First question to ask yourself before buying your first film camera is, "Why am I buying a film camera?"
Looking for an all auto point and shoot experience? Do you want to learn the basics with an all manual camera? Do you want a camera with that vintage aesthetic? Or maybe you want something in between. All are valid. There are a lot of folks that may have not ever used a film camera before and just want to see what all the #Believeinfilm fuss is about.
If you are reading this I will assume you have been bitten by the film bug for one reason or another. Figuring out why you are buying a film camera is a big first step. Before I recommend what to research I will list some reasons for getting film if you have not considered it before.
Relatively inexpensive path to full frame and above.
Images capturing surface area is your friend. Digital full frame surface area is expensive. Digital medium format enters eye watering prices for mere mortals like myself.
Not so much with film. I also touched on this in an earlier post.
With film, $50 bucks or so can get you in the 35mm door with nearly full automation (AF and AE; Konica C35 AF2).
For a little more than $100 you can even get in the medium format film door if you are okay with an all manual TLR like the Yashica Mat LM.
With that being said, let's and take a look at the least expensive digital 35mm and digital medium format cameras. Are you back? I know, right. Some balk at the back-end cost of film, but you can buy a whole lot of film, film development, and scanning for the difference in price between film and digital.
What to research?
First ask yourself: How much automation do I need?
If you are okay with a hand held dedicated light meter (or phone app) or guessing exposure, the world is your oyster. Any camera will do. I have an all manual 35mm FED 2 that I love to shoot with and with 36 exposures per roll I am okay with rolling the dice and guesstimating exposure using the Sunny 16 rule. Most old all manual 35mm cameras that do not rhyme with Micah can be had for relative peanuts. When I use the all manual medium format Yashica Mat LM 6x6 I will break out the light meter to make sure I get the most out of those 12 relatively precious exposures. Also note that many all manual medium format cameras, depending on legend and performance, can also climb in price very quickly so be wary of price creep.
While the Yashica Mat LM technically has a light meter it is a non-battery powered selenium meter. In my experience these are typically well past their prime and are not that accurate if functional at all.
If external metering or guesstimating exposure does not sound fun at all and you do require proper AE you can still get in the door for not a lot of spend in 35mm form. There are great fixed lens and interchangeable lens SLR options. If you do choose an interchangeable lens camera make sure you research lenses first. I have long wanted a Contax 35mm SLR just because, but while many bodies are affordable their system lenses are out of my price range. Medium format cameras with AE start to climb in price. I enjoyed using the auto AE, manual focus Pentax 645 for example, but even at the frugal end of medium format AE market they are no longer cheap.
Auto AE and AF:
If you need AE and AF 35mm options affordability will usually land you in the plastic abomination 80s era cameras territory. While these cameras and bodies are usually ugly as sin, these cameras can produce some amazing images. (I happen to love ugly, goofy 80s cameras.) Sample below was with a fully automated camera that was of so little value the camera local shop gave it to me for free to get it out of the door. By now they have made back their gift in film development however. (Pentax SF10)
A little more spend can get you some amazing all auto 35mm cameras like the Minolta Maxxum 7 SLR which is my top candidate for my best camera film or digital at any cost.
AE and AF for medium format film starts getting spendy, however. One of the best deals is the Pentax 645N and that starts creeping into new (crop) digital camera pricing territory. But if you do go for medium format film you will likely not regret it.
Set a budget for yourself. How much do you want to spend?
You may not need to spend anything. Ask around. Some of my favorite film cameras were gifts given by people that had an old camera lying around.
No freebies available? Before getting lured into a legendary high dollar coffee and cameras meet up film, darling I highly recommend starting out with a more pedestrian film variant. For example: Want an Olympus OM1 SLR? Try an OM10. Want a Leica M3? Try a Canon Canonet QL17 GIII. Want a Contax T2? Try a Konica C35 AF2. Want a Rollei TLR? Try a Yashica TLR.
No matter the pedigree, a film camera is ultimately a light proof box built to hold a lens the proper distance from the film plane. And unlike digital the sensor (film) is swappable. In fact the lens used and the film chosen have way more impact on the resulting image than that light proof box between them.
I will not bother saying exactly what camera to buy. I have no way of knowing what your answers were to my questions above. What I will do is share the sites I visit when shopping for a film camera that help me choose what to buy.
Local: Armed with your answers from above stroll in and state what you are looking for. One time I walked in to my local camera shop and declared to Dennis,"I am looking for an all in one 35mm camera with AE and AF for about $50." Less than 5 minutes later I had purchased the Konica C35 AF2, mentioned above, which happened to be sticker priced at $50. It will not always happen that way, but it is a good start. You may need to raise your price point or lower your expectations.
Online: KEH.com or other online camera stores also have used sections. Choose an upper end price point when you search to keep you from price creep. Unchecked, it is easy to blow way past your intended budget. Make sure to check the condition notes. What you may think is the deal of a lifetime may be accurately priced inoperable shelf decoration.
Read Reviews: Unless you are familiar with a particular camera's feature set it is a good idea to research it before you buy. Confirm the features and the like to see if it is a good feature match. Aside from just googling the make and model I have had good luck at the following sites:
As stated above, the largest factor where image quality is concerned is the lens. Built in lenses are usually somewhere between 35mm and 50mm. For SLRs these are great for the first lens. Plus a good 50mm will usually cost peanuts and are typically great performers. On the other end affordable lenses may not produce the desired results.
View Photo Samples:
See what others have done with the same camera. You could do better or worse than what you see, but a good cross sampling from different photographers will usually give you a good idea of the results you can expect. Search for sample images from the sites below:
Flickr (Many cameras have specific groups. Searching here has cost me a lot of money.)
Lomography (Many film camera samples here)
Time to Buy:
Once you have made a choice, just do it! The good news is if you have purchased from a reliable source like, KEH, or another trusted local or online camera shop you can return the camera if you have issues. The other good news is that most old film cameras have long since done all the depreciating they will do. If you get tired use it for a while and trade away when it starts to collect dust. It's like a long-term rental for peanuts. Some rare, more sought-after expensive cameras may actually increase in value over time. Get out there and start snapping. Give it a couple of rolls to get the hang of the camera and have fun.
Lastly, if you do find yourself bitten by the film bug and you will be doing this long haul I would like to suggest some cost cutting measures.
Not sure what to buy? Go with an SLR that has AE or an all auto point and shoot 35mm. The focus patches make it a breeze to focus for yourself. There are a ton of cameras like these and they are simple to use compact, usually have fantastic lenses, and most are very affordable. Oh and they are usually built like bricks. I bounced my all plastic Konica C35 off a driveway day one. Works perfectly and barely a mark.
Develop your own film. I happen to like the convenience and social aspect of stopping by the local camera shop. If the shop was not there I would definitely be developing my own film.
Scan your own negatives. Paying someone else to scan your negatives can cost up to $10 or more a roll. A good flatbed scanner with film and slide trays runs around $200 (I chose an in box older model Epson V600). Pays for itself 20 rolls in and I get just as good or better scans doing it myself. Also, buy canned air unless you like cleaning up dust in post.
Find an agreeably priced film stock. While I love to shoot any slide film Acros, Provia, Portra, , Vista and other pricier variants, here are my go to budget daily films:
Kodak Color Plus – I get great results with a unique look.
In a pinch any drug store or megalomart multipack film – Even though these only have 24 exposures instead of 36 like the films above they still offer good value and they are available 24/7 near anywhere.