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.

Couch
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.

Glass
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.

Phlox
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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COVID-19, Film Photography

An abandoned bridge and a forgotten cemetery

We were just two weeks into stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic. I thought I was adapting okay, but as that second week drew to a close I felt myself going a little stir crazy. I felt a strong need to get away for a while. But where could I go?

My wife suggested I just take a long drive. “If you’re in your car, there’s nobody to infect you and you can’t infect anybody.” Brilliant. So that Saturday afternoon that’s just what I did.

I don’t like to drive aimlessly. I need to have a destination. So I chose one: the abandoned US 40 bridge west of Plainfield, Indiana, and the Civil War-era cemetery hidden near it. It’s about 40 minutes from home, giving me a good long drive there and back. I’ve never encountered another soul there anytime I’ve visited, so it would be a safe place to go. My Pentax ME Super was loaded with Kodak T-Max 400 at the time so I brought it along. The wonderful 50mm f/1.7 SMC Pentax-M lens was attached.

Abadoned US 40 bridge

The bare-tree months are my favorite time to visit this bridge because it’s so visible. In the middle of summer this is mighty overgrown. You can’t even see the bridge from modern US 40 then. But at this time of year it’s easy to see.

Abadoned US 40 bridge

This bridge was built in 1923. It doesn’t look too bad for having gotten zero maintenance since it was abandoned, which was sometime between 1939 and 1941.

Abadoned US 40 bridge

Iron’s Cemetery is just northeast of the bridge. Little spring flowers grew all along the path leading to it.

At Iron's Cemetery

Inside the cemetery, you can see the other side of the bridge. At least you can during the bare-tree months.

Abandoned US 40 bridge

Except for the sound of an occasional passing car, the only sound here is the wind. It was lovely to be out in the world in a peaceful place.

At Iron's Cemetery

There are always lots of interesting details to photograph in an old cemetery. Gravestone letterforms of the 1800s fascinate me. They have such style!

At Iron's Cemetery

Unfortunately, many of the markers here are in poor condition. Some of them are broken and lying on the ground.

At Iron's Cemetery

I hate to see any old cemetery in this condition. It’s funny — I won’t be buried in one when I’m gone, it seems like a waste of good ground. Cremate me and scatter my remains to the wind. But for those who did choose burial, good heavens, provide for the maintenance of those graves!

At Iron's Cemetery

But enough of that maudlin stuff. It helped me regain my internal footing to make this trip. I lingered here well past I stopped finding photographic inspiration, just to enjoy the quiet and the outdoors. Then I got into my car and drove back home.

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Film Photography

Kodak T-Max 400 in Rodinal

Callery pear flowers

They say you should use Rodinal only with films under ISO 400 or you’ll get grain the size of bowling balls. But Kodak’s T-Max films are so smooooooooth. I hoped that would offset graininess when I developed a 35mm roll of Kodak T-Max 400 in Rodinal recently.

No Outlet

T-Max 400 is not as smooth in Rodinal as it is in D-76, which is what my favorite lab uses to develop its black-and-white films. Also, my flatbed scanner isn’t lab quality, and that probably contributes to these results. But these photos are entirely tolerable, at least to my eye.

Braches in silhouette

If I had a roll of T-Max 400 with critical images on it I’d want to develop it in D-76 to get “that T-Max look” from it. But for everyday la-de-da shooting Rodinal is more than fine.

Railroad bridge

I made these photos in my Pentax ME Super with my fabulous 50mm f/1.7 lens attached. We were all locked down at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. One stir-crazy Saturday afternoon I couldn’t take it in my home anymore and went for a long drive. I stopped for a few photos along the way, in deserted places.

Roadside cross

I also made some photos around the house, since I was in it pretty much all the time. This is why I chose the T-Max 400, actually: so I could shoot handheld indoors.

Musical cup

I diluted Rodinal to 1+50 to develop this roll. The solution clocked in at 19.3° C, so I adjusted my development time accordingly, from 12:00 to 12:42. I used the Massive Dev Chart’s converter to calculate this time. As usual, I agitated in my Paterson tank using the swizzle stick to rotate the film on its reel. I agitated continuously for the first minute, then for ten seconds every minute thereafter.

Kodak T-Max 400 is perfectly acceptable in Rodinal. I’ll use this combination again, I’m sure.

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Camera Reviews

Pentax ME Super

I reach for my Pentax ME all the time because it’s small (for a 35mm SLR), light, and easy to use. It is an aperture-priority camera, meaning that after you set the aperture, the camera reads the light and sets the shutter speed. I recommend the ME because they are inexpensive and fun to use. If you want that but you simply must have full control over exposure, then the 1979-84 Pentax ME Super is for you.

Pentax ME Super

Its electronically controlled shutter operates from 4 to 1/2000 sec. — different from the ME’s 8 to 1/1000 sec. shutter. Also, if you use flash it syncs at 1/125 sec., rather than the ME’s 1/100 sec. But under use, these cameras feel and work much the same. In Auto mode, look through the viewfinder and twist the aperture ring. A dot glows next to the shutter speed the camera chooses. The dot is green-yellow at 1/60 sec. and above. It’s orange-yellow below 1/60 to caution you of shake if you’re holding the camera in your hands.

Pentax ME Super

There’s just one quirk to setting shutter speed, though. There’s no dial or ring. Instead, put it in manual mode by twisting the dial atop the camera to M. Then press the two black buttons to change the shutter speed. The viewfinder helps you get a good exposure. A red light blinks rapidly next to OVER or UNDER until you choose an aperture and shutter speed that gives good exposure. It works more intuitively in practice than that sounds like.

Pentax ME Super

That’s a good thing, because this Pentax ME Super has a fault in Auto mode: the mirror doesn’t return. The mirror returns properly in manual mode, so that’s how I shot it.

If you like compact SLRs, also see my review of the original Pentax ME (here), the Olympus OM-1 (here) and the Nikon FA (here). If you like Pentax SLRs, see my review of the K1000 (here), the KM (here), the Spotmatic SP (here), the Spotmatic F (here), the ES II (here), and the H3 (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.

I shot my test roll while we were all hunkered down at home thanks to COVID-19. Knowing I’d want to shoot some things indoors handheld, I loaded speedy Kodak T-Max 400 into the ME Super. I developed it in Rodinal 1+50. This is a mug our son often uses for his tea.

Red cup

Our dishwasher is on the fritz, so we handwash our dishes and leave them to dry. The kitchen window is nearby, providing plenty of light.

Drying

I took the ME Super on photo walks around the neighborhood, as well. This SLR is so light that I hardly noticed it hanging over my shoulder.

Curves and lines

The mirror slap jars the camera a tiny bit. The ME Super supposedly has a mirror dampening mechanism that the ME lacked. But I was surprised to feel the camera move in my hands each time I fired the shutter. My ME doesn’t do that.

Callery pear by the fence

I adapted quickly to the ME Super’s manual mode. By the end of the roll, my fingers were finding the two buttons with my camera still at my eye.

Tulips

The ME Super offers everything I love about the original ME plus that manual mode. But I’d hardly use manual mode (if this ME Super’s Auto mode were working). I prefer aperture-priority shooting and use it nearly exclusively on every SLR I own that is so equipped.

Zionsville

If my ME disappeared, however, I could just pick up this ME Super and keep right on trucking. After a CLA and a repair of Auto mode, that is. I might even use the manual mode once in a blue moon.

At Iron's Cemetery

To see more from this camera, check out my Pentax ME Super gallery.

It’s hard for me to be objective about the Pentax ME Super because I’ve used and loved its predecessor, the Pentax ME, for years. If you like the ME, you’ll like the ME Super, and vice versa. If you’ve never used either and you are at all curious, hie thee to eBay where bodies can regularly be had for chicken feed.

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