Back to School: What You Want versus What You Need

Back to School: What You Want vs What You Need

As a student, much of your life is about making choices and sacrifices. “Should I skip this class and sleep in?” or “Should I go to class even though I’m too tired to pay attention?” There are a lot of hard decisions to make as a student, especially if you’re a burgeoning photographer looking to attain professional status.

But, as a student, means are often limited and you need to be more conscious about what gear to add to your kit. What gear is critical and worth the investment versus what are some of the things you can ignore for now and splurge on later? It really whittles down to what you need versus what you want.


I’ll get the hard one out of the way first with a cautionary adage: cameras are for now but lenses are forever. What this means, in short, is that if you have a limited budget when looking to build a complete system, don’t blow it all on the camera! Invest in lenses and buy the best camera you can with the money you have left. The reason for this is that cameras evolve much more frequently than lenses; the top-of-the-line camera right now will be rather outdated in a handful of years, but a top-of-the-line lens will hold its value and could potentially be a tool for a lifetime.

A few practical examples of this could be opting for the Canon EOS R6 instead of splurging on the EOS R5. Even though the extra resolution and features of the R5 might suit aspirations to print huge, the R6 is still a well-spec’d and very capable camera that gets you many of the same core features of the EOS R system with some budget to spare on an extra lens or some additional accessories. This lens or these accessories will also carry over when you’re eventually able to upgrade to the next camera body, so you’ll be ahead of the game in the long run. Similar analogies exist across all systems, with the Sony a7 III versus the a7R IV or a7S III; with the Nikon Z 5 versus the Z 7 II; or with the FUJIFILM X-T30 II versus the X-T5—the point is to consider the lens you really want first, then look at what you have left over for your camera body budget, knowing that you’ll be sooner to upgrade your camera rather than your lenses.

Canon EOS R6

Canon EOS R6


Even though I just said to aim for the lenses you really want, there are many circumstances when those are still well outside a student’s budget. But rather than forcing yourself into a kit zoom or another zoom lens you’re not terribly enthused by, consider this as an opportunity to become acquainted with some modest primes. Sure, there’s a reason why a 24-70mm f/2.8 is one of the most popular lenses around, but consider that you can pick up three standard prime lenses for less than the cost of one 24-70mm f/2.8. And then, to take this example further, you can consider that you don’t even need to have all three lenses (35mm, 50mm, and 85mm), that you can get by with just having a 35mm and an 85mm, or even just the lone 50mm. The benefits don’t stop here, either, since all of these primes will be faster than the f/2.8 zoom. What you lose by not having the focal length flexibility of a zoom, you gain in the compactness and speed (and cost) of a single prime.

If you’re already hip to the prime lens scene, an extra cost-cutting measure you can seek out, especially if you’re an SLR shooter since the choices are more plentiful, is to go the f/1.8 route instead of the f/1.4 route. Yes, the f/1.4 lenses are the coveted versions of most focal lengths, but more often than not, the f/1.8 version is equally as sharp, much lighter in weight, smaller, and less expensive, and you’re only giving up 2/3 of a stop. Unless you’re gluing your lens at f/1.4, once you hit f/4, f/5.6, etc., the difference between f/1.4 and f/1.8 lenses is typically negligible and, often, you’ll be happier having a smaller, lighter lens on your camera than an oversized, semi-specialized prime.


Unfortunately, a tripod is a necessity for photographers, no matter how much you’ll go out of your way not to use one. I’ll admit to this, even as someone who shoots large format film on occasion: I still hate working from a tripod. But it’s a fact of life that, as a photographer, there will be many times and places in which a tripod is an essential component of your kit and might be the difference between making or missing the shot.

When I was a student, I was given a piece of advice that I wish I followed several times over by now: buy the best tripod that you can afford. Don’t buy a tripod “just to get by.” Get the best one possible. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to take out another loan to get a tripod that costs more than $1000 right off the bat but, on the other hand, don’t get the cheapest model with specs that barely accommodate your current kit.

I made this mistake when I first started, opting for a “beginner tripod” because I didn’t want to invest the extra bit into getting something I didn’t really want to use. And, because I didn’t like the tripod I bought, and because it didn’t work well anyway, I ended up not using it… making it a complete waste of money. I then bought an “intermediate tripod” when the occasion arose that I needed one. It was a fine tripod, but I still wasn’t enthused by it. The head sagged when I put a heavier setup on it, the legs were difficult to extend, and so on. Finally, years later, I bought the tripod I should have gotten in the first place (I have an Induro GIT304L*), which was about the same cost as the first two tripods I originally had, combined, making my overall tripod purchase twice as expensive as it should have been. It's hard to foresee exactly where your photography will take you, and what kind of camera/lens setup you’ll be using in 10+ years, but at the beginning, try to get a tripod that will far outlive your current shooting setup.

Robus RC-5558 Vantage Series 3 Carbon Fiber Tripod

Robus RC-5558 Vantage Series 3 Carbon Fiber Tripod

*The Induro GIT304L has been discontinued but we would recommend checking out the Robus RC-5558 as comparable tripod option.


Lighting is a contentious subject. It’s very personal and highly dependent on the type of lighting you want, where you’ll be working, and so on.

For a student just starting out, however, a pair of speedlights is a great entry point. Versus As opposed to strictly off-camera lights, speedlights have greater initial versatility in that they can be used on and off of a camera; they’re small and lightweight; and they’re not a tremendous initial investment.

Compared to looking at intro studio lighting kits, from which you’ll inevitably want to upgrade, a speedlight holds its value over time. Additionally, if you’re studying in a photo program, you’re likely to have access to a school’s studio strobes and constant lighting kits, which will let you experiment more and learn what you like best for later consideration.

Don’t feel the need to jump right up to the top-of-the-line models―some of the middle-tier flashes, such as a Nikon SB-700Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RTSony HVL-F32M, or third-party models from GodoxMetzNissin, and Yongnuo are the perfect way to get into working with lighting.

Some Final Words of Wisdom

DO buy nice memory cards, such as UHS-II SD cards.

DO NOT waste your money on slow memory cards.

DO consider using lens wraps and your existing tote bag or backpack, versus splurging on a nice, new camera bag.

DO try shooting film; the experience and its benefits can be invaluable lessons for your digital practice.

DO NOT feel like you need to buy “professional” film if you’re just learning, Kodak Gold and FUJIFILM Fujicolor are just fine.

DO back-up your digital files to an external hard drive!

DO NOT just do this once; do it more than once on separate hard drives for repetitive backups.

DO buy Cinefoil and gaffer tape.

DO NOT waste it! It’s expensive-but-critical stuff, so use it wisely.

DO have spare camera batteries.

DO NOT be caught without extra power while on a shoot.

DO keep your lenses clean with proper cleaning tools.

DO NOT breathe on your lens and then use your T-shirt to wipe it off.

Do you have any other helpful ideas or tips that prioritize value and smart investments? What kind of gear would you recommend to students? What do you wish you had when you were a student? Let us know in the Comments section, below.



I am a 1972 RIT graduate that majored in photography.  There are several important points you should add.  First you probably should wait until you start your program before you make any major purchases.  Just keep the funds in a separate account.  Will you need compact sensor or full frame?  Are you going to transfer into a Video program and need a high end Micro 4/3 camera? Prior to starting the program  at RIT I had my eye on a just introduced Leica M4 with 50mm lens, I had my $438 in hand (Yes, I am that old.).  That would have been a very expensive wrong purchase.  If I was going to teach a class to a group of students used to cell phones I would want the class on the same format, especially if the course would include angle of view and depth of field.  The other point is to check out the B&H used department.  I have moved from full frame to Micro four thirds.  I have no problem purchasing anything with a condition 9 or higher and you can save a lot.  Generally I buy currently available products, possibly right after a new model is announced. [When I was looking for a "smaller" full frame camera I did this.  The Nikon D750 was available just prior to the holiday season.  In January there were MANY D610s available.  The camera I purchased only had 1503 shutter actuations.  The 24-85 lens was offered "free" in the current kits so there were many of these available too. The D750 would have been nice, but the D610 combo saved me about $900 and, quite honestly, I didn't have to deal with any product recalls.] The B&H used return policy is also very good and they are very good to work with. 

Apologies for the much-delayed response, but thanks for the comment, William. You make a good point about checking out the used department, especially for students. Its the source of where I've found most of my cameras and lenses over the years, and certainly the only place I was shopping as a student. I think much of what I wrote above applies to used sales, as well, with regard to investing more into lenses versus camera bodies, and possibly even more so in terms of used cameras since you already know the camera is likely one generation or so older than new. Your example of going with the D610 versus the D750 is a perfect example of this, too.