DSLR Photography For £50 Or Less

An enduring theme on 35hunter has been photography on a budget.

Previously, we’ve talked about how to get started with film photography for £27, and then even less that, around £12.

The ongoing costs of film processing and scanning make it unsustainable for some (myself included), so I’ve also written about digital options, such as how to enjoy a year of photography for less than £1 a month.

In the first three months of these year as part of my One Month, One Camera project, I used three different digital compacts, which each cost £15 or less. Since then, I’ve also enjoyed a FujiFilm FinePix S7000 and unexpectedly rather marvellous Samsung NV10, in which I invested £12 and £5 respectively.

But these are all compacts. What if you want a DSLR?

Surely given their generally much greater capabilities and flexibility, and the fact that you need at least one lens, they can’t be seriously considered as an affordable option for the frugal photographer?

Well, I think they can.

Whilst you might struggle to pick up a DSLR for the few pounds that’d secure you a highly usable digital compact (or 35mm SLR), you really don’t need to pay all that much more.

I recently returned to using DSLRs after perhaps 18 months of using compacts almost exclusively, and the one that ticked most boxes on my checklist was the Pentax K30.

These were not cheap in their day (2012), at around £600, and mine was £150 in great condition and fully working.

A good deal I thought, but not in the same budget as we’ve been discussing in this post so far.

But, for reasons other than finding a dead cheap DSLR, I’ve also just picked up a Pentax K100D, slightly grubby but fully working, for just £26.

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A quick clean and run through the basic functions, and it’s like I’ve been reunited with a trusted old friend.

Previously I’d found a Pentax-A 50mm f/1.7 lens, which are manual focus, but are compatible with open aperture metering and in camera aperture control, so can be used on all the usual PASM modes with Pentax DSLRs.

None of the stopping up and down and flicking of switches I’ve found too much of a compromise lately with M42 lenses.

The Pentax-A 50/1.7 was widely made, and offers, in my view, lovely images in a very classy and well built body.

Prices vary but you can grab one any day for around £20-30. Mine was £25 Buy It Now on eBay in near perfect condition.

With patience, you can expect to pay perhaps less than £20, perhaps less than £10.

Even cheaper are the 50mm f/2 versions, which still give very impressive results, and still have the A mode on the aperture ring to allow shooting modes in camera. These are certainly around for less than £10.

If you’re really strapped and the extra half stop of the 50/1.7 is irrelevant (and to be honest most of the time I’m between f/4 and f/5.6 with mine anyway), it’s a great option.

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So for around £50 or less, a very capable and enjoyable to use DSLR, with a “fast 50” prime lens can set you up for hundreds and thousands of photographs.

If you need or want AF, a prime lens is likely to be a little more.

The also plentiful Pentax-DA 35/2.4 lenses are usually around £75 and its 50/1.8 sibling closer to £55. Both are excellent choices, in my experience.

They don’t have as solid build as the older A series, but they are lighter, and optically very good.

If you need a range of focal lengths, the standard 18-55mm kit zooms can deliver that convenience, and surprisingly great images.

These are super cheap these days, in the same region as the Pentax-A 50/1.7. Personally I’d rather have the manual focus 50/1.7 prime, but the kit zoom might be a better fit for your needs.

I’ve also bought a Pentax-F 35-70mm for around £20 too, which be all accounts are a step above the DSLR 18-55mm kit zooms, and have a very handy close focus (“macro”) at the long end. A very versatile lens for very little outlay.

Being something of a Pentax devotee, my focus here is on Pentax DSLRs and lenses.

But I know that, for example, Canon and Nikon also made bodies in this era with similar spec, which are now the right side of £50.

Indeed on eBay some of the Canons have gone for less than £10 recently – almost unbelievable given what they can do in the right hands – and Nikons in the low 20s.

I know very little about Nikon, but I do know that the Canon EOS DSLRs are easily adaptable to a huge range of other lenses.

Or, as with my Pentax, you can pick up a native EOS mount AF prime or a kit zoom for very little.

I hope this post has demonstrated that it’s not hard to set yourself up with an excellent and highly proficient DSLR and lens for £50 or less.

Though it might be more than the mere £12 I managed to invest in my old film photography set up of Canon EOS 500N plus Helios 44-2 lens, with the DSLR there are next to no ongoing costs.

With film plus processing at scanning costing at least £5 a roll these days, even if you spend a full £50 on your DSLR, you’ll still be shooting for nothing after that film set up has burned through a mere eight rolls of film before topping the same £50 investment.

Another ten rolls or 360 shots later and the film camera will have cost you double already.

There are other benefits in my view in using an older DSLR too, but I’ll leave that for another post.

Have you tried an older, cheaper DSLR set up with your photography?

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking.

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15 thoughts on “DSLR Photography For £50 Or Less”

  1. I have to admit to a paranoid fear of used electronic cameras, whether film or digital. Even if you can check them out as working to your satisfaction before buying, they can drop dead tomorrow – or worse develop an intermittent reliability issue. With an old mechanical camera if it goes “clack” when you push the shutter today, chances are it will do so tomorrow and the next day. There is a magnitude order of difference in the amount of technology, and more tech inevitably means less reliability. There’s no way around it.
    It’s an engineer’s thing, okay? I spent years analyzing failed equipment and figuring out why it quit and what to do to make it better.
    So if you buy used, be sure you can afford it both ways.

    1. Marc, yes true enough that any electronics can fail at any time. But people are still using 70s cameras with electronic metering etc that are still going strong. That said, another reason for not spending too much on a DSLR is it could fail at any time and potentially hundreds of pounds are down the drain. If my K100D failed in six months I wouldn’t be too annoyed as it only cost £26! I would be far more annoyed if it was my £150 K30.

      I think another reasons for buying older (I’m slightly going off topic) is that cameras have had a chance to show their longevity and reliability. When I was looking for a K30, the reviews from when it was a new camera are all pretty glowing. Then you look on Pentax Forums for threads about the K30 and so many seem to have aperture release problems. I only read these after I’d bought mine. The K100D seems to be more reliable and trouble free.

  2. Good post. I’m still using my Nikon D40 that I bought new for (if memory serves) $500 in 2007. That works out to $3.47 per month—not too bad! You can pick up used D40s for I think about $150 or so today. I find that in anything approaching decent light the 6MP CCD sensor of the D40 produces great images. Since I do not take pictures of black cats in dark rooms, I don’t need a new camera with better high ISO performance. I have made 16″ x 20″ prints from the D40 that look just fine.

    Unfortunately the D40 doesn’t work well with manual focus lenses. I mostly prefer to shoot with prime lenses, and am rather disappointed that Nikon never made many affordable prime lenses for the D40 series APS-C cameras. I have the 35mm f/1.8 AF-S DX lens, which is a great 50mm FF equivalent and can be had for about $120 or so used. I wish Nikon would have more primes for its APS-C / DX cameras.

    1. Thanks Aaron, good to have you here.

      I came very close to buying a D40 when I was looking for a DSLR a couple of months back, they seem to have plenty of fans. The main reason against for me is that I have no Nikon lenses, whereas I already had Pentax ones. Yeh the Nikon lens that looked most useful to me was that 35/1.8, but they were two or three times what the camera bodies are so made it a bit too much of an outlay for me, for an unknown mount. Plus I know many other Pentax lenses from the past (manual and AF) that are very affordable and easy to use on a DSLR.

  3. I still occasionally use my Canon 40D I bought a few years ago. I bought it from one of the repair techs I have known for years and was happy to pay about twice that amount since he had serviced it, but I see then selling for almost nothing on eBay here. It’s a good camera and it remains my go-to camera if I really need to get the shot. I only have one lens (24mm, 40mm eq.) so I don’t have to think too much about what lens to use. I am more likely to use a smaller M43 camera or my phone, but have found them unusable in low light or with action.

    1. Jon, I looked at the 40D (along with the Nikon D40 as I mentioned to Aaron above), and they seem very capable, reliable and adaptable. The deciding factor again was I already had Pentax lenses and knew of others I could re-buy for very little that I’ve loved in the past. Also I just have trouble getting excited about Canon cameras, despite their excellent credentials!

      Following your comment on only having one lens, I almost like the idea better of say two cheap old DSLRs, each with one lens and one colour set up (or b/w) so whichever one you grab you know it inside out. Rather than one body with two or three lenses, but that you have to adjust and set up slightly different depending on the lens etc. So in effect it’s like you have two fixed lens cameras.

      1. Yes, I like it because it hasn’t let me down yet, but it’s not a camera I urgently want to go out and take pictures with. Pentax digital cameras seem like a great idea, but they aren’t common here, I’ve only ever seen one in the wild and that one is owned by an retired Pentax employee.

      2. Oh that’s a surprise, in fact I’m quite shocked! Where are you Jon?

        Canon and Nikon were always the big two here, with the likes of electronic giants Sony and Panasonic catching up fast in recent years, but I always got the impression Pentax have always been plentiful here too, from 60s Spotmatics, through the 70s K mounts to their DSLRs. I think they’re pretty popular in their native Japan too, certainly when you do eBay searches for Pentax kit there are many many Japanese sellers that export worldwide. But with the stock in the UK I’ve never had to.

        Pentax just seem to have more personality, be more quirky, and be more friendly and approachable than Canikon stuff somehow, for me.

      3. I agree Dan, I don’t think anyone is going to say their Canon is full of personality. I’m outside of New York in the wilds of Connecticut, I see people shooting all manner of Pentax film cameras, just not digital. But I don’t get out much. When I cross paths with other photographers they are inevitably sporting high end Nikon or Canon gear.

  4. Dan – you’ve struck on an interesting concept – basement prices DSLR photography. If I may chime in, with regards to anyone considering the Nikon D40, go with the older D50, mainly because it is able to use an AF-D lens, which requires the camera to have a built-in motor and screw drive. The D40 lacks a screw drive for AF-D lenses.

    A Nikon D50 with a DX 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens is achievable for less than $50.00 USD, if that is your goal. I can recommend the camera, but not the lens – unless your willing put up with a dim viewfinder when the lens is set to 55mm. While I definitely prefer to mount a FX AF-D prime myself – do whatever floats your boat. A FX AF-D moderate reach zoom will set you back maybe another $50 USD. I’m thinking of the good enough for government work 35-105mm f/3.5-4.5 AF-D lens.

    Pentax is a good choice. There’s a lot of better than government work lenses for that mount.

    1. Andrew, thanks for reading, and your comments.

      That’s useful to know about the Nikons. I have dipped my toe into researching their lens compatibility in the past but it’s seemed very complicated. I know with Pentax that any lens from the A series onwards (which came out in the early 80s) I can use a modern DSLR on Av or P modes with no issues. And the older K and M series lenses (from 1975 onwards) also mount perfectly and allow open aperture metering and focusing, albeit with an extra step to meter before shooting. But still, having 44 years of Pentax lenses to play with is pretty impressive!

      1. You did well choosing the Pentax K10. My post was mainly in response to the someone mentioning the Nikon D40. Unlike the Pentax with its backward lens compatibility and built in anti-shake IS – Nikon’s strategy for their entry level DSLRs quickly evolved into cost cutting / de-contenting exercise visa with their D40 and D60 models.

        Important Notes:
        * The AF-D lenses were developed for full frame 35mm film cameras are superior to most DX offerings.
        * The lack of a built-in motor drive on the film era AF-D lenses on the D40 and D60 is a deal breaker in my book.
        * Anti-shake image stabilization is not an option on a Nikon

        Again – if someone is going the basement priced route visa a vis a 15 year old DSLR – the Pentax K100 is a wise choice. The older K mount lenses are affordable and I must say – more often than not – are superior to Nikon’s consumer offerings. Is there such a thing as a retro DSLR or are all DSLRs retro at this point?

      2. I wonder why Nikon had this approach? To sell more of their newer, DSLR specific lenses?

        I know Pentax aren’t the only company with in body stabilisation, but it is great to have the option to gain a couple of stops in low light, with a lens that’s 30 or 40 years old.

        I don’t think all DSLRs are retro as they’re still being made. Some are suggesting a return in popularity compared with mirrorless cameras too.

        The K100 is a delight, I’m greatly enjoying it.

      3. I agree the backwards compatibility of Pentax is a major advantage for that brand. However, I also have a Nikon D7000 (a several generations later descendant of the D50/D70 mentioned above; D50 is kind of a stripped-down D70). I don’t have any AF-D lenses, but I have used the D7000 with my manual focus lenses. I find it difficult to focus this camera manually because the viewfinder lacks a microprism or split image for focusing and I find looking down at the focus confirmation dot distracting. I think it’s better to use autofocus cameras with autofocus lenses as intended.

        I think the K100D’s use of AA batteries could be a big advantage in the long run. The original battery for my D40 died a couple of years ago. (I guess ten year service life is not too shabby.) As I recall the third party spare battery I’m now using cost about $30–$40 when I bought it around 2009. Having to replace a costly rechargeable battery could certainly add to the expense of owning one of these older DSLRs.

      4. Yes I’m coming to agree that AF cameras work best with AF lenses, on the whole. That said, I have a Pentax-A 50/1.7 that is manual focus but has an auto aperture setting so the aperture can be controlled in camera, and you can use P, A and S modes seamlessly. With this in place, manual focusing is fine, especially as it’s a fast lens, therefore the viewfinder is brighter.

        Things become laborious when you have a slower lens, manual focus, manual aperture, it all just becomes a chore to take every shot.

        I do like the AA batteries. My K30 has a lithium battery which lasts a 90 minute photowalk, just about. I’ve done three or four of these walks so far with the K100D and Duracell 2500mah AAs, and it’s still reading full battery.

        Plus a new set of these AAs are only about £7 or £8.

        That said, my K30 also takes AAs, but you need an extra adapter that I don’t yet have. Might just get it plus another set of AAs and I should be set with both cameras for years.

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