Every time I see a post about the best first film camera, the comments pile on. So many different, strong opinions. So many of them recommend a mechanical, manual SLR like the Pentax K1000 or the Minolta SR-T 101.
I think that’s a terrible place for a newbie to start. There’s so much to learn about exposure to use a camera like that. It’s a barrier that could turn a budding film photographer away.
Instead, buy an auto-everything 35mm SLR from late in the film era, around the turn of the century. My favorites are the Nikon N-series cameras, like the N55, N60, and N65. Get one with a lens already attached, preferably a Nikon Nikkor. A 28-80mm zoom lens is common and still useful. You can buy kits like these for $30 on eBay every day. (Read my post here about how to buy film gear on eBay.)
There are some risks. Any used camera could have issues. But I choose these N-series cameras because, in my experience, unless one has been abused it is likely to work reliably.
The other reason I recommend these cameras is that when you twist the big dial atop the camera to Auto, you have a giant point-and-shoot camera. You’ll easily get great first results.
If you try one only to realize that film photography isn’t for you, you’re out very little money. You can probably sell the kit to someone else for what you paid for it!
If you find you like shooting film, keep going with this auto-everything SLR until you feel like you’ve mastered it. Then try a mechanical, manual camera like that K1000 (more info here) or SR-T 101 (more info here).
Here are some photos I made with my Nikon N60 and N65 with my 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6-G AF Nikkor lens, a common one to find with these cameras. I used everyday color films: Fujicolor 200 and Kodak Gold 200, which you can still buy at the drug store. I walked up, twisted the lens barrel to zoom in on the scene, and pressed the button. (My wife shot the last one.) That’s all there is to it.
Another camera review I refreshed recently was of my Minolta X-700. I shot just two rolls with it before it succumbed to the common but dreaded Stuck Winder Problem. A certain capacitor fails, and the X-700 becomes a brick.
That second roll (it was Fujicolor 200) was shot primarily on a road trip along Indiana’s National Road from Indianapolis to the Illinois state line. My goodness but do I miss taking to the old roads. I’ve made not a single road trip this year. Life just has presented higher priorities. I hope for next year.
It felt great, however, to look through these photos from my trip ten years ago and remember a great day alone on this old highway. You might know it as US 40. First, here’s an abandoned bridge just west of Plainfield. It carried US 40 from probably about 1925 until the road was rebuilt as a four-lane divided highway in about 1940. Two new bridges were built just to the south — I stood on one of them to make this photograph — and this one was left behind to molder.
Here’s another view. You can park on a clearing just east of this bridge and walk out onto it.
Just before the four-lane highway reaches Putnamville, a short older alignment branches off. This 1923 bridge is on it, and you can still drive across it.
The bridge feels narrow, and the railing feels heavy.
Near Reelsville you’ll find an old alignment of the road that never got paved.
For a long time I thought this was the National Road’s original alignment. But I learned that the National Road was moved to this alignment in 1875 when a bridge on the original alignment, to the south, washed out and was not replaced. Read about the history of these alignments here.
Near here I stopped to photograph some roadside flowers.
When I made it to Terre Haute, I walked along the road for several blocks downtown. It’s known as Wabash Avenue here. This is the entrance to Hulman and Company, which for many years made Clabber Girl Baking Powder.
This building may once have housed the Terre Haute Trust Company, but for as long as I can remember — since I moved to Terre Haute in 1985 — it has housed the Merchant’s National Bank and, after a merger, the Old National Bank.
I drove from there all the way to the end of the Indiana portion of the road. Then I turned around and went back to Terre Haute to catch dinner at the Saratoga, a longtime restaurant right on the road.
It was a great day, and my Minolta X-700 helped me capture it — before it failed.
If you’d like to see more from this trip, via my digital camera, check it out on my old site, here.
I’ve owned two Canon AE-1 Programs over the years, one I bought for just $30 and another that was given to me. I’d been on the hunt for its predecessor, the Canon AE-1, but never found one at a price I was willing to pay. The AE-1 Program added programmed autoexposure to the shutter-priority AE-1
The 1976 AE-1 was the first SLR to be controlled by a microprocessor. It was also among the first SLRs to rely heavily on plastics in its manufacture, all the way down to the tiny mechanical bits inside. In comparison, Pentax’s seminal K1000 SLR, also introduced in 1976, is all mechanical and all metal.
Canon introduced the AE-1 Program in 1981. It features a cloth-curtain shutter with speeds up to 1/1000 sec, flash synchronization at 1/60 sec, a big, bright viewfinder with an interchangeable split/microprism focusing screen, and compatibility with the entire range of good Canon FD-mount lenses, all in a body more compact than other contemporary SLRs. It’s not as small as my Pentax ME or my Olympus OM-1, but it feels right-sized in my hands.
The AE-1 Program won’t run without a battery. Mine came with a functioning 6V 4LR44, which goes behind the grip on the front. I’ve read elsewhere that you can use four 1.5V LR44 batteries, instead; those button batteries are easier to find than the 4LR44. Makes sense that four LR44 batteries make one 4LR44. Take care accessing the battery compartment, which is behind the grip on the camera’s front. The grip and battery door are well known to break easily. The battery door on my first AE-1 was broken, but the grip held it down all right.
If you like SLRs of this ilk you might also enjoy my reviews of the Canon AL-1 (here), the Nikon N2000 (here), the Minolta Maxxum 7000 (here), the Canon T70 (here), and the Nikon FA (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.
The AE-1 Program was most often sold with the FD 50mm f/1.8 lens; one was attached the first AE-1 Program I owned. I had reason to be Downtown, so I took the AE-1 Program along with Arista Premium 400 inside. I’ve never taken a carriage ride around downtown. The jehus wait for passengers on the circle, which is the heart of Indianapolis.
Circle Tower is my favorite building on the circle. Anything built on the circle has to have a curved front; only Christ Church Cathedral is exempted (or rather grandfathered, as this 1857 church predates this requirement). Built in 1930 and faced in Indiana limestone, Circle Tower is an art-deco wonder. Years ago there was an elegant restaurant on one of the upper floors. I miss it, in no small part because it was my excuse to go inside this building.
The glass Artsgarden hovers over the intersection of Washington St. (the National and Michigan Roads) and Illinois St. The AE-1’s center-weighted through-the-lens light meter struggled with the sun bouncing off the Artsgarden, but a little Photoshopping brought it back from being blown out.
I brought the AE-1 Program along one Good Friday when my church carried the cross through the neighborhood. I owned a 35-105mm f/3.2-4.0 Vivitar SMS zoom lens, which I attached for the day. Trusty Fujicolor 200 was inside the camera.
In the church’s neighborhood is a pocket park with an honest-to-goodness automobile planted butt-end into the ground.
Finally, I brought the AE-1 to a car show, with that 50/1.8 mounted and Agfa Vista 200 inside. By this time, my AE-1 had developed that shutter squeal that is so common to these. It didn’t affect its operation, it was just noisy.
I’m more a Pentax fan than anything else, and I love my Nikons. Canon SLRs have never grabbed me in the same way. But I like the AE-1 Program best of all of the ones I’ve tried. It is light and easy to carry, the controls are all smooth and where you expect them to be, and it delivers the goods roll after roll.
But oh, that shutter squeal. So annoying. On this car-show trip, however, it did attract another film shooter to me. He recognized that squeal straightaway. He proudly showed me the Canon film SLR he was shooting that day.
My AE-1 Program is a winner – easy and fun to shoot, yielding pleasing results. The center-weighted meter isn’t perfect but if you learn its ways you’ll get good exposures. Both the AE-1 and AE-1 Program are also known for electronics gremlins that can be expensive to repair. Here’s hoping mine keeps working for a long time.
If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here! To get Down the Road in your inbox or feed reader, subscribe here.