It was early December when I received a Facebook message from a friend whose granddaughter in college wanted to take a digital photography class starting in January. My friend wanted to give her a camera and lens as a Christmas gift. His budget was around $400 and he had no idea what to get her. After pricing camera gear he was in sticker shock and asked for my advice. He found a point and shoot camera in his price range and wondered if that would work.
Choosing a Camera for a College Photography Class
My answer to his point and shoot question was “No, it will not work.” Any college photography class worth its salt is going to to teach the students how to use all of the independent camera controls. Most inexpensive point and shoot camera are either missing some of these controls, or make them very inconvenient and frustrating to use. I’ve been teaching photography on the university/art institute level since 1995 and every once in a while someone shows up with a camera that is just woefully inadequate.
One night on a field trip a student couldn’t find “bulb” mode on the camera. Everyone with a DSLR found it in seconds and was already shooting long exposures. Despite being an expensive, thousand dollar point and shoot camera, bulb mode was not in the table of contents or the index of the camera’s manual. An hour of reading through the manual still did not turn up the elusive bulb mode. The student started going through every menu and sub-menu on the back of the camera and finally found it buried deep in a sub-menu.
This is a long way of saying a DSLR or a full featured mirrorless ILC is pretty much essential for a college photography class. Since some mirrorless cameras don’t have all the necessary controls, a DSLR is the safest choice for people who are not well acquainted with all of the ins and out of the important features on a digital cameras.
Canon Refurbished Gear
When it came to price, I had good news and bad news for my friend. The bad news is he couldn’t find a new DSLR and stay within his budget. The really good news is he could buy a refurbished DSLR and two lenses for less than $400, and still get the same one year warranty from Canon that comes with new Canon gear. The only catch is he would need to buy the refurbished gear directly from Canon.
You can find “refurbs” all over the internet but not all of the dealers on the internet are honest, and refurbs don’t always come with a very good warranty. I told my friend to stick with what he could find at the Canon website.
Refurbs come and go quickly. In the screen capture at the top of this article you can see some items are in stock and some are not. This changes on a regular basis, and at busy seasons like Christmas the items that are in and out of stock can change almost daily.
With my help, my friend found a DSLR and two lenses for under $400. Unfortunately the kit was “out of stock”. We checked Canon’s site every day for a week. Then one morning it showed up “in stock” and he bought it immediately. Good thing. The next day it was out of stock again. You snooze, you lose.
The two lenses provide a wide degree of focal length range. The 18-55mm lens on a Canon T6 gives you a range of focal lengths from 28.8 to 88mm in 35mm equivalent terms. The 75-300mm lens on a Canon T6 gives you a focal length range from 120 to 480mm in 35mm equivalent terms. That gives you a total focal length coverage from a modest wide angle to pretty long telephoto with an inconsequential gap from 88 to 120mm. If you want to shoot between 88 and 120mm, just shoot at 88mm and crop to the focal length you want.
Nikon Refurbished Gear
I shoot Canon gear so I don’t keep a close eye on Nikon equipment, but there are bargains to be had on Nikon refurbs.
You can buy refurbished Nikon gear from Adorama. Here are a couple of examples I found for this update (Feb 12). You can get a Nikon DSLR and18-55mm lens for as little as $299.95. When you buy Nikon refurbished gear from Adorama you get a “90-day return-to-manufacturer warranty”. That is not as good as the one year warranty on Canon gear purchased from Canon.
Is This Top of The Line Gear?
Are these inexpensive cameras and lenses top of the line gear? No, of course not. Is this quality gear that you can use to create great images? Absolutely. Most photographers are limited more by their skill level than their equipment. Every once in a while some magazine sends a professional photographer out to shoot with inexpensive gear. Guess what? They come back with great images!
So does this means expensive high quality gear isn’t important? Yes and no. For most photographers in most situations, the answer is no. For some photographers in some situations, definitely.
If you shoot professionally for Sports Illustrated and you have to shoot ice hockey inside an arena, you need sharp images with minimal noise that will run double truck in the magazine. You really do need that big, heavy $4,000 telephoto lens with a fast f/2.8 maximum aperture, and a camera with lightning quick autofocus. But how many photographers do that on a regular basis?
During the years I did free lance work for a small town newspaper, I would often be on the sidelines of some event next to photographers from the big city newspapers. I noticed most of them had average priced gear. They weren’t shooting the least expensive budget gear, but they weren’t shooting top level gear either. I heard an old joke among newspaper pros: “How do you tell the pro from the amateur? The pro has less expensive gear.”
Buy the equipment that meets your budget, go out, shoot, and have fun!
Posted February 5, 2018. Updated February 12, 2018.
Refurbished EOS Digital SLR and M Series Digital Cameras at the official Canon web site