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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Film Photography

One Nine Five

Some subjects draw me in every time I pass by with a camera. This scene on Main Street in Zionsville has become one of those subjects. I am sure I have at least one more photo from here, but I can’t find it now. Enjoy these five.

One Nine Five

Nikon Nikomat FTn, 50mm f/2 Nikkor H-C, Fujicolor 200, 2019

One Nine Five *EXPLORED*

Yashica Electro 35 GSN, Kodak Tri-X 400, 2018

One Nine Five

Olympus Trip 35, Kodak Color Plus, 2019

Around Zionsville

Pentax Spotmatic F, 35mm f/3.5 Super-Multi-Coated Takumar, Kodak Ektar 100, 2018

Around Zionsville

Pentax Spotmatic F, 35mm f/3.5 Super-Multi-Coated Takumar, Kodak Ektar 100, 2018

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Vase

Vase
Nikon Nikomat FTn, 50mm f/2 Nikkor H-C
Kodak Portra 400
2019

How fortunate I’ve been these last couple years to live so close to Zionsville’s charming downtown. It’s just a short drive to enjoy the boutiques and galleries and restaurants.

We make good use of Zionsville’s Main Street. On the morning I’m writing this my wife and I are waking up after an impromptu and deeply enjoyed night on the little town. Often when family comes to visit we stroll this brick street and pop into whatever shops are open. It’s always a lovely time. I bring a camera, naturally. That’s how I made this photograph. This potter’s work is always for sale in this particular gallery.

How improbable Zionsville’s Main Street is to me, lined with these perfect little shops that are seldom busy. At any random time I’m in town, several of them aren’t even open. I wonder how any of them turn a profit.

Together, my wife and I are in the top five percent of earners nationwide. (It takes surprisingly little to join that club.) Yet I am sure we are in the bottom quarter of earners in Zionsville. There’s serious money here.

I assume these shops are run by people whose families have plenty of money. Nobody’s counting on these boutiques to pay the mortgage and feed the children. As long as their shops break even, they’re fine.

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Film Photography

single frame: Vase

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Film Photography

Shooting Kodak Portra 400

Salem Cemetery

How is it that I’ve been back into film photography for 13 years but have never shot Kodak’s Portra 400? My 2018 EMULSIVE Secret Santa gave me the nudge I needed by dropping two rolls into the gift box she sent.

Magnolia blooms

As I’ve seen others shoot Portra 400, some use it as a general-purpose color film and others find it most useful for photos that involve people. I don’t often shoot people. I tend to shoot things that don’t move. Like cemeteries. And flowers. In cemeteries.

Served

I had been shooting my Nikomat FTn and decided to keep at it for this roll. I had my 50mm f/2 Nikkor H-C lens mounted. Portra gave me just enough exposure room to shoot inside, albeit with shallow depth of field.

Books

I can’t decide whether I think the colors are muted or not. So many people have said Portra’s colors are muted that I don’t trust my judgment. I see muted colors in these books, but that might be because the books’ colors are genuinely muted. The magnolia flowers and the American flag above don’t look muted to me. Are the greens below muted? I want to say no, but I also can’t recall how vivid the scene was in real life.

Down the path

I don’t notice grain in these photos at this size, but I do when I look at them at full scan size. It’s neither pleasing nor disruptive. It’s workmanlike grain, faint and unobtrusive. However, I scanned these on my flatbed scanner. Lab scans might have made the grain even harder to detect.

Flowers for sale

The Portra was at its best at early evening, the sun in that golden-hour sweet spot.

Blooms

Portra 400 is a very good film. I haven’t pixel-peeped to be sure, but it might have the least obtrusive grain of all the fast color films I’ve shot.

Starkey Park

But the film I use most, Fujicolor 200, suits me fine and costs a lot less.

Starkey Park

My EMULSIVE Secret Santa sent me two rolls of Portra 400, so sooner or later I’ll put the other one through a camera. I shot it at box speed this time, so next time perhaps I’ll shoot it at EI 200. Several photo bloggers I follow get really nice results when they do that.

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Bloom

Single tree flower
Nikon Nikomat FTn, 50mm f/2 Nikkor H-C
Fujifilm Fujicolor 200
2019

I had high hopes when I shot my Nikon Nikomat FTn again. I’ve learned so much about photography and using vintage gear in the last few years, and I expected all of that knowledge would come to bear in the images. Yet I felt disappointment as I looked at the scans. I didn’t like the colors the Nikkor H-C lens rendered on Fujicolor 200.

Maybe it wasn’t the lens, but the processing. Or maybe the film was funky. I don’t know. But I had to do a lot of work in Photoshop to remove a brown caste from nearly every image. I’ve seen green and blue castes before, but never brown. It was weird.

Because of a scanner snafu some of the images weren’t usable at all. The lab agreed to rescan the negatives for me, and I’ve sent them back, but not before I scanned them myself. This is one of my scans. It isn’t bad but it’s mighty noisy. It’s not a bad look but it wasn’t the smooth, crisp look I was going for.

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Film Photography

single frame: Single tree flower

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Collecting Cameras

Operation Thin the Herd: Nikon Nikomat FTn

Tree flowers

Metal, mechanical 35mm SLRs with coupled light meters are my favorite way to shoot. I like how substantial they feel. The best of them, like my 1967-75 Nikon Nikomat FTn, feel like they’ll outlast me.

Nikon Nikomat FTn

On my first outing with this camera I loaded some since-discontinued Arista Premium 400 (which was allegedly rebranded Kodak Tri-X 400) and went to the State Fair. The camera felt a little clumsy in my hands at first, but I soon adapted to its ways and enjoyed the experience.

Moo

And then this camera went onto the shelf and stayed there. I simply have too many lovely metal, mechanical SLRs to choose from, and I kept reaching for my Nikon F2 and my various Pentax bodies first. This is one of the reasons for Operation Thin the Herd: to pass on gear I’m just not going to use enough. Let this good gear go to its next owner.

But I don’t want to be too hasty. This is really a lovely camera. Through the 1970s Nikon put its name only on its professional cameras. Starting in 1965, its not-quite-pro cameras got the Nikomat name in Japan and the Nikkormat name in the rest of the world. I see no evidence that they were not as solidly built as the pro cameras. They just lacked some of the pro features of the F-series cameras like interchangeable viewfinder-meter heads and focusing screens. When reasonably cared for, a Nikomat/Nikkormat is a lifetime camera.

This camera is from before Nikon had devised a way for a body to automatically find the mounted lens’s aperture range. Such cameras and lenses are called “pre-AI,” where AI means “automatic indexing.” This is the only pre-AI body I own, and I keep my only pre-AI lens on it all the time, a 50mm f/2 Nikkor H-C. The H means Hex, for the lens’s six elements. The C stands for multi-Coated, an improvement over earlier H lenses, which were single-coated.

I loaded some Fujicolor 200 into the FTn and shot the roll. It wasn’t until I shot the fourth image past 36 on the frame counter that I realized something was wrong. I opened the camera to find the film leader sitting next to the spool. I had struggled to get the film to wind around the spool and sure enough I’d utterly failed. But this time when I stuck the leader into the spool it grabbed immediately and wound strongly. I got on with shooting the roll again. We were in Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis.

Eagle Creek Park

There’s nothing light about the FTn in use. The winder feels substantial. The shutter button requires a solid push. The lever on the lens mount that adjusts shutter speed feels hefty and clicks surely through its stops. This, friends, is what I like about metal, mechanical cameras.

Eagle Creek Park

The meter is classic Nikon 60/40 center-weighted. You adjust aperture and shutter speed and the viewfinder needle moves along a scale. When it’s horizontal between + and -, you have a good exposure. + is one stop of overexposure and – is one stop of underexposure. I like how Fujicolor 200 looks when overexposed by up to a stop, so I tended to meter so the needle pointed more towards the +. It didn’t work out for me on this roll; I had to adjust exposure in Photoshop on nearly every frame. I did scan the negatives on my flatbed scanner, however, and I haven’t perfected my techniques yet.

Eagle Creek Park

By the late 1970s, SLRs from all makers had largely standardized their controls, placing the shutter-speed selector on the body’s top near the shutter button. That’s what I prefer. I know of two SLRs that place the shutter-speed selector on the lens mount: this one and the Olympus OM-1. The FTn does the OM-1 better in two ways: its selector ring features a tab that makes moving the ring easier when the camera is at your eye, and you can see the selected shutter speed through the viewfinder.

In Zionsville

While doing some light shopping on Zionsville’s charming main street, I tried making some photos inside the shops. My shutter speeds were low, like 1/15 sec. But the camera operates smoothly and I have a steady hand.

Costume jewelry

I shoot Fujicolor all the time and know it better than any other film. The lab’s scans didn’t look great; everything was very brown, and large areas were blotchy. I thought maybe the lab had a bad day with its scanner, so I scanned them myself. They, too, were very brown, but at least they weren’t blotchy. You’re looking at my scans in this post. I had to do a lot of Photoshop work to try to correct the colors.

Red trees

I also shot a roll of Kodak Portra 400 in the FTn — my first ever, so it’s a film I know not at all. Those images were blotchy too but the colors were good. The lab agreed to take the negatives back and re-scan them. If that makes any difference I’ll let you know. Meanwhile I’ll share scans I made from that roll in an upcoming post.

Black Dog Books

See more in my Nikon Nikomat FTn gallery.

I like this camera fine. I like my Pentax KM and my Nikon F2 more, and so I reach for them all the time and this Nikomat FTn almost never. This is only the second time I’ve used it. Sadly, that sounds the death knell for the Nikomat FTn in my collection.

Verdict: Goodbye

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