What are the qualities you should be looking when buying a film camera? If film photography is new to you, it might be tricky to decide which camera to choose and for what reasons. In this article we’ll go through the best film cameras for beginners, that are easy to use to start your film photography journey with.
If you’re into the grainy, the smell of objects and the process of actually seeing your work being developed, you’re probably the person who’s ready to dive into film photography and never look back.
Indeed, it can be difficult to get started, if you’re not familiar with the cameras or the qualities they have.
We’ve put together the best tips to help find the right film camera for you.
How much does a film camera cost?
That’s like asking how long is a piece of string – prices can range from spare change to thousands and everything in between.
The most common misconception is that the best film cameras are pricey, the same goes for digital cameras. You’d be surprised what imagery can be achieved with just the disposable cameras you can find at Target.
The best film cameras for beginners at an affordable price point
CANON AE-1 $278
One of the most innovative features of this camera, especially when it was first introduced is its automatic shooting modes when used with Canon FD lenses. The camera features a fully automatic program mode and shutter speed priority mode.
In fully automatic mode, the camera will choose both the shutter speed and aperture settings based on the exposure reading. To use the camera in automatic mode, all you have to do is set your lens aperture to “A” and your shutter speed to “Program”.
In shutter speed priority mode, the camera will select the best aperture based on the shutter speed you have selected. To use your camera is shutter speed priority mode, all you have to do is set your lens aperture to “A” and select your shutter speed.
However, the light seals on the Canon AE-1 Program are known to deteriorate over time, which will cause light leak issues.
I ran into this issue first hand and actually didn’t know my Canon had a light leak issue until I shot and developed multiple rolls of film, so just trying to point out to something you might want to avoid!
I’ve learned these lessons after hours of testing and trying and hope that this information will help you get started as quickly as possible and save you some money too.
NIKON FE2 $179
The ideal film camera could be exactly like Nikon FE2 – a compact, 35mm single lens reflex camera with aperture priority semi-automatic shooting mode, plus exposure compensation, a nice viewfinder, and with manual focus and film advance.
Despite not being the most capable camera that Nikon offered at the time, the Nikon FM’s combination of superb build, concise and focused design, and compactness struck a perfect balance for many photo-takers, and the camera became a massive success for Nikon. Both enthusiasts and professionals loved it.
The viewfinder is gorgeous. Big and bright, it gives us every bit of information we need to make a photo. On the left hand side we see the light meter reading and shutter speed indicator, represented by two needles.
On the top of the frame we can see the selected lens aperture. On the right hand side we can see whether or not the exposure compensation dial has been activated. At a glance it’s possible to see exactly what Nikon FE2 sees, or will see when the shutter is fired, and make our adjustments if necessary.
OLYMPUS MJU II $270
The Olympus mju-II, also known as the Stylus Epic, is a cult favorite film point-and-shoot that’s been increasing in both popularity and price over the past 10 years.
A relic of the late 1990’s it offers a sharp 35mm F2.8 lens, excellent metering and accurate autofocus, all in a highly-pocketable, weather-sealed package. Sounds pretty appealing I must say.
Sadly, the days of purchasing one these for bargain prices are long gone. What may have set you back $40 in 2013 will likely cost you 5x that much today, for a plastic camera that’s now 7-years-more degraded.
I actually found it much more ergonomically satisfying to shoot that the previous cameras. It has a large shutter button, that locks focus with a half press.
The MJU is DX coded from 50-3200 and lacks any user controls besides a self-timer and flash modes. So, if you are going to shoot anything expired, or over expose rolls, you’re going to need to hack the coding.
The shutter runs from 1/15 to 1/500 of a second, and I found it more than suitable for capturing images in various lighting conditions on a roll of ISO200 film.
THE HOLGA 135 $60
The Holga 135 was my first film camera. In comparison to other film cameras, the Holga has little to no settings. Its lack of functions encourage a point-and-shoot approach, which sometimes result in nothing more than happy accidents. Less is more.
This camera and many other basic snapshot cameras like it are most commonly distributed by Lomography, a company dedicated to a lo-fi philosophy of shooting intuitively, worrying less about settings and more about moments.
Unfortunately the Holga 135 has since been discontinued though you can pick one up on Amazon anywhere from AUD $50 to $150. Paired with almost any film stock, the Holga 135 and its light-leak prone build quality produce a painterly, romantic aesthetic.
OLYMPUS OM1 $280
Shooting with Olympus OM-1 feels like coming home. The OM-1 isn’t going to appeal to everyone (it’s a camera that has some potentially ruinous shortcomings) but for a certain type of photo enthusiast, shooting this Olympus will be as blissful a photographic experience as one can have.
To start, let’s get through the basics. The Olympus OM-1 is a fully-mechanical, 35mm film SLR first produced in 1972, though back then you’d never find an OM-1 on the shelves.
That’s because in its original iteration it was called the M-1, named to immortalize its legendary designer Yoshihisa Maitani. When Leica discovered that Olympus had made a better camera than their identically-named and vastly inferior M-1 rangefinder, the boys from Wetzlar had a tantrum and “requested” the name be changed.
It’s also quite lightweight making it easy to carry around, and hold in one hand.
The ISO dial next to the shutter release allows you to set the ISO, as well as exposure compensation too.
Minolta XD $199
This is the world’s first SLR to offer full manual exposure with both aperture-priority and shutter-priority autoexposure.
In automatic modes, that shutter operates as stepless — if 1/218 second is the right shutter speed, that’s what the XD chooses. The camera also features a mechanical self timer.
You choose the exposure mode with a switch around the shutter-speed ring: M, A, and S, each meaning just what you’d expect. You can set ISO from 12 to 3200; press the little button and twist the collar around the rewind crank.
Under use, the XD is light, smooth, and pleasant. The viewfinder is bright and gives a great view.
Its electromagnetic shutter button needs only an easy touch to operate. My only ergonomic complaint is that there’s no on-off switch. To stop the meter from operating and thus draining the battery, you have to cap the lens.
Olympus XA2 $235
Tiny but nonetheless a full featured rangefinder with aperture priority automatic exposure and a fabulous lens. The lens alone has been a marvel and a real headache for the optical engineers.
Olympus XA2 has superb sharpness and contrast.
Smooth operation, near completely silent, and so small I can literally just have it with me to put in my pocket.
Image quality is also excellent. I’m not one to scan my negatives at a hundred and fifty thousand pixels per inch number and inspect every pixel with a magnifying glass.
This camera uses zone focusing, which is a step away from full automatic and a few steps down from rangefinders. By pushing the “zone” of focus, the lens will adjust the focus plane.
I prefer the mechanics of the XA2 simply because of the zone focusing and ability to manually set ISO.
The cons would definitely be not being able to control the shutter speed. This means more blurred photos. Basically you have to shoot this camera in bright sunlight only, for the images to come out the sharpest.
My gradual shift from shooting film to digital was motivated by a number of factors, but a significant one was the size and weight of cameras.
So to restore some balance and sanity and reassure anyone looking for a capable, fun and affordable 35mm film compact that they’re still available, the favourite model is easily the Pentax Espio 105mi.
Compact in just 105mm wide, good handling with a rubber front grip, and all the functions you really need, including focus lock, infinity focus and flash disable.
If you do like to zoom, this one goes to 120mm.
Other Espios have more functions, but the 105mi should meet most needs, and is one of the most compact. As with all Espios, in the right conditions, it delivers an impressive photograph.
And looking at the price range in the rest of the cameras, this is easily one of the most affordable ones to start out with.
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