Collecting Cameras, Film Photography

What’s the best film camera to start with?

Every time I see a post about the best film camera to start with, the comments pile on. So many different, strong opinions. So many of them recommend a mechanical, manual SLR like the Pentax K1000 or the Minolta SR-T 101.

I think that’s a terrible place for a newbie to start. There’s so much to learn about exposure to use a camera like that. It’s a barrier that could turn a budding film photographer away.

Instead, buy an auto-everything 35mm SLR from late in the film era, around the turn of the century. My favorites are the Nikon N-series cameras, like the N55, N60, and N65. Get one with a lens already attached, preferably a Nikon Nikkor. A 28-80mm zoom lens is common and still useful. You can buy kits like these for $30 on eBay every day. (Read my post here about how to buy film gear on eBay.)

Nikon N65

There are some risks. Any used camera could have issues. But I choose these N-series cameras because, in my experience, unless one has been abused it is likely to work reliably.

The other reason I recommend these cameras is that when you twist the big dial atop the camera to Auto, you have a giant point-and-shoot camera. You’ll easily get great first results.

Nikon N65

If you try one only to realize that film photography isn’t for you, you’re out very little money. You can probably sell the kit to someone else for what you paid for it!

If you find you like shooting film, keep going with this auto-everything SLR until you feel like you’ve mastered it. Then try a mechanical, manual camera like that K1000 (more info here) or SR-T 101 (more info here).

Here are some photos I made with my Nikon N60 and N65 with my 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6-G AF Nikkor lens, a common one to find with these cameras. I used everyday color films: Fujicolor 200 and Kodak Gold 200, which you can still buy at the drug store. I walked up, twisted the lens barrel to zoom in on the scene, and pressed the button. (My wife shot the last one.) That’s all there is to it.

Red house
Goals
Story Inn
A portrait of the photographer

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader, click here to subscribe!

Last updated on 17 April 2020 by Jim Grey

Standard

37 thoughts on “What’s the best film camera to start with?

  1. Andy Umbo says:

    Plenty of great metal, manual cameras to start with, but no way to second guess your choice or reasons…solid camera, solid thinking…

  2. jon campo says:

    I’ll agree with you Jim. When I was a student I started with a Pentax K-1000, then an Olympus OM-1 for college classes. (Which I still have and use) AE cameras were forbidden to us and also impossibly expensive. But film was almost free back then. Between the expense and with so many variables I could see a novice just giving up. I recently picked up a Nikon N90 for $12 dollars, that would make a great beginner camera I think.

    • Oh yes, the N90. Such an undervalued camera. I have film in my N90s right now. I bought it for $27! These are the serious bargain of the film camera world right now.

  3. I agree with you here. There are still times when I shift my Nikon F4 or Canon A-1 into program mode and just point and shoot. Makes for a day of carefree photography!

    • And with overall Nikon/Canon quality you know you’ll get fine results. That’s why I recommend these – lure the newbie in with easy good results and hopefully make them curious to explore deeper.

  4. Fantastic post Jim, the best way to encourage more people to try shooting film is to make the entry point as easy and affordable as possible.

    I would add that many people interested enough in photography to think about trying film have probably used a DSLR, which of course evolved from the kind of late era SLR you recommend, so they’ll already be fairly familiar with the form and basic layout and controls.

    I really like that you kept this post so short and to the point also, rather than dissecting a dozen options.

    • When a newbie asks me this question, which admittedly doesn’t happen often, they don’t need a dissertation, they need a simple recommendation. This is it! Nikon N65 and done. (Or N60, or N55.)

      • “When a newbie asks me this question… they don’t need a dissertation”

        Absolutely agree with that. Film photogs want to blab on and on about this model vs that model which is all just hair-splitting in most instances.

  5. Agree in principle but maybe an autoexposure camera is the better start, particularly aperture priority. I had an N65 for a long time, a great backpack camera but difficult to use in “manual mode.” For a beginner the controls that would not translate to a truly manual camera and might hamper the transition. With many aperture priority AE SLRs, the controls look and feel like a totally manual and can easily be used as such. Focusing is an easy new learning to graduate from a digital camera. And if the camera is equipped with the DoF button, the budding filmist can learn about impact of aperture on image as their interest blooms. If there is a transition to full manual it’s a matter of evolution rather than a new technology. (I learned in my pre-teen years on my Dad’s Signet 35, with lots of “Dad-time science lessons” to teach me about focus, aperture, shutter speed, and their interaction. The Dad-time aspect is not something to be discounted……or in our times has that been yielded to the screen?)

    • Yes for someone who has photography experience beyond their phone or a P&S digicam. Otherwise I think dealing with exposure at all adds complexity that makes the leap too far for most. People who ask me about this are generally just film-curious and an N65 will satisfy their curiosity at low entry cost. If they like it, then they can explore deeper! My recommendation for a second film camera would be something more manual, but with aperture-priority autoexposure.

      • Maybe. But I have a hard time dissociating the enjoyment of film photography from the necessity of considering the technical aspects. Digital makes it a lot easier to avoid those than even an N65. I’ve had two “film students” so far (one my son), both coming from iPhone photography. Both started with Nikkormat FTns (also inexpensive and abundant), although my son prefers my AE SLRs when he gets the chance.

  6. Victor Villaseñor says:

    I started with a SRT-101, but being into engineering, I actually loved that the whole darn thing was mechanical and forced me to really think of the exposure triangle.

    My modern film cameras are used when I want to focus on the actual picture and a lil less on the process. That said, there is nothing like taking your time with a Manual Focus camera… its part of the experience.

    Your approach has another benefit thou:

    What focal length do you prefer?
    What do you like more Aperture or Shutter priority for walk around situations?

    Now, that’s a happy Jim Grey, if I have ever seen / read one!

    • Victor, like you I enjoy the complexity of a good camera. But so many people who ask me about film photography have a more casual interest, and I think that complexity would scare them away!

      For everyday walk-around shooting I like 35mm lenses on 35mm film, aperture priority. What about you?

      • Victor Villaseñor says:

        I like more 40-50mm on 35mm film. The Minolta 45mm f2 is seemingly glued to my camera.

        Aperture priority for sure, I only swap to Shutter priority when trying to get a reasonably blur free picture of my kid (Minolta XD!).

  7. I think the first question that needs to be asked is, what is this person a student of?

    If the answer is that they are moving from a DSLR to film, and just need to learn to handle film, then yes, I believe your recommendation is absolutely spot-on.

    However, if the answer is that they are seeking to learn basic photography, I’d stand by the traditional, all manual camera. I’d even teeter on recommending that people start on film first rather than digital if for no other reason than because there is no such thing as a fully manual digital camera outside of some Leicas whose price is beyond reason for a student.

    The value in these all manual cameras is that you do not have an automatic option to lean on and everything you do requires basic textbook principles to be at least roughly understood.

    I think this foundation is precisely what is lacking in modern photography. I talk to so many folks who have only used a DSLR that do not understand basic concepts such as DoF decreasing as one gets closer to the in focus subject or what shutter speed they need to be at to hand hold without camera blur. Despite the instant feedback of digital, these very basic concepts are often lost to new and even experienced shooters who are busied and distracted by what each auto mode does.

    Or maybe what matters more is having fun and getting good shots regardless of one doesn’t know why?

    And again, if one is already familiar with proper DSLR shooting and is seeking to give film a try, a “35mm DSLR” is exactly the right tool to hand them. ;)

    • You ask the critical question.

      9 times out of 10 when I get asked it’s from someone who’s just film-curious. A “35mm DSLR” as you say really is the right tool for them.

      This is different from someone who wants to learn photography. On the rare occasion I encounter that I recommend a match-needle manual focus SLR with a 50mm lens, or if you must something with more exposure automation but a good manual mode. And then if I think they really mean it I offer a little of my time to them to help them get the hang of it.

      • Maybe our social circles are coloring our exposure to the next generation of film photographers differently but I am asked by many of both types of people, fairly often. Though, admittedly, in the last couple years I feel the questions have slowed for some reason. I would also submit that many of the “film-curious” folks who are used to a DSLR know less of the fundamentals than they think they know! But hey, whatever will get them in the door, right?

        • I agree that film-curious DSLR users generally know little about the mechanics of photography. Most of them, imho, use their DSLR as a big P&S.

  8. My recommendation is a Canon T70. You’ve got to be able to learn how to focus, compose and expose to be considered a film photographer. Just loading film in a camera doesn’t cut it. At least with the T70 (and Canon FD lenses), there’s a manual mode to graduate to without ditching the camera and a “training wheels” program mode to start off with. It’s got a super bright viewfinder, built-in winder, it feels solid, and is fun to use.

  9. tbm3fan says:

    Your recommendation makes sense. I think back to when I took my first picture with a camera. It was the Spring of 1960, I was 6 years old, and I used an Imperial Debonair (P&S) that I had gotten for selling Christmas cards. You’re too young to recall the selling of Christmas cards by kids in the 50s and 60s. Anyway I moved onto a 127 camera, probably Kodak, when 12-13 at the same time I had darkroom time in my elective class, Graphic Arts, in 7th grade. So I learned development/contact prints, how to set type, use a manual press, make paper, and tie dye.

    The irony is that I learned how to develop film first before I learned photography. That came in 1972, after reading Popular Photography for information, I settled on a SRT-101 instead of a Miranda or Topcon which I now have anyway. That SRT-101 is what I took into my year long photojournalism class at SDSU for the 74-75 school year. Bonus was a great teacher, lots of darkroom time and all the printing experience I desired.

    • See, yeah, most of us old enough to have started making photos in the film era started with something like that Debonair. My first camera was a Kodak Brownie Starmite II. Fixed focus, fixed exposure. The latitude of Kodacolor II made up for it. It took me a long time to learn I liked making photographs, and then I got more interested in doing it better, which led me to more capable and thus more complex cameras.

  10. A film beginner’s experience and expectations are certainly going to be important in choosing the first best camera. Also important is what kind of expert advice will be available during the introductory process.
    I know a fellow who started as a young kid with a Leica IIIa. I think that worked out because his father was an avid photographer and also apparently a good and patient teacher.
    My own recommendation for a starting with film would be a no-frills box camera, preferably one with a brilliant finder. A lot of box cameras came with excellent manuals which explained the fundamentals without intimadating complications.

    • What an interesting recommendation. My initial reaction was, “but they’d have to futz with threading in rollfilm,” but then I realized I did it on my own with no Internet to guide me when I shot my first roll of film, 127 in a Kodak Brownie Starmite II, at age 10. And you’re right, many of those old manuals wrote accessibly about the basic mechanics of exposure.

  11. Pingback: Ilford HP5 Plus 400 + Pentax P3 + SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/2 - Island in the Net

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.