Which Camera? Best Setup for 400$

While travelling around, you might want to take photos which will look better than what your mobile can do. So which camera (setup) should you get?

As a lifelong red triangle (Nikon) lover and an ex-Canon-user, I’d recommend you to get a Pentax, as I did long ago. Let me try to explain why I decided to settle with Pentax, after presenting some premises:

  • First of all, you are on a budget, a really tight one, and want every cent/penny to count.
  • You will not use the camera to shoot videos, or do not expect high quality ones when you will. This does not mean that Pentax does crappy videos – by far not. But compared to Sony and Canon, Pentax does not produce cameras to shoot videos. I have couple of them here, but I doubt if I was to make a movie, I’d use Pentax gear. Only Magic Lantern is enough of a reason to go for Canon.
  • You do not care about noisy auto-focus. The lenses I use are all decades old and they are noisy because of the screw drive auto-focusing mechanism. Of course, the newer ones are silent, but I am assuming that you are on a really tight budget, like me. If you can afford Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS III USM, still you can go for Pentax K-1 II, as I as well would, yet you’d not need to care about the stuff I’ll mention below and look for different things – on which I can write a lot too.
  • Weight is not a big issue for you. My camera, K-50, weighs 650 grams. Add a lens to that, let’s say Helios 44M (which is 230 grams), and it is close to one kilo. This is a sad but common issue with all cameras: The better they get, the heavier they get as well. Canon 7D Mark II, for example, weighs more than K-50, only the camera body itself weighs almost 900 grams, but is a good camera.

So, why Pentax? Let me try to explain after a few samples:

1. Best Price Performance and Durability

For the same price, no other brand will give you what Pentax does. K-50, for example, is an entry-level camera which has in-camera stabilization (IS) while Canon and Nikon have stabilization only at their lenses. In other words, with Canon and Nikon, to have IS, you need to pay a lot to the lenses. Which is not enough as not all lenses have IS. But with Pentax, each and every lens you have will have IS without paying even a dime more. This is just one, yet a big example.

IS is not the only thing, as you will see. Besides, Pentax gear is always durable – you can use them for years to come and nothing will happen to them. Unlike Canon and Nikon gear, which changes every few months, a Pentax gear, be it camera or lens, is to be used for years, if not decades. This creates the Pentax dilemma: The more backward-compatible and superior your products to their rivals, the less you can sell. The less you can sell, the less profits you will make, and grow. This is why Pentax is lesser known while having a solid fan-base. Luckily for us, and thanks to Pentax (or Ricoh as they bought the company and erased the name), they keep this policy going and produce worthy stuff that last times more than their Canikon counterparts.

2.1. Wonderful Sensor: ISO Performance

Photography means drawing with light and there are three settings, which you can change while shooting: Aperture (the opening of the “eye” of the lens), shutter (the length of the duration during which the eye will be open to emit light), and ISO.

DxO Mark, a site which became the authority in comparing camera sensors, says that K-50 is all the way reliable up to 1120 ISO while my real life use has shown that I can use 3200 ISO with little to no doubt. This is the performance of a full-frame sensor.

Reliable ISO allows you to be able to shoot in dark environments, e.g. evening/night or inside a building, be it a museum or your own home.

The photo below is shot handheld, at 3200 ISO, f/4.5, and 1/20 shutter speed with a decades old lens, Pentax-F 35-70mm f/3.5-4.5. Do you see any noise? Right click and open image in a new tab to see it full size, 16MP.

2.2. Wonderful Sensor: Color Depth and Dynamic Range

With 23.7 bits of color depth and 13 EV dynamic range, an entry-level camera of Pentax competes, and wins over, better cameras of Nikon and Canon like 7D or D7200.

2.3. Wonderful Sensor: Amazing Photos

Let it be a photo, rather than me that speaks. The following one is shot with Pentax K-50 and Helios 44M. 200 ISO, 1/400, f/4.  The colors, details, 3D pop… No more needs to be said.

Let there be an addition. This time a portrait, again with Helios. 400 ISO, 1/125, f/4.

2.4. Manual White Balance and Color Temperature

If you will not shoot RAW, as I do, then you will not be limited with the preset white balance and can set your own. In entry-level cameras, this is not an easy thing to find.

2.5. 14-Bit RAW Compression

Many cameras use 12-bit RAW compression, while K-50 (and overall Pentax cameras to the best of my knowledge, at least since 2013) uses 14-bit compression. This means that your photos will have better colors and depth.

3. Weather Sealed

Albeit it needs to be coupled with a WR lens, the body is weather sealed. I have used it with non-WR lenses under rain and the camera still works perfectly fine. It means that when people need to run from rain or snow, you won’t need to worry in most cases. Couple it with a WR lens and you will have a tank which you can use in a sandstorm or monsoon rains.

Should I say that what Pentax provides with entry-level cameras is something that Canon and Nikon provide with higher-end cameras?

I cannot claim responsibility for any potential damage to your gear as I am merely mentioning my experience so far.

4. Ability to be Used with Old Lenses

Unlike Nikon and Canon, you can use decades-old lenses with your Pentax camera with no hesitation. My Helios is older than me, it is produced in 1980, and with a little adapter, I can use it.

Not only M42 lenses, but all Pentax lenses ever produced, are compatible with the new bodies, which is something that you cannot see with Nikon and Canon. Takumar 35/3.5, probably one of the best lenses ever produced, is there and waiting for you.

5. Cheapest Perfect Combo

There are so many lenses out there, and once you decide to buy a camera, you should look for the lenses rather than the cameras. Pentax does not only produce wonderful cameras but also equally good lenses.

I have had a number of lenses so far. Some I keep and use, some I want to get rid of because of this or that reason. For your convenience, these are the lenses that I have owned so far (if you click on the link, you will see the reviews of the users of the lens on pentaxforums.com):


Super-Takumar 35mm f/3.5

Helios 44M 58mm f/2

Pentax-F 35mm-70mm f/3.5-4.5

Pentax-F 70mm-210mm f/4-5.6

Gotten Rid Of

Pentax-DA L 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 (No kit lens is ever good and this is no exception)

Sigma 24mm f/2.8 Super Wide II (It was a perfect lens to shoot subjects up to 2 meters, but not beyond. I probably had a bad copy as many users love this lens – and as I loved photos in which the subject was up to 2 meters from me)

Pentax-M 28mm f/3.5 (I thought I’d like to have a wider angle than 35mm, which becomes 52mm with crop-sensor, but as it is a prime, i.e. fixed focal length lens, I could not find it useful)

Pentax-DA 35mm f/2.4 (Definitely not a bad lens, and on the contrary a good one actually. But as I preferred having a zoom lens over wider aperture, I went for 35-70 over this one. If you would like to have a prime, this one surely is a good one as long as you keep its shortcomings in mind)

None of these lenses cost more than 50$ except the last, 2.4/35. And the setup I have now would serve you all the way fine. For a second hand price of around 150-200$ for the camera, and 150-200$ for the lenses, you would have a setup which you can use for years to come.

There are secondary yet useful stuff as well. Some of them are as follows:

File Handling

You can name your photos the way you like. For example, I put the names of the cities I am visiting and don’t need to think where a photo was taken: LNDN stands for London, TBLS stands for Tbilisi, ESFH for Esfahan, so on and so forth. As long as it is four digits long, you can set it to whatever you like.

Along with that, the files are saved in folders in accordance with the date that they were shot at like 100_1909, 102_2108. 100 is the prefix, first two digits are the day and the last two digits are the month. Therefore 100_1909 stands for “photos that were shot on 19 September”.

Green Button

When you are using a manual focus lens, the green button comes in very handy to measure the light for you, and recommend you the settings with which you may take the photo. For example you mount your Pentax-M lens, arrange the composure, set your aperture and ISO, and then push the green button which will tell you which shutter speed you would better use. Not a game changer but definitely a useful addition.

Two Control Dials

In no entry-level camera you find enough buttons, although the camera is full of buttons here and there. Pentax is lacking a shutter dial, for example (to switch between single and continuous shooting). But this is partly compensated with two dials. I am using it with aperture priority most of the time and one of my dials is set to control ISO while the other is set to control aperture. As the shutter is to be set by the camera, I am set for the moment most of the time. In no entry-level camera there are two dials.

User Settings

Along with shutter priority, full manual, aperture priority, so on and so forth, there are two user defined modes, U1 and U2. I am used to aperture priority but it can be a handy thing for some.

Studied politics, sociology, and economics while learning equally much on social psychology, psychology, religion and mythology, and anthropology. Travels to see people, not the buildings. And writes about these.

World in Books

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