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by Bart Arondson

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I'm an amateur photographer. As a student going through university, money is (obviously) not abundant and buying photography gear is not a top priority.

That being said, I still love to use what I have and always try to get the most out of it.

Do you guys have any tips for making the most out of inexpensive gear? I have a 4 year old Canon Rebel XS, 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 and 50mm f/1.8. Deficiencies such as not owning a flash unit or not having faster lenses tend to pop up every once in a while.

In summary, I'm basically looking for ways to maximize my current camera setup. Any thoughts?

I welcome any suggestions-whether they pertain to macro, landscape, portrait, etc...

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When buying a flash: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/17002/… –  Esa Paulasto Apr 7 at 13:13
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Don't forget that you can crop and process the image after taking the photo. And that a tripod, monopod, or other stabilizing techniques (including something as simple as resting the camera on a railing, bracing yourself against a solid surface, or tying a string to the camera, standing on one end, and pulling up against it) can help you get away with longer exposures. (A small flash can be gotten for the cost of a pizza or two, but I prefer shooting available light when I can.) –  keshlam Apr 8 at 1:07
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Stop reading sites where people discuss gear instead of pictures. Then you won't be unhappy about what you don't have ;-) What you have is still much more flexible (and gives better quality) than most new compacts. I used a Nikon D60 with a single 35 mm 1/1.8 lens for > 2 years and I was very happy with it. One of the things that gave me the biggest improvements was starting to shoot RAW and post-processing it. Also, instead of thinking about stuff you can't do (shoot small birds or do macro) focus on stuff you can do with your current setup. I tried some panoramas and time lapses. –  Szabolcs Apr 8 at 17:30

9 Answers 9

up vote 16 down vote accepted

I'd say the best thing you can do is embrace the limitations that your gear imposes on you. There is nothing quite like having some restrictions to encourage creativity.

At the end of the day you can make amazing photographs using almost any equipment, it is the idea and how you express that idea which matters. Less is often more.

Given your 50mm you should be set to take great protraits, throw in a couple of DIY reflectors: a white sheet, some tinfoil on a backing form and you can get some pretty good lighting just using natural light.

You can also do some pretty good landscapes without a wide angle lens, it just requires looking at things a little differently. You can shoot good landscapes well into the telephoto range (100mm for example).

The 28-135 can be used pretty effectively for flower shots etc. (max mag of 0.19x) If you can afford a couple of extension tubes you can get into true macro territory (1.09x with a 25mm tube source)

Don't feel limited by what you have, rather embrace it.

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I need to try the fun foil idea. Thanks for the tips! –  jollypianoman Apr 8 at 18:20
    
@codedude No problem, glad I could help. –  Richard Smith Apr 9 at 5:23

While you say that you're having problems due to "not having faster lenses", I'm not quite sure that's true - you've got an f/1.8 lens, which is over a stop faster than all those big white 70-200 L zooms. I'd look at this more as "what can you do with a fast 50mm lens?".

50 mm on a crop body is just about classic portrait length; as Nir has suggested, a cheap 3rd party flash can make a world of difference here if you can find the fairly small amount of money from somewhere.

The other use which I personally stretch my 50mm f/1.8 to is shooting indoor sports. Depending on what sport you want to shoot, you're going to have to be pretty close to the action, so it's a matter of picking and choosing your events, but it's certainly something that can be done.

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I shot some indoor soccer with an 85 and that was pushing it. A 50mm for indoor sports would require something rather specific I think ... –  rfusca Apr 8 at 16:15
    
All the photos in the linked Flickr set were taken with the 50mm - and that's not an atypical venue for the UK. It probably helps that I'm on good terms with the coach and the team so I can prowl wherever I like round the sidelines. –  Philip Kendall Apr 8 at 18:41

You can work around most equipment limitations, it won't be as reliable and easy to use as the "official" solution but it can be made to work.

For example, if you want the "classic" wide angle landscape shot you can do a panorama (just remember to set manual mode, manual focus and manual white balance)

If you want to shoot macro you can reverse your lens - just take the lens off the camera and hold it reversed with the front element touching the lens mount of the camera, you then get focus by moving the camera slowly backward and forward.

You may have to change camera settings to let it take pictures without a lens, to get more in focus you need to stop down the lens, on Canon cameras you do this by connecting the lens, switching to Av mode, setting the aperture, pressing the DOF preview button (on the bottom right of the lens mount) and then, with the button pressed detaching the lens - it will then remain stopped down

You already have all you need to take portraits, to control the light you can build DIY reflectors out of thing you would normally throw in the garbage like Richard Smith suggested.

If you can spend a little money you can get cheap Chinese flashes on eBay for around $40 for manual models or $80 for TTL models, you can also often get work lights from local hardware/electricity/lighting stores for cheap.

If you get cheap lights use them with DIY modifiers (reflectors, softboxes, grids, snoots are all easy to make from leftover packing material).

And just try things, if you don't succeed you can always come back here with a more specific question.

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Tutorial on using reversing rings for macro on the Photo SE blog, here: photo.blogoverflow.com/2011/07/… –  ElendilTheTall Apr 7 at 14:05
    
For really close macro, hold the 50 (reversed) against the 28-135 (with the zoom set to 28). –  Robin Apr 7 at 18:49

Using unleashed flash brings me with not to much spented money a huge step forward. Especially wireless with radio transceivers like Yongnuo RF-603.

Picture/light quality is much better when you do not use flash straight forward from flash-hot-shoe (more informations about this topic for example here).

You can use unleashed flash for nearly every kind of photography (macro, landscape, portrait, etc..).

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My first reaction is that this is a very broad question without a specific use case. How you might make the most out of this gear for landscapes differs greatly from the same question for portraits, or for macro, and although you didn't mention specifically, very much so for action/sports.

So, following that, my second thought is that you make the most of what you have by figuring out what you want to do. Then, you can become familiar with where your gear has limitations in that area, and know to focus either your creativity or your budget (or both!) in overcoming them.

For example, if you're focused on portraits, you may decide whether it's worth spending a couple of hundred dollars on a remotely-triggered flash plus a softbox is worth it — or whether you can set up a portrait area with great natural lighting (and maybe some cheap DIY reflectors). Or, if you decide to go after macro, you can try some of the budget macro techniques. For landscapes, the answer might be that what you really need to do is become intimately familiar with the area you want to photograph — and actually very little to do with your gear at all.

Or maybe the answer is that you really do want to become generally accomplished and do all of these things. Nothing wrong with that, but you'll probably get there faster if you do work on a focus with a bit of serial monogamy — even if it's just a day for this project, a day for that....

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There's been plenty of good advice from others. The creativity imposed by equipment limitations can be valuable. For example, experimenting with using your 50 f/1.8 as a portrait or indoor sports lens.

Other suggestions I'd add -

  • A 4 year old Rebel won't be quite state of the art on noise performance - but this is the Instagram generation. Play with some deliberately noisy, grainy, mono low light work that could've been shot in the 1970s on pushed Tri-X. Have a look around on Flickr, 500px, wherever and get some inspiration. Evening street scenes would be a good starting point.

  • Still life and / or macro can be great fun, and has very low entry requirements. Anything lying around at home - fruit is good, ditto toys - artfully arranged and photographed from a low(ish) angle. If you need a background, just use plain sheets of paper. I sometimes use a cheap flipchart pad I bought for this purpose, but printer paper is fine, or cheap coloured art card.

  • You don't mention if you're yet shooting raw or still on JPEG. If you're not, try it - there are good free raw converters to let you get started, such as Raw Therapee.

  • If you like taking portraits, a cheap flash would definitely help (and for less than you think). Reflectors are also worth considering though - just a sheet of white card or foam board can do wonders, or cover it with baking foil to get something brighter.

  • If you like landscapes or architecture, I'd see if I could find a little spare cash for a basic tripod. Doesn't have to be a fancy Manfrotto or Gitzo - I learnt with one that cost me GBP 30, and it was fine for years. Use that with the self-timer so you're not touching the camera during the exposure and you can get some good results.

  • You've cited a 28-135 as your basic lens. It's not a model I know (I shoot Nikon) but it's not especially wide on an APS-C body. You should be able to pick up a used 18-55 kit lens for very little - I think you'd find that for a number of subjects the extra field of view would be a major help.

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The 28-135 is a good all purpose lens for the price. It covers a good range for many purposes so you should be able to get a lot of usage out of it. The only real problem you have with it is that it is not a fast lens, but if you shoot in good light this is not a limiting issue.

The 50 is a fast lens, except for most indoor sports where the slow AF makes it pretty useless. If the action is at a fairly stable distance then you can make do. It is a great lens for portraits (as I believe everyone has already mentioned). You can also use it for macro shots by simply holding it backwards against your 28-135 (a napkin with a hole in it to keep from scratching your front element is a good idea). A cheap reversing ring to attach the two is even better, but you can try it immediately by just handholding.

If you would like to try some studio work, try a group meetup held by someone with a studio. I have done a half dozen of these over the last year, using my 28-135 almost exclusively. It is an excellent range for the studio (many photographers use the 24-105), and the speed isn't an issue when using studio lighting. In my area these meetups tend to range from $20 and up, depending on the subject, number of participants and subject matter.

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I'm surprised you can get such good quality with the homemade macro lens. –  jollypianoman Apr 7 at 19:32
    
The hard part is focusing when the focal plane is extremely shallow. Using burst mode (assuming natural lighting) can help increase your chance of getting a good shot. Live view will also make it easier if you are in a position to use it. I didn't have live view for the linked shot (Rebel XT) so there was definitely a bit of luck involved. –  Robin Apr 8 at 19:41

Lots of other good advice but I would like to add a couple of post processing options that you can explore where the price is definitely within a student budget, i.e. Free, they will also run under Windows, Mac or Linux, with Linux being better at running on older, cheaper, hardware.

  1. ImageMagik - Lots of batch processing options from the command line including averaging a number of shots for noise reduction.
  2. GIMP 2 - This free image editor, plus its plugins such as G'IMC, provide post processing power of a similar level, (Trying to avoid starting the fight over which is better), to that costing 100s provided by tools such as photoshop, etc. GIMP has far too many options to mention.
  3. Hugin - Panorama stitcher, Lens Calibration, Exposure/Focus Stacking - the last will let you play with things like taking several shots with varying focus and combining them into a single shot to make up for shallow depth of field.
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Stop down. The 50/1.8 II's sweet spot is around f/4. Most f/3.5-5.6 kit lenses get considerably sharper when stopped down into the f/8-f/16 range. Shooting wide open exacerbates issues of softness, LoCA (purple fringe), and vignetting. Single simplest thing you can do to make your glass look more expensive.

Post-process. There are tons of open source tools out there to play with: the Gimp, RAWTherapee, Hugin--take advantage of them. You might not be able to afford a wider lens, but you can panostitch. f/8 and post processing are the great equalizers among glass.

Flash, though, there's no way around not having one and reflectors only get you so far. Consider going Strobist with cheap manual-only gear.

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