Recent articles by the likes of TIME magazine, BBC news, and others have announced to the masses what many of us have known for years – film photography is back. And you can bet that this coming wave of mainstream recognition will bring a whole new batch of confused shooters itching to get their hands on their first film camera without knowing where to start.
I wrote an article a while back suggesting a number of the best first film cameras for every type of shooter, but some of those machines are pricey and complicated and I understand some folk will be looking for a simple answer. So I reached out to the CP contributors, Dustin and Josh, for some help. I asked them to think long and hard and choose just one inexpensive film camera that would be perfect for a new shooter. I wanted them to choose a camera that costs around fifty bucks and allows its owner the ability to learn and grow.
Here’s what they came up with, and I’ve thrown in my own recommendation as well. If you’re a brand new shooter looking to spend around fifty dollars on your first film camera, any one of these three cameras will be just right.
Josh’s Pick – Pentax Spotmatic
The Pentax Spotmatic is hands down the best beginner camera you can buy for fifty dollars, lens included. It may look like a homely, average, under-specced machine, but this camera is simply the best choice for newcomers looking to learn the art of photography.
On paper, the Pentax Spotmatic seems like an extremely uninteresting camera. Its spec sheet reads just like many others of its era; a 1-1/1000th of a second mechanical shutter, depth-of-field preview, a self-timer, a PC sync port, and a light meter. Big whoop. But though it may appear ho-hum, there are a few things that push the Spotmatic into true greatness.
First, its metering system can only be activated by flipping the metering switch, and this switch is directly tied to the depth-of-field preview lever. This may sound inferior to the full-aperture TTL metering we know and love today, but there’s a happy byproduct for new shooters. This design forces the shooter to really consider which aperture they want to use for a given scene, which is excellent for teaching new shooters the concept of depth-of-field (a concept among the most important in all of photography). Second, the Spotmatic’s M42 mount offers one of the deepest selections of lenses available for any rage of film cameras. Incredible lenses from Pentax, Mamiya, Yashica, Pentacon, and even Carl Zeiss Jena are available for the Spotmatic, which gives new shooters ample room to build a truly pro-spec system.
And most important of all, Spotmatics are dirt cheap. Because they were produced in huge quantities, we can easily find a working condition Spotmatic complete with a 50mm lens for about fifty bucks. If that isn’t enough to sell you on this camera, I don’t know what will.
Dustin’s Pick – Minolta SRT 101
Durable, mechanical, beautiful – the SRT is all these things. And it’s also the perfect camera for new shooters. Why? Let’s get to it.
A remarkably user-friendly machine, the SRT was Minolta’s first camera with true TTL metering (coupled to film and shutter speed), and it was also the world’s first camera with a matrix metering system (which for you newbs means it’s super accurate in all lighting situations). Minolta’s ‘Contrast Light Compensator’ system, means the camera does a wonderful job of preventing underexposed shadows or overblown highlights. This means that the camera will help you expose your photos more accurately. And it works.
It’s fully mechanical and the batteries only power the meter, which means if the batteries die, your camera still fires at all speeds. Batteries are common and cheap, so you shouldn’t run out of juice. It handles film speeds from 6 ISO to 6400 ISO (which is ridiculous for a camera of this vintage as most supported a max ISO of 1600). It’s capable of speeds from 1 second to 1/1000 of a second, plus Bulb for long exposures, and it has a mirror lock up (useful if you want to try macro or astrophotography). The viewfinder is not only large, but extremely sharp, displaying both the shutter speed and the exposure reading in plain sight. The film advance is smooth and the shutter release is crisp, and the camera feels like quality in the hand.
But what I consider the most valuable asset of the SRT are Minolta’s lenses. More affordable than their Nikon and Canon counterparts, Minolta’s Rokkor glass is criminally underrated and can hold its own against the great Japanese powerhouses.
Good copies of the SRT 101 (in silver – black copies run a bit more) with a 58mm F/1.4 or 50mm F/1.7 lens can be found for under fifty dollars on eBay, and anyone who chooses an SRT as their first film camera will be welcoming a lifelong friend to the family.
James’ Pick – Canon EOS Rebel XS
Not as sexy or vintage as Dustin and Josh’s picks, the Canon EOS Rebel XS has got it where it counts. This camera is from one of the best names in photography, and is absolutely packed full of technical capability. Why’s it perfect for new shooters?
For one, it’s modern enough to not feel completely foreign to anyone who’s used a DSLR in the past twenty years. Shooting modes include full automatic, full manual, aperture-priority auto-exposure, shutter-priority auto-exposure, and more. This massive variety of shooting modes makes it the perfect camera for shooters who just want to point and shoot, and also ideal for those who want to really dig deep into the foundations of creative photography.
It boasts an impressive and exceptionally responsive autofocus system to help new photo geeks nail focus, has an LCD panel with extensive information display so we know what we’re doing with every shot, exposure compensation for tricky lighting situations, a camera shake warning to let us know when things are just too dark, automatic film loading and rewind, a self-timer, a multiple exposure function, and a built in flash. All this capability equals a camera that can do everything any photographer could ask of it.
It uses Canon’s EF mount lenses, so it’s a body that can grow with your skill set, and some of these world-class lenses are a ridiculous value. Grab and mount a nifty fifty (Canon’s 50mm F/1.8 prime) and you’ll be holding a humble package capable of taking gallery-class photos (once you get a bit of practice under your belt).
It’s not as durable as Josh or Dustin’s picks, and being from the era of bubbly, plastic design it’s certainly not as handsome. But that shouldn’t dissuade anyone who wants to simply take excellent photos from buying the XS. It’s a great camera.
Well, those are the picks. And here’s some parting advice – try to find a camera that’s guaranteed to work, either by the eBay seller or from a reputable shop, like mine. Don’t risk your money on an “as-is” camera, because often this is code for “doesn’t work”. Sure, the price might be a bit higher than what we’ve promised here, but you’ll have peace of mind if you buy a guaranteed machine.
Now listen, I know there are hundreds of cameras that could easily be the best sub-fifty dollar machine for any new shooter. These are just some simple picks to guide those who are floundering in their new hobby. If you think we’ve missed the mark don’t call us names. Instead, shout out your picks in the comments below. Let’s hear ‘em. And while you’re here, share this post with all your newb friends!