Did you know that some of the best camera and electronics gear you can buy are also among the cheapest? If you are a true photography cheapskate, you simply want the best value for your money. You want gear that will stand the test of time while being value priced. Here’s are a few tips that will help you to do exactly that. But first, let me explain why I became a cheapskate.
For many years, I ran a freelance consultancy designing websites for small businesses. I would spend eight to twelve hours a day using large-screen laptops to create, demonstrate and sell my services. I needed reliable computer gear with low operating costs. My livelihood depended on this stuff. One year, I purchased two large screen laptops from a brand that markets heavily to consumers. One would be my daily workhorse and the other a backup used only for client presentations. They were pretty machines with eye-catching design and all the latest wow-factor features. However, in less than six months, the latches started to wear out from heavy use, the plastic chrome bits began to wear away, and the keyboard began to fail under heavy use. Both of those laptops did not last the year. Clearly, this consumer-oriented brand was designed to be seen, not used for hours on end in a business environment.
That’s when I discovered enterprise/business class computers. These are computers designed to run reliably under heavy use in business environments. These are the computers you will see on desks in banks, hospitals and other mission-critical environments. They must be reliable, sturdy, easy to repair and long lasting. They tend to be more expensive than consumer-oriented computers when new because they use tougher, more reliable components. However, they are generally upgraded by the thousands by businesses in a three-year cycle. These bullet-proof enterprise level computers will be dumped on the refurbished and resell market with years of usable life left. They typically carry brand names like Lenovo, HP, and Dell.
For example, I am writing this post using an HP Compaq NX9420 laptop. It is a sturdy, mobile workstation (17-inch screen) first made in 2006, and designed for business use. It will never win a beauty contest against the likes of an Apple Macbook. But it runs forever, the parts are easily available online and it is dirt cheap on the refurbished/resell market. It stands up to heavy daily use. The one I have now (purchased used for $80.00) I’ve owned for nearly four years without a problem. You can find these trustworthy old laptops sold on eBay by resellers/refurbishers for about $100. They are not pretty or lightweight. But, man oh man, are they reliable and sturdy! I also use them for post processing of my digital camera images, online browsing, everything.
Here’s another benefit of hard-wearing business class computers. The are designed to be easily repaired and parts are plentiful. Most consumer-oriented computers are designed to look great, have a shorter usable life, and are not designed to be repaired by the end-user. With business class computers from Lenovo, HP and Dell, all you need is a screwdriver to quickly swap out a faulty component. Plus, you will find plenty of sources for those components ten to fifteen years after that computer model was introduced.
How do you locate refurbished and used enterprise/business class laptops and desktop computers that offer great value? Here are three business-class brands to look for in laptops: Lenovo Thinkpad, Dell Lattitude and HP Elitebook and HP Compaq. These brands and models are legendary for reliability in business environments. You can start your search on eBay. If you buy from refurbishers and resellers who have hundreds of positive feedbacks and offer a 14-30 day return policy you should find a great deal on off-lease, refurbished and used computer gear with years of reliable service left. The one component of any computer that you may want to buy new is the hard drive. Truthfully, unless you lust after the latest tech toys, any computer/laptop from the past decade, properly configured, has the processing power to meet your needs.
Update: The image above shows a refurbished Lenovo ThinkCentre A70z All-In-One Computer I recently purchased from a reputable refurbisher on eBay that has become my main desktop computer. Note the price, only $69.00 (with a 60-day money back return policy)! This is a rugged system normally marketed to the business market only. All I needed to do was add a mouse and keyboard. I replaced the hard drive with a new one (I never recommend buying a used hard drive), and upgraded to Windows 10 for free using the Windows 7 Pro License key provided on the sticker affixed to the computer. If you buy from a reputable refurbisher, you will always have the Windows license sticker on the computer for the version of Windows that was pre-installed at the factory when new. Never buy a refurbished or used computer without it! For a total investment of less than $120.00 I have an excellent desktop system with more rugged and reliable components than any low-cost consumer desktop computer you’re likely to find in Best Buy or Walmart.
Choosing the best camera for a frugal photographer can be a highly subjective process. We know what we like. However, there is one brand that offers the best value for photographers who simply want the most for their money. Pentax. Here’s why: Pentax has the widest selection of cheap, high quality lenses on the used market. Its legendary ‘k-mount’ (or PK mount) bayonet lens mounting standard was used by nearly twenty other camera manufacturers during the film era. Plus, an additional 70 third-party lens manufacturers made lenses for the Pentax k-mount system. Older Pentax M42 screw-mount lenses (used with a simple adapter) are even more widely available. Many of these vintage lenses are highly regarded. Best of all, they are cheap and plentiful on the used market including eBay. Lenses are generally the most expensive purchases made by photographers. However, on eBay you can usually find thousands of very capable used lenses for Pentax DSLR cameras in great condition for under $50.00. Since the Pentax DSLR has built-in image stabilization, that feature can be used with any vintage lens mated to the camera body. Most of the old lenses are manual focus. However, you do get focus confirmation in Pentax DSLR camera bodies (the camera beeps to let you know that you have achieved sharpest focus). Also, Pentax cameras tend to depreciate much faster than equivalent models from Nikon and Canon although they are just as reliable. That is cheapskate gold!
Check this post for great places to buy used cameras online.
Would you like to know a way to get professional image processing software for free? Occasionally, makers of highly respected software programs of interest to photographers will release licensed older versions for free as a promotional deal. For example the makers of the highly regarded DxO Optics Pro image editing software are releasing an older version of their software for free (fully licensed DxO v.9) until June 30 2017 (update: offer has expired). It does not support the newest DSLR and mirrorless cameras released in the past two years. However, if you are a cheapskate photographer with an older camera (at least two years old) it is likely to be fully supported. I was also able to acquire a free licensed copy of Capture 1 Pro 6.0 image processing software this way with a similar free offer a couple of years ago. These offers are perfect for you if you buy used camera gear. How can you find these amazing offers? The British photography magazine Practical Photography is known for featuring these promotional offers on a periodic basis. Check their website. Also, check the Retouching forum on the Digital Photography Review (dpreview.com) website. When enthusiasts find these deals they often share the news on this forum.
With a bit of research and good timing, you can find ways to save lots of money on excellent camera and computer gear. We live in a consumer culture where the demand for the latest and greatest drives a used gear market full of excellent, lightly used cameras, lenses and computers. Let others pay for the depreciation. Get top-quality gear for your photography passion at rock-bottom prices! -Don Peterson