$300 Student Camera, 2018 Edition: Part I4 min read

“Magnus, I want to learn photography and have a nice camera with me when I travel. What kind of student camera can you recommend for a budget of no more than $300?”

This challenge is given to me often. And it’s surprising how many come up with the same $300 budget. Sometimes I hear $500, but that’s uncommon. Let’s stick with $300. I have some ideas about how to do this in 2018, but I’m going to actually try doing this myself and work with this camera to learn its ins and outs so I can be sure I’m recommending something that I would be okay with using myself.

What is a student camera?

A student camera is a camera that someone learning serious photography can use to effectively develop their knowledge and skills while creating images that are pleasing enough to make the whole experience worthwhile. They don’t require a lot of features.

Here are some of the things I would require out of a student camera:

  1. Easy manual aperture control.
  2. Easy manual shutter speed control.
  3. Easy manual ISO control.
  4. Interchangeable lens system with a common mount.
  5. A prime lens in a “normal” focal length (effective focal length between 40-58mm).

Film is still a completely valid way to learn photography. And there are effective arguments to be made about why film might be a better way to learn photography than digital. But I’m not writing this for that audience. That ground is already really well-covered, and advice from 20-30 years ago is still mostly sound today. If you’re subscribing to that school, any cheap film SLR with a 40-58mm range prime lens is going to do it for you. The Pentax K1000 is the go-to for many students, coupled with a 50mm lens.

I’m embarking on this journey for people who want to learn digital photography. Most of the things that make the Pentax K1000 great can be applied to the selection of a digital camera, as well:

  • The K1000 has a prominent aperture control ring right on the lens barrel close to where it mates to the camera body.
  • The K1000 has a large tactile knob on top of the camera which allows the photographer to quickly set shutter speed up or down by a factor of one f/stop without having to take their eye out of the camera’ viewfinder.
  • With the K1000, ISO was inherent to the film used. It could not be changed without finishing a roll of film and selecting the next roll for a different ISO. This is one of the advantages to digital photography, in that the ISO can be different for every image.
  • The Pentax K1000 had a family of lenses that could be interchanged with the K-mount bayonet system. Additionally, other lens systems could be used by way of simple adapters.

2018 Student Camera Requirements

Let’s take what we can learn from the K1000, but take some of what we know from 2018 technology and trends to come up with something more effective for the modern student.

  • Manual aperture, shutter speed, and ISO controls should be easily accessible without drilling through menus to change them.
  • Let’s aim for a mirrorless camera. This will keep size/weight down, and make it a lot easier to invest in affordable vintage lenses, which can be very high quality for a very low price.
  • One prime lens in the “normal” focal length range.

Focal lengths on digital cameras can be a bit squirrely. I don’t want to fry your brain with this too much right now, but understand this much: a “normal” lens is a lens that approximates the field of view of the human eye. There’s not broad consensus on any one focal length here, but for the purposes of this series we’ll say that a “normal” lens is anything from 40mm to 58mm on a 35mm film camera. But here’s the problem: those numbers change when you’re not talking about 35mm film. Most digital cameras have a sensor that is smaller than a 35mm frame of film, which effectively changes what a “normal” focal length should be.

So if our student camera has a very common APS-C sized sensor, that means our “normal” focal length range needs to take the smaller sensor size into account. We’ll be looking for something in the 26-37mm range for such a camera.

Oh, and I almost forgot the most important part:

  • Total camera package must cost under $300.

Stay tuned for Part II. We’re actually going to assemble a student camera with specific components that you can go out there and purchase.

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