How to get into film photography on the cheap

People who see me out shooting with my film cameras sometimes tell me they’re curious about trying film, too, but they don’t know where to begin.

I’ll tell you what I tell them: buy any used Canon EOS-series or Nikon N-series 35mm SLR from the 1990s or early 2000s. They are plentiful and can be had for dirt cheap. They are light and easy to use: load battery and film, turn the mode dial to P, point, and shoot.

Canon EOS Rebel
The Canon EOS Rebel: a perfectly serviceable autofocus, autoexposure SLR

You don’t have to know a thing about focusing or exposure to use these cameras. Yet should you become curious about them, they offer full control over both.

I’d buy mine on eBay, which offers the best bargains. If you’re patient and persistent, you can score a body and lens for as low as $20 plus shipping. But buying on eBay comes with some risk. Sellers don’t always know or care when what they’re selling is broken. If you’re not experienced buying on eBay, buy only from sellers with ratings of 99.8% or above and a feedback score in at least the hundreds. Always read the auction details looking for caution flags. My favorite: the seller admits s/he doesn’t know anything about cameras, or says the camera came from an estate and is untested. Ken Rockwell wrote the ultimate guide to buying camera gear on eBay. Read it here.

To further reduce your risk, you can pay a little more and buy from an online used-gear dealer such as Used Photo Pro or KEH. Both give you a 90-day warranty, so if anything’s wrong you can send it back for a refund. Bodies go for as little as $15. These sites sell the lenses separately; just get a 28-80mm or 35-80mm zoom lens that matches your camera brand: Canon EF or Nikon AF (or AF-D, or AF-G). These versatile lenses offer passable quality. I’ve seen them sell for as little as $30.

My quick advice makes a lot of hidden assumptions and compromises. But these cameras strike a good balance among entry cost, ease of use, and image quality. Just by shooting a roll or two, you’ll learn a lot about whether film photography interests you. If you have any success and pleasure at all, you can explore other kinds of film cameras from there.

If you have enough photography experience to know what an f stop and a shutter speed are and how to use them, my advice changes. Get a manual-focus 1970s Minolta SR-T-series or Pentax K- or M-series body and lens instead.

Minolta SR-T-101
The Minolta SR-T 101: a wonderful manual-focus 35mm SLR

I love Nikons of this type, but they go for premium prices. Canons of this type are good too, and aren’t as expensive as the Nikons. But the Pentaxes and Minoltas are the real bargains of this bunch. It will take some patience, but you can find bodies such as the Minolta SR-T 101 (review here) or the Pentax KM (review here) for as little as $25 plus shipping on eBay.

The Pentax K1000 (review here) is also a fine choice, but it might take a little longer to find a bargain on one. It has almost a cult following, and as such can command non-bargain prices.

For a first lens, get the 50mm f/1.7 MD Rokkor for your Minolta, or the 50mm f/2 SMC Pentax-M for your Pentax. They are both sublime and can be had for as little as $25 plus shipping on eBay.

The same advice goes for these cameras: you’ll take less risk, but pay more, if you buy from KEH or Used Photo Pro.

After you have a body and a lens, get some film and shoot. I give some advice about where to buy film here. And of course you’ll need it processed and printed and/or scanned. I give advice about where to get that done here. Have fun!

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27 responses to “How to get into film photography on the cheap”

  1. Dan James Avatar

    Sound advice about the Pentax and Minolta bodies Jim, they are great, and the Pentax-M and Minolta Rokkor lenses are absolutely fantastic.

    I’m not sure about the late era automated bodies though, I must confess.

    After shooting film for a while I handled a late Canon EOS in a charity shop (like a thrift store) after a friend said he used the EOS bodies with adapters for M42 lenses, amongst others, as they were super cheap, widely available, small, light and offered excellent reliable metering.

    I absolutely hated it!

    Just the plasticky feel of it, and the less than wonderful viewfinder was a whole other world in terms of experience, compared with the beautiful ’70s Pentax, Minolta and Canons I’d been used to.

    I briefly had a late Minolta Dynax too, a Dynax 5 I believe, which was super competent, incredibly compact and light and could use excellent lenses like the Minolta AF 50/1.7. But again the feel of it was horrible and the VF pokey and dark. It felt like a DSLR!

    I’m just thinking that these late era plastic bodies – whether Canon, Nikon, Minolta or anyone else – aren’t going to give people a fair impression of the pleasures of shooting film. Yes, they use film, and with a good lens you’ll get beautiful results time after time. But for me a huge part of the enjoyment of shooting film is handling these wonderful all metal and glass (and often batteryless!) vintage machines.

    I’m not much of a wine drinker, but I guess it’s akin to drinking an expensive vintage wine from a polystyrene cup. Yes it’s the same wine (film), but the experience is always going to feel a bit cheap and disposable compared with drinking the same wine from, say, hand crafted crystal wine glass.

    What are your thoughts on the actual experience of handling and using film cameras?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Bear in mind that most people who ask me about shooting film have never done it before. Their photography experience is limited to their phones, or a point-and-shoot digital, or maybe a digital SLR. A late film SLR is a reasonable way for them to get into film to see if they like it. They’re cheap and plentiful, they are easy to use, and they are capable of fine results.

      I prefer my all-metal, all-manual SLRs every day of the week. But I think all that manual control could be alienating to someone unfamiliar with those settings who is just curious about film.

      If they enjoy the look of film, they can explore other cameras from there.

      1. dan james Avatar

        Yes, fair enough, the first stepping stone from digital to film for someone who’s only used a fully automated digital camera would be the late film bodies you recommend. That would at least enable them to see if they liked the look of film photographs.

        Hopefully then if they did they would explore other cameras. And end up with dozens, like us!

        I would hope for some people, picking up a vintage SLR with a great viewfinder for the first time, like a Minolta X-700 or Contax 139 Quartz, just looking at the world through that viewfinder would be encouraging and exciting enough for them to want to shoot some film with it.

        I sort of came in the other end – though I’d had a digital compact and phone cameras, my first film camera four years ago was a Holga 120N. Although it’s a simple camera, it’s quite a learning curve just loading the film correctly and trying to get anything reasonable out of it!

        My first SLR was a Praktica BMS Electronic, and all the knobs and lights and buttons were a bit intimidating at first. But learning is all part of the fun!

        What would be great Jim is if people who took your advice and shot their first rolls of film because of your influence then got back in touch with you and shared the experience, and if you wrote a blog post with a few of their experiences and stories.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Oh my gosh, that would be fun. Maybe some readers who try this will write in!

          My first SLR experience was my first wife’s K1000. She was a pro photographer and her K1000 was her personal workhorse. I knew nothing about exposure in those days. She’d set aperture and shutter for utility and I’d fire away at family gatherings just so she could be in some of the pics.

          The first SLR I owned was an X700. It failed on the second roll of film I put through it, the dreaded bad capacitor problem.

          1. dan james Avatar

            How far we’ve come, in terms of knowing about exposure and so on…

            I had an X-700 and they’re very impressive, especially that VF! And of course the wonderful Minolta lenses, which are the primary reason to buy any Minolta body, in my view.

            I just couldn’t quite warm to it though like I have other cameras so I sold it on.

            But it would be a great recommendation for a “next step” camera in your guide, once people had decided they do like film and want something more vintage than the late era plastic bodies.

            The X-700 has, as I’m sure you recall, a full Program mode as well as Shutter and Aperture Priority and metered Manual. Something like a Pentax P30 or P50 might be a good option too.

            I hope some of your readers take up the challenge, it would be great to see.

            1. Jim Grey Avatar

              I’ve had enough bad luck with electronic Minolta SLRs that I don’t recommend them to newbies. Two busted X-700s and three busted Maxxum 7000s… enough. I do have a very enjoyable XG-1 however and it has become the main body I use for easy Minolta shooting. Nothing beats my SR-T 101 for old school pleasure though. I haven’t tried the Pentax P series cameras yet; I mean to.

              I wonder if I ought to recommend a Canon T70 or Nikon N2000 as a next-step SLR.

  2. Christopher May Avatar

    All excellent recommendations. I would add that the EOS Rebel series offers an additional feature for the true film newbie. When loading those cameras, the camera will advance the film all the way to the end. Subsequently, the camera rewinds into the cassette as the photos are taken. Should the back be opened up before the roll is finished, the exposed frames are protected in the film canister. A simple but elegant solution for protecting latent images for inexperienced photographers!

    Some of the late Rebel models were really nice, too. The Rebel Ti, for instance, is a nice step up from the low end Rebel cameras.

    In the Nikon realm, I’m amazed at just how ridiculously cheap some of the N bodies have gotten. I nearly bought a N90s for $35 to compliment my digital Nikon system. Until KEH had a sale in which I picked up a BGN grade F4s for a little more than double that. Still, the prices on the N90 and the N90s tend to stay low. Those were the advanced amateur/low end pro camera until the F100 came along. Beyond the simple AF system with just a single focus point, they’re true workhorse cameras.

    And I’ll echo everything you said about Minolta and Pentax. I love my SR-T 202 and I tried and loved many Pentax cameras. The K1000 is great, but the cult following has indeed kept prices up. A forgotten gem in the Pentax lineup is the P3N. While it doesn’t have the charm of a manual camera, it’s still simple and small, offers auto exposure modes for those that prefer them, has an ergonomic grip that feels nice in the hand and can be found for a song. I used mine for some of my very last rolls of Kodachrome and the pictures came out delightfully!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I just got a Rebel S and shot a roll in it at the State Fair. It was a fine experience! I love my manual Nikons but for auto-everything the Canons are the stuff.

      I love my N90s but am not sure I’d recommend one to a film newbie. It’s heavy and there are a ton of controls.

      I do want to try a P3N one day.

  3. pesoto74 Avatar

    I guess like a lot of things by Rockwell his “guide” to Ebay if ever true is certainly outdated now. My main advice to buying on Ebay is to read whatever claims a seller makes for an item. If any of those claims turn out to be untrue it is almost automatic that you will get a refund from either the seller or Ebay. Most sellers live in fear of negative feedback and will bend over backwards to make customers happy. So don’t leave negative feedback prior to seeking a refund. The seller will be far less motivated to settle if you have already dinged him. Some buyers take advantage of this fear of negative feedback to get free stuff. A seller who doesn’t go along may end up with more negative feedback than is justified. And it isn’t possible now for sellers to leave negative feedback for buyers so it is hard to know who the cons are. Anyway for a lot of reasons once you dig into it, feedback scores on Ebay are pretty meaningless. Anyway it is almost impossible these days to lose your money on Ebay if you just use a minimum of care.

    While Rockwell mentions saved searches I couldn’t find where he mentions receiving notifications for these searches. Why go back and run a search yourself when Ebay will do it for you. I have found these extremely useful. If you have an item that you are interested on Ebay will notify you whenever there is a new listing for that item. I have gotten a couple great “buy it now” bargains this way. Oh well I guess that is enough of that. One other thing is that I would recommend is hitting some garage and church sales. I have found several Pentaz K1000’s for $5 or less. I even got a black OM1 for $1.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Rockwell surely is a polarizing figure. For the beginner audience I wrote this for I think his guide is still useful. I am thinking this audience wants to just get a camera cheap and easy with little fuss.

      I’m all for buying at yard sales if you know what you’re looking at. That’s how I got my 50/1.4 Rokkor for 30 bucks.

  4. Bob Dungan Avatar

    Having bought numerous cameras on ebay, I recommend buying from KEH or another firm that guarantees their cameras. Only buy on ebay from firms that allow returns. Once you have a camera you like, I recommend getting a CLA, clean lubricate and adjust for those that are not familiar with the term. A camera performing up to spec’s is a pleasure to use compared to a camera that has slow shutter speeds or other problems that don’t stop it from working but hinder its performance..

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      For the beginner I’m writing for, I think they’re just going to want to try film in an easy, inexpensive way. That’s why I recommend the late SLRs. Cost of a CLA takes this out of the inexpensive realm. If the beginner likes film photography and finds a camera he or she really likes, I’d say that’s the right candidate for a CLA. I seldom get CLAs for the cameras I review here – just for the ones I especially like and will shoot again and again.

  5. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    Good advice here. These late 1990s – early 2000s SLRs are certainly cheap these days and great to “test the waters” of film photography. One word of caution–these cameras have lots of electronics in them and when they fail, they fail horribly. One of my co-workers, wanting to try film photography, picked up a Nikon N70. Her first roll came back with exposures all over the place and a few shots double exposed and she was ready to throw in the towel on analog photography. I asked to look at the camera and indeed its on board meter was off by several stops and the motorized film advance was not consistently advancing the film. She was only out $40 for the N70 body and I helped her find a decent N90s which she is still happily shooting.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah, the Canon Rebel pictured above is actually dead; its shutter won’t fire. So yes, failure is a hard reality with these things, and the failures are hard to track down. That’s why I recommend buying them the way I do: dirt cheap, or slightly mor expensive with a warranty, to manage the risk!

      I love the N90s but I wonder if that’s too complicated of a camera for a newbie.

      1. bodegabayf2 Avatar

        You may be right about the N90s…but if someone shows a newbie how to set it in PROGRAM mode, it is essentially a point and shoot. What I like about cameras like the N90s is that a newbie can grow into this camera rather than out of it.

        1. Christopher May Avatar

          I agree. While an N90s might seem a bit intimidating up front, it’s really not that much different than an N65 or some other lower end model. Almost any camera is going to have some manner of learning curve. A newbie will have to learn how to switch modes on either camera to get started. Given what one has to learn with most digitals these days, it shouldn’t be too hard to figure this out. It certainly beats trying to figure out how to configure an Olympus mirrorless!

          If and when the new photographer gets hooked on the hobby, he or she will have an eminently capable camera for most subjects. Not saying that there’s anything wrong with a lower spec Nikon. Just given the prices on N90’s these days, I think that anyone trying out a film cam could spend the same kind of money as on something like an N65 and get a nicer camera.

          1. Jim Grey Avatar

            Yep. I have an N90s and it is wonderful.

        2. Jim Grey Avatar

          What a great point. Only advantage an N65 has over the N90 is lighter weight for the beginner – but the N90 will help the photographer grow in ways the N65 can’t.

  6. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    There were a lot of the Minolta SRT series cameras around back in the 70’s but I hardly ever see them at resale shops or vintage camera stores. MY buddy swears by the lenses, and actually uses them with adapters on mirrorless cameras. I never owned one, but I knew plenty that did. Wonder where they all are? Maybe people loved them so much, they’re in everyone’s basement? They certainly were around, and had at least as many fans as the Pentax Spotmatic did…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I was too young during the SR-T and Spotmatic era to really remember, but I experience now what you do: Spotmatics and K-mount bodies get all the love, and SR-Ts are kind of also-rans. I don’t get it.

  7. Marcus Avatar

    First of all, damn your eyes (the worst curse you can put on a photographer). Just when I decide to give up on film and use digital for everything I come look at this site and see the colours and tones of film that I can’t get from a sensor. A while ago I selected twenty-odd photos from 2015 to go into my Year’s Best Album and although most of the photos I made last year were digital, ninety percent of my final selection are film photographs. (And the majority of those medium format photographs).

    Good advice about choosing a camera for the film-curious. The nice thing about film is that even the crappiest cameras can use the latest film technology so, as long as the camera is metering correctly, the photos are going to look good. And the meter doesn’t even have to be [i]that[/i] good if there is black and white or negative film in the camera.

    I use a Zeiss Ikon M-mount, a Nikon F100, and a Contax 645. All great cameras but maybe not for the person just wanting to experiment with film.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Why do you think it is that so many of your most satisfying shots were on film last year?

      My experimentation with old film cameras proves you right: a little consumer-grade ISO 200 film covers all sorts of exposure sins!

      That F100 might be ok for a newbie: put it in P and shoot. But the others, yeah, you need to work your way up to them!

      1. Marcus Avatar

        I’m not sure why they’re better but it might be something to do with slowing down and thinking more before making a photo. Every time I click the shutter button I can hear my wallet sob a little. (I don’t know about the US, but in Korea a roll of Fuji Provia 100F costs the same as a 16GB Transcend SD memory card.) In the case of the medium format camera, it’s usually on a tripod so I have more time to think before making the photo. And, maybe, I feel more like an artist when I hold a film camera in my hands. So it could be my state of mind that helps me take more satisfying photos.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Holy cow, is film photography expensive in Korea! Unbelievable.

          Yes, I find that slowing down with my film cameras can lead to better work, too.

      2. Marcus Avatar

        Yeah, very expensive. That’s partly why I’m starting to switch to Kodak Portra film, which is half the price and looks nice. And I can get it developed locally (Gangneung) instead of sending it off to Seoul.

  8. Joe shoots resurrected cameras Avatar

    Great advice, but seems to be mostly looking towards buying online. I’ve bought most of my camera equipment in person, either at garage sales or thrift stores. With a good manual camera, it’s always nice to be able to check out everything yourself before buying. I’d never spent more than $25 on a camera (and they all worked fine) before using eBay.

    The FIRST advice that I would give to someone wanting to get a film camera though, would be to ask relatives and friends! People in your late teens or early 20s, your parents, aunts/uncles, grandparents, etc probably have something in the back of a closet that you can use, and then it’s FREE. I have cameras belonging to my grandpa and mother, plus so many people at my church know now that I’m into film cameras so I’ve become the local film camera donation center. So before you get your heart set on a particular camera and drool over one on eBay, ask around with people you know!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That’s really solid advice to ask friends and family. I’ve gotten a bunch of cameras that way.

      I agree that it’s better to buy a camera that you can see and hold in your hands first. Where I live, the only reliable outlet is Roberts Camera (the Used Photo Pro people). Unfortunately, they keep banker’s hours and never seem to be open when I can get there. The last two cameras I bought from them, I bought online and had them ship here!

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