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.
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.
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.
Nikon Nikkormat 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.)
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.