The joy of cheap

Some would say I am tighter than a duck’s chuff. I just see it as being careful. There is also the joy of problem-solving: it’s easy to do something by spending money on it but it’s much more satisfying to find a solution that works for less. Nothing to do with being tight, not at all.

One of my other hobbies is scuba diving. In scuba, the minimum price of anything seems to be £250. You want a torch? £250. A regulator? £250. You get the idea. One of the things we do in murky British waters is carry a flashing beacon or strobe. These are clever sealed devices that are activated when they get wet. I’m sure they start at £250 too. But there is also the squid-fishing lure that is safe to at least 40m and costs a couple of quid. Same with lead weights – you can buy pouched weights or you could buy the pouches and fill them with shotgun pellets. These things are safe to save money on – there is no way I’m saving money by building my own regulator.

It can be very easy, when you first take an interest in a thing, to spend money on it. You have probably seen people whose first action is to spend a fortune on kit before they perhaps know how to fully use it. I’ve no problem with that: sometimes the kit is the sort that keeps you alive and it’s worth spending the money. You wouldn’t (I hope) go rock climbing with an old bit of rope you bought cheap with the intention of buying a better one when you have learned to fall off less often. But safety aside, how do you know what sort of equipment you need until you learn what you want?

This is another reason I like cheap or second-hand. I think it’s a great idea if you start a new hobby or set out to learn something, to use whatever kit you can get free or cheap. This will get you to the point where you have some idea of what you are doing. At that point you will have run into the restrictions of your cheap kit and have a better idea of what you really need. In photography terms you will have got past the stage of surprise that anything comes out at all and be pushing the limits of your camera, lens or methods. You might find you are shooting sporty things and you are pushing the reach of your lens, or doing lots of close-ups or portraits. Hopefully by this point you will know more people doing the same thing, so you have an opportunity to borrow what you think you need to see if you really do. This also helps stave off the cravings for acquiring gear for its own sake. You might be thinking “if only I had a … I would be a better photographer, and look how reasonable they are on eBay”. This way lies madness.

Say you’re doing portraits and what you need more than anything is a portrait lens. But what focal length and aperture? You could buy every increment from 80mm to 135mm and then find yourself sticking with the 80 because you can stay in the same room as your subject. Or you could borrow one of the lenses or find the cheapest one you can, and then find out whether you have to take a few steps back or a few steps forward to get the framing you like. Or even (heresy) put a cheap 2x teleconverter on a 50mm lens and see what a 100mm lens looks like before you commit. You will also learn whether the depth of field is sufficient. If you are struggling to get both eyes sharp then you can forget buying that pricy f1.4 lens and spend the money on lights.

Same with cameras. You may think you need a Leica to do street photography because it’s unobtrusive and quiet. So is an Olympus Trip, and you can get one of them for £20 and find out whether street photography is really your thing. Less chance of being mugged, too.

Cheap can also mean disposable, but in a good way. There are loads of fairly competent point and shoot compacts out there. They are becoming scarcer at charity shops (except for one near my mum’s house that is my special secret) but there is usually a good harvest at car boot sales. So if you are going somewhere that could damage or destroy the camera, go cheap. The best ones for this are the cameras that wind all of the film out of the cassette when first loaded, and wind it back in as you shoot. Even if you break one of these open you won’t lose the shots you have already taken. Barring that, tape the back closed with gaffer tape. If you have a particular compact camera in mind or want to know more about the plastic fantastic you found, go see the Canny Cameras website. I’ve also got a previous post around here somewhere about breaking cameras for fun.

The Nikonot
The Nikonot. Even the film cassette rusted when it filled up with seawater. Good job it cost less than a fiver.
The Nikonot
Even the shutter is rusting

There are also some useful digital compacts as well. Nobody wants anything that comes in around the 3-5 megapixies range any more, but they can deliver reasonable images. The problem you may have with these is the battery, unless they take AA cells. The best one to get, if you can find one, is any of the Canon models that are listed on the CHDK site. Get the right model and you can make it do tricks like a proper camera. I used mine to make a time-lapse film of an office being fitted out. Nice work for a junk-shop bargain. I also used it when we went up Great Gable – you don’t want an expensive SLR in your hand when you descend a steep scree slope. One of the hacks listed on the CHDK site can trigger the camera fast enough to record a lightning bolt. I must try holding the camera up on a selfie stick at the top of a mountain in a thunderstorm. What could possibly go wrong? The chaos monkey on my shoulder is whispering to me to try setting the camera to shoot say 30 images in sequence and then throwing it up in the air and catching it. Again, what could possibly go wrong? Nothing that would break the bank.

Hell's Gate, Great Gable
Seriously, that’s the way down?
Hell's Gate

I love cheapo compacts though. It’s liberating to know that your camera has no value and you are free to take risks. And with a lot of the 80s and 90s compacts, you can reassure yourself that if you don’t break it the electronics will likely die soon anyway. Want some ideas? Smear a bit of Vaseline around the edges of the lens. Put a yellow filter over the lens, a blue one on the flash and shoot colour (then swap the filters over and repeat). Tape it to a long stick, set the self timer, and get some cheap ‘drone’ shots or an aerial shot of a crowd. Throw it up in the air and catch it. Whirl it round on the strap with a long shutter speed. Put it in a plastic bag and go surfing. Tie it to a dog. Ok, not the dog.

Cheap lenses? Getting rare. Seems like every groovy dude is buying-up old Russian and East German lenses to photograph single flowers against a blurred background. But if you are shooting APS-C on digital, the no-name 50mm lens is your friend. Here’s where you find that portrait lens you were looking for. There were plenty of cameras made by people other than Canon and Nikon that typically came with a 50mm f1.7 or f2. Since you are using just the centre of the frame it will be sharper on digital than it probably was on film. Use it at f5.6-8 and it will probably be really sharp. Use it wide open and you will get nice soft edges and a blurred background. If you want to annoy the purists, a lick of black paint to cover-up the maker’s name and details around the front element can be just the right mischief. Tell them it’s a NASA prototype. Speaking of which, have a look at the inside of any old film compact camera you find. Look for any shiny plastic surfaces in the space between the back of the lens and the film gate. Try giving those a very careful lick of matt black paint (do model shops still sell the little tins of Humbrol for painting your Airfix kits?). Instant improvement in contrast.

This is where you wish you’d bought a Pentax digital camera. An awful lot of cameras and lenses were made with the Pentax K mount, so that cheapo 50mm lens you fancy can be found on an unloved film SLR for a fiver on eBay. A cheap adapter also means that every M42 screw-fit lens will also work. Plus you can use every camera lens that Pentax made. Even the 6×7 and 645 medium format lenses will work with an adapter. I’ve got an adapter that lets me use Kiev or Pentacon medium format lenses, which is an easy way to get a long lens for occasional use. Mike Gutterman is right: Pentax rules.

And think of all the beer you can buy with the money you saved.

Author: fupduckphoto

Still wishing I knew what was going on.

3 thoughts on “The joy of cheap”

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