Cheap Shot Challenge: Photos Taken with Expensive Gear Recreated On the Cheap


Want to make some great photos but don’t have or don’t want to spend a lot of money? A few days ago I posted photo of a Hummingbird on my Facebook page I took with a new Nikon D810 and a 85mm 1.8. I received a comment asking me “how much money do you spend on your equipment to get a shot like this?” Others comment from time to time that they’d love to get into photography but don’t have the money.

So, I thought, how close can I come to some of the shots I get with my Nikon D600 and the D810 with a really cheap used DSLR? The personal challenge began.

Ebay has about 4500 Nikon D40’s and about 7000 Nikon 18–55’s listed. There are so many listed that the prices are really low. If you search a bit and you bid at the right time, you can get some really nice cheap equipment. I also started thinking about a good “do most everything” lens. A lens that could take some really nice portraits, macros, has some length on it, with really nice bokeh, fast (f/2.8), and cheap.

I opted for the Tamron 90mm macro. I’m sure there are other choices that some would consider better, but I went with this to fit my needs. Because the Tamron is a full frame lens, it has an equivalent focal length on the Nikon D40 of 135mm. Shopping was completed with a used Yongnou Strobe and a few other items.

Shopping list (all off e-bay):

Nikon D40 (included free 2 gig memory card): $109

Nikon 18–55 $59

Used Tamron 90mm Macro:$209

Used Yongnuo YN–560 flash: $59

Used tripod: $10

Cowboy Studio Triggers: $18

Used Nikon Remote: $2.30

Used Lightstand and Umbrella: $30

Photoshop: $10/Month

Total: $506.30

In contrast, my setup for the Nikon D810 is about $7000+ with lenses, strobes, and just what I normally shoot with. I specifically picked up all of the above items so I could compare some of my favorite types of photography: Macro, Portraits and Long Exposures. I also wanted to limited myself to two lenses for the D40. I shot all photos on Auto White Balance. I tried to use similar focal lengths where I could. Finally, I broke down the cost for each shot and included the shot details.

Keep in mind this is not a direct side-by-side comparison of a Nikon D810 and a Nikon D40. I’m just interested in making really a few great photos with used, old equipment VS a new modern brand new DSLR. Lets get into it. (Note: To see the comparisons in high-res, click on each photo).


Long Exposures

I adjusted color on the D40 to bring the blue out in the night sky. When I setup long exposures with the D810, the Samyang has a hard stop to infinity. So its easy to focus to infinity. The Nikon 18–55 does not. I had to focus on the Moon or something else far away and was amazed at that the Nikon D40 with the 18–55 did this so easily in the dark. After the D40 was focused to infinity, I set the auto focus switch on the side of the lens to off. Both shot on M mode or manual.

Left photo: Nikon D810, Samyang 14mm f/2.8: F/2.8, ISO200, 20 Seconds
Cam, Lens, Tripod, Photoshop Cost: $3810

Right Photo: Nikon D40, Nikon 18–55 f/3.5–5.6: f/3.5 ISO200, 20 Seconds
Cam, Lens, Tripod, Photoshop Cost: $190


Long Exposures

I added just a bit of noise reduction on the D40 photo in Photoshop. Otherwise the photos are pretty much straight out of the camera. Both shot on M mode or manual.

Left photo: Nikon D810, Samyang 14mm f/2.8: f/3.5, ISO400, 20 Seconds
Cam, Lens, Tripod, Photoshop Cost: $3810

Right Photo: Nikon D40, Nikon 18–55 f/3.5–5.6: f/3.5 ISO400, 20 Seconds
Cam, Lens, Tripod, Photoshop Cost: $190



These photos look virtually identical to me. I shot both on Aperture Priority at f/10 to increase the depth of field. I adjusted the saturation on the D40 photo a bit because I shot it on the vivid color setting and wanted it to match the color of the D810 a bit more. I also cropped both photos quite a bit to fill the frame with the flower. Of course the D810 did produce a lot more detail when zoomed in very close. However, the D40 photo clarity and detail is pretty impressive.

Left photo: Nikon D810, Tamron f/2.8: f/10, ISO200,  1/500th of a second.
Cam, Lens, Tripod, Photoshop Cost: $3789

Right Photo: Nikon D40, Tamron f/2.8: f/10 ISO200, 1/640th of a second.
Cam, Lens, Tripod, Photoshop Cost: $338


Portrait #1

I used an Alien Bee B800 (maybe 1/16th power) with the 8″ reflector on a light stand and Pixel King wireless triggers on the D810. I used the Yongnuo YN–560 flash (maybe 1/4th or 1/2 power) with the white shoot through umbrella and the Cowboy Studio wireless triggers on the D40. On the D40 photo I reduced the saturation and adjusted light. On the D810 photo I adjusted contrast and light. I cropped both photos to fill the frame with the model. Both shot on M mode or manual. I shot the D810 photo at 200mm and the D40 at 90mm – 135mm equivalent.

Left photo: Nikon D810, Sigma 70–200 f/2.8: f/2.8, ISO100, 1/160th of a sec
Cam, Lens, umbrella, strobe and wireless triggers, Photoshop Cost:$ 5210

Right Photo: Nikon D40, Tamron 90mm  f/2.8: f/3.2 ISO200, 1/400th of a sec
Cam, Lens, umbrella, strobe and wireless triggers, Photoshop Cost:$ 445


Portraits – Natural Light

I brought both photos into Photoshop and adjusted light, contrast and warmth.

Left photo: Nikon D40, Tamron 90mm f/2.8: f/2.8, ISO200, 1/100th of a sec
Cam, Lens, Photoshop Cost:$ 328

Right Photo: Nikon D810, Nikon 85mm f/1.8: f/1.8, ISO400, 1/800th of a sec
Cam, Lens, Photoshop Cost:$ 3860


Portraits – Natural Light

I brought both photos into Photoshop and adjusted light, contrast and warmth.

Left photo: Nikon D810, Nikon 85mm f/1.8: f/1.8, ISO400, 1/800th of a sec
Cam, Lens, Photoshop Cost:$ 3860

Right Photo: Nikon D40, Tamron 90mm f/2.8: f/2.8, ISO200, 1/100th of a sec
Cam, Lens, Photoshop Cost:$ 328



I brought both photos into Photoshop, adjusted contrast, reduced noise and adjusted color. But not much – very little. Both are shot with the same focal length with respect to the sensor size. I pre-focused to infinity and turned off auto focus. I shot both at f/22 to slow the shutter which gives me a better chance at capturing the lightning. Both cams were on a tripod and I just kept hitting the shutter button. I took about 75 photos before both cams captured the same bolt.

Left photo: Nikon D810, Tamron 24–70 /2.8: f/22 ISO200 1/10th of a sec
Cam, Lens, Tripod, Photoshop Cost:$ 3910

Right Photo: Nikon D40, Nikon 18–55 f/3.5–5.6: f/22 ISO200 1/15th of a sec
Cam, Lens, Tripod, Photoshop Cost:$ 190


The Hummingbird Shot

The only editing I did was some noise reduction on the D40 shot using Photoshop. I shot the D40 photo with a bit more daylight then with the D810 photo.

Left photo: Nikon D810, Nikon 85mm f/1.8: Manual f/6.3, ISO800, 1/250th of a sec
Two strobes, wireless triggers, Cam, Lens, Tripod, remote, Photoshop Cost:$ 4690.00

Right Photo: Nikon D40, Tamron 90mm f/2.8: Manual f/7.1 ISO200, 1/500th of a sec
One strobe, wireless triggers, Cam, Lens, Tripod, remote, Photoshop Cost:$ 423.30


That’s it! What do you think? Is this a commentary on “the camera doesn’t matter?” No, not really. The take away is you can make some amazing photos in most any situation without spending a lot of money – if you stay at ISO400 or below. The D40 becomes really noisy at ISO800 and above. So its not really good for handheld low light photography. Finally, after all this shooting, editing, and looking and photos from both cams I realized its not about the money or equipment, its about getting out. It takes a lot of time to hike, drive setup, etc to take photos. I think that’s where the challenge is. Just getting out and/or finding the time. Hope you guys enjoyed.

About the author: Brian Spencer is a hobbyist/amateur photographer living in the southwestern United States. He doesn’t consider himself a pro, but he enjoys traveling and capturing all the beauty that is people, landscape, animals and anything that is visually stimulating. You can find more of his work on his blog, or by following him on Facebook, Flickr, or 500px.

Image credits: D40 and 35mm by Chewy Chua used under Creative Commons

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  • Andrew Crocker

    Totally agree – glass is probably more important than the camera as it’s what transfers the light to the film/sensor. Crappy lens is going to project a crappy image onto the image/sensor.

    And, yes, learn first, then you will be able to use the more expensive tools better, later.

  • Andrew Crocker

    Indeed. I own a MF digital back, which is a CCD. If I use it for anything other than 50-100iso, I average my shots in PS because they’re so noisy otherwise.

  • Andrew Crocker

    I agree with John Adkins. I shoot primarily with a MF digital back. Very hard to use, but the quality is amazing. But, more than that, the ‘feel’ of the image is why I gravitate to it. Smaller formats just can’t replicate the larger sensor ‘feel’.

  • Andrew Crocker

    Yeah, I like reviews like this where the images are nearly identical. The last ‘example’ is a bad comparison.

  • Andrew Crocker

    Amen. I use a MF digital back primarily. It’s a much harder camera to use, but the results are well worth it with experience.

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  • Edgar Allan Bro

    This x 1000

  • Edgar Allan Bro

    What is it like having terrible opinions?

  • Grive

    Used to be like that.

    However, nowadays Photoshop and lightroom are easily at the grasp of anyone willing to drop cash on a DSLR kit. $10 a month gets you both.

    There are free alternatives, and some of those will certainly be enough for an amateur starting out. However, if that amateur’s intent is to go serious (either into the so-called “prosumer” or full-fledged pro), then the idea of getting proficient in photoshop makes more sense than any other alternative. Like it or not, Adobe’s product suite is by far the industry standard.

  • Jason

    That’s true, I forgot it was $10/m.

  • Grive

    There’s another point I just remembered. Far and away, the vast majority of digital image editing training resources are based in photoshop and/or lightroom.

    That’s gonna save a couple of weeks of a budding photographer’s life, well worth $10 a month.

  • Grive

    That “less easily or quickly” is what kills it.
    While it’s true that GIMP is a perfectly serviceable tool (especially for a budding photographer, who is unlikely to need to monkey around in different color spaces), the cost of photoshop nowadays makes GIMP a hard sell.

    Even at minimum wage, an average of two hours saved a month would mean GIMP is too expensive, and it quickly goes downhill from there.

  • Grive

    I don’t think the article is trying to say otherwise. As you say, different tools for different jobs.

    Considering the history behind the article, the idea here is hardly that you should sell your MF camera and troll ebay for an old BMW and a Canon D30. The big question is: How much does a budding photographer (or a wannabe photographer) need to get serious?

    All of the cheap pictures are stuff a new photographer would be happy to put on his facebook page. By the time that photographer is skilled enough to easily see the difference (and more importantly, to care about it), those $500 will have gone a long, long way.

  • Grive

    I’m not sure you can easily take those pictures with a smartphone. I don’t think we’re talking about the same photographer profile here.

    Think of this person, who I’m sure you’ve met a million times before (and likely, t’was you years and years ago): A person who thinks photography is cool, and most likely has tried and enjoyed taking photos. Maybe dad gave him a kodak instamatic 110 as a gift so the kid could play photographer along (I might be dating someone here…). Nowadays, most likely, that person has quite the active facebook/instagraam feed. After a while, that person starts to longingly see the pictures of pro photographers and thinks “oh, how I’d love to take great photos like those”.

    So that person sees the equipment they’re using, and finds $3000 full framers at best, $40,000 hasselblads and several car’s trunks worth of light stuff at worst. Heck, even a decent 4/3 setup will dance around the thousand bucks at best buy, and that’s before getting accessories and extra lenses.

    Is the advice to that person to try spending $500 on a decent if old kit really that bad? It’s not for someone who wants better party photos. It’s for someone who wants to become a “real” photographer but believes the cost of entry is too high. By the time that person is limited by what a D40 can do, those $500 will have gone a very long way.

    Your definition of the ultimate camera is spot-on. Then again, if you want to take 1/200 pics in low-light, a big honkin’ YN560 flash certainly will allow a Nikon D40 to do so, and give you a massive improvement over a smartphone with the glorified LED that passes for a flash. If flash isn’t available, drop that macro like it’s hot and put a nifty-fifty in there. You’ll save $100 and have a camera that will allow you to handhold indoors without flash.

  • Jason Young

    Great points!

  • Jim Johnson

    I used to be one of those people who touted that you “needed” the best equipment, but then I got onto a job one day and broke my “good” lens. I ended up using a kit lens I had with me. I couldn’t tell the difference.

    Sure, you should invest in “pro” lenses, but it isn’t really for the quality of image they produce, it’s for their versatility. A f 2.8 constant aperture zoom will give you more options compared to a variable aperture 3.5-5.6 lens.

  • Alan Klughammer

    I used Gimp professionally for a few years, and there are others who are masters at Gimp. I missed adjustment layers though.

    as for cost, your argument, if you include a few months training and learning the program, and the fact that Photoshop will cost you at least $10 per month forever, I don’t think the difference is as great as you make out…

  • Grive

    It’s $10 a month forever, sure. GIMP is more time-consuming forever, too. That’s my point. We’re both comparing a continuous investment. $10 a month “forever” vs. more time invested forever. As you get more proficient and successful as a photographer, both costs become relatively lower: On one hand, $10 a month becomes less relevant, and on the other, mastering GIMP makes the difference in workflow speed less relevant.

    From my experience with both, I happen to believe that adobe’s side wins out that race easily if you are an active photographer/editor at any level of skill.

    I’m not saying GIMP is bad, or sucks, or anything like that. It’s a very capable program. I’m just saying, adobe has made photoshop very, very accesible pricewise. If you’re serious nowadays about photography and photo-editing (professionaly or as a hobby), then any software that slows your workflow vs. adobe’s suite becomes a very tough sell.

  • Jacob

    True when my D300 got stolen along with my Nikon 24-70 F2.8. I thought I’ll just buy a something to get me by until i get back to the states. I bought a D5000 and a Tamron 28-75 F2.8 and after getting use to it I noticed I couldn’t tell the difference between what I shot with the D300 and the cheaper gear. I miss the camera body more than the lens but even then they only features I was missing was wireless flash and using older motor driven lenses. I now keep a D5000 as a backup camera and as a travel camera.

  • popkorn520

    Have to disagree somewhat. Can I tell the difference in a pic shared on facebook? Probably not. Can I tell the difference in a print? Quite often yes. There are differences in micro-contrast which enhances perceived sharpness, it shows up on edges and where in focus areas meet out of focus areas that are unmistakable. That being said I would take good glass on a D40 over crappy glass on a D800 any day.

  • Mindy

    Um, I’d like to see the original files of these images. And I’d like to see prints, printed at the sizes that clients would order. Then we can talk legitimately about the value of good equipment.

  • Desmond Downs

    Really nice comparison :) Of course the people who study images with a microscope will tell you how superior the D810 is but in a normal photo, or viewed on a computer screen in 90% of shooting situations they will produce similar results. Of course with its 1/500th flash synch speed the D40 will have much more flash power in sunlight conditions :)

  • Jason

    I give in. :)

  • Mr Hogwallop

    This is kind of like comparing a Nissan Sentra and a GT-R and they are both going 50 mph.

  • Jacob

    Again a photographer can tell. However 99% of the population can’t tell. Most photographers choose equipment think it makes them a better photographer. I’ve seen photos taken with a D4 and it looks like it was shot with a D40 and kit lens.

  • Alan Klughammer

    And bringing the argument back to this article, a pro camera is better than a cheap alternative because it takes less time and effort to get the results a serious photographer needs/wants.

    The point of the article was that you can get good results with less expensive gear albeit with more time and effort involved. The skills you learn, either with a cheap camera or inexpensive software, like GIMP, will still be useful when you upgrade.

    Conversely, using expensive software or camera gear does not guarantee better photos.

  • Grive

    Hahaha sorry. That idea got stuck and I had to dump it somewhere. Surprisingly, and despite all appeareances to the contrary, I’m not a paid shill for adobe.

    Mhhm. Maybe I should talk to them about that sometime soon.

  • Grive

    We can go circles and circles around that particular argument, since we’re talking about relative quality. You can get a DSLR kit for even less than $500. Either get an even older DSLR, or drop that macro and get yourself a reversing ring (or even a set of lens caps and a toiler paper tube), and you’re down to $320-330 or so.

    I feel that $10 a month is worthwile, even cheap, for anyone who truly wishes to take photography as a serious hobby (moreso if their intent is to go pro). I also believe that the savings in time and frustration of just getting photoshop and lightroom are well worth that investment vs. going the free route, while developing a skillset that will be more valuable in the future, especially if they choose to go pro. I also believe that if you shoot every week, you’ll have more time and money if you take an extra hour after your shift once a month and pay adobe.

    You believe otherwise, and it’s OK. GIMP is slower and harder than photoshop. You believe that’s worth $10 a month. I don’t, no matter how much money you’re making.

  • Mike

    I disagree with this because “Good glass” is not just about sharpness, not at all. Good glass has other advantages that even show up in a small, 100% blog post.

    Good glass also has better local contrast, less chromatic aberration, and less of many other types of subtle flaws that may not be consciously observed but cumulatively distract from the image. Good glass can also include a f/2.8 constant aperture zoom, which is more expensive because it will get you f/2.8 even at full telephoto. Your consumer grade lens which is not constant aperture will close down to something like f/5.6 at full telephoto, so the Good Glass helps you get a low-light shot that otherwise would have worse depth of field or be too blurry because of the darker f/5.6.

    I have photographed on a budget and some were impressed by the look of some photos I took and asked what camera I used. I said Canon Rebel. They said “What?!? But that’s not professional.” No, but I put L glass on it, and that transformed the camera. When all your equipment is cheap, the one thing that will make the most visible difference is Good Glass. It makes more difference than switching to an expensive body.

    When I put my older non-L glass on the Rebel, the photos were noticeably soft and mushy, not just in sharpness but in the other factors I mentioned. And it had terrible CA. Good glass is worth investing in, even on a budget. Because when I finally got a better camera, I could stick with the same good glass.

  • Jason

    No problem, this is probably the first time this has been mentioned on here without a heated debate. It’s been a pleasure.

    And don’t tell anyone, but I agree with you about the Gimp.

  • Jacob

    Again you the Photographer! can tell. Now if we talking a really crap lens then yes people will tell. My Tamron 28-75 f2.8 is was just good as my Nikon 24-75 f2.8. Now compare a Canon 50mm to a Nikon, The Nikon is better but would you be able to tell if you didn’t know the specs of the camera? No.

    The camera or lens doesn’t matter unless you get the shot and again if your not shooting for a publication no one cares!

    Arizona Highways has some really strict guidelines and photos have been approved on cheap glass and bodies. Getting paid makes you professional not your gear.

    Will better gear make it easier? Yes, but do the people who aren’t photographers or in the field don’t care what equipment the photo was shot with.

  • Chris Blair

    Awesome article, I’m no pro photographer or anything, but its great seeing that my lower quality gear is more capable than I am. I hope to get there one day, but at least I don’t need to spend all that money and get the big toys just yet. Thanks for posting and hope to see more down-to-earth and informative articles like this on Peta Pixle more often.

  • Pattymac100

    I recently upgraded from a D300 using an 85mm 1.8 to a D610 using an 85mm 1.4 setup, all Nikon gear. And MAN what an improvement!! To my eye, there is no comparison in the quality improvement going to full frame and pro glass. Honestly, I don’t care if an untrained consumer can tell the difference. I care about what I see. And I see a massive improvement in image quality. I do use the PS CC suite and start in LR5 and polish my favorites in PS. But with the change of camera and lens, my PS time has been cut substantially. I definitely believe in using the best gear possible. That’s why I shot a Pentax 67 in my film days. Size matters.

  • Valter Van D

    yepp I forgot to mention I went from a professional camera to a intro camera on purpose, I was testing out the waters before diving in all the way. I love Nikon and can’t wait to expand my inventory. although what I do have now, works wonderfully.

  • AYPNathaniel

    Was always a strong believer that photographers, not the gear, make the photos. Great article, some video would’ve been great.

  • NuyaBizness

    The D40 appears to be softer for the portraits which isn’t bad depending on taste.

  • Frank Nazario

    awesome, awesome, awesome so technically speaking if I know what im doing i grab a D3300 and 2 lenses and i can litterally be almost the same as the bigger rig… the magic word… ALMOST. Guys yes you can and yes the creative aspect and technical knowledge of the photographer comes to play… but for professional work the crowd that can see the “almost” difference usually is the crowd that pays the bills … a camera is a tool … but if you have the technique a better tool with the proper technique will give you better results, in a shorter time and more efficiently.

  • Frank Nazario

    I’ve built a business using gear that is not in the PRO category not even in the prosumer field and yet I’ve been able to present the end customer with a service and product that he/she feels worth paying for. Convinience, Versatility and Performance do have a place in what we do and if we do need it and can get it … im all for it.
    Know your gear first… learn it limiits and once you do that THEN start working around them… if you see that your gear cant do it THEN upgrade. IMHO.

  • Dark Rose Love

    Pro photographers are able to take quality photos using cheap gear not only because of their skill but because they know the limitations of the gear they’re using. They know what will work well on cheap camera. And they may also have a lot of failure that they are just not showing anyone.

    To make this a truly useful comparison for people you need to show under what conditions pro gear makes a vast difference and show what a poor job cheap gear does. Show a comparison in low light, high ISO. Show what the D810 can do at its highest and lowest ISO (12,800 and 64) vs. what the D40 can do, same scenes, at its highest and lowest ISO. Compare ISO 1600 on both. Compare fast action daylight, fast action low light, handheld indoors ordinary incandescent. Not sure how you’d do print enlargements on the internet but that’s another place of huge difference. These types of comparisons will show people what NOT to expect the budget camera to do well. Otherwise they are being set up for a lot of frustration and self-blame when these shots turn out like crap using the budget camera.

    And not “a little bit of noise reduction.” What is a “little bit” to you vs. to me vs. to a million other people? “So to get this D40 shot all I need is apply some noise reduction.” All noise reduction programs are not even all alike. Some are very sophisticated, some crap. So you open another bunch of variables here.

  • Kerensky97

    But if you only need to go the speed limit to get to work and get your paycheck it’s a fair comparison. The GT-R will outperform on the race track, but 99% of the photographers perform on the racetrack.

    Also how well will the GT-R perform with an amateur driver behind the wheel? Even if you take him to the racetrack and put him behind the wheel of your GT-R he won’t perform much different as if he was driving his own Sentra.