35mm SLR on a starving artists budget


by Bellamy /

5 min read

35mm SLR on a starving artists budget
Who says gear has to be expensive? Daniel Sawyer Schaefer gives us a guide on how to get yourself shooting without breaking the bank. Check it out.

Many of us have been there, standing in a camera shop, staring at the shimmering chrome lining the walls, pining for a new kit, but then we remember, we’ve a mighty need to eat this week.
If only there was a way to buy that workhorse you’ve been pining for, and still rock a hot bowl of ramen and a cold pint on the weekend…
Through much trial and error, and some days where it definitely came down to a roll of Portra or a bagel and schmear, I’ve found some easy ways to find the deals we need.

to begin;

Buy a light meter!- Some people have asked me why they need a meter if one is already built into the camera? Much of the vintage gear you will find, if it has an operating meter you are going to be paying a premium, sometimes as much as $200 more than a camera that aside from a meter is fully operational. Owning your own meter means you can get a reading no matter the setting, I’ve carried and used my meter every day since I bought it two years ago.
Suggested Gear – Sekonic L308s $230 (worth every penny!)
Words of wisdom – Iphone meter apps are cheap, but can also be easily fooled by uneven lighting.

As an initial note, if you’re looking for a deal, don’t care if the camera looks pretty, like your momma told you in the fourth grade, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

Bodies – Buy mechanical, not electronic. The two basic types of film camera bodies you come across can be broken up into two categories: Mechanically actuated, and Electronically actuated.
Mechanical means the shutter and aperture run without any electricity whatsoever. Some of these cameras include a battery compartment to run the meter, but even in the absence of a battery, will still fire at all settings. Shooting mechanical, you’ll never have to worry about packing spare batteries, or having to hunt down a shop that sells some obscure watch battery while on location.

Electronic means that the shutter and aperture are managed by a computer chip within the camera. In the absence of a battery, these cameras will not fire. Even more problematic, sometimes a low battery can affect exposure, making the exposure read correctly, but fire off by as much as two or three stops. Sometimes in the absence of a battery, these cameras will seem to fire, but in reality only fire at a single shutter speed, no matter what they are set to (usually 1/60th or 1/125th.) If a camera has any of the ASP modes, it is electronically actuated. These cameras are also significantly more expensive to repair.

Suggested gear- Nikkormat avg$50, Nikon FM/Fm2/F3 avg$175
Words of wisdom- Avoid anything with ASP modes if you want something that lasts.

Lenses, Compatibility is key(or is it?)- When buying lenses, of course look for the obvious, make sure the glass is clear and clean, the focus is smooth, and the mount has no dings or scratches. As long as the glass is clean and the mount is still sturdy, don’t worry what the rest of the lens looks like scratched black paint has character!
A nice solution to finding cheap lenses is go old and I mean OLD. The average Nikon 50mm 1.8 costs under $100. When it comes to Nikon there are three basic types of used lenses you can find: Pre AI, AI, and G
The basics come down to meter compatibility.
Pre AI use the Pin and Fork method of exposure communication. You see this method on the old photomic Nikon Prisms and other older bodies.
AI communicate with the barrel around the lens. You see this on every model from the FM onward, including and of the pro or prosumer digital systems.
G lenses have had the manual aperture ring removed and communicate only via contacts in the mount. These are the least compatible lenses in the Nikon family. They will mount to all Nikon bodies, but if shot on anything aside from digitally actuated bodies like the later F series cameras and the D digital series, they can only shoot at absolute minimum aperture. G stands for Gelded, which comes from a farming term, which means something very unpleasant if you happen to be a young cow.
Suggested Gear- AI manual lenses, find them on sites like KEH for sub $200, they’re sharp, fast, and smooth as butter.

Long term thinking– When it comes to buying film gear, I always consider three main things, Usability, compatibility and investment over time.

Usability comes down to basic day to day use. How does the build quality feel? Is it easy to use? is it a weight around my neck, or does it live in my hand, more of an extension than an accessory? When I grab this camera in the morning, does it make me want to spend the day shooting?

Compatibility is about the cross pollination of your systems, this mainly comes down to lenses.
I’m a Nikon user, but let me be clear, I am not a Nikon fanboy. I use Nikon gear for all of my 35mm needs, film or digital, because all of the F-mount lenses made by Nikon will work with any Nikon F-mount bodies ever made, going back more than 60 years. (There are a few obscure lenses that have small compatibility issues, but are so rare there is little point in addressing them as a worry.)

For those “Canonites” out there, have no fear, almost all vintage Nikon glass can be used on Canon bodies with only a simple $40 metal adaptor you can find at almost any camera store.

Investment can be a bit more complicated. First and foremost you have to consider it’s durability and ease of repair. If you buy a camera for $150, and it breaks, will you have to spend $50 or $250 to get it fixed? Unless you luck out and find a Leica in a goodwill bargain bin, chances are the costs of repair will be too steep to justify unless it’s a camera you really feel is worth the extra pennies.

This is another reason why I always preach Nikon for anyone looking to buy any vintage SLR gear, the cameras inherently tend to be more durable, and with the exception of a few models here and there, the parts are still commonly stocked by most repair clinics, and on occasion even Nikon itself.
Suggested gear- I swear Nikon isn’t paying me to say this, they just make the most solid equipment that’s the cheapest and easiest to repair.

All in all, if you pick up a meter, a nice solid mechanical body, and a worn but clean piece of vintage glass, you’ll be able to have a kit to be proud of, for pennies on the dollar.

Daniel is a New York based photographer and cinematographer. You can see his bag here. And his website here. Below are a selection of his images taken with his budget saving setup.

Thanks for sharing this with us Daniel. This is food for thought for those who don’t have money to burn or perhaps don’t want to spend the earth on their first film camera.


32 comments on “35mm SLR on a starving artists budget”

    Welland May 24, 2013 at 10:11 pm / Reply

    Good article but its like its written for Nikon! $175 for a body and $200 for a lens? Hardley suggesting a set up for a starving artist. Nikon FM FM2 great cameras but there is a whole host of good SLRs out there. For around £80 you can pick up an Olympus OM1 (all mechanical) and a zuiko 50mm 1.8 lens.

    Lukas May 24, 2013 at 11:13 pm / Reply

    I think so too.
    There are loads of cheaper cameras around than what is suggested in this article.
    The article is well written but what if you just have 100 or 50 or even 10 bucks?
    I mean, especially here in germany, you can get a Praktica or Zenit with a 50mm and perhaps an old but good lightmeter for 10 to 25 bucks and you know what? It can take the same pics as with the stuff suggested above and when its broken, go and get a new body! When you know what you are doing then gear is nothing.
    Just my two cents.

    Darius May 24, 2013 at 11:14 pm / Reply

    Great article, but (there’s always a “but”) Canon FD lenses can not really be used on modern (EOS) bodies. There are adapters, but they won’t let you finish to infinity. That’s not a problem if you’re doing portraits exclusively, but it just isn’t an option for landscape, sports or reportage work.

    Wayne May 24, 2013 at 11:28 pm / Reply

    If you need repairs at the budget area and it best to just re-buy the body. Electronic doesn’t look as bad. The Nikon n80 or f100 and a used 50 1.8D can run 200 bucks and will do everything you need. They have nikons great matrix meters so no need for an extra meter, though its good to learn light and zoning.

    I second the Olympus selection and used Pentax kits can be had for a song.

    tmk May 24, 2013 at 11:28 pm / Reply

    I bought my Nikon FM + Nikkor 50mm f1.8 for 200€/250$, including shipping (80$), and it looks like new. It’s my second film camera and i don’t see myself replacing it anytime soon. Definitely worth every cent. Every time i pick it up i want to go out and shoot!

    Magnus May 24, 2013 at 11:29 pm / Reply

    I got a minolta xg-9 cheap, she needed two butterknives and some nice prints,so I gave her that, I got the minolta a 50mm f1,7 and tokina 80-200mm f4 ,flash and more. nice deal for me.

    Marko May 24, 2013 at 11:40 pm / Reply

    I always recommend the Nikon F90X. Really extremely cheap, the lightmeter works still perfect after years. It has an intern motor for your lens, quick aufofokus (sometimes nice to have). And it is so solid! Survives even the terrible rain in Dublin ;). Take the cheap Nikon AF 50mm 1:1,8 lens. Together it’s around 180$ and you got a kit that lasts for an eternity! I am happy with it since years..

    Sorry for my bad english ;)

      Jeff May 26, 2013 at 11:11 pm /

      I second this. I got aN90s (The N. American F90x) for $9.99 and found a nikkor 50mm f2 at a thrift store for $40. If the goal is taking pictures, this camera has a lot to offer.

    kumotaki May 25, 2013 at 12:18 am / Reply

    And then there’s Minolta. I don’t know where you buy your stuff, but for the price of a Nikon FM2 body, you can get a decent Minolta, a standard 50mm and a portrait lens (say Rokkor 85mm/f2) here in Japan. Repairability included. This article is enthralling nonetheless. Shooting professional sharpness and having fun while doing so for the equivalent of 200$ is something nearly forgotten in this digital age.

    Rick May 25, 2013 at 1:12 am / Reply

    I agree with Welland, while i am a bit of a Nikon fan boy, i also think this article was much too biased. There are so many options, much cheaper than starting off with a Nikon. Like Welland mentioned, the excellent Olympus OM series can be got for mot more than $100 with a lens, and if you look on ebay you can actually get a couple more lenses for another $100. Another option would be to go the Pentax spotmatic direction which is even cheaper in some instances. A good Spotmatic can be got for almost nothing these days. Seen them on ebay for $15 in working condition. M42 mount lenses are available in many focal lengths and many various makers. Another option with a M42 lens mount would be the german made Praktica or even the russian made Zenits. If having a wide range of lenses is important to you then this is a great option. And if you ever do decide to change system, all your M42 lenses can go with you. M42 lenses are the most portable lenses ever made. All it takes is a simple adapter.

    Mitch May 25, 2013 at 1:37 am / Reply

    My Olympus OM2n is a beast, built like a tank, small, inbuilt light meter which works perfect, aperture priority and all easily for under $200. Highly recommended for anyone looking for a 35mm SLR.

    Tom Higgins May 25, 2013 at 2:20 am / Reply

    Spot On Bellamy,
    Although everyone’s dream is to contact you and purchase a Leica, in the meantime, evryone can begin film shooting with top quality for a song whilst we are waiting for the funds to appear. My main squeeze today is a Nikon F3HP. Years ago, I read reports on early Konica Hexanon lenses and was really impressed. Thus, I began buying mint or Old New Stock Hexanon prime lenses, sometimes for only a few dollars US. Then I needed a camera to mount them on. Bought Konica T-3 SLR, (now have four mint ones ) As non had working meters, they were also only a few dollars each. They are getting scarce, and expensive, but like old Nikons, they ” Don’t Make Them Anymore “

    Brian Scott Peterson May 25, 2013 at 5:03 am / Reply

    For the Nikon FE! Somewhere between the Nikkormat and the FMs. Beautiful simple design, perfect size, AE and meter with a batter and/or 1/60 without so you’re screwed. And it takes all the lenses. My first camera! I bet you could get one with a 50 for less than $100 if you look hard.

    Wanderography May 25, 2013 at 5:54 am / Reply

    starving artist, more like nikon fan boyism. Starving artist set up, pentax k1000 (can be brought practically brand new for under $100 and 99% of the time comes with one of pentax’s great 50mm lenses) spend another $50 to pick up a 28 or 35, and you with what the writer spent you still have money to pick up one of plusteks cheaper dedicated 35mm scanner’s (which are all great by the way) and a yongnuo flash and triggers. This is what I constantly advise people to pick up in my photography school when they are hard on cash. This is the worst starving artist/cheap kit article I have ever read, the writer must be mad rich to think this is a cheap setup…

      stanislaw riccadonna zolczynski May 28, 2013 at 6:05 pm /

      Hey mister not so aggressive please. Everything is relative. I could easily counter YOUR advice saying, that a starving artist would have no problem picking up at a garage sale a german camera with fixed and very good lens with manual everything for 5$ and still come with just as great results as with your 150$ deal. Beside it a really starving artist uses his money for food and borrows the camera.

      stanislaw riccadonna zolczynski May 28, 2013 at 6:13 pm /

      Sorry, I missed the SLR theme. Well, as somebody already pointed out, you can have russian Zenit with Helios 44-2, a fabulous 58/2 Biotar copy for lest then 50$. Even in expensive Denmark the only two serious shops have loads of old lenses in their dump boxes in 10$-20$ range.

    Hogarth May 25, 2013 at 7:18 am / Reply

    This article, like most said, is far from a cheap slr pick for a starving artist. Any of the newer nikon n series cameras can be had for under 20 bucks, with working meters. The nikon e series lenses are to be had for a song, as well.

    To then mention to buy items from keh on a site for camera sales seems rude. Also, I’m sure, no matter how low you feel like going, Bellamy would be happy to oblige, there is gear, in good condition in Japan, that retails cheaply.

    To write an article about cheap shopping and not mention the gossen digisix, a compact, accurate, hundred dollar meter, that just seems off. Bellamy, please, present better contributors.

      Bellamy May 25, 2013 at 7:32 am /

      I wanted to put this article up as I wanted to get other peoples opinions on this matter. It is a one sided article and needs a great deal of expansion. The idea is good though.
      Thanks for the input guys. I think that this article gives some good pointers, but needs a bit more. Comments are greatly appreciated.

    Ben May 25, 2013 at 4:31 pm / Reply

    EOS 300 = $20, Used 50mm f1.8 = $80. The 50 gets used on my 5d mkII too, so it’s super good value.

    Colin May 25, 2013 at 5:19 pm / Reply

    Interesting article. At the risk of starting a flame-fest, can I ask why you didn’t consider the digital option? I use both film and digital myself so this isn’t a ‘film vs digital’ thing. But if the over-riding concern is to keep costs down on a long term basis (i.e. leaving aside the aesthetics of film, the zen of learning by shooting film etc.), surely digital makes more sense. For US$150 you can pick up a used Nikon d100 and then add, say an old 35mm to give you a 50mm equivalent. And, assuming you have access to a computer (and the relatively small file sizes put out by a d100 means it doesn’t have to be super-fast state of the art) that’s it. I don’t know how much film and processing costs in the US, but I’m guessing it’s not going to be less than $10 per roll. So your starving artist is going to have to spend another $100 at least to shoot 10 rolls. Consumable costs for digital, on the other hand, are zero, meaning an aspiring photographer can shoot and shoot, learning along the way without worrying about cost.
    I’m still a huge film fan, but the reality is that a starving artist investing in a film camera is also going to be tied into film and processing costs which are only going to get more and more expensive. When film and processing costs hit $15 and $20 a roll, he or she is going to be looking at a film camera that they can’t afford to use. The cost of consumables is the large elephant in the room that this article doesn’t mention.

    aurele May 25, 2013 at 6:03 pm / Reply

    About the electronical and battery body : during the late 90’s, when all those plastic-fantastic bodies hit the shelves, many had some small grip that allow to use some basic AA batteries. Like the Pentax MZ / ZX serie and the grip associated.
    They are so cheap, most of the time you have more postal fees than the cost of the product ! You can run so many films with a single pair of AA batteries (currently i’ve done around 35 films, and it’s supposed to allow at least 20 before battery level alarm.)

    However, i want to underline something that is smart and really necessary : plan on the long term your acqusition, it prevent from getting a LBA syndrom (Lens Buying Addiction), or FBA (Film buying addiction).

    gb hill May 25, 2013 at 11:06 pm / Reply

    I still see Nikon as being the more expensive option as far as one on a budget wanting to purchase their 1st film camera. Still a good article to ponder over from a Canon FD & Pentax user. I totally agree with what all the other posters said.

    Michael May 29, 2013 at 7:40 pm / Reply

    Definitely written with some bias. For instance, the very best deal in Nikons is the FG. They aren’t non-durable, as implied, and if something goes wrong, a new one is $45. They’ve been the centerpiece of my film system! And the 50/1.8 series E lens on them is the same glass as Nikon’s more expensive one, but in a cheaper mount that’s still better than any modern lens’ mount.

    I’ve built my whole digital system around old Nikon stuff that will work with just about any camera Nikon ever made (Canon has a bad habit of changing mounts every few years, obsoleting everything), and my full lens kit, picked carefully on Ebay over several years, cost me less than many people spend on one new zoom, and includes every focal length between 20 and 180mm.

    As others have noted, there are lots of good buys in old Nikons: the key is to replace, not repair. My FM, bought based on the same type of advice this author gave, cost me $100 to buy and $125 to CLA. I could have had four FGs instead! I would never do that again.

    Oli Trainor August 31, 2013 at 7:35 am / Reply

    I have to agree with a lot of the comments against this article, I’m afraid. When I got into film SLRs I actively avoided Nikon precisely because every lens they’ve made since 1950something fits every body they’ve made since 1950something. That’s what keeps prices high, the Nikon F mount is still in use. Regardless of whether or not it was designed for film bodies, the digital guys (read vast majority of the market) are still buying these lenses and keeping the prices up.

    If I were starting again, I’d look at all the more common obsolete mounts; M42, Olympus OM, Canon FD, Minolta MD, Pentax K, etc. etc. because nobody wants these lenses. They’re manual focus and they don’t really work on DSLRs, so most of the digi boys don’t really have a use for them. Consequently, you can have some jaw-dropping glass for a song.

    Another thing I agreed with was whether or not to get a meter. You’d pay a definite premium for a working, metered body, and even then very few are completely mechanical anyway. Full manual gives you control over everything, and you’re never stuck shopping for some leftfield battery that’s only ever been produced on the 31st of February.

    On a side note, for a photographer on a budget everyone’s talking about Sekonics and Gossens. I’m surprised that nobody’s mentioned the Weston Masters. I started out with a Pentax SP1000, a Super-Takumar 55/2 and a Master III. Some of the best shots I’ve ever taken came from that lot. As long as you make sure the cell still works accurately, you’re right as rain for a fraction of the cost of a Digisix, and you’ll even have change for an invercone. Incidentally, I still use a Master V and its invercone when I need to!

    Dave October 8, 2013 at 5:45 am / Reply

    I agree with the few comments I read, this article doesn’t do what it says on the tin. For a new film-shooting recession poor person Id say Ricoh KR10, brilliant! Pentax ME or Nikon EM. Nikon F3 and FM2 with a $230 light meter is a bit daft.

    luca January 13, 2014 at 2:40 pm / Reply

    A full article for say nothing.

    Robert July 16, 2014 at 5:31 am / Reply

    Something that has been overlooked in both the article and the comments much to my surprise are other sources for cameras. There are any number of 35mm cameras kicking around at the bottom of closets all over the place. I would be willing to bet that someones grandfather,father,uncle,aunt,etc. has one or possibly more SLR’s at the back of the closet. Often with a lens or two in the case. Chances are the seals may need replaced, but replacement kits can be had for under $30USD. After saving pennies for a few weeks, a CLA would be suggested, if you are on good terms with the owner, one could sweet talk them into that as well.
    Free always fits into the budget…

    Robert l November 3, 2015 at 11:46 am / Reply

    For cheap, get a Nikon 8008 or N90 for 20 bucks and use it till it breaks. Then get another. Use older af lens that can also work on a digital body most folks will have, or shoot older ai glass, so you can convert that for mirror less as well as film. Manual bodies are great- but the 8008/N90, or canon Eos A2, dude. Cheap, great cameras.

    Tank November 3, 2015 at 2:49 pm / Reply

    The new definition of starving …

    Hilde Heyvaert November 3, 2015 at 5:28 pm / Reply

    I absolutely agree on the point about mechanical vs electronic. I love my electronic 35mm cameras from the 1990s, but the batteries are a pain. Especially seeing you can’t see how much life they still have in them and you can bet on it that they’ll go empty on the most inopportune moment. And to top that off, they are quite pricy.

    John Davis November 4, 2015 at 12:13 am / Reply

    Well this has certainly stimulated some discussion. First off I will defend the author; he freely admits that he only uses Nikon and therefore he can only fairly offer opinions on gear he is familiar with. I would be disappointed if he was advising on systems he had no significant knowledge of.
    I have been bitten by the film bug again and effectively have three 35mm SLR systems on the go; the Topcon RE cameras, Fujica m42 cameras and a couple of Pentax Spotmatics (a II and an ESII). Cameras like the Fujica AZ-1 and Pentax ESII are great in that although they have auto exposure and electronic shutter speeds they also have a range mechanical speeds in the event of a dead battery.
    However both the ESII and AZ-1 were variants on the basic m42 mount so it can prove tricky to get lenses that let you fully exploit the open aperture and auto exposure.
    The Topcons are a different kettle of fish having offered open aperture through the lens metering very early on via an Exakta mount. They are also beautifully made and smooth in operation (not to be confused with the plainer Topcon Uni and others from the Topcon budget range that used the UV mount).
    It’s also a very valid point that wide compatiblity can be a double edged sword – I am currently looking out for a SMC Takumar 85mm f1.8 lens but because it can be mounted on some many cameras via an adaptor it’s price never seems to drop below £250

    JTW November 15, 2015 at 10:45 pm / Reply

    Interesting, but certainly slanted toward Nikon. The Pentax Spotmatics, and Takumar lenses, shouldn’t be ignored.
    Oh, and you don’t geld a cow …. it’s the young bulls that get snipped, producing a steer.

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