With digital cameras of all varieties dominating the market, now is a great time to buy a film camera. Yes...a film camera! Updated for Summer 2010.
With digital cameras of all varieties dominating the market, now is a great time to buy a film camera. Prices for new models have moderated and there are many bargains to be found. The prices of used film cameras in excellent condition have generally plummeted to the point where the previously unaffordable pro or enthusiast 35mm SLR of your dreams may be available at an amazingly low price. And many fine entry-level models can be purchased for as little as $100 or even less at Adorama's Used Department, which always has an excellent selection in stock. There's far less risk entailed in buying a guaranteed used camera from a reputable store rather than one of the online auction sites.
But as time has gone by, the number of new 35mm SLRs has dramatically decreased, and now there are only a handful left. The most expensive one, the Leica R8, will soon disappear, as Leica has decided to end production of its storied line of film SLRs in order to concentrate on its digital replacement. So, while this article has over the last three years concentrated on 35mm SLRs, its scope has expanded to all film cameras, and now includes the less expensive film alternatives for 35mm SLRs, 35mm rangefinder cameras, medium-format and even large-format film cameras. Compared to the medium-format digital equivalents (which can easily cost $10,000 or much more), these cameras are, indeed, great bargains.
Let’s take a look at the best bargain-priced film cameras available right now!
With the discontinuation of the Leica R8, the Canon EOS-1v is officially the last high-end 35mm film SLR. The weather-resistant ruggedized camera offers 10 frames-per-second shooting, 20 custom functions, connectivity with computers, and 100 percent viewfinder coverage. It will last long after the last film SLR rolls off the assembly line.
Nikon FM-10: The FM-10 represents the end of the line for Nikon film cameras. Nikon stopped producing film cameras two years ago, but there are still some FM-10’s available and when they’re gone, they’re gone. At only $300 (with a 35-70mm f/3.5-4.8 manual-focus lens) the FM-10 provides entrée into the entire Nikon system of Nikon F bayonet-mount lenses, Nikon Speedlight flashes, and accessories. Controls, as one would expect for a low-cost camera, are minimal, although the metering is center-weighted. It’s a great camera for serious students of photography who want to learn the basics.
Vivitar V3800N: As the least expensive 35mm SLR on the market, the Vivitar V3800N follows in the tradition of all-mechanical cameras such as the Pentax K1000 and Minolta X-300, offering manual exposure and focus settings, a TTL meter, and a mount that accepts all Pentax K-mount lenses, of which there are many, especially in the used department. The camera is currently available in kits, either with a 28-70mm f/3.4-4.8 macro zoom lens for around $190, or with a standard, wide-aperture 50mm f/1.7 lens for $150.
With the knowledge that the fabled, finely-engineered Leica M7 is the $4,400, 800-pound gorilla in the room, let’s look at some 35mm rangefinder cameras that are more affordable to the average photo buff. Two companies—Zeiss and Voigtlander (Cosina), offer less expensive alternative.
Zeiss Ikon: Somewhere between the Voigtlander Bessa models and Leica is the Zeiss Ikon (not cheap at over $1,600), a German-made camera that works with both Carl Zeiss lenses and any Leica lens, thanks to the camera’s M-mount. Highlights include TTL autoexposure with a center-weighted meter and AE lock, a rangefinder view that shows the area surrounding the finder frame, and a wide rangefinder base, which allows for more accurate focusing. Available in Silver or Black.
Voigtlander Bessa R3M: The least expensive of the five-camera rangefinder lineup from Voigtlander, the Bessar R3M distinguishes itself with a bright 1:1 viewfinder, and a mechanical shutter release. White it offers TTL centerweighted light metering with a working battery, the camera will still operate (without the meter) if the battery is dead. Like the other rangefinders, the R3M has an M-type Bayonet mount and will accept all Leica rangefinder lenses. But at $600, the Bessa R3M costs less than half the cost of the Ikon, and almost a tenth the cost of a Leica M7.
While digital—especially full 35mm-frame DSLRs—is making serious inroads here, there is still a stalwart group that swears by high-end film Medium Format high-end SLRs such as the Mamiya RZ670 Pro IID (roughly $2,300) and the legendary $2,770 Hasselblad 503-CW. Bless ‘em—and if you can afford either of these workhorses, they are an excellent investment that will deliver mind-blowing image quality. But you can still learn a lot and have a blast with some lower-priced medium-format cameras (and we’re not gonna talk this time about “Krappy Kameras” like the Holga, Diana, and Lomo, which produce deliberately lousy images).
Seagull 107: At $160, its hard to lose with this basic Twin-Lens Reflex (TLR) Chinese-made camera, with its built-in, coated 75mm f/3.5 lens and manual everything. Shutter speeds are 1-1/300 sec, and the shutter is cocked after you advance the film. It’s a bit kludgy, and quality control varies, but this camera—as well as the Seagull 109 are all relatively inexpensive ways to experience rollfilm photography.
Voigtlander Bessa II 667 Folding RF: Retro lives! Yes, I know. You thought this article was going to be about low-cost film cameras, so what’s this $2,250 camera doing here? Well, it’s unique: a rangefinder camera with a built-in, folding lens—a design that hearkens back to the early 20th century, when Kodak folding cameras were the norm. The problem with the old folding cameras is that most of them require film in formats that no longer exist. The 667 Folding RF uses good ole’ 120 film.
Large format: This is about as hard core as you’re can get among cameras. Whether you’re an established studio photographer or trying to be the next Ansel, a large format camera is an investment, and a tool you’ll keep for life. But while most large-format are in the $1,000-5,000 range, there are a handful of outstanding values that cost only three figures. Remember though, your expenses only start with the camera. You’ll also need lenses, a good lab (or your own darkroom), and some relatively pricey consumables (read: film).
Toyo-View 45CX View Camera is an economy-priced studio camera with a monorail and full front and back movement (front and back swing, shift, tilt) via front and rear standards with 30mm and 45mm shift movements, respectively, making it ideal for architecture photography. At $715, this Technical camera comes at an increadibly low-cost; it is less than a tenth the cost of a high-end digital studio camera.
The Wista 45-SW 4x5 Cherry Wood Field Camera is a thing of beauty, with its eye-catching cherrywood chassis and gold parts so when you’re not out shooting a waterfall or whatever, the camera can be displayed on the mantelpiece. A field camera like the Wista is smaller and lighter: It folds into a compact 8x8x3 inches and weighs only 3.3 pounds, making it about as portable as you can get for a large-format model. And yet, this camera offers tilt, rise, swing and shift movements as well the ability to swap bellows and use a wide variety of lenses.