Photographers are always looking for deals on cameras and other photography gear. Unfortunately, there really aren't many great deals available on the big ticket items like lenses and cameras. However, you can save tons of money on photo gear by following a few rules of thumb that I have learned when purchasing gear.
Tip #1: Upgrade frequently
This suggestion might seem counter-intuitive, but you really could save money in the long run. Here is how this works: Buy the gear you can afford. If you stay current on what is going on in the industry and know when newer gear is coming out soon, sell! I often sell my gear on Craigslist right when I know a newer camera will be released and the price for the current model is still high. Then, I order the new camera and I often find that I only need to pay a couple hundred dollars out of pocket.
For example, if you bought a Nikon D700 when it was released in 2008 at $2,500 you could have used it for 4 years while it was still the current model. As long as you sold before the D800 was announced in 2012, you would have still gotten $1,900 for the camera by selling used. If you waited too long, though, and you're still using a D700 but want to upgrade now? That same camera is only selling for $1,200 used.
I think of all of my cameras and lenses as rentals. When the new one comes out, I buy the new one and sell the current model. I often find that I lose very little in the trade for the new version. That means I get to use the latest and greatest gear, and it's as if my camera only costs me about $200 “rental price” every two YEARS!
Another reason why this plan works so well is that I do not have to worry about burning out the shutter on my cameras (which is about a $250 repair depending on the camera). Since I only use the camera for a year or two, the shutter lasts just fine. When you're using older gear, you are much more likely to run into problems with burned out shutters, broken autofocus or aperture assemblies in lenses, etc. Those can be expensive repairs or can mean your gear gets thrown away. If you sell early, those risks are much less.
I wouldn't say my “upgrade frequently” mentality works out in every case, but so far I've been really fortunate to save thousands on gear this way.
Tip #2: Buy online
Using online resources, you can usually find a better deal for gear, whether it is through a wholesaler, online coupon, or just an online holiday sale. It is almost impossible not to find better pricing by shopping at an online store than by running down to your local camera shop. Again, you're unlikely to find those deals on the camera or lenses unless the deal is available to all retailers, but this is definitely true of other gear.
Another reason for saving by buying online is that online retailers do not collect sales tax in most cases (though this is changing in some areas and you're still supposed to pay the tax in April).
If you can manage to hold out for ground shipping, waiting for your online purchase will save you money not only on the purchase itself, but also on the gas you would have used going to the store to see if they have what you want.
Tip #3: Don’t get scammed
Often, newer gear buyers will go for the cheapest piece of gear they can find because they think they really found a deal after having seen some of the more expensive gear items. Unfortunately, this means a lot of them get scammed. I have had many many students and readers of Improve Photography tell me they lost all of the money they paid for a camera or lens when they went to a site advertising low prices and then later found out the sites were a scam.
The fact is, it really does not matter where you go to buy most cameras or lenses. All reputable stores will have the same price or virtually the same price on current models. Why? Because the camera manufacturers enforce the pricing. That isn't to say that rebates will never be available or you may find a good deal on a bundle of products, etc. But the main big ticket items will not change in price most of the time. If you find a site selling a 5d Mark III for $800 off, you can immediately know it's a scam. That's why I buy ALL of my photo gear from Amazon or B&H (though I think B&H shipping is really slow).
Tip #4: Make homemade accessories
While the list of homemade accessories for your photography might seem slim on the surface, do not discount the amount of money you could save by using them. Sometimes all it takes is a little creativity and inspiration to come up with some great money saving ideas!
Different things you could do are: Use a styrofoam board as a reflector, a white top sheet as a diffuser, a room lamp in place of constant lights, and white ceilings and walls to bounce light from a flash. There are several other ideas that would save you money in almost any situation.
Pinterest would be a great resource for finding those penny-pinching ideas and discovering the amazingly diverse photo blogs that teach how to do photography on a budget. The benefit when it comes to this method is that if it is done right, you are still able to achieve the same photographic effect as you normally would if you had bought the name brand gear.
Tip #5: Only buy what you need
I’m talking to the gear hounds out there. These are people who will buy any piece of gear just because it sounds cool. No matter how big or little, costly or affordable, these fanatics are buying it. I am thinking of a Leveling Cube that you put in the hot shoe of your camera. Having a technically level camera might be nice, but you will have to be on a tripod so you can pay attention the adjusting bubbles in your new level.
If you can handle NOT keeping up with the Joneses there is money to be saved by learning to make do with what you have.
Tip #6: Let me be your crash test dummy
I spend thousands of dollars on camera equipment each year. I feel like it's my responsibility to test out all of the gear and let you all know what will really help you be a better photographer, and what will just waste your money on low-quality gear that you'll end up paying to replace.
I spend a lot of time keeping the recommended gear section of the site up-to-date so that you can see what the best cameras, lenses, accessories, flash photography gear, tripods, filters, and camera bags are. Check out the recommended photo gear section of the site before you buy!