Collecting Cameras

Five semi-automatic 35mm SLRs for under $50

Not long ago I shared three all-metal, all-manual SLRs you can still get for under $50, all fine machines. But they all require you to set exposure manually, based on the onboard meter’s reading. It can be so nice for a camera to offer exposure automation! If that sounds good to you, then check out these semi-automatic 35mm SLRs for under $50.

Full programmed, aperture-priority, and shutter-priority autoexposure take some of the fuss out of shooting. You’ll find many wonderful cameras in this category — including many popular options that routinely sell for well north of $100. I’m looking at you, Canon AE-1, Nikon FE/FA, Minolta X-700, and Olympus OM-2! They’re all wonderful cameras, and if you can afford them you should buy them! But you might be on a tight budget and need to spend far less.

I can think of five great cameras that offer either some level of exposure automation that you can still buy for under $50 every day on eBay. Read my tips for buying on eBay without getting taken for a ride here. You can also buy from UsedPhotoPro and KEH for a little more, but you get their good guarantees.

Here now, five semi-automatic 35mm SLRs for under $50.

Nikon N2000

Nikon N2000

Read my review here. I love this camera. I’ve shot mine a ton. It was the camera I took on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Ireland. I chose it because it take all of my wonderful Nikon lenses — but if it were damaged, lost, or stolen I could buy another for next to nothing.

The N2000 (also known as the F-301) offers two program modes, aperture-priority autoexposure, and manual exposure. Its shutter fires as fast as 1/2000 sec. and it even allows for continuous shooting at at about 3 frames per second. It works with films of ISO 12 to 4000. The N2000 runs on four AAA batteries, easily purchased at any drug store.

Couch
35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 Zoom Nikkor, Kodak Ektar 100

Canon T70

Canon T70

Read my review here. This camera isn’t pretty, but it is a fine performer. It takes the whole range of easy to come by, inexpensive Canon FD-mount lenses. They often show up on eBay with the wonderful 50mm f/1.8 Canon FD lens already attached.

The T70 offers a generous range of exposure modes: three program modes, a shutter-priority mode, a couple of flash modes, and even a stop-down metering mode for when you’ve adapted older FL-mount lenses. The T70 even offers two metering modes: center-weighted average and “selective area” which meters just the center 11 percent of the frame. Whatever modes you choose, your settings appear in the easy-to-read LCD panel. The T70 offers a big and bright viewfinder, and it winds and rewinds your film for you. Two common AA batteries power everything.

This might just be the biggest bargain on a programmed autoexposure 35mm SLR.

Glass
50mm f/1.8 Canon FD, Fujifilm Fujicolor 200

Sears KS-2

Sears KS-2

Read my review here. This is the real sleeper of this bunch. Originally sold at Sears, it’s the same camera as the Ricoh XR-7, the top of Ricoh’s SLR line in the early 1980s. But because it looks like a no-brand camera, people overlook them.

Really, you can look at any of the Sears KS-series SLRs as they’re all made by Ricoh and are all good performers. The KS-2 just happens to be fully featured, with aperture priority autoexposure and full manual exposure. Its shutter’s top speed is 1/1000 second. It takes films from ISO 12 to 3200. It offers a self timer, a hot shoe, multiple exposure capability, and depth-of-field preview. Two common SR44 button batteries power the KS-2. Most drug stores carry them.

But the best part is that these Sears/Ricoh SLRs feature Pentax’s K lens mount. You can mount any of Pentax’s wonderful manual-focus K-mount lenses. The Ricoh/Sears lenses are no slouches, either.

Phlox
50mm f/1.7 Auto Sears MC, Fujifilm Fujicolor 200

Minolta XG-1

Minolta XG-1

Read my review here. Minolta’s XG cameras were a step down from their pro line, aimed at advanced amateurs. The XG-1 was the entry-level camera in the line.

After you load film into the XG-1, just set the shutter speed dial to A, choose an aperture, and let the XG-1 do the rest. Its cloth shutter is stepless from 1/1000 to 1 sec. A shutter-speed scale appears inside the viewfinder. You can set the XG-1’s exposure manually, too, but the camera doesn’t make it easy. This camera is really designed for aperture-priority use. It needs two SR44 button batteries to work.

The XG-1 feels the most luxurious to use of all of these cameras. I especially enjoy its electronic shutter button, which requires only a light touch.

Carpentry Hall
50mm f/1.4 MD Rokkor-X, Ultrafine Extreme 100

Pentax ME/ME Super

Pentax ME

Read my ME review here and my ME Super review here. I’ve used my Pentax ME more than any other camera I’ve ever owned. It’s the smallest and lightest camera in this list, and is so easy to handle.

The Pentax ME is an aperture-priority-only camera. I like that just fine, but if you want manual exposure control you’ll want the ME Super instead. If you don’t care either way, buy whichever one you find first at the price you like.

The ME and ME Super are reasonably flexible, working with films up to ISO 1600 and allowing exposures as fast as 1/1000 sec. on the ME and 1/2000 sec on the ME Super. All of this convenience relies on two SR44 button batteries.

I almost didn’t include this camera because it’s a little harder to find than the others for under $50. It surprises me, because only a handful of years ago you could buy these any day of the week for under $20! If you want one, buy it soon, before prices are consistently above that $50 threshold.

GMC truck
50mm f/1.7 SMC Pentax-M, Kodak Gold 200 (at EI 100)

There you have it, five semi-automatic 35mm SLRs for under $50. Any of these cameras will prove a fine companion when you want the ease of automatic exposure.

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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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