Have you wished for a full frame digital camera, but the budget will not allow the hefty price tag? Well, I may have solution for you: it is possible to get a secondhand full frame DSLR for US$200, true story.

I bought a 2007 manufactured Canon 5D online for the Australian equivalent of US$200. It even had a Canon 50mm f1.8 lens and extra battery thrown in the deal. Now I’m not saying they sit on the shelf for this sort of money. In fact the going price, in May 2018, for a near mint unit will set you back US$450 or more. My purchase was a combination of good luck, patience, and a willingness to take a chance on an unknown, well used, unit bought online. However, they are still out there as I’ve seen them go occasionally for around £100-150, €150-200, US$200-300 (sight unseen, conditions unknown).

Canon 5D from the rear

Canon 5D from the rear

Buying a secondhand camera

I stuck my neck out, handed over the cash, and hoped I wasn’t getting duped. It’s not the best way to buy a camera, but I’ll share with you a few things that help minimise your chances of a bad buy:

  • Download the camera manual before you bid, or buy. Get acquainted with what the camera can do and what value it is to you;
  • Always check the seller’s reputation. If they have bad reviews then I’d suggest you stay away. Also make sure they have a comfortable amount of previous sales, preferably in photographic equipment;
    Be very wary of listings that have no, few, or commercial photographs;
  • Check any photographs thoroughly. Look on your computer, not your smartphone, and zoom in as much as you can. It only gives you an idea of the cosmetic condition, but if if looks in good condition it probably has been looked after in general (this requires a leap of faith);
  • I’d suggest you stay away from any listing that has descriptions like “worked last time I used it” or “selling for a friend” or “I don’t know much about cameras”;
  • Ask questions before you bid, or buy. Try questions like “is this unit fully functional” or “can you please check the [place function here]” or please take a photo of the camera with an image on the screen”;
  • If there is no refund option to be had, ask why, and then decide whether you want to take the risk. Also check the refund or insurance options of the online provider;
  • Where possible choose the pickup option and do not pay until you have checked the camera and accessories. Ask the seller to charge a battery before you arrive and take/buy an appropriate memory card beforehand. This means you can try the camera with a trusted card. Keep any cards provided by the seller for spares;
  • Trust your gut. If it seems too good to be true it probably is.

I feel that the Canon 5D is really the only option for a secondhand full frame camera US$400 or less. The Nikon D700 is three years younger and still commands around US$550 plus. Pentax and Sony models were later again and still have fairly hefty prices compared to the 5D.

The benefit to a toy photographer

That’s a tricky one. It’s like how we like our coffee, or tea. Double shot hazelnut latte with unsweetened almond milk in an enviro friendly cup; or long black with a sugar. They both have caffeine and make us feel better about our mornings. It’s just personal taste. Cameras are just the same: some suit our tastes better than others. I’m not here to convince you to buy a full frame camera, as I feel it is no more suited to toy photography than other DSLRs I’ve tried. However, if you want one at a budget price, then I can tell you what I found over the last few months, and hopefully it will help you decide if it is the right camera for you.

Canon 5D with a selection of legacy lenses and an EF 50mm f1.8

Canon 5D with a selection of legacy lenses and an EF 50mm f1.8

I specifically bought this unit to use as a base for my Zuiko legacy lenses (old 35mm film SLR lenses) and it handled even the heaviest of the lenses wonderfully with a comfortable hold and good balance. The size of the camera fitted the larger, toy friendly, lenses well (both the Zuiko 50mm and 90mm f2.0 macros) and the aperture and focus rings were easy to get to and operate in a two-handed configuration. I found the Canon EF 50mm f1.8 worked very well with additional extension tubes, but the 45cm (18″) minimum focus distance wasn’t much use to me with the lens on its own.

Canon 5D and EF 50mm f1.8 at minimum focus distance

Canon 5D and EF 50mm f1.8 at minimum focus distance

I have used the 5D exclusively for a month for toy photography (with the exception of Wednesdays when I regularly use a smartphone for the #slumpday hashtag). I have both good and bad things to say about the 5D, in comparison to my Olympus MFT go to camera.

What I don’t like

Let’s get the bad stuff over first:

  • There is no LCD live view, which restricts me to using the viewfinder, then chimping the 2.5″ LCD playback to see how things are going. I don’t tend to chimp with general photography, but it is a regular habit in my toy photography. This function did not come out until the 5D Mk II hit the shelves in 2009. The earliest live view camera I have used came onto the market in 2007;
  • A standard LCD screen does not befit the toy photographer. Given that we are often prostrate on the ground having a camera without an articulating, or tilting screen is a chore. Even bending down to look through the viewfinder on a short tripod extension was a pain. I got around this by using an old Olympus right angle viewfinder that fitted the eyecup clip on the 5D;
  • JPEG output is substandard to Olympus. It’s possibly a little unfair as Olympus JPEG output quality became outstanding about a year after MFT was introduced. The 5D came out five years beforehand. I think the standard 5D JPEGs have too much contrast and tend to over saturate the red channel. This is not really an issue unless you dislike higher contrast images and do not want to use RAW;
  • The use of a Compact Flash card and no WiFi connectivity for quick access to files (another unfair comparison I realise). CF cards were the norm at the time in this sort of camera and WiFi/NFC connectivity was years off when this camera was designed. I still missed the convenience of downloading to my smartphone, or the ease of slipping an SD card into my computer without an adapter.

As you can see, all of these ‘don’t likes’ are due mainly to the age of the design.

Other things that didn’t bother me, but may be a problem for others, are:

  • The weight. At 900g (about 2lb) it is almost double the weight of the Sony A7, the closest mirrorless full frame camera I can think of. I personally liked the weight and found it an excellent stable base for many of my old legacy lenses weighing around 500g (a little more than 1lb);
  • Size may be an issue for people with smaller hands. However, I have smallish hands for a male and had no issue getting to most of the controls;
  • Optical viewfinder. Even though this is a reasonably bright, 0.71x viewfinder, the modern electronic viewfinders with their ‘gain-up’ and peaking/magnification capabilities are a real boon to the toy photographer;
  • No touchscreen. Some people love them. I tend to turn mine off.
Canon 5D native JPEG and RAW with Lightroom conversion

Canon 5D native JPEG and RAW with Lightroom conversion

What I like

This is a shorter list, but it contains things that are important to everyday photography:

  • Battery life. The batteries I have are genuine Canon Lithium Ion 1390mAh units and are probably as old as the camera. They are so effective I tend not to remember when I last charged them. To put that last comment into perspective, I may only take 30-50 photos in a session that will rarely last longer than two hours;
  • A simple, uncluttered viewfinder. Nine AF points and a unobtrusive green display at the bottom, showing exposure values and compensation, plus expected images remaining. All other pertinent information is on an LCD on the top of the camera;
  • Straightforward controls. With the exception of the off/on/function lever which is annoyingly hard to operate, all of the buttons and levers are well placed and easy to operate even with your eye to the viewfinder (although you really need to look at one of the LCDs for most options). I love the mini thumb operated joystick, but am disappointed Canon didn’t take more advantage of it for navigating the menu;
  • Easy navigation of the menu, even if you can only use the scroll wheel and centre button. It’s laid out in three distinct/colour-coded sections and any function is only one, or two clicks away. It also stays at the last function you chose for an easy return;
  • RAW output is solid and dependable. Given that this is a 13 year old design and only has a 12.8MP sensor, I think the RAW files are detailed and have quite a good dynamic range. The only real failing is the low light capabilities. 800 ISO is useable, but I tried not to go higher than 400 ISO. This may be a limitation for some photographers;
  • Comfortable operation. This camera is a joy to carry and use for general photography. I only use wrist straps and I had no issue carrying and using a 1.4kg (about 3lb) camera lens combination for a couple of hours at a time. The grip is deep and sure. Overall the camera just feels like a stable and reliable platform in the hands.
Canon 5D viewfinder

Canon 5D viewfinder

In summary

I will not bang on about specifications as there are any number of resources on the Internet that can give you better information than I can. However, I can attest to the Canon 5D being a solid, dependable, and comfortable camera. It is rather unremarkable by today’s standards, but I personally feel that is a strength. It just allows you to get on with the job of photographing stuff.

I thoroughly enjoyed using it for the time I possessed it (it has now gone to a loving new home). It often reminded me of more simple times of the 35mm SLR, and the reassuring clack of the mechanical mirror was a nice confirmation compared to my more electronic mirrorless cameras. I soon changed my photography style to get around not having a fully articulated screen and it only bothered me every now and then. The 12.8MP images were fine for the online output that I wish for 99% of my work, and I have previously seen beautiful 8×12″ prints from this model.

If the majority of your toy photography images are taken close to the ground, or if you require good low light performance, then I feel you will need to look somewhere else. Otherwise the Canon 5D is an amazing amount of value for US$200-400.