Expensive hobbies and a frugal lifestyle can be tough to balance. Few hobbies are more expensive than photography. So what’s a frugal photographer to do? The three best cheap things you can do to improve your photography skill are:

  1. Learn your camera. Read your camera manual, and carry it with you. This is the cheapest improvement you can make. Learn what your camera can and cannot do. Make a lot of photographs.
  2. Take a class from your local art school or community college. For a couple hundred bucks, you’ll have access to a professional photographer, to other enthusiastic amateurs, and possibly to expensive darkroom equipment.
  3. Use a tripod. This is a sure-fire way to sharper pictures. You don’t need to spend a fortune; anything is better than hand-held. I’ve been using a cheap $50 tripod for five years and love it for everything except taking photos from the middle of a stream.

If you did just these three things, your photos would improve such that you wouldn’t need to buy any more gear. But if you’re like me, you’re going to want to invest in more equipment anyhow. If that’s the case, then consider some further advice:

  • Buy used equipment. You can buy used gear from a camera store, but that can be dangerous — all the other goodies will tempt you. Try craigslist instead. My favorite craigslist search is simply “Nikon“. You can also pick up cheap cameras and lenses from family and friends.
  • Use expired film. Dates on film containers are conservative. Buy some cheap expired film and stash it in your freezer (which will halt the decay process) or your fridge (which will retard the decay process). I’ve been given more free expired film than I can ever hope to use. Read more on expired film.
  • Don’t buy photography books and magazines. Borrow books from the public library — the library has a better selection than the store, anyhow. Photography magazines are rarely more than vast brochures for new equipment; find current information on the internet. Both photo.net and Digital Photography Review are excellent.
  • Don’t buy specialty equipment. Borrow it or rent it. There’s no reason to own a fisheye lens unless you have a commercial application. Renting that super-long zoom can actually convince you that it’s not something you need.
  • Consider your purchases carefully. Ask yourself, “Is this a want or a need?” It’s easy to find yourself craving the latest camera or lens. Ignore the urge. Let it pass. Or do what I do: add the stuff to your Amazon wishlist and forget about it. When you come back to it a month later, you may realize you no longer want it.
  • Be creative. It’s fun and satisfying to develop home-brewed alternatives to expensive equipment. Improvise a tripod. Use a few yards of solid-colored fabric (or even butcher paper!) instead of shelling out for a backdrop. Discover which windows offer the best natural light (and under which conditions).
  • Comparison shop. When you do buy new equipment, don’t blindly buy from one source. Compare prices. Not just for the big stuff, but for the little stuff, too. I frequently find better prices on matting, etc. at craft stores than I do at photography stores. And the craft stores have regular 25% off sales!
  • Keep a camera with you. Great photographic moments are fleeting. If you don’t have a camera ready, you won’t get the photo.
  • Earn a little income from your hobby. Enter contests. Submit your photos to the county fair. Sell prints on the internet. Offer cheap framed prints to family and friends (while still allowing yourself a modest profit). You’d be surprised how easy it is to pick up a few bucks here and there from your photography. And you can use the money to subsidize more gear!

The frugal photographer is patient, gradually acquiring inexpensive high-quality equipment. He understands the value of a tripod, a lens shade, and good light. He knows his equipment and what it can do. He is creative.

Great photographs come from skilled camera use, not from expensive equipment. You’ll do more for your final products by taking a photography class from your local community college than you will by purchasing that new $1000 wide-angle zoom lens.

For more information about photography on the cheap, check out The Frugal Photographer (especially “What is frugal photography?“). Make Magazine sometimes points to innovative and cheap photography techniques. For example, they recently highlighted the “starving student” off-camera light kit (mentioned earlier) and how to make a lens hood from a plastic bottle. Make also highlights more complex projects now-and-then, like this camera attachment to make 3D photos.

(Also: I’d love the read your cheap photography tips.)

This article is about Frugality, Odds and Ends