Good professional grade used or new digital camera for under $350-400?
August 24, 2012 2:10 PM   Subscribe

Photographers & photo enthusiasts: Can I find a good professional grade used or new digital camera for under $350-400?

I realize someone asked a similar question several months ago, but they already had some cameras in mind they wanted to run by people. This is a somewhat more open-ended question.

Some background. . . Don't know a great deal about the technical aspects of photography, but since I was engaged in drawing, painting, and studying visual art and film in youth, I seem to have developed strong senses of composition and aesthetic poignancy that translate into the photographic medium. Have been taking artful photos dabblingly throughout my life with random, inexpensive point-and-shoot analog and digital cameras, and for some time with late '60s and early '70s Canon analog cameras, purchased inexpensively at antique shops, both of which broke about a year after purchase.

Anyway, over the last year have gotten into the habit of taking artistic photos with my phone camera, and surprisingly have gotten some good images, resulting in a number of friends and acquaintances who've seen them encouraging me to become more active and try to dip my foot in the waters of professional freelance photography.

To this end, I clearly need a decent camera. In any case, have tapered off using the phone camera recently, as I seem to have stretched its particular strengths as far as I can, and, as I tend to shoot a lot of dilapidated, crumbling landscapes, have been increasingly frustrated with it not getting the kind of precision and detail I'm looking for.

Have up to $400 to spend at the moment, and, keeping in mind that the quality does indeed depend on the photographer more than the camera to some extent, am wondering whether it would even be possible to find a used (or daresay new) camera which would more or less fit my purposes.

Looking for a camera that will be able to capture:
-- dilapidated landscapes, detritus, beautiful squalor, and patterns of light thereof with a great deal of precision. For example, I, II
-- light, shadow, and mist with great precision. I, II
-- people & models with clarity & depth, in a somewhat more commercial vein, I, II
-- jewelry (for a burgeoning jewelry designer friend)

Suppose the camera would need to be able to shoot in RAW, as that seems to be what all the kids are doing nowadays, and also unquestionably to offer Manual mode, and probably have some semblance of good interchangeable lenses.

Any and all suggestions appreciated. Thanks much!
posted by cotesdurhone to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
No, you sadly can't get anything remotely close to a modern "professional" or "semi-professional" camera body alone at that price, used or new.

You could however squeak into the market with an entry-level cropped-sensor dSLR with a kit lens and perhaps a nifty-fifty (50 mm f/1.8) prime lens used at that price. This is the best bet for you. Looking at the linked pictures, there's no reason even an entry-level body from 8 years ago couldn't get those shots. Really, professional grade cameras yield benefits that you honestly won't need. Super high resolution, incredibly low noise at high ISO, full-frame sensors, builds like tanks with weatherproofing, and extremely fast shooting are things you can most likely do without. These are what often differentiate the professional grade cameras.

There is one other concern: a few of the shots you linked to are heavily, heavily post-processed. The look achieved was most certainly not pulled off in camera. Can you get yourself Photoshop or figure out how to use the best free approximation (Gimp, I guess?)?
posted by drpynchon at 2:26 PM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think a used Canon 40D or Nikon D200 might fall in that price range. They might be missing the bells and whistles of a brand new DSLR, but they'd be a notch above a new entry-level camera like the Rebel or D3100 in terms of being more of a "professional" camera.
A good lens is another issue though...
posted by starman at 2:27 PM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

The examples you cited (and frankly, most photos) have much, much, much more to do with the lenses and lighting and exposure (shutter speed/aperture/iso triangle) than the actual camera used. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to this. Get yourself a used dSLR in good shape in your price range, and play.
posted by AlisonM at 2:32 PM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

At your price point, we're talking about used gear, of course. And we're talking about gear that's entry-level consumer or just a step above.

For a DSLR body, you can get a good condition Canon 30D or 40D for $300 or $400 respectively. These both fall in the "just a step above" category.

This doesn't include a lens however. For $80-90 you can get everyone's favorite, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8. There are entry-grade zoom lenses like the 18-55 mm that would probably go for around $120.

Anyways, the lenses and know how are really the big deal. But $400 is really squeezing things when it comes to digital DSLRs.
posted by Mercaptan at 2:36 PM on August 24, 2012

In your price range you'll be looking at DSLRs. Any DSLR from the past 5 years will be able to do what you want. Even older cameras, too. They're all the same, for the most part. Canon's T3 is available for $490 on Amazon, and that camera's about a year and a half old. Good lenses help, too, and are more important than the actual camera. $400 means you won't be able to get more than a basic body and lens, but in the future if you're still interested in photography it'd be a good idea to invest in some nice lenses. You can read some very good reviews here.

What's most important, though, is how you use the camera. Like others have said, technical knowledge will help you more than any single camera will. The camera's just a tool; knowing how to use it will make your images way, way better. A great way to learn is to take darkroom classes. They'll help you understand how to make an image rather than just take one. Photography's deceptive in that a lot of work can go in after the actual photo's been taken. There are some good tutorials on the process of photography here.
posted by skilar at 2:53 PM on August 24, 2012

I'd get a used Canon 40D or Nikon D200. Avoid zoom lenses of all kinds. Instead, get a 35/2 or 50/1.8 and don't buy another lens for at least six months. You'll come to love it.
posted by morninj at 2:56 PM on August 24, 2012

You will get nothing approaching current professional-grade gear on that budget, considering that you need both the body and at least one lens. I'd budget closer to $1,000 to get something like professional (e.g., used Canon 7D and 50mm 1.4, or 100mm 2.8 macro).

It's the lenses that make a camera, and used lenses hold their value better than used camera bodies. It's possible that you could get a passable lens and an archaic body at your price point.

Even rather old dSLRs will give you RAW. My Canon 350D had it in 2005. A quick Craigslist search shows 350Ds going for less than $200. I'd put the rest of your budget to a 50mm and cards. If you have any money left, buy a flash. If you have money left after that, buy an off-camera sync cord.

If you wanted to take a different route than dSLRs, I'd recommend Canon's G series camera. I think the current G11 runs $700 or so new, but older G10s and G9s can be had. They offer RAW and full manual control, but not interchangeable lenses.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:58 PM on August 24, 2012

I'm also here to tell you that every single one (as in every. single. one.) of the photos you linked to could have been taken with a three year old entry level DSLR from Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Sony, etc. Nothing in those photos required features that a higher-end DSLR would give (such as multiple lightning quick cross-type AF points, weather sealed body, high frame rate, 35mm sensor size, etc.).

I agree with the other posters who have said that a lot of those there is a bunch of post processing going on as well. If that's the kind of stuff you want to do, start looking at apps that will fit your needs and budget (hint: Gimp, Photoshop Elements, or maybe Lightroom; or, Photoshop with a student discount).

The bigger name brands (Canon and Nikon) have more lenses made for them. Before you buy make sure you understand what a "crop sensor" is and how it affects the effective focal length of lenses. For example, a 50mm lens on a crop sensor will look like an 80mm lens, and will dramatically change how you can frame things without moving your physical position. Also, compare the feel of, for example, a Nikon and the feel of a Canon. Their menu systems and the ergonomics are pretty different.

If you're serious and want to turn this into a business of some sort, start seeking out more opinions of your work. Sometimes family and friends can be over-complimentary of mediocre work.

Photography can be really expensive. Pro quality filters can be up to $400, bags that are $150, cleaning systems for $80, flashes that are $450, remote flash trigger systems upwards of $400, battery grips that are $250, light stands, umbrellas, soft boxes, etc. We haven't even gotten into a computer, graphics tablet, the cost of prints, etc. My advice here is that you continue to do research and make sure you need whatever it is that you're considering buying. If you don't need 43 cross-type AF points, for example, you might not need the camera that costs $2000 more.

Some good forums are to be found at DPReview and POTN. Keep asking questions, but it sounds like right now you need to find a camera in your price range. Check what's available on eBay,, or Craigslist in that price range and then go research features.
posted by dave*p at 3:05 PM on August 24, 2012

Here's the deal. I have no idea what you want to get out of photography, whether this is a life-long hobby, whether you want to make money, or whether this is just a phase you're going through. The point is, answering this matters. For me, it's a life-long thing that involves making money. So this is the strategy I would employ if that is an option for you and I was dead broke - which relatively speaking, is what you are if you want to get involved semi-professionally.

You've got 3 main categories of expenses. Camera body, lenses and doo-dads. Doo-dads include camera bag, batteries, a tripod, filters, etc. Lighting deserves its own category (both qualitatively and in terms of $$$) but it sounds like you're not into that yet.

Pick up a 30D and a 50mm fixed lens (or perhaps a 35mm fixed, since I believe the 30d has a cropped sensor - read up on this, it's important). You can probably get this combo for under $400 on Craigslist. This will train you in how to use a camera.

From there on, once some time has passed, you'll know what your lens and camera can or can't do. Then you can start buying new lenses. If you can afford Canon L lenses, they are of the highest quality and tend to keep their value. There are macro lenses which lets you shoot things up close and can be a lot of fun for someone who is into composition. And there are telephoto lenses for someone who wants to capture action but can't get up close, like in a sports game or if you're taking pictures of animals. Any way you go, these lenses will work (for still purposes, Canon now has a line of video lenses but you can ignore that completely) with any future Canon camera body you buy, because they share the same mount.

In the future, if you are unhappy with the quality of the 30D, you can upgrade to a camera that better suits you. There is a tendency among new photographers to "buy everything" but I can tell you from experience that it's not worth it. I've sold a lot of equipment used as a result of being overzealous, but through this process I can also tell you that there are a few pieces that you couldn't pry off my cold dead fingers.

And to comment on the photos you linked to, they are so heavily processed its kind of funny. They should not be connected to any conversation about what kind of camera you should buy. You should look around in your area for classes on Photoshop/Lightroom for photographers. I am late-bloomer in terms of Lightroom (I'm a PS fiend) but actually that program has a lot of value and will keep your shit organized. Learn what these applications can do because frankly they are game-changers. I don't want to get into a complicated conversation about this but basically there are many fashion photographers that don't have complicated light set-ups but know what they are going to do in post (that's short for post-production) ahead of time.

The portrait you linked to, the girl with the red jacket, is all about lighting. You will not be able to take that shot without artificial lighting. She has a key coming in from the left, a bounce probably on the right, and possibly a hair light as well (might just be the key).

Long story short, in my opinion, photography is a huge field and that is both good and bad. If you're willing to give yourself time to grow and learn organically, I think spending $400 on a starter kit is a great idea, as long as you hope to have more money in the future, because then you will able to specialize knowledgeably. Maybe you like working with people. Or maybe you hate people. Maybe you like to take road trips. Maybe you like bugs. Maybe you like urban environments. Maybe you like sunsets. The point is, there is some wonderful equipment out there and you will want to get yourself stuff that will keep you shooting.
posted by phaedon at 4:10 PM on August 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

With that budget, you can do surprisingly well - for a camera BODY. The lens(es) will be the killer.
As much as many people don't want to admit it, older mid to pro level bodies can still turn out great images. I'm a longtime Canon user, and every so often I'll use one of my remaining 10D bodies. Its 6 megapixels, kinda slow... but the images out of it are great. If you simply need something to get going, you've got a bunch of options. I think a great condition 10D runs about $100 these days. You can probably find a 20D or better or a more current Rebel. Look at KEH.
posted by blaneyphoto at 7:47 PM on August 24, 2012

You do not need a professional body. Entry-level DSLRs have the same image quality as their (semi-)professional cousins. What you get in the pro body as opposed to the entry-level is stuff like better build quality, weather proofing, better ergonomics, some bells and whistles, a better viewfinder, an LCD top-screen, things like that.

Just about any DSLR body from about 5-7 years ago will be very affordable right now, but also still quite capable, and anyone saying otherwise is a filthy liar covered in filth and lies.

As blaneyphoto says, though, the problem will be with the lenses. Good lenses tend to cost money, with some rare exceptions.

Personally, if I were you, I'd get a used Pentax K10D plus a used Pentax 35mm 2.4. That'll run you just about $400 total. The K10D is an amazing body for the price. It doesn't do video, it doesn't do live view, you can't crank it to ISO 3200, but the damn thing works. The 35mm 2.4 is a terrific lens for the price, too. Plus, with Pentax, you can freely use any K mount lens, even old manual focus ones. This means that you can get, say, a gorgeous 100mm macro lens for $100 or so.

If you'd rather go the Canon route, get a Canon 20D. Great camera. Much better than the Canon 10D, which was already quite good. Grab the new Canon 40mm pancake and you've got yourself an eccentric but quite good package.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:30 PM on August 24, 2012

Furthering the recommendation for the Canon 20D. I got mine the day it was released in the U.S., and it's still running like a champ many years (and several hundred thousand shutter releases) later.

Note that it does indeed have a cropped sensor, so a 50mm lens would actually be considered telephoto on this camera (close to a "portrait lens" on a standard sensor)

Prime lenses are historically known for their superior optics, but these days it's getting harder and harder to spot the differences, particularly in mid-range equipment like this. The versatility that a zoom lens gives you will easily offset the perceived benefits of a prime.
posted by ShutterBun at 9:10 PM on August 24, 2012

I'm going to be the contrarian and recommend you look at mirrorless systems instead of a DSLR. The differences are increasingly negligible, as they have interchangeable lenses and are considerably smaller than a DSLR (something to consider if you've gotten used to only carrying your phone around for shooting). Most, if not all, will have manual controls and shoot in RAW.

The Lumix GF and Sony NEX are both great systems and they've been around for a few years so slightly older models should be well within your price range. I bought a used GF1 and a brand new 20mm lens for around $400 and I haven't touched my DSLR since.

Don't stress about needing something "professional," plenty of people drop thousands on their gear and still can't take a worthwhile photo to save their life. That old saying about it being "the photographer, not the camera" is actually pretty true.

The one area where DSLRs still generally win out over mirrorless cameras is quick moving subjects, and honestly, that doesn't sound like it'll be a huge concern for the kind of shooting you want to do.
posted by yellowlightman at 1:44 AM on August 25, 2012

Agreeing with the above comments. You really only need a 'pro' camera if you need to handle sports, need weatherproofing, or are going to make very large prints. I think the Canon 20D suggestion is a good one to get you started. Mirrorless might not be a bad idea either, but I haven't gotten into that enough yet to make a suggestion.
Check out DGrin, they have a nice used gear/flea market section, and the forums are very helpful. They keep the conversation very beginner-friendly, and there's plenty of quality photographers to learn from.
posted by jhs at 4:05 AM on August 25, 2012

for a good set of basic lessons on photography. so that you understand some of the terms flying around you, I'd read this this one done on Reddit a couple years ago. lots of good knowledge there.
posted by mephron at 3:49 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for your replies everyone! They were very informed and useful. And thanks for the tips on good books and sites on the technical aspects of photography.

I like the size, flexibility, and portability of mirrorless cameras, and it does seem that their image quality will come to rival that of professional DSLRs in the next 3-5 years, but they don't seem to be quite there yet. Currently, the highest quality mirrorless overall seems to be the Fuji X-Pro1.

Ended up purchasing a used Canon 40D with about 20,000 actuations, bundled with an EF 50mm f/1.8 II lens, within my price range. So hopefully I'll have some fun with that for a while and be able to take some images of the quality I envision.
posted by cotesdurhone at 11:28 AM on September 3, 2012

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