Camera and lenses aren't the only photographic essentials that cost money. A decent machine with plenty of RAM and fast storage (preferably SSD) and rather expensive serious photography software are must-haves, too.

That's at least how the conventional photographic wisdom goes. It may be so if you are making a living with your photography. But you don't have to throw your hard-earned money into the bottomless pit of photography, if you are willing to look away from "industry standards" and "de facto" tools.

For years, I've been using what others would consider the lowest-end hardware and open-source software for managing and processing RAW files and photos. While I could have invested in a souped-up machine with gigabytes of this and terabytes of that, I enjoy the challenge of squeezing the most out of my modest setup.

Saving money is not the only major benefit of using inexpensive hardware and free open-source software. Somewhat surprisingly, the more important benefit for me personally is peace of mind. My primary machine is a 9-year old ThinkPad X220 with 4GB RAM and 120GB SSD. I bought it on eBay for around 200 euros, plus about 30 euros for a 120GB SSD. The digiKam application I use for most of my photo management and processing needs cost exactly zero. (I'm the author of the digiKam Recipes book.) I store my entire photo library on a USB 3.0 3TB Toshiba Canvio hard disk I bought for around 113 euros. If any component of my hardware setup fails, I can replace it without any significant impact on my budget. I don't have to worry about a company deciding to squeeze more money out of me by either forcing me into a paid upgrade or a subscription plan, and I sleep better knowing that I own the software crucial for my photographic workflow.

You might think that managing and processing RAW files and photos on a relatively old machine with a paltry amount of RAM is unbearably slow, but it's not. While Windows would bring the ThinkPad X220 to its knees, the machine briskly runs openSUSE Linux with the KDE graphical desktop environment. The word Linux may send some photographers away screaming, but a modern Linux system is hardly more complicated in use than Windows.

Of course, even running Linux, ThinkPad X220 is not lightning-fast, but it's speedy enough. In fact, I have no problems processing RAW files from my Sony Alpha 6500 at all. I don't have problems working on a small screen either. But you can easily add an inexpensive display, if desired. And if you are willing to spend another 15-20 euros, you can buy a docking station that offers several additional ports. If you prefer a more powerful machine with a larger display, ThinkPad T410 is a good option, costing only slightly more than X220.

As a technical writer, I've been writing about Linux and open-source software for many years, and I have the technical knowledge and skills to work with both. But even if you don't fancy the idea of switching to Linux, you can still give open-source applications like digiKam and RawTherapee a try. They may lack the polish and fashionable AI-powered functionality of proprietary commercial tools, but these applications offer all the basic and advanced features you'd expect from a serious tool.

But what about backup? I have a two-disk NAS, but it's not an essential part of my photographic setup anymore. So when the time comes, I'll most likely replace it with an inexpensive external two-bay disk enclosure that supports RAID. As for an offsite backup, I use the Backblaze B2 cloud storage, as it offers unlimited storage for a reasonable price.

So there you are: for a few hundred euros, you can have a perfectly workable photographic setup. Even if you prefer to invest in more modern and powerful hardware, you can still save serious money and have peace of mind by considering lesser known yet capable alternatives to popular commercial tools.