Film is alive and kicking, but to find out just how lively it is you need a film camera. In "Five Fantastic Film Cameras for Under $1000" we took a look at a variety of choices for top-performing film cameras in 35mm, medium, and large formats.
You don't need to spend thousands to make great pictures. The fantastic film cameras below will get you great results in film without breaking the bank. There are lots of capable film cameras for under a hundred dollars, but these are your best bets for great image quality and ease of use. I have included cameras that have excellent lenses or use lens mounts with a number of great lenses available. Any of the cameras on this list are readily available on the used camera market for under one hundred dollars US, which includes the camera body plus a lens.
Pentax ME Super
If you want a great general purpose film SLR, seek out the Pentax ME Super. This light and compact SLR is convenient to carry and easy to use. The ME Super features aperture priority, auto exposure, and fully manual exposure. In it's small frame it packs a large, clear viewfinder and an accurate light meter.
This camera makes a great tool because it can be left on, making it is ready to use at any moment. Because the light meter turns on with a half press of the shutter release and turns off automatically, the battery doesn’t run down.
Many people learned photography with the venerable Pentax K1000, but you will find the Pentax ME Super for less money. The ME Super gives you more features and a more refined camera at a lower price. You will have no trouble finding one of these cameras in good condition.
Using this camera gives you access to a wide range of K mount lenses. Dozens of companies made, and some even still make, lenses for this popular lens system. You will find lenses for every niche from macro to telephoto and a wide variety of focal lengths. Better yet, you will find a wide array of optics at low price points.
Canon EOS A2E
If you use Canon’s current lineup of EF mount lenses, pick up the Canon EOS A2E to make an easy transition to film. This camera is clearly the forerunner of contemporary Canon cameras. You will find the top dial for setting AE modes familiar. The quick control dial on the back and main dial on the front are nearly identical to the ones on many current Canon DSLRs. The Canon EOS A2E is also known as Canon EOS 5 in some markets but they are the same camera.
Using this film camera doesn’t require you to give up the features that you use on your DSLR. The Canon EOS A2E has aperture priority auto exposure, shutter priority auto exposure, full auto exposure, and manual exposure modes. You even get auto focus with multiple focus points and you can capture several frames per second. This camera is a real workhorse and packs in some innovative features, such as the ability to select a focus point simply by looking at an auto focus point.
You will be able to mount your favorite EF lenses on this camera. The EF mount was introduced in 1987 and is still in use today, which means you will find many superb new and used lenses for this camera. One caveat, the EF-S series of lenses are not compatible with EOS A2E because there are designed for the smaller APS-C format. You will often find these cameras for sale with a lens if you don’t already have a compatible lens.
Canon Canonet G-III
Try the Canon Canonet G-III to give the rangefinder camera experience a go. In a rangefinder camera you compose through a viewfinder instead of seeing through the lens, and focus by lining up a double-image. There is no momentary blackout when you click the shutter, which helps to keep you in the moment. Rangefinder cameras have fewer moving parts so they are significantly quieter than SLRs. Owners of rangefinders find the presence of the photographer in any situation is unobtrusive since the camera is compact and quiet.
Today, a few digital camera makers do offer rangefinders but this camera form was much more common in the past and you can find film rangefinders from many different makers. The Canonet G-III is a great alternative to high-price rangefinders because it is well built and has a great lens. The lens is not interchangeable but that’s OK; it means there are no additional lenses to buy or worry about!
Canon made millions of these cameras so there are lots of them on the market. The Canonet G-III was the last in Canon’s series of rangefinders but it is also the best. It has a built-in light meter and shutter priority autoexposure, making it convenient to use. Of course, it can also be used with manual exposure if you want complete control.
This camera was designed to use mercury batteries, which are no longer available. Don’t worry, though, there is an easy-to-find replacement battery. Sometimes the replacement battery causes the exposure meter to read slightly inaccurately. It is a good idea to compare any older camera’s light meter to a camera with a known good meter, such as your DLSR or hand-held meter, before extensive use. If it is off you can compensate by simply adjusting the ISO setting.
Chose the Olympus XA when you want a compact, go-anywhere camera. The XA is a classic "photographer's camera," a camera that many professionals love to pack in their travel bag and take on vacation.
This is the smallest camera with a true rangefinder for focusing. It is ruggedly constructed, fits easily in a pocket, purse, or backpack, and is convenient to have with you at all times. A sliding cover protects the lens when closed and turns the camera on when opened.
The camera has an aperture priority auto-exposure system. Set the aperture lever and line up the double image in the viewfinder. Then press the highly sensitive shutter release.That’s it. The shutter release features a touch sensitive material that is designed to use minimal pressure to activate the shutter. This feature helps reduce camera shake and gives you sharper pictures when it starts to get dark.
The camera has a compact, built-in Zuiko 35mm f2.8 lens that delivers great results. Often the XAs come with a little flash unit that attaches to the side. This speedlight gives you even more versatility for low light shooting.
Other cameras in the XA series give up the rangefinder but are still solid choices. The only one in the lineup to steer clear of is the XA-1 because it is far too stripped of features.
For an even more minimalist camera, check out the diminutive Minolta AF-C. This camera might look like a generic point-and-shoot but it's loaded with automatic exposure, auto focus, and a fantastic lens.
This camera is stripped down to its essentials. In fact, it only has one button! The camera works so well that that is all you need. The simplicity of the design will put your mind at ease and free you to concentrate on the world around you.
Don’t worry that the camera is auto exposure only because it delivers consistently good exposures. Plus, you can use the ISO setting on the camera to under or overexpose your images as needed.
This camera was introduced at a time when all camera makers were trying to figure out their autofocus system designs and work out what types of cameras should have what kind of system. Minolta hit the nail on the head with this camera. That they included a such a complete auto focus system on such a small camera is a bit of a wonder in itself.
The Minolta AF-C may look like a toy but it has a lens that delivers tonality, sharpness, and saturation that rivals the best SLR lenses. Like the Canon Canonet and Olympus XA, people on the street will likely not even notice that you are taking photos when you use this camera. If they do, they'll likely ignore you: nobody is threatened by the Minolta AF-C. But you will know what wonderful images this camera is capable of!
Can Film Be Relevant in the Digital World?
Yes! Photography existed for over 175 years before the rise of digital photography so most of the great photographs in the history of photography were created without a digital camera. There is no reason that the great photographs of the future also can’t be created on film.
I am not advocating giving up digital for film but rather we use both. Film and digital photography both have their merits and place. Each records light differently. Rather than emulating the look of film in post-production, you can still use the real thing. If you want the best of both mediums, you can also scan your film.
The cameras on this list provide a budget friendly way into the world of film. Try a camera that best fits your working style. Or try out several of them from this price range and have fun experimenting with the possibilities.
Have a favorite film camera? We'd love to hear about it in the comments