35mm film cameras, like vinyl records and flared jeans and McCarthyism, are enjoying something of a comeback currently. You can spend a good afternoon in the pub speculating on why this might be the case and, while you might come up with some pretty compelling answers and some pretty grim indictments of our current world, you won’t be any closer to owning a film camera, you dumb idiot you!
I understand the 35mm camera’s appeal. They’re rather lovely things (the old pre-automation ones anyway) and, in the age of transistors and computer chips, may as well work by magic. Loads of 35mm cameras don’t need batteries at all – they work entirely mechanically thanks to fuckin’ cogs and springs and the like. There are even Soviet cameras that don’t need batteries to power their light meters – instead, a front-mounted strip of naturally light-sensitive selenium feeds back to a meter you can use to calculate the correct exposure (this blew my mind when I first learned about it).
They’re quaint items from a bygone era and the images they produce are grainy and charming and can’t be edited without a darkroom and specialist equipment. Simple, pleasant, tactile, and trustworthy—and, on top of that, granting a heady rush of nostalgia. Grand.
Before you wade in, let me save you some time: if you live somewhere with good charity/thrift shops and/or where estate sales and garage sales are commonplace, the right film camera for you is the one you find on a dusty shelf with a lens, perhaps a bag, and, best of all, an old roll of 1973 Kodachrome still in the camera. It’ll probably have a $10 price tag. Nice one.
For the rest of you, I’m afraid you’re going to have to rely on the Internet and its obscene breadth of choice. The onus is now on you to make an informed decision. Boo.
Happily, choosing a 35mm film camera is pretty easy. First of all, film cameras aren’t like digital cameras in that there’s no sensor to worry about – all 35mm cameras will take pictures of the same quality because it’s the film itself that determines the final result. 35mm cameras are, in effect, fancy light boxes with lenses attached. What you go for doesn’t actually matter too much.
Nonetheless, choose you must: do you want an automated point-and-shoot, a classy rangefinder, or a sensible SLR? Unless you’re a bitter luddite going on holiday or a teenager wanting some sick sepia shots from whatever horrible music festival you’re attending this summer, you’ll want a camera that you can learn with and that’ll make you a better photographer, which means you’ll want one where you can manually control the aperture and shutter speed. These tend to be rangefinders or, arguably better, SLRs. But what’s the difference?
Rangefinders are especially handsome things. They’re small mirrorless cameras originally marketed by Kodak back in 1916 (when Kodak was still a British company!) but were made famous by the German company Leica, whose absurdly shiny cameras none of us will ever be able to afford.
For anyone coming from modern digital photography, even just phone photography, rangefinders will feel downright strange to use. The viewfinder doesn’t look through the lens (as with SLRs and modern digital cameras) but rather typically peers out from the camera’s top-left corner, meaning you’re never photographing quite what you’re seeing. Focusing is odd too: you have to align a shimmery “ghost image” with the actual scene you can see through the viewfinder. I’ve still not quite gotten the hang of it, and it takes me ages to find focus.
However: the lack of a mirror and thus a mirror-slap when you take a picture means that rangefinders tend to take very sharp pictures, especially when shot at high shutter speeds or when on a tripod. On the other hand, there are fewer rangefinders than SLRs in circulation (limiting choice and availability and often driving up prices) and, arguably worse, you’re far more limited in your choice of lens. Many old rangefinders have only wide-angle and standard lenses available, meaning you’re out of luck if you want to shoot anything far away or enjoy a narrow field of view.
The former problem is, of course, far less pronounced if you live in Japan, the camera capital of the world, or any ex-Soviet nations – the Soviet Union churned Leica copies out as FED, Zenit, and Zorki cameras, many of which are gorgeous and some of which are actually rather good (I own a FED II, which I bought with a lens for $30 and which works like a charm).
There are also some excellent more modern Japanese rangefinders out there – in particular, look out for the Yashica Electro-35 GSN/GTN, a cheap but great fixed-lens aperture-priority rangefinder with an electronic shutter that takes gorgeous pictures, in part thanks to its absurdly good (even by modern standards) light meter. The Electro 35 tends to be easier to find in the US and UK too, as they sold like hot cakes back in the day! I once found the black GTN model in an Edinburgh charity shop for £3 (I sold it on eBay for £60).
These are the cameras you’ll likely picture when someone shouts FILM CAMERA at you. They’re the iconic metal boxes with the leatherette present in any TV show or film set in the mid-to-late 20th century. They’re iconic to the point of birthing their own legends: there was that Nikon F that famously deflected an AK-47 bullet in the Cambodian War, for goodness’ sake. Jonathan Byers shoots a Pentax ME in Stranger Things; Holly Goodhead (lol) shoots a Canon F-1 in the Bond film Moonraker; Ray Stantz in Ghostbusters shoots a Nikon FE2. It’s basically a crime to depict any period between 1950 and 1999 without having someone flash an SLR.
SLR stands for single-lens reflex. “Single-lens” differentiates these cameras from the twin-lens reflex (TLR) cameras that preceded them (such as the iconic German Rolleiflex), while “reflex” refers to the fact that, unlike rangefinders, these cameras have mirrors. The mirror means that when you look through the viewfinder you see exactly what the camera sees; the flip-side of this is that the mirror has to retract out of the way of the shutter curtain before a photo can be taken and then return in time for you to frame a new shot.
The popularity of the SLR is mainly down to the fact that they’re practical workhorses with hundreds of interchangeable lenses available. If they stop working, sometimes a sharp bash on the bottom is all they need to get going again (don’t sue me if you break your camera in this manner).
Toward the end of the SLR’s time in the sun, even weather-sealed SLRs were being produced (I own one: the Pentax LX), which I don’t really understand considering there weren’t (to my knowledge) any weather-sealed lenses at this point.
Journalists took SLRs across the various war zones of the late 20th century, including Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Chechnya, the Falklands, etc. etc. etc. If they went wrong, it wasn’t in any drastic way – nothing a CLA (clean, lubricate, adjust) couldn’t fix.
Anyway: SLRs differ substantially from rangefinders. They’re bigger, less svelte, and will look less stylish hanging from your shoulder, and typically host larger, clunkier lenses. As already mentioned, the viewfinder “sees” straight through the lens and, since Pentax came up with it for their Spotmatic back in ’64, most SLRs meter light directly through the lens too (this is called TTL – “through-the-lens” – metering). You’ll focus in a much more straightforward fashion too: turn the ring until the image looks sharp and, if your camera has a ground glass or a split-prism focusing screen, until the image aligns correctly.
Most SLRs have dozens, sometimes hundreds, of lenses available, covering most focal lengths from around the 20mm mark (it took lens manufacturers a long time to work out how to go wider than 20mm without introducing the fisheye effect) through all the reasonable telephoto lengths (anywhere from 80-300mm) up to the silly specialist ones (400mm+).
As SLRs grew in popularity in the ‘60s, rangefinders became less popular and thus were manufactured in smaller quantities. As such, you’ll typically find more advanced features on SLRs than on rangefinders (excluding Leica and Contax cameras) – some of these “advanced” features seem very quaint to us now (e.g., shutter timers, light meters, bayonet rather than screw lens mounts, etc.), so if you’re tempted by a pre-1960 camera (rangefinder or SLR), bear this lack of now-basic features in mind.
For most people, I’d recommend an SLR. They’re cheap (if you’re being sensible), plentiful, flexible (in terms of lens selection), and offer the most space to learn (many affordable rangefinders are from the ‘50s, meaning no light meter, or, if they’re later models, are aperture-priority only). You can always get a rangefinder (or a point-and-shoot) later on.
CHOOSING AN SLR: STEP ONE
The first choice you’ll have to make is whether you want a gorgeous all-manual SLR or a grotesquely 80s-styled autofocus SLR. I’m not as biased as that assessment suggests.
Manual SLRs tend to look nice – they’re made of metal and leather and were designed sensibly in a rather timeless, classic fashion. Autofocus SLRs on the other hand are often monstrous lumps of cheap, shiny plastic and rubber, with every corner rounded and every innocent slain: an unhappy microcosm of the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Manual SLRs are typically easier to operate too. Many manufacturers of autofocus SLRs got overexcited by the new possibility of BUTTONS and LEDs and PRIMITIVE AND POORLY LIT LCD SCREENS and thus crammed as many onto their cameras as possible. Manual SLRs, on the other hand, knew that dials weren’t broken and didn’t need fixing. It’s only fairly recently that camera manufacturers have re-learned this.
Additionally, many manual cameras (i.e., those without electronic shutters) are fully mechanical and will operate perfectly without any kind of battery at all. Others require one or two button batteries to power the light meter, but will otherwise operate without power. Autofocus SLRs on the other hand won’t work at all (or will only work on a particular shutter speeds) without a battery.
But it’s not all one-sided. Autofocus SLRs tend to have faster max shutter speeds, better metering, automatic film-winding (allowing for far speedier shooting and even burst modes!), aperture-priority or even fully automatic (except ISO of course) shooting modes, multiple focal points, EV adjustment options, and will support autofocus lenses. I own an electronic Pentax PZ-1P which, while ugly as sin and confusing to operate compared to, say, the LX or the Spotmatic, is an excellent and far more feature-rich camera.
Once you’ve decided on autofocus or manual, things get a little soupier. There’s not a correct answer to the question of which SLR you should buy, but there are things to keep in mind. If, for instance, you see yourself branching into digital photography in future, it might be a good idea to consider a film camera that takes lenses you’ll be able to reuse later on a digital camera.
Pentax, Nikon, and Minolta are all good candidates for this: the Pentax K mount has been used by every Pentax SLR and DSLR camera made from 1975 – even the K-3 iii, which came out in 2021, uses it. Nikon lenses are similarly compatible (though not fully compatible – some won’t meter correctly) on just about every SLR and DSLR Nikon produced (though they’re now abandoning the mount to focus on their mirrorless range). Minolta no longer make cameras or lenses; they were bought by Sony in 2005, who renamed the Minolta MD mount the “Sony A Mount” and proceeded to use it on all their upcoming DSLRs and SLTs until abandoning the lineup in 2016 to, again, focus on their mirrorless lineup. This means that you can use every gorgeous Minolta lens (and Minolta made some very good lenses) on your Sony DSLR/SLT. Amazing.
Of the big manufacturers, it’s only Canon you should be wary of. You’d be fine with an autofocus Canon SLR, which use the EOS mount, but these later Canon EOS cameras (film or digital) cannot use (or adapt!) any of the lenses used by Canon manual cameras, which use the FD (or nFD – New FD) mount. This is a real shame, as some of the nFD lenses in particular are excellent, and can be easily adapted to modern mirrorless cameras such as the Sony A7.
CHOOSING A MANUAL SLR
So you’ve chosen beauty and simplicity over fancy features. Good for you. When choosing a manual SLR, cameras from the 1970s and early ‘80s are likely to be your best bet; it was in 1985 that Minolta wowed everyone with the world’s first good autofocus camera (embarrassing Canon in the process), and after that everyone was scrambling to produce their own increasingly ugly versions.
There are many excellent SLR cameras from before 1970 (the Pentax Spotmatic I and II, the Yashica TL-Super, etc.), but bear in mind you’ll likely be using the M42 screw mount, which is a good deal slower and more functionally limited than the bayonet mounts we’re used to today (though you will have the best access to some of photography’s most weird and wonderful lenses).
That said, many manufacturers continued producing M42-mount SLRs even post-1970, ignoring Pentax’s shift to the K mount. Chinon, Fuji, and almost every Soviet manufacturer carried on churning out some (very good) M42 cameras. My favourite is probably the Chinon CE-II Memotron, which somehow integrated an aperture-priority mode that worked with every M42 lens, something neither Pentax nor Fuji managed to achieve.
It’s in the ’70s (or, really, the very late 1960s with the Nikon F in 1969) that things start to get interesting. Pentax finally admits the M42 screw mount is a bit crap, Nikon steals a good share of the SLR market, Canon commits the grotesque crime that is the FD mount, and LEDs start appearing all over the shop. It’s in this period that the true icons of the film SLR are born: the Canon F-1 and Nikon F2 in 1971, the Olympus OM-1 in 1972, the Minolta SRT-102 (or 303 if you’re in Europe) in 1973, the Pentax K1000 and Canon AE-1 in 1976. Some of these are excellent cameras (the Nikon F-2 and Olympus OM-1, for example) while others were just commercially successful (hot take alert: the Pentax K1000 and Canon AE-1).
A good way to choose a path is to decide what focal lengths you want your lenses to cover and then to check the availability of said lenses on eBay or whatever your second-hand vendor of choice happens to be.
A good general rule: first-party lenses tend to be more highly regarded than third-party lenses without necessarily being better (though they often are). As such, third-party lenses tend to be cheaper and in lower demand. The offshoot is that you should expect to pay much more for a Canon-brand standard lens than you would a Tamron, Vivitar, Tokina, or Sigma equivalent (or, if you’re really getting into the weeds, Kalimar, Cosina, Kiron, Chinon, J.C. Penney, Sears, Soligor, Sunigor, Sun, etc. etc. etc.).
The weird sometimes-exception to this rule tends to be Pentax. Once the undisputed market king of SLRs (Asahi Pentax only began to be threatened by Nikon in the early ‘70s and by Canon later still), a lot of Pentax lenses were produced back in the day. Now, though, Pentax commands a comparatively tiny (but very loyal!) user base – as such, many first-party manual Pentax lenses can be had for peanuts, especially standard 50mm and 55mm primes, which were produced in massive quantities. As the Pentax market share began to shrink as the century ground on, third-party support for the K mount began to slim, meaning you’ll sometimes pay more for an especially well-regarded third-party lens than you would its first-party equivalent.
Nikon and Canon did the opposite thing: they went from being small fries to gigantic whales as the century continued, and only stumbled in the face of smartphones and, later, Sony. This means that old manual-focus Nikon lenses in particular have really hung onto their value. Canon buyers are in a better position due to the difficulty of adapting Canon FD lenses to DSLRs, meaning those lenses have, until recently, been very cheap to pick up – this is changing now that mirrorless cameras are taking over.
Manual Minolta lenses, thanks to their fantastic reputation, seem to have clung on to their value to a frustrating degree, something compounded by the ease of adapting Minolta MD-mount lenses and the existence of the Sony A mount.
Olympus lenses too tend to be more expensive than I think they should be – I’m not sure quite why this is, but probably has to do with Olympus’s steady and comparatively modest market share as well as the consistently good reputation of their first-party Zuiko glass.
M42 glass varies from incredibly cheap to absurdly expensive depending on the manufacturer of said glass (M42 lenses bearing the Zeiss label often go for several hundred dollars, while you can nab a Super-Takumar or Helios prime for about thirty dollars).
As for my personal recommendations, I’d recommend staying away from “iconic” cameras, which you’ll pay inflated prices for. The Pentax K1000, for instance, is beloved due to its widespread use in university photography classes, and is a solid but incredibly simple and featureless camera. You can get the Pentax KX or K2, or even the especially fancy MX – all straightforwardly and unquestionably better cameras – for less than you’d get the K1000. The Canon AE-1 is in the same boat: it’s a good aperture-priority SLR, but that’s all it is; it doesn’t warrant the mad price tag it currently attracts.
Some iconic cameras, of course, arguably do warrant their high price: the Nikon F2, for instance, is considered one of the best and most robust cameras ever made, but you probably don’t need to be starting there (though if you do see a cheap one, grab it, if only to resell it!). Prices for the Olympus OM-1 and its successors never seem to reach into the too silly, though the comparative rarity and high cost of its lenses should be kept in mind.
For max bang for your buck, consider cameras by weird smaller companies that have since vanished into obscurity: Chinon produced some great M42 and K-mount cameras, as did Argus and Vivitar. Ricoh, who would later on buy Pentax, contented themselves in the ‘70s with producing third-party K-mount cameras: I started off with a KR-10 Super, a cheap, solid, and rather charming SLR which my partner now shoots. That said, you can get the even-more-reliable Pentax P30 (my P30 survived temperatures my endlessly disappointing ME Super did not), which feels a bit more substantial in the hand, for not much more.
Minolta SLRs tend to go for pennies (except the X-700, which is a good camera but a cult favourite)and, with their excellent lenses, would be a fantastic choice. Look at their handsome SRT series in particular.
And, if you want to go really historic, I adore the M42-mount cameras made under the Zenit brand name in the USSR. With their svelte, utilitarian looks, their remarkable Helios, Pentacon, and Jupiter lenses, their delightfully cryptic no-need-for-batteries selenium light meters, and their Cyrillic lettering, they’re a slow, involved joy to use.
A (non-exhaustive) list of manual SLR brands to look into:
- Pentax (earlier cameras marketed as Asahi Pentax and, in the US, Honeywell Pentax)
- Fuji (Fujica, Fujinon)
- Contax (these are “luxury” items so don’t hold your breath)
- Konica (merged with Minolta in 2003)
- Praktica (same manufacturer as Pentacon)
CHOOSING AN AUTOFOCUS SLR
The general “if it’s on a shelf nearby for not much money, it’s the right camera” rule applies here too, but bear in mind that there’s more that can go wrong with an autofocus SLR due to all the extra wiring. If you instead opt to choose one of the Internet’s many available autofocus SLRs, you have a more complicated job on your hands. This is mostly thanks to:
- a) the dozens of new features (some good, some gimmicky) that kept popping up in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, and
- b) the awful build quality and feel of a lot of these all-plastic cameras.
Nearly all the major manufacturers (Canon, Pentax, Minolta, and Nikon) threw out dozens of autofocus SLRs that feel like sticky children’s toys (especially Pentax – I’ll ever forgive the MZ series), with only Olympus weathering the storm of tastelessness (for the most part – their compacts are very ‘80s, and a whole load of rubber sneaks onto the later OM cameras).
Fuji in the late seventies decided to stalk off on its own and start doing weirdo shit, resulting in stuff like the rather wonderful GW690, the first in a range of delightfully compact medium-format rangefinders, putting them in competition with medium-format giants like Mamiya and Hasselblad. Since their 35mm SLR days were more or less over by the mid ‘80s, I’ll leave them out of the discussion.
My first ever autofocus SLR was the 1991 Canon EOS 1000 (I got it with a zoom lens for £10 at a charity shop), which, while ugly and disconcertingly lightweight, was actually pretty straightforward and satisfying to shoot (there’s something about the whirr of automatic film winders and the crunch of early electronic shutters). Even the kit zoom lens it came with was pretty damn solid, and I’m fairly certain its autofocus was snappier than those of most contemporary Pentax DSLRs.
The problem with buying an autofocus SLR is they seem to go from cheap-feeling and aesthetically grotesque (even if they’re in fact feature-rich and competent cameras) like the Pentax SFX (which I hate to say is actually rather good) straight to absurdly fancy pro gear like the Nikon F5 and the Minolta a9 (also sold as the Dynax 9), with fairly little in between. My own in-between option is the Pentax PZ-1P, a feature-rich, satisfying, and needlessly complicated camera with an infamously fragile pop-up flash mechanism (indeed, mine already has to be pried up).
Of course, how much factors like “cheap feeling” and “aesthetically grotesque” bother you will depend on how important you deem things like “look” and “feel”, which, after all, have nothing to do with a camera’s features or its ability to take good pictures (though they often do affect longevity/durability).
Your best bet in choosing an autofocus SLR is to wade in there. As ever, look away from the cult models and toward the little guys, and remember that even ugly, unassuming, and broadly forgotten cameras can be surprisingly robust and feature-rich. An example: the Nikon N8008S (F-801S outside of the US), which now goes for about $30-50, once retailed for $900. These lumps of Blade Runner-esque plastic were once considered very fancy.
As with manual SLRs, consider the likelihood of your becoming a digital photographer before choosing a brand (and thus lens mount) and then start researching. Look for cameras that utilise the strengths of electronic autofocus SLRs: fast shutter speeds (some offer 1/4000 or even 1/8000 of a second – the Minolta a9 goes as high as 1/12,000!), good autofocus (and separate autofocus modes), matrix metering, metering modes, EV adjustment, automatic shooting modes, multiple focus points, and especially weird shit lost in the digital transition (I understand the Canon EOS 50 and 30 allow you to choose a focus point by looking at said focus point??? Is this just a myth?!).
Oh, and if look and feel are important to you, the good news is you’ll have a narrow selection of cameras to choose from. Easy.
Go talk to any film shooters you know. What do they use and/or recommend? Consider how many lenses you want, their availability, and how much you want to pay for them. Read forums (film photography attracts a very nerdy and thorough base of enthusiasts who’re all too happy to share their discoveries and gathered arcana). Browse the endless “TOP 10 35MM CAMERAS!” articles that pepper the internet, though read them with a grain of salt – many just regurgitate cameras that were important in terms of units sold but that aren’t actually very good purchases in 2022 (e.g., the Pentax K1000 and Canon AE-1).
Decide on a budget (for a first film SLR, I’d be looking to spend $100 at the MOST, and that’s only if you’re planning on sticking with it for a long time. As I’ve said, my first few cameras each cost somewhere between £10 ($13) and £30 ($39), and they were mostly great. Look for bundles and job lots. Don’t be afraid to buy “untested” cameras if they’re nice and cheap, especially if you know said camera needs a weird battery the seller’s unlikely to have access to – I’ve bagged some real bargains that way.
And some evergreen advice: fight the nagging urge to buy the fanciest pro-grade SLR you can find – that’s the ennui talking.