Pro Camera Gear on a Student Budget

craigslistMy first DSLR camera was a Canon 20D that my parents purchased for me as a graduation present back in August of 2005. We went to the store expecting to purchase the camera for $1,599, but found that it was selling for only $1,299. Boy was I excited. Looking back, I consider purchasing that 20D the worst photo-related decision I’ve ever made.

When other photographers see some of the lenses I own (i.e. 24-70mm, 16-35mm), they often wonder how I can afford such expensive gear. After all, I was only an unemployed college student from a middle-class family. What most people don’t know is that I almost exclusively purchase my equipment used from sellers on craigslist. This article is about everything I’ve learned through years of buying and selling camera equipment on that site. If you have the money to purchase the gear you want new, then this article obviously isn’t for you. However, if you want nicer gear without paying absurd amounts of money (maybe photography is just a serious hobby for you), then these tips might be useful to you.

First of all, something I’ve found very useful over the past years is keeping a detailed log of equipment transactions, since it helps me to keep track of how much I’ve spent on this serious hobby of mine. I do this in a Microsoft Excel file, but any spreadsheet software or website (i.e. Google spreadsheets) will do.

Here’s the current state of my equipment log:


The columns I add entries to are “equipment”, “purchase price”, and “sell price”. The values in “expense”, “revenue”, and “net” (cheesy names, I know) are automatically calculated (i.e. expense is “=SUM(B:B)/2″). As I add purchases and sales to the log, I see how much money I’ve given, how much I’ve received, and what my net spending (or earning) is at the current state.

In the log above, you can see that I’ve spent a net of $3,584 on all the camera equipment I currently have. If I were to sell everything I currently have at very reasonable prices right now, my chart tells me that I would have only spent a total of $300-$500 on all the photography I’ve done since I purchased that 20D back in 2005. That’s roughly the cost of the point and shoot camera I used throughout high school before it finally broke during a trip to china! In fact, the reason I’m still at a net loss right now is because of the few bad choices I’ve made along the way (20D, 24-70mm, 70-300mm). If I had followed what I’m going to write in this article from the very beginning, I would have actually ended up making money while using professional gear at the same time.

So what have I learned?

Know the Street Value of Camera Gear

This doesn’t mean knowing how much a camera body or lens retails for. This means knowing the average price a certain piece of equipment is being successfully sold for on craigslist. After all, if you don’t know how much something is worth, how will you know when you see it being sold for a good deal? If you see multiple listings of a certain piece of equipment that are roughly in the same price range, then that’s probably pretty close to the street value.

Buy Low, Sell High

Now that you know the street value of what you want, avoid it. If you buy it at street value now, you’ll have to sell it at lower than what you paid for if you ever sell it later down the road. If you look at my equipment log, you’ll see that most of the time I sell something, it’s either for the price I originally paid or higher. I’ve often used a lens or body for quite a long time and many actuations before selling it for a good amount more than I paid.

Look For Packages

packagesIt’s pretty much always the case that someone selling multiple items together as a package must sell it for significantly less than the sum of each item separately. They are, in a sense, exchanging the extra money they could earn for the time they save by selling it all at once. This presents a great opportunity for the photographer looking for a good deal on a particular item in the package. If a package you come across includes a piece of equipment you want along with many pieces you don’t want, and is extremely cheaply priced, buy it all and sell off everything you don’t want. If the price was good enough, there’s a good chance you’ll end up paying nothing for the gear you wanted after selling off the rest.

Always Sell Items Individually

This is pretty much the previous point reversed. Buying items in packages and selling them individually can get you free gear and maybe even allow you to pocket some cash with your free gear. Buying items individually and selling them in a package will probably lose you money.

Camera Bodies Depreciate Like Cars and Computers

This is what I wish someone would have told me before I started out, since I sold the original 20D I purchased for $1,200 a couple years later for $380. The moment you take the first photo on a camera you purchased new, the value of the camera instantly plummets. Furthermore, camera technology advances very, very quickly, and the next model of your new camera will be released within the next couple years. When this happens, your camera instantly depreciates even more.

The moral of the story is, buy camera bodies used and from a couple generations back (since depreciation will be much slower). Also, “upgrade” often (you’ll want to anyway, right?). This allows you to constantly move up in camera technology without paying extra money.

Professional Lenses Don’t Depreciate Like Camera Bodies

Lenses made for the Canon EF and Nikon F lens mounts are interchangeable and can be used on cameras from as far back as 1987 and 1959 (respectively) and as recent as the latest models. Lens quality and features do not improve nearly as fast as the camera bodies they’re used on, so it’s possible hold onto a professional lens for many years without losing much of its street value. The caveat is that if you accidentally break the lens this tip goes out the window, so take very good care of your gear. Always use a filter.

I’ve found that top of the line lenses (like Canon’s L series) depreciate least quickly, and probably won’t break or fail on you due to their spectacular build quality. As a result, I don’t own any EF-S or third party lenses, though I’m sure you could go for those and do just fine as long as you go for high quality ones that get good reviews.

Jump At Ridiculously Good Lens Deals

jumpEven if you don’t plan on adding the lens to your collection, you will be able to try out a wide range of lenses while pocketing money after you’re done with it. People sometimes pay to rent lenses they’re interested in, which seems funny to me (unless you’re pro, rich, employed, or all of the above). Why rent when you can buy, sell, and profit?

People also talk of variations in sharpness and quality from lens to lens. This is definitely true, but is all the more reason to buy lenses used on craigslist. Some people buy and return a lens repeatedly in order to find a “good copy”, but buying and selling the lens on craigslist will help you do the same thing while potentially putting money in your pocket.

Never Sell Interchangeable Accessories Along With Your Gear

A couple years ago when I sold a copy of the 70-300mm, I threw in a B&W filter along with it, thinking I didn’t need it anymore. B&W is a pretty high-end brand when it comes to filters. When I needed the filter again in the future on a different lens, I didn’t have it. Don’t include things like filters, extra batteries, or extra memory cards when you sell off gear, since you can keep those things for future use (and they don’t really add value to what you’re selling anyway).

There’s More To Come…

If following the guidelines I laid out in this article was as easy and straightforward as I made them seem, then I’m sure a lot more budget conscious photographers would be following these tips to save money on their gear. The truth is, there are definitely a lot of risks, dangers and things to avoid that I’ve come across and learned from as well. My next post will deal with how to know when to buy and when to run away from the deal. That’s the second part of this two part series, so stay tuned!

Update: My new article on how to make safe and smart decisions for used gear on craigslist can be found here: A Guide to Buying Used DSLR Gear.

  • davidypark

    Nice article! I should start keeping track of my purchases too hrmmm

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  • Hans

    You should have bought a Leica, they keep their value quite well :)

    We already knew that the real investment is in lenses, but you have some good tips in there like selling items individually and not including accessories.

    What about re-investing in film? Bodies such as the Canon EOS 1v, or EOS 3, Nikon FM3a, Olympus OM4Ti etc. Since film is 'gone', technological advances won't hurt their value as much as, say, a Panasonic G1. What do you think?

  • Michael Zhang

    Great points :-) Article was mainly geared towards digital photography, so many of the points don't apply to film. Leica's do keep their value VERY well, and technological advances don't affect film bodies nearly as quickly, though older film cameras do lack many features you'd like in newer ones (for cameras in the Canon EOS line at least).

    Thanks for the comment.

  • Hans Doddema

    Hi Michael, you're welcome. But hey, when I was a student, no way I could afford a Leica either :) It would be nice if digital backs were available for film cameras (like the date backs before) to actually add value to them.

  • jon780

    I haven't rented lenses, but I assume the appeal is that if you need a specific lens for a very short period of time, say, a super long, very expensive telephoto prime, you could pay $50 and not have to deal with the hassle of scouring craigslist for a good deal, hoping you get a good copy and don't get ripped off, and then have to deal with the hassle of trying to sell it. There's a big time investment involved with what you outline above, and some people would rather not hassle with it. My time is easily worth a small rental fee versus all the energy I'd have to put into finding a good copy of the lens and then selling it.

    I'd love to see how many hours you have in searching for lenses, buying them, and all the involved work, along with the time investment of selling them. I don't know how much you get paid, but I assume it's a considerably amount of time, and since time is money, I'd equally assume you've spent a great deal of money.

  • jon780

    Oh not to mention re: renting, if you need a lens very quickly, say, within the next day or two (which is common, you get a last minute request to shoot something) you wouldn't have time to wait for a good deal to come around, let alone purchase it and have it shipped.

  • Michael Zhang

    Good points. I was a student with no income, and I never needed to rent any expensive glass on a short notice for a short period of time.

    Regarding the time required, I think it's actually less than most people would think. You can subscribe to a custom search feed for the item you're looking for, and glance at that once in a while to check the latest listings. Also, I was able to have most of the sellers I purchased from meet me at a place just a block down from where I live. (I didn't have a car, and this didn't require any shipping.) Plus, I would say having an item on craigslist shipped to you is a bad idea in general, since you'll want to examine it in person.

    Thanks for taking the time to leave those insightful comments!

  • almostinfocus

    Not to disparage an interesting article with some good information, but jon780 raises a good point that I often bring up to people who value shop or collect items to sell later. A lot of time goes into research, organization, communication, travel time and other various details that can often negate any savings.

    I have a friend who collects comics with the intent of selling them. He's always thrilled when he sells a comic on ebay for $20 for which he only paid $1 at a garage sale. I sometimes point out to him that if he added up the time he spent looking for bargains, grading the comics, writing up listings, taking and uploading photos or making scans, answering questions about the listed items, packaging items for shipping, traveling to and from the post office and any other expenses I'm not including, he would have made significantly more money if he just worked overtime at his job equal to that amount of time he invested in his hobby. Of course, he enjoyed doing the hobby work more than the job work, and there are other benefits, such as actually reading the comics himself, or using cameras and equipment as is the author of this post. But these things need to be considered when looking for bargains to buy, or looking to make money when selling.

  • Michael Zhang

    Good points, but we're talking about significant larger amounts of money that aren't inconsequential for someone like a college student. I purchased my 16-35mm years ago for $800, and still use it extremely often. I just looked on ebay right now, the cheapest, used “Buy It Now” listing I found was for $1,000, which is $200 more than I paid for it years ago. =)

    Also, other things I never would have spent money to purchase (because I didn't need) I basically got for free (i.e. the 430EX flash unit). The reason I didn't get the flash for free was because I fell in love with what it came with (the 40D and 24mm f/2.8) and kept them. Haha.

    But yeah, I agree with all of you who mention that following this article takes a certain amount of time to start up, which is a turn off for certain (or most) people. However, for a college student with a shortage of money but abundance of time (and a desire to try and learn more about photography), this is a way to reduce your “sunk costs”.

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  • jon780

    Yeah I totally understand how it works well for you. I'm the same way, I love following gear and prices. I was really just responding to: “Why rent when you can buy, sell, and profit?”

    And the simple answer is because there's a significant time investment, which you don't really consider because you enjoy doing it, and I'm the same way. Just some people might not want to make that same time investment. They'd rather just pay a couple hundred bucks extra and save the hassle.

    Great article, just wanted to point that out :)

  • xlt

    Good tips. Thanks for sharing.

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  • Alan

    I like the article but I think title is wrong. Two lenses you own are pro lenses, the rest of your gear isn't. You bought both your pro lenses are near fair-market-value, $1100, and $800, which is hardly a student budget. While much of your kit is quite nice and capable of producing fine images, it's misleading to say they are “pro.”

  • poynterama

    Don't forget Leica make digital cameras as well ;)

  • poynterama

    Don't forget Leica make digital cameras as well ;)

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  • torontoraptor

    Dear Michael,

    My question is how you got those Canon Rebels for $7
    and 50 mm lens for $7

    Were they the film Rebel EOS (without digital)?


  • Michael Zhang

    Yeah, it was film =)

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    Can anyone suggest a cheap,basic set up for my new website;s images?

  • Sase 780 Pro

    I am impressed, I have to say. Really rarely do I come across a blog that is both informative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you’ve hit the nail on the head.

  • Lindsay Pietroluongo

    Great article, I love the use of the spreadsheet to keep everything organized. Excellent tips!

  • Lindsay Pietroluongo

    I thought the same thing!