Getting into Photography on a Budget in 2023

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Earlier this year I was looking for a hobby that would get me out of the house. I've always been curious about photography so it seemed like the perfect solution. I spoke with my friend Chromakode about it a bit (he's big into Fujifilm) and he had some ideas for me. Specifically, he recommended that I get a Mirrorless camera with in-body stabilization and a full frame sensor. At the time I didn't know what any of that meant except that it sounded expensive. He then recommended I get something used and went as far as to recommend a "Sony a7 II". Queue the long research montage and that's ultimately what I went with.

Of course, one must ask the question: why buy used? And why be cheap in the first place? The answer is the same for anyone getting into any new hobby. You don't necessarily know exactly what you're interested in or what you're looking for or if you'll keep the hobby. For example, it wouldn't make much sense for me to buy a brand new $3,500 Sony a7S III, which is a camera specializing in high speed video but with lower resolution, since it turns out I mostly take landscape photos. Instead, it's best to get a cheaper, non specialized camera and later decide where to go.

Buying Used

Used always sounds a bit iffy. And of course, as a computer programmer, old technology sounds iffy as well. A hot rod computer from 8 years ago is mostly a paperweight today. As it turns out cameras don't age quite the same way that a computer might. The Sony a7 II, which was a hot rod 8 years ago, is still pretty good today. The main thing that ages a camera isn't age, but instead is usage.

One way to think about camera usage is that a camera can only take a finite number of photos. Surely, when a camera is just sitting on the shelf, it's not getting used too much. Other than getting banged around a bit, the number of photos taken—aka the number of times the shutter has been activated—is a better measurement. For example, a high end Sony camera might have an expected shutter life of 500,000 photos, while a Canon might last around 200,000 photos, and cheaper entry-level models may only last for 100,000 photos. When considering a camera try to look up the expected shutter lifetime.

Keep an eye out for the shutter count when looking at camera listings. If it's unlisted, message the seller and ask for it, and include a link to an online tool where the seller can upload a photo to find out. One such tool is I had to message the seller for the camera I ended up buying since it wasn't listed. Once they replied with a number less than 500 I knew it was a great deal! I paid $705, shipped, for my barely used 8 year old Sony a7 II.

When it comes to used lenses they also usually hold up well over time. The biggest concern is that they're not full of dust, no cracks or scratches or even fungus, and that the motor still works. Sure, they can be ugly on the outside, but it's vital that the images they produce look good. When it comes to getting a first lens I would recommend getting the era-appropriate "kit lens" that comes with the camera you're buying. A kit lens is just a default lens and usually allows you to zoom in and out.

When I bought my zoom lens I ended up going with the Sony SEL 28-70mm F/3.5-5.6 OSS as that was the Sony a7 II kit lens. I looked through many listings and found the one that looked the cleanest and had a decent price. Total cost, shipped, was $185.

Sometimes you'll be able to buy the camera combined with a lens (in this case we refer to the camera as the "body"). But in my experience they're mostly sold separately.

Lens Compatibility

Not all lenses can attach to all cameras. Quite the contrary. In fact, not all lenses by a given manufacturer will fit with all cameras by a given manufacturer. Even worse, some lenses that fit with a camera won't even be 100% compatible either. But, this ends up being the fun part if you're technically oriented.

The first important part of lens compatibility is to get a camera and lens with a matching "mount" type. For example, modern Sony cameras use an "E-Mount". Modern Fujifilm cameras use an "X-Mount". Older Sony cameras, and the Minolta film cameras, use an "A-Mount". When buying into a camera ecosystem you should probably ensure lenses are still being produced.

For example, I wouldn't recommend buying an old Sony A-Mount camera or you'll sort of paint yourself into a corner. Plus, there are much better cameras out there that will produce better results for not much more money. If you start doing photography and are immediately limited by the quality of your camera lens then it might leave you with a negative experience.

The second important part of lens compatibility concerns the size of the sensor. The Sony a7 II camera body has a "Full Frame" sensor, which is a large 36mm x 24mm sensor. However, there are other Sony cameras, like the A6000, which use a smaller "APS-C" 24mm x 16mm sensor. Both of these cameras use E-Mount lenses, and there are both Full Frame and APS-C E-Mount lenses. It's totally fine to use a Full Frame E-Mount lens on an APS-C camera (save for some math shenanigans when calculating the focal length). However, if you use an APS-C E-Mount lens on a Full Frame camera, there'll be dark edges in a circle shape around the image and you'll basically have to crop in and throw away parts of the photo. It's not the end of the world but definitely not ideal. Other camera lines have similar sensor size considerations so keep this in mind when shopping.

Next Steps

At this point you should have a camera and an appropriate zoom lens. Go out and take a bunch of photos! Spend months doing it. Figure out what you like. If you're like me, you might find that you mostly shoot zoomed in or zoomed out. If you're mostly zoomed out, for example at 28mm on my 28-70mm lens, then you'll probably want to start looking at "wide angle" lenses. However, if you're mostly zoomed in, like I was at 70mm, then you probably want to get a telephoto lens.

Now, what if you're not sure what your focal lengths (zoom levels) have been? Hopefully you've been keeping a copy of all of your photos somewhere. Each of those photos, assuming you've got a kit-appropriate zoom lens, contain metadata. You can then go and read that data. If you happen to be using Adobe Lightroom, which is probably the world's most popular photo editing software, you can go through the menus and get a handy chart of this information.

However, if you're on a Linux computer like I am (maybe using the free darktable software), you can instead run some terminal commands when you're inside of your photo library:

$ sudo apt install exiv2
$ find -iname '*.jpg' -print0 \ # use .raw or .arw or w/e instead of .jpg for better results
 | while read -d $'\0' f; do \
     exiv2 -K Exif.Photo.FocalLength -P t "$f" 2> /dev/null; done \
 | sort | uniq -c | sort -nr

I ran this command and graphed the result in a spreadsheet and came up with this chart:

A Graph of my most used focal points
A Graph of my most used focal points

This data needs a quick explanation. First, the tall 50mm bar is from a 50mm prime lens that I own. The 0mm bar is from a vintage lens I own (which doesn't report data). And the 24mm bar is from a 24mm prime I bought and refunded. The remaining data then contains a spike of about 300 photos at the 28mm end, a spike of about 600 photos at the 70mm end, and the rest isn't all that interesting.

Once you get the list of your most common focal lengths you might find a large cluster somewhere in the middle. For example, if you squint at my chart, there's a small cluster around 34mm - 36mm. This is a hint that I might benefit from a 35mm prime lens. But if you have large clusters that only appear on both ends then it'll mean you should either get a telephoto zoom lens or some sort of wide angle lens, either a zoom or a prime, to further find your favorite focal range.

Onto a Prime

There are two types of lenses: Prime Lenses and Zoom Lenses. Without getting too technical: a prime lens only allows you to take a photo at a certain fixed zoom level, while a zoom lens lets you zoom in and out. Both types of lenses allow you to focus. The quality of a prime lens at a given focal point will usually exceed the quality of a zoom lens at the same focal point, with the exception of maybe a really cheap prime lens compared with a super expensive zoom lens. Primes usually weigh less too. In my opinion it's still important to start with a zoom lens so that you can figure out what zoom levels you like working with most. Once you figure that out you can then figure out which prime lens to get next.

For the most part, 50mm prime lenses seem to be the cheapest and most common. They even have a fun name: Nifty Fifty. Affordability is either a function of the physics involved or that they're just so popular that the production costs are low. For my Sony camera I purchased a new Sony 50mm lens for about $200 (on sale from $250). If you can find a first party 50mm prime lens cheap enough for your camera then I would recommend going with that. Otherwise used is perfectly fine as well.

Pro Tip: Use CamelCamelCamel to determine when a new lens will go on sale.

If you take a lot of photos on the lower focal length end, consider getting a wide angle prime lens. They come in 14mm, 17mm, 20mm, 24mm, really lots of options to choose from. Wide angle lenses are really useful for walking around cities and taking pictures of people doing things. There are wide angle zoom lenses too if you want to further narrow down your search.

There are also prime and zoom telephoto lenses. From what I've seen so far telephoto lenses seem to more commonly be available as zoom variants, maybe because the range is so large.

Adapters for Days

Now, to get really really cheap, this is where the fun begins. There are tons of adapters from older camera lenses to new cameras. Typically speaking, an ancient camera is going to be undesirable, mostly because the resolution of the sensor is so low. However, old lenses still hold up pretty well. DSLR lenses can usually be adapted to work with the more modern Mirrorless cameras. In fact, there are hundreds of permutations available, ranging from $15 for a cheap one (no aperture control) to $40 for a decent one (manual aperture control) to $300 for the really good first-party ones (auto-focus, auto aperture, metadata/EXIF).

With my Sony a7 II, I wanted to get more into long distance photography and therefore needed a Telephoto lens. A good Sony E-Mount telephoto lens can cost thousands of dollars. However, there are really highly rated older A-Mount lenses available from the Minolta line of film cameras. For example, the "Minolta Maxxum 70-210mm f/4.0" lens uses an A-Mount and there are plenty of them on eBay for around $40. Combined with the decent adapter I was able to get a used telephoto lens working on my camera for $80.

My Journey

Here's a list of noteworthy photography equipment I've purchased on my journey:

I started with the body and kit lens, almost immediately bought a tripod to make my landscape shots more stable, and jumped to a 50mm prime lens once it went on sale. At this point I really knew that I liked taking landscape photography (especially around sunrise and sunset) and I bought a polarizer filter (which reduces water reflections) and then finally a telephoto lens.

At this point I'm 4 months into my photography journey. I've learned what type of photos I enjoy taking. Most importantly though I've been having a lot of fun and I achieved my goal to get out more. I'll probably use the equipment that I've got for a while and keep pushing it to the limits for the foreseeable future. If I later decide to upgrade camera bodies then my lenses will all remain compatible.

Tags: #photography
Thomas Hunter II Avatar

Thomas has contributed to dozens of enterprise Node.js services and has worked for a company dedicated to securing Node.js. He has spoken at several conferences on Node.js and JavaScript and is an O'Reilly published author.