I agree with Rob - by far the cheapest is to avoid going down that slippery slope - perhaps buy some golf clubs and that may suck up enough of your time and efforts to stop the fantasizing about ever more expensive formats and gear.... I'd have to think that a 100 year old 11x14 with some holders for around $1000 would be the entry point. It has been pointed out that evrything else gets a whole lot more dear too. If you think you can live with 8x10 - DO!
I've found out today that my $250 plate camera needs a new $300 bellows. Oh well.
Making it myself migh tbe cheaper, but I don't intend to start with something that has to compress to 33mm and expand to 700mm. And has an inside taper, with straight outside: Every pleat is different from the next one...
Use a sound camera regardless of age so you don't waste materials.
So same advice for cameras as for lenses; get a good used example of a fairly modern camera. Figure in some maintenance costs depending on manufacturer, model, age, and usage. If you go vintage, figure on a bellows and a "tune up" by someone like Richard Ritter.
I just did this with a solid 8x20 Korona, and I'll have about $2500 in it including the bed braces, 5 film holders (3 Hoffman), back bail with new springs, extension rail, new bellows, Satin Snow GG, making sure all the screws were in sound wood, plus some other minor work. It was usable as purchased with lenses up to an 18" at infinity, but I wanted a bit more flexibility to use longer lenses or closer, and the old bellows, while light tight, was quite stiff.
You could certainly get into ULF for considerably less, but I didn't want to have to fight with the equipment and the camera cost is small compared to consumables. 25 sheets of Ilford 8x20 will run about $230 and a box of paper about the same (although more sheets), so it seems rather "unbalanced" to worry about trying to save comparable one-time costs in the camera, especially when camera problems cost you a lot more in wasted materials that can be hard to get.
Make a really really big pinhole camera. I used the box my computer came in (a holstien looking thing) and make paper negatives.
Blackboard paint for the inside of the box---$5 or so.
Pinhole---make yourself out of shim stock or buy a readymade
Shutter---a chip of wood and a thingamabobble to keep it in place, you've probably got something you can use in your garage or junk drawer.
Printing paper---whatever 16x20 RC Freestyle has on sale.
Trays for developing---if you haven't got large ones, those black plastic tubs used for mixing mortar are worth looking at (the hardware store sells 'em)
Light meter---why bother?
Cheaper than a set of golf clubs!
BEWARE! Highly addictive!
ULF can be both addictive and expensive. But you might think of it also as an investment since you can easly re-sell the equipment if you need or want to, often for more than your investment. Because of the limited supply of new cameras and holders in the ULF sizes used equpment sells very fast. And that includes lenses as well.
If you buy an 12X20 Canham tomorrow for $6000 it will probably be worth at least $5000 five years from now. And used vintage equipment has been going up in price for years. You can not say that about a lot of photographic equipment.
So just tell your mate that purchase of ULF equipment is like putting your money in a saving account.
I've had good luck checking with old print shops.... 2 of them have given me process cameras....free!!!!! they were happy to have them hauled off.... the largest one has a 10 foot rail so it takes up alot of studio space, oh yeah it came with a goerz red dot artar too!! I converted the smaller one (14x18!!)
into an enlarger.
so check with older print shops, most have converted to ...(gasp) digital so the old stuff is in their way!
I think just always checking Ebay would be your best thing to do. Clearly if your wanting to get into ULF, its because of the quality of print that can result from that size negative, so the suggestions about making a pinhole camera to put a piece of paper in are just silly! That would be a pinhole camera, not an ultra large format camera guys! Also, many people have made comments about an 8x10 camera, well...8x10 is not "ultra large format", just so everyone knows.
I purchased a Burke & James 11x14 off ebay for about 1,400.00. I also got 8 film holders and a couple lenses, and all together it has cost me about 2,000 for everything. I suggest getting a credit card and just putting everything on the card and paying it off as you can afford. I know alot of people don't have 2,000 bucks to throw down on a expensive camera...but the cost of ULF cameras and gears is NOT GOING DOWN...ITS ONLY GOING UP!
The suggestion about trying to find a camera with rotten bellows is not that good of an idea. Most people bidding on Ebay know how much the camera will be to repair, so they all bid about the same amount less then what they normally would. It would be best to get a camera for 1,500 bucks, rather then a damaged camera for 1,000 and have to invest hundreds of dollars for custom bellows and refinishing, and hours or time invested to fix it. Time is money.
Just get a camera that is in good working condition, and take care of it. It will probably never go down in value, so you could always sell it for more money later. Ebay also offers a "buyers credit" if you dont have a credit card.
I just say to dive in with both feet first, because there is no REALLY cheep way around ULF. Keep you eyes open for deals and take advantage of them.
Well, there is the initial 'afford' question...and then there is the longer term 'investment' question. I agree with Sandy, if you purchase right, you may even be able to get all your money back on the camera should you decide to sell at a later date. I would check ebay and also post a wanted here. But, if you can 'afford' to spend a little more upfront, you probably will enjoy your 'experience' more and still be able to get 'most' of your money back when you decide, if you decide to sell...
Make one out of a paper box and a coke bottle bottom.