Starting DSLR Photography On a Budget

Lately more and more of my friends are starting to really get into photography just as I have 8 months ago, and their top question is the same as mine: can I get a real bang-for-the-buck deal without selling a kidney?

Answer is, of course, yes, and with a very pleasant learning tool on top- Nikon + older/vintage full-manual lenses.


Brand Preference

Typical follow-up question is: well, why Nikon over Canon? Inherently, because of lens selection versatility and thus budget. There are other contrasting differences, and I will go over them for the sake of a less blindly-biased guide.

Canon bodies offer built-in auto-focus, better video recording capability, and extremely cheap looks (haha). The in-house lens selection is vast and fits all grades of quality and prices, but the ones in question here are the lowest-priced, beginner consumer ones that sport equally cheap look and feel (especially the manual focus rings on the primes, like the 50mm f/1.8). You’re also limited to using EF mount lenses that only date back to 1987. So you can forget about using your father or grandfather’s gems out-of-the-box (aka without a special adapter). And now, onto my choice of Nikon over Canon.

Nikon beginner bodies (D3x00 and D5x00 series, as well as older ones like D40, D40X, D60) lack that built-in auto-focus motor, so that feature will depend on getting a modern day consumer level lenses with built-in AutoFocus-Servo (AF-S). Quite crucial for sports and nature, but not other types of photography (and definitely not helping you learn how to shoot film camera style). Nikon offers lower ISO noise than Canons (low-light photography) and are thus much better for classic, still photography. Video features are still quite capably, but Canon does win in this category marginally. The real gem however, is actually lack of internal auto-focus servo and Nikon’s F mount.

Brief History

The F mount dates back to 1959 and thus adds an enormous choices of lenses from all generations. Prior to 1977, all Nikon lenses were completely mechanical, simple, and offered solid image quality without any of the modern coating. At the turn of 1977, Nikon introduced the AutoIndexing (AI) so that the camera body could tell the user how bring or dark the scene is based on the lens’ current aperture.


(Left is 50mm f/2 non-AI, right is a 24mm f/2.8 AI)

The design of the mount became slightly different, and modern Nikon bodies in the D7x00 series and higher require AI lenses to avoid damaging the auto-focus servo. This translates to inability to use lenses prior to 1977 on fancier bodies without the AI conversion (that Nikon did for a long period of time, and several private individuals do today). So, having a more simple body can be good for your budget when you’re just starting out.

Vintage vs Modern

So, why the fixation on vintage lenses? That bang-for-the-buck factor in its purest form. These lenses may be old, but back in those days there was no consumer and professional grades of equipment. Everything was professional quality, and people often could not even afford to buy a lens even if they could get a camera body. And the only thing that has changed since for these gems is simply their age, not their solid performance.

Here’s a sample with a modern 35mm f/1.8G lens ($200) and then a sample with my 1966 50mm f/2 (~$40):



Both are sharp, both are fast, but the older 50mm has far less frequent fringing than the 35mm (see my reviews under my photography page). The bokeh is perfectly round on the 35mm due to having modern, curved aperture blades unlike straight ones on the 50, but it’s a mere matter of preference. For the most part, aside from being (able to be) full-auto or being full-manual, these lenses run neck to neck; aside from the price tag.

So here is the real nitty-gritty benefit of using old, full manual lenses: they teach you how to shoot. You HAVE to know the aperture and how it, shutter speed, and ISO work together in order to get a good shot. You HAVE to be able to focus by hand (though camera’s focusing algorithm still works and it will blink a green dot in the viewfinder when you are in focus for sure). So, you will have to learn how to shoot a film camera without having to waste money and time on actual film, developing it, and other inconveniences.

So, what befit does this serve? You learn how to be a photographer and not some monkey pointing a computerized camera at something and clicking a button to get that perfect quality shot. You have to think about what you’re doing. You have to know what settings to use. And since these lenses will get you thinking, you will automatically begin applying other aspects like composition into the whole equation. Your ability as a photographer will progress much faster than if you just used automatic settings and lenses, and at a fraction of the cost of those to boot!


(Sigma 24mm Super-Wide II f/2.8 Macro)

Equipment Suggestions

So the big question- what to buy? Either D3x00 system or the D5x00 system is fine, and pick whichever suits the needs you think you’ll have better (do specs research yourselves).

Keep in mind that vintage glass is designed for the full frame sensors/film cameras, and our crop sensors add a x1.5 “zoom” in the field of view. Perspective of the lens does not change, but how much you will see through it reduces by 1.5. So for instance, a 35mm lens on a DX Nikon will have the same field of view as a 50mm lens on a film/FX camera. Now, there is the sweet-spot benefit to this loss of viewing angle- since vintage lenses are designed to project the image on a bigger area, the DX APS-C sensor only covers its projection area closer to the center thus avoiding any flaws the edges of these lenses may hide.

What lens to start with? Here you have 2 potential routes.

  • 1st route: get Nikkor 18-70 f/3.5-4.5 AS-F DX or either of its brothers (18-105 or 18-135) as your “kit” lens. Then simply play around with its full zoom/focal range and try to find your favorite one in order to decide what prime lens to get, since that prime of your choice will be your daily driver and photography teacher all in one. Just be mindful that the prime you get will really feel like its x1.5 “zoom” equivalent.
  • 2nd route: I will call this one the Point And Shoot route. Try to get a prime lens between 24mm and 50mm tops. Whatever you choose to get will become your default (since it’ll be your only lens), and your path of growth will come from feeling what your default is missing that you wish it could do (could be to have a farther reach, could be macro, could be actually having a zoom capability).

So, plan your purchase accordingly, and happy shooting to all of the newcomers!


I’ll update this guide if I have something else to add.

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