About this Blog

Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Some Sound (Real World) Buying Advice

Just recently I have had a number of beginner photographers pass through my studio and workshops that have all had the same dilemma. To wit: a limited cash supply that needs to be balanced against a seemingly inexhaustible array of supposedly necessary and essential photography equipment. The problem is that very few of us actually have the kind of financial means to kit ourselves out with the latest and greatest cameras, lenses and more. Reading forums on the internet I can understand why so many of my students get the impression that all photographers are extraordinarily wealthy as the internet chat rooms are filled with users complaining about their latest purchases or their plans to spend a further triple zero amount on a must-have accessory. The reality is that there are far, far more photographers out there who don’t moan on internet forums and who don’t have the kind of money that said whingers talk about. The next problem is that the budding photographer, having decided to ditch the advice of the forums will go to the salesperson, who I am sad to say, in the majority of cases is more concerned about making a sale than of actually helping you on your path to photographic nirvana (most cases, not all). 

This article is not meant to compare the older D700 to that of the new and far superior D800. Rather, it suggests that perhaps looking for older models is a sometimes wiser use of one’s finances to obtain equipment

So here I am going to attempt to create a real-world buying list so that you can photograph with a diverse range of techniques while still fending off the bank manager or mortgaging the house. 

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Step 1: You are going to need a body. The first thing most people do at this point is head down to the mall and check out some of the entry level cameras. This isn’t necessarily a bad option, but in my experience most of my students have become quickly dissatisfied with the entry-level options out there. They are perfectly capable of producing sterling results, but they tend to be a hassle to work with (lack of dedicated dials for shutter and aperture is the first hurdle). Here I actually think that the beginner photographer might be better served looking for a second-hand enthusiast camera like the Canon double digit series or the Nikon double or triple digit series (Canon 40 or 50Ds and the Nikon D200, D300s or even the D7000 etc.). It’s often possible to pick up a far more feature rich enthusiast camera with low actuations than a brand new entry level camera from the store. Even better, there are often whole kits available second hand for the same price as a single body new. 

Step 2: Lenses. Here is where it gets complicated. It is far better to spend more money on a lens than on a camera. The reason is simple. Cameras become obsolete far faster than lenses. You are likely to use that lens you buy on the next three cameras that you purchase, so make it a worthwhile purchase! The entry level lenses tend not to be particularly awe-inspiring, but still, they are a good place to start. If you can scratch in the piggy bank a little I would recommend going for the next step up from entry level if at all possible, and yes, consider the third party lens mounts. Whatever you do though, don’t buy the all-in-one-miracle-zoom. There is no such thing as an all-in-one zoom that can do everything wonderfully, regardless of what marketing hyperbole says on the matter. 

The usual approach is to get a small basic zoom lens like an 18-55mm and a longer 70-300mm lens, both of which are quite affordable. Here again, looking secondhand is often a better bet. For example the Nikon 70-300mm G lens is an abysmal lens. It’s cheap, soft (optically) and nasty. But the old 70-300mm EDIF is the same price secondhand, sharper and better constructed. The only downside to it that it doesn’t autofocus on the entry-level cameras (but will on the enthusiast range). The same situation arises with Canon. The older version 70-300mm IS lens is a wonderful lens and when found secondhand is the same price as their horrible 70-300mm EF-S bought new.  

Step 3: Get some legs! Tripod legs. These are more important than most beginner photographers realise. The problem is again that the first tripod most people buy is absolutely useless at doing what it’s been bought to do, i.e. support your camera. Avoid at all costs any tripod that has plastic in the head, the joint or the leg locks. For that matter, avoid any tripod that has little supporting struts between the centre pole and the tripod legs (the only tripods that are worth getting that have these are made for the pro-level videography market and cost more than the camera that most beginner photogs are going to be buying). The Manfrotto 090 is a good place to start, as are the Vanguard Alta series or the Benro aluminium tripods. 

Step 4: Learn to flash. Get a flash. Really, the built-in pop-up flash is not that useful except for the occasional fill light and for firing other flashes via optical sync. In 99% percent of cases the versatility of a dedicated flashgun is far superior to the paltry light that comes out of the pop-up flash. Here, don’t necessarily go for the third party flashes for your first flash (I know I mentioned cheap third-party flashes in last month’s Photo Writing, but those are not for when you are starting out). Get a dedicated manual mode flash if at all possible. Again, don’t be afraid of second hand. 

Body, 2 lenses, tripod and flash is really all the equipment that you need to get started. My go-to kit for a location shoot isn’t all that dissimilar. Admittedly, a couple more flashes and a wide angle zoom complete this kit, but in a pinch I’d be happy with what I have written about. So in other words it’s enough to get you beyond just starting. For this I seriously recommend looking at the secondhand market. Yesterday’s pro equipment is as good as today’s entry-level equipment in terms of image quality and is usually leaps and bounds better than todays entry-level equipment in terms of build quality, functionality and features (just ask my assistant on that one as she has gone through all the stages the hard way and is now the proud owner of some very lightly used professional grade gear). 

The thing is, if you are serious about your photography (and the fact that you are reading this means you probably are) you will actually save money in the long run if you buy better specified enthusiast and pro gear on the second hand market than if you walk into Costco, Walmart, Dixons or Game and buy that entry level camera that Bob the salesman is so hellbent on offloading. Try out Gumtree or Ebay. Just watch out for scammers with some simple common sense. The simple formula after that is to spend more money on your lenses than your camera, buy a metal tripod and get a dedicated flashgun. The world is now your photographic oyster...oh and don’t forget the polariser.


  1. I fully agree with all your recommendations, Emil, but I think you should add just one note: get a good second hand prime lens of modest focal length .... even new, they are cheap. What is nice about them is that they are sharper than zooms, much faster, and have less distortion. I like my 40 years old Nikon 50 mm lens, for instance, as well as the 35 mm f/1.8 lens I recently bought brand new for around R2400 and which I have used under dim light conditions where a zoom just would not have worked.

  2. I couldn't agree with you more Kobus. The very next piece of gear I would recommend is a 50mm 1.8 (1.4 if you can afford it but that's sort of contrary to the ethos of this article). I often urge people to get one of the second hand fast primes but it's amazing how an entrant into photography has their eyes glaze over by the time I start in on lens number three. But yes, I think that adding that as a note is a good idea...and will change the article to suite.