Equipment and Where The Money Comes From

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

People discover my work everyday, and often times I hear assumptions about how my images must be accomplished a large boatload of money. It would be very nice if it were true, so for those who struggle and wonder, I hope to share a little of my background and story with you.

I bought my first camera when I was 18. It was a Canon 350D with kit lens that cost roughly 1000USD. I paid for it myself.

Growing up, my family wasn't very well off. My parents argued about money, and often. I remembered once when I was 4 or 5, I was so scared and angry in the next room when they were fighting, I swore to myself that day, that I'd become financially independent as soon as possible and then forever, so I'd never be a burden or need to rely on anyone again. Ever.

When I was 8, I started doing little arts and crafts things to sell to classmates at school—hand-carved eraser stamps, drawings, embroidered birthday cards. When I was 15, I made Singapore's national air rifle team. This allowed me to win prize money through winning international championships and games. I saved what I received from the Sports Council's yearly reviews, happy that I could pay for my own food now. And sometimes, I'd spend some on artbooks which I think were fundamental to my artistic development.

The savings grew and stayed mostly untouched. It was enough to know that I lightened the burdens my mother carried in bringing up my little sister and me on her own, even if just for a little bit.

And then when I turned 18—not that I buy into birthday significances too heavily or anything—I thought, hey, I've been saving for a while now and I'm kind of interested in trying out photography, and just maybe, it's ok to get something for myself this one time. So I bought the 350D as a gift for my birthday.

Fast forward a few years, these days, a second hand entry-level DSLR goes for less than US$500. Sets of older, but very usable models are even more affordable. For someone new to photography, the latest models of cameras aren't a necessity in my opinion, so I think this sum is rather manageable. (For example, if I saved the 50 cents of allowance I had each day from primary school, it would only take me about 3 years. And since it's not something pertinent to my survival, I think that's pretty okay.)

As for students, with the popularity of photography, I want to believe that most parents would be happy to purchase a new camera for their child in return for good grades and/or behavior. If they won't, a few weeks of part-time through summer break should do it too. Just don't splurge on parties, clothes, coffee, alcohol and all the stuff that suck cash away. At the end of the day, it really boils down to how much we want something and if we're willing to work for it.   

I also find it pretty cool to think about how I could work to get something I want for myself. The process of it is like a dedication and you'll treasure it so much more when you've bought it with your hard-earned money.

Here are some shots taken using the 350D + kit lens with natural/ambient light:

Shot at my school's garbage dump for easy clean-up post-shoot. Nothing to do with Twilight whatsoever.
Self Portrait - The moment after
Days of Our Lives
Headphones are Stylish.

The Kit Lens

I had some questions in the beginning, just like everyone else—whether an expensive lens would make my photos better, whether getting strobes would help, whether working in a studio would make a photo more awesome, whether any or all of the above were really absolutely necessary in taking good pictures.

Sure, all of these things definitely make a difference, but as a beginner with barely trained eyes, there was a lot to learn with just the kit lens. 18-55mm is a pretty good range, so after a friend's advice, it was what I stuck with for a long time.

My First Light

Something else that was interesting to explore was working with a single light source. I got myself a second hand 1kw Arri hotlight from a friend for US$500, and experimented with it plenty and learnt lighting that way. You'd be surprised at how much you can do with just one light alone. (When I had jobs, I rented Profotos, Bowens, and Elinchroms.)

Here are some shots done in my family's living room with one light. I always had to clear our sofa away, but it made just enough room for all of these:

This Side Up.
Newspapers are Good for You

Other Lights & Lenses

A cheap studio kit costs less than US$200 now. If you're not going for studio looks, a 50mm f/1.4 (US$350) could be a great investment for ambient/location shooting too. (I use an f/1.8
which is $120). There's a lovely depth of field when the aperture is wide open, and you'll get these really beautiful blurred out backgrounds and bokehs. (No examples with the 350D here, I didn't get a prime lens till much later.)

All in all, in the first year, I'd say it's mostly about learning framing and how to work with what light you have than anything else.


The technical aspect aside, wardrobe was pretty much just stuff from my closet. It helped that I was doing fashion design and had a bunch of things from sewing classes that were perfect for layering for photography. But if you don't sew, stores like H&M, Uniqlo and Zara offer a wide range of basics you can buy to work with.

I talked about it a little in my fashion photography tips post, feel free to check it out. :D If all fails, (like my super super early pictures) just do self portraits, use the model's own clothes, use no clothes. If you know how to make it work with basic things, imagine the wonders you can do with resources down the road!


Starting from the most basic, there's the usual photo-processing software that comes with the camera you purchase. I knew a professional photographer who used Canon's Digital Photo Professional to process his pictures, so don't scoff at the free stuff. But if you want to move on to Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One, or other programs, you are definitely encouraged to try them out.

For me, I use Lightroom for cataloguing and colours because it's super user-friendly for organization and you can use it for processing easily. The student edition costs only US$79. (Lightroom 6 has also just been announced!)

And that's it! US$900 is pretty much all you need to start, and enough to last a while. It's not free, but it's nothing so astronomical that you can't work and save for if you want to make an effort. Like the saying goes, "If there is a will, there is a way."

I hope this post helps and clears up some of the mysteries! You are also totally allowed to judge my bad PS skills on these very ancient pictures. 18 feels like a lifetime ago now.

I'll do a part two if anyone's interested to see the rest of my equipment upgrade journey? Now back to packing~~


What Do I Use Now?

Seeing as how I haven't written a part two after four years, here's the quick breakdown on my upgrade journey (see my full gear list below):

After the 350D, I upgraded twice:

1. 5D one year after I got my 350D.
2. 1Ds Mark III one year after the 5D.

I still use the 1Ds Mark III today, 7 years later. 

Update 2: 

Want to learn more? Check out my online course Artistic Portrait Photography, or subscribe to my Patreon, where I create exclusive new content on a monthly basis.

More: my photography articles, and gear list

Some of the product links in this post will bring you to Amazon, where I'll get a small referral fee should you choose make a purchase. This helps with the time spent on articles and the running of this blog, so please consider supporting the website. Thank you!


Amber said...

I'm interested in the upgrade journey! Thanks for such an inspiring blogpost. Won't think so lightly of my 450D anymore. :)

Suka said...

Awesome JN, you've really shown that it's not really about what camera you use,
even with entry level, you can still take incredible shots.
Thanks for the motivation :)

Mr. Crinks said...

Very interested in the next instalment!

Anonymous said...

ok. im using a compact.

T said...

This is great! Truthfully awesome!

ladyironchef said...

There are a lot of people who think that only expensive cameras can get them good photos, this post prove all of them wrong :)

Do show us the part 2 of your camera equipments! heh

lumlum said...

Thanks for the info! It's inspiring just by seeing someone sharing! :)

Robert Milovan said...

Great post! I've learnt this the hard way, as I'm a tech geek .. but in real life when I'm shooting I'm still only using one flash, one lens for indoor, and another for outdoor .. due to different focal lenght etc ..

It is the photographer that "makes" the picture, not the camera or the other equipment. Hmm .. why didn't I get this before hahaha.

Anyway, keep up your great work!
Rgds, Robert

Danu said...

this is so inspiring! Love your work + creativity


Dummey said...

Thank you for being candid about your beginnings! I love seeing photographs that defy the perception that everybody must have the newest and best year.

Looking forward to part 2.

Karen Anne said...

Im happy to hear that successful people like you started from nothing, but hardwork.

im so happy, hoping that one day i can be the same.
btw, i am also happy a gundam wing pilot wanna be reached her dream.:D

Karen Anne said...

Im happy to hear that successful people like you started from nothing, but hardwork.

im so happy, hoping that one day i can be the same.
btw, i am also happy a gundam wing pilot wanna be reached her dream.:D

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for this great post!

I'd love to see a part 2 of it.
I decided to become a photographer after seeing your work! Can't thank you enough!

Keneth Tan said...

Very interesting post on how you started out. I would love to see a part 1 of how you trained and improved in photography as time goes on, rather than a part 2 of your equipment though! :D

P.S : I never get bored looking at your works. LOL.

Anonymous said...

Nice eye opening blog. Really.

Yume Ninja said...

thank you so much for the info. it's very inspiring and motivating.

lightbird said...

Wow, knowing that the posted photos were shot with a kit lens is very encouraging! Definitely makes me want to explore the possibilities of it on my Canon 1000D! :)

Piotr said...

Thank you so much for posting this! I was thinking about e-mailing you about it for a long time but I could never get myself to bother you with my questions ... I love the fact that you were so honest here and made me think ... a lot. Thank you very much and I will take everything on board. And please, do post part 2 :).


Cinghius - Andrea said...

I'm very curious about how you educated your eye, if you always had this kind of intense and pre-raphaelite vision in your portraits or you "built" it by carefully studying artbooks or reading essays about art history or photography.

I also would like to say that I started with a entry level camera 10 years ago, and while I kept taking ordinary shots, you developed a unique style and become a professional. You surely worked hard to do it, but what it takes to become a pro is also talent, and you've got a lot of it, no doubt about it.

But, since I've always lived in a small city, is it important to live in a big city, with a lot of possibilities and opportunities to meet people from around the world in order to become a professional photographer? I know some talented people in my city, but they all end up making photoshoots at weddings and nothing more.

Jia Ling said...

Thank you so much for sharing this with us. Its completely and utterly inspiring how you came a long way with basic items and your passion for photography.

All the best with your packing and moving to LA : D

Thea Schneider said...

I would be interested in a part two too :D

Anonymous said...

"And you may go ahead and judge my lousy PS skills, haha. XD But wow, 18 feels like a lifetime ago now."

just to comment on this quote of your.. If you can, so I would!
I admire your work and I hope, I can be more inspired by you and your work..


Christina Liang said...

loved the post and would really enjoy reading more about your journey =)

Christina Liang said...

loved hearing about your journey and would definitely enjoy learning about the 2nd part. please do share =)

Bel said...

Awesome post!
I'm lucky to have such a nice brother who gave me a 450D for christmas. I admire you so much and I wish you the best of luck! You're awesome! <3

...and a part two would be great ^^ haha

Anonymous said...

hi, an interesting read. I've been following your shots on flickr and twitter for a while now, and its good to see the inside story.

I have a side story to add. I'm lucky enough to earn enough to get into Nikon full frame equipment (FX as they call it). But photography is my hobby, well more, my passion!

But last year I sold up my full-frame kit because despite nailing some shots I was really proud of and some that were only 'possible' on such a high grade camera (clean high ISO), I was being sucked into the price of Nikon lenses and not thinking it was worth it. And worst, I wasn't feeling worthy of the pricey kit I had. So I sold it all and have been shooting with a little E-P1, portable, a major down-grade.

Next year I'm gonna pick a fairly decent camera like a Canon 60D or Nikon D7000 and just one small portable prime lens, and shoot with that and nothing else for the year. Just to keep it simple, a throw back to the days when I started shooting in the late 1980s!

Its not the kit: its the photographer

Karla said...

Thank you for being open and sharing your journey with us.
We all have to start from somewhere, and I've never turned back, and wished I'd done something else...even if I am poor at the moment trying to do what I love!! haha

Look forward to hearing about your continued equipt.

TabzChewy said...

Love this post! I've always been curious to know one could start out and what sort of lens etc to go with.

Looking forward to Part II (pretty please!)

mindy said...

thanks for posting that, it was great!

Fiona said...

Thank you for this Jingna. I'll be checking back for part 2.

I love the way you write, and your photography even more.

Much love to you from Canada,

Anonymous said...

I second Cinghius - Andrea's comment -- I love reading about how artists train their eye or what inspires them so much to create. If time allows and it is not too much of a burden, please do a part II! This was informative and insightful. Thank you so much. You are so inspirational.

Aleksandar said...

"Redemption" master pice

Aleksandar said...

"Redemption" masterpice

Enchantee said...

Thank you for confirming my thought that great pictures can come out from very basic equipment. I say that to myself every time me and my 2.hand 1000D get intimidated by someone standing nearby with their 5D T_T That belief can pull my self-confidence up quite a bit. I've spotted myself singing that song quite often recently thou, since it seems like everybody's got at least a semi-pro DSLR these days T_T

You were actually the first person who opened my eyes and got me interested in photography in the first place, so I guess I have to thank you for that :] Like you, I paid for my camera entirely myself. Took some time, cuz, you know, food, new shoes and clothes got in the way, and my part-time salary was a laugh. Unfortunately, my mom doesn't share the thought that photography - or any kind of art - is something one can have a career in or make a living out of. And boy, you cannot believe how strict she is. So now, after I've graduated last month with a degree in International Business Management, I'm a corporate worker on weekdays and an experimental photographer on weekends. We have a spare garage which would be perfect for a small studio, but I'm afraid she might chop me into teeny tiny pieces if she knew I'm planning to throw away all the business studies and a corporate job of mine that she's so proud of to pursue the photography career. I'm still very unsure of and at times even depressed about my abilities. Seeing how good other people are just strengthens my self-doubt - it does motivates me to practice practice, but the depression exceeds the motivation most of the times T_T

Nways, I won't bother you further with my long speech. Take care, Jingna!!!

iamKinoko said...

I'm interested in the upgrade journey too !! PLEASE ~!

kahying said...

Aww thank you for sharing all these! I'm really interested in all these and always wonder how did you all do that. but i still have a question, maybe you can answer it in the next post? teehee, when you were using your 350D, how did you manage to find the beautiful model, location, dress and all that? I mean, I have no idea where should I start off, im ready but it's a bit hard for me to get pretty gown and location and model to try >:/

Mani said...

I'm interested in part two...! I've seen most of your old pictures but I still love them

CV said...

Can't denied most current photographers are more consumed in getting the gears rather than the composition and ideas.
Can't wait for part two!

Juliana Robin said...

Hello! First of all I have to say how I admire your work! I've been seeing your pictures on flickr for a while and it inspire me very much!
This post was amazing and came just in time for me! (going trhoug the crisis of beginig to invest on equipment)
Thanks a lot for sharing your expirience! And can't wait for part two! ;)

Juliana Robin said...

Hello! First of all I have to say how I admire your work! I've been seeing your pictures on flickr for a while and it inspire me very much!
This post was amazing and came just in time for me! (going trhoug the crisis of beginig to invest on equipment)
Thanks a lot for sharing your expirience! And can't wait for part two! ;)

Rocking Doll Museum / Diabetic Lolita said...

Oh, your work is amazing!

I really agree with your point of view that you don't need the newest one on the market.
Gear is one, technique is another one!

- said...

Karen Anne, are you the one from Zhonghua Pri? :p If u are, I'm an ex-classmate :)

mihaizen said...

do you think that a nikon d3000 can be used as a first step to photography ? with prime lenses.

Amy said...

write part 2 please. :)

marcin said...

I am always in awe how humble and cool you are, Jingna. And how talented. Love your work and your attitude.
If you come to New York, let me buy you a cup of coffee.

Melisa Des Rosiers said...

Thanks so much for sharing your journey. All the technical know-how on camera use is also extremely helpful! Thanks.

Nicole said...

It is very inspiring post and I'm definitely looking forward to part II of your journey.Thanks for sharing!

Esther said...

I'm truly inspired! Please do post part 2 & perhaps some tips on taking such awesome photos?

bibi said...

thank you for sharing this. I would definitely like to read part 2 =)
You probably get this everyday, but you're really an inspiration to me =)
I'm studying Photography now and have alot more to explore.

Becks said...

Funny. This came at a really good time. I was just feeling devastated with the idea of paying for school for another three years along with equipment upgrading. It's funny how timings work out so perfectly and inspiration comes at your lowest points.

Thanks for the inspiration Jingna!

njekaterina said...

so inspiring indeed, I was just thinking about an upgrade this week, you solved my doubts, I definetely do not need it! Thank you so much for sharing your experience and best wishes for you!

dreamtomatoes said...

This was an inspiring post.
Thank you for sharing with us. :]

Happy packing~

Anonymous said...

Part 2! :D

Kristy said...

Thank you so much for sharing - it's amazing to see how far you've come with humble beginnings. Definitely inspirational :) It's also great to see that such beautiful pictures can be taken with an entry level camera. I just got my first camera (and was lucky enough to also get a prime lens) and am excited to experiment and see what I can find.

Like many others, I'd definitely be interested in a part two!

Melissa said...

I'm definitely interested in reading more about your journey!

Hotesses Paris said... really like it and impressive too.

Saw Kang Jong said...

Good and precisely mentioned :) I've been ask what camera I use or what camera to buy heaps of time.. Will share this :)

Alyce said...

You are absolutely an inspiration! It's incredibly impressive what you've been able to achieve already, as I'm sure you've been told.

I've been interested in the arts my whole life, and at 22 I've only started to dabble in fashion photography. Considering my tight budget as a recent graduate -- this is *exactly* the type of article I needed to tell me that a little goes a long way... And that it's mostly about the time you put in, the planning, and the vision. I have yet to purchase a light, but maybe I will actually wait on that.

Would love to know about your equipment upgrades :)

mashnash said...

great post!
inspiring to know how you started and then strived.
didn't realize how simple your equipment was then! amazing
and part 2 sounds like a great idea :D
this has been a great help!

Tim Lim said...

I'm borrowing a 350d + 18-55mm lense atm too! and i'm also using photoshop and lightroom! nice post, really nice.

Charlie said...

Wow! Very inspiring.. make me appreciate my camera more than before. I want to upgrade my own DSLR but when I thought about it, I will keep it and just concentrate on my skills.

Thanks for sharing! ;)

avarine said...

that was really inspiring reading and so interesting too! thank you for sharing :)

goingkookies said...

reading ur story is inspiring. seeing ur pictures in deviant art is inspiring.

looking at the pictures i've taken, now, that is so NOT inspiring. =p

hope to even be 50% as good as u will make me happy. nah. correction. to be as good as u or better would be a dream come true.

but alas, that will bejust a dream...

GIF said...

Beautiful photographs - great sensitivity and talent

Samantha "Hot Scot" said...

Pretty please~!
I'm fixing to upgrade by the end of the year - very excited to hear your story :)

Helena (XOXO Parisky) said...

Thank you for this!
It feels really good to see that such an exceptional photographer as you are, started at the beginning.

I'd love to read the rest of the story.

Hisietari said...

Very true! Though I'm not a photographer, I've made this kind of experience in my own field of art, drawing. I'm by far not a master, not even a pro, but I think I can decide what's a level of art I like and what needs to be worked at a bit further still.

A lot of young artists start by getting themselves huge, expensive boxes of pencils and markers, or they think that's what they need to work and therefore don't even start to try. That's a shame, because especially in art, it's definitely NOT the expensive material that makes you an artist.

A mere stubble of a pencil is enough.

The rest is you, and nothing but you.

I used to be like that, too. Others got their first full copic marker sets at the age of fifteen years, not to mention expensive software and scanners, graphic tablets and what not. I worked hard to get my first and still only graphic tablet, but it is a question of practise if you can use it or not. It takes years to accumulate the sensitivity to see what's just technical megalomania, and what's a bit more creative, a bit more individual, and will finally make a picture people remember, instead of getting lost in the mass of technically very good, but content-wise very boring, generic pieces of art.

(I won't say I'm at that individual, high-level art stage, not in twenty years, hahaha!)

Thanks a lot for this wonderful blog entry, I hope it opened the eyes of a few people and encouraged them to try. :)

Anonymous said...

Would love to see part 2! :D

Edrick said...

was going through a rough day today and wow i stumbled upon this. just what i needed to read. thanks for the inspiration!!! :-)))))

Edrick said...

was going through a rough day today and wow i stumbled upon this. just what i needed to read. thanks for the inspiration!!! :-)))))

Mawb said...

Truthfully, it's mostly in the eye. I've seen breathtaking shots taken with a basic phone-camera. Personally I knew to stop at the hobby stage because I recognise my artistic limits. I get to enjoy yoru work and that of many more wonderful artists instead XD

selenity luz said...

I really enjoy reading your blog! Besides staring at your work for hours and feeling a spirit balance after, I adore to read your blog! Indeed, one never should judge a book by its cover.

Matt Beard said...

Well said. Beautiful. ;-)

June said...

So refreshing to have read your post, have always admired your work from Flickr. This post really brings us back to the ground, reminding us that it's not the $$ of our equipment but our willingness to dedicate time and energy to practice. Keep up the fantastic work and yes looking forward to future post on your developement journey
Cheer! June

Marland Miller said...

Great History! Anxious to look at your photos! I used a Canon XTI (400D) until a month ago when it was stolen while on a train. A good friend graciously gifted me with a Canon 7D with a 24-105 L series lens. With my age and income I wasn't sure I was going to upgrade, but I guess he made the decision for me!

Michael D'Avignon said...

Great blog and killer images. So many people get hung up on gear and alot of those that have top end glass tend to flaunt it. In the end, it all comes down to the image and a good image is still a good image regardless of what it was made with.

Anonymous said...


Great post!! How do you get people to see your photos?

All the best!
Raul Nunes

Anonymous said...

So it is true when they say; it's not the camera, it's you who take pictures.

Amar Ellahi said...

Thank you for this. It is very motivating. love your photographs,

love to see your development journey.

Anonymous said...

I always felt like I'm a noob. I tried to upgrade my 1kD lens to prime lens. Someone gave me 50mm 1.8 and I bought a 85mm lens. I also bought a speedlite. I'm doing part time of wedding job now. But still, I felt lacking. 85mm is great for outdoor but indoor wedding, i have to say no to it. I've been looking for ways to use my kit lens to the max.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much ZJ for such a wonderful write-up. Looking forward to hear more from you...

Anonymous said...

Great post. I'm dealing with a few of these issues as well..

Dan Gilles said...

Don't regret your existence! I'm sure your family is proud of you and your independence.

Anonymous said...

Love your photography! One question that maybe you can cover in your next installment: What about the models you use? Friends or did you go to an agency?
Keep up the good work :)

Basit Zia said...

I just bought my first ever Dslr from my own pocket D3100 with kit lens.. I was thinking of getting a better lense but your blog inspired me much and motivated me :)

Makha Racine SY said...

Congratulations for this wonderful article. You are confirming to me that photography is first about inspiration and good technique.

However, I would really like to read your article about your lens upgrade journey. Is it already available ? If yes, could you post the link to it ?

Muhammad Ridho said...

this is amazing ! truly great photography :D

CarlosLopez said...

please post part 2!

chan wy said...

Glad to be know that Singapore play a small in your life journey.

leviathan16 said...

upgrade journey..upgrade journey..upgrade journey.. we want upgrade journey.. and we will not shut up till u post ur upgrade journey..

riccardo said...

your work inspires me

Hung Pham said...

Thank you for your sharing ! Love your works !

Aniruddha Barapatre said...

Beautiful pictures. Shots like these motivates newbies like me to strive to take better ones.
Thanks for sharing your story

Ed Mooney said...

Great tips and photos! Inspiring! Please do Part Two.
Ed M.