If you have never used film before, or haven’t in some time, now is a great time to rediscover analog image making. Film is still viable as a photographic medium, but you need a good film camera to make film photographs. In this article, I share five fantastic film cameras that will get you into shooting film and keep you wanting to shoot film.
There are many fantastic film cameras available but I’m going to focus on my top five and explain why you might want to choose one of the cameras on this list. All all of these cameras, the camera body plus a lens, can be found for under $1000. Any of these options provide you access to a high quality lens or range of lenses.
If you currently use Nikon cameras and lenses, look no further than the Nikon F100 as an easy step into 35mm film. The F100 shares a clear design lineage with its newer digital cousins. If you use a Nikon today you will find this camera very familiar. It has a similar button and dial arrangement and the display in the viewfinder looks comparable.
Using a film camera does not require using a slow, fragile, or decades-old camera. The Nikon F100 is rugged and dependable because it is constructed much like Nikon’s top-end DSLRs. You won’t lose autofocus, auto exposure, or the ability to capture several frames per second. This camera has plenty of modern features and functionality.
Nikon offers lots of lens compatibility which means you probably already have lenses for the camera. The F100 is compatible with Ai, Ais, and AF lenses, which means basically all lenses going back to 1977. Nikon has done a great job at keeping lenses compatible across the years. You can enjoy a wide range of quality optics, whether that means putting an old lens on a new camera or a newer lens on an older camera. Just remember that Nikon lenses in their DX series will not work on this camera.
If you prefer Canon cameras and lenses, look for the Canon EOS-3. Much of what can be said about the F100 can also be said about this camera. The two models come from the same era and competed for the same target market of professional photographers.
Want to try something other than an SLR? Look for the Minolta CLE. It is a rangefinder camera, which means you compose through a viewfinder, instead of seeing through the lens, and focus by lining up a double image. People love rangefinders because their compactness and quietness make them more discrete and less obtrusive.
Because the photographing lens and the viewfinder are separate you continue to be able to see the scene at the moment you take the picture, creating a much more fluid picture-making experience. Unlike a DSLRs there is no clunky mirror flapping around inside, so rangefinders don’t get in the way of making a photograph the way a big, noisy SLR can. The CLE is one of the most discrete and affordable high-quality rangefinder cameras.
There are not many options in the digital world for rangefinders but the film world has many great examples to choose from. The Minolta CLE is one of the best for under $1000 because it offers the convenience of auto exposure, by means of a built-in light meter. This makes it very easy to use. It also offers fully manual control whenever you want to take over.
The Minolta CLE uses the Leica designed M mount for lenses. This gives you access to M mount lenses from Minolta and many great lens makers such as Leica, Zeiss, and Voigtländer. All of these lens makers make top-quality optics so you can have the best for your image making.
Break away from automation with the Olympus OM-3. This camera offers only fully manual controls with a great built-in exposure meter. It was introduced at a time when cameras were going more and more to automated controls, so this all-mechanical camera stands out from the crowd.
Since this camera only has manual control, it forces you to think more about the light in each shot. You have to pay attention to the built-in light meter and set the controls accordingly. You don’t have the instant feedback provided by the LCD screen of a digital camera. When you see your photos coming back and looking awesome, you will gain a big confidence boost.
Olympus made great lenses for their cameras under the name Zuiko. These lenses are still sought after for their excellent quality. Whether you enjoy prime lenses or zoom lenses, you won’t have to search hard or long to find lenses that cover your preferred focal lengths.
Go big or go home with the Fujifilm GW670III and create a negative that has approximately five times the image area of a 35mm camera. The large negatives hold incredible detail and offer a big step up in quality from 35mm film.
If you think a medium format is not portable or hand-holdable, give this camera a try. It is a giant rangefinder camera that uses medium format film. Despite its large proportions, it weighs about the same as a Canon 5D with a zoom lens. The camera has a quiet leaf shutter that doesn’t produce much vibration and makes hand-holding much easier when compared to medium format SLRs.
Fujifilm created the camera in three variations: GW670III, GW680III, and GW690III. The cameras create a negative of 6x7 cm, 6x8 cm, and 6x9 cm respectively so you get to choose your preferred aspect ratio.
The Fujifilm GW670III has a great lens that produces incredibly sharp results. The lens is not interchangeable so if you want a wide angle lens you will have to buy the wide angle version of this camera: the GSW670III. If you desire a telephoto lens, you are simply out of luck!
This all-mechanical camera has only three controls; focus, shutter speed, and aperture. You will need a separate light meter to know what the exposure settings should be but I find the simplicity of this camera liberating. With these few settings, I can concentrate more on the light quality and composition of my photograph, rather than being concerned about what the camera is doing.
Graflex Super Speed Graphic
You can go even bigger and seek out a large format camera such as the Graflex Super Speed Graphic. This camera creates negatives that are 4x5 inches in size. These large-scale negatives offer a tremendous amount of detail.
This type of camera can change the way you shoot because it slows you down and forces you to think through the image before taking the picture. Instead of editing down hundreds of photos from a shoot to get a great photograph, you will meticulously produce a handful of well-crafted images.
The Super Speed Graphic is an old press camera, meaning that journalists used to run around with these and take photos that would be reprinted in newspapers and magazines. To cater to that kind of work, this camera had a built-in rangefinder for focusing and a viewfinder for composing the image. Due to the age of these cameras, some of these features may be missing or nonfunctional. But don’t worry, the camera is completely useable without them.
Nowadays most of these camera are used as viewcameras. That means to compose and focus you open the camera lens and look at the image projected on a ground glass screen on the back of the camera. That ground glass measures 4x5 inches, exactly the same as the film.
If you can find one with the original lens in working order, great! Use it. But if not, there are many great large format lenses available. You will find great examples from Rodenstock, Schneider, Fujifilm, or Nikon, and older lenses are generally just as good as new. A 150mm lens on a 4x5 camera is roughly the same angle of view as a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera. You can mount any of these to the Super Speed Graphic by using a lens board that has the correct size opening for the lens. Even better, you get tilt shift-control with any lens because the front standard, where the lens mounts, has tilt and shift movements. This feature will allow you to control perspective and correct convergence of lines within your frame.
The Speed Graphic, Crown Graphic, and other similar models were the standard press camera for a long time, so there are still lots of them kicking about. You should be able to find this camera and a starter lens for under $1000. But don’t forget to budget in essential accessories such as film holders, dark cloth and a focusing loupe.
But Wait, Isn't Film an Anachronism?
If you read this far there's a good chance you're interested in film. Go for it! Film is not dead!
There are lots of reasons why people love working with film, from the tactile feeling of winding a camera to the mad-scientist fun of developing rolls of black and white in your bathroom.
Most of all, though, film records light differently than digital sensors. There's a reason so many apps emulate film. Each film stock has its own unique aesthetic characteristics; they each create a particular look. More specifically, and most importantly, each film creates a certain tonality. This can be imitated by digital processes but just can't be replicated.
This is especially true with medium format and large format cameras. Though sensor resolution has recently jumped on high-end digital 35mm cameras, sensors still can't reproduce tonality like a larger piece of film can. Images made with medium and large format cameras seem to sing: they draw with more definition, contrast, and fidelity. Each film and camera combination renders the world slightly differently, and that's part of the magic of photographing with film.
Now is the perfect time to rediscover analog photography. This list covers my top bets for $1000, but there are plenty of great used cameras and lenses out there for smaller budgets too. Think about the way you photograph and decide what film camera will suit you the best, then have some fun playing with the possibilities.
Do you have a favorite film camera? We'd love to hear why in the comments.
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