Equipment and Where The Money Comes From

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

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