You’ve mastered your digital camera, and now you’re looking for a new photography challenge. Or you’ve seen all of these Instagram influencers shooting with their cute little point and shoot film cameras and you want to see what the hype is about.
Or maybe you’ve been reading Shoot It With Film for a while now trying to decide if you want to take the plunge into film photography and you need some guidance on buying your first film camera.
I can help!
How Much Photography Experience Do You Have?
This may seem like a silly question, but remember that older cameras don’t have all of the modern bells and whistles that make using cameras so easy that your cat could take a decent photo.
How you answer the following questions will determine what type of cameras you should look for and what might be a great fit for your first film camera.
Can you shoot in manual mode?
Can you focus manually?
Do you know how to meter? Can you use a handheld light meter?
Do you already have some lenses you can use?
1. Can You Shoot in Manual Mode?
Many of the popular beginner SLR cameras (any Nikon FMs or FEs, Canon AE-1s, Olympus OM-1s, and Pentax K1000s) are completely manual and don’t require a battery for operation at all. (Some may require one for the internal light meter to work.)
To use any of these manual SLRs, you will need to have a good understanding of the exposure triangle, the Sunny 16 rule, and reciprocal exposures. There are often no aperture or shutter priority modes, and there is definitely no auto mode.
Many of the older and less expensive film SLRs also don’t have autofocus, so you will need to learn how to focus manually.
If you haven’t learned to focus manually, this is a good skill to acquire!
3. Do You Know How to Meter? Can You Use a Handheld Light Meter?
Some older film cameras do not contain an internal light meter, or if they do, it’s a pretty rudimentary system.
For example, in my Nikon FM (my first film camera), there are three red dots in the viewfinder. When the middle light is lit, it means the exposure is correct. If the top light is lit, it’s overexposed; if the bottom light is lit, it’s underexposed. But two lights can be lit at once—the middle light and the top light—meaning the exposure is slightly overexposed and vice versa when the middle and bottom light are lit. Not a very exact way to meter, but before I had a handheld meter, it worked pretty well.
But if the battery required to make the internal meter work was no longer manufactured (which is the case for my Olympus Pen FT (find on eBay)) I would have had to have used a handheld light meter.
4. Do You Already Have Some Lenses You Can Use?
When you begin looking into purchasing your first film camera, consider what digital system you already have. I have always been a Nikon girl, and I can use any Nikon lens on any film or digital camera.
Sure, there are some limitations if the lens is completely automatic without an aperture ring, so that might influence my decision to buy a Nikon F100 rather than a Nikon FM film camera. We will talk more about this in a bit.
If this is your first foray into film, a good place to start is with a 35mm camera. As mentioned earlier, you can often use lenses you may already own, and if you are coming from the digital world, you will find these cameras the most intuitive to use.
Or perhaps you’re already experienced in 35mm film photography, and you want to consider a medium format camera. Again, there are a variety types of medium format cameras from TLR (twin lens reflex like a Rolleiflex), rangefinders (like a Fuji GA645), SLRs (like a Contax 645), and even toy cameras (like a Diana or a Holga).
What Features Do You Want Your First Film Camera to Have?
So, you’ve made decisions on what format and type of camera you’d like, now you need to consider what features you want to be sure your camera has.
Here are 10 features I think you should consider. Of course, your list and priorities may vary.
1. Mechanical or Automatic
Do you want a completely mechanical camera or one that is automatic or has some automatic features?
Personally, I prefer film cameras that are completely mechanical probably for the same reasons I love driving manual transmission car—I like to be in control. But the more practical reason for choosing a fully mechanical camera is that they usually last longer because there are fewer things that can break, they are easier to fix, and they often don’t require batteries to operate.
I also think they are more fun to shoot, and they require me to be an intentional photographer because I make all of the choices and decisions.
That isn’t to say that I don’t love my cameras that have automatic features, I do. But there are advantages and disadvantages to both.
Perhaps you’re not as experienced with manual mode or manual focusing or you want a quick and easy camera to take on vacation with you. You might want to consider a fully automatic point-and-shoot camera.
These are camera engineering wonders because they take all of the guesswork and choice out of your hands and allow you to literally just point and shoot. Of course, they are not foolproof, but they are pretty close!
This probably technically falls under the mechanical vs. automatic camera question, but it doesn’t always.
If you choose a fully mechanical camera, you won’t have the option of autofocus. So if autofocus is an important feature to you, you will probably need to consider a camera that includes this option.
The nice thing about electronic cameras is that you can choose to use autofocus lenses as well as manual focus lenses.
4. Light Meter
Does the camera you are considering have an internal light meter? If it does include an internal light meter, does it require batteries to operate? Does it work? Is it accurate?
If it does not, you will need to purchase a handheld light meter.
If it is important to you that your camera has a working and accurate light meter, you will probably want to choose a camera that is more recent.
5. Shooting Modes
If you love shooting in aperture priority mode or shutter priority mode, you will need to be sure the camera you are considering has these options.
Again, this is something you may not find on a fully mechanical camera. But there are other shooting modes that you might want to consider such as bulb, continuous, and timer mode.
If you already have a nice collection of Nikon, Canon, or Pentax lenses, you might want to consider a film camera from the same brand. But do some research first to make sure they are compatible.
For example, Canon EOS lenses are not compatible with older Canon models.
If you will need to purchase new lenses to go with your new film camera, research what focal lengths are available and how expensive they are.
Glass is the most important component of your camera and the longest lasting. Some lenses may be more expensive than you’re willing to pay. Your best option will often be a prime lens rather than a zoom lens.
7. Maximum Shutter Speed
I never really considered the maximum shutter speed a camera had until I started shooting film.
Older cameras, and especially mechanical cameras may only have a maximum shutter speed of 1/500th of a second.
This is actually pretty slow when you’re shooting in bright sunlight with a fairly fast film like Portra 400. If you’re wanting faster speeds, you will probably need to consider newer electronic cameras.
8. Flash/Strobe Compatibility
If you want the option to use a flash or strobe whether on camera or off camera, be sure to check if the camera you are considering has this capability.
9. Double Exposure
This is a pretty specific feature, but if you love making double exposures, you will definitely want a camera with this feature!
Not all film cameras have this capability, so if this is important to you, check. Some cameras without the double exposure feature can be “hacked” to create a double exposure.
Some mechanical cameras and all electronic cameras take batteries.
For mechanical cameras, it may just be for the internal light meter, and the camera will still take photos without batteries. But for electronic automatic cameras, batteries are a must!
Be sure to check what type of batteries the camera takes, how many it takes, whether they are still available, how long they last, and how expensive they may be.
If you’re going to have to spend a fortune in batteries, you may want to consider other camera options.
Price and Where to Shop
Now that you’ve decided that you’re ready to begin the hunt for your first film camera, you need to determine your budget.
Basic beginner SLRs like the Nikon FM series, the Canon AE-1, or the Pentax K1000 are great places to start. These models were often what high school photography classes back in the day handed out to students. They are still quite affordable along with a nifty fifty lens.
All three of these has a built-in light meter and they are completely manual. There are lots of these out there, so you can be picky and look for a well-cared-for copy.
Your budget is completely up to you, but if you want to keep the costs down, consider budgeting $200-$350 for a camera on the low end of the spectrum and $500-$750 and up for something fancier.
You can find film cameras in a lot of places. The price of the camera will be reflected in where you choose to shop.
If you want to be sure that the camera is in good working order, I would look at KEH.com, B&H Photo, or Adorama. At these outlets, the cameras are well vetted, and their condition is very conservatively described. In other words, you could choose one of their “ugly” options end up with a pretty good camera!
When I buy on eBay, I have no reservations about purchasing cameras or other photography gear from sellers in Japan. Unfortunately, since the pandemic, shipping costs have risen, so be sure to take that into consideration as well.
If you are confident in evaluating cameras or are willing to take some risks for a cheaper price, be sure to check pawn shops, thrift stores, yard sales, auctions, and even your parents’ or grandparents’ closet.
Obviously, these sources won’t yield cameras that have necessarily been well-cared for, stored properly, or in working order, but you probably won’t be able to beat the price anywhere else!
Don’t be afraid to pick up a camera from one of these sources, and if you do, be sure to go through the checklist below for what to look for and check out when buying a camera that has not already been deemed in working order.
What to Look for When Buying an Untested Film Camera
So, you found your dream film camera at the thrift store for a bargain price.
Should you buy it?
Here are some things to look for when considering an untested film camera:
This is often not possible without taking the camera into a darkroom or a changing bag, so if you have any suspicions that there may be film already in the camera, proceed with caution.
2. Does the Camera Smell Funny?
I know this sounds crazy, but if you’ve never held an old camera, you might not realize that cameras not properly stored can have a funky scent.
If you smell any hints of dampness, pass on this camera.
3. Does It Require Batteries?
Check to see if the camera requires batteries to operate. If it does, see the above advice on camera batteries.
If you can, try putting batteries in the camera to see if it will turn on. If it doesn’t, pass on this camera unless you’re looking for a nice paper weight.
4. Is the Battery Compartment Clean?
Examine the battery compartment and make sure it’s clean.
If the previous owner left batteries in the camera long term without using the camera, the batteries could have corroded.
If the battery compartment shows any sign of battery corrosion, don’t buy the camera.
5. Does the Light Meter Work?
If you can, check to see if the light meter is working.
This isn’t always a deal breaker. If the camera otherwise functions properly, you can always use a handheld light meter.
6. Does the Shutter Work?
Check to see if the shutter is working at all speeds including bulb. You can’t test for complete accuracy without special equipment, but you can get a good idea whether the shutter is working properly and at approximately the correct speed.
If it lags at any speed, your shutter may need replacing or repair. This can be an expensive repair, so you may not want this camera.
If the camera has autofocus, check to see whether it works and whether it is fast and accurate.
If the autofocus has to hunt around a lot, research whether this is typical of the camera and lens. Some autofocus systems are not great to begin with.
If the camera is reputed to have speedy and accurate autofocus, make sure the copy you are considering does as well.
8. Does the Aperture Ring Work?
If the camera or lens has an aperture ring or dial, check to make sure that it works and that the aperture in the lens actually changes.
Look at the aperture blades in the lens. Do they move smoothly? Are they straight with no bends or dents? Are they clean without any oil buildup?
9. Is the Lens Clean?
Check to make sure the lens is clean and clear without any damage, fungus, haze, or balsam separation.
If the lens comes with the camera body and it’s a good price, you may want to get the camera and then replace the lens.
10. Is the Inside of the Camera Clean?
Look for dirt or dust inside the camera and inside the lens.
A small amount of dust in an old camera is impossible to avoid, but it should look generally very clean.
11. Does the Camera Have Any Damage or Dents?
Check the body of the camera and lens for damage or dents or potential light leaks. Don’t forget to check the light traps and seals.
In older cameras, these are often broken down or hardened. If you are handy, you may be able to replace these inexpensively.
12. Is the Viewfinder Clear?
Check the viewfinder. Inevitably, in old cameras, some dust will accumulate in the viewfinder. This dust will not affect your images, but a lot of it can be annoying and make the camera hard to shoot with.
Also make sure there are no or very minimal scratches to the viewfinder. Again, these will not affect your images, but may make it hard to focus.
If the camera has a diopter, check it as well to make sure it can be dialed in to work with your eyes.
13. Can You Take It on a Test Shoot?
Finally, if you can take the camera on a test shoot, do it!
Put it through its paces with some fresh inexpensive consumer film. Shoot it in various situations and light. Make sure to try all of the shutter speeds and apertures and as many of the features as you can, or at least the ones that matter to you.
It may be a good idea to take exposure notes so that if you notice a problem in your developed images, you may possibly have an idea of what might be wrong.
The wonderful thing about film cameras is that there is a seemingly infinite variety of options out there—certainly more that I can ever try in my lifetime—but that is what makes shooting film so exciting.
There is always something new to try!
You may find the options and the number of things to consider daunting when buying a film camera, whether it’s your first or your fiftieth, but I hope this little guide gives you a good place to start!
What will be or what was your first film camera? I’d love to hear your story!