Save money and go budget or second-hand for cameras, flash, tripods and maybe lenses… but don’t cut corners on memory cards or batteries!

Buy cheap, buy twice. We’ve all heard the phrase… if you go for the budget option it will probably break and you’ll have to replace it. Whereas if you went for the expensive option first time around, you would be saving money in the long term because it would last.

But is this true for photography? The answer is – it depends. How lame is that?? Don’t worry, I’ll go through it all!

In photography there are good budget options for almosteverything. Whatever you are looking to purchase to add to your photography kit bag, you will usually find yourself faced with a plethora of options, covering almost any possible price point. 

The Budget vs Premium photography kit question

There is sometimes a bit of a chasm between the premium products and the lower-cost options. The big-name manufacturers often offer product options at both ends of the scale. But there are also often other manufacturers who will come in to fill the void in the middle.

A good example of this is lenses – if you want a 50mm lens for your full frame DSLR or mirrorless camera, you can pay anything from $50 to $5,000. Within that bracket there are literally hundreds of options. Some do slightly different things and are designed for specific jobs, others are standard stills lenses in a huge array of possible qualities.

One good thing to remember is that price does not always directly mean better quality. I think we can all agree that the quality of the Canon 50mm 1.8 “Nifty Fifty” at $100 is not the same as the Canon 50mm 1.2L at $1,400. But does that mean that lenses are an area where you should avoid budget options and fork out megabucks??

Equipment of a modern photographer with a drone - for the BudgetProPhoto guide on when to spend and when to save on photo gear
Equipment of a modern photographer with a drone – for the BudgetProPhoto guide on when to spend and when to save on photo gear

Is it Buy cheap, buy twice? Or is it just buy smart?

When buying photography gear, the big question we find ourselves constantly asking is “is this an item where I should pay for quality and it will last me longer?” Does the old saying “buy cheap, buy twice” apply here?

Let’s take a look at the different types of photography kit that you might be buying, and we’ll say whether we think that’s an area that you can legitimately cut a corner and go for a budget option.

We’re going to rate each type of photo gear with a simple yes or no answer to whether we would a) buy budget options, or b) buy used.

Camera – budget: NO, used: YES

Cameras are a great example of where budget options are usually not a good idea, but used cameras are a fantastic idea. 

We are currently running a project where we plan to spend no more than $500 to get a whole professional photography kit, you can check out our progress here: The $500 pro kit challenge.

The facts is that cheap manufacturing (and cheap labor…) are allowing low-end manufacturers to churn out seriously poor quality equipment for super low cost. So you can get a brand new DSLR camera for $200, or even less. But they will genuinely be awful. And they will be completely aimed at beginners, so freeing up settings to give you control over your images will be tricky, or sometimes impossible.

However… for $200 you can pick up a used, 6-7 year old former top of the range DSLR which is still a thousand times better quality than a brand new $200 DSLR. Increase the budget to $500 or even $1,000 and you’re starting to look at a seriously high-end piece of kit, probably not more than 3-4 years old.

So our verdict for cameras is buy USED, don’t buy budget.

Lens – budget: YES, used: MAYBE

Lenses are contentious. You’ll hear people say you should never buy budget lenses, that they are flawed and imperfect. But I would say – ask yourself if it really matters. How important is that almost imperceptible fuzziness at the very edge of your image? Is your whole life going to be changed if you’re not getting edge to edge sharpness?

And another of the big complaints people make about budget lenses is vignetting. Vignetting is the darker areas you get on the corners of your images, where it looks like the edges are darker than the middle. And it’s true, some cheap lenses do cause vignettes.

But, how bad is that really? Is it a problem for you? If you’re using Adobe Lightroom then there’s a slider down at the bottom of the screen in the develop module which allows you to remove a vignette. Or at least make it look better than it is.

But that vignette slider also allows you to ADD a vignette. What I really want to know is – how many of those people, who have loudly decried the horrible cheap lenses because of their vignetting, have actually added a vignette to some images while editing? I’m going to take a guess – all of them??

There’s also a tool in Lightroom which allows you to fix lens quirks. For most lenses now there is an automatic setting which allows you to click one button and it fixes the lens distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberration, according to your lens and how much of those three things it creates.

What does this tell us? It tells us that NO LENS IS PERFECT. I’ve got two or three Canon L series lenses, and guess what? They all have correction settings. Because they all need correcting.

So BUY CHEAP LENSES. No lenses are perfect, so whatever imperfections your cheap lens has, they’re only a few degrees off a premium lens. 

Having said all that, every lens is different, and some are really worth paying a few extra dollars for. If you have a DSLR and are yet to be introduced to the Sigma Art series lenses, go check them our right now!

Used lenses – I would say just take care buying used lenses, but only because some can take a beating with heavy use. And really old lenses can grow mold inside them, or get moisture in them, and then they’re a bit screwed really. 

Tripod – budget: ALMOST, used: NO

When buying tripods, I would avoid used. Now, you can always get good ones, especially from better used photography equipment sellers, but tripods can also get a real hammering out in the field. I’ve both bought broken tripods before, and I’ve broken a few myself. So I know.

Tripods tend to break on the plastic parts. Because the legs are necessarily beefy and solid, the whole unit carries some weight. And because it is weighty, you kind of throw it around a bit more, expecting it to be able to take it. But what happens then is that the weaker plastic parts, often the clamps that hold telescopic legs in place, can snap off. And then you need to replace them. And often replacement parts, especially for mid-range tripods, are not easy to source.

But are budget brand tripods a good idea? We’ve said “almost”. The reason for this is that the super-low end tripods really are a piece of crap. I own two tripods currently, one cost me $30 new, the other cost me $250 new. 

The $250 tripod is a Manfrotto MK055 with an XPRO ball head. And it is a tank! When I say tank, I mean that in the sense that it’s solid, hopefully unbreakable. But I also mean that it’s HEAVY. But NO camera is moving on top of that tripod.

The $30 was an own-brand thing I got maybe 15 years ago, before I went pro with the photography. It’s flimsy, doesn’t always stay up and if you want a rock solid long exposure shot from it you basically have to stand about 30 feet away. And pray that the wind isn’t blowing.

But, technically, my $250 Monfrotto tripod is a budget tripod. Premium tripods are things like Gitzo or Three Legged Thing, which can set you back $1,000 or more. Compared to those, $250 is pocket change.

So the message is this – don’t buy tripods used, unless you know exactly where you’re getting it from and it comes with a warranty. And by all means buy cheap, but don’t buy SUPER cheap, because it will be crap.

Flash – budget: YES, used: YES

Flash units, strobes or speedlights (or speedlites or flashguns), are a great place to save money. We’ll be writing another article on why buying budget options makes sense for flash guns and studio strobes, and we’ll also be talking in that article about why buying used flash makes sense. We’ll post a link to those here when it’s written.

But in brief – a flash is basically a small box which flashes when you tell it to. Sure, new flashguns can do all sorts of things, like communicate with the camera from 100ft away, modify intensity, projection etc, and sync at insanely high speeds, and probably read your mind if you press the right buttons… but after you’ve got past all the sparkly whistles and bells, it’s still a small box that flashes when you tell it to.

Speedlights have been small boxes that flash when you tell them to since they were a ribbon of magnesium in the 1880s. Not all that much has changed.

Because of this, cheap flash units are generally pretty good.

A good way to judge whether budget options are the right way to go, is by the margins which separate good ones and bad ones in the technical reviews. If the difference between a $700 speedlight and a $70 speedlight is 8% less power, or a color deviation of 2%, then you’re pretty safe to go for the budget options. Unless you are a fine art photographer selling your work for tens of thousands of dollars… if you are then hi! Welcome to BudgetProPhoto… I’m not sure this is website you were looking for.

One thing to bear in mind when buying an off-brand speedlight (eg a Yongnuo for a Canon DSLR) is that you may not get the same level of automation. The Yongnuo may not speak to your DSLR and communicate as effectively as its Canon equivalent. So make sure you do your research into what features you want from your flashgun.

When buying used flash, again, have a good list in your head of the features you’re looking for and the compatibility of communication between camera and flash that you want. Personally I like to use my speedlights on manual all the time, so there are literally no compatibility issues. Any flash will work on any camera in manual mode.

Using speedlights set to manual also gives you the chance to pick up some INSANE bargains second hand. If you’re not looking for automation, then the world is your oyster. I have bought two speedlights off ebay which were labelled as “stuck on manual”. Music to my ears, I bid straight away and picked up one Canon 580EXii for $20, and another one for $25. They are speedlights which were $400 each just two years ago.

I currently own 12 speedlights, all bought used apart from two Yongnuo flash units. I have never encountered serious damage to a flash gun. They get a LOT of cosmetic damage, but if you’re ok with that there are some great deals to be had.

Photographer working in a studio, for the Budget Pro Photography guide on when to spend on photography equipment and when to save
Flash and strobes are an area where you can save money – so long as you make sure you know what you want from your equipment

Constant Lights – budget: YES, used: YES

I’m not going to do the same speech again, but basically a lot of what applies to a flashgun applies to constant lights like LED panels, Dedos, fresnels etc. They are relatively simple pieces of equipment, and they are fairly hardy.

For budget lights, take some time to read up on which ones are good for what you need them for. If you’re hoping to run them all day on just one set of batteries, then maybe don’t go budget. Low-cost options tend to fall down on battery life.

Used constant lighting for photography is generally pretty good. But because it’s so good you won’t see much appearing on the second hand market. Especially not LED panels because they are very much still the industry go-to. Add that to the fact that they just don’t wear out, and you’ll find a very slow-moving used market. But if you can find them, grab them!

All the same concerns that you might have with flash apply here – reliable color, reliable brightness, power etc. Cheaper, budget lights will be weaker in these areas, but the real-world differences are maybe in the 10% region. Put that next to the 500% price increase from budget option to premium option, and it’s hard to justify buying the top of the range lights.

So, buy used lights if you can find them, but if not, go budget.

Filters – budget: YES, used: NO

There was a time when cheap filters really were terrible. But that time has passed. Manufacturing perfect glass has become standard around the world, so even the cheapest filters now are almost immaculate.

Now, you’re going to get the perfectionists waving their arms around and screaming about color casts on filters. And they’re right. A cheap ND (neutral density) filter can sometimes be not quite neutral in color. They can often throw a very faint yellow tinge onto your images. But we’re talking small, small color casts. Almost unnoticeable. Your photography has to have hit the heights before these tiny color aberrations are going to become a problem.

Buying used filters is dangerous. The difference between a scratch on a filter and a scratch on a lens is huge. 

I once had a Sigma 35mm f1.4 lens that got pits in the coating of the front element when I was shooting welding. When I realised I rang Sigma in a panic, and the guy asked me “have you actually checked your images? I bet you, you won’t even notice the marks”. And I did it, I tested in a load of situations and you just can’t see any difference.

Filters are NOT the same. Your filter is that much further from the camera, and marks and scratches show up, big time. So I would recommend going cheap for filters, but not buying used.

Bags – budget: NO, used: YES

Photography bags are the ONLY exception to my rule at the top, that buy cheap buy twice doesn’t apply to photography equipment.

All cheap bags will fall apart. It’s true. You already know this. Photography bags are no different, except that they will probably end up carrying a LOT of weight. That is going to expose their flaws, fast.

However, buying good bags second hand is a great idea. A really good, well made bag, will last a long time. So if you ever see a Billingham or an Airstream going used, snap that right up. You will love it. And you will be able to love it forever.

Memory cards (SD, CF etc.) – budget: NO, used: NO

Now, here is one of the few things in the photography world that I believe you should not cut corners on.

Memory cards, whichever type of your camera takes, whether it is an SD card, a CF card and SxS card, CFast, microSD, whatever… This rule applies to all of them.

When buying memory cards, always go for quality, and always go new.

There are a few reasons for this. The first one of which is that your memory card is EVERYTHING.

Those of you who have been unlucky enough to experience a memory card failure will know the pain. A photograph is a moment in time. And time, as we know, marches ever onwards. Once a moment is gone, it’s gone forever. Every single image you take is completely unique. No matter what you do or how hard you try, you can never perfectly recreate an image a second time.

So, if you buy a cheap memory card, and that card fails… All the images on it from that day of shooting are gone for ever.

Good quality SD cards, that you can rely on, and that have thousands of good reviews, are always the best idea.

Used or second-hand memory cards are also not a great idea. The fact is that memory cards wear out. They can get damaged from rough handling, or more often the contacts either get grubby, or start to corrode. Whichever way your memory card ends up going, it will have a finite life.

The good news is if you treat your memory cards carefully, there’s no reason why they won’t last you 10 years or more. I have got CF cards that I have been using for nine years already, and they show no signs of slowing. But I am fairly careful with my equipment.

So, for memory cards, I would suggest pay for quality. This is not an item of equipment you want is going wrong!

Rechargeable batteries – budget: YES, used: NO

In this section that we are talking about camera batteries, or internal batteries that can be charged by USB or a wall socket. I am not really talking about AAs (see below) or those rechargeable AA batteries that you can get. But I have never really tried these because my early experience (admittedly going back possibly 20 years) was very bad. I don’t use rechargeable AAs, I use disposable ones. See below.

But talking about rechargeable batteries, for example the Canon LP-E6N which fits the 5D range, or the Sony NPF series which is the ubiquitous, universal battery for lights and monitors… for these batteries my advice is DO by budget brands, DON’T buy second-hand.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a chasm of quality between premium and budgets batteries. This is an area where there really is quite a difference. But the key factor here is that batteries wear out.

Batteries absolutely have a pre-determined lifespan. They will not last you 10 to 15 years. If you’re using batteries daily and running them flat, then recharging them, you’ll be lucky to get 3 to 5 years out of them before their performance starts to drop.

So my view is that if you’re replacing these batteries every three years anyway, why bother paying for the expensive brands? They may store slightly more energy and last a tiny bit longer, but after three years use they’ll be just as dead as the budget brands.

I am also taking into account my own practices when on a photo shoot. I tend to watch the battery levels quite closely, and I don’t think in the last five years of working full-time as a photographer, I have ever run a battery flat without realizing.

So, on almost every single battery, I am changing the batteries when they’ve still got about 10% juice left in them. As I never run a battery flat, paying 50%, or 100% more for a battery that will give me an extra 5 to 10% life really doesn’t make sense.

Another thing to note here, and this actually applies to a lot of the other categories we’ve been talking about, is that budget brands are getting better! Almost across the board, in every photography kit genre, budget brands are now getting really good. If you go back five years perhaps, or definitely 10 years, off-brand camera batteries were absolutely no match for their branded cousins. But today budget camera batteries are almost indistinguishable from the high cost versions.

So, camera batteries cheap YES, used NO.

Disposable batteries – budget: NO, used: NO

Here we’re talking about AA batteries, AAA batteries etc. The sort you put in your flash gun and throw away (and hopefully recycle) when they’re done. Single-use batteries.

Should you cut corners on single-use batteries? Definitely not!

I think it should be fairly obvious that you shouldn’t buy used batteries! Not unless you somehow come across someone selling an unopened box of batteries. But that would be a rare case, and even then you should be cautious. Batteries degrade with time, and will lose their charge over the course of several years. And to my knowledge battery boxes often don’t have dates on them, so hard to tell when they were made.

So, always buy batteries new, and always go for reputable brands. Not all batteries are created equal. There are quite a few studies available on the internet covering which brands last longer than others. Here’s a good one: battery review on reddit

You can also just search “best battery brand” on google and you’ll get about a thousand results!

One of the first questions when buying AA batteries is “what are these lithium things all about?”

Short answer – they use different chemicals to create power, they’re more expensive, slightly better power output (last longer), although many alkaline batteries (the normal ones) keep up with them, but their big advantage is that they don’t leak. Ever left batteries in a piece of equipment and came back to it to find nasty gooey stuff everywhere? Lithium batteries don’t do this. And should last you 15 years or so. But if you’re using your kit regularly, stick with the alkalines.

Buy good batteries, they will last longer and won’t cause you hassle.

One good tip for buying batteries is – BUY BULK. You will save yourself so much money. We use Duracell Industrial AA batteries for all our kit. Buy them in boxes of 200 and you will save yourself about 70% on buying Duracell AAs from your local store.

Stands, clamps etc. – budget: YES, used: YES

Final photography equipment type (have I missed anything??) – the basic hardware. Light stands, clamps, arms, clips, blah blah blah.

These guys are hard-wearing and simple. So this is a great place to go budget. It’s also an area where you don’t really see many premium brands attempting to compete. But you will always get high-price hawkers trying to sell you a C-stand for $1000. Be wary of those guys!

The only bad experience I have had with general photography hardware is with Neewer clamps. I’ve used some Neewer clamps to try to attach a monitor to a shoulder rig and couldn’t get the things to stay in place. The clamp locks tight, but then trying to get the damn thing to stop spinning in the clamp was almost impossible.

I went out and got myself a slightly more expensive SmallRig clamp and it is definitely better. Still not perfect. I still have to tighten the collars on the ¼ inch threads with pliers (and therefore undo them with pliers), but at least they stay put!

That’s it for today guys. If we’ve missed anything, or got anything wildly wrong, leave us a message in the comments below!


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Love and hugs, the BudgetProPhoto team x

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