Back to School: What You Want vs 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for this is that cameras evolve much more frequently than lenses; the top-of-the-line camera right now will be rather outdated in a handful of years, but a top-of-the-line lens will hold its value and could potentially be a tool for a lifetime.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 Nikon Z 6 instead of splurging on the Nikon Z 7. Even though the extra resolution of the Z 7 might suit your aspirations to print huge, the Z 6 still fulfills most of the core specs of the alluring Z system. And the difference between the two means you can opt to pick up the NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S lens instead of the NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S lens, and then in the future you’ll already have the more prestigious lens when you’re able to upgrade to the next high-resolution body. Similar analogies exist across all systems, with the Sony a7 III vs the a7R IV; with the Canon EOS R vs the EOS RP; or with the FUJIFILM X-T30 vs the X-T3—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.

Nikon Z 6 Mirrorless Digital Camera
Nikon Z 6 Mirrorless Digital Camera


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.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens
Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens


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.

Induro GIT304L Grand Series 3 Stealth Carbon Fiber Tripod
Induro GIT304L Grand Series 3 Stealth Carbon Fiber Tripod


Lighting is a contentious subject, and is very personal and highly dependent on the type of lighting you want, where you’ll be working, and so on. With all of these grains of salt in mind, for a student there is one lighting proposal to share that could help getting started in a versatile and practical way: start with a pair of speedlights. Versus 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. Speedlights, on the other hand, are pretty straightforward. And 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-700, Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT, Sony HVL-F32M, or third-party models from Godox, Metz, Nissin, and Yongnuo are the perfect way to get into working with lighting.

Sony HVL-F32M External Flash
Sony HVL-F32M External Flash

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 then use your T-shirt to wipe it off.

DO wear sunscreen.

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.

Items discussed in article


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.