Introduction to buying a student camera

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Just started that new photography class and your teacher has sent you on a mission to acquire a manual camera?  Or perhaps you’re a parent and your child came home today with a list of camera needs half a page long and you are uncertain of where to start?  The following will be a series of codex entries exploring our five top recommendations that ought to get you off to a running start.  But first, let us cover some common ground before getting down to specific cameras.

Five names worth remembering

There are five major brands you will come across when looking for that perfect student camera:  Pentax, Nikon, Canon, Olympus and Minolta (in no particular order).  One question we field quite a bit at the counter, “is one brand better than the others?”, is answered quite simply with a “no”.  All five brands have excellent potential student cameras.  There are certainly differences between the brands, but taken as a whole, brand is much less a consideration than you might think.  Instead of being overly concerned with brand, there are a few other considerations to take into account first.

Manual Control

Your primary concern when choosing a camera is its ability to allow you the use of manual control over exposure.  Many photo instructors require their students to look for cameras that give them complete manual exposure control, meaning the user should be able to manipulate shutter speed and aperture manually. A vast part of learning photography is going to happen manually, so not only should you verify that the camera has manual shutter and aperture control, but a working light meter that functions in manual mode as well.  Be wary of some later cameras that, while featuring manual controls, were designed to be used more heavily in auto and do not make manual control particularly convenient or intuitive.  Remember, the class is likely going to require the use of manual much, if not all, of the time so make sure you get a camera that will be easy to use in this manner.


Concerning cost, student cameras fall into two families:  the older, metal, mechanical cameras of the 1960’s, 70’s and early 80’s, and the later, plastic, more electronically advanced cameras of the late 80’s through the 90’s and beyond.  The former tend to be the more expensive, with bodies averaging 150-175 dollars.  Within the latter group, bodies can be found for as little as 30-40 dollars.  If this causes you to think, “well that’s an obvious decision”, consider a few things first.  The older cameras, being simpler of design and made of metal, are much more rugged and reliable.  They were built to last for decades, and have proved this easily; thirty years later most of them still work as well as ever.  They are also simpler, making them easier to learn and use.  In contrast, the later designs of the 80-90s are more plastic and prone to quicker wear and failure.  They are also much more complicated contraptions, with more moving parts and therefore more parts to potentially break.  We see a much higher failure rate starting to show up amongst these cameras than their earlier, all-metal counterparts.  When you consider a camera potentially lasting you for 20 or 30 or even 40 years and you spread that initial $150 cost over that span, the investment proves to be quite good.  Additionally, students have a reputation for being a bit rougher on their equipment – cameras are meant to be used after all – and the rugged nature of the earlier cameras make them better suited to the rougher use they can expect to see.  Look at it this way; if your budget allows you to buy the earlier cameras, then do so.  They will payoff dividends over the decades to come and their simpler design will make learning on them much smoother.  If you are on a really strict budget, then consider the later cameras.  They will be trickier to learn and will carry a higher risk of camera failure, but will likely serve their purpose and get through the class.

In addition to the camera body, you will need a good lens.  The standard recommendation is a 50mm.  While there are a number of other potential options, the 50mm makes great sense.  They approximate the same angle of view as our eyesight, making them easy to use.  They are also incredibly common, inexpensive, and generally well made.  Most 50mm lenses will cost between 40 and 50 dollars.

Another thing to consider

One last piece of advice before we turn more specific; put cameras into hands before buying.  It is a valuable step to take the time to pick up a camera and see how well you like the feel and weight of it, as well as how intuitive are the controls.  Is the meter easy for you to see and understand?  Is the shutter speed dial in an awkward spot?  Is the camera too heavy or too small?  The camera you buy should not be a pain to use no matter how highly it is rated or recommended.  After all else has been considered, buy the camera that feels the best in your hands.  The more comfortable you are with your new camera the better you will use it.

Now we present you with our five recommendations, one from each brand, of cameras to consider.  They will be featured one at a time, starting with the Pentax K1000 in a few days and moving down the list.  This selection is not meant to be exhaustive as there are a number of good options for student cameras – which is the point of this abbreviated list, to winnow it down a bit and make it easier to find something that will work well for you.

Without further ado, here is our list:

Pentax K1000
Canon AE-1
Nikon FM
Olympus OM-1
Minolta SRT 101




  1. Posted 17 March 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Great article Zeb!!! When writing about the venerable K1000, remember to mention the undocumented “flick” mirror-lock feature!

  2. Zeb Andrews
    Posted 17 March 2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, David. For the purpose of this series, the entry about the K1000 will not include that, but feel free to add it as a comment. One purpose of the Codex is to generate educational and meaningful discussion. So go forth and elucidate.

  3. Posted 18 March 2012 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    Flawless entry, Zeb. The K1000 is my own starter (ca 1980), and one I’d back for my students any day. I feel the match-needle exposure system is the perfect kind of indicator. Additionally, I’ve met a few Olympus fans along the way, and there is no devotion stronger. (David Bailey was one of them.)

    Just got me a Yashica FX-3 and am getting a case full of them for my darkroom class, but adding that to your array would needlessly complicate this simple and helpful guide. The reason I like this mechanical SLR is ironic: it doesn’t have a match-needle exposure reading but a minimalistic green light with a red (+) above and red (-) below.

    This is a bit of tough-love on students at first, but I’m also in favor of locking them in the darkroom until they get the first film on the reel. They get it and they get it good.

    Bravo on you!

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