Collecting Cameras

Three all-metal, all-manual 35mm SLRs for under $50

The prices of old film cameras have been slowly on the rise since about 2015, when this hobby started to become more popular. Before then, you could pick up some really stellar 35mm SLRs for under $50, as I did with a Pentax K1000 and a Minolta SR-T 101. You’d be very lucky to find a deal like that today! These cameras go for $100 or more now.

Never fear: you can still buy some great old-school metal, manual 35mm SLRs for under $50. You’ll find your best bargains on eBay; read my tips for buying on eBay without getting taken for a ride here. You can also buy from UsedPhotoPro and KEH and get their good guarantees, but you’ll pay more.

Here are three 35mm SLRs for under $50 that I’ve owned and can vouch for.

Canon TLb

Canon TLb

Read my review here. Built in the mid 1970s, the TLb takes Canon’s full range of FD lenses. When I see these for sale, they often come with the 50mm f/1.8 Canon FD lens already attached. It’s a fine performer. FD lenses are often excellent bargains themselves because in the 1980s Canon abandoned the mount. You can also use the older Canon FL lenses on the TLb if you don’t mind stopping down to meter.

The Canon TLb’s focal plane shutter has a top speed of 1/500 sec. A 625 battery powers the CdS-cell light meter. It was designed for now-banned mercury cells, but I shot mine with PX625 alkaline cells I bought on Amazon and had no trouble. (Read why here.)

The TLb is the little brother to Canon’s FTb, and lacks a few of the FTb’s features such as mirror lockup, self-timer, 1/1000 sec. top shutter speed, and hot shoe. Canon also offered the TX at about the same time, which is the same as the TLb except it includes a hot shoe. These two cameras usually go for more than $50, but not always, so include them in your search. All three cameras handle the same.

Another dashboard
Canon TLb, 50mm f/1.8 Canon FD S.C., Kodak Gold 200 (at EI 100)

Pentax Spotmatic

Pentax Spotmatic SP

Read my review here. Pentax offered a range of Spotmatic cameras from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s. Pictured at right is the original Spotmatic SP, but you will also find the SP500, the SP1000, and the SP II. You’ll also find the F, which is a little different (read my review here), but probably not for less than $50.

Spotmatics offer a focal plane shutter with speeds up to 1/1000 sec. (1/500 sec. on the SP500) and through-the lens metering. You have to press the stop-down lever on the side of the lens housing to activate the meter so you can set exposure, and then release it to make the photograph.

Spotmatics take lenses in the M42 screw mount. Pentax made a huge series of them with the Takumar name and they’re all terrific. But many other companies made M42 lenses as well. A Spotmatic opens the door to a whole world of interesting optics.

One challenge with these cameras is that the meter requires the 1.35-volt PX400 battery, which hasn’t been made in ages. The 1.55-volt 387 battery fits, and the Spotmatic includes circuitry to adjust the voltage to the expected 1.35 volts. You can buy 387 batteries at Amazon.

Maze
Pentax Spotmatic SP, 55mm f/2 Super-Takumar, Arista 400 Premium

Nikon Nikkormat FTn

Nikon Nikomat FTn

Read my review here. Nikon’s Nikkormat line (Nikomat in Japan) is often overlooked in favor of the company’s Nikon-branded offerings. It’s a shame, because if you get a Nikkormat FTn in good nick and take care of it, you’ll make beautiful images with it for the rest of your life. These are incredibly well-built machines.

The 1967-75 Nikkormat FTn is the most fully featured camera in this list. It offers a vertical focal-plane shutter with speeds from 1 to 1/1000 sec. It also features center-weighted average through-the-lens metering, as well as depth-of-field preview and mirror lockup.

The Nikkormat FTn takes Nikon F-mount lenses, but there’s a quirk. To mount a lens and meter it properly, you have to set the aperture to 5.6 and make sure the coupling pin is all the way over before you mount the lens. As you mount the lens, line up the coupling shoe on the lens with the pin on the body. Then with the lens mounted, you have to turn the aperture ring all all the way to the smallest aperture and then all the way to the largest aperture. It’s the “Nikon twist,” and after you’ve done it a couple times it will be second nature.

A 625 mercury battery powers the meter, but of course mercury batteries are banned. I always used PX625 alkaline batteries I bought on Amazon despite their slightly different voltage. (Read why that works well enough here.)

Down the path
Nikon Nikomat FTn, 50mm f/2 Nikkor H-C, Kodak Portra 400

There you have it: three metal, mechanical 35mm SLRs for under $50. All of them work with a wide array of wonderful lenses. Get a good one, and with care they will serve you well for years.

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51 thoughts on “Three all-metal, all-manual 35mm SLRs for under $50

  1. sigh excitedly went to ebay to check prices and as usual the shipping rates killed the mood. it may be a great deal for the US people but shipping across the ocean makes the camera twice as expensive:-(

    • These cameras are popular/common in the US but I find that other cool cameras are more common in the UK that are not so widely available here. It’s very difficult to find working Agfa cameras and many Russian Leica copies are in bad shape by the time they reach us also. Are these easier to come by where you live?

      • i live in israel and the used film cameras market here is not big so i’m searching ebay usually. speaking of russian leicas i once managed to get a zorki straight from saint petersburgh for cheap and quite good condition but as always on ebay you gotta catch that deal.

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    Plus One for all three! I still own a Canon FT (but would recommend the FTb and TLb , both of which I owned at one time, because of the FD lens use with wide open metering), and a Pentax Spotmatic. I have to say, I have 2 Pentax K-1000’s, which one was given to me and one was bought for 20 bucks, and I’ve always thought the Spotmatic shutter was way smoother and has less noise and “bounce” than the K-1000 series. My “Spotty” was also given to me, as well as a 28mm Pentax screw mount lens. When and if I have to clean shop in the near future, I’d bet I’ll keep the Spotmatic over all the others; there’s something about the Pentax Spotmatic body that’s so perfect in your hand!

  3. Ed says:

    Every time I read your review of a camera that I have, it’s always a good one. I picked up a Nikkormat with tele lens for $30.00 some time ago. Ed

  4. arhphotographic says:

    Hi I’m always a little anxious when you recommend cameras as I know I will have to get one. On this occasion I own all three and so the bank account is safe😊 All three are worthy of attention , particularly the Nikkormat/ Nikomat .
    Andrew

  5. These are all fine cameras, some of my favorites, actually. So it saddens me how little their supposed biggest fans are willing to pay for them.

    The problem with buying and selling perfectly good 35mm SLR’s for $50 is that there is no way that a professional can service and warranty them at these prices. That means you’re getting a camera that has likely never been serviced, or if it has, someone has lost money and skills on it. And what little money that’s involved is often not going to a business that supports film photography. These cameras are very durable and reliable but, let’s face it, just as we change the oil in our cars, so do we need to take care of our equipment and ensure the sustainability of our hobby/craft. A 40 year old camera that has never been serviced is not going to shoot reliably for more than a handful or rolls a year. It’s simply not going to stand up to rigorous use.

    Of course, that’s not really what people buy them for anyway, right? These great cameras are often bought cheaply and casually, used for a few rolls then resigned to sit on a display most days of the year.

    When I’ve brought this up in other places, people are quick to call me an elitist and lament not being financially able to afford expensive cameras. But from my point of view, the folks who buy sub-$50 cameras are usually not struggling student photographers trying to get into film for the first time. They are people who probably own at least five or more totally fine cameras already. So because the goal is a few rolls of playing around, not multiple rolls a day, every day for weeks or months at a time, they are unwilling to buy a $150 K1000 that has a 6 month warranty. The $50 K1000 will work fine enough for what few times it’s called on.

    So there’s really no good reason for a photographer to buy these cameras in the first place. That $50 could be spent on film, processing, printing etc. Instead GAS causes these $50 exchanges to take place and they chip away at the value of wonderful cameras and do nothing for our community or ones personal photography.

    I understand the thrill of getting a good camera on the cheap. I actively looked for them for years and amassed a big collection also. Liquidating that collection was difficult because it wasn’t worth my time, listing fees, taxes, and shipping to sell half the stuff to other people who are unwilling to pay reasonable prices for anything. And a few years ago, I bought a TLR on the cheap. It was the first camera I’d bought at a non-retail price in many years and was the last camera I’ve bought since. And I haven’t had it serviced. So I get it. I come from the same background and am maybe not that far removed from it. I am not wealthy either. And yes, I LOVE finding a camera I’ve never used before and learning all about it.

    But I don’t think it’s useful to continue encouraging this kind of activity. I think it can lead to hoarding or collecting at best, instead of actually practicing photography. In rare cases, I think we see new camera repair techs rising from their piles of cheap tinker cameras, and that’s good. But I don’t think that contributing back to our community with the spoils of a cheap camera is everyone’s goal here. And goals are exactly what I think we should be considering every time we buy a tool that we don’t actually need.

    These are just my thoughts as someone who’s been into classic cameras for about twenty years. Maybe we all need to follow our own paths, make our own mistakes and draw our own conclusions. I just wonder how many years the working $50 camera supply can last before it becomes so dicey to put a $10 roll of film in them that people just stop shooting film.

    • Andy Umbo says:

      Johnny, gotta say, many good points made! The unfortunate problems for me, is that most of my 35mm manual body collection has been given to me by people who found them for a dollar at a church resale shop, or had them laying around the house!

      My last “acquisition”, was a really nice looking Canon TL, that someone gave to me, that had a few problems. I finally found a pretty good old-guy “wrench” and sent it there, it now works perfectly, but cost me $180.00! Money in retirement, I really shouldn’t have spent! The problem for me, as a semi-retired pro, is that I can’t walk around using a camera with exploding foam rubber, and leaky seals, so I always send them in. The Canon TL brought back so many memories, and felt so good in my hand, I had to get it done!

      My problem is kind of the reverse of what you’re saying! Someone gives me a camera, I spend between $100-$200 bucks getting it tuned up, and when the pile gets too big, I start selling on eBay, generally providing a restored camera to someone for $50-$75 dollars, losing over $100 every time!

      Unless you are giving me a Hasselblad, TLR, or Zeiss Ikonta: QUIT GIVING ME CAMERAS!

      • Andy, it sounds like you have some very generous friends who have cool stuff! It’s great that you’re getting some of your donated cameras in for CLA and putting them to good use. I agree, we can’t afford to CLA everything. But maybe passing them onto someone who will might be a good solution. I bought a Leica IIIf and Summitar for $100 once. It was cheap because the camera and lens required a lot of work. I put in the cost for the lens and use it probably on a monthly basis. So that was a good investment. The body, I gave to a friend who was willing to put several hundred into it to get it working 100% again. Sure, not every situation can be this ideal. But I strive for this as oppose to purposefully seeking out $50 cameras.

        Additionally, I’ll say that the reason that you don’t get your money back out of a serviced camera is because the film community don’t value working cameras at reasonable prices. They keep actively looking to eBay for cheap stuff to play with. Most people are not looking to invest in their photography or the future of film. This of course is not your fault, but a problem with our culture in my opinion.

      • Well, my premise isn’t “because film photo bloggers recommend certain inexpensive cameras that it prevents people from buying serviced and well-functioning cameras for more.”

        I don’t blame photo bloggers squarely for this. Certainly age/finances have some big part of the equation as well.

        As you mention, I think it’s natural and normal for people to start with cheaper gear and work their way towards more expensive gear that suits particular needs. I think that there is a tipping point though, where some, perhaps many people, keep buying and trying but aren’t trying to any ends outside of more trying. So when you talk about not seeing other blogs on a topic, I think this is more the rare topic; encouraging growth and photography as oppose to encouraging GAS. So my attempts in blogging are to go the opposite direction of the crowd by doing this.

        If one just happens to agree with the crowd, I’m not going to hold that against you or anyone personally. And yes, there was a fun time when everyone was dumping perfectly good cameras for cheap and that seems to be behind us. So maybe my whole message is a bit late! But yes, I do see a race to the bottom as a popular theme in blog topics and daily forum chatter, even in the face of rising prices.

        Certainly bloggers don’t “prevent” anyone from buying anything. But we do influence. You are an influencer. People buy what you recommend buying. At least one of your commenters said this. So it makes me wonder, if you were to blog about three repair shops that will do a full CLA for under $100, what impact would that make?

        Just as I don’t regret picking up that Yashica A a few years ago, or not having it CLA’d. I am not calling for some puritanical rebuff on buying cheapies and all the fun/curiosity that goes along with it. I am just saying that I don’t think we need more cameras for under $50 blogs as much as we need some gentle push away from natural inclinations and more towards providing that bigger picture that those who’ve been doing this for a long time, yourself very much included, have.

        Thanks for letting me occupy some time for different considerations in your comments section, Jim!

        • Johnny, my blog over the last 3 years or so has been about investing in cameras and whittling the collection down to a manageable number that can be regularly used. But perhaps that’s too subtle. A post like this one is about as subtle as a baseball bat to the forehead.

          That’s a really good idea about recommending some repair people who do good work for reasonable prices. I have some cameras that could use a CLA and perhaps this is a good time to send them out so I can build that list of recommendations and write that post.

        • That’s very true, I can see that this has been the thrust of your writing and I applaud it. I apologize for the bad habit of only commenting when I have a disagreement!

          I’d love to see your repair list. I compiled one for Leica and it’s gotten a good deal of traction (for me). I take my Japanese cameras to a local shop that I’ve been going to nearly since I started photography and the few times I’ve sent Japanese cameras out, those places are no longer in business or reputations declined. We are definitely in need of a fresh list for 2021!

    • Of course you’re not getting a serviced camera for $50 or less. But you can buy a camera to see if you like it, and if you do, then send it out for service. This is the model I followed for years. I’ve sent out most of my Pentax bodies and some of my Nikon bodies for CLA and (in some cases) repair so they will serve for the long haul.

      Now that I’m no longer trying to grow a collection, I still like cameras for under $50 so I can put a few rolls through them and then pass them on to their next owner. It’s still great fun to try a new-to-me old camera.

      That fun is absolutely a good reason to buy a camera. And there’s nothing wrong with simply collecting cameras. I did it exclusively for three decades before finally catching the photography bug.

      • You make a good distinction, is the goal to be a collector or a photographer?

        And what is the harm in buying to try?

        Or collecting instead of photographing?

        Suffice to say, my concern is that film photography as a whole, as an art, as a craft, as a genre, and certainly as a professional, morphs like its members into camera collecting. But maybe I’m unnecessarily casting my own struggle on the entire community by looking at things this way. Time will tell.

        • Not only will we run out of serviceable cameras but every $1 we spend on another camera is another $1 that we’re not spending on film, processing, printing, etc. Today eBay stock is at $57.88 and Kodak stock is at $9.10. We are the people driving this.

  6. Hey, I did my part in 2018 giving away a couple dozen Nikons, about half again as many Canons, six or eight Olympus, and a vast quantity of ‘lesser-knowns’ like Yashica, Miranda, Exacta, Alpa … Plus rangefinder 35s and literally hundreds of others. I sure hope someone got some inexpensive deals from that and managed to take a few shots.
    I kept my Spotmatic 1000 though.

  7. It wasn’t that long ago that a Pentax ME or ME Super could be had for around fifty bucks. Not now…which I guess is a good thing for keeping photography alive.

  8. Insisting that inexpensive cameras are a threat strikes me as short-sighted as well as plain wrong. I got into photography in 2019 because I wanted to take pictures of my garden. I decided to go for a film camera, and when I found the Minolta Maxxum 7000i for 40.00 with two lenses—a camera I had longed for in 1991– I jumped on it.

    If someone had insisted that I pay 200.00 for a camera and then another 200.00 for lenses, just to take pictures of flowers, I would still be using my iPhone.

    On my blog, I keep a list of shops that repair Minolta gear, it’s updated monthly and is the most popular page on the site along with the gear buying advice page. Plenty of people are having gear repaired and CLA’d.

    Repairs: https://earthsunfilm.com/repair-services/

    Buying advice: https://earthsunfilm.com/collecting-minolta-for-newbies/

    Low-cost cameras lower the barrier for bringing new people into photography. It allows exploration at low risk. How is that possibly a bad thing?

    • Well, the ecology of film photography is a bit more complicated than I think makes it possible to declare my opinion “plain wrong.” Just as yours is not “plain wrong,” I simply disagree with how widespread I think it is.

      Sure, a cheap camera gets someone started. For all intents and purposes, my first camera was a $100 K1000 with a 50/2 lens from a flea market. And here I am two decades later while many other kids in my first photo class came in with new F5’s and so far as I know, did not become not working photographers. So that low investment worked out just fine for me. It’s not wrong in every case. And I’m not saying that it is.

      But…

      1–I think that as experienced photographers, we can give new photographers better advice than directing them to rolling dice with unserviced, unwarrantied cameras. Film is expensive. How many heart-felt rolls does an inexperienced shooter typically ruin before finding out that their camera or lens is not working correctly? Why not just direct them to GOOD cameras and reduce the likelihood of heartbreak as much as we can while simultaneously supporting a reputable business that depends on film photographers?

      2–I believe that the vast majority of people looking for $50 cameras are not new film photographers, but rather they are collectors new and old. When you’re taking a class or looking to get started in any hobby, reasonable people budget to get reasonable quality equipment to start with. People don’t typically, in my view, begin penny-pinching, until they get into a hobby and become aware of all the ways they can get something cheaper than normal. If this is true, directing people to cheap cameras is not turning on new photographers, it’s turning on collectors.

      3–As noted in other comments here, people seldom view $50 cameras as worth CLA’ing. And what you are advocating is buying cameras at prices that would be impossible to CLA for. So I’m unclear as to if you support CLA’ing all cameras that are put into regular use or not.

      4–And that brings me to the last thing I’ll say here, which has been an important point through this discussion. What you are willing and unwilling to purchase comes down to if you are a photographer in need of reliable equipment to use with frequency and seriously or if you are a collector who is not putting a camera through its paces.

      I am for supporting local film-centric businesses, putting quality cameras in the hands of people so they can do their best work and ensuring a future for what we are doing.

      Do you think that is “wrong?”

      I am not wrong. You are not wrong. Our goals differ and perhaps should be stated to frame our opinions perhaps.

  9. Johnny, I think I get the main point you are trying to make (and correct me if I am wrong): Focusing on inexpensive cameras leads people to hoard cameras at the expense of those who would truly enjoy them. And while i appreciate what you’re trying to say, I don’t know if I can agree with the statement.

    Let’s face it: There’s people who are either collectors or hoarders. There’s psychological issues at play here, stuff beyond what we can do. They’re going to go out there and grab as many cameras or (insert object here) as they can find. Sure, it’s easier for them to grab the cheaper stuff. It is a shame that there are people who will buy up scads of cameras or (insert object here) that will become Shelf Queens. It would be nice that every old camera out there was being loved appropriately. But I don’t think that blog posts like this one are the culprit: They’ll find them out regardless.

    And I do think that there are plenty of folks starting their film photography journey who buy cameras for $50 and under, and these folks would find a post like this useful. Yes, there is the risk that if enough bloggers/YouTubers/Instagram influencers/etc start talking up these cameras, these prices can rise above that $50 threshold. It happened with the K-1000. But people like seeking out others advice. And the bigger issue is that the only new film cameras that are made now are either at the disposable/near disposable level, or really expensive. What is someone who is just going to start out to do? They’re going to look for a good value on an old piece of equipment. Because unless they are spending money on a film photography class (already an investment) where they’ll be told to spend a certain amount of cash on gear, they may not know if film photography is going to work out for them, so they don’t want to sink a lot of money into a hobby just yet.

    But it can turn out good. After seeing that a few of my friends were into film photography, last year I decided to buy my first film camera in over two decades, a Minolta Hi-Matic 7s. I wanted to find a rangefinder that would give me good results without breaking the bank. I spent $35 plus shipping. The camera turned out great and hooked me. From there, I bought some other cameras, all $50 or under, and have been having lots of fun.

    And here’s the twist: Right now four of the five active 35mm cameras in my stable have been CLA’d or are getting CLA’d, including that Hi-Matic. I saw the value in making sure that those cameras were in tip-shop shape. But I wanted to get to a point with those cameras that I knew they were keepers. As Jim and others pointed out, you don’t recoup the costs of a CLA if you sell the camera (unless the camera sells for way more than you got it for.) Sort of like vintage bicycles: I’ve definitely invested more into the bikes I’ve sold than I recouped. So I don’t want to spend $100-125 on a camera that I’d sell.

    I’m sure there’s others who get into film cameras have done the same thing as me. Not all, of course, there are plenty of people who seem to go through $50 and under cameras like it was water, possibly in pursuit of “perfection”, possibly because they want to try as many different cameras as possible, possibly because they get bored easily. But there are others who may limit their stable and make sure what they have will work for decades. And the way we can get more folks like that is by first getting them into film cameras by showing them they can start with a functional camera that costs $50 or less. And when they get hooked, sell them on maintenance.

    So let’s get people into value-priced cameras, then tell them it’d be a wise investment to get a CLA. This will help out the camera repair shops, and make sure these cameras can last decades more.

    • Thanks for considering my messaging.

      “So let’s get people into value-priced cameras, then tell them it’d be a wise investment to get a CLA. This will help out the camera repair shops, and make sure these cameras can last decades more.”

      This is a great compromise between my stance and, what seems like, the rest of the film community’s.

      My goal isn’t to diminish anyone’s hobby, quite the opposite; it’s to elevate it. But I’m admittedly frustrated with opposition to what I feel are clear obstructions to becoming a better photographer that camera collecting and, worse, hoarding, poses. I won’t continue to argue this as I’ve restated my view several times to little avail. That may just be a different topic all together. But I am glad to see that the intended path of picking up sub $50 cameras among some here, is towards proper care and loving use as oppose to cheap passing thrills.

      I have been working on a blog about how to buy vintage cameras and I will certainly take note of this encouraging method of buying low, trying and then investing.

      Thank you.

  10. Jim, this was a great trio of cameras to feature. As you noted, today, examples in half-way decent condition are more than $50, but with persistence, maybe you can still find a cheap one. From what I have seen, the increasingly rare decent Spotmatics are creeping up in price. What kills many of these 1960s and 1970s cameras is the leaking battery syndrome, leaving a corroded mess internally.

    My first serious camera was a Nikkormat FTn that I bought in Nov. of 1968. I used that camera all over the world in good weather and rotten, tropics and mountaineering. It was a heavy and rugged bruiser.

    My wife bought a Honeywell Spotmatic in 1970. It is here at home and still in occasional use, complete with mercury battery. Mr. Eric Hendrickson overhauled it. Many of the used ones I see on the ‘Bay look pretty crummy. I think the clean ones have been bought up, and sellers are scraping the bottom of the discard bin nowadays. If you see a clean example, grab it! The Takumar lenses are uniformly superb.

    • Dead meters, sticky shutters, balky winders, and leaky batteries. These are the common failures of old SLRs. It can be challenging to find one without these problems at the sub-$50 level, but it’s far from impossible.

      You and your wife chose wisely with your Nikkormat and Spotmatic!

      • I have found that sticky shutters on mechanical cameras sometimes (often?) settle down with some exercise, unless they are hopeless gummed up. Click the shutter hundreds of times. My experience with electronic cameras has been mixed. If they work, the shutter speeds are fine. If they do not power up, they are kaput.

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