If someone gave you $1,000 and told you to buy a camera and lens combo, what would you do? Yes, it’s hard to get a good kit for relatively little money. Still, there are some hidden gems that are perfect for kickstarting your career and providing an upgrade over existing gear. When I started taking pictures, around the age of 15, I couldn’t really afford a digital camera or anything like that. I had to make do with what I had: a film camera and a lens that I had taken from my father. Being quite young, I didn’t start photography in the good old days. I started shooting movies and had to quickly learn what to do and how to do it. Eventually, I managed to save up and bought a digital camera: Canon 1D Mark II. Then I saved even more and sold my 1D Mark II for more than buying it, I bought a 5D Mark II. Combined with a good zoom lens, it was an amazing camera that I shot a lot of work with. That was in 2019, after the release of the EOS R. A decade after the release of the 5D Mark II, it was still a capable camera that delivered.
Now I recommend this combo to all beginner photographers, almost regardless of gender. Camera technology, in general, has improved a lot over the last decade, but to be honest, it’s a marginal improvement every year. Long story short, there hasn’t been a bad camera since 2010. Lenses have also improved a lot; the new glass is sharper, the flange distance is shorter, and the elements are better. Does it make a difference? If you are a pixel-peeper yes. I shoot a 24-70 from 2007 on a Canon 5Ds body, and no one has complained. So much so that nobody notices that I go from a 5D Mark IV to a 5Ds and vice versa.
So let’s see why I think the 5D Mark II and a 24-105 f/4 IS are the best camera and lens combo under $1000.
Canon 5D Mark II ($300-400)
Released in 2009, this camera is a true legend. The specs aren’t anything special in 2022, but they were the latest and greatest in 2009 when the camera was first released. In short, here is the summary of the specifications of the famous Canon 5D Mark II.
On the sensor side, you have 21 MP to work with. It is very similar to the Canon 1Ds Mark III, which was a camera specifically designed for studio work. Personally, unless you’re shooting big campaigns, you don’t need a higher resolution sensor. From personal experience, my clients also didn’t really notice me going from a 20 to 30 and a 50 megapixel sensor. The ISO ranges from 100-6400, which can be extended to 50-25600. That’s not an impressive thing, but if you shoot at ISO 6400 all the time you might want to consider a different camera. For simple people who work between 100 and 3,200, it will be perfect. The camera starts to act above ISO 1000, so you have to be careful with that. Still, the grain is rather pleasant and nothing horrible.
Some notable features include live view, which seems standard now, but was a huge change for me coming from a film and 1D Mark II background. On the bad side, the autofocus is horrible and you can only rely on one center point. It’s not so bad if you’re working with a mostly still subject, but as soon as it starts moving quickly you might want to look in the direction of the Canon 1D Mark IV or 1Dx. If you like video, you won’t be too happy, because the 5D Mark II is first and foremost a camera. I’ve shot very, very small video projects on the 5D Mark II, and it’s worked fine, but there’s no way I’m taking it to anything serious. It makes much more sense to rent a Blackmagic for video projects.
24-105 f/4 ($300-400)
It’s not a special goal, you might say. It’s a very special goal, I answer. The 24-105 f/4 IS is an inexpensive professional option that can meet your needs for most shots. Especially early in your career, when you’re not sure which focal lengths you prefer, the 24-105 will offer a wide variety of shots. From medium telephoto to medium wide angle, this lens is very “medium”. It won’t give you crazy zoom, or crazy bokeh, it will, however, give you a stable and reliable lens that takes sharp images. It’s kind of a kit goal on steroids. And a very good one indeed. Equipped with image stabilization, it will be ideal for those who wish to reduce their shutter speed a little. Compared to version II, the original one is lighter and smaller. The only improvement in the newer, more expensive lens is corner brightness, which can be fixed in post. Go figure out which one you’ll need.
And the 24-70 f/2.8?
A careful reader will wonder why I shoot the heavier 24-70 f/2.8? And the answer is pretty simple, simply because that’s the lens I bought and got stuck using. At the same time, having also shot on a 24-105, I would absolutely recommend it to anyone who wants a decent zoom but doesn’t want to spend ridiculous amounts of money. If you find a bargain and feel you don’t need anything beyond 70mm, go with the 24-70, but be prepared to lose sharpness at wider apertures, as well as use a larger and heavier piece of glass. Coming from someone whose hands sometimes hurt after a shooting, this is a very real concern.
So there you have it, the Canon 5D Mark II paired with a 24-105 f/4 or a 24-70 f/2.8 is a great starter combo for almost any professional photographer. Costing less than $1,000 used, this gear can be purchased on Facebook Marketplace, various groups, as well as websites. I would strongly suggest buying the gear in person, as sometimes remote shopping can lead to frustration and poor choices.