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.

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.

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.

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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Arched door

Arched door
Canon T70, Canon FD 50mm f/1.8, Fujifilm Fujicolor 200

Film Photography
Camera Reviews

Canon T70

From its invention the SLR moved inexorably from all mechanical and manual toward full electronic automation. My favorite SLRs offer open-aperture metering and aperture-priority autoexposure, but manual everything else. That places them in the mid-to-late 1970s. Older SLRs feel like too much work with stop-down metering or no metering at all. And later SLRs are too easy: just frame and press the button.

Canon’s T series SLRs represent the last transitional step before full automation. The 1984 T70 automates everything but focusing. A few years later, Canon’s EOS series would finally automate that.

Canon T70

T-series cameras were the first SLRs to proudly look like they were made of plastic. Camera makers had been using more and more body plastic since the mid 1970s, but had the decency to paint those parts to sort of look like they were still metal. With the T series, Canon said nuts to it. They also said nuts to dials and knobs, changing over to little buttons with an LED window that shows settings.

Canon T70

Two aspects of the T70 felt familiar: setting the aperture ring to A for automatic exposure, and mounting Canon FD lenses onto the body. Beyond that I was in uncharted territory. I liked that the T70 wound and rewound the film for me. That’s why the T70 looks kind of lopsided, by the way: the winder and the battery chamber are hidden within that enormous grip. And the heavens sang Hallelujah: the T70 takes two AAs, not some hard-to-find button battery like so many old cameras. However, somewhere deep inside that body lurks a lithium battery that remembers your settings. Replacing it involves taking the camera apart. Ick.

Canon T70

The big and bright viewfinder takes a little of the sting out of knowing that the internal battery will die one day. Will that render this camera inert? I hope never to find out. Also, despite that big grip making the T70 look unbalanced, it doesn’t feel that way in the hands. I found it to be quite comfortable.

But I found the controls to be uncomfortable. It would be several more years before camera makers figured out that it’s easier to twist a mode dial than to press buttons to cycle through modes. A dial makes it obvious just by looking how to set your mode. The buttons? You have to read the manual to figure them out.

At least 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 full manual mode; you press DOWN and UP to select shutter speed. 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.

My T70 came with an FD 50mm f/1.8 lens — a fine lens, as I learned when I shot one on my Canon AE-1 Program.

By the way, you might also enjoy my reviews of the Canon TLb (here), FT QL (here), AL-1 (here), and AE-1 Program (here). Or dip your toes in the EOS waters with my reviews of the EOS 650 (here) and EOS A2e (here). Or just look at all of my camera reviews here.

I shot an entire roll of Fujicolor 200 using center-weighted average metering and normal program mode. I forgot to set ISO — thank goodness whoever used this camera before me shot ISO 200 film too. Cameras that set ISO by reading the film canister’s DX code were just starting to appear when the T70 was new, but alas, the T70 missed that bus.

This angel lighting the way is my favorite photo from my test roll.

Angel lighting the way

I spent some time at a park near my home where the city recently built this building. I think it has something to do with the sanitary sewer system recently installed in my part of town, as enormous pipes were laid from the street into this building — a pumping station, perhaps? Anyway, the T70 handled easily, in no small part because I kept my fingers off the top-plate controls. Seriously: this is a great point-focus-and-shoot camera. It just goes.


I used to bring my sons to the former playground here when they were very young. That construction obliterated this park for more than a year, and I worried that the playground would not be rebuilt. But this much nicer playground was installed at the end of the project.

Shadows 2

Unfortunately, by that time my kids were too old to care. I come here every now and again just to make photographs, as the colors are good. The light wasn’t very interesting this day, however.


I took the T70 to work. This is the corner of my desk. The Magic 8 Ball is for my guests to play with. I’ve had it for years and remain amused by how many people pick it up and ask questions of it.

In my office

I spent a little time photographing the Episcopal church over on Meridian Street. The shapes and textures are interesting there. I had just looked through a book of Ansel Adams Polaroids and noticed how often he had at least three “layers” in his photographs. It helped me notice this three-layered scene.


I’ve shared more photos from this roll in my Canon T70 gallery.

If you’re looking for a lazy day of shooting, it’s easy to like the Canon T70: frame, focus, press the shutter button, get nice photographs. Heck, sometimes I even found myself wishing the T70 would just focus for me already.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t find it easy or obvious to futz with the UP and DOWN buttons. But I did learn the much more complicated controls of my Canon S95 digital camera. It’s my main camera; I wanted to get the most from it. If I were similarly motivated, in time I’d learn the T70’s nuances and become quite adept with it.

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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