor) and it includes 4-stop Vibration Reduction. It is well reviewed as an excellent starter lens. Sure, you'll eventually ditch this lens for better lenses, but it is a great place to start and the zoom range is hard to pass up.

Option 2 - Latest Body but less lens range for a great flash ($1660.90)

Nikon D90 SLR Digital Camera Kit with Nikon 18-105mm VR Lens ($1199.95) - Same great body as above, but with a little less range on the lens. You still have  great range for typical photography, so this is still an excellent starter lens. You'll eventually lust after better lenses and I think this lens will probably hold its value when purchased with the kit (since you get $100 off the MSRP of the lens) so you may be able to sell it or trade up from here.

Nikon SB-900 AF Speedlight i-TTL Shoe Mount Flash ($464.95) - Some will scoff at this recommendation and say save the money to get the cheaper SB-600. Photography is all about light and a state of the art flash like this will give you better results. Let's face it, flashes are already hard enough to use so take advantage of all of the technology you can get to make the process as easy as possible. Scott Kelby and Joe McNally (of National Geographic fame) swear by the SB-900 as being a great advance over the legendary SB-800. If you want to save even more, try to get your hands on a used SB-800 as it has a solid reputation.

Option 3 – Rock Bottom ($736.85)

Nikon D60 SLR Digital Camera Kit with 18-55mm VR Lens ($499.95) - This is comparable to option 3 from Canon with the biggest deficiency being the fact that the D60 only has Auto Focus when paired with AF-S or AF-I lenses due to its lack of a built-in focus drive motor. It is also inferior to the Nikon D90 and Canon T1i on several fronts, but it offers a good value for a starter camera.

Nikon HB-45 Bayonet Lens Hood for 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 (All Versions) ($16.95) - Got a lens? - Get and always use a hood - period. The other suggestions above don’t list hoods simply because Nikon gear is so darn expensive.

Nikon SB-600 Speedlight i-TTL Shoe Mount Flash ($219.95) - While it is hard not to recommend the SB-900, this option is about spending the least amount of money so go with this flash now knowing that you'll outgrow it and either turn it into a slave flash or likely replace it all together - IF you really get into photography. If you are just a casual shooter that never upgrades then this will serve you well.

Again, don't forget about the accessories

If you skipped the Canon section above, then I'll be sure to say this again because it's very important.

Before you decide which option is for you, think about what accessories you are going to want to invest in to complete your kit. Little things like extra batteries, memory cards, etc... add up ($500 isn't unusual or extraordinary) so plan accordingly.

Accessories You Should Own

Whether you shoot with Canon or Nikon, there's some gear that you'll need that is common for both platforms. It's expensive, and its a lot, but its is also the place where you can waste the most money by purchasing stuff you don't need or buying the same thing over and over again (i.e., ESPECIALLY backpacks and Tripods).

Compact Flash or SD Card ($60)

That new camera of yours is useless without storage for the photos. With megapixel counts being what they are these days, you are going to want at least a 4GB but realistically an 8GB Compact Flash (most cameras) or SD card (some Canon's). I've not found any real world difference between the two formats other than physical size to suggest that one is better than the other, but it seems that CF cards popularity results in a better price when shopping online.

Rob Galbraith has a good database of CF/SD card performance, but I've found that more times than not the camera itself is the bottleneck - not the card's read/write speed - at least until the latest generation of cameras with UDMA support came out. Even still, I have a hard time spending or budgeting more than $100 for a memory card, so I say get the best you can afford for the $75 - $100 range.

Currently, my personal favorites are:

UDMA enabled cards offer greater performance and you’ll want them in speeds of 30mb/sec or faster. Check your camera though, because if it doesn’t support UDMA then don't waste your money as you’ll see zero benefit.

Most of my cards are Transcend cards which have worked without failure, and I've got a Kingston that has been reliable too, but many people swear by SanDisk. My latest SanDisk 30mb/sec UDMA card is fantastic so I make my recommendations for that brand without hesitation. Personally, I’ve also never had a card fail on me (knocking on wood), and products like PhotoRescue can be used to test the cards as well as recover your images should you accidentally format (not low-level format) the card before removing your pictures (and video). 

Camera Bags(~$150)

When all is said and done, you'll likely $2000 or more on your new DSLR kit. Don't store your gear in a crappy bag only to have it damaged. Furthermore, don't trust that just because Canon makes bags that they are good for your camera - they aren't. Don't believe me, then read my story and learn why camera bags are so important.

When I first got into DSLR photography I read a statistic that the average photographer has at least 4 bags, 3 of which are rarely (if ever) used. I can't remember the source anymore, but I scoffed at it when I first read it. Years later I find myself with 6 bags and I know countless others who have at least 3 or 4 bags. Of course, there's a simple reason for this though - finding a great bag is difficult and no one bag will likely meet all of your needs as your collection of gear grows.

With that said, I think I've found the closest thing to perfection in bags you can get with Think Tank Photo bags because they are designed by pro photographers and built for all photographers. They are slightly more expensive than other popular brands that allege quality such as LowePro and Taramac, but personally I don't believe those brands are even close to being in the same league as Think Tank Photo. What's more, these bags don't look like camera bags so you aren't walking around with a steal-me sign on your backpack. However, I recognize this paragraph will start holy wars amongst people loyal to other backpack brands, so be sure to do your own research and decide what is best for you.

My recommendation is to start with the Urban Disguise Series or Streetwalker Series as your all-in-one day bag. You may grow into something larger for your travel or big shoot bag, but these are nice bags to start with and for some they will be all you ever need. They are also great for hiking. I DO NOT recommend you just get “a case”. That works for your point and shoot, but the reality is you’ll be carrying a lot more than your camera with you so a simple case just doesn’t cut it.

Books ($50)

To get the most of your camera, you should invest a little money in some good books (or at least borrow them from the library). My minimal recommendations can be found in my article entitled Which Books Should I Read?, which links to my Photoshop book recommendations in the What Photoshop Books Should I Read? article. I also do private training and classes (rarely) for a fee.


Books could be written about this subject, but the best article I've seen thus far is here (READ THIS). For starters, I recommend that you DO NOT attempt to buy a tripod until you've been shooting with digital photography for at least 3 - 6 months. Why? Because you are 99.9% guaranteed to make a poor decision on what can be one of the most important pieces of equipment you use to make a great picture. In addition, the reality is that quality costs so you can easily spend another $1000 on a quality setup (INSANE! – I know), and cheapo setups are more likely to either not perform very well (generally people buy heads that aren't strong enough to support the weight of their body and heaviest lens) or they will be top-heavy and present a hazard when used in the wind or on uneven terrain. Once you understand how you shoot and what you are shooting you'll be better prepared to make a more intelligent decision (i.e., you'll probably get the head or the legs right - but still not both :-).

Don't get me wrong, tripods and heads are super important but you're better off saving your money for now. If you must do it though, then start here for your best value / performance combination and recognize that video heads aren't the best choice for photography and don't forget that you need something that can support your camera (with batteries - x2 if using a grip) and your biggest lens - with a little fudge factor (i.e., if your total is 6 pounds, get a setup that can support 8 pounds - both the legs AND the head!).

Software & Services ($300 - $340/450)

So you've taken your pictures - now what? You will want to download them onto your camera, make quick edits to make them look much nicer, and then upload them to the Internet for either printing and/or sharing with friends. This process is called a Digital Workflow, and the best solution for this is to use Adobe Lightroom. I also prefer to use Smugmug as my online photo storage solution and it also serves as an outstanding place to get high quality prints at a reasonable price. With the pro account, you can even sell your prints online!


Like a tripod, this is something you should hold off on buying until you've had time to digest all of your initial purchases because a polarizer is a very important purchase. In addition, most people think a polarizer is a polarizer, and when you've faced initial purchase fatigue your tendency will be to cut corners and bypass the $150 polarizer for a $50 version. However, doing so would be foolish because your lens is only as good as the last piece of glass on it. 90% of what you pay for in a lens are the glass elements in it, so it makes no sense to put a piece of garbage on the end of expensive glass.

I've read that when budgeting for a polarizer, you should consider a budget of rough 10% of the cost of your lens for a quality polarizer. My polarizer cost $172 ($187.35 today) and I was screwing it on to a $1799 lens, so that was pretty close to that 10% rule of thumb. In fact, if I had to do it over again, I'd probably get a B+W Kaeseman Circular Polarizer Multi-Resistant Coating (MRC) Slim Glass Filter (be sure to get the right size) which until recently cost $245!!!! At this point, you've probably got no clue why you'd buy a $245 filter when Tiffen makes one for only $68.95, so until you TRULY understand the difference you are better off saving your money. That Tiffen might be fine for a $500 lens, but if you are using quality glass then you should understand what those more expensive filters give you for the extra cost and make an informed decision.

Other Useful Accessories

Lens Cleaning Cloth ($10) - For the love of God, please don't clean your lens with your shirt or kitchen towel! Paper towels and napkins suck too because they can can be abrasive enough to leave micro scratches. Pony up the $10 and get yourself a proper lens cleaning cloth and ONLY use it for cleaning glass surfaces (i.e., your lens, LCD, viewfinder, etc...).

Lens Cleaner ($13) - If a quick wipe won't do the job, then you need some lens cleaner. I love the way this unit will make a tiny directed mist so you avoid getting too much fluid on your lens and risk having it leak into your body.

Giottos ROCKET AIR BLOWER 6.6" ($14) - When changing your lens (especially outdoors), it isn't uncommon to get some dust on your sensor. If you have a self-cleaning camera then that will help, but not 100% so this is a good solution. If this doesn't work, then you'll need to clean your sensor, which a task better left to the pros if you don't follow directions very well.

Flash Diffusers/Bouncers ($17) - Never point a flash directly at your subject without some sort of diffuser or bounce. The Sto-Fen Omnibounce is a good place to start for the flash that you've purchased. A simple white one is a good place to start, but you can get away without it by building your own or using the ceiling (or other object) to bounce indirect light onto your subject.

Delta GRAY CARD 4x5" ($2) - If you shoot JPEG, instead of RAW (CR2/NEF), then it is important to get a proper white balance, so a Gray Card is a good investment. A better choice is a Photovision 6" Mini One Shot Digital Target, which are great for Photoshop curves adjustments, but the delta gray card is a good minimum starting point. Like many things in photography though, you can spend $100 on an ExpoDisc, but now isn’t the time for that.

Pantone HUEY ($65) - If your monitor isn't calibrated regularly, then what you see on your computer screen isn't likely to look like what your printed image will look like (or what your camera really captured). This will frustrate you to no end if your monitor is oversaturated and set too bright (which most monitors are from the factory because that sells monitors). While there are better solutions, and more expensive versions for dual monitor support, this one will suite most people's needs and is WAY better than nothing at all.

Pearstone LP-1 Lens Pen ($9.95) - Some people like to have these in their pocket for doing a quick cleaning of their lens (NOT SENSOR) without having to get the cleaning cloth and/or cleaner out. I love mine, but it doesn't mean you don't need a cleaning cloth and cleaner, so get those before you get this!

Extended Warranty or Insurance?

A common question I get from people is "should I buy an extended warranty on my camera"? In general, I say no because rarely are they worth the paper they are printed on, but I DO recommend getting your camera insured with State Farm. My policy cost me very little (about 1% of the cost of my gear – per year), but saved me hundreds when my Canon backpack failed and damaged my gear. Few extended warranties would have covered that - especially since it happened in China on what could be argued was a business related assignment.

How to Avoid Spending Thousands More

The sad truth is that if you want to avoid spending thousands more then you need to stay away from others who have already done so. This means avoid discussion groups or forums where people will continuously make you feel that you were an idiot for what you have purchased and how you'll get 10x better results if you just spend another $2000 on X, Y, and Z. There's ALWAYS a way to spend another $2000 in photography even if you are like me and you've already spent $20,000. I know that even if I spent $100,000 that there's still be tons of cool stuff that I'd want and it would make my pictures look so much better. It's much like playing golf where there's always a better driver and putter that is going to change your game and turn you into the next Tiger Woods - for just another $1000.

So, with this in mind after you buy your gear then get some good books to read so that you actually know how to use your gear, READ YOUR MANUAL, and go have fun using your gear. If you need more information, then choose a blog or two like this one to learn about some new things as you are ready to digest the new information.

Man I don't want to live in a bubble - Forums are great!

Okay, then just don't say I didn't warn you. The more you know the more disappointed you will become with your choices and the more you will lust after gear you don't have. No matter how hard it is to spend money without your significant other knowing and beating you to a pulp, you'll find a way. It's an addiction like gambling so when you find yourself ordering without telling your spouse or lying about how much you paid for something then recognize that you've gone overboard and get away from it. Enjoy what you have and move on, and recognize it takes lots of money and education to get those killer pictures you'll see others post online.

This is expensive, how can I pay for all of this?

I’ll tell you a little secret, even when I had the cash to buy a $2000 lens without giving it a second thought I didn’t do it. Instead, I used Bill Me Later which is available just like a credit card option from most online retailers. What this allowed me to do was get 3 to 6 months same as cash deferred payment so I could spread the cost out. This meant that instead of skipping on the Image Stabilization, which I’d regret later, I could just go ahead and get it and save money from my upcoming pay checks to pay for it. I never have and hope I never will carry a balance on a credit card, but this option is like borrowing someone elses money for free – IF you pay it on time (otherwise its like going to your local loan shark). If you pay your bills on time and know that you can save the money (or have some bonus or stock vesting) then this is a great way to get what you want now. I do almost all of my photography gear purchases this way!

Closing Thoughts

Whew, that's a big one - thanks for hanging in there and reading it all (you didn't skip - right?). With all this said, Digital SLR photography can be very rewarding (and very expensive), but few who get into it regret it. Sure, the critics of your work will be harsh (but you don't have to be), but at the end of the day you must remember that YOU are the only critic you need to please (well maybe your spouse if you are married :-). If you are happy with a shot, then enjoy it even more by sharing it online or printing it or putting it on a digital frame. You'll be amazed at how wonderful your shots will look compared to even a high end point and shoot like the Canon G11, and you'll be sure to impress your friends and family.

Feel free to contact me if you are struggling on the final details of your purchase, but if you do I ask that you use a link on my blog when purchasing. I earn a commission when you use my links and that is what funds this blog so that I can bring you all the great articles it provides. Sadly many people over the last year have chosen to use my advice only to buy elsewhere, and that is putting the future of this blog at risk. If you can’t (for geographic reasons) or don’t want to use my links, I ask you to use the donate link and contribute an amount that you think is fair (commissions are generally 3% or more of the purchase price).  Using my links are the best way though because your price is the same, and I get the commission so we both win! Thanks for your support!

Happy shopping and welcome to DSLR Photography!

Postscript on February 10, 2010

Of all the gear I originally purchased, the only items I still have to this day are the following:

Cameras will come and go, but GOOD lenses will last you for many years. In addition, the good lenses that I did buy were sold for within $50 of what I paid for them thanks to the rising cost of gear (mostly due to exchange rates). That would never be true for a kit lens where hundreds of thousands of people have them that don’t want them anymore. Think about it – was a $500 lens worth $200 on the used market a better deal than a $1650 lens that I kept for 2 years and sold for $1599?

If you enjoyed this article, please support future articles like this by making a donation or saving money by using my discount coupon codes. Either way, your support is greatly appreciated!

This blog is intended for freelance writing and sharing of opinions and is not a representative of any of the companies whose links are provided on this site.

The opinions provided are of Ron Martinsen alone and do not reflect the view of any other entity


Brett Pound said...

Great post Ron, and great supporting the "what gear" post. Now I have some web references to point all my friends to, rather than me just telling them pretty much the same thing, which always ends in "well you're just saying that because you've got OK gear to start with" :-)

vaibhavs said...

Every post of your comes with lots of experience of yours and is full of knowledge.
your blog is a must read for every DSLR photographer.
thanks for sharing :)

ZoneDancer said...

Another good post Ron. Oh and thanks for the slightly used gear. I will put it go good use until I upgrade.

Anonymous said...

One of the best articles on beginner photography and starter kits I'll be bookmarking this site for sure!

Karen G.
Boston, Massachusetts Photographer

Ajay said...

Hi Ron

Amazing post.
You are not just good in photography but also write amazingly well.
Ron, now that there are new gears in the market, can you please update this 'budget' article as well.


RandJ-Photo said...

Great article!

And I'm glad to see you mentioned State Farm for insurance. Let me tell you, I'm with you on that %110!

I don't own stabilized lenses because they're not as durable. But after dropping my 80-200 f2.8 a couple of times it needed a little service and repair. I called my agent, told them the repair cost. A couple of days later the check was in the mail!

Worked the same when my wife dropped her 75-300 over the railing and into the swamp.

balufeb12 said...

Good post, nice blog. I like this post. I am follow your blog.

mobius32 said...

Well, this is a good article that provides a very helpful overview for the person who knows that he'll get deeply into photography ... but if you don't know, here are just a few observations as a new DSLR user (July 09) (Nikon):

1) I bought a D90 with the kit 18-105. It was between that and the D40, but wanted to give myself some room for growth (and I'm very glad I did). If I had to do it over again, I would have not purchased the 18-105. I think when you're starting out you feel that you need/must have some zooms. But I would have purchased the approx. $135 50mm 1.8. I've come to really enjoy prime lenses because they make me/help me think more about getting the correct angle and position (of course, you can do this with a zoom).

2) Future lens purchases aside, the most important immediate purchases IMO are: post processing software (NX2 for Nikon is very good, but many find it too slow as compared with some of the Adobe products); proper storage (e.g. I store my equipment in Pelican cases and use desicants to reduce potential damage from humidity, etc); a good camera strap; and a tripod. But I agree that you don't need to immediately get a tripod, but I've come to really, really like it. Vibration reduction is very nice, but when you stick a camera on a quality tripod and ball head you'll appreciate the result. So, prepare for this extra expense that will will almost cost as much as the D90 (body only).

3) I would recommend that the serious beginner make it a priority to educate him/herself and be willing to pay for it. Now, the trick with courses is that you often don't know whether the instructor will work for you until you put your money down. But there are web sites -- some free, some not -- where people who have a lot of experience talk about equipment and technique that will rapidly help you advance. I won't mention the names of any sites b/c I'm not shilling for them; but I will say that this information will greatly help a beginner or even advanced amateur or pro think about what equipment best matches his/her style/styles of shooting. Of course, like much of the Internet, there are many people who just repeat what they've heard and what they've heard is incorrect :-)

4) In the initial months, I would recommend, if possible to shoot some "real" events. I took photos at a family gathering (hotel ballroom) and got an immediate appreciation and understanding of how poor most lighting is (for photography purposes) (which led me to understand why a D700 would have worked even better since I wasn't using a flash), my cameras ISO cabilities, a feel for what focal lengths would have worked best ... it was very helpful in helping me understand my equipment and what future purchases would help in what ways. I'm not a pro and don't intend to take photos for a living; but I want to have "pro quality" photos; so anytime I can get some of this type of practice I take advantage of it.

Anyway, these are just a few observations that I'm sure anyone who's been shooting for a few months will realize.

Anonymous said...

What about lenses from other brands?

The new Sigma 17-70mm with IS, starting at f/2,8, is probably quite nice. And there will probably not be a great demand for upgrading it before moving to a FF camera.

For the telephoto I would consider something very cheap or something really good with IS, nothing in between. The 18-200 kit lenses might do well, not that I'm sure a beginner needs 200mm on a DSLR. Might be too much to handle. It's good to lear to use your feet too.

For the IS f/2,8 zooms the shallow depth of field is an advantage. For the IS f/4 the price is nicer but a bigger advantage is almost the weight. For an amateur the f/2,8 lenses are quite heavy... For Canon the way to go is Canon (the 70-200mm lenses are really good), Nikon might have some more options?
A 100-400mm gives a lot more reach than 70-200mm and might be my choice if I today bought a telephoto lens.

A cheap 50mm would probably also come quite high on my list.

An external flash is something you can well live without until you get one. Then it is priceless. ;-)

I got quite late into wide angles. Now I would probably choose a wide angle lens in favor of a telephoto lens. Canon 10-22mm or Tokina 11-16mm (the later for non-Canon bodies). A wide angle lens really gets you into the action!

Another good tip is to take baby steps. It will take a lot of time for the average newcomer to master just a DSLR. A plain kit lens is probably more than enough for several months. Splitting the investment in parts and spreading it over months is easier and better, as a newcomer probably does not know which roads might be interesting in the future.

Another good thing to remember is that it is not the equipment that make the photographer. A good photographer can take good images with cheap equipment.

Ron Martinsen said...

RE: About other brands

I'm not a huge fan of Sigma due to significant inconsistencies between build batches and quality control. While it is true that all lenses will have some variation, I think Canon and Nikon do a decent job of limiting the variation within acceptable parameters (with a few notable - less expensive - exceptions).

There's also a much better resale with Nikon and Canon lenses. In fact, I've never taken more than a $50 loss on the sale of a used Canon lens - even after owning them for multiple years. Ask Sigma owners if they've experienced this same phenomenon.

In the end, we all have different opinions. This is my opinion, and I published your comment to acknowledge others will as well.

That said, I still think my advice about how to make unbiased educated decisions is valid.

Amar said...

The link to recommended tripod (that redirects to B&H photo) is not working. Could you please udate with the name/model number.

Mateus said...

Just found this blog, but I wish I had found it earlier, since I already bought 2 SLR bodies due to little knowledge on the subject at the time of my first purchase.
Great arcticle, If I had read this earlier I wouldn't be changing bodies 8 months after the first purchase (XSi-7D).

Abhinesh said...

Thanks Ron,

I am shameful to ask similar question. But getting genuine advices always appreciated.
I have the choice in Australia that to buy i am looking Canon 5D @ A$1000 or Canon 1Ds @ A$1200. I am confused with which will be best.. bot are used same shutter count and looks good . I currently own a 20D and all lenses are EF so looking to step on to a Full frame.

Ron Martinsen said...


Given those choices I'd go for the 5D. Even though the 1Ds is tempting because it is a pro body, the 5D was a long-term success for Canon for many reasons with the top reason being killer image quality and great (for its day) high ISO performance.

Use the $200 you'll save and put it towards a good lens, or other accessories I recommend in the article. It's okay to go used, but never go cheap!

Abhinesh said...

Thank you Ron,

I was bit crazy about geting a 1Ds because its Pro. and also about 45 AF points.I read later someone say 19 AF is good enough. I still not convened by canon about 7D because its pixel size which is good on 5D and 1D has.. I dont care about recording vedio on my SLR so that also doesn't matter. I will go for 5D because 5D mark II is not within budget anyway.