We’ve all been there; spent too long staring at a famous photograph shot on film, handled a friend or relative’s classic camera a little too covetously, or suddenly recalled a camera from childhood that we just have to have again. A strange sensation occurs, a sweet nostalgia mixed with an insatiable need, and we know it’s too late. We’ve been bitten by the film bug, and there’s nothing in this world that could ever satisfy that craving, except cameras and film.
If you’ve found yourself in this situation, you may have experienced the following; in Facebook groups and on Instagram, you see people posting photos of their $5 thrift store Canon AE-1, their $30 flea market Nikon F3, and their $1 garage sale Leica M3 (okay, maybe not that one). You start to think film photography is dirt cheap! Lenses and bodies are plentiful and can be had for pennies on the dollar. You spend weeks ogling salacious camera porn, and it all comes to a head. You have to have it all- every lens, every body, no matter the cost. You hop on eBay, see the prices, and all that pent-up excitement quickly drains away, replaced by sticker shock. AE-1s and F3s are expensive! And you have to buy your own developing equipment? And you have to buy your own scanner? And you have to pay for development if you can’t do it yourself? And let’s not even talk about that M3. Everybody made this seem so cheap, and now you’re quickly talking yourself out of shooting film.
As somebody with limited means, I know all too well the struggles of shooting on a budget. And though it’s hard to watch others frolicking in the grass with their Leicas and Linhofs while I salvage and repair old hand-me-down Fujicas and Yashicas, it is possible to find gorgeous an amazing film cameras on a budget. In fact, I’d argue that being on a budget makes it even more fun. Today I’ll be giving you all five tips on how to build a fully equipped camera kit as cheaply as possible. By the end of the hunt we’ll have scored a gorgeous body and a trio of lenses (standard, wide, and tele) to last decades. Let’s get to it.
Tip 1 : Set a Budget
The words “budget” and “excitement” don’t find themselves in the same sentence very often. But in this particular instance, setting well-defined limits actually makes the hunt for each camera and lens more meaningful and, in the long run, more satisfying. It’s easy to drop three grand on a fancy system (provided you have three grand to blow) and call it a day, but where’s the fun in that? It’s much more fun and rewarding to scrounge up some spare change and transform it into something special. The sense of accomplishment combined with the inevitable attachment to the machine you’ve somehow conjured up out of thin air is incredible, and the photos made with such a machine will seem all the more special.
How cheap is cheap? Let’s get down to business. Because we’re doing this thing on a budget, we’ll cap our allowance at a cool $100. This essentially breaks down to about $20 for a body and $80 for our three lenses. $100 affords us some leeway but it offers enough of a challenge to make hunting down these cameras and lenses a more exciting affair.
Tip 2 : Pick the Right System
Just as you can’t buy a BMW for the same price as a Toyota, you can’t buy a Leica for the cost of a Pentax. Yes, on photo forums there’s no shortage of tales about mythical barn finds, but don’t hold your breath. We’d be smart to ignore these once-in-a-lifetime stories and be a bit more practical when looking for a real camera system that’s both functional and cheap.
And try to remember we’re not just looking for one camera, we’re looking for a complete set. Let’s take Nikon for example, and let’s say we did stumble upon a $3 Nikon F3. Cool, now we have $97 to play with. But look around on eBay and it’s quickly clear that lenses from Nikon can’t be had for much less than $80 each. So much for our stretching our Benjamin.
What are we looking for then? We must choose a less popular camera, one from a brand that’ll allow us to score deals consistently with bodies and lenses. At the time of this article’s publication, many consistent deals come from Minolta’s SR bayonet mount system and the Pentax M42 thread-mount system. Cameras and lenses from these two particular systems tend to run incredibly cheap because they were considered consumer systems for most of their lifespans and because they were produced in such large numbers. So let’s say we go with Pentax’s M42 system. A quick Google search tells us that M42 bodies and lenses encompass several different brands as opposed to just one, meaning that things will generally be cheaper overall. There’s also potential for a good deal on genuine Pentax Super Takumar lenses and (gasp) Carl Zeiss Jena lenses. Sounds enticing.
Tip 3 : Go on Adventures
While it’s all well and good to shop online for deals, we find that the greatest deals happen face to face, mano a mano, toe to toe. This means hitting local thrift stores, camera shops, flea markets, estate sales- you name it. You can usually catch a seller in the heat of the moment and talk them down to an insanely low price. Voila, you’ve got yourself a $20 lens.
Along with offering a cheaper price point, flea markets, thrift stores, and garage sales tend to yield items with rather interesting pasts. You may find from the owner that a particular camera or lens went to war with a relative decades ago, or you may hear of some strange adventures from the previous owner themselves as they hand it to you. In any case, you may be getting an item with a ton of history behind it, something many of us nutty photo geeks cherish.
And of course, you may even come back from your search with your own adventure to tell. James’ particular copy of the Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 has a great story behind it involving a crusty seafaring former photographer, and I myself remember acquiring a Minolta XD-11 inside a sketchy McDonald’s in Long Beach. Having those little stories attached to your gear makes shooting with it that much more special.
For my Pentax system I decided to consult Craigslist. Though sometimes few and far between, Craigslist deals can be had from people looking to offload gear without too much care for what it’s worth. Luckily, I found somebody willing to sell a Pentax Spotmatic SP with a Vivitar 28mm f/2.5 wide angle and a Pentacon 135mm f/2.8 telephoto for the grand total of… $45. I met the seller in a Starbucks, examined the camera and lenses, and quite easily haggled him down to $40 on account of a frozen self-timer on the Spotmatic. This left about $60 to round out a system, a more than respectable chunk of change.
Tip 4 : Buy Slow, Buy Low
If you’re on a strict budget, it’s safe to say that ultra-fast lenses are out of the question. I’d even suspect it difficult to get anything faster than f/1.7 on our meager budget. You may think I’m saying that handheld low-light photography isn’t possible on a budget, but this really isn’t the case at all. The difference between an f/1.8 and f/1.4 lens is about half a stop, and the difference in practical use is negligible. Considering that the exposure latitude of color negative film often allows for two full stops of underexposure, even if we seek an F/2 lens (only one stop slower than an 1.4), we’re still well within the range of film’s exposure latitude.
And it’s important to remember that slower lenses aren’t intrinsically worse than their faster friends. One only needs look to the Leica Summicron 50mm f/2 for an example of a super-sharp slow lens with an incredible reputation. Sure, it won’t give you the extra stop of light that a faster lens might, but image quality from this lens is quite literally the best in the world. Other inexpensive, slower options include the Olympus 28mm f/3.5 (considered the better lens over the f/2.8 version), the Minolta MD 45mm f/2 (one of Minolta’s sharpest ever lenses), and the pre-ai Nikkor 135mm f/3.5 (considered better than the pre-ai f/2.8 version).
Most important to this conversation, slow lenses are always substantially less expensive than their fast counterparts. Even Nikon’s own 50mm f/2 lens often goes for less than half the price of their f/1.4 lens, and that’s a manufacturer with consistently expensive lenses. So let’s look to fill the gap in our Pentax M42 system- the standard lens. An eBay search told me Pentax’s legendary 50mm f/1.4 Super Takumar might cost around $100, but their 55mm f/2 lens could go as low as $20 if I played my cards right.
Tip 5 : Be Patient
Impatience often leads to jumping the gun and overspending, which is fine when money is available. Unfortunately for many of us this isn’t always the case, and so we must be patient. Patience is the most important factor in securing an entire film kit for $100, and I’ve got the story to prove it.
For the final lens needed to complete my kit, the Pentax Super Takumar 55mm f/2, I had to be extremely patient. I spent months searching thrift stores only to find nothing but a few cheap vinyls and an odd looking shirt. I drove countless hours to countless flea markets where sellers were hawking everything under the sun, but never my chosen lens. For some reason, life was keeping that sweet Super Takumar out of my loving arms.
So I did what I usually do when I hit rock bottom- comforted myself with the dollar menu at McDonald’s. But as I bit into my dollar cheeseburger, I remembered that months before I had bought a Minolta XD-11 from a guy in a McDonald’s. And that guy told me that he usually sold cameras somewhere a little more official than a McDonald’s parking lot. But where? A few more fries and a sip of my coke and it hit me. He had a booth at the Pasadena Camera Show. I checked to see when the next show was happening, and happily learned that it was just around the corner.
That Sunday, I strolled into the photo geek heaven that is the Pasadena camera show. Cameras and lenses of every shape and size filled the venue, and over each table leered a gaggle of vendors and customers bickering over prices. Nikon SPs and Leica M3s gleamed seductively from behind glass as passersby let out little, excited gasps of adulation. But I didn’t have the time to fawn over such opulence. I was here for one thing and one thing only; my Super Takumar.
After some searching, I finally found a table which held all manner of Pentax SLRs and lenses. It didn’t take much more searching before I spotted my holy grail glistening back at me from the middle of the table. My excitement bubbled over. After weeks of searching, it was finally here. I picked it up, examined it thoroughly, and hailed the crusty, old seller. The old man took the lens from me and walked over to an even older man, who I assumed to be the big cheese of the operation. The old man looked once at the lens, once at me, and whispered in the middleman’s ear, who nodded a solemn nod that was completely incongruous to the less-than-serious situation, and walked back.
“Twenty dollars,” he said with a grave, Russian accent.
I reached for my wallet, ready to buy, but as I thumbed through the bills something else caught my eye. It was the vaunted Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4. There’s no way I can afford that, I thought. But something in me told me to go on and ask, so I did. The seller carried it over to the somber patriarch for review, and then back to me again.
“Fifty. You get what you pay for.”
In that moment I remembered I had only spent $40 on the Spotmatic with three lenses. That meant that I had $60 left over for this little jewel of a lens.
“I’ll take it,” I said with joy, and a few minutes later I had it screwed onto my Spotmatic, ready for whatever life could throw at it. Mission complete.
And that’s how I got a complete kit for super cheap. For under $100 I got a Pentax Spotmatic SP, a Vivitar 28mm f/2.5, a Pentacon 135mm f/2.8, and a Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4; a full SLR system ready for almost any situation. It’s not flashy by any means but it does exactly what I need it to, and my conscience and my wallet thank me for it.