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 continuing to work through my camera reviews to freshen them up and fix little things that need fixing. I have a pair of SLRs to share with you today.

The first is the Minolta XG 1, which leans heavily into electronics but is a delightful performer. See it here.

Minolta XG-1

The other is the mechanical, metal, manual Canon TLb. I think it’s the great bargain among Canon FD-mount cameras, and is the one I recommend. See my review here.

Canon TLb

Updated reviews: Canon TLb and Minolta XG 1

Aside

Pink and white, the sequel

Pink and white flowers
Canon TLb, 50mm f/1.8 Canon FD S.C.
Kodak Gold 200 (at EI 100)
2018

Do you ever get tired of flower photos? I sure don’t get tired of taking them. I like to get in close with my camera and really look at the blooms.

I prefer to photograph wild flowers by the roadside, but sometimes I make do with cultivated flowers in professionally landscaped beds. As here.

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Film Photography

single frame: Pink and white flowers

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R/T

R/T
Canon TLb, 50mm f/1.8 Canon FD S.C.
Kodak Gold 200 (at EI 100)
2018

I love to photograph cars, especially when I can move in close and photograph their details. But have you noticed how I almost always post such photos of classic cars? They have so many interesting details to focus on.

Cars today so often have flowing lines, and even their lights are molded into the overall shape. It makes it challenging to even find a good angle for an interesting composition.

Thank heavens for Chrysler, which still puts good creases into its designs. As on this Dodge Charger R/T. It makes it pretty easy to find an interesting up-close composition.

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Film Photography

single frame: R/T

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Continental dash

1972 Lincoln dashboard
Canon TLb, 50mm f/1.8 Canon FD S.C.
Kodak Gold 200 (at EI 100)
2018

Notice how the turn-signal and gear-selector stalks have no buttons or switches on them? They do just the one thing each. I can’t remember the last car I owned where that was the case.

This whole dashboard seems so strange now, with its strip speedometer and gauges in individual binnacles, rather than big, round gauges in a pod mounted high. Heck, even gauges are going away, replaced with screens that simulate gauges.

And when was the last time you saw a car with a blue interior? They all seem to be black, gray, or beige now.

As a kid I remember thinking how primitive and strange cars from before World War II were. But now this car is that old to a kid today. What is a modern youngster’s impression of such a machine? Do kids even dream of cars anymore?

Film Photography, Old Cars

single frame: 1972 Lincoln dashboard

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Collecting Cameras

Operation Thin the Herd: Canon TLb

Hudsonly

It doesn’t surprise me one bit that the one Canon SLR I like is the most mechanical, most metal one of my bunch. It’s also typical of me to like the simplicity of entry-level gear, which the TLb certainly was upon its 1974 introduction. Its 1/500 sec. top shutter speed is the tell. More expensive cameras go to 1/1000 sec.; top-tier cameras to at least 1/2000 sec.

Canon TLb

On earlier TLb outings the 50mm f/1.8 Canon FD S.C. lens that came with it delivered creamy results on consumer color film like Kodak Gold 200, as here:

Allied Van Lines

Not one to mess with success, I loaded more Kodak Gold 200 for this outing. This time, however, I exposed it at EI 100. I like Kodak Gold 200, but sometimes its highly saturated colors are a little much. Exposing at EI 100 softened them beautifully.

Super Bird

Something is wrong with my 50/1.8 lens — when I adjust its aperture, the viewfinder dims or brightens. This doesn’t happen with other FD-mount lenses I own, so the mechanism that keeps this lens wide open for composing is broken. It made for some frustration on this full-sun day, as shooting at f/11 or f/16 made for a dim view. I took to composing at f/1.8 and then setting aperture and shutter speed as I wanted.

Mustang dash

You have to set both aperture and shutter speed yourself on the match-needle TLb. Even though I prefer aperture-priority shooting for its ease and speed, I never felt frustrated or hindered setting exposure on the TLb. It does what every good camera does: performed well and got the heck out of my way.

Another dashboard

To begin this TLb outing I met my buddy Jim at a cars-and-coffee gathering. I met Jim through writing for Curbside Classic, the site for old parked cars. He lives across town. He brought his little red Miata out for the occasion,

Buddy and his car

We spent the most time lingering over a lovely blue 1972 Lincoln Continental. Here’s my favorite photo of it, with a Mustang reflected in the paint.

Mustang reflected

Jim knows his Lincolns: his dad owned a few during Jim’s childhood. Here’s a story of Jim, his dad, and a ’72 Mark IV.

Continental

The event was at a dealer of classic cars, and of course they invited us inside to see their inventory. I bumped the camera up to EI 200 to get more depth of field.

Camaro light

The TLb functioned well and was a pleasure to use. Yes, I said it: a pleasure. You might know that I haven’t been a giant fan of Canon SLRs, but this metal, mechanical camera feels and works great.

bloom

I shot two rolls with the TLb, finishing up the second roll on some usual subjects around Fishers, where I work. I’m so impressed with how this lens rendered color and bokeh. This 50/1.8 FD S.C. should be optically the same as the later 50/1.8 Canon FD lens I shot on my Canon AE-1 Program, but I like the results this older lens returned much, much better. If I were going to keep my Canon gear, I’d invest in another one of these FD S.C. lenses.

McD's

To see more from this camera, check out my Canon TLb gallery.

I guess I’ve tipped my hat: this camera is not long for my collection. I made the choice easily, with my head: I’m planning on using my Pentax and Nikon SLRs going forward, meaning this TLb will get little or no use. It deserves a new owner. But my heart aches a little, because this camera is such a gem. I use a simple heuristic when judging a camera: if the rest of my cameras vanished, could I just get on with making great images with the one that remained, and be happy? The answer for this TLb is hell yes.

Verdict: Goodbye

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