Digital cameras are very cute. They’re outfitted with a lot of settings meant to emulate the control you can get with a film camera. They’re also typically connected to the cloud. That – as many a naked celebrity will tell you – isn’t truly secure. Though very few hackers are interested in your 45 blurry pics of Sashimi, you’re still entrusting your personal photos to the machines that will one day rule us all.
In addition to being insecure, digital photos are also less lively than those shot on traditional film. You have less control, no matter how many sliders you monkey with, because digital cameras are trying to emulate the action of a conventional camera. Really, there’s no substitute for shooting on film, unless you’re desperate to get your mirror selfie out to your 23 Instagram creeps, or need to Photoshop in some abs. All you need is the right gear to get started. Hence, the 16 best film cameras for shutterbugs of any skill level.
Choosing a Film Camera
Anyone new to shooting with film can quickly find themselves overwhelmed by wide array of cameras that all look like black boxes. Determining which one has the traits you want can quickly turn budding photographers into people hunting for another hobby. In fact, most film cameras operate the same way, so you don’t need to know very much to hit the ground running. What you do need to avoid is creating problems for yourself before you even begin. These are the steps to take should you want to go off menu and find your own shooter:
- Keep It Simple – Pick a camera that is fairly common, with parts that are easy to find. Avoid anything that’s unusual or rare, as it’s going to be impossible to find parts to fix it when it has problems. You generally want a standard 35mm system with manual operation.
- Included Light Meter – If you don’t know how to measure exposure, you’re going to waste film learning. Make sure your camera tells you when it’s too light or too dark.
- Choose Known Brands – The same names that make reliable digital cameras today also made the best film cameras of yesteryear. Picking up a Nikon, a Pentax, an Olympus, or a Canon will almost guarantee that you’re going to find quality behind the lens. You’re also more likely to get parts or repair help from brands that are still around.
That’s enough to get you started. If you want a deeper look, our friends at I Still Shoot Film have an in-depth guide.
Beginner’s Lucky Lady: One of the easiest cameras to find, learn, and use to exceptional effect, the AE-1 is our desert island choice. It employs the slightly older FD and FDn lens mount, which is a little limited in its requirement of manual focus. If the FD mount doesn’t work for you, a simple adapter can be had that allows it to take on the much-improved EF mount type. As a huge seller in the SLR (Single-Lens Reflex) world, these can be found easily, and are built with hobby snappers and amateurs in mind. Start here to learn the ropes. ~$75+
Canon GIII QL17
Little Leica: There’s a load of Leica choices down the list, but those tend to be better for people with more money and experience. What you get here is a razor sharp 40mm f/1.7 lens that cuts crisp negatives for more intense images. With a 1.35v battery you can also have a smashing meter that usually works, so long as you buy one that isn’t too banged up. You’ll want to check the seals first thing, since those tended to go south, but can be replaced for a song. The really hot part is the metering sensor is hunkered down right above the lens, making it able to work with ND filters. ~$70+
Olympus Trip 35
Hardy Boy: For 20 years these were the camera that everyone seemed to have. Put it in your hand, and you’ll see why. It’s made with bombproof sturdiness and outfitted with mechanics that are right and tight, even after years of use. While nice and long-lasting, you’re only going to have focus control out of the box. It’s good for learning about composition, but not going to teach you all you need for a life behind the aperture. ~$40+
Olympus Pen/Pen F
Double Down: You’ve already seen reproductions of the Pen’s shooting style, without even knowing it. Long called the original portable camera, Pen models shot half frame, providing you with 72 exposures on a 36 image roll of film. These were largely rangefinders, with true SLRs bearing the Pen F label. A compact camera, it’s better for fast and candid than going deep with your new photographic obsession. Price: ~$80+
SLR Starter Kit: If you want a tough camera, you might seek out OM-1 through OM-9, since Olympus cut corners with the OM-10 to reduce production cost while providing a decent setup to the 99%. That’s not to knock the OM-10, as it’s hugely popular and still more durable than any of the polycarbonate tripe hanging around today. Loaded up with a 50mm f/1.8 lens, you’ll find images come through clean, and you have enough control over aperture as well as focus to teach you a few things without tiring you out. Price: ~$45+
Leica M-A (Typ 127)
By Hand: Completely manual without the need of a battery, there’s a real traditional sensibility at work here. One of the major reasons to pick a Leica over other options is the rangefinder (AKA viewfinder) which is on full display here. You’ll find selectable, auto-indexing frame lines along with parallax-compensation to let you use a huge range of lenses. This is a true investment when you’re sure you’re ready to shoot the moon, stars, and everything in between. Price: ~$4,500+
Behind Enemy Lines: The first Leica MP was favored by photojournalists who needed total control over their gear while in the field. The MP that you’ll find outside of a museum is an homage to that piece. Like most Leica cameras, it’s highly technical with deadly quick shutter speeds and a viewfinder that will work with several lenses, depending on your needs. Price: ~$3,500+
Modern Make: The M7 is a combination of the best parts of old Leica choices – with parallax-compensation, frame line indexing, mechanical shutters of 1/60 sec. and 1/125 sec. – then mixes in some newer aperture-priority auto-exposure. Think of it as the newest Corvette. Everything you could love about the earlier options with all the upgrades for a contemporary world. Price: ~$2,000+
Nikon FM Line
Take Your Pick: The FM series of cameras was an embarrassment of riches. For our money, the FM-10 would be the way to go, but that’s as much preferential bias as it is truly objective research. Point of fact, if you wanted a brand new FM10 right from Nikon, they’re still selling them. This ubiquity gives them the edge of being updated and upgraded for contemporary use, and the ability to find repair and replacement parts with ease. They’ll all take the F bayonet lenses, which has plenty for any shooter. Price: ~$80+
Lens Lover: First off, the Nikon F# line works equally well as a blunt instrument for self-defense as a piece of camera equipment. Beyond that, you can mount just about any kind of lens into it you want, as these can take almost everything Nikon dishes out. You’ll find these to be manual focus, though they’re outfitted with a aperture-priority metering system that runs on a pair of SR44 button cell batteries, that you can get anywhere. Price: ~$100+
Undying: If the F3 and F6 are tough, the K1000 is a bloody battering ram. Carry this, a Sig-Sauer, and a tactical tomahawk, and you’re ready for anything short of a vampire attack. It’s metal through and through, and wholly manual so you don’t need any batteries to work your magic. When it comes to lenses, the list of what it won’t take is longer than what it will. Every Pentax K bayonet lens fits perfectly, with most K-AF and K-AF2 going in easily. You can also try your hand with autofocus lenses that lack an aperture ring, as many of those snap in like a dream. If there is a downside, it’s the sheer bicep-building heft of this animal. Price: ~$50+
Origami Swan: You’re going to look a little strange pulling out this glorious piece and unfolding it, but serious photographers will give you instant respect when you do. A highly technical piece of equipment that has lots of features, there’s no end to the power you get from the center-weighted aperture-priority auto-exposure system; settings that are wholly manual for total control, and 80mm f/3.5 EBC Fujinon lens. Go everywhere, shoot anything, it’s working art. Price: ~$2,000+
In a Flash: This is our “master of none” pick for those who want a lot of decent facets on a budget. It’s hardy, but there’s tougher out there. It’s smart and flexible, but there’s better choices for that, too. It does need a battery for shutter release, but makes up for that by bearing TTL (Through The Lens) flash monitoring for darker shots. It slips newbies into the SLR world seamlessly, and on the cheap, providing a little bit of everything. Price: ~$40+
Minolta SR-T 101
Total Exposure: Getting the right balance is, pardon the pun, a snap. The light meter combined with range/viewfinder is exceptional, reducing the risk of washed out or moodily lit photos. The simple lens provides natural shots with pinpoint accuracy, even for the bumbling rookie. Price: ~$30+
Lomography Lubitel 166+
Back In The USSR: We like this for the oddity appeal. It’s a good camera, but opts for a TLR (Twin-Lens Reflex) construction over the new SLR. This can worry even veteran snappers, and will take a bit to learn, but once you make peace with its peculiarities, you’re going to get classic quality in every frame. Plus, some features that only a pair of lenses can provide. Price: ~$50+