Five Tips for Building a Full Film Camera Kit for Under $100

Five Tips for Building a Full Film Camera Kit for Under $100

1600 900 Josh Solomon

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.

pentax spotmatic with 50mm 1.4 takumar

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.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
  • Merlin Marquardt July 25, 2016 at 2:33 pm

    Very nice article. Good advice.

  • Love reading about your search. Good advice, too!

  • Thanks for re-igniting my bloody G.A.S. 😉

    Very good post!

    • You’re very, very welcome! Let us know what you end up running into. And that’s a pretty Olympus Trip 35. Thinking of picking up one for myself…

    • Randle P. McMurphy August 1, 2016 at 10:12 am

      The time is on (y)our side remember what you had to pay for all this amazing stuff once !
      Now you get it for nearly nothing in shops or Ebay……..

  • Interesting read. For even less you could always go down the route of the compact camera which whilst not necessarily held in such high esteem as a full SLR kit can produce some stunning examples!

  • Interesting article, however you failed to warn people how addicting it can be.

    How about a follow up on how to evaluate used lenses in the field?

  • Randle P. McMurphy August 1, 2016 at 10:08 am

    Like allwasy I love reading your blog James
    and hope you don´t mind bring in my own ideas ?

    One thing I learned very quickly from my grandmother´s saying
    “If you don´t have much money – don´t buy cheap”
    Find out the sense behind that on my own experience means
    not to spend money for a dead system or something with less quality.

    For example the Nikkor P 2,5/105 I own as a AI modified version.
    Still in use with my Nikkormats, Nikon F´s and Nikon DSLR´s.
    Really not a bargain but something the companies doesn´t produce any more,
    outstanding optical results and amazing build sample of craftmansship !
    That´s why this lenses build at that decade are still my favourite
    and woth any money you spend for…….and if you have to sell them
    you can be sure you get more for it or at last the price you payed !

  • Hi Josh, a well written, engaging, almost romantic story about the allure of film photography on a budget.

    I’m all for bagging bargains, and that quest for the holy grail of finding a Leica at a car boot sale for a fiver, but I think sometimes it’s better to buy something that’s available right now online than spend weeks or months trawling charity shops/ thrift stores, garage sales/ car boot sales etc in pursuit of camera gear. After you add up all the time spent and the travelling costs of the search, compared with just buying something online (eBay, Etsy, fstopcameras ; ) ) for a little more and having it posted to your doorstep, you’ll likely have spent much less on the whole quest anyway.

    Your $100 budget no doubt included just the actual money you handed over for the kit, not the travelling costs and time in pursuing it, which would be close to zero cost if you bought online.

    Just a warning to others about the hidden costs we sometimes ignore!

  • Excellent article. Although I’ve been making photos for over 50 years, I enjoy your site – which I just found.

    As you can see, the 50/1.4 is yellowed (this is not the lens coating, the glass on this particular lens does that – caused by Thorium – google “yellow Takumar”). That’s not too much of an issue: it’s still fine for B&W and there are techniques for removing the yellow. That may even be the subject of a future article…

    Anyway, you have a good website – thank you.

    • James – Founder/Editor August 15, 2016 at 2:36 pm

      Thanks Dave, for the kind words. I’m glad you’re enjoying the site! I’ll put the radioactive lens article on the list.

      • The yellowing can be removed by exposing the lens to sunlight for long periods. There are several techniques people have used.

        Also, the radiation is negligible – you are exposed to more radiation flying on a plane, living in a brick house, or eating bananas.

  • There is always the reliability factor to take into consideration. Most lenses are ok, bodies, however are different. Meters are the first to go, even on Nikon. The Photomic finders for the F are usually gone and the 1.35volt mercury battery is unobtainable. The F2 Photomic meters pack up, however they are more repairable – at a cost. They do, however take the current S76 cells, two of them. Shutters are usually reliable. Best value for content/price is the Nikkormat. The FT and FTN use the mercury cell. The FT2 and FT3 use a modern alkaline or silver cell.
    The FT2 is for pre AI lenses, the FT3 for AI and AIS. But the latter two can also be used on the FT2 provided they have the metering prong at 5.6 on the lens ¥. Shutters on the Nikkormats are generally reliable, meters do give up the ghost. Do as I do, use a handheld meter. I thoroughly recommend the Gossen Lunalite. 9 volt PP3 battery obtainable even on Greek islands and 3 LEDs instead of a finely balance needle. Solid state so very rugged for outdoor use. The Multisix is a good buy too, only pricier it’s got LCD readouts.

  • Thanks for this article, i have done the first step in this guide, bought a Pentax Spotmatic F with 1,8/55 Lens für 35 Euro. But lets not forget, like everything in using and collecting cameras: there are always some unknown jewels out there, eg. the Autofocus SLRs that seem to get not much love theses days. So these AF- Cameras can be a good start too for beginners.

  • Just came upon your site. Being an inveterate cheapskate I always enjoy articles like these. One camera I recommend to look for is the Ricoh KR5 or the same camera rebadged as the Sears KS500. A dead simple reasonably sturdy K mount camera. Limited feature set but everything you really need. Lightweight too, and if you shop wisely third party K mount lenses can be had within your (inflation adjusted) budget of $125.
    The Sears, because it is not a ‘name brand’ can often be found cheaper than the Ricoh. I picked up the Sears KS500 with it’s 50 f2 about 5 Year’s ago at a photo show for latte sum of $5. Unuasual I know, but even in 2019 if you are patient, bargains are out there.

  • This is a great story and a set of good lessons for people looking to assemble a low-cost film kit. However, one thing not mentioned is the actual final cost of assembling this $100 Pentax and M42 kit. People consistently undervalue their time and efforts. How many hours were spend searching craigslist, driving to thrift stores, perusing flea markets, and estate sales? Not to mention the cost of the gas to do all this driving. What else could you have been doing instead of searching for this kit that could have earned you money? Seems like the actual final cost has to be considerably more than $100.

  • Late to the party, but several things came to mind. I buy all my camera gear on eBay, well almost. I like to buy Japanese cameras from japan. That is because they are always very well taken care of when the seller says so. I picked up a Nikon 8008 with mf21, an sb24, and a nikkor 35-70mm lens for 50.00, all boxed, as new, with manuals and certificates. Also, you can set up alerts for a specific item that may be listed. I just missed a Nikon ftn, with a nikkor 50mm 1.4 for 50.00, great condition in fact. The lens alone is a couple of hundred theses days. But it goes to show the deals are there if you have a little paitience. Also one other thing, I will sometimes search with vague wording because people often don’t know what they are selling, like my Nikon with all the extras. The 8008 is a really good camera in my opinion, always with me, I don’t notice the weight personally. Like ‘film camera’ will get you so much crap, but if you are willing to sift through it, you can find something good eventually.

  • While the points made in this article are very good advice for those looking to build a low-budget 35mm film kit, I think the article should be updated for the current analog gear market. I’m not sure how reasonable it is anymore to try to put such a kit together for $100, especially after 2020 and the COVID pandemic. Prices for camera bodies and lenses have risen dramatically in the last 20 months, not just since 2016 when this article was posted to Casual Photophile.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon