Last Updated on December 28, 2023
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The curiosity of the new generations for analog photography and the resurgence of some professionals have managed to revive a market segment that had disappeared. But with the resurgence of the “old way” of taking photos, the demand for finding a true film camera for beginners is at its peak.
Is analog photography here to stay or is it just a passing trend? What model should be the first analog camera to buy?
Table of Contents
First considerations before starting
From the camera and optics, to the subject, scene, or person we photograph, photography is – and must always be – an inexhaustible source of positive feelings. Sensations that we have rarely experienced with digital cameras.
Poor design of cameras and lenses with dense and cumbersome menus, and especially, unnecessary models have made me much more critical and demanding of the new digital models.
This is an article for those who feel that photography should be more than just point-and-shoot. For those who want to recapture the feeling of creating an image.
Which Is The Best Film Camera To Buy?
In the used market you can find very interesting 35mm SLR cameras for less than $200. Portals such as KEH Camera, eBay, and Amazon make it easy to find great deals. The price of used cameras and lenses in the store can be twice or three times more than the prices found on those websites.
We recommend always starting with a manual exposure and manual focusing camera. We will only fully appreciate photography if we understand what we can achieve by using one aperture or another. Because sometimes we need to use faster shutter speeds and slower at others.
By learning to manually expose photos, we can replace technology with technique. Develop photographic skills. Gain knowledge. Comprehend. Experience the satisfaction of capturing a photo.
Acting independently of who is operating a digital camera with exposure and autofocus. This is the difference between shooting and TAKING a photo. Craft it. Create it in the most artisanal way. Own our successes and mistakes.
Choosing Your First 35mm Film Camera
35mm cameras used to incorporate manual mode, center-weighted metering, and shutter speeds between 1 second and 1/1000th of a second. Unlike today’s digital cameras, which can raise ISO values beyond 100.00, the most common sensitivity range for the 35mm and 120-format models was between ISO 6 and 1600.
Photographic films (with some exceptions, such as the Kodak T-Max 3200) tend to have low to moderate sensitivity. The cameras were darkrooms and the decision to purchase a model was determined by the prestige of the brand, the optical quality and range of the lenses, and the cost.
The 1980s of the last century were the scene in which electronic cameras supplanted fully mechanical models. Springs, screws, and cogs were replaced by printed circuits and dependence on a battery.
The accuracy of the shutter speeds was nearly flawless and this made it simple to incorporate automatic exposure modes. The Program mode made its debut with the Minolta X-700 and the Canon A-1 and AE-1 Program models.
The Good Vintage 50mm
A wise person in photography says that “there is no bad 50mm”. The 50mm focal length is the simplest in optical design and photography; the simpler the design, the better. From a basic Yashinon 50mm ƒ/2 to the excellent Minolta Rokkor FD 50mm ƒ/1.2, quality 50mm lenses have much higher optical quality than kit zooms on digital cameras.
The brightness of the standard lenses mounted on 35mm cameras is usually between ƒ/1.7 and ƒ/2. The ƒ/1.4 aperture, a much more expensive and “high-end” version, was reserved for those with the deepest pockets.
The 50mm lens should be our first prime focal point. It not only provides brightness and optical quality. It is also a versatile lens, capable of taking a portrait or photographing a unique building while on vacation. On the other hand, the 50mm focal length forces us to learn to see the world from a fixed perspective.
Below is a list of SLR cameras that I consider the most suitable for getting started in 35mm film photography. For each camera, I emphasize its unique features rather than its technical specifications, which tend to be quite similar across the different models.
These are both professional and amateur cameras, though some of them have been used by highly skilled photographers for a long time. It is not the camera, but the person behind the camera, that truly makes the difference.
Let’s see which are the ideal film cameras for beginners beyond their range.
1. Canon AE-1 / AE-1 Program
The prestige of a photography giant does not happen overnight. Models such as the Canon AE-1 and the AE-1 Program version helped popularize the Canon name, which is more associated with professionals, among amateur photographers.
Both models became bestsellers, offering great value for money. I personally find the shutter speed dial on the Canon AE-1 more convenient and faster to use than the Program model, even though it has some minor technical improvements, such as shutter release.
Both models offer manual exposure control and automatic shutter mode, thanks to the “A” setting on the ring of Canon FD lenses.
Additionally, the Canon AE-1 Program offers programmable exposure and shutter priority, and has a more ergonomic grip than the AE-1.
For those users of Canon EOS models, I want to indicate that they will not be able to use their Canon EF optics in the bodies of these cameras. In addition to changing the mount, the EF / EF-S lenses lack an aperture ring.
2. Contax 139 Quartz
After many doubts about whether to include a Contax camera in this list, I have decided to open the door to Contax 139 Quartz. It is the most affordable model of the German myth.
We can find professional Contax RTS/RTS II bodies at an affordable price, but Carl Zeiss lenses for the Contax/Yashica mount are prohibitively priced for most hobbyists. So why include a Contax in this list?
The possibility of using Yashica lenses makes the Contax 139 Quartz one of the models with the best value for money, with superior performance than most of the cameras that make up this list. Yashinon lenses offer excellent value for money.
From the different versions of the standard 50mm to the 135mm telephoto or 28mm wide-angle, they all offer very affordable prices. Another recommended version of this Contax is the Contax 137 MD, with similar features and usability.
It will not be surprising that the appeal of analog photography leads the future user of a Contax 139 Quartz to decide to take a step towards the optical perfection found only in Carl Zeiss lenses.
Our first professional camera was a Contax RTS and the quality of Carl Zeiss lenses is well above Canon and Nikon “black feet”. In our opinion, they outperform in detail those who mount the Leica of the legendary M series.
The Contax 139 Quartz inherits the technology of the Contax RTS and maintains access to the photometer on the front of the camera, which is very easy to access and prevents the accidental shot.
The shutter has a very short travel, so we will never lose a photo, no matter how fast the action happens. The camera liners are usually worn, being the original ones made of natural leather, but you can get spare parts online for less than U$ 20.
Exposure AE lock and an excellent aperture priority mode (from 1/1000 sec. To 11 seconds) make the Contax 139 Quartz a model to consider when evaluating the purchase of a 35mm camera.
3. Minolta X-700
Minolta cameras offer one of the most beautiful and elegant designs in the 35mm segment; They are comfortable in the hands and offer quick access to the dials and buttons.
The Minolta X-700 managed to sell more than 3 million units, a figure completely unthinkable in any current camera. A reasonable price and superb photographic features made the Minolta X-700 a popular camera.
Not surprisingly, in 1981 won the award for “Camera of the Year” in North America.
The Minolta X-700’s technology included accurate center-weighted metering and manual exposure modes, aperture and shutter priority modes, and a programmable mode that prioritized fast shutter speeds.
The Minolta X-700 is extremely comfortable in the hands, thanks to the small grip. It’s not hard to find a Minolta X-700 with the excellent standard Rokkor MD 50mm ƒ/1.7 lens for around $120-150 online. Quite a bargain for a model of its caliber.
In recent years its popularity has grown even more than when it was launched, being a highly sought after beginner film camera.
4. Minolta XG 1
Why include a simple Minolta manual exposure and aperture priority camera, like the Minolta XG 1, when we are already talking about the X-700? It is a high-performance entry-level model.
It offers a very simple operation: to the left of the viewfinder we find the control dial, which makes it easy to turn the camera on/off, check the battery levels and set the self-timer.
The Minolta XG 1 features a superb Minolta Rokkor FD 45mm ƒ/2 standard lens, compact and lightweight, but brimming with optical quality. It is not difficult to find good Minolta XG 1 + 45/2 deals for less than $100 USD.
Being one of the most suggestive models for those who want to try photography in all its essence. The price of the Minolta Rokkor lenses is well below the Nikkor and Canon FD lenses, increasing Minolta’s options when it comes to evaluating the purchase of a second-hand 35mm camera.
5. Minolta XD 11
The Minolta XD11 it offers the highest technological performance in a manual focus Minolta camera from the 1980s. A bright viewfinder shows shutter speeds and aperture.
On the speed ring is the cam for selecting the exposure mode: manual, aperture priority and programmable mode. The beauty of its lines and maximum comfort in the hands distinguish the Minolta from the rest of the 35mm models.
It offers excellent value for money on the second hand market. It’s not hard to get an XD 11 and the excellent standard Rokkor MD 50mm ƒ/1.7 lens for just over $100.
Shutter priority is one of its most important features, and it was a feature that cameras like the Canon AE-1 Program implemented later. One of the best 35mm film cameras ever made.
As it is not a model used by professionals from the 80s, the aesthetic conditions are usually excellent, as are the mechanical ones. In Europe it is known as the Minolta XD7, but they are basically the same camera.
6. Nikon FE / FM
Nikon was the leader in the 35mm format until the introduction of the Canon EOS camera’s autofocus system. It was known for its optical quality, durability, and professionalism.
The Nikon F2 was a milestone in the history of the photographic industry, being the model most utilized by photojournalists and sports photographers of the time.
The Nikon FE and FM it kept part of the essences of the F2, in a much smaller and lighter body. It offers 100% mechanical operation, allowing you to shoot without a battery at any shutter speed.
The FM is a manual exposure and manual focus camera, highly overvalued on the market (especially the FM2 version). The Nikon FM viewfinder displays aperture and shutter speed, with “+ or -” LEDs indicating exposure.
The Nikon FE is essentially a Nikon FM with aperture priority and not mechanical, meaning it requires a battery to operate. The viewfinder of the Nikon FE does not have LED indicators.
It has the classic two needle system, one dedicated to the selected shutter speed and the second indicating the brightness of the image; both must match to achieve correct exposure. Less appreciated by the more purists of analog photography, the Nikon FE is excessively priced in the second-hand market.
If you want to go further, the second version of the FE, the Nikon FE2, is a great choice too, albeit more expensive.
7. Olympus OM-1 / OM-2
Olympus was one of the manufacturers that knew how to create greater loyalty in its users. The size and weight of the OM cameras showed that you do not need the measurements of a brick to make a professional performance camera.
Unlike other manufacturers, the shutter speed ring is not on the top of the camera, but rather around the lens mount. This makes it easy to control with the supporting hand the three parameters that go into taking a photograph: focus, aperture, and shutter speed.
In this way, maximum concentration is achieved on the index finger on the trigger, guaranteeing not to lose any snapshot, no matter how fast it may be.
The Olympus OM-1 is a fully mechanical model (it can be used without a battery) and provides maximum dependability. Its compact size makes it a great camera for people with smaller hands. On the top is the ISO setting ring, a feature that sets it apart from other 35mm models.
The Olympus OM-1 is a model listed on the used market, as the optical quality of the Zuiko lenses and the reliability of the Olympus mechanics have made this model a sought-after item by the most discerning collectors.
The Olympus OM-2 is a more advanced model, incorporating Through-The-Lens (TTL) metering in the film plane and utilizing the flash for the first time. Silicon photodiodes provided speed and reliability far superior to previous measuring systems.
In addition to the traditional manual exposure mode, the Olympus OM-2 incorporates aperture priority, which requires mounting an electronic shutter, capable of offering the widest range of shutter speeds.
The Olympus OM-2 retains the OM-1’s compact design and high market value, It may cost a few dollars more than many on this list, but it is a true beginner’s film camera.
8. Olympus OM-10
And we come to one of our favorite models to get started in chemical photography. The Olympus OM-10 It is a great camera, with sleek lines and very comfortable in the hands.
The use of simpler construction materials and larger electronic components decreased the cost of the OM-10, compared to the OM-1 and OM-2 professional performance models, but on the positive side we discovered a more comfortable design in the hands.
The OM-10 is basically an electronic automatic exposure camera. An adapter makes it easy to shoot in manual exposure mode. I recommend buying only Olympus OM-10 models that have this adapter, as the experience will be incomplete if we cannot shoot in manual exposure mode.
9. Pentax MX
In just a couple of decades, Pentax went from mounting ø42mm threaded bayonet lenses and large cameras to extremely compact models. The generation transition from the Pentax K1000 to the M series represented an effort in design and technology for Pentax.
The quality of Asahi-Pentax lenses is legendary and lives on today, at least in today’s digital models from the near-defunct and now RICOH-owned company.
The Pentax MX is one of the most compact 35mm SLR cameras available. With manual exposure and 100% mechanical operation, it is a model that will never leave you missing a photo due to a dead battery.
Despite its size and its “limited” technological features, the Pentax MX was a professional range model and the wide range of exclusive accessories confirms this: up to 9 focusing screens, two different automatic film advance motors and date backing.
The Pentax MX offers an excellent value for money in the second-hand market and the Pentax K lens mount, the largest offer on the market, as it was used by other brands such as Cosina, Chinon or Ricoh. Undoubtedly one of the best 35mm film cameras ever made.
10. Pentax ME Super
Years after the appearance of the Pentax MX, the Japanese multinational decided to update its version with opening priority with the Pentax ME Super, an electronic model that was ahead of its time. Unlike most models that include a shutter speed ring, on the Pentax ME Super these are set by two buttons.
The exposure mode control dial makes it easy to select between manual modes, aperture priority, shutter lock, bulb (“B”), and the mechanical shutter speed of 1/125sec, with which flash firing is synchronized.
The Pentax ME Super incorporates the SMC Pentax 50mm ƒ/1.7 standard lens with high optical performance and high brightness.
11. Yashica FX-D Quartz
The commercial and technological agreement between the prestigious German firm Contax and Yashica achieved that a model like the Yashica FX-D Quartz it could compete on equal terms with the Contax 139 Quartz, which shares the same technology.
Both models have identical genetics, but radically different prices. Quartz technology ensures maximum aperture priority precision, offering an infinite range of intermediate shutter speeds, just like digital cameras do today.
The shutter speed ring includes a scale from 1 second to 1/1000 second, in addition to the “X” positions for flash, “B” for long exposures, and “AE” for aperture priority. It provides great value for money on the used market and the quality of Yashinon optics is significantly higher than its current price.
12. Yashica FX-3 Super 2000
And we come to the ideal camera par excellence to get started in analog photography in a very affordable way. The Yashica FX-3 Super 2000 is a mechanical camera that only uses the battery to measure light. Its maximum shutter speed is 1/2,000 sec.
Was only reserved for professional range models, such as the Nikon F2 or the Canon F-1. The Yashica FX-3 Super 2000 is one of the best cameras to take the first steps in analog photography.
Since its 100% manual operation and the possibility of mounting the best optics in the 35mm reflex segment (the lenses from Carl Zeiss) make the small Yashica model one of the most important options to consider when purchasing a universal single-lens reflex camera.
The original Yashica FX-3 is also a great option. The only difference is that it has a lower maximum speed (1/1000s), and it may even be cheaper while maintaining the same quality.
Final thoughts: The outsiders
We have excluded brands like Praktica, Zenith, Ricoh, Cosina, Chinon, or Konica from the guide of our favorite models. The reason is simple: the electronics of the aforementioned Japanese models are more reliable than these.
For their part, the Praktica and Zenit “iron curtain” models show lower optical quality and mechanical reliability than the manual models included in this article. Another aspect that has made me opt for the cameras on display here is the brand’s prestige, achieved over decades.
So what should be the first analog camera to get started in 35mm film photography? Without a doubt, the one we have at home, inherited from our parents or grandparents.
Just take it to a camera technician, to check the foam seals in the camera compartment and check the exposure and light meter to purchase the first 35mm film and start taking photos in a very different way than we do with digital cameras.
It doesn’t matter if we start with a humble Kodak Retina or one of the wonderful compacts Yashica Electro 35: changing the methodology of shooting digitally to photographing with chemical-based film will teach us to love photography and to appreciate the significance of each image.