Zero Budget Photography – Is It Possible?

Is it possible to have a flourishing photography hobby without spending any money at all?

In my experience, I believe we can get very close indeed to zero budget photography.

When I first got into film photography, one of the greatest charms was that I could pick up an excellent vintage SLR and lens for next to nothing, and it would in theory last me years without spending a further penny on it.

However, there were two flaws in my near zero budget thinking, that I confess took me years to realise.

First, the expense of film photography is not in the gear.

It’s the buying, processing and scanning of the film that is costly. The cheapest I got this down to was using AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 film from Poundland, and having it developed and scanned to CD four rolls at a time at my local Asda supermarket lab. Which worked out around £4 a roll all in.

Per roll, this is not expensive by most people’s standards, but shooting 6-12 rolls a month still meant I was forking out £24-48 a month. Not exactly zero budget.

The second flaw was the irresistible allure of the aforementioned cheap vintage gear.

Considering myself a pretty intelligent person, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it took me so long to comprehend that it doesn’t matter if a vintage camera costs only £20 compared to say £100 for a decent used digital camera, if you then buy five you’ve spent the same amount in total.

If you buy 55, you’ve spent massively more than that relatively modest £100 on a digital camera.

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The most I’ve ever paid for a single camera was a new Nikon Coolpix P300 in 2011. I believe it retailed at £399 and I got a deal for £299. This still, by my personal measure of money, feels a great deal to spend on one camera.

But only about 15 months ago, my tracked monthly photography budget of £25 a month was over £500 in the red, and virtually all of it had gone on small individual spends of £10-20 or less.

This repeated, perhaps even compulsive, spending had sent me hurtling hundreds of pounds away from planet zero budget!

So to be able to make pleasing photographs, with cameras I love using, and on a near zero budget, I came full circle.

I sold off virtually all of the kit I wasn’t using, got my finances back in the black, and returned to compact digital cameras. Which are not drastically unlike the phone cameras I began shooting with intention around 2006.

Recently I explored three 4MP digital cameras to see if they were any use at all in 2018 when the average phone camera seems to be 12MP plus and compacts routinely boast 20-24MP.

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The concise conclusion of my experiments is that yes, a 4MP is not only still usable, but capable of very impressive images.

Often they’re far more simple and direct to use, and create photos with more character than far more modern and supposedly “better” cameras do.

The most I spent on one of the three in my tests was about £20.

The only one I’ve kept is the tiny Sony DSC-L1, which disappears in the palm of your hand yet retains great handling, is very easy to use and delivers lovely images. It cost me less than £7.

So whilst I’ve written in the past about how to get started with film photography on a shoestring, in truth, the ongoing material costs make it unsustainable as a near zero budget hobby.

If you really have nothing to spend month to month, try and pick up something like the little Sony L1 for less than a tenner, install Snapseed on your phone or tablet, and you’ll have months, perhaps years of zero budget photography fun ahead of you.

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Note – You most likely already have a good enough camera on your phone for zero budget photography, so don’t even need to buy another in the form of a compact digital camera, or anything else.

But for me the extra appeal and pleasure in using a camera that was designed purely as a camera, and not a camera plus 39 other devices in one, is far more rewarding and makes that initial investment of £10 or so tremendous value.

How about you? What’s your monthly budget for photography? Are you as much of a skinflint as me?

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too. If you’re interested, this is what my photography and cycling life looks like right now

28 thoughts on “Zero Budget Photography – Is It Possible?”

  1. From the advertising on my blog, from selling off my old gear, and from sales of books I fund my photography. Whatever balance is in my PayPal account is what I can spend. ATM I’m at $0, so this roll of slide film that needs to be processed will just have to wait until more money arrives. This feels like a great time to go shooting my K10D and the 18-55mm lens that I got for it — zero additional cost there!

    1. Jim I tried from quite early on after discovering film photography to fund the film purchase and processing costs by buying, testing then selling on gear. It worked to some extent but once I realised the kit I liked best (and how similar most cameras of a similar type are) I got fed up with feeling like a camera tester/dealer all the time, rather than a photographer focused on using his/her favourite kit and developing my eye and photography.

      And as we’ve talked about in the past, eBay May give us access to thousands of buyers, but it’s still a huge timesuck listing gear, then packaging it, taking to the post office etc.

      It’s great that your book funds some of your photography, I love that. Not so keen on advertising! It’s just one of my pet hates online and kills the flow and feel on too many sites.

      1. I still occasionally sell on eBay but 80+ of my gear sales are now directly through my blog, on my For Sale page. Far, far less hassle. But like you I don’t want to turn into a gear dealer. I intend to still use and review new-to-me old cameras after I’m done thinning the herd, albeit at a slower pace than before, with the intent of selling on gear I don’t like or won’t use regularly. That will only work if my For Sale page continues to be effective. I won’t do it through eBay.

        I’m not keen on advertising either but I think, I hope, I’ve managed to keep it tamped down on my blog enough that it doesn’t significantly alter the reader’s experience. I could make more money if I enabled every ad placement my blog theme allows, but then readers would have to scroll past and around ads just to read my content and I’m not interested in that. I’ve made about $500 since enabling ads in the summer of 2016 and that’s a reasonable trickle of income that lets me buy film and processing.

        I have a new book coming! I’ll announce it in about a week. It’s of my b/w film work in Ireland. I am also working on a book of essays and stories from my blog that I hope to publish in time for Christmas.

        1. Sounds like you’ve been really busy on the writing/book front, congratulations!

          I must admit I pinched your “For Sale” page idea from you on 35hunter months back and it worked well, and was a lot less hassle than eBay. I really like too that it’s there if people want to look, but not being constantly pushed on every page like with advertising.

          And yeh I can’t bear those blogs where you have an ad slapped in your face immediately before you can see the content. There’s a very famous photo blog on Japanese cameras I used to read loads but never bother with now as I got sick of an ad at the top of every post and “scroll down past ad to read content”.

          We’re so saturated with advertising these days. When I want to buy something I know where to go to get it! Otherwise, leave me alone.

          I rejoice in finding blogs that provide a haven from it, and where you can get lost for hours in the content and personality of the writer undisturbed, it’s the magic of the internet at its best.

    2. Ps/ Feels like you haven’t blogged for months (I know it’s only been a few weeks!), and really intrigued to hear how your hiatus has gone from your perspective.

      1. The blog has never been far from my thoughts. I love my blog and the community of readers it has found. I have written a bunch of posts — some were for Operation Thin the Herd and I needed to write about those cameras before I forgot my impressions. And a couple other posts just came to me, about other things, and I had to write them before I forgot what I wanted to say. But it has been really lovely not to feel like “zomg I’ve got to come up with some sort of post for next Tuesday” all the time. I’m going to adjust my approach so that if I have nothing interesting or valuable to say or show, that I simply won’t post.

        1. I think that’s an excellent approach for anyone who blogs Jim.

          I do find that because I’ve always captured ideas when I have them (a hardened habit from about 13 or 14 years of having a blog and/or email newsletter of some kind) that I always have a stack of drafts ready to flesh out (currently over 90 for 35hunter!). But whilst I’m not short of ideas and titles, I still only write when I want to, not just to meet an imposed schedule that’s actually quite arbitrary. Seems you feel similarly.

          Looking forward to seeing your upcoming herd thinning!

  2. There is no way I can get to zero for photo materials because I shoot film and make prints for relatives and friends. I spend about $10 a month bulk loading, developing and scanning my own film, and about $10 a month making prints. I’ve stopped spending money for photo equipment. Everything I buy is financed by selling something else.

    1. It comes down to what each of us are happy with and can afford. When you consider some people spend hundreds a month on their hobbies, $20 or £20 really is nothing. I just feel more comfortable right now having zero ongoing budget. This might well change in the future, I know I’ve spent a bit too much on bikes in recent months, which has now settled. But bikes are a similar story to cameras really, ie you can get quality used kit very affordably, and the ongoing costs are very low.

    1. Steven, thanks for your thoughts. Does your spending go towards film and processing, or gear, or both? You must get a lot of photos processed for a couple of hundred a month.

      I completely agree that we each find what we’re happy with and want to spend our money on. Photography is very important to me too, I just don’t have much money spare after bills etc are paid! Which is where my zero budget options come into their own.

      1. I shoot about 25 rolls a month. 5 of those are color which I send out. Some of it is buying old cameras and lenses. I am fortunate my finances allow some freedom with equipment and such.

          1. No. I am still learning. My goal someday is to shoot something that will be special. That is why I am always out with my camera. I am going to take some classes starting in January at Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle. I need someone to mentor my work.

          2. Ok. Interesting that you seem very humble about your photography yet shoot so much. Many film photographers might only shoot that much in a year! How do you assess what’s good and what isn’t, and what would be “special” in your words?

          3. Oh I’m reading Camera Lucida actually. But slowly! I find I read a page or two then need to try to absorb and digest it before moving on. Maybe I should read it all the way through, then go through a second time and hopefully understand more. It’s been very gradual progress so far.

            So with your shooting rate of 25 rolls a month, based on 24exp rolls that’s 600 photographs a month, and 7200 a year. Surely you’re getting some photographs you like from all those, that you can then try to build on with future shots?

          4. I do get some photographs I like but after a month I forget all about them. It is like starting over again and again. I will someday stop and go back over all the negatives.

          5. I don’t know, maybe you need to go the other way for a while and instead of shooting so much, try shooting a lot less and being really discerning about when you press the shutter button?

  3. Well I am getting ready for a big move next year, so I will be getting rid of a lot of gear this Winter which should put me in the black. Not looking forward to Ebay, so I may explore alternatives. Interesting that I have read Jim’s blog faithfully for years and never noticed any adverts. I guess I’m not very observant.

    1. Jon, eBay does give you a potentially huge audience. And it does cut out the in person selling that’s another option, if you don’t like that sort of thing (I don’t!) so you can just send off packages almost entirely anonymously.

      I’m fortunate that I have enough of a readership now on 35hunter that I could see of a handful of cameras and lenses a few months back and might put up one or two more.

      I’ve also donated quite a bit of stuff in the past to local charity shops, because I just couldn’t face eBay and the time it would take for the final income.

      That’s funny about Jim’s blog. As a reader, you’re pure gold, someone who’s obviously focused only on the content. As a potential money spinner for the blogger, you’re the worst case scenario – you don’t even see the ads, let alone click through and buy stuff! I wish I could be so oblivious!

      1. Thank you for the suggestions Dan. I have known of people who have done well on Craigslist but in this country one never knows if the “buyer” will show up with cash, or a loaded gun. A man was robbed near here when selling his motorbike. So I’m with you on that one.

  4. Difficult question that I am wrestling with, as you have. I love the solid quality of film cameras, the beautiful mechanics and engineering of those cameras, and the challenge of obtaining a quality image. The look of film is different from digital. But the lure of GAS is troubling. I now have 7 film SLRs, 1 medium format, a 4×5 camera, a medium format back for the 4×5. Not to mention the obligatory scanner (to save money on scanning), and a Lightroom membership. Oh, and the Nikon APC system as well! A compact digital wouldn’t work for me because I need a viewfinder. To me, it’s not a camera if it doesn’t have a viewfinder, preferably optical. I learned photography on an old Olympus. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think I need, like you, to reduce costs. I’m going to reduce to one or 2 film SLRs that sit on a shelf and get used occasionally, concentrate on 4×5 because I find it unique, but spend most of my time shooting my lightweight Nikon APC and revel in the beautiful images I can capture with modern tech and make them look old school with a film pre-set! Oh how I wish film and developing were cheaper!! Thanks as always for your thought provoking posts. This one obviously stimulated me!

    1. Martin, good to have your thoughts and to hear from you again.

      I have been in much the same place, loving film and a range of film cameras, until it got to the point where a) I had too many cameras I was spending more time deliberating over which to use rather than getting out shooting, and b) I realised I could get almost all of the pleasures of photography from digital cameras, at next to zero ongoing cost compared with film.

      It will be fascinating to see how your set up evolves in the coming months.

        1. It never ceases to amaze me how many people have got into vintage cameras in the last few years, then overdone it, and wanted to strip it right back to just a few (or even one) cameras again. The same pattern occurs over and over again.

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