Wondering where to start with the best film cameras for beginners, but don’t know a Holga from a Hasselblad?
I’ve been in that same situation and in some ways I still am.
This is my list of my favorite cameras, many I have shot with, some I have just lusted to hold (okay enough with the creep, let’s get started).
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- Who Will Win Between The Canon AE-1 Program vs Pentax K1000?
- Your Guide To Getting Started In Film Photography
- 1 1. Olympus OM-1, OM-2, OM-3, OM-4 & OM-10
- 2 2. Nikon FE & FE2
- 3 3. Pentax K1000
- 4 4. Minolta SRT-101
- 5 5. Any Nikon FM (FM1, FM2, FM3a)
- 6 6. Contax T2
- 7 7. Pentax LX
- 8 8. Rollei 35, 35 S
- 9 9. Ricoh GR1
- 10 10. Minolta Maxxum 7000
- 11 11. The Best Film Camera For Beginners Under $100 Is The Canon AE-1 Program
- 12 12. Minolta XD-11
- 13 S0 What’s The Real Story?
- 14 Don’t Make These Mistakes I Made!
1. Olympus OM-1, OM-2, OM-3, OM-4 & OM-10
- Olypmus OM-1 with lens – $150
- Olympus OM-2 with lens – $130
- Olympus OM-3 body only – $500
- Olympus OM-4 with lens – $300
- Olympus OM-10 with lens – $100
Olympus kicked off their entry into the SLR range in 1972 with the fully mechanical OM-1. Towards the end of the decade, they added the affordable OM-10 and OM-2 and by the mid-1980s the OM-3 and OM-4 came on the scene, which marked their units targeted at professionals.
For one year they actually released an M-1 model, but with mounting pressure from Leica which already had an ‘M-1’ model out, Olympus changed the model name the next year to have the prefix OM.
Each of these models are manual focus, it was only the OM-707 which was a truly auto-focus system.
The OM-1 had a unique feature in its mirror lockup ability which makes it ideal for astrophotography and the like that require long shutter speeds.
With the advent of the OM-2, Olympus really stepped up their game in terms of quality of light metering. The OM-2 ran a TTL off the film (OTF) metering which gave incredibly accurate exposures. The second release also provided a semi-automatic aperture priority mode and an electronic shutter.
Finally, the OM-3Ti and OM-4Ti (or OM-4T USA version) were considered the Rolls Royce of the Olympus OM family. They shared improvements over the already very impressive cameras.
The OM-10 is an easily found camera that lets shooters get started quickly. The OM-20 and higher models have improved features but can be more difficult to find.
Olympus OM systems are all classics and very popular among new film photography students and old-timers alike.
2. Nikon FE & FE2
I’ve worked with the Nikon FE plenty of times.
It’s a great camera, there are no doubts about it. The Nikon FE is great for night photography or any that requires long time lapse, it will measure, lock the exposure flip up the mirror then makes the time exposure automatically.
But after a while I found myself prioritizing other cameras over it. Especially the Canon AE-1 Program. And I was once a Nikon guy (I’m sadly very unfaithful to camera brands though, so that doesn’t mean much).
- DOF preview
- AE lock
- Aperture priority auto
- Shutter speed 8s to 1/1,000s
- TTL SPD lightmeter
- ASA 12 – 4000
Just be wary as the newer Nikon FE2 can’t use non-AI lenses. You can also expect the batteries to last twice as long in the FE.
3. Pentax K1000
I’ve reviewed the Pentax K1000 before and love the fully mechanical nature of the camera. For a beginner wanting to learn the ropes from a very fundamental perspective, this is the perfect camera. The user is forced to shoot in manual mode, there’s no way to move into aperture priority, shutter priority or fully automatic. This can be a great benefit as the simplicity of the camera means it is less prone to breaking down making it an absolute workhorse. It was an immensely popular camera eventually selling over 3 million units.
But back to manual photography – using the Pentax K1000 means you’re going to get a great understanding of the effects of aperture and shutter speed. You’ll soon be able to gauge the appropriate settings for different light conditions leading to faster mastery of your 35mm film cameras.
The flipside of having to shoot in fully manual mode constantly is that certain shots can be lost.
Think of it like this.
You’re shooting in a dark alleyway and have the dials tuned into the correct exposure settings for right in front on you, but you hear some footsteps behind you.
You quickly spin around and see someone striding towards a puddle holding an umbrella, you notice they are getting ready to jump it. It will make an amazing photo. You know it.
You start quickly twisting dials. Fumbling to get the correct exposure. Before you even touch the shutter speed it’s all over.
You lose the shot.
Because fully manual cameras can take too long to adjust to new lighting conditions.
- Shutter speed 1s – 1/1000s
- Light meter: full frame averaging TTL
- ASA 20 – 3200
It’s a bare-bones camera, don’t expect a self-timer, AE lock or any other bells and whistles. It’s pure unadulterated simplicity.
4. Minolta SRT-101
The Minolta SRT-101 was first put into production in 1966 and kept on the production line for another 10 years with only very minor changes made. This is a testament to camera’s extremely well-thought design and high-quality performance.
The SRT-101 stands out with its exceptionally bright viewfinder, a result of its large pentaprism and double hinged mirror. The finder features all the required information in order to get an accurate exposure.
While the camera was originally designed for the now obsolete 1.35V mercury batteries (which many were), they are easily replaced with the prevalent zinc-air hearing aid batteries. These are of equal size but slightly larger at 1.4V (however this isn’t expected to be an issue).
- Shutter speed in viewfinder
- Mechanical shutter
- Minolta MC lens mount
- DOF preview
- TTL, full-aperture entering light meter
- Mirror lock-up (earlier models).
One of Minolta’s most classic cameras. Simple and elegant, perfect for beginners or students in 35mm film photography.
5. Any Nikon FM (FM1, FM2, FM3a)
The FM range came out at in 1977 and saw an entirely new format from Nikon in the form of a compact and rugged copper-aluminium body. The FMs have a detailed history of rugged performance and reliability. They have been built from the basic design philosophy of the FE. The FM3a comes close to the perfect 35mm film camera. And Nikon 35mm lovers absolutely worship this camera (I know, I was once one of them).
- Exposure metering: 60/40 center-weighted
- Shutter speed 1s to 1/1000s
- Merchanical shutter
- Manual exposure
The FM3a is a prized possession for many film photographers, it’s a high-calibre fantastic quality outfit, I’d expect it to become a collectable in later years as it had limited production. Other FM systems are not to be shunned, more affordable with similar capabilities.
6. Contax T2
The Contax T2 hit the shelves in 1990 and became renowned for its superb Carl Zeiss T* multi-coated Sonnar 2.8/38 lens. With its lens, the Contax quickly became a high-end compact film camera and a favourite among professional and luxury consumer demographics.
This is the perfect camera for those that want something a little more rugged and compact. It’s great for travelling and keeping in your jacket pocket. You’ll never miss a shot with this camera.
The one complaint I have about the camera is the autofocus can be a little lacking at times, but that’s probably due to me enjoying the control that manual focus gives on my SLRs.
I bought my Contax T2 about 2 years ago for $350. It’s crazy to see how quickly these are being snapped up driving the prices up. It looks like they are becoming collector items.
- Shutter speed 8s – 1/500s
- Exposure compensation +/- 2 EV
- Aperture f/2.8 – f/16
- Flash range 0.7m – 3m at ISO 100 with 3.5s recycle
- Autofocus with manual option
- ASA 50 – 5000
- Titanium body
The Contax T2 is sharper than a razor’s edge. It’s awesome for night photography and convenient with its compact size.
7. Pentax LX
The Pentax came out in 1980 and had one of the most impressive manufacturing lifetimes spanning over 20 years (production ceased in 2001). The LX was the pinnacle of professional cameras from the Pentax range and was rivalled to the Nikon F3 and Canon F-1. However, it trumps these cameras with its compact size and lightweight, making it preferable for work on the road.
How it still remains so light with a solid cast metal frame and covering plates is truly an engineering feat. It also beats other cameras of the day with the attention paid to its weatherproofing – the LX’s buttons are all weather and dust sealed, and the camera even had a black chrome under its black finish so you would never see that brassy color show through after years of wear and tear.
The camera was great for long exposure photos as it was built with Integrated Direct Metering. This effectively continued to measure the light reflected from the film or shutter curtains after the shutter had been released and used this to continually tweak the exposure time.
- Shutter speeds – 1/2000 to bulb
- Mechanical shutter
- Forward and reverse frame counter (great for multiple exposures)
- Mirror lock-up
- DOF preview
- 6 – 3200 ASA
- Off-the-film plane TTL metering (or IDM) – great for long exposure images
It’s perfect. Nuff said.
8. Rollei 35, 35 S
The Rollei 35 came out in 1966 and paved the way for miniature 35mm cameras – at the time it was the smallest 35mm camera to have ever come off the production line. The Rollei 35 features a superb quality Tessar f3.5/40mm lens made by Zeiss and in later models a Sonnar f2.8/40mm by Zeiss. The lens was capable of producing sharp crisp images – a testament to the quality of Carl Zeiss.
Interesting fact: The camera continued being manufactured albeit in small batch production up until 2015 selling over 2 millions units.
- Cds photoresistor lightmeter
- Shutter speed 1/2s to 1/500s
- Double exposure and blank framelock
- ASA 25 – 1600
The Rollei 35 Is Perfect For:
- Experiencing an unusual and unconventional camera
- Photography enthusiasts
- Getting crystal sharp images
A fantastic piece equipment with an interesting history that was almost never realised due to the Chief Engineer and designer changing companies. The most compact camera at its time with fiercely sharp optics. The only issue is ensuring battery compatibility.
9. Ricoh GR1
Introduced in 1996, the Ricoh GR1 is a clear competitor to the Contax T2. It’s a sleek and sophisticated camera measuring only 25mm in thickness and with a full magnesium body and plate covers.
In 1997 the Ricoh GR1 received the TIPA award for the best 35mm compact camera. It’s adored by an army of fans and for good reason – the Ricoh GR1 is the perfect camera to slip into your pocket and have it handy for photographing without skimping on a quality lens.
- Aperture priority mode
- ASA 25 – 3200
- Shutter speed 2s t0 1/500s
Tough, hardy compact camera that should go everywhere with you without compromising on lens quality.
10. Minolta Maxxum 7000
Price: $50 (lens included believe it or not)
The Minolta Maxxum 7000 hit the shelves in 1985 and set the scene alight as it featured the world’s first true autofocus and motorized film advance. It was with this model that Minolta also introduced the A lens mount and broke compatibility with the older manual focus lenses in the MC and MD systems. The lens mount still remains the same today.
Interesting fact: the Sony A series we see today is a result of the eventual merger of Konica and Minolta in 2003 and their later withdrawal from the camera market as they sold off assets to Sony.
- Fast fully automatic focusing
- +/- 4 stops exposure compensation
- Centre weighted TTL
- Exposure modes: Auto, manual, shutter priority, aperture priority
- Shutter speed 30s to 1/2,000s
A pioneering camera that makes it dead simple to just shoot film – just load a roll and hit the shutter release, no manual work whatsoever. Cheapest of the lot.
11. The Best Film Camera For Beginners Under $100 Is The Canon AE-1 Program
I’ve waxed lyrical about the Canon AE-1 program before, you can check out my comprehensive review here. One of the best film cameras for beginners
The only beef I have with the Canon AE-1 Program is the exposure meter in the viewfinder. It reads in aperture down to a minimum of 1.4 and below that it just flashes. So when you’re out shooting in dim light and it starts flashing, you have no idea how far away from correct exposure you are. This is the benefit of having a needle for an exposure meter in the viewfinder, you can at least gauge how far off you are from enough light.
- Fully automatic exposure mode
- Shutter priority
- Aperture priority
Full Disclosure: I’m bias, I love this camera. I use it more often than any other of my 35mm film cameras. Sure, you could argue my other cameras are better, have greater functionality and more accurate light meters, but my Canon AE-1 Program goes with me everywhere.
12. Minolta XD-11
Price: $70 (body only) or $110 (with 50mm lens)
Minolta released the XD-11 in 1977 and it took the place as the top of the line model. The camera garnered plenty of attention for its early implementation of aperture priority and shutter priority (it was one of the earliest for its time) and even today, many fans call it the best manual focus camera Minolta has ever produced. For more check out this review.
- Built in eye-piece shutter (just awesome, for tripod use)
- Full metal body
- DOF preview
- Self-timer (from 2 to 10 seconds)
- Exposure adjustment (+2 stops or down -2)
- Remote shutter release
- Bright viewfinder that displays shutter speed and aperture settings
- Stepless shutter speeds from 1/1000 to 1s in automatic electronic shutter mode, and stepped speeds from 1/1000 to 1s in metered manual mode
- TTL center weighted meter
The XD-11 is perfect for:
- Taking multiple exposures
- Creative photography
The Minolta is a feature packed quality camera with a strong body at a discount price. You’ll be hard pressed to find better value for money elsewhere.
S0 What’s The Real Story?
If you still aren’t sure which camera is perfect for you or can’t decide between them. I’ve pitched the Pentax K1000 vs the Canon AE-1 Program against each other to find out which one is better to help you pick a side. This is one of the most frequently asked questions for photography students and newcomers to 35mm film photography.
But don’t get hung up on the details.
Film is an imperfect art.
Get any one of these cameras and you’re going to have a brilliant time.
Some of them have their own little quirks that give them a unique charm, like the miniature Rollei 35, while others sit near the top of the line like the Pentax LX.
I’ve excluded any cameras getting more expensive than these here because I don’t really consider them beginners cameras – I’m looking directly down the barrel at you Leica and Mamiya which easily run into thousands of dollars. Also, I’ve excluded medium format film cameras, I love them – but I don’t think it’s a beginners film camera. They’re also as expensive as Chris Brown’s PR department.
So while there is no one specific best film camera for a beginner, there’s plenty of options that will get your shot.
Don’t Make These Mistakes I Made!
There are two foolish mistakes I made when I first started shooting film, they are easily avoided and will save you a lot of heartache and sleepless nights.
The first one is properly installing the film.
Don’t be a cheapskate like I was trying to be. In the early days when I would load my film, I would try to do it in a way that I would waste the absolute bare minimum. I wanted to get 39 shots from every roll of film I shot.
One day that came back to bite me.
On the fateful day I loaded my film like usual and ventured out to shoot the roll. When I returned home I rewound the film but noticed that it had much less resistance than usual. Weird, I thought. But I was still getting into the groove of shooting film.
I sent the roll off to be developed and when I picked it up – all the negatives were blank.
The shots I got back were all blank.
The lesson is: always ensure your roll has been properly taken up by the spool. You can tell it has when you pull the film advance lever – the rewind lever on the left side of the camera will turn. If it hasn’t been taken up properly it will sit stationary.
The next mistake I made, and I made this one on the very first roll of film I shot, was to not press the film rewind button when rewinding the film.
Stupid, I know.
I just kept pushing and pushing until the film eventually broke.
Which leads me to the third big mistake…
…never, ever, open then back of your camera in direct sunlight in the middle of summer to inspect what just happened!
You will be lucky to salvage a handful of photos.
If you need to, or want to open the camera while you’ve got film loaded, always do it in a darkroom. Preferably in an actual dark room. Or take it into your local film developers, they will probably be happy to help.
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