Dec 3, 2008: Christmas is the time of the year when digital SLR sales typically ramp up. Of course this year is anything but typical. The state of economy, at least in the US, is on most people’s minds. Many prospective dSLR owners are tightening their belts and holding off buying that new camera, lens or flash unit. I would never suggest spending money you don’t have on photo gear, unless you earn most or all of your income from photography. If you are a hobbyist, you may need to retrench and put off major purchases until the economy improves.
DSLR photography will always involve a substantial outlay of cash; that is the nature of the beast. You can’t eliminate that cost, but with a little creative planning, you can reduce it. If budget constraints are forcing you to postpone that new dSLR or lens purchase, these suggestions might help you stretch your photography dollars.
Choose a lower-price camera body
There is a famous old saying: “…if wishes were cameras, then we would all be shooting with the A900..” Or something like that.
If you have A900 tastes, but your budget is more along the lines of the A200, there is nothing to be ashamed of. The Sony Alpha A200 or A300 can produce excellent images, and both cameras offer a wealth of features. Don’t be afraid to start out with one of the less expensive models. Most professional photographers, if they are on a budget, will opt to cut corners on the camera so they have money to spend on what really matters: high quality lenses. A great lens on a inexpensive camera can create wonderful images, but even the best camera cannot overcome an unsharp lens.
If you are one of those people who only buy the best so it will last, remember the digital SLR market is still evolving. Only a few years ago, most professional dSLRs were 6 megapixel, APS-C sensor models. Today, full frame, 20+ megapixel dSLRs like the A900 are blurring the distinction between portable single lens reflex cameras and medium-format studio units. Live-view and video capabilities will soon be considered mandatory on any dSLR.
Today’s full-featured camera will undoubtedly fall short of the cameras of the near future. Don’t put off purchasing a camera while you save for a top-of-the-line model. Buy a dSLR that you can afford now and work hard to create great images.
Consider buying used equipment
Buying a used dSLR is an iffy proposition. I have bought two used high-end digital cameras that have worked flawlessly. That said, dSLRs are packed with miniaturized electronics and are sensitive to moisture, dirt, cold and heat. Problems can hide unseen inside the camera for weeks or months before they show up. Unless you know the seller and the history of the camera, I would be leery of buying a used dSLR unless it came with an ironclad warranty.
You can still save money with used equipment, however. Second-hand lenses, flash units and accessories offer a much safer opportunity to save cash. Do your homework and make sure you know what to look for in a used item. You can often save more than 50% by buying used.
Try your local pawn shop
Online auctions and used camera stores are popular places to seek pre-owned camera gear, but don’t overlook your neighborhood pawn shop. You can often find great deals, especially if you know what to look for. Pawn shops are no longer shady enterprises hiding out on the outskirts of town. Pawn shops have moved into the mainstream and now serve a respectable clientele. Pawn shops offer several advantages when buying used equipment. Unlike an online auction, you can actually see and handle the item before you buy. Even better, many reputable pawn shops will offer you a 24-48 hour trial. These shops will allow you to use and return an item within a certain period of time if it doesn’t perform correctly.
Rent camera equipment that won’t be used often
You might be surprised to discover that many pro photographers rent most or all of their equipment. A pro needs to consider the ROI (return on investment) of every piece of gear. If an item will be used infrequently, it is much better to rent it when needed, rather than drop a bundle of cash on something that will sit on the shelf most of the time.
You can use the same technique, even if you are just starting out. Short term (daily or weekly) rental prices can be quite affordable, even for high-quality lenses and flash units. Some rental operations rent camera bodies, so you don’t even need to actually own a dSLR to start taking great images. In addition to saving money, renting is a great way to preview a piece of equipment you are thinking of buying. Spend a week with an expensive lens or camera before you buy. You could save yourself from making an expensive purchase you later regret.
Until recently, it was difficult to find places prepared to rent Sony/Minolta dSLR gear. Alpha Lens Rental in Minnesota offers a very good selection of A-mount lens and equipment. They even have the Sony Alpha A900 (Yes the one with 24.5 mega-pixels) available for rental. They will Fed-Ex to your location within the USA. Hopefully, we will see more A-Mount lens rental operations in the near future.
Skimp on accessories, not the camera and lens
There are some things you shouldn’t compromise on, such as lenses. There are many other items that could offer temporary savings. It is nice to own a top-of-the-line camera bag, but the type of bag you use will not have any effect on your images. Make do with a padded cooler or gym bag until you can afford the real thing. You can shoot wonderful images with inexpensive “clamp-on” lights from the hardware. You can find free plans online for DIY light modifiers and camera stands.
Use your creativity and you will find many household items that can be pressed into service in place of higher priced photo gear.
Save money with manual lenses and flash units
While I don’t recommend wasting money on cheap lenses, my concern is with lenses that cannot produce sharp images. Don’t overlook the wide variety of manual aperture, manual focus lenses on the market. Some of these lenses have wonderful optics, but they sell for far less than a fully automatic lens of similar length and aperture.
You can find millions of very good M42 and T-mount lenses on the used market, some selling for only a few dollars. You will need an inexpensive adapter to mount them on your Sony Alpha dSLR, but if you choose wisely you can find some razor sharp bargains. They will require additional work on your part, but they will force you to develop your photography skills. You won’t be able to rely on your camera’s automatic settings with this equipment. Still, a few weeks of shooting with a manual lens will develop skills and techniques it would take years to learn shooting in the program mode.
How about it? Anyone else have suggestions for reducing the high cost of entering the dSLR market?