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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Collecting Cameras

I’m trying an experiment today: I updated a camera review from many years ago and republished it as new today. It’s the post immediately before this one.

I’ve added a redirect on the old URL so searches come to the new review.

So many of my reviews are very old — the first one on this site, of the Kodak Retina Ia, dates to 2008. Have you ever read it? I doubt it. It might be interesting to republish it. Trouble is, I don’t own that camera anymore. I have nothing more to say about it.

I do still own the Kodak Monitor Six-20, on the other hand, and have used it recently. I’ve learned more about how to make good images with it, more about its quirks, more about its shortcomings. I have something new to say about it.

Feedback welcome — is this a good idea or not?

An experiment in camera reviews

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Collecting Cameras

Film cameras in use

Sometimes when I have film in a camera, I photograph it with my phone. I’m not sure why. But I was happy to see these photos when I reviewed all the images I made with my iPhone 6s to write a forthcoming review.

Pentax ME
Olympus Trip 35
Olympus OM-1
Nikon Nikomat FTn

Three of these photos were taken on my desk at work. Sometimes people notice my old cameras and say something, but mostly they don’t. Every now and again I discover a kindred film spirit this way, and that’s always nice.

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Collecting Cameras

Deep inside my Nikon F2A

Sover Wong photo

When my wife asked me what I wanted for my birthday this year, I told her that I wanted to send my Nikon F2A to Sover Wong for an overhaul. Sover is the world’s premier Nikon F2 repairman. The overhaul was expensive, but when my camera returned it was factory clean and functioned like new.

Nikon F2

This F2A joined my collection in 2013 as an incredibly generous donation from a reader. He enjoyed my blog and my SLR adventures, and wondered whether I was F2 material. “Many are called, but few are chosen,” he said to me. I loved using this camera — turns out I was chosen.

The “A” in F2A means that my camera comes with the DP-11 metering “head.” That’s the black contraption atop the camera with “Nikon” spelled out in white letters. The prism and meter are inside. Nikon made a number of other F2 models with different letter suffixes; each used a different head.

My DP-11’s meter was never quite right, so when the same reader gave me a beautiful F2AS already overhauled by Sover Wong, I turned to it and left the F2A on a shelf. But I knew I’d eventually send it to Sover. I just didn’t know it would take me seven years to get around to it!

When Sover put my F2A on his workbench, he first tested it and emailed me his findings. The meter was off by about a stop. The shutter was reasonably accurate at 1/125 sec and below, but not at faster speeds. The top two speeds didn’t work at all. Sover set to work, emailing me photographs every step of the way. He disassembled and cleaned everything, installed new foam seals and bumpers, put in new CdS metering cells, calibrated the meter, calibrated the shutter, lubricated the works, and made sure things like the frame counter, the timer, and the depth-of-field preview button worked right. He even installed fresh batteries. He did all of this work in just a few hours.

When the F2A arrived, it was clean — if it weren’t for the bit of brassing it had picked up from its years of use, you would have thought it was new. It even smelled new, thanks probably to the scent of the lubricant he used. I put a roll of Ilford FP4+ into it straightaway and took it on a photo walk. Every control felt solid and snappy. My F2A was in okay shape before I sent it to him; the controls were solid before the overhaul. But after the overhaul, they were all noticeably more crisp and precise.

I developed that roll of FP4+ today (by which I mean the day I am writing this, Nov. 13), so I’ll have images to show soon!

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Collecting Cameras

My camera cabinet

For the 40-plus years I’ve collected cameras, I’ve kept most of them in boxes that I stored in closets and under the bed. For years I’ve dreamed of storing them all in a single, visible, easily accessed place. I’ve just fulfilled that dream by buying this cabinet.

This would not have been possible had I not said goodbye to so many cameras in Operation Thin the Herd. I would have needed at least three cabinets this size to store all of the cameras I owned!

Here’s a tour of my camera cabinet! I said everything here off the cuff so forgive me for calling my Olympus Trip 35 an Olympus Trip 75!

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Collecting Cameras

Operation Thin the Herd: Certo Super Sport Dolly

Statue before the big house

Yes, Operation Thin the Herd is still running. The pace has slowed to a crawl, however. I’ve been distracted by cameras donated to the collection since this project began, which is a wonderful problem to have. I’ve also wanted to shoot some of the cameras I’ve kept in this project! But back to it at last, down to the last few cameras. This time I’m considering my Certo Super Sport Dolly, a folding camera for 120 film.

Certo Super Sport Dolly

I used this camera last not long after it was given to me. It needed some repair to work properly, including patching pinholes in the bellows and replacing a broken focus-stop ring. But once repaired, it worked well. Here, I shot some Kodak Ektar 100 in it.

Test

The Super Sport Dolly gave me great sharpness from corner to corner. The colors are a little strange, but that isn’t unexpected with an uncoated lens. This camera is from the late 1930s, before lens coating was a thing. This lens is the 75mm f/2.9 Meyer Görlitz Trioplan, a three element, three group design based on the Cooke triplet. It’s set in a Compur shutter that operates from 1 to 1/250 second.

For this outing I loaded some Ilford FP4 Plus, which I developed in Rodinal 1+50 and scanned on my Canon CanoScan 9000F Mark II. I got unexpected results.

Ampitheater

The light leak is back, but that’s not surprising as my bellows repair consisted of dabbing black fabric paint onto the pinholes. That lasts only so long. The leak shows up in only a couple frames because I closed the camera between many of these shots.

Silos

But check out that vignetting. I didn’t experience that at all with the other rolls of film I’ve put through the Super Sport Dolly. Who knows why it’s showing up now. (I cropped the vignetting out of some of the photos that follow.)

Ampitheater

I also didn’t get the same sharpness I enjoyed before. My scanning might be to blame; I’m still figuring out how to get the best results from my scanner.

Shadows

But man, did I have fun shooting the Super Sport Dolly. I can’t say the same with many other old folders that I’ve used. The Super Sport Dolly is small and light compared to many other old folders. Its f/2.9 lens and 1/250 shutter might not strike you as blazing fast, but I’ve encountered a lot of old folders have limited use except in blazing sunshine due to specs like f/6.3 and 1/100. The Super Sport Dolly’s pop-up “frame” viewfinder offers easy framing, where many old folders have small, hard-to-read brilliant viewfinders. Finally, the Super Sport Dolly takes 120 film, rather than a defunct format like 620 or 116.

Shadows

I normally keep cameras that work very well and, ideally, are in very good cosmetic condition. This Certo Super Sport Dolly doesn’t clear this bar. But I enjoy it enough that it doesn’t matter. I already want to shoot it again.

Verdict: Keep

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