It can be all too easy to give up on doing the things we love when our bank accounts don’t match our wishlists. But it really doesn’t have to be that way, even with a notoriously expensive hobby like photography. In fact, practicing photography on a budget might just have its advantages.
Money has been tight since having my children, which means that spending on myself mostly gets thrown to the wayside. But it was my kids who first inspired me to pick up a camera, so I decided I was going to pursue photography on a budget, no matter what. And you can, too.
I’m going to share some of the ways I have managed to keep on clicking and developing my art without expensive investments in gear. I hope these suggestions help you stick with photography, regardless of your budget, and to not get disheartened when you can’t afford that must-have piece of gear or class you are desperate to attend.
1. Utilize the gear and tools you already have.
The hankering for new gear is real. I know, I have been there. Honestly though, there is nothing better than what you have available. I started out with a point-and-shoot, then moved to a micro four-thirds before eventually moving over to my Sony a6000. Today, I finally have the Sony a7 III I’ve wanted forever, but that little Sony a6000 is what I really learned my craft on. I pushed it to its absolute limits, learned what I like to create and what I don’t, and learned my camera inside and out. When it came time to upgrade, I knew exactly what I wanted and needed.
Even if a phone camera is all you can afford, shoot with it. Shoot with it every day and get to know it. Challenge yourself to push it to its limits. Embrace its limitations and use it creatively. Noise was one of my biggest issues with the a6000, but that challenge pushed me to learn how to manage it in post production. Limitations can help you learn.
Edit with what you have, too. If you only have an old version of Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom then that will most definitely get the job done. There are also tons of free online resources that can give you a hand with learning to edit.
Resist the urge to spend money on presets until you’ve learned to edit without them. And, learn to create your own presets. This way, you’ll know how to tweak and edit your presets to suit your images if and when you do buy them. You can also buy just one set you really like and work with them for as long as you can. Push them to the limit in the same way you would your camera and really hone your editing style.
2. Embrace creative techniques.
So many creative techniques are completely free or very low cost and can be used with any camera or smartphone. Experimenting in creative ways can really help you grow your craft without any need for an expensive kit. In fact, in some cases cheaper gear might even help you push yourself to take creative risks as there’s nothing expensive to damage.
Shoot through things.
Use things you already have in your home. Add Vaseline on your lens to add blur or shoot through things such as a plastic bag or rainy window.
Use plain walls as studio-style backdrops.
If you want to create studio-style portraits, use window light and a plain wall. You don’t need to invest in expensive backdrops and studio lights to get the look you are after.
Freelensing is a fantastic free way to get creative and it can really help you hone your eye for focus, too. The best part is that you don’t need a special lens to get a super creative effect.
Use a tilt-shift lens.
I managed to find a super cheap tilt-shift lens on eBay. It is unbranded and is based on the Lensbaby style, but it cost me only £35 including shipping. Having never used a Lensbaby, I have no idea if it is anywhere near as good as the real thing, but I love it and it serves my purposes perfectly.
3. Buy second-hand gear.
I could never afford new lenses for my Sony a6000 — I only had the Sony 35mm f/1.8 that I bought with the camera. I loved this lens but on a crop sensor it is equivalent to a 52.5mm and I always wanted a bit more space in my shots. This led me to discover vintage lenses.
I currently have one OM-NEX adapter, which was super cheap on eBay and then over the years collected a few OM mount lenses that I won on eBay, each for less than a fiver. I currently have a Soligor 28mm f/2.8, which I bought to try and placate my need for a wider angle lens, a Tamron 35-70mm f/3.5 lens, which gives lovely bokeh, and a Olympus Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 lens. On the APS-C sensor of the a6000, they all equate to 1.5 times the focal length, so the 28mm Soligor is really a 42mm. The Soligor is probably my favorite lens because when you free-lens with it you can get up so close that it almost becomes a macro lens.
The tough part about using manual lenses is learning to manually focus. Some cameras help with this. For example, the Sony a6000 has focus peaking, which is super helpful. But, even if your camera doesn’t offer focus assistance, you can train your eye with practice. Learning to shoot manual is so worth it because there are times — even when you have a native lens attached to your camera — that you might want to consider manual focus (low light situations, for example).
The one thing I love about buying vintage is that each lens has its own character, its own flaws and its own story. Learning to embrace these is part of the fun! And hey, if you really don’t like it, flip it and use the money to get yourself a new one. My one tip when buying vintage is always check that the lenses don’t have any fungus or dust. Fungus can spread and cause problems in your camera and dust can impact your final image, so avoid when you can.
4. Look for low-cost or free photography classes.
I love learning about photography, from the technical aspects as well as finding out about other artists and the history of the craft. There are sooo many free resources out there! If you want to know how to shoot best for backlight, for example, I can bet your bottom dollar you can find a YouTube video with all the info you need without paying a penny.
I, however, do love to go a bit deeper into a subject and used to drool all over the lovely classes available from Click Photo School. I like the structure of learning laid out in a course because it keeps me on track and I can be very draconian in following each step exactly as it is set out in the learning material. Could I afford these amazing classes? Most of the time, no. More often than not, I couldn’t even afford the study along fee. Buying breakouts for a much lower price was the answer for me, especially when they were on sale. With breakout sessions, I could then download all the material and work through it at my own pace.
The most recent breakout session I did was “Shot with Moxie: Capturing Childhood Creatively” by Natalie Greenroyd. It gave me a real creative boost, but the best thing is, all her methods are super cheap. You don’t need a fancy kit to create or play with any of the ideas she sets out. I did invest in a study along seat in the workshop Mastering Manual Exposure. This was a game-changer for me and really helped me to understand how to properly shoot manual.
Just because money is tight doesn’t mean you shouldn’t invest in yourself, just choose wisely and don’t invest in breakouts if you are the kind of person who is going to leave them sitting in a folder on your computer because you have no one to cheer you on. Save that dosh and put it towards a full seat in a class.
Psst… The Click blog is totally free and has amazing resources from talented photographers!
5. Find your photography people.
Network, reach out and find your photography friends. Every photographer needs them. They keep you grounded, remind you how awesome you are just by being you and push you to get better. You don’t even have to meet them in person, just chatting online can create amazing friendships and collaborations.
I met nearly all my photography friends through Instagram or Facebook, and have a couple I meet up with fairly regularly. Each time we catch up, we chat about things that are niggling us, things that spark our creativity and of course general lovely chit chat. It gives us a chance to try out new ideas, practice different techniques and learn from each other.
Getting involved with online Facebook groups has also been a huge help for me, even just reading other people’s questions and answers can be immensely helpful. People ask questions you have been pondering yourself or others that you hadn’t even thought of but are so glad they asked. And if you decide to ask a question or share your work, the people in these groups are often so amazing, helpful and supportive, it can give you a real confidence boost.
The best thing about building connections, apart from the awesomeness of making friends, is that it doesn’t cost a penny. Lifelong friendships and support networks can be forged for yourself and oh, it is so worth it.
The limitations of being on a budget can be an absolute blessing in disguise. Having to get creative means that you will end up making self-discoveries you might never have otherwise. If something becomes an obstacle, thrift your way round it. Where there is a will there is usually a way and having a tight budget is no excuse for not becoming the awesome photographer you know you are.
Leila’s budget photography gear:
Camera: Sony a6000
Lenses: Sony 35mm OSS f/1.8, vintage Soligor 28mm f/2.8, vintage Tamron 35-70mm f/3.5, vintage 50mm Olympus Zuiko f/1.8, tilt-shift 50mm f/2.8 macro creative art design lens
Tools: OM-NEX adapter
Photos by Leila Balin