We Should All Be Shooting Dorky AF SLRs and Here’s Why

We Should All Be Shooting Dorky AF SLRs and Here’s Why

2560 1440 James Tocchio

This article could save you money, save you time, and improve your photography, if you only take a moment to consider my opinion that the best film cameras are the last film cameras – unpopular, ugly and boring autofocus SLR film cameras that were made between 1995 and the early 2000s.

I feel like the facts make this an obvious conclusion. But this can’t be so, because I don’t see these film cameras being promoted nearly as often as I see underperforming ancient (but beautiful) cameras being promoted. Why aren’t these dirt cheap and exceptionally powerful cameras the most popular cameras on the internet? Why aren’t my social media newsfeeds flooded with Maxxum 5s and Nikon N80s and Canon EOS Rebels? Why do people keep repeating that the Leica M3, an expensive, primitive camera from 1954, is the best film camera ever made?

These are all rhetorical questions to which I know the answers. It’s because we get nearly all of our information from the internet and the internet is an echo chamber. Whatever’s popular will remain popular, and whatever isn’t never can be. And often, it seems, there’s no good reason for anything to be popular or not, except that someone who’s good at marketing their voice as an influencer has decreed it so.

Film photography YouTubers will tell you that the best film camera ever made is the over-priced and over-hyped Contax T3, or the too-specialized Hasselblad X Pan, or the enormous, expensive, and impractical Mamiya 7. But they’re all just echoing each other’s shouts, and the original shout may be questionably informed to begin with. Case in point, I was recently scrolling through a Facebook group for camera collectors when I saw a YouTuber / Professional Camera Liker comment within the group. He asked “Can anyone tell me if [camera X] is good? I’ve never used one and I’m shooting a review of it tonight.”

Really? This is how we photo geeks are getting our information and advice about photo stuff in 2020? From someone who’s never shot the camera that he’s reviewing? This does not establish confidence.

Some people reading this will already be twitching their fingers, ready to drop the digital gloves in defense of their favorite YouTube personality. If that’s you, chill, my bud! I’m not trying to make anyone mad. I love YouTube camera dorks and there are plenty of sincere YouTubers who add to the knowledge base and (more importantly) help people improve and get greater enjoyment from their photography.

And I also know that there’s not supposed to be such a thing as a “best camera.” Cameras are tools and different people need different tools. But generally speaking (that means for a vast majority of users), there really is a best film camera. But it’s not just one camera. It’s an entire class of cameras. Which is great news!

The Background Part – Up and Up and Up

The historical trajectory of the film camera is easily trackable. Film cameras got better and better, until they were superseded by digital cameras. The industry never dipped or dived for a decade, as other industries have at times. Film camera capability and ergonomics simply went up, and up, and up, decade after decade, until they were no longer being actively developed.

The first cameras were primitive light-tight boxes made to suspend a lens a certain distance away from a focal plane of film. These simple boxes of cardboard or wood quickly evolved into beautiful assemblies of shiny metal. Over the next fifty years, cameras became smaller, incrementally more automated, more reliable, and easier to use. By the mid-1950s, cameras still required a dedicated user who knew what he or she was doing in order to make a proper image, but the cameras of the 1950s were overall very good cameras. Limited in spec, but good. Now, if we jump forward fifty years from then, there’s really no comparison. Film cameras made between 1995 and 2004 are objectively the best film cameras in the world, and I want more people to buy them now while they can be bought for, like, $60.

I feel like it’s important for me to make my argument in the simplest and most compelling way possible. But instead of doing that, here are a bunch of strange metaphors and questionably relevant analyses (did you expect something else? wrong site, my pal).

For the purposes of the following argument, I’ve selected the Leica M3 as my fall guy, because it’s the classically accepted “perfect film camera.”  But the comparison will be as appropriate when substituting the Leica for something like the Nikon F3, Contax T2, or any other film camera du jour. That’s french, by the way, for film camera of the day.

For my “good guy” in the fight, I’ve selected a boring, inexpensive, passover camera from the year 2000 – the Minolta Maxxum 5. No one has ever lusted after this camera or any camera like it. It’s a devoid-of-style hunk of plastic. A flavorless yogurt of a photo taking device. It’s the Geo Metro of cameras (at least when it comes to external appearances).

But you can substitute in any late-1990s or early-2000s plastic AF SLR (Canon EOS Rebel Series, Nikon N Series, etc.) and the argument stands. Even if you get fancy and go with semi-pro models like the Minolta a7 or even a late model Contax SLR (the NX, for me), the argument still works. They’re cheaper or better, or cheaper and better, than any camera people are always telling us to buy. Let’s get to the reasoning behind such a bold statement.

Argument Part One – Spec Sheets Don’t Lie

If the Leica M3 is the Empire State Building, then the Minolta Maxxum 5 is that spaceship in Independence Day that blows everything up.

The Minolta Maxxum 5 (and all other mid-level AF SLRs from its era) has a specification sheet that would literally melt the brain of any hypothetical time-traveling camera designer who finished his career in 1955 and died one day later. He’d blink at the Maxxum’s spec sheet with bulging eyes and a sweaty lip, wonder how focus can be automatic, scream when he sees multiple metering modes, and puke when automatic exposure bracketing is explained to him. He’d probably instantaneously die if he heard the electronic automated burst mode of a Nikon F90 (4.3 FPS). And then his ghost would desperately wail that “the camera must cost $10,000!” More on cost later.

“James,” you might say to me if we were on a first name basis, “I don’t believe you. How can a dorky mid-level autofocus SLR from the 1990s or 2000s be so much better than the legendary Leica M3 or the Nikon F3, or the Mamiya 7, or whatever other stylish camera everyone’s currently screaming at me to buy?”

Let me convince you. Those cameras that everyone wants you to buy aren’t as good as they say they are. They’re heavy, lacking in light meters or auto-exposure modes, or bracketing, or exposure compensation, or multiple exposure modes, or spot-metering or matrix metering or auto anything. These popular camera can’t do one tenth of the things that mid-level cameras from the time between 1995 and 2004 can do. In fact, the only thing that a Leica M3 does better than a Maxxum 5 is look good. The Leica has timeless style. The Maxxum 5 looks like it belongs to a dad at Disneyland who’s wearing a fanny pack and speed-walking shoes for entirely practical reasons.

But looks don’t matter. Instead, look at this – I have gone ahead and made a demonstrative physical representation of each machine’s specs by meticulously listing the core specifications of both the Leica M3 and the Minolta Maxxum 5 in competing text documents. I have then increased the font size for dramatic effect, and printed the spec sheets onto standard 8 x 10 printer paper. I have used a fancy font for the M3, and a dorky font for the Minolta, which I think is appropriate. Here are the results. As you can see, the Minolta’s spec sheet is simply enormous at 268 words, while the Leica’s is embarrassingly small at just 56 words.

I have another illustrative point about specifications and capability – the user’s manual for the Leica M3 is 16 pages long. The manual for the Mamiya 7 is 32 pages long. The manual for the Nikon F3 is 46 pages long. But the user’s manual for the Minolta Maxxum 5 is 127 pages long.

And to preemptively counter the “Leica’s are all about the lenses” squad, here’s some truth. Every brand, by the 1990s, had mastered the creation of amazing lenses. Shooting any late model AF SLR will allow you to mount excellent glass of whatever focal length you want. The image quality is there. The AF is fast. The metering is perfect with multiple modes to suit your style. There’s exposure bracketing, and exposure compensation, and LED panels, and burst modes and everything just works. You’ll make better photos more easily and enjoy a higher hit rate.

Argument Part Two – The Banana Proposition (Your Money)

The Minolta Maxxum 5 (and its similarly specced cameras from the same era) isn’t just an amazing performer. It also costs nothing. This camera with its enormous user’s manual full of technical achievements and incredible functionality costs 1/6th the price of an F3, less than 1/20th the price of an M3, and 1/40th the price of a Mamiya 7. If you’re not sure what that means to your budget, let me illustrate.

In the United States of America, bananas cost approximately 69 cents per pound and it takes about three bananas to equal one pound. When bananas are shipped from one country to another or from a distributor to the local grocery store, they’re typically packed in boxes which are unsurprisingly called “banana boxes.” Each individual banana box measures approximately 20 x 16 x 10 inches (about 1.8 cubic feet) and each box can hold 35 pounds of bananas (which is about 105 bananas). Consequently each banana box full of bananas is worth approximately $24.15 in a retail environment.

The cargo bed volume of a 2020 Ford F-150 pickup truck with the 8 foot bed option is 77.4 cubic feet. We know that the volume of a standard banana box is 1.8 cubic feet, which means that the Ford F-150 with an 8 foot cargo bed can hold about 43 banana boxes containing somewhere around 4,515 bananas. The value of this truck bed full of bananas is thus approximately $1,038.

A Leica M3 with a basic lens costs about $1,200 on eBay today. Current eBay Buy it Now listings have the Minolta Maxxum 5 with a standard lens priced anywhere from $35 to $45. This, I should insert here, is absurd. For the same amount of money that you’d spend on a Leica M3 with a lens, you can buy a Minolta Maxxum 5 AND enough bananas to fill the bed of a Ford F-150. Or with your leftover cash you could buy 162 rolls of Kodak Tri-X (that’s 3.11 years worth of film if you shoot one roll of film per week).

And this amazing value proposition still stands when we compare any late-1990s/early-2000s AF SLR even against less expensive popular cameras, like the Nikon F3 or a Yashica T4. It’s just that you’ll be able to buy fewer bananas. The point is that these unpopular and dorky 35mm autofocus SLR cameras are an unbelievable value, the best value in photography today, in fact. And that’s independent of whether or not you like bananas.

The Consumer Advice Part – There Are Lots of Them

Rarity and limited supply has contributed, along with increased recognition for the value of old cameras of high quality, to a spike amongst certain makes and models of film cameras in the modern era. Leicas have always been expensive, but hype has contributed drastically to an increased value in other models. I bought a Hasselblad X Pan two years ago for $1,200. YouTubers who’ve shot ten cameras lifetime discovered the X Pan sometime in 2018, and now we can’t buy one for under $2,400. I’m not mad. I just think it’s silly.

Of happy benefit to the rest of us, and to all the new film shooters who ask me every damned day “Which film camera should I buy?” there’s no shortage of 1990s/2000s AF SLRs. They’re everywhere. They’re $50. And they’re immeasurably better photographic tools than what people on YouTube and Reddit are recommending that you buy right now. So if you’re new to film photography (or you just want to take better pictures easier) go buy an ugly SLR made between the years 1995 and 2004, and thank me later.

The Part Where You Tell Me I’m an Idiot

That part is just below here, in the comments. Have fun.


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James Tocchio

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
93 comments
  • If photography was just about spec sheets and taking the best possible photos, you’d be only shooting digital. Where’s the fun in that? As you know better than anyone, to many people, the process of taking the photo is as important as the photo.

    • Well said, Pete. Think of this article as a counterargument to those who tell new film shooters they need to own a slow, heavy, hard-to-use camera from 40 years ago. I love those cameras, and eventually everyone should use one. But these $1,000 cameras being outmoded by $35 cameras is worth an article, I think.

  • The truth hurts.

  • Avatar
    Andrew in Austin, TX February 6, 2020 at 5:07 pm

    A provocative proposition to say the least – I have a Nikon N80/F80 by the way. –

    In defense of the old 35mm rangefinder cameras – before even placing an older, more archaic camera’s viewfinder up to my eye – I’m good with having to use just three menus to select a shutter speed – choose an aperture and then setting the focus distance with the aid of an old-school depth of field scale. I don’t do any of that with the N80 and as a result get a bit too complacent.

    Truth is there ain’t nothing like the feel of a plastic bodied, AF, zoom lens with front elements can be wiggled back and forth in relation to the lens barrel.

  • Really enjoyed this as someone “younger” and newish to the film world. Other than the fact that the youtube film community IS an echo chamber, do you think there’s any weight to people wanting to shoot with the same cameras as the masters did in their day (Leica being the obvious example)? or is it just a collect them all trend/fashion accessory kind of thing. I ask because while I will probably never be able to afford or choose to buy a Leica any year soon, I do enjoy the hands on simplicity and the tangibility of the cheaper mechanical cameras (I have about 6) I have acquired and although feature heavy, can’t see myself buying one of these better feature 90s SLRs just based on the aesthetics. The youtuber reviwing a camera they got the same day was too realistic. lol

    Keep up the great work and keep reviewing the affordable mechanical cameras, one of my new favorite blogs I have found!

    • I’ll tell you, I love old cameras. I own a bunch of Leicaflex SLRs because I’m an SLR guy and I love Leicas. I also have Nikon rangefinders, TLRs, and plenty of other ancient machines that aren’t very advanced, technologically. Collecting them is fun, and shooting them is fun. But I know that they’re not easy to use and that I’d probably make more better photos with a Minolta from 1999. And they’re not easy to afford.

      The takeaway from this article should be that if you’re new to shooting film, don’t get all hung up on shooting what YouTubers tell you to shoot, and don’t stress out that you don’t have a glimmering, metal camera from 1954. Looking the part isn’t important. Getting the good photograph is important.

      So basically this article is here just to say, “Hey everyone. You can make great photos with a $35 plastic SLR. And in fact, for most shooters, you’ll be able to make better photographs easier with this camera than something like a full manual Leica rangefinder that costs over $1,000.”

    • Thought i’d chime in, as i’m a young(er) person and got into film photography at the target age for these hype-based YouTube channels. I personally viewed old Leicas and old Rolleiflexes as aspirational cameras growing up, and a part of that did come from a desire to shoot the cameras the greats shot. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that, nor is there a problem with having a preference for simple, albeit more limited, cameras.

      The problem arises when we expect these hyped-up cameras to deliver Good Images or that they’ll somehow make us better (and better looking) photographers. No Leica M3, Pentax 67, or Mamiya 7 can improve your photography more than dedicated study of the craft, and i’d venture to say that none of those cameras are as valuable or fulfilling as a truly meaningful photo.

      • I remember drawing an m3 in elementary school. its one of those cameras I have always wanted. I think somehow seeing photos of war correspondents in Vietnam using m2,m3s and nikon F cameras spurred me to get one. Not to mention these cameras could have captured some very important events in history. I think that aspect is soo cool.

  • Wow. I couldn’t agree more. I just got back into film recently after a 40 yr hiatus. I’ve shot digital but completely out of film. But wanting to return to shooting film I started buying some old Minoltas. I love them, including an x700 and a Maxxum 7000, but my latest was the a7 and even though I still love my x700 notalgically there is no comparison. The a7 is a masterfully built shooting machine. It’s bells and whistles even outdo my digital.
    Loved your article!

  • For years I worked with a Nikon 6006 – a small, highly accurate AF SLR. My other camera was a Nikon F100; another fantastic camera. I eventually switched back to (film) Leicas in 2001. I can’t afford anything with the Leica name these days. I’m keeping everything I own in good working order b/cause I’ll never be able to replace them.
    Your posting is a nice reminder that there are plenty of good cameras to be had.

  • Amen. By far my easiest to use film camera is my Minolta 600si that is an absolutely fantastic camera with full AF, auto loading, auto rewind, matrix teetering, built in flash and so on. I had a second one that I sold with a nice little 30-70 zoom just before Christmas last year and I could only get $35 bucks for it. I have bought (and sold) several just great lenses for this camera, like the Minolta 100mm f2.8 macro. I still have a 24mm, 50mm, and 70-210mm that all work great and would sell for almost nothing. If you buy a Leica M3 the cost to get the likely needed CLA will be more than a full kit of a good running Minolta.

  • Avatar
    Christopher James February 6, 2020 at 6:32 pm

    This is a GREAT article thank you! I own a bunch of cheap vintage cameras and I love them (Minolta Super, Box Brownies etc) but if I want to really make sure I get the images I always reach for my Canon EOS 300 with a nifty 50 or (gasp!) kit lens zoom. It’s plastic, easy to use and completely brilliant. I recently bought three more to give away – cost me less than USD$150 including lenses. This is a great reminder for all of us.

  • My Maxxum 5 was a $12 thrift store find. I put on the plastic fantastic 35-70mm and went for a nature walk one day. Scanned my negatives and let some very choice expletives fly.

    This cheap little pile of plastic was giving me images that rivaled anything I was shooting on Digital. My Maxxum 7/28-85mm/Superia 400 combination even blew that away.

    I often joke about people that spend more time taking pictures of their Leicas than with their Leicas. It really is more of a status symbol it would seem. Yes, the glass is amazing, but so are the small stable of Zeiss lenses I shoot on my Contax and Yashica bodies, all of which I picked up very cheaply relative to a summicron or summilux.

    I’ve really been tempted to pull the trigger on a Leica R4, but after playing with one at one of my local camera stores, I left feeling like it really felt very much like my XD11 which is an amazing camera, especially paired with the MD 50mm f1.4.

    All this to say that yes, you are 100% correct that there are cheaper, better cameras to be had – if the pictures mean more to you than the hype.

  • I agree fully! I tell people all the time, if you want to break into film photography, or if you just want to have a great time shooting film, by a Nikon N65 or any Nikon SLR that looks similar. Be sure to get a standard zoom lens with it, and when you shoot just put it in P. You will get back 24 or 36 perfectly exposed images with no trouble at all. Let that whet your appetite for more!

    • The well respected Jim Grey has spoken!!

      I also agree with Jim and James (must be a thing). Any time one of my friends or people who find out I shoot film ask for a great starter film camera I ask first “what digital do you shoot?” If it’s Canon then I point them to the EOS rebels (and watch them put their $1000 24-70 2.8L lenses on a $15 body) or for Nikon the N65 or N90 depending on their lenses. Even the amazing F100 which is about the top of film SLRs can be had for about $100 if you know where to look!

      Sure the Leica’s and Mamiya 7s can be aspirational cameras, but they really won’t help you take better pictures. They will probably just really punish you when you get it wrong.

      When I want a sloooow photography process I head out the door with my F3. When I just want to take pictures and burn through some film, the F100 is my first choice.

      Thanks for another great article James and saying the things that need to be said.

  • This is very timely! I’ve recently ‘discovered’ these recent film cameras, after paying them no mind for many years. They are extremely capable and very cheap! There are a few things to look out for, like the ‘sticky back’ problem that arises with many of the Nikons, but it’s not hard to find copies of models from this era that have had very easy lives, practically unused…and as a bonus, many of the lenses are superb and equally cheap!

    Sure, the old stuff made of chrome plated brass is wonderful to handle, to admire, and to use, but the more recent stuff has AF, faster shutter speeds, is lighter, more ergonomic, and offer many other features that make them a breeze to shoot.

    A lot of times the older gear just gets in the way…and ultimately it’s about getting the shot, right?

  • My girlfriend takes roll after roll of perfect photos with a Pentax Espio 140V that I got her for $10, and here I am struggling to get 2 or 3 good shots per roll out of my Nikons and Mamiya 645.

  • It is a good article with sound advise. Is easier to get batteries with modern film cameras, is easy and cheaper to get high quality lenses that work in Nikon and Canon bodies. One has not to worry about light seals; there are infinity of accessories as flashes, filters, the exposures are determined with computerized data of thousands references, the autofocus is modern and reliable, and they maybe are plastic but it is high quality plastic.

    A poet and photographer has a digital Nikon and a beautiful Tamron 90mm f2.8, I helped her to get a Nikon F80d, which is the N80 but with exif data imprint, (it was an offer from an olx seller in her same Eastern European country, otherwise I had suggested to purchase it in the store here but was not in stock) In my case I had a metallic Canon EF (FD mount, the black beauty) it was so heavy that I could only take that camera with me and nothing else. Time after it was taken away from me I got on Black Friday a Canon EOS 7 (Elan 7e in the U.S., with focus driven by the movement of the retine :O) and a cheap yongnuo 50mm f1.8 lens. It is like science fiction, it is more advanced than any digital camera I ever had. And in comparison to the Canon EF camera the aspect was uninspiring, as if a newspaper would sending you to cover a boring conference, but the photos are perfect and, if you close the eyes, actually it feels like a glove to the hand. My only issue in my far away country is to get a quality way to scan the negatives.

  • This is sure to ruffle a few feathers! Great article James. (are we on first name terms?)

  • Avatar
    Joe shoots resurrected cameras February 7, 2020 at 12:40 am

    Something tells me you have a ton of these plastic automatic monstrosities and are trying to hype them up to get rid of them. You’re obviously cracked. That said I do agree that they make useful cameras for beginners, I did a lot of early work on cameras like the Pentax A3000; I’ve shot newer autofocus, program manual focus, point & shoot, fully manual, and if there’s anything I’ve left out I’m sure I’ve shot that too at some point. You’ll never convince me the fully automatic cameras are better because the further that camera design progressed, the more cameras were designed to do the thinking for people, hence the abominably low intelligence of the average photographer today. That said, if you can convince Kendall Jenner to take a Maxxum 5 the next time she’s on a talk show then more power to you, that might distract the idiots away from driving up the price of worthier cameras. The trick is to figure out what trend the sheeple will buy into next and snatch up everything you can find while it’s cheap enough to make a nice profit.

    • If there’s anything more abominable than Instagram influencers in this community, it’s the elitists and gatekeepers.

      • hashtag amen.

      • Harsh! But yeah, he is wrong. I’ve used all kinds of cameras in my time, but I consistently get good shots from my later Nikon’s. When I say good, I mean, ‘in focus’, because I’m actually just an amateur and a little bit crap. My shots are not technically great, unless I make an error or something, lol.

    • geeze. yes, James has loads of $20 cameras, this blog post is all about the sawbucks he’s going to rake in. lol

  • I have Minolta XD-11 and a Nikon N80. I love my XD-11, it’s sleek, sexy, and easy to use but when I get the film itch (I primarily shot digital) I’m usually reaching for the N80. I have a A7RIII and a D800 and because the N80 is a modern SLR the shooting experience is very similar to my digital cameras, especially the D800. With it’s speed, rock solid AF, and metering deliver it make capturing great images much easier. It’s actually my second N80. I had one before but sold it when I switch over to Canon for a bit (at which time I used a Elan 7n which is also fantastic). I picked my current up recently so I could use it with the glass I have for my D800.

  • While I agree with you about the over-value of some cameras like Leicas, I disagree completely on the whole AF camera thing. I have several AF cameras, and have found that my pictures are worse with those. It’s not a problem with image quality, but a problem with automation. Automation takes choices out of my hands, and makes me shoot in cruise control. This result is a much lower keeper rate, and a lot of wasted film. The article also created a false dichotomy—super expensive all manual camera, or super cheap automated wonder. Me, I’d far rather shoot my $15 Nikkormat FTn than either of those cameras, and it’s cheaper, with cheaper lenses (stick with the pre-AI and you can get amazing quality glass for half the price of AF era glass and 1/10th the price of Leica glass.

  • So Minolta Maxim is the best camera? ;-P

  • Well,… I am using a Canon EOS 650 I bought for 20 euro, and I can use all lenses from my Canon EOS 5D Mk II. And it is an historical camera. The first one in the EOS series. And it is a lot of fun to use. So… I agree… but I like my Leica M2 too.

  • If I want fully auto then I use my Nikon digital slr D4S…..it surely gets the job done 100%. I have shot film since the late 60’s when I was a kid. I love film and for me part of the pleasure is in setting up the camera to get the shot I want manually. As well as 35mm, I also shoot medium format. I once owned F4’s and the like when they were the realm of pro photographers….and there is no doubt that like the F80 etc etc they do a great job…..but they do it automatically. Personally I take far more pleasure in setting up a film camera manually, making all the adjustments depending on result I require and then seeing those results. Far far more satifying than any glorified point and shoot. My only concession is the use of “Aperture Priority” on my RTS ii. With my Nikon F2 all is manual and it feels so so good. With a fully auto machine you learn nothing….the computer does it all. Sure the result is almost guarentted 100%….but like I said, if that is what I want then I will go digital.

  • Right and wrong, Mr Tocchio. Or, in other words, a nice discussion piece.

    Given the convenience, excellence and affordability of modern digital cameras, you have to have a romantic (or masochistic) streak to want to shoot film at all. I have one of those unloved plastic SLRs in a drawer, a Pentax MZ-5n that I bought new in 2001. It still works as well as it ever did, which was as well as I ever needed. (I was a new parent at the time and autofocus was what I bought it for.)  But today I have limited time for taking pictures and I’m already torn between the excellence and immediacy of my Fuji digitals and the tactile pleasure and ooh-what’s-that? appeal of the ME Super I’ve had since 1984 — or of the Nikon FE I wanted then and bought in 2019 when I could at last afford one. This leaves a gap for the AF film cameras to fall into.

    But if all I had was the MZ-5n, I wouldn’t be missing out. It may not have the outward appeal of a classic film camera but it’s a superbly designed machine and very easy to use well – which doesn’t necessarily mean auto-everything. I’d go further and agree with Mr T: purely in terms of results on film, cameras of this period are probably the best of them all. Since mine wouldn’t fetch enough to be worth the bother of selling, I will give it an outing some time.  Soon.

  • Dear Mr Tocchio,
    Excellent article. I bought a ‘Gorky’ Nikon F60 around 2001 which, I guess is the same as your Minolta. I chose the F60 because a) I needed an slr, b) It was on special offer c) there was £50 cash back from Nikon and, critically it had a dioptre adjustment which stood it out amongst the dealer’s stock. It could have been any brand. The problem now,as it was then is BRAND BLINDNESS!! This phenomenon exists also with watches and cars (to mention just two). Cameras (and watches) particularly are part and parcel of male jewellery rather than functionality or value for money. If I told someone that their revered new Omega quartz had a Swatch movement they would look at me in disbelief but, Swatch owns Omega and ETA Hologere who make the movements for both. It’s the photographer that MAKES the picture – not the camere. My F60 is good to this day and is all (and then some) as described in your thought provoking article. Well said and Well done!!

    • I’m literally laughing at “Mr. Tocchio.” You can all call me James. And I agree with your watch analysis. I bought a Tudor.

  • This is an amazing and clever article but I think something is missing here: what about lenses? I own a Nikon and a Minolta (both old heavy slrs but that’s not the point) I love shooting with the Minolta but It has not even a fifth of the lenses available in the Nikon f range. Same goes for the leica rangefinders, You’re buying the possibility to use that amazing glass.

    • I respect your comment but I have to contest the claim that Minolta doesn’t have a complete selection of available lenses in the A mount. They had every focal length covered in primes of various aperture values, from 16mm up to 600mm, countless zoom lenses, APO lenses, ultrasonic motor lenses, the only STF lens ever made, G lenses, D lenses, hi-speed lenses and lenses with motorized zooms. If Minolta was ever anything, they were masterful lens-makers (they were one of the only Japanese companies to own and operate their own glass factory specifically for the purposes of making photographic lens elements).

      That’s the end of my argument, with much respect. Here’s a link to a list of their A mount lenses (this list is incomplete) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Minolta_A-mount_lenses

  • I have been using cameras since I was 12 years old and am now 70, and have used mostly 35mm. I collect cameras and what you say is very true, the AF cameras from the 1990s to the early 2000s are great. I was against AF and plastic body’s and would only use old metal bodied manual cameras, but since I have picked up a few really cheap later AF cameras from Minolta, Canon, Nikon and Pentax I actually really enjoy using them. They have full information viewfinders and top plate LCD screens that make life so much easier and as you say the lenses are very good too. A very enjoyable read.

  • I buy Minolta maxxum 5’s semi-often from goodwill, usually at about $10 each. I bring batteries with me for testing, the batteries cost more than the camera! I end up giving them away, but I always keep one and shoot with it regularly, often in situations where I would not be comfortable bringing an expensive camera. I think most of the maxxum cameras are ugly as you say, but I actually like the looks of the 5, the 7 and the 9! These cameras are great and exist in huge numbers and each one deserves a home!

    Thanks for the great article!

  • A coworker mentioned to me that she wanted to get into photography and wanted to shoot film instead of digital. Another coworker did the same and purchased a Pentax K1000 and was happy so I assumed that this other person wanted to do the same. I gave her a Nikon FE2 that someone was throwing away along with a 50mm f/1.4 lens. I had to show her how to use the camera only to find that she didn’t understand the concept of focusing the lens. DOH! Should have given her an N65 that I have collecting dust in my drawer. I might offer to exchange her for it so I’ll have a second black FE2 in my collection.

    • As a counterpoint to your post, here’s something to consider: why use a newer AF auto-everything film camera that does everything that a modern digital camera does when you can experience photography from an earlier era? Last night I had this strange urge to fondle my Nikkormat FTN. I was changing lenses, resetting the aperture indexing system, turning the shutter speed ring, checking if the meter was working, etc. I then put it down and picked up my FE2 and went through the shutter speeds and the apertures. I then looked at my N8008s and F4 and just couldn’t come to pick them up to fondle them. There’s a satisfaction that comes with the mechanical nature of older cameras. The precision, the mechanical satisfaction of working the controls, the heft. The plastic fantastic cameras that came just before the digital era just don’t compare. Even the Fujifilm X-T1, X-T2, and X-T3 Just don’t give the same satisfaction that the older mechanical film cameras did.

  • Everyone seems to be forgetting that most of these fully automatic SLR’s can be used completely manually including focus and exposure settings. So — best of both worlds. High quality, inexpensive automatic camera with huge lens selections and the ability to shoot completely manual if ya like. It seems like a win-win to me. Having photographed weddings for nearly 30 years starting with a Rollei TLR, I can say I much prefer those more modern SLR cameras. I also still own a rangefinder, a point-and-shoot and 2 view cameras. All of which I use for certain things. But My Canon Elan 7 which I bought new when shooting weddings is still the best camera for me for most situations. As a side note; having processed and scanned many rolls of film for a lot of the young people trying out film, I can say that image quality isn’t their greatest concern. They’re mostly looking for a somewhat romanticized version of what film looks like. Things we used to call mistakes and would have gotten me sued if I had delivered those images to a client. So I think that in that case, maybe a camera that allows you to get excellent images quickly and efficiently isn’t really the best choice. I agree that costs have gotten out of hand, but that’s also partly due to greater scarcity of working examples of older cameras. Especially since the only way to have some of those older cameras working is to have a couple of spares for parts

  • James, I think you are missing the big picture here.

    When I take a blurry poorly exposed pic with my Leica M3 and Summicron 50 DR I have created ART.
    When I take a blurry poorly exposed pic with my $20 Nikon N75 – well that hasn’t happened yet cuz it nails focus and exposure – but if I did, that would be cr@p.

    Best regards
    Huss

  • Great article and comments – mostly 😉 Read this after picking up a Nikon 8008s and a cheap 28mm P&S for a super low price. Serendipity…

  • Kismet? Karma? Just a funny coincidence? Your post came out on the very day that I bought three of these cameras at an estate sale for $5 each. Still not sure if they all work, but they power up, so that’s a good sign. And for someone like me, who is getting back into film after a 20 year absence, and who always used point and shoot cameras back in the day, I think they will be just perfect. I look forward to taking (hopefully) great automatic shots, and then switching into manual to learn more.

    Oh, and I bought some bananas yesterday too. 😉

    Thanks for the extra encouragement! Perfect timing!

  • personally I like this argument, and I think its time that someone stepped up and said it aloud. Thank you for writing this James. I would put this perspective in the same category of those who say “the canon ae1 is the best beginner camera” simply because it is something they have heard before. The echo-chamber is alive and well. That one point you brought up about the YouTuber’s post in the Facebook group is pretty awakening. Without questioning what we have become to accept as the norm, we can only expect to continue moving in a circle. Thank you for breaking that trend and exposing what lies on the outside of that boundary.

  • I am so darn excited for film, it’s crazy. A few years ago I scored an amazing deal on a like new Nikon F4. My next purchase was the Nikon L35AF, followed by an Olympus Stylus. My G.A.S. continued, and I found a minty Nikon F100 followed by a series of Minolta’s (SRT-101, 102, 201)

    While I still enjoy shooting digitally and do so on a daily basis (it pays the bills) nothing will ever replace shooting film for me personally. I never aspired to ‘own a Leica’ or even shoot with one. I am sure they are great, I am sure there a certain, what the French call ‘I don’t know what,’ when you’re using one – but, it just never appealed to me to opt for $2,000 film camera.

    I so appreciate this article, because for under 500 dollars I was able to get cameras that when new would have been closer to 5k total (in 1970’s and 1980’s dollars even) and the quality, feel, fit and finish of each is something that just won’t be duplicated today (although Fujifilm comes close).

    Ranting aside, it’s not about what camera you have, which brand you like, or how it looks when you take it on the street. It is 100% always about what you do with it, how you use it, and how that finished result can impact your very own psyche and the world at large! Thanks again for the thoughts!

  • I may be just the youtuber your looking for James 😉 check out my channel Aly’s Vintage Camera Alley. I like to review the cameras no one else seems to notice. I have a canon Rebel G coming up soon which was was my very first film camera as a kid. I agree with everything you said in this article. Great job.

  • While I have tons of manual cameras I see nothing really wrong with these cameras unless you have a certified allergy to plastic. I have the Nikon 2002, 4004, 6006, 8008, N80 and N90 all bought for $28 or less. Some with lenses and some without. I also have the Minolta Maxxum 7000, 9000, 600si, 700si, 800si, 5 and 70 all bought for less than $40 with lenses. The only one that cost real money was the Maxxum 7.Recently used the N80 and the Maxxum 7 to shoot a F-14 Tomcat, that I am able to get up close and personal with, for a story I am doing. Color sent out and the Acros developed by me. Their metering systems were spot on.

  • Great article, but surely there are some crappy cameras from that era. Any specific model to avoid maybe?

    • Most of these cameras were well-built, the plastic coverings are a facade for the most part, internally most are very-well built cameras. But the plastic can degrade on some, with the ‘sticky back’ syndrome. Might want to watch for that…

  • I agree with most of this except the lens part. By the 2000s, manufacturers had mastered the art of making cheap lenses that produced adequate results. I had a Pentax ZX5n and the kit lens sucked. The flip side is that it would take every lens they had ever made up until that point. I have m42 lenses I use now with my current digital setup and they are amazing.

    Relatively new AF consumer film cameras are great to get started in film. Not as nostalgic as old, manual cameras, but a cheap, solid platform to dip a toe into analog photography.

  • I love this. I’ve been shooting with a Canon Elan IIe for a few years and it’s not sexy or even slightly retro but it takes the best pictures of any film camera I own. I bought it for $15 on shopgoodwill.com and then bought a new Canon 50mm EF 1.8 and that combo is just unbeatable. I usually shoot manual or aperture priority but sometimes just put it on full auto for family stuff with a TTL canon flash and it works flawlessly.

  • You’ve hit on something here in this article James, that me and a fellow film shooter chatted about last week. Namely the mindless, opinion-as-fact reviews, commentary, youtube clickbait and podcast ramblings out there in the film community.
    It gets quite annoying sometimes to see these people who know absolutely nothing, making all sorts of claims just to get hits/likes/whatever.All that disinformation isn’t helping anyone. Best ever x, better than a leica, I don’t like y.. without ever following up with a ‘why’ or ‘because..’

    Especially on podcasts this is very aggravating. I listen to quite a few and subscribed to another one recently that I’ve heard good things about. Well one of the hosts rags on stuff constantly, without ever explaining why. He just casually throws out ‘I hate stand development, bro’ like 7 times in the course of 3 episodes and clearly he 1) never stand developed before 2) has no idea why you’d want to stand develop something in the first place. What’s worse is, his co-hosts give zero pushback. None. And this is one small example, these guys have 90 minute shows where all they do is churn out lazy hyperbole.

  • The number of comments in a fews days demonstrate the quality and the interest of this article. I have a lot of cameras and 😉
    This article help to think well especially for a beginner. It is helpfull.
    Read one last review of Ken Rockwell about the Olympus 35 SP ….. 😉 I am agree one more time with him.
    So : it is right it is better to invest in a good basic lens, buy good film, process in a good lab ….. mine is great REWINDPHOTOLAB Sydney makes great job.
    Agree.
    I love my M3, but for the results, other cameras give me the same. I do no speak about the pleasure to have in the hand a very well made camera ….. but for nice images as we can see here, ….. you see how these cameras do the job very well for a few money.
    Thanks so much for this great article

  • Can I call you James? James, anyone who has read you for any amount of time can see right through this! When you had Leicas to sell, they were the greatest. They are too dear now? Load up on the cheap stuff, trash talk the Leicas, and everyone bins them. Buy low, sell high. And look at all the comments!
    Don’t sell your Leicas boys, they are still still zipping along, onward and upward. Meanwhile the plastic fantastic is crumbling and corroding.
    And James, you really should do an M3 review, and a checklist of Leica repairmen would be nice.

    • Hey David, call me Jimbo if you like. I really hope that if you’ve read me for any amount of time you’ll know that I say what I think and don’t really give a damn what people are buying (from me or from anyone else). To your specific point – I hope you’re not genuinely suggesting that my writing is biased toward what I “have to sell,” but if I do indeed have to defend my editorial integrity here I can do so very easily. Here’s the facts:

      People want you to buy Leicas because they are a low volume high margin business. It’s a lot easier to clean, list, sell, and ship ten Leicas per month than it is to clean, list, sell and ship 100 cheap cameras per month for the same amount of bottom line revenue. So in fact, if I was truly self-serving with the articles I write, as you sort of hinted at, it would be in my best interest to tell EVERYONE to buy Leicas ONLY and trash talk any and all cameras that don’t cost $800-2,000. And hey, isn’t that sort of what everyone else is doing? Interesting. Have you thought of that?

      This site has a very long history of telling people to be smart with their money. This is the exact same thing. Don’t buy Leicas. Or buy them. Buy them from me so you get a cleaned, tested, and guaranteed camera. Or don’t. I honestly just want to people to be happy.

      • Hence the difficulty of snarky humor on the internet, as you couldn’t see I was wearing my emperor Napoleon hat as I was typing.
        The truth is I felt shamed, as I had recently bought my newly college graduated son an M6ttl at his request, instead of a good used car. I knew that soon after getting that most expensive camera, his car would go kaput anyway.
        I truly didn’t think that you operated as a market manipulator, Jimbo,

        • I figured. You’ve always been very kind in the comments over the years. Who needs a car when you’ve got Leica glass?

    • Since we’re talking conspiracy theories, how much film does Fuji still have frozen in its underground bunker? I’m quite fond of Velvia

  • I acquired a few years ago from my mother in law her film EOS camera stuff as she’d stopped photographing, they’re plastic and are worth not a whole lot on eBay. I use them lots and they’re great, and I just use the AV or manual modes like I do on my digital canon stuff. I use my 1970s / 80s Pentax kit a lot too, and my trip 35 I bought because I couldn’t afford one in the 70s, and my Yashica point and shoot, and the aps point and shoot from whenever. They all let me make good photos (apart from the aps one which makes ‘interesting’ photos).

  • Avatar
    plainfieldandshorewoodillinoisnew February 9, 2020 at 11:29 am

    Why do these cameras have to be called “dorky?” They’re currently overlooked, and sell for a fraction of what they once went for brand new but calling them “dorky” plays in to the smug elitism that pervades the photography community in regards to certain gear.

    • You’re right…as Lucy tells Charlie Brown way back when Charlie Brown’s Christmas was first broadcast, Christmas is run by an East Coast Syndicate. Well, camera elitism is run by a similar group, which, like fight club, is something we can’t talk about…

  • I said a similar thing about the Canon EOS 300 in an article on 35mmc.com (I hope you don’t mind the reference to other websites).

    https://www.35mmc.com/01/09/2018/canon-eos-300-review/

    • Course not. Most of the camera bloggers and YouTubers are all buddies. We’re even in a big honkin’ private chat group on Facebook. It’s great.

  • Avatar
    Randy Lynn Keeler February 9, 2020 at 7:27 pm

    James, Thank You. A provocative article surely. The ‘Jim and James Show’-yes.. I could see it now. ‘Come watch as Jim and James have the time of there lives shooting antique cameras and having fun!’ As I bulk load another roll for my XE-1 and the Maxxum 7000 that I have 60 bucks invested in.

  • I am not happy to see this article. There are a few of us who really enjoy being able to buy these cameras for pennies on the dollar of what they are worth. We DO NOT want the word to get out! 🙂

  • I own a couple of Spotmatics along with a Canon 650 which might be described as a cheap modern camera. The 650 is a nice camera with my Canon 24-105 Lf4 kit lens for sure but I can’t say I enjoy shooting it like I do my Spotmatic using Sunny 16 and my little cache of Takumar primes.

  • It’s not an either/or proposition. I too enjoy the older manual focus SLRs very much, but sometimes the later/lighter/faster AF SLRs are better for certain situations. They are so cheap now — no reason to not have examples of each type. 🙂

  • I just bought a n8008 and I am impressed with how it works for just 20$ I thought for sure these would cost more. to be honest I see no difference in performance (other than maybe auto focus) to a canon Eos 1n or 1. but those are going for triple or 4 times the price. although they are great cameras I cant get over the plasticy ness of them. I do think if more people buy these old early 90s – early 2000s slr cameras as their beginner cameras maybe the prices will go down on some of the other cameras. I will say I have owned a leica m3 since 2003, back then the prices were not so high and its one my favorite all-time cameras. The only other camera that I have used that comes close to the M3 in terms of mechanical build quality I can think of is the nikon f2 series. I also have never understood why the xpan cameras go for so much..

  • I totally agree with you. Here is a similar article that I wrote in which I put together a Contax T2 equivalent camera for $109. https://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2017/09/so-you-say-you-want-to-shoot-film.html

  • Oddly enough, that photo of the Maxxum 5 and M3 spec sheets (and the entirety of Argument Part 1) is exactly why I have zero interest in the former, and nearly all of my 35mm cameras are manual, mechanical, cloth-focal plane dinosaurs.

    If I wanted a camera that can do anything/everything I’d use my Pen F (the digital one). I don’t even know how most of the ‘features’ on that thing work… If I want the latest and greatest and metering and bracketting and etc. and blahblahblah and I actually care about the ‘objectively better camera’, then there’s no way I’m shooting 35mm film.

    The main reason I shoot 35mm film is because I enjoy using mechanical 35mm cameras.

  • I am 72 and was interested in photography since I was 10 (with the camera of my father, and including film developping and making B&W slides by contact printing on “safety film” – in red light). My own first camera was a Yashica Electro 35 – bought in 1967 for its innovative eletronic shutter. Then in 1971, I bought a Rolleiflex T with my first pay, and in 1979 a Minox 35EL bargain priced (but also for its electronic shutter and its streamlined compactness). I never was interested in Like-Ass or Hassle-Blades, and did not like Canon because every so and then they changed lens mount. But when they disclosed EOS systems, I immediately bought a 630 which I still consider a very nice camera. In the mean time, I started to “collect” all kinds of old style cams (Miranda EE, Konica Autoreflex T, Olympus Pen F etc.) when I find them “special” and because 20 years ago, they were bargains like your Dorky cams today (an example : a Pentax Spotmatic body for 10$ with a Helios44 for 1$). Now and then, I shoot them all (for my EOS 630, as batteries were expensive, I recently acquired rechargeable ones with a dedicated charger) ; and still process and enlarge analogic. Today I even sport self-made cams (anamorphic pinhole cams see in french : https://galerie-photo.com/photographie-anamorphique-stenope.html).

  • A nice narrative until you took the childish swipe at the users of Leica & Hasselblad cameras. Don’t we have enough divisive comments coming from the man who occupies the White House without it oozing into our hobby/advocation/art discussions? Do you feel the need to demean users of these particular camera types? Why? You’re not witty nor insightful when you make digs like this.

    • Quote me anywhere in this article where I took a swipe at users of Leica and Hasselblad? It didn’t happen. I own Leica SLRs and use them every day. I pointed out the absurdity of YouTube hype doctors and illustrated in a humorous way that old cameras made seventy years ago aren’t as good as cameras made twenty years ago. I didn’t demean anybody. Chill.

      • Jim,
        My comment was directed at the person identified as “POLKa” when they stated: “I never was interested in Like-Ass or Hassle-Blades…”
        It was not directed at you and I should have been more specific in my response to that particular person. I apologize for the misunderstanding.
        When I wrote the reply I assumed it would appear as a reply to that person.
        Dan

        • Sorry for getting my hackles up then! My mistake! I also missed the previous comment and after reading it, I agree with you.

  • So, you wanna get a beer?

  • Hi James,
    I really enjoyed this article! I recently bought a Nikon N65 for $8.99 at Goodwill. I am quite impressed with this plastic fantastic camera. Other than the fact that the double CR2 batteries cost about twice as much as the price of this camera, I can agree with you in this article that these dorky AF SLRs gives me the most bang for the buck. I can save the money to buy more film, which makes it a better value. I also think it is a good camera to transition from DLSRs to film as a beginner, because the controls are somewhat the same in a simplified way. Is there ever a chance you will do a review on the Nikon N65? It would be great to know any tips and tricks with using this camera! I always enjoy your writing. I appreciate that you shine a light on not so popular but still fantastic cameras. I will keep reading!
    – Jessica

  • Avatar
    Stefan Staudenmaier February 23, 2020 at 9:21 pm

    Well……it is written in a funny style and to be honest
    „Who really cares so much about Cameras“ ?

    Geeks like us right I guess !
    But we are not „the real consumers“ these „plastic fantastic“
    and dirty cheap pieces of soulless junk was build for.

    There consumers now replaced cameras with their smartphones
    and „right“ they get all they want with that because they are not
    interested in the process of photography or don’t even care about
    the difference look and value of a good composed and taken picture.

    It is the photographer and not the camera – I agree,
    but don’t you have any joy taking the picture ?
    I think you would agree that there is a difference doing this
    with a solid like a rock build Leica or a Nikon N65 with the charm of a lunchbox.

    I love these big pieces of glas and metal without any automatics.
    You carry them half a day and your neck feels like it would break in the next second.
    You have to do anything yourself, focus, film transport, measure the exposure etc.

    So why the hell am I doing this ?

    Why cooking all yourself instead just open a can of instand noodles ?
    There must be something different……or not ?

  • Avatar
    Stefan Staudenmaier February 23, 2020 at 9:27 pm

    Sorry I forgot……idiots like me buy cameras like the Leicaflex SL2
    definitely the best mechanical camera ever build by anyone and to
    make a point – nobody will ever build anything near that quality ever more.

    It is unique and maybe this is the reason or the fun using it.

  • The film camera you will shoot most often and easily and effectively is the best one. Oh the pain I suffered under my father’s eyes as I trimmed the leaders and stuffed film crookedly down into the depths of the unforgiving IIIf he gave me when I was 13 (the year he switched to Nikon SLRs…). I think I loaded and shot three wretched rolls on that Leica all told, sunny 16 and all. Once I saw dad rewind and load and advance a new roll on the Nikon F in 5 seconds, I was a jealous Nikon convert. And sure enough, I got an Ftn with dad’s cast off lenses in 1974, and shot with them very often and happily for decades.

  • I really enjoyed this article and would like to see a similar one made about medium format cameras if you haven’t already published one (in which case please link me). I’m in the market currently for my first medium format camera and any help I can get to prevent me from making poor decisions would be appreciated.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

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