If you’re new to the world of film photography, it can be tricky deciding which camera is best for you. We sat down with film camera specialists Janie and Freddie of Sydney-based Beginning Film to learn which are the best film cameras for beginners, where to find them and how to get started on your film journey.
Words and Photography by Aaron Chapman and Beginning Film
We all know the pleasure of unboxing a fresh camera. The feel of the undropped body. The glint in the unscratched glass. Insert battery. Insert SD card. Walk out the door.
This order of events differs slightly with film cameras. The box (if the camera comes with one) probably gives off an old must. The body is most likely sporting evidence of being dropped a handful of times. And if you’re brave enough to hold the lens up to the light, you’ll see little to lots of dust.
If you’re looking to buy a film camera then you’re probably the type of person who doesn’t mind a few dings, scratches and specks. You like the smell of history. Insert odd-sized battery that you bought at Bunnings. Insert roll of film. Wind the lever. Walk out the door.
If you’re new to film photography, it can be difficult getting started. From scouring op shop shelves to surfing the web, we’ve put together a bunch of handy notes and hints to help find the right film camera for you.
We also get the opinions of Janie and Freddie of Sydney-based Beginning Film — an online service specialising in the selling and sourcing of vintage film cameras, lenses and related items — to learn which cameras are best for beginners, as well as the most common film cameras they see in the glass cases of Tokyo’s streets.
Not all film cameras are old
One common misconception is that all film cameras are old. In fact, some of the best results are achieved on disposable cameras or toy cameras which are still manufactured today.
THE HOLGA 135
The Holga 135 was my first film camera. In comparison to other film cameras, the Holga has little to no settings. Its lack of functions encourage a point-and-shoot approach, which sometimes result in nothing more than happy accidents. Less is more.
This camera and many other basic snapshot cameras like it are most commonly distributed by Lomography, a company dedicated to a lo-fi philosophy of shooting intuitively, worrying less about settings and more about moments.
Unfortunately the Holga 135 has since been discontinued though you can pick one up on eBay or Amazon anywhere from AUD $50 to $150. Paired with almost any film stock, the Holga 135 and its light-leak prone build quality produce a painterly, romantic aesthetic.
Or try the other Lomography cult classic, The Diana for under USD $100 — a medium format favourite renowned for its soft dreamy focus and vignetting.
American photographer, Nancy Rexroth completed an entire body of work on the toy Diana camera and published the photographs in her monograph, IOWA. The series is testament to The Diana and its poetic power.
35mm film cameras
When it comes to the best film cameras for beginners, Janie and Freddie swear by any of the Canon EOS models or any autofocus SLRs from the ‘90s.
“Canon EOS models are often overlooked because of their clunky size, but they’re excellent cameras for those transitioning from digital to film,” Janie says. “Getting a body and lens set-up is still quite affordable and they’re also interchangeable with modern AF lenses!”
The photo below by Jia Zhang shows the level of detail you can get from the Canon EOS 630.
If you’re an intermediate photographer, any film camera with a blend of manual and auto exposures is going to provide a gradual learning experience for film beginners as shooting manually encourages a forced understanding of the exposure triangle (with a safety net).
Rangefinder cameras often have this blend of manual and auto exposures and are perfect for sinking your teeth a little further into the film photographic process. Be warned, rangefinders may take some getting used to if coming from an SLR kit. An image is focused and composed by looking through the little window cutout at the top left of the camera, rather than through the lens as experienced with an SLR.
There are many benefits to using a rangefinder. Because there isn’t a mirror slapping around inside, rangefinder cameras are more compact, lighter and provide higher image quality as there’s naturally less vibration.
“Olympus has made some excellent rangefinders in various models with a similar build. The fully manual operation requires you to learn how to properly expose your photos, encouraging you to be totally present when shooting. And with a mechanical body, they are built to last!” Janie says. “One of our personal favourites is the Olympus ACE-E.”
Medium format film cameras
Medium format can be a difficult progression for a lot of film shooters. Suddenly you’re down from 36 shots on a roll to as little as 10 shots on a 6×7 set-up. There’s no relying on autofocus or any fancy features. But you’ll fall in love with the increased quality the medium format negative produces compared to a 35mm negative.
Janie and Freddie recommend the Mamiya 645 as an introduction to the medium format world. “It’s easy to handle, transportable, has interchangeable lenses and prisms — it’s quite the introductory experience because it’s a kit you can continue to add to and grow with. The 645 is also more forgiving as it gives you more shots per roll (15).”
Where to buy a film camera
First things first, have you spoken to your parents or grandparents yet? You might be able to dust off the cobwebs of a perfectly good hand-me-down.
I’m still using my old man’s Canon EOS 500 35mm film camera. It’s compact enough to travel with and has the added benefit of autofocus. A quick eBay search showed the Canon EOS 500 selling for as low as AUD $30. You can buy it here.
In 2017, an American college student walked into a thrift store and stumbled across a near mint condition Leica M2 with an Elmar 50mm f/2.8 lens, the combination totalling anywhere between $1700 and $2500 Aussie dollars. But the price tag said otherwise. The student casually forked over a $5 bill and entered the camera thrifting history books. Read more about this miracle here.
Most old cameras you’ll find down at your local goodwill aren’t as good or worth as much the Leica M2. Though the price tag of op shop film cameras is generally low, the risk lies in their functionality.
It’s important to weigh the price tag against the chance of the camera actually working. Spark up a conversation with the shopkeep and see if you can put a test roll through it if you’re really concerned.
“The film camera community is global. Everyone’s in the same boat.”
An enormous chunk of the film camera population resides on eBay, with most sellers residing in Japan, the world leader in camera manufacturing. But purchasing online solely on the seller’s description and their studio photography involves a great deal of trust.
You need to do your homework. The best course of action is understanding the camera you want to purchase and knowing its common defaults. The film camera community is global. Everyone’s in the same boat. There’s no support line you can call to ask what’s wrong with your 50-year-old camera. But you can post the question or read the answers online.
For example, my beloved Pentax 67. I had my heart set on this camera for a long time and because it’s a little heftier in the price range, I did my due diligence. I took a fine-tooth comb to the Internet and came across a dedicated Pentax Forum. I quickly learned the camera’s common problems, one being that the advance lever wouldn’t advance the film properly.
When I found a Pentax 67 on eBay that I wanted to buy, I messaged the seller with a list of questions… Does the advance lever function properly? Have you tested this? Does the light meter work?
Yes. Yes. And yes. Sure enough, the camera arrived and the advance lever didn’t advance the film. But my bases were covered and I was issued a full refund (this happened once more before finally receiving a fully functional Pentax 67!).
“Buying on eBay is all about covering your bases.”
Like AirBnb, like Uber, reviews are everything. Click on the eBay seller’s information, see their positive feedback percentage rating and read their reviews. Read the feedback ratings on the item being ‘as described’, ‘the seller’s communication’, ‘the postage time and charges’.
Put on your private investigator hat and vet the seller. Are they a dedicated camera equipment seller, or do they have one camera among inventory that entails mostly flat brim caps? Look for the eBay Money Back Guarantee box as well as sellers with the eBay Premium Service title. These are all signs that should instil confidence in you as the buyer.
Buying on eBay is all about covering your bases, asking the questions and understanding your rights as a buyer.
The above are all viable ways to purchase a film camera but to eliminate any risk of eBay keyboard warfare, Beginning Film is your best bet. Operating between Sydney and Tokyo, all products are hand selected, inspected and tested by owners, Janie and Freddie before making them available for your purchase. There’s comfort knowing your equipment is going under the microscope of these experts.
“One of the best ways to begin or advance your film camera journey, we think, is by joining a community.”
The end of the roll
The journey of film is not a solo journey. In a predominantly digital camera market, it’s important the existence and strength of this photography community continues.
“One of the best ways to begin or advance your film camera journey, we think, is by joining a community,” Janie says. “Whether it’s online Facebook Groups, forums or joining a local film photowalk, being connected to other film shooters is an extremely effective way to learn and expand your film photography knowledge.”
Once you find that hidden gem on a dusty shelf of an op shop, once you locate your parent’s ancient relic, once your eBay shipment arrives or once Beginning Film sources your dream film camera, there’s only a few things left to do…
Insert the odd-sized battery. Insert roll of film. Wind the lever. Walk out the door.
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