Building a 35mm SLR kit from scratch in 2020/21

Discussion in 'Modern Film Cameras' started by Karim Ghantous, Dec 16, 2020.

  1. If you're like me, you probably have a bunch of cameras and lenses from at least half a dozen brands. You have AF and MF bodies, some with internal motors, some without. Maybe one or two of them don't quite work right. And your lenses are all over the place. Some have mounts for cameras you don't own.

    So, let's start from scratch. I want to see if I can build a kit with two bodies, and lenses from 18mm to 400mm (f/5.6). The kit has to be suitable for at least some professional applications. I'm aiming for a price-performance ratio of very good to excellent. This means I'm going to skip the cheapest lenses. After all, building a kit that's merely cheap is easy. Spend a bit more, get a lot of value in return.

    I'm limiting my search to what I can find on eBay, and prices here are in Australian dollars. Nothing here is prescriptive. If anything, I hope that people will use this thought experiment as a starting point, not necessarily as a list of recommendations.

    My criterea might be a bit strict for some people, but I think they are reasonable:


    No restriction on brands for lenses

    The widest lens will be no longer than 18mm

    The longest lens will be no shorter than 400mm, and the narrowest aperture will be not smaller than f/5.6

    The kit will include one macro lens

    At least one body will have an internal motor winder

    AF to be preferred over MF

    Zooms absolutely must have a constant aperture​

    There are five main systems I'm looking at:

    Contax CY

    Nikon F

    Canon EOS

    Minolta A

    Pentax K

    Canon FD (honourable mention)​
  2. I'm going to start with Contax - in particular, the CY mount which is shared with Yashica. There aren't many N mount lenses, and all but one zoom have sliding apertures, so I'm ignoring that system.

    Contax is more expensive than other brands, and the range of lenses is not as broad. But they are excellent cameras and some of them are unique.

    Contax bodies are all manual focus, except the AX with the moving film plane, but many of them have internal winders. I already know that each of these systems offers great choices for camera bodies. Once I am satisfied that the lenses are there, then choosing the bodies will be easy.

    Contax does have an 18mm f/4, but the price is a little on the high side at $700 or so. I can't find an alternative, so we will have to accept the cost.

    The next lens we're adding is the excellent 25/2.8 at $500. IIRC this lens has excellent consistency, right to the corners. Other brands are a little better in the centre but not so great in the corners.

    I will skip the 28mm and the 35mm and go straight to the 50/1.7 which you can get for under $300. For portraits, I'll go for the 135/2.8 for $300, which is cheaper than the 85/2.8 due to the low popularity of the 135mm focal length. It is a bit long for portraits, but that's okay.

    I'm now going to go straight to 300mm. The 300/4 can be had for around $400. Now, I need one more: a 400/5.6. I could buy the Contax 400/4 for around $4,000. Or the Tokina 400/5.6 for $200. Or, a 1.4x TC for about $400. What to do?

    For compactness, I'd choose the TC. For value I'm going for the Tokina 400mm. And, the Tokina it is. You could choose the Tamron 300/2.8 which will cost about $700. More expensive, but not significantly so. And it can be turned into either a 400/4 or a 600/5.6.

    But, we want something between 135mm and 400mm, right? I think I will replace the 135/2.8 with the 80-200/4 which goes for around $300. This won't work for some people but I think it's a fair swap.

    The Makro Planar 100/2.8 is not cheap at $1,000. However, Sigma makes a 100/2.8 Macro and that's only $100. So we're choosing the Sigma. It might make a good portrait lens, too, although I have no idea. If it's too sharp you could just use the standard trick of putting very fine panty hose over it. It worked for Picnic at Hanging Rock.

    The bodies are the easy part. We want at least two. The main body will be an RX and a nominal price of around $400. The second body will be an ST at $300.

    So we saw a surprising amount of choices for a system which isn't as broad as some others. Not bad. I think this system is arguably superior to the Canon FD system when it comes to lenses.

    The next system we're looking at is Nikon. Their 18mm prime lenses are about the same price as the Contax ones. So, we're going for the Sigma 18/3.5 AF for $300.

    A Nikkor 24/2.8 Ai-S can be had for about $250. A 24/2.8 AF is not that much more. A 50/1.8 AF-D can be had for $150. However, we're going to consider something a bit more flexible.

    We have some choices to think about. Firstly, the Tamron 28-105/2.8. I didn't know they made such a lens, so it was a nice surprise to see it come up in my searches. It is apparently a very good lens, but it's slow to focus and large. Can we live with these compromises? After all, a Tamron 24-70/2.8 DI VC costs around $500. A Tamron 28-75/2.8 is a bit cheaper than that, although you don't get 24mm at the wide end. But, given that the gap between 18mm and 28mm is a bit large, I've decided to go with the Tamron 24-70mm, but many will be happier with the Tamron 28-105 and an AF Nikkor 24/2.8.

    The macro lens I am choosing is the 105/2.8 D Micro Nikkor AF. You can get these for about $300.

    We can now think about a portrait lens. We could be satisfied with the 24-70mm, although some would prefer a longer focal length than 70mm, and some would not want a macro lens to be used as a portrait lens.

    I think we can kill two birds with one stone. Let's examine two choices for our tele-zoom. We can easily consider the Nikkor 70-210/4 AF at $200. Alternatively, there is the Sigma 70-200/2.8 APO DG HSM for around $600, and the Tokina AT-X SD 80-200/2.8 for around the same price. The faster zooms can replace a portrait lens, given their wider apertures. That extra stop will come in handy indoors, where many portraits are taken. I think I'm going to go for one of the f/2.8 zooms here, and forego a portrait lens.

    For the telephoto option, I'm going for a Sigma 300/4 AF. It's tempting to go for the 100-300/4 AF, but I'm not sure if the quality will hold up with a 1.4x TC. Tamron makes a 200-400/5.6, and quite frankly there would be nothing wrong with that choice, as it sells for about $300. But, I'm choosing the 300/4. The 300/4 is relatively cheap, at about $250, although you'd need to buy a 1.4x TC to get a 400/5.6.

    As for the bodies, we have several good choices:

    F4: $400

    F5: $600

    F90X: $150

    F100: $400

    I once owned an F100 and it's pretty darned good. I have an F90X and it's a solid choice despite being out-classed by the F100. It is big, heavy and noisy but it is a serious camera and it's not that expensive. The F5 is also a terrific option, save for the fact that you can't remove the large grip. So, I'm going to go for an F4 and an F90X. I wouldn't blame you for swapping the F90X for another F4 or an F100, though.

    Next up is Canon EOS. I'm starting in a similar fashion to the Nikon kit. For the 18mm, I'm going with the Sigma 18/3.5 AF. I'm adding a Tamron 24-70/2.8 AF as the standard zoom. For macro, it's the Tamron SP 90/2.8 AF. The tele zoom will be a Sigma 70-200/2.8 AF (or similar) for about $400.

    For the telephoto lens, I'm going to nominate a Sigma or Tokina 300/4 AF which will cost about $300. Add maybe $100 for a TC, and we have our 400mm.

    As for bodies, I'm not that familiar with the EOS system. But, I do know that you cannot go wrong with the EOS 1-N for $300. Our second body could be another 1-N or an EOS 5 for $150.

    For Pentax, we're going with the Sigma 18mm AF again. I found a Sigma 24-70/2.8 EX DG AF for under $500. The lowest price I found for a 70-200/2.8 was about $700, than being the Sigma EX APO AF. For the macro lens, I've nominated the Tamron SP AF 90/2.8.

    The problem is with the 300mm lens. I could not see one listed on eBay that was under $1,000. If you are okay with manual focus, a Pentax 300/4 can be had for about $250. And of course the Tamron 300/2.8 that we selected for the Contax. But AF? You're looking at $1,200 at least for a Pentax 300/4. I'm not sure how much a TC would cost, but maybe $200.

    For the bodies I'm going with a pair of Z1's. The Z-1 can go for about $250, and the Z-1P goes for about $400.

    Minolta is, I believe, an underrated system by many. I dismissed them when I was young, but I shouldn't have. Their lenses are arguably better than those of their main two competitors. They were using rounded aperture blades long before most photographers expected them. Sure, some of their features were gimmicks but they were solid cameras.

    We start with a Sigma 18/3.5 AF lens which can be had for around $300. Then we will add a Sigma 24-70/2.8 AF for about $400, though you will see some a bit cheaper. The Sigma 70-200/2.8 EX AF can be seen from $450 and up. Tamron and Tokina also make similar lenses - take your pick. Obviously, as always, different versions of the same focal length will sell for different prices.

    For the 300mm, you can find a Tokina 300/2.8 AF for $850. Not cheap, but about as much for a manual focus Tamron. Your bonus is that with a 1.4 TC, you have your 400/4. And with a 2x TC, you have your 600/5.6. TCs can go for anywhere from $100 to $300, but overall they are cost effective.

    For bodies, there are lots of good options at the high end. I've nominated the A-7 for about $300, and I'll complement it with a Dynax 9xi for $200.

    Honourable mention goes to the Canon FD system. I have a small FD kit, and I hope I can use it professionally one day. There's no point having nice cameras if you can't use them. The only problem is that the only pro body with a motor winder is the T90, although they are not expensive.

    For lenses, the widest lens I saw was 19mm. There's the FL 19/3.5 R for about $450. Vivitar made a 19/3.8 MC and you can get those for maybe $200. I would then add a Canon 24/2.8 for about $250. We could stay with primes from here, as the 50/1.8 ($100) and 135/2.8 NFD ($150) lenses are very affordable. Or we could add the very well regarded 35-105/3.5 zoom for under $200. The prices are so low here that it doesn't matter.

    Next, I'm going to add the Canon 70-210/4 which is less than $100 in good condition. We have spent so little than we may as well add the Tamron or Tokina AT-X 300/2.8 which will cost between $500 and $800. A Canon made lens of this type is over $1,000. All you have to do now is add at least one TC, and you're done.

    A quick note: there is an 800/5.6 FD for those who want it, but it is not cheap.

    Even the old F-1 is getting a bit pricey, and the cheapest one I saw was listed at $300. An F-1n could cost $400, and a New F-1 could cost about $500. So perhaps an F-1n and a T90 would be a decent pair of cameras. Although an AE-1 or an A1 will only set you back $300 or so. I'm pretty sure you can get motor winders for all of the manual winding bodies and they shouldn't cost much.

    And there we have it. So let's have a look at a summary of the expenditure of each kit, and see what we come up with.

    Continued below...
    johnfantastic likes this.
  3. Contax

    Zeiss 18mm/4: $700

    Zeiss 25mm/2.8: $500

    Zeiss 50mm/1.7: $300

    Sigma 100/2.8 Macro: $100

    Zeiss 80-200/4: $300

    Tokina 400/5.6: $200

    RX: $400

    ST: $300

    Total: $2,800​


    Sigma 18/3.5 AF: $300

    Tamron 24-75/2.8 AF: $500

    Nikkor 15/2.8 Macro AFD: $300

    Sigma 70-200/2.8 AF: $600

    Sigma 300/4 AF: $250

    1.4x TC: $150(?)

    F4: $400

    F90X: $150

    Total: $2,650​

    Canon EF

    Sigma 18/3.5 AF: $300

    Tamron 24-70/2.8 AF: $500

    Tamron 90/2.8 Macro AF: $300

    Sigma 70-200/2.8 AF: $400

    Tokina 300/4 AF: $300

    1.4x TC: $100(?)

    EOS 1-N: $300

    EOS 5: $150

    Total: $2,350​


    Sigma 18/3.5 AF: $300

    Sigma 24-70/2.8 AF: $500

    Tamron 90/2.8 Macro AF: $300

    Sigma 70-200/2.8 AF: $700

    Pentax 300/4 AF: $1,200

    1.4x TC: $200(?)

    Z1 x2: $500

    Total: $3,700​


    Sigma 18/3.5 AF: $300

    Sigma 24-70/2.8 AF: $400

    Sigma 90/2.8 Macro AF: $200

    Sigma 70-200/2.8 AF: $450

    Tokina 300/2.8 AF: $800

    1.4x TC: $150

    A-7: $300

    Dynax 9xi: $200

    Total: $2,800​

    Canon FD

    Canon 19/3.5: $450

    Canon 24/2.8: $250

    Canon 50/1.8: $100

    Tamron 90/2.8 Macro: $200

    Canon 70-200/4: $100

    Canon 135/2.8: $150

    Tokina 300/2.8: $500

    1.4x TC: $150(?)

    F-1n: $400

    T90: $200

    Total: $2,500​

    What's interesting is that the costs of each of these kits isn't dramatically different. The FD kit isn't really much cheaper than the Contax kit, and is actually more than the EF kit. I would like to see what a manual focus Nikon or Pentax kit would cost. Another factor: what would these kits look like if we allowed only prime lenses?

    If you can find a Tamron or Tokina 300/4 AF for the Pentax, your price would come down by $600 or more. Mind you, not all these kits are truly equivalent. But, it's a starting point. Now you know how much you will have to spend to get a fairly comprehensive 35mm SLR kit that is suitable for professional use.

    A further note: if you wanted a wide angle tilt-shift lens that could fit most of these cameras, the Samyang 24mm f/3.5 T-S is a terrific choice. It's about $1,000 though. But, it is available for all mounts except the Contax. And if you chose the Contax as your kit, you could buy a body from a different manufacturer to go with the Samyang.

    Nikon's 28/4 PC Nikkor is listed for about $650, and the 35/2.8 PC Nikkor goes for about $500. The Canon FD 35/2.8 TS is much more expensive, at $700 and over. I don't think that Canon made a TS lens wider than 35mm for the FD mount. The EF 24/3.5 L goes for about $1,000 used. Minolta made a 35/3.5 shift lens and that is quite expensive. You may as well get the Samyang, which is wider and has newer optics.

    If there's a system you want to add, please do. If there are any lenses that I've overlooked, let me know. Also, if any of the lenses I've mentioned are no good, please say so. I will eventually turn this into a blog post, once the data is refined by your feedback.
    johnfantastic likes this.
  4. I went through this process in 2018 and ended up with three different bags ready to go at all times. I’m primarily a Nikon shooter so the first bag has three motor driven F2’s, to me the finest camera ever made. Lenses are an 18mm, 24, 50/1.4, 85/2, 135/2, 180/2.8, 300/4.5 and a 500/8 cat lens. It weighs a freaking ton. Next bag has two F4s bodies and an N90S, a Tamron 18-75/2.8 and a Nikkor 80-200/2.8 D and a manual focus 135/2.8. A third bag has a pair of Nikkormats, an FT2 and an FT3. A cheap Vivitar 80-200 and some sort of 19-35 zoom live in this bag. In addition I somehow ended up with two K1000’s and a couple lenses in yet another bag and to confirm that I may be insane there are three bodies with some kind of 80-200-ish Nikkors that are normally found in my car. One never knows what you might find and it’s paid off more than once but I still haven’t seen a UFO.

    Rick H.
    johnfantastic likes this.
  5. I had an F2. I should have kept it. Anyway, I wouldn't say it's the finest camera ever made, but it was AFAIK tough as nails. I'm not sure what the finest manual focus 35mm SLR would be, but the F3 would be in the running for top spot. I'd consider the RTSIII, too. For AF bodies, the A-9, F4 and F6 would be my picks. I'm sure I'm forgetting a few.

    It seems that your main kit is all primes, which is not a bad thing at all. In fact, you only get to, or have to, take a photo once. Perhaps it's worth the extra effort to do so with prime lenses. Most of the time, or even all of the time, we don't need to limit ourselves to a couple of zooms and two bodies.

    I think I'd swap the 135/2 and the 300/4.5 for a 300/2.8 of some kind. I'd replace the 135/2 with maybe a 135/2.8. I wonder what your thoughts are about that.
  6. Using 35mm film?
    Dieter Schaefer likes this.
  7. Owned that once - for a day; crappy lens.
    I doubt I would choose any of the earlier Sigma lenses - especially if "suitable for professional applications" is a criterion.
    The Sigma 100-300/4 was mentioned - another dud.
    johnfantastic likes this.
  8. It happens. ;-)

    Hmm. Back to the drawing board? Or maybe I should revise the criteria. Edit: Or maybe I should do a separate list with primes only.
  9. I’ve used the 300/2.8 quite a bit and it’s great. It’s too bulky though and not as mobile as I prefer. The 4.5 while slower fits in my bag. I have a newer manual focus 300 4.5 that is even smaller. As for the 135/2 it’s a lens that gives a certain look that I like but it’s heavy. I have the 2.8 also and it probably gets used more often. For some reason there are a few big heavy Nikkors like the 85-250/4.5 and that 135 that give a look I like. As for the F2 it’s a favorite and just keeps running. And yes Joe, film! It’s madness like it’s always been but I like it.

    Rick H.
  10. I think 18mm is a quite arbitrary restriction. As is the demand that any zoom lens needs to be constant aperture.

    I can't comment on the brands other than Nikon - but if I would have to shoot with commercial application in mind, your suggestions would not be what I'd be choosing. First and foremost, as much as I liked the F4, only two F100 would do (or two F6 but that's budget busting). I'd then pick the Tamron 15-30/2.8 (first or second version, doesn't matter though the 1st one would be kinder on the wallet). Then the Tamron 24-70/2.8 VC. I'd then pick the 1st version of Nikon's 70-200/2.8 (fully aware of the corner sharpness issues at longer focal lengths - don't matter). Sigma 150/2.8 for macro. Nikon 200-500/5.6 to finalize the setup. Yes, it's an E lens and can only be used wide open on the F100 - so be it. I haven't checked the prices - but I estimate less than $4k.
  11. It is madness, indeed. But I just love the stuff.

    It was not limit but a minimum requirement. Some people never use lenses that wide, which is fair enough. For interiors it might come in handy.

    I disagree. Even with digital it's a PITA. But with film cameras you should only have to meter the scene once, and then zoom in and out as you need to. You should not have to think about adjusting your shutter speed.

    All the mirrorless lenses I've used allow you to convert a sliding aperture into a constant aperture by zooming out to the short end, and selecting the smallest maximum aperture. That does help a lot when I need it. I am not sure if SLR lenses can do that?

    Fair enough - in some ways the F100 is much better.

    So far I mostly agree - I'm not a fan of poor corner performance, but then again, you are mostly going to use this lens for portraits or wildlife anyway, and usually wide-open. I didn't know Sigma made a 150 macro.

    Oof! The Contax 400/4 costs less than that, and I rejected it. Give me a 300/2.8 with TCs instead. Even buying two 300/2.8's is cheaper. ;-)
  12. Sorry, I wasn’t clear. $4k for everything - the 200-500 should be available used for under $1k.
    Yes, they can. Just set the aperture to the f-stop value of the long end and it’ll stay that way (using A or M mode). Variable aperture lenses have never been an issue for me - not on film and not on digital.
    Not a fan either - but poor corners are almost a given when using older lenses even when stopped way down (it’s even an issue with a lot of newer lenses). Depending on what the lens is being used for, it may or may not matter.
    On that we can agree. I have a partially exposed film in the F100 for close to 2 years now - I guess it’ll grow very old in there.
    Last edited: Dec 19, 2020
  13. When I first read this with the word "kit", I thought you wanted to build a camera.

    As for constant aperture, remember the definition of f/number and that the size of the
    front element isn't changing. Limiting to constant aperture means throwing away
    light that you could get at shorter focal lengths. In any auto mode, the camera will
    figure it out. In M, it is slightly inconvenient if you meter at one end, and then zoom to
    the other end. But usually about half a stop, so except for reversal film, should be fine.
  14. Isn't this just another "I've-5-minutes-to-spare-tell-me-everything-you-know-about-whatever" posts? C'mon...
  15. Okay, that's not too bad really. $1K is not exorbitant and you could eliminate the 300/2.8 if you wanted.

    I have an old AF Nikkor 35-70/3.3-4.5. It is old, and screw-driven, but does have the CPU pins. And it has that fiddly little dial which locks the aperture at f/22. But I can't get it to work properly on the F90X. The rear dial doesn't change the aperture when in A mode. And therefore I can't get it to behave like a modern lens should. Maybe this trick works only on newer lenses?

    In any case, sliding apertures have never been a problem for me, either, because I always force the lens to a constant aperture. ;-)

    I'd like to design a camera system, if I had the money. I'd also like to design a pair of 'perfect' 35mm zoom compacts, one focused on landscape, the other on portraits. There would be features not seen on ordinary compacts such as manual controls. Fun stuff to think about.

    Q: What's the easiest way to become a millionaire?
    A: Become a billionaire and start a camera company.

    Well, yes, of course. But the wider aperture is at the wrong end (not that this can be helped). When you zoom, even with a constant aperture, the metering will probably change if set to automatic. I'd rather not have to put up with that. If you need the long end, and you don't quite have the shutter speed you want, zooming out to the short end isn't going to help. I recently bought a very cheap zoom lens which goes from 4 to 5.6. It was dirt cheap and in decent light I have zero complaints. As I said above, I force it to a constant aperture, in this case, 5.6.

    I'm surprised that you got that impression. This thread is a 'green paper' for an idea I had while looking through the cameras I own. As I wrote above, I'd like to see what feedback I get.
  16. You aren't the first to ask this, and yes, I was pretty sure you knew that.

    OK, so you would rather give up the extra light at wider angles.

    For many years in the film days, my favorite was the Nikon AI 35-70/3.5-4.5.

    I did own the AI 35/2.0, which was for many years my only lens, but I didn't tend to
    carry it around when I had the 35-70. So often enough, that extra half stop was useful.
    Karim Ghantous likes this.
  17. Or you could go adaptall-2:

    Tamron SP 17mm f/3.5: £170

    Tamron 24mm f/2.5: £50

    Tamron SP 28-105 f/2.8 £150

    Tamron SP 90 f/2.5 Macro: £100

    Tamron SP 80-200 f/2.8: £200

    Tamron SP 400 f/4: £450

    Total: £1150 ($1500)

    Which leave plenty for whatever camera & mounts you'd like...
    Karim Ghantous likes this.
  18. Are those manual focus? That's perfectly fine, but I would prefer AF. Still, this list is pretty solid.
  19. It works with the AF-S 80-400/4.5-5.6G on an F100. I don't have any CPU-lenses with an aperture ring to try anymore.

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