Battles rage over whether digital or analog is the better medium. But those shouting on both sides are missing out on the simple truth that the two compliment each other beautifully.
With digital photography, there is an ability and sometimes a desire to achieve something precise, while happy surprises can be a big part of the analog draw. Keen photographers realize that shooting with both mediums keeps one creatively-focused and balanced: aware that perfection exists, but open to creative serendipity. Moreover, film gives the user a chance to slow down and be decisive, and digital allows the user to quickly see results and learn.
Many of the readers of our site are digital diehards. But let’s pretend for a moment that we’ve convinced you to dabble a bit in analog. What would be a good camera to run a roll through? What follows is a list of 10 cameras, all of which are easy to find, technically capable, and reasonably priced. These are cameras known for holding up mechanically and don’t require obscure or discontinued batteries, like mercury cells.
Of course, this list is far from complete – there are many excellent film cameras available that fit our criteria. Which is why we’ll be looking to add more periodically. So if there are any you feel particularly strongly about, let us know in the comments. Happy shooting!
History: The Canon AE-1 was produced from 1976-1984 and in that time more than a million units were sold. One of the first affordable SLRs on the market to feature TTL auto exposure metering, the AE-1 was also the first SLR to use a microprocessor. It is constructed mostly of injection molded plastic to keep costs down. However, this leads to a comparably lighter body than most metal SLRs of the day.
Why we like it: This camera is a solid choice for beginners, offering both a shutter priority and a manual mode (though sadly no aperture priority mode). Metering tends to be accurate and the camera can be powered by a variety of common drugstore batteries. Canon FD lenses are cheap and readily available for the system.
Buy one: These cameras are extremely easy to come across in working order for under $100. If buying on eBay, you can often pick up an AE-1 with a bunch of FD lenses and other accessories for about the same price as the body.
Also consider: The Canon AE-1 Program (shown above). The Program was released in 1981 is the follow up to the original AE-1. It is largely the same camera, except for the inclusion of a Program auto exposure mode that sets both shutter speed and aperture.
History: The Pentax K1000 first debuted in 1976 (same year as the Canon AE-1) and was manufactured continuously for just over two decades. The body is made mostly of metal and the camera is fully mechanical in operation (there is no auto mode). The K1000 has a built-in light meter that runs on generic drugstore camera batteries. Just remember to put the lens cap on to avoid draining the charge!
Why we like it: The K1000 represents a very different approach to the amateur SLR market than the Canon AE-1. Both are great cameras with redeeming qualities, but we really appreciate the Pentax’s mechanical design, which means it can be operated without batteries (unlike the Canon). And due to its metal build, K1000’s tend to stand the test of time quite well. In short, these cameras have a reputation for being simple, but reliable – great for beginners or purists. And there is also a ton of great glass to be had for the system.
Buy one: Not only are these cameras built to last, they were made non-stop for 21 years! So it comes as no surprise that they are easy to find used. Expect to pay between $50-$175 for one on eBay, depending on the condition. Snagging a deal that includes the body and some Pentax glass is not super likely, but also not impossible. Some collectors claim the bodies with “Asahi” on the prism are more reliable – as they are older and supposedly use fewer plastic components internally – something to keep in mind.
Photo credit: John Kratz
History: The Olympus XA is one of the smallest 35mm rangefinder cameras ever made. Sold from 1979 to 1985, this camera manages to tuck a very sharp Zuiko 35mm F2.8 lens (with a 4-blade aperture) behind a protective sliding door. The camera is aperture priority-only, however there is a +1.5 Exp. comp. lever on the bottom of the body. The camera itself is built mostly of plastic, but still feels dense in hand.
Why we like it: There’s a lot to like about this tiny rangefinder: It’s incredibly quiet, the lens is sharp and the metering is good. It also represents one of the most unusual camera designs of its time. The focusing lever is admittedly a bit small and fiddly, but the focus depth scale makes things a bit easier.
Buy one: It’s pretty easy to find this camera sold alongside its original accessory flash (which mounts on the side of the body). Expect to pay between $50-150 for one in working order, with or without the flash. A note of caution: sometimes these turn up in seemingly working order, but with a dead light meter (bad news for an aperture priority-only camera).
Also consider: The Olympus XA2. It is essentially a simplified version of the XA, but with a 35mm F3.5 lens and zone focusing. Some people find the XA2 easier for casual pointing and shooting.
History: The Mamiya M645 was the company’s first 6 x 4.5 format SLR-style camera and was manufactured from 1975-1987. It uses an electronic focal plane shutter and features an interchangeable finder and focus screen, but not interchangeable film backs. The camera uses a generic 6 volt camera battery. There are several different versions available including the M645 1000 and the budget-friendly M645J.
Why we like it: These are beautiful cameras both to hold and to operate. Not only that, they are also mechanically reliable. And while there are more feature-packed 6 x 4.5 cameras on the market (including many from Mamiya), few are as affordable as the original M645.
Buy one: These cameras are easy to find in working order. You can expect to pick one up on eBay, with a lens, for between $250-350. Note: the M645J model (shown in the image above) is a stripped down version of the M645 for slightly less cash (it has a limited shutter speed range, no mirror lock-up, and one shutter release as opposed to two).
History: Introduced in 1983, the L35AF was Nikon’s first compact with autofocus capability. Its sharp 35mm F2.8 lens and simple design led it to become a marketplace hit. The camera is fully automatic, but does have a +2EV exposure compensation lever on the front of the body. The metering cell is located directly below the lens and the camera can accept filters. It also has a built-in pop-up flash.
Why we like it: At first glance, the L35AF looks like a cheap, plastic camera. But looks are deceiving. This camera is in fact a gem (the body is actually metal with a plastic shell). As mentioned, the lens is sharp, and metering is accurate. AF is also surprisingly accurate. Plus, the camera is powered by two generic AA batteries. Technically-speaking, this is an outstanding film point and shoot. The only down side is the camera is a tad chunky.
Buy one: You can expect to pay between $60-150 for one of these cameras, in working order, on eBay. However the L35AF often turns up in thrift store bins and at rummage sales. Spend a little time hunting and you might find one for under $10. There is also the Nikon L35AD, which is the same camera as the L35AF, but with an autodate function.
Minolta Hi-Matic AF2
History: The Minolta Hi-Matic AF2 first debuted in 1981 and is a fully-automatic fixed lens compact, with the exception of its manual film advanced/rewind (weird, we know). The camera has a fairly sharp 38mm F2.8 lens. And like the Nikon L35AF, the camera’s meter is located directly below the front element, which also accepts filters. The camera runs on two AA batteries and offers a pop-up flash.
Why we like it: There are affordable film cameras, and there is the Hi-Matic AF2. In terms of lens sharpness-to-price ratio, this camera is hard to beat. And while there is no exposure compensation lever as you’ll find on other fixed lens compacts of its time, the camera will warn you if there is not enough light or if a subject is too close. It does this by emitting an irritating beep. It’s plasticky, light weight and a lot of fun to shoot with.
Buy one: These camera can be purchased in working order for between $10-35 on eBay. And if you are really turned off by the manual film advanced, consider the Minolta Hi-Matic AF2-M instead. It’s the same camera, but with a motorized film advanced.
Photo credit: Jonathan Mauer
Olympus Stylus Epic
History: The Stylus Epic or Mju II, as it was called in European and Asian markets, is a fully automatic, weatherproof compact camera that debuted in 1997. Like the Olympus XA, the Stylus Epic features a sliding door to protect the lens – it also doubles as an on/off switch. These cameras are revered for their sharp 35mm F2.8 lens, good autofocus and compact design. Plus the camera is powered by a long-lasting and easily obtainable lithium battery.
Why we like it: There’s a lot to like about the Olympus Stylus Epic. While not everyone is a fan of the camera’s odd, rounded design, this writer finds it fits perfectly in a back pocket. This, plus its weather-sealing make it a great take-everywhere-camera. Also, the flash starts charging as soon as the cover is opened, meaning it should be ready to go when it comes time to photograph a decisive moment.
Buy one: These cameras are a cult classic and can be a tad tricky to acquire. This is partly due to the fact that Olympus made numerous compacts under the ‘Stylus’ and ‘mju’ names. However the Stylus Epic/Mju II is optically the best and therefore the most coveted. You can generally find one for between $150 and $250 on eBay – not bad for a camera originally marketed as a budget compact.
History: The N90s, also know as the Nikon F90x in Europe, first debuted in 1994 and was manufactured until 2001. Geared toward advanced amateurs, this camera sounds quite advanced on paper, for a film SLR. Features like 3D Matrix metering, a top plate LCD, 4.1 fps continuous shooting in AF-C and a 1/8000 sec max shutter speed sound like digital camera specs. But don’t get too ahead of yourself, it has only a single AF point and AF performance does not compare to that of modern DSLRs. Still the camera is quite capable. And it runs on four ubiquitous AA batteries, which is a plus.
Why we like it: The turn of the century was an interesting time for camera makers: as consumers slowly began to shift from film to digital, a lot of advanced film cameras debuted at a time when the market was drying up. In a sense, the N90s offers nearly the same feel and handling of a modern Nikon DSLR in a film SLR body. If you’re a Nikon digital shooter, there’s simply no reason not to pick one of these up just to try. They are fantastic.
Buy one: It’s kind of crazy how cheap these cameras can be had. On eBay, expect to pay between $40-$120. Plus, they are easy to find in working order because of how recently they were manufactured. Just don’t expect to find a sweet deal on one with with a lens included. Oh and be aware, the rubberized coating on the body can become unpleasantly sticky with age, especially if the camera was stored in a warm environment.
Photo credit: Amydet at English Wikipedia
History: At the time of its release in 1981, the X700 was Minolta’s top tier manual focus camera. A market success, it was manufactured continually until 1999 and was also the final manual focus SLR the company made. Stand-out features include TTL flash metering, a bright viewfinder and multiple auto exposure modes. Like the Canon AE-1, the body is made mostly of plastic, which keeps the weight (and manufacturing cost) down. It uses generic drugstore camera batteries.
Why we like it: The X-700 offers both Program auto exposure and Aperture Priority modes as well as full manual mode, making it a good choice for those learning. Plus, Minolta glass is fairly easy to come by on the cheap for this system.
Buy one: You can expect to pay between $75 – $150 on eBay for one of these cameras with a lens. And like the Canon AE-1, it’s pretty easy to come across a bundle with camera, extra glass and accessories for around the same price as a single camera and lens.
Photo credit: Retired Electrician
Canon EOS 5
History: The Canon EOS 5, also sold as the EOS A2 in some markets, is a semi-professional SLR manufactured starting in 1992 and discontinued around the turn of the century. It uses Canon’s latest EF mount, first introduced in 1987. The camera features 16 zone evaluative metering and offers a top burst rate with AF, of 3 fps (5 fps in one shot mode). Other standout features include 5 selectable autofocus points as well as the very first iteration of Canon’s infamous eye-controlled focus. The body is powered by a single 2CR5 lithium battery. These batteries can be a tad pricey, but they’re easy enough to find online.
Why we like it: High and mid-range SLRs from the 90’s are strange beasts: retro in format, while offering some modern-DSLR features. The EOS 5 is a great example of this: it’s highly capable despite its lack of a sensor. Canon diehards can learn a lot about of the lineage of their modern DSLRs by spending some time with the EOS 5.
Buy one: No need to break the bank. You can pick up one of these cameras body-only for between $30 – $100 on eBay. But because they use the modern Canon EF mount, picking one up with a decent lens is going to set you back considerably more.
What cameras should we add?
Is there a camera you feel strongly should be added to this list? Is it affordable, readily available and technically capable? Let us know in the comments!