$300 Student Camera, 2018 Edition: Part II6 min read

In the last installment, we talked a little about what to look for in a modern student camera. This time around, we’ll build one… for about $300. Far from a theoretical piece, I’m putting my money where my mouth is and I’ve actually built this camera we’re going to talk about today.

To recap, we’re looking for a camera with:

  • Easy manual controls
  • Interchangeable lens system with a common mount
  • A prime lens in a “normal” focal length (effectively 40-58mm)

While it would be easy to go out to your favorite shopping site right now and drop over $1,000 on a brand new camera and lens that meets these specifications, in the time-honored tradition of cash-strapped photography students we’re going to scrape something together from the used market.

The nice thing is, the pace of digital photography is so fast now that a five year old camera is looked upon as a museum relic. But the photos they take now are just as good as the photos the reviewers raved about when the camera was new.

Moreover, many fantastic used lenses are overlooked because they are manually focused and are native to a long-dead mounting system. These old manual lenses have no electronic connection to the camera. This is off-putting to a lot of people, but serves to the student’s advantage; it takes one of the most critical components of the learning system and makes it cheap.

The Camera: Fujifilm X-E1

I wanted this to be a camera that is small enough, light enough, that the eager student could take it with them anywhere. For this reason, I aimed primarily at Mirrorless cameras. And while a more advanced student might progress to working with RAW files, I wanted to latch on to a system that produces nice JPG images right out of the camera without need for further touch-ups.

Moreover, the price of the body should leave enough room for lenses and other accessories!

I give you, the Fujifilm X-E1! I paid $215 for this camera body on eBay, which included a battery and battery charger, plus the body cap. The wrist strap is something I already had around as I buy them in packs of five cheaply and use them on pretty much anything that might need a lanyard, from cameras to multi tools. I’ve been using them for years and they work well. I can recommend them here as well.

The Lens: Asahi Super-Takumar 35mm f/3.5

I particularly enjoyed this choice in vintage lens for our project. Many photography students of yesteryear learned on Pentax K1000 cameras with an Asahi 50mm lens. On the Fujifilm X-E1, with the APS-C sized sensor, there is a crop factor to account for. I won’t get into the math now, but a 35mm lens on the Fujifilm body is like having a 50mm lens on an old Pentax K1000 film camera. So by using this lens, you’re seeing the world in much the same point of view as generations of photography students who came before you.

The f/3.5 aperture might seem like a weak spec to any of you who have been reading ahead. If you’re chasing creamy bokeh (the out of focus area in the background), you’re not going to find that here. That’s not what this lens is about. But on the flip side, you’ll get really sharp images with pleasing colors. The size of the lens itself is a lot smaller than a fast lens would be. So this will keep the weight down, and help to make sure you always have this with you. But maybe the best part is the cost. This lens cost $42! But I’ve been seeing these going on eBay for $23-$50 typically.

Lens Adapter

I tried going cheap here. I tried going really cheap here. I bought an adapter directly from China on eBay. It took over a month to arrive, and when it got here it didn’t even work. I share this with you as a cautionary tale: there is such a thing as too cheap. The seller was honest and gave me a refund with no questions asked.

I ended up having to spend a little more than I thought I might have to. When I reached out to the vintage lens community, I was told this would be a good time to spend a little more money and get a known-good component. What you’re going to want here is the K&F M42 to Fuji X lens adapter.

Putting this together is pretty straightforward; the lens screws into one side of the adapter like a light bulb. Which side should be self-evident; it’s the only side of the adapter with screw threads! If you look on the underside of the adapter, where it mates with the camera, there is a red dot. Mate the red dot on the lens mount to the red dot on the camera body, then twist it on counter-clockwise until you feel it click into place. This shouldn’t take any effort, so if it feels like you’re muscling it on stop and troubleshoot.

Memory Card

I went pretty cheap on size, but stuck with a known manufacturer. The SanDisk 16GB SD card was ridiculously cheap, but don’t let it’s diminutive size fool you; this will hold about 2,400 JPG images taken on the Fujifilm X-E1!

Bottom Line

I spent about $293 total on this setup. And it works well! I took it out recently. Here are some images straight out of the camera without touch ups.

Additional thoughts…

Q: What if I had a bigger budget?
A: The camera body is the most constraining part of this setup. I could easily use this lens on a top-end modern body. The two alternatives to the X-E1 that I would recommend would be its successors, especially last generation’s Fujifilm X-E2s and the current bleeding edge model Fujifilm X-E3. Both of these blow away the $300 budget pretty soundly. However, if I had a $500+ budget for this effort, I think either body would be a much better use of investment than the same money spent elsewhere. What it buys you is better ergonomics, a better sensor, better image processor, and all-in-all an easier time.

Q: What if I can’t get the lens you specified?
A: This could totally happen! But it’s going to cause you to have to do some homework. Feel free to use the Comments section below to discuss what lenses you’re looking at, what lens adapters you’re looking at, and try to kick up some conversation. I will say that the Asahi lenses are particularly well-regarded. Also see old Rokkor lenses by Minolta in the MC or MD mount (which are effectively the same, and use the same adapter). There’s really a wide world of vintage lenses out there. I’d just suggest getting something in a 28mm or 35mm focal length for now.

Q: How do I get my camera set up?
A: I could tell you to go read the manual but I want to offer more than that. The next entry in this series will dive into camera configuration and getting the firmware upgraded.