Lately, I've had a lot of people ask me how they can get into photography, and I think it's awesome that everyone is interested. It's pretty overwhelming at first, especially with expensive price tags on entry level DSLRs and decent lenses (hell, even bad lenses can be expensive). The good news is that it really doesn't have to be that expensive, at least starting out. In fact, I would recommend against breaking the bank for your first DSLR.
I started in film photography about 8 years ago using a Nikon N80 SLR (fantastic 35mm camera you can pick up for about $30 on eBay) and a really mediocre Nikkor zoom lens I ended up breaking shortly after I got the camera. This turned out great for me because I picked up an old Nikkor 50mm 1.8 (about $80 on eBay) not knowing much about it that I still use to this day. That's crazy to think about since this was one of the first Nikon AF lenses and came out in 1986. This lens is almost 30 years old and I use it regularly. The age doesn't matter as long as it was taken care of because the optics are great. Keep in mind that older lenses might not be as sharp as newer lenses in some cases, but there are some fantastic lenses out there that are under $100 that are great for beginners and professionals alike. For newer lenses be sure to check http://www.dxomark.com/ for reviews and ratings.
Here's a variety of photos I've taken with this lens on a few different camera bodies (they're cropped, click for the full images).
Film is a great way to get into photography because you literally pay for your mistakes. For about $110 you can get an N80 and 50mm f1.8 and produce some fantastic images, but you would have to buy the film and pay for the processing, so in the long run using film can become expensive. Another great film camera with a larger film size (this would mean a larger sensor size in digital photography) that I use is the Russian Kiev 60 medium format. This thing looks like a 35mm film camera on roids. It's heavy. It looks weird. And it makes beautiful photographs. You can get it for about 100 bucks on eBay with a lens (usually comes with an 80mm). It's got a 6x6 image size, which really aids in the creation of some iconic imagery.
Just look at Oleg Oprisco's work. He is one of my favorite photographers and he shoots with a Kiev. You owe it to yourself (photographer or not) to check out his stuff:
If you aren't sure if you're going to enjoy photography or not then go for film to test the waters out. Film looks great, it's fun, and can arguably have more dynamic range (think of this as the combined amount of highlight and shadow detail) than cheaper DSLRs.
Another fun, still cheap alternative in the digital area would be to invest in a mirror-less DSLR camera and use old lenses (like the Nikkor 50mm f1.8). You can't buy a nice digital camera and skimp on the new "glass" because your images are going to look like garbage. Lenses are important. Just about any lens you buy brand new that costs under a few hundred dollars will more often than not produce sub par photos. Luckily, older glass is cheaper and is a fantastic alternative if you're just starting out. Some even have really interesting effects that add character to your shots, like the swirly bokeh of the $30 Helios lenses (I've got one and it is hands down one of the best deals in the photography world).
For the camera body I would recommend a micro 4/3 (called this because of the sensor size) mirror-less because they have been around the longest (since 2008). They're small and lightweight; great travel cameras. You can use basically any lens you want (with $10 adapters on amazon) which is the reason that these cameras are a fantastic way to learn digital photography for cheap. The Sony NEX 5T is about $200-300 and is top-rated. The Panasonic Lumix GH2 is great for video (I wouldn't recommend it for photography) because you can hack it to produce a higher bit-rate to produce video quality that is good enough to have been compared to $3,000-4,000 cameras. Shane Carruth even shot his film Upstream Color with a GH2.
There are a few caveats to consider when using a micro 4/3 mirror-less camera. One is that the focal length for lenses that aren't designed for your specific camera are going to produce a different focal length when used (but this will be an issue with every camera you use unless it is a "full-frame" camera, also known as "more expensive"). You get a 2x magnification factor due to the smaller size of the lens on micro 4/3, so a 50mm lens becomes a 100mm; on a Nikon crop-sensor, like my D7000, the magnification is 1.5x; on a Nikon full-frame camera it becomes a true 50mm. Another issue is that mirror-less cameras generally have EVF's (electric viewfinders) or no viewfinder at all, just an LCD screen. This might reduce battery life and some people aren't comfortable without a real viewfinder. Also, many of the older lenses like the Helios I mentioned above aren't multi-coated, which can mean glares, flares, and a washed-out look around bright lights that can reduce contrast (filters can help this).
One advantage to micro 4/3 is that you can buy a focal reducer to fix the focal length and at the same time increase the shallow depth of field. They can be a little expensive, ranging from $150 to several hundred dollars. The chart shows 1-stop increments (halving the amount of light). These adapters increase the amount of light by 1 full stop and almost fully correct the focal length so a 50mm f4 lens becomes a 50mm f2.8, which is pretty cool. If you're new to this, a larger aperture means a shallower depth of field (which is something people pay premium prices for when considering lenses not only because of depth of field but also because if the lens takes in more light then it aids the camera in taking better photographs in low light conditions).
There are disadvantages and advantages to each of these options. Just keep in mind you don't have to go out and spend $1,000 on a brand new DSLR to produce beautiful images. I wanted to provide a few alternatives to the default assumption that you have to buy an expensive DSLR to get a certain look. If neither of these options look appealing, then KEH has refurbished cameras that work perfectly and have been tested (I've purchased refurb here and never had any problems). If you found this helpful or interesting, or have any questions feel free to leave a comment below!