choices: starting a business on $2000

Surrounded by nine computers, fifteen strobes and more light stands than you can shake a tripod at, I’ve been daydreaming. The dreams have been about what it would take to create a “bare minimum” photo business. Sometimes you grow a business and look around and one day the idea of paring things down sounds appealing.

Starting tomorrow we’ll be looking inside various bags in the Daylight Photo commercial photography location kit. Everything in those bags serves a purpose and is necessary for the work we do. But what if I were just starting out today? What if I only had $2000 and wanted to start out doing light editorial or portrait photography on the side? Could a half decent kit be put together for that $2000? Sounds like a challenge. The equipment would have to be somewhat low budget but must provide high quality images. I was intrigued by the thought and wondered if you might be, also.

The necessities: camera, lenses, cards, speedlight, computer, software, bag and tripod. What would I personally be looking for? I think of buying photo equipment as a sports draft, recruiting players for my photo “team”. It’s obvious that I can’t afford star players on this budget since we’re starting from complete scratch. What I’ll look for are really solid backup players, planning for the time when I’ll be able to add top-of-the-line equipment. When I do, these backup choices should still serve a role in the plan.

Since buying absolutely stellar performance is probably not possible I’ll instead concentrate on eliminating weaknesses. Yes, it might be nice to have a super-wide zoom range but if a lens is no good zooming beyond 200mm then I’d rather not take it along. The temptation to use it will be there, as will the frustration of a poor photo after having used it.

I need to be honest about my immediate needs while realizing the equipment must serve a purpose in the future. Even if it’s just a backup someday you don’t want an inferior backup just because it was inexpensive.

That said, here are my thoughts (I’ll be interested to hear what decisions you might make):

Camera and lenses should take up about half of the budget ($1000). Most of the manufacturers include really nice software for RAW processing (which is important to me) except for Nikon, their included RAW software is somewhat limited. So my initial thoughts put Nikon toward the back of the pack.

But sticking with this budget probably means buying a bundled kit of camera and lens(es). I then concerned myself with finding a decent body with a better than average kit lens. The lens(es) would have to cover a decent range, also. I surprised myself when all was said and done by choosing a Nikon D80 Body with 18-135mm Lens, Battery, and 2GB SD Card for $829.99. Add another 4GB SD card for $20 on sale.

Yes, the D80 is getting a little outdated and doesn’t have auto sensor cleaning (something I really wanted). But what it does have is a good sensor and lens. The camera feels good in my hands (not too small) and the viewfinder is larger than most at this price point. Some of the competition have really small, tunnel-like viewfinders that I don’t see through so well. Still being a bit old school, I do like to manual focus on occasion and the larger viewfinder helps. All of the specs in the world don’t matter if you don’t find the camera a joy to use, I say.

There are a number of cameras packaged with two lenses at this price point (a wide-normal zoom and normal-tele zoom) but, by and large, usually one lens or the other reportedly falls short on performance according to the review sites. The exception to this rule seems to be Olympus, which has two higher quality kit lenses. They still seem to be struggling with highlight clipping (compared to the non-4/3 sensor competition), according to most reports. My good experience in the past with a Nikkor 18-70 kit lens and the feel of the D80 swayed me in this direction.

I might be interested in a Sony SLR with something other than the kit 18-70. Nobody seems particularly excited about the Canon kit lenses (though I think the camera bodies and software are great) and I didn’t find a wider range kit lens choice with the Pentax. I really like that Pentax uses DNG for RAW files, though. Lots of personal preference choices here.

It makes me a little nervous heading out with just one lens, though, so we gotta have a backup, just in case. Let’s fill the need for speed by opting for an $89 Nikkor 50mm f1.8 lens.

Since the kit lens is a bit slow we’ll need a tripod for those editorial food shots. For $99.99 the Calumet 7300 Tripod with Three-way Quick-Release Head looks pretty darned good. It should take care of the lighter duties for years to come and a bigger tripod can be added down the road.

Speedlight? I like to stick with the camera manufacturers brand when possible. The Nikon SB-600 runs $199.99 and is the middle-of-the-line unit. When I’m on a budget I tend to turn to the “middle of the road” options. Lots of features and power to get by on in the beginning and it will still be useful as a slave after an SB-900 is added to the kit.

Camera bag duties go to the 5606 System 6 Camera Bag, Black, at $76.99. It’s quality and compact yet expandable. Even if I buy a larger bag someday this one can be used for smaller jobs.

Computer time…there are tons of options on the market and prices are lowering daily in this competitive computer market. Given our modest budget I’ll go for the best features available on a $600 PC somewhere (that’s what I’m typing this blog on).

Software: Photoshop Elements for basic browsing and photo editing. Plus it has a powerful RAW converter which makes up for Nikon failing to package a good converter with the camera. $89.99.

Did we meet the goal of $2000? I felt confident…but ended up slightly over at $2006. If $6 had to be knocked off then the bag cost could be trimmed down that amount without too much sweat.

Is this the perfect setup? Heck, no, but for around $2000 I think it could produce professional results for a large number of the editorial style assignments that I’ve done. It also leaves room for system expansion. Sometimes you have to make choices based on what you might add next so this setup feels pretty solid to me. I’m sure you might make different choices and be as equally content as I am with this setup. Competition may continue to bring prices down, providing even more “bang for the buck” as we head closer to the holidays.