Is it strange to sit back and think that buying a film camera is a new experience to many—even most—photographers? Just 20 years ago, almost everyone was buying and using film cameras. Today, there are legions of photographers who have never shot a single roll of film. Luckily for us, film photography still exists and there are both film and film cameras that you can buy with which to create photographs. What should you know before you buy your first 35mm film camera or reenter the world of film?
First Things First—You Might Be Shopping for a Used Camera
If you hadn’t noticed, not too many camera manufacturers are making brand-new film cameras these days. Therefore, almost everything we discuss will be geared toward used film cameras, and—I might be biased—one of the best places to shop for a used film camera is the B&H Used Department. You can go shopping right now at the Used Department or hang out with me for a few minutes while we discuss your 35mm film camera options. You’ll also see a shaded box at the bottom of this article that will show you what is new—or available new—in the world of film cameras.
35mm Film Cameras
There are a few basic flavors of 35mm film cameras: SLR (single-lens reflex), compact (point-and-shoot), and rangefinder. The SLR is simply the film version of your DSLR (the D stands for “digital”). This camera has an optical viewfinder and interchangeable lenses. The compact is a smaller and more portable camera that features a non-interchangeable lens that is either a prime (fixed focal length) or a zoom lens.
And the rangefinder, made famous by Leica and legendary photographers, has interchangeable lenses and an optical viewfinder that does not look through the lens like the viewfinder on an SLR.
There are several other types of film cameras, and I will discuss them at the end of the article, but for now, we will stick with the mainstream 35mm cameras.
I won’t tell you which 35mm camera to buy—that is a personal choice—but I will give you some food for thought as you shop for your first camera, be it an SLR, compact, or rangefinder. Some of these tips will not apply to each type of camera, but most will apply to all.
Film cameras shoot film. That means the medium that the image is being recorded on is identical between cameras as long as you are using the same type of film. You can take the same photo with a brand-new (recently discontinued) professional Nikon F6 as you would with a 60-year-old Nikon F if they are loaded with the same film stock and same lens.
However, you might ask, “What makes one camera ‘better’ than another?” The things that set 35mm film cameras apart from each other are the lenses (fixed or attached) for the camera, the film you are using, and the level of automation the camera has (if that is something you are looking for).
Lens Considerations: Part 1
Because film is the great equalizer between different film cameras, the rubber meets the road with the lens. Just as with digital, a poor lens usually results in a poor photo. So, when shopping for a film camera, be sure to do your homework on lenses, as well.
In general, zoom lenses of the film era are known to leave a lot to be desired as far as sharpness and performance go. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again here: You cannot go wrong with a 50mm large-aperture lens like a 50mm f/1.8 or 50mm f/2 lens on a film (or digital) SLR.
In summary, if you grab an older Nikon, Canon, Pentax, or Olympus SLR, you cannot go wrong with a Nikon, Canon, Pentax, or Olympus 50mm lens on the front of it to get things started.
Lens Considerations: Part 2
Sometimes brand loyalty does not survive the switch from digital to film, and there is nothing wrong with that. But there are a few manufacturers of digital cameras that use the same lens mount that they did back in the days of film, so, in this case, brand loyalty can pay off. Quick research on the Web can tell you if your lenses will work on both your film and digital cameras.
Lens Considerations: Part 3
If you are currently shooting mirrorless digital cameras, your dedicated mirrorless lenses will not work on a film camera, but, with an adapter, you can use almost any film-era lens on a mirrorless camera. This is something else to keep in mind, because you could pick up a film camera with a sweet vintage lens and adapt it to your mirrorless camera.
Automatic Electronics versus Manual Mechanicals
Film cameras run the gamut from, “Look Mom, no battery!” to full electronic exposure control, computerized metering, autofocus, motor drive, and more—almost all the creature comforts of today’s digital cameras.
Generally, if you are considering shooting film, you are likely feeling nostalgic for the analog world and probably comfortable, or even excited, about the idea of photographing with a camera that is completely manual. It is a fun challenge when you have to dial-in your aperture, adjust shutter speed, and cock the film lever before taking a photo. Therefore, you do not need any bells and whistles on your camera.
There is a thought that the old mechanical film cameras are more robust and reliable than their modern electronic film camera counterparts. Because of this, mechanical cameras fetch premium prices on the used market, whereas electronic film cameras—even top-of-the-line professional and prosumer models—can often be had for a song.
And because of this economy, you might consider entering the world of film photography with an amazing electronic camera at a lower price point and, if you get bitten by the bug, looking for that classic mechanical camera in the future.
Professional Film Cameras
You will find, on the used market, a fleet of professional flagship film cameras. These cameras represented the pinnacle of technology in their day and can be had for a fraction of the cost of what they were when new. The good news is that they were designed to be rugged and reliable. The bad news is that many were ridden hard and put away wet. One thing to avoid is a professional camera that was used and abused by a professional in years of hard service. If you want to go with a used professional camera, look for low-mileage examples.
There are a few mechanical cameras available that accept batteries to power a built-in light meter and/or feature some automatic exposure modes—usually aperture priority, where you set the aperture on the lens and the camera automatically selects your shutter speed. I am a fan of that level of assistance on my film cameras, but you certainly do not need these luxuries.
Basic automatic exposure control is a boon to newer photographers who are accustomed to all of the handholding of modern digital cameras.
If you do get a camera without a light meter, or with an inoperative light meter, know that you’ll have to bring your own handheld light meter (or use a smartphone light meter app) to gauge exposure.
Speaking of batteries, there are film cameras out in the world that accept/accepted batteries that are no longer available. Unless you are shopping for home décor or a paperweight, it is best to avoid those cameras. Again, do your due diligence with some online research before you buy a camera that can never be powered up again.
If you purchase a used film camera from a reputable dealer like the B&H Used Department, you can rest assured knowing that the camera was thoroughly tested before it was put on the shelf for sale.
If you come across a used film camera in a thrift store or garage sale, evaluating its operational condition will be on you, the buyer. There are a few simple tests you can do yourself to help verify if the camera is healthy. Obviously, if the camera is battery powered and you do not have batteries in hand, you cannot test it. If the camera is mechanical, you are good to go!
Check to see if there is film in the camera. If there is, you should tell the garage sale or thrift store staff that they have a roll of undeveloped film in the camera and ask if they want you to rewind it and give it to them.
If there is no film inside, see if you can cock and then release the shutter—or turn the camera on and electronically fire the shutter. Then, run through all of the different shutter speeds available to see if the shutter speeds are indeed working.
Is the light meter working? When you cock the shutter, does the film advance? Does the film door stay closed securely? Is there corrosion in the battery compartment?
For lenses, verify that the focus works and that you can adjust the aperture. Inspect the aperture diaphragm blades to see if they all move together, or if any are stuck.
Look through both the lens and camera, and the lens through the camera, to see that things are relatively clear. Dust on the mirror of a 35mm camera will not show up on the image, but be careful if you clean the sensitive silvered surface of that mirror.
Also inspect the camera body for damage that may cause light leaks into the film compartment. Minor bumps and bruises on an old metal mechanical film camera are likely not going to affect the camera’s performance.
Testing after Purchase
Once you get a used film camera, regardless of how you acquired it, one of the first things you should do is run a roll of 24 exposures through it—taking photos of different subjects under different lighting conditions and exposures. Develop the film and see how things look as far as exposure, light leaking into the body, lens performance, etc.
Go out and shoot some rolls of film!
Other Types of Film Cameras
There are some other kinds of film cameras worth mentioning in the event the 35mm is too mainstream for you.
Medium Format: Medium format cameras shoot different sizes of film that measure larger than your standard 35mm film. They come in several basic types:
- SLR (Single Lens Reflex)—Just like your DSLR camera, but bigger… and it shoots film.
- TLR (Twin Lens Reflex)—Similar to an SLR, but with two lenses: one for looking through and one for the photograph.
- Rangefinder—Similar to 35mm rangefinder cameras.
- View—Similar to large format view cameras; you compose your image on a ground glass plate at the rear of the camera.
Medium format cameras are known for their ability to capture exquisite detail, yet are fairly portable for use in the field.
Large Format: Large format cameras are the biggest of them all. Generally designed as view cameras with large ground glass plates for composing and focusing, these cameras are cumbersome, but are beautiful to see and can create epic images. Their film sizes can range from 4x5" or 5x7" to 8x10" or larger.
Plastic Cameras: The quirkiest (but coolest?) segment of film photography is the genre of the Holga and Lomography families of “plastic” cameras. Some of these cameras shoot 35mm film and others take medium format. Either way, plastic cameras are a fun and easy way to get into the world of film photography.
NEW Holga and Lomography Cameras
Instant Cameras: One of the hottest, if not the hottest, segment of the film photography world today is that of the instant camera. Remember when Polaroid was a household word, and everyone knew what a Polaroid picture was? Well, these cameras are still around, and they are pretty awesome and fun.
Pinhole Cameras: It has been said, at least by my father, that some of the world’s greatest images were taken with a box. Well, you can buy a box that takes a photo and shoot pinhole photographs even today.
Disposable Cameras: Of course, for the minimalists of the world, the 35mm disposable camera still exists for awesome vacation snaps, party favors, or inexpensive underwater photographic exploration.
Do you have a favorite film camera you can’t seem to part with? Do you need some help picking out a new (or gently used) film camera? Let us know in the Comments section, below!
I’ve now added to my medium format stable with 3 flavors of Voigtlander folder cameras, all very good values. The largest, 6 x 9, was still easy to transport to Africa and shoot with (8 shots per 120 roll). I was trying to duplicate the old safari look and what better way than using an 80 year old camera. The other two are 6 x 6 and 6 x 4.5. They both have swing out yellow filters and uncoated lenses, great for T Max. T Max in the F100 also a treat. I just used the Pentax 6 x 7 for a client and got a lot of attention with it (55 to 100mm zoom). I think this article should have more depth with medium format (since there is no negative,
Polaroid is considered medium format). Thank you.
Very very cool! It sounds like you have some awesome picture-making machines there.
Roger on the medium format coverage. Maybe we will produce a new article focused specifically on that. Thanks for the idea!
And, thanks for reading!
In the mid seventies I purchaed a Pentax Spotmatic II and used it on trips to Northern Canada while I worked at a museum in high school. I'm now in the process of copying those slides into digital images with a rig I set up with my Canon 5D II. Those images are magnificent! I love every one. My daughter got into film after inheriting my Mom's Pentax K1000 - she is much more talented than I will ever be, but her interest got me back into photography after a lapse of 25 years. In additon to the digital Canons I presently own, I purchased several versions of the Nikon F4. What a camera! The film camera I always wished for but could never afford when they were new. Just holding them, their heft, quality and sophistication brings a smile to my face.
Film is a different world versus digital. With only 24 or 36 shots per roll, I find myself much more aware of what I am photographing - composition, light, subject matter, focus, exposure - much more challenging than taking 200 or 300 digital shots and picking the best 5 or 10 photos (which is still fun to do!). But the results can be fantastic if you devote the time and effort.
Great stuff! I, too, enjoy a lot of my film images. I love the feel and the look...and some of the photos were pretty good as well! :)
I have some further reading for you (and maybe your daughter)...if interested:
Thanks so much for reading and sharing your experiences...and sorry for the extra homework! :)
I have a 1947 (based. on the lens date) 4x5 Crown Graphic that 10 years ago was in prime condition. I had had it checked and the range finder repaired. I shot a little 4x5 and a little more 620l. I'm now 83 and wobbly. I'd like to put it in the hands of someone who would appreciate it. If we can pass a buck or so to B&H for helping us, maybe we could work something out. I suggest we split the B&H contribution, you pay the shipping, and I get a happy feeling that a good camera is in a good home.
I will ping Ralph to see if he can reply!
Thanks for stopping by!
Yes, I am interested. It is something that I have always been interested in. I think I have a book about large format and medium format photography somewhere. Thank you.
As a big fan of both the Exakta 66 (Schneider 80 mm lens) and the Pentax 6 x 7 I wish there was more discussion of 120 film which is still easy to process here locally. I also shot the Nikon FE2 and F3 a lot back in the day (F100 now) and a number of Nikon DSLRs, but the thrill of seeing a properly exposed and scanned 120 negative is unmatched in the 35mm world. Medium format film cameras are quite affordable at the moment, and the general lack of electronics means most of them still function properly.
Thanks for sharing your favorites! I agree...medium format is really something special when compared to the 35mm world. In grad school, one of my classmates was shooting medium format film and I remember being in awe of his images and struck by the subtle way the world looked different through his lenses compared to mine!
Thanks for stopping by!
I got my beginnings in photography from film. My parents had a Polaroid Land Camera (with bellows) and I got interested in taking photos with their camera. After college and into marriage, I resumed my interest in photography. I did research of various camera models and the Canon A-1 seemed state of the art in 1980 with auto aperture, auto shutter, programmed, and manual; that's what I bought. I've always wanted an F-1 and in July 2013, I bought an F-1N with the AE Motor Drive FN, and AE Finder FN. Paula asked "Is that their flagship camera?" I answered "Yes, for the 80's." She said "Buy it."
What I didn't know was that she was going to buy me a DSLR in December 2013. I still use all three. Having two film cameras eliminates the quandary of color versus B&W.
I have three "bucket list" cameras: Mamiya 645, Mamiya RZ67, and a 4x5.
PS: I probably used a few of the photography magazines that your colleague, Allan Weitz, wrote articles for. Popular Photography was one of them.
Allan used to be much more prolific! :)
Don't forget the Used Department for those "bucket list" goals! :)
Thanks, as always, for stopping by!