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.
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.
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!