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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