These days, film cameras are a dime a dozen, and while they may not be as alluring as the newest mirror-less marvel from Sony, they’re definitely worth owning. Not convinced? Well if their natural full-frame quality, bulletproof construction, and undeniable hipster cachet hasn’t won you over, consider the fact that just a few decades ago these machines were being used by every single professional photographer and photojournalist in the world to capture everything from product photos to war-zones, portraits to moon landings. Yes, film cameras have been to the moon. And you haven’t. Show some respect.
What’s the downside? There are too many. In less than ten minutes shopping online, a would-be film shooter can come away with an astounding number of pro-spec options. With this many machines to choose from, selecting the right camera can be pretty overwhelming. I think that’s why it’s one of the questions that most frequently trips me up: “Hey, what camera should I buy if I want to shoot film?” For ten minutes I yammer on about the pros and cons of twenty different machines, leaving the asker more confused than before the question was asked.
My typically fumbling response springs from the knowledge that every camera has its own suite of strengths and weaknesses; the same attribute that might make a camera ideal for one person could make it problematic for another. Choosing the right camera depends greatly on answering the question, “What are my shooting habits and preferences?” With this in mind, I’ve compiled a list of five all-around excellent film cameras, and included the type of photographer for whom each would work best.
Most of these cameras will have been thoroughly covered in a previously posted review. Click through to those write-ups to learn everything you’ll need to know about the given camera. And keep in mind, this is not a comprehensive list. There are literally hundreds of film cameras worth owning. These are just a few.
The more capable sibling to Canon’s AE-1, the A-1 was a sensation when it was unveiled in 1978. It was a camera equally at home in Photography 101 as it was in the hands of a money-making photojournalist. A perennial favorite for collectors and photophiles, it’s still capable of nearly everything one could ask of a photo-taking device.
It’s one of the best looking, classically styled SLRs around. Small and discreet, and offered only in black, it’s a pretty effective street shooter, even if the shutter and mirror can be a bit loud in quiet spaces.
Practical use is about as effortless as it gets. Though it’s over 30 years old, this camera gives the photographer every option one would expect from a camera made yesterday. It’s no coincidence; the A-1 is the camera that popularized the modern auto-exposure shooting modes we all enjoy today. It was the first camera in the world to be capable of shooting in Program Mode (P), Aperture Priority (AV), and Shutter Priority (TV). Thanks to this full suite of shooting modes, this is the film camera that will feel most familiar to photo geeks accustomed to today’s DSLR cameras.
A full range of fantastic glass makes up another of the A-1’s strengths. Naturally designed to mate to any of Canon’s FD lenses, it’s capable of shooting everything from macro to telephoto, tilt-shift to fish-eye. With this many lenses, the A-1 is a camera that will meet the constantly evolving challenges of any photographer.
Build quality is good. While not as robust as some of the German machines or mechanical Nikons, the A-1 is still a fairly reliable camera. An aluminum alloy chassis and mass-production of an originally exceptional design create a safe marketplace in which well-cared-for examples continue to function perfectly. The ABS plastic shell surrounding the metal core can be prone to impact damage, and the micro-processors used in this machine have a somewhat deserved reputation for conking out.
The key is to find one that looks like it was pampered, and ensure it works before handing over the cash. Once you’re sure it’s working properly, buy it. It’s one of the best cameras out there, and there’s no reason to think it won’t still be shooting many decades from now.
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No list of great film cameras would be complete without mention of at least one camera from Nikon. One of the most successful camera-makers in the world, Nikon’s contributions to 35mm film photography are vast and varied. Although well-known for making some of the best SLRs ever, we’re focusing instead on a diminutive, yet very capable, point-and-shoot; the L35AF.
This little camera, nicknamed Pikaichi (top-notch) in Japan, is a machine with which I’ve spent a lot of time, and the camera most recently reviewed here on Casual Photophile. It’s one of the best point-and-shoots of its era, and is still one of the best today.
It’s a very compact machine, perfect for travelers, street photographers, and anyone else who wants a camera that will do the job without getting in the way. It’s about the same size as one of today’s mirror-less cameras, though its tiny lens gives it a leg-up in at least one dimension. It’s a truly pocketable camera and an excellent choice for anyone craving simplicity of design and simplicity in use.
A strong all-rounder, its greatest strength is its phenomenal lens. An optical marvel, the updated Sonnar design by Koichi Wakamiya is something of a golden egg in the photography world. Amazingly compact, it’s one of the most respected fixed 35mm lenses ever, and while vignetting can be a problem there’s virtually no distortion, and sharpness is beyond compare. The aperture isn’t the fastest out there, at ƒ/2.8, but it does the job in all but the lowest light. This is one of the nicest lenses available in a point-and-shoot camera.
Focus, exposure, flash control, film advance/rewind, and aperture control are all completely automated. This gives the photographer the opportunity to focus on the scene and stay fully immersed in the moment. Framing and composition become the sole focus, while the camera handles the rest. It’s a good thing for many, though some users might rue the lack of creative control. If optical quality, compactness, automation, and ease of use are most important, the L35AF is a camera that won’t disappoint.
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Minolta SRT Series
For shooters looking for a more mechanical being, there’s no better option than the Minolta SRT series. A massively successful range of machines, they were Minolta’s biggest sellers from 1966 to 1981. Today, they’re every bit as popular, likely due to their extreme durability and incredible build quality. There are a lot of models to choose from, but given the similarly low price shared by all models it makes sense to go with the best; the earlier SR-T102, or the later version SR-T202 (alternately called SR-T Super, SR-T303b, or SR-T505 in certain markets).
The naming can be confounding, but the performance is not. These machines were built for professional photographers in a time when the best cameras were fully mechanical, could operate without batteries, were heavy, made entirely of metal, and would never, ever break. They’re among the most durable and weighty SLRs out there, they look fantastic (in a clunky, utilitarian way), and are perfect for people who appreciate nostalgia and charm.
When I say “fully mechanical” I mean it. These machines are entirely operated by the user. With no auto-exposure modes, it’s up to the photographer to pick the shutter speed and aperture for every single shot. This tactile involvement gets right to the heart of what photography is all about, but for some people this lack of automation will be a deal breaker.
Fortunately, it’s not all dark ages. The SR-Ts have an extremely accurate light meter, even after decades of aging in a closet. Powered by very common batteries, Minolta’s meters are among the best found in vintage cameras. Using their proprietary CLC system, the camera meters from two different areas inside the pentaprism. This system allows a perfect balance of light when shooting high contrast shots, and pinpoint precision when shooting in normal conditions. This makes the SR-T line perfect for people who are just starting out, and will further improve the results of those who know what they’re doing.
Minolta’s Rokkor line of lenses is second to none, and one of the best reasons to own an SR-T. Many photo geeks and enthusiasts regard them as superior to the more popular ranges from Nikon and Canon. They offer nearly unbeatable sharpness, color, and contrast, with the possibility of extremely fast apertures of ƒ/1.4 and ƒ/1.2 in many focal lengths. The usual gamut of specialty lenses exist as well, with certain Minolta lenses earning a special reputation among collectors.
For street photographers, the SR-Ts might not be the best machines. Mostly available in chrome, the black versions are more expensive. They’re heavy, large, and loud. The shutter and mirror slap are pretty raucous, which is charming, but not so surreptitious. Travelers, or anyone who values compactness, might also grow tired of lugging the burly beast around for much longer than a few hours.
The list of assets far outweigh the liabilities with the SR-Ts. For shooters who want the most sturdy machine, for those who value mechanical objects, and for those on whom the charm of vintage class strikes home, the SR-T range won’t disappoint. Photophiles looking to connect with the essence of photography will have found the perfect match in these, Minolta’s mechanical masterpieces.
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Fujifilm Instax Mini 50S
Many photophiles have a soft spot in their hearts for instant cameras. The Polaroids of yesteryear are as popular today as ever, but removing the nostalgic filter of fond memories, they’re honestly not the best photographic devices. Often lacking features, producing dull and soft images, and lacking in good film options, Polaroid cameras offer too great of a compromise to be included in the same list as some of the genius machines previously mentioned. I love them, but they’re just not that great.
Here is where Fujifilm’s Instax cameras come in. For shooters who love the instant camera, but can’t abide the bulky machines and the expensive and sometimes low quality film options provided with Polaroid and The Impossible Project, they provide a viable alternative.
Fuji’s Instax Mini 50S film produces prints of around half the size of Polaroid’s classic offerings without any of the pitfalls associated with the classic, well-loved brand. Their cameras have crystal clear optics, exceptional sharpness, and the best color ever seen in an instant camera. Close up filters, portrait and landscape capabilities, and a range of interesting film choices put Fuji’s instant cameras in a whole other league. With the Instax series Fuji has truly created an instant camera for the modern age.
These cameras seem to bring fun wherever they go. Instax cameras are the kind of machines that make people want to be in front of a camera. They can create instant souvenirs, open doors to conversations with strangers, and enhance the everyday in a way that conventional film cameras often can’t. When the photo is ready in just a few seconds, it creates an entirely new type of photography. The Instax cameras can turn the mundane into a party with just a few clicks of the shutter button.
If you’ve never shot instant film, the Instax Mini 50S is the best place to start. It’s the instant camera for the Instagram generation.
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Yashica Electro 35
To finish this list without including a rangefinder would be downright criminal. For those not in the know, rangefinders are cameras that use a viewfinder coupled with a mechanism to determine focus distance. Instead of seeing exactly what you’ll get through the lens, as in an SLR, a photographer uses an optical display to align the vertical lines of the subject in the viewfinder. Focus is achieved when the images line up. It’s older technology, compared to SLRs and point-and-shoots, but it provides a way of seeing the world that’s intrinsically different from more modern machines. Some of the best photographers in the world swear by the rangefinder.
We’ve overlooked the Canon Canonet (a quality, affordable rangefinder) for something a little less common, the Yashica Electro 35. This camera was produced in 1966, and is one of the first electronically controlled rangefinder cameras. It operates primarily in aperture priority mode, which is great for creative control of depth-of-field, and offers shutter speeds from 30 seconds to 1/500th of a second.
Optically it’s a very capable camera. The lens is a 45mm ƒ/1.7, offering a fast aperture for excellent low-light shooting and creamy bokeh when shot wide open. Stopped down the lens sharpens up nicely, creating vivid and contrasty images.
The camera is compact, but weighty, so it feels like a solid, well-built machine. Unfortunately there are some issues. Internal components have a tendency to wear down. One such frequently damaged part has been colloquially named the “Pad of Death” by collectors. Still, this worn, rubber pad can be replaced fairly easily, which will have the camera clicking for another 20 years. The camera uses PX28A batteries, but can also operate without power (though the shutter speed will always fire at its default, 1/500th of a second).
Good for street photographers due to its virtually silent operation and very capable metering system, the Yashica Electro 35 is apparently a photojournalists tool as well, since Peter Parker used it in The Amazing Spiderman*.
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So there you have it. Five excellent film cameras that won’t break the bank. The era we’re living in is a pretty ridiculous one for photophiles. The technology of today is amazing, offering unprecedented levels of photographic control and convenience. At the same time, the market for film cameras has become so heavily skewed toward the buyer that one can pick up a professional-level machine for next to nothing.
These film cameras (and countless others) are certainly worth owning. They’re exceptional machines, and shooting film will only improve your photography. If you’ve never shot film or you’re looking for your first film camera, take your time and look around. You owe it to yourself to experience the roots of photography. If you’re a nostalgic old-timer, I hope you’ll continue to love your film machines or reignite a passion for the old flames of your youth. Whichever era you hail from, you won’t go wrong choosing any of these fine machines.
If you’ve got a camera that you think deserved to be here let me hear about it in the comments. I’ll continue to highlight affordable machines worth owning in future posts, so maybe your favorite will make it on the next list of great film cameras under $100.