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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Bridgeton Bridge

Inside the bridge at Bridgeton
Pentax Spotmatic SP, 55mm f/2 Super-Takumar
Arista 400 Premium
2013

Film Photography
Image
Camera Reviews

Pentax Spotmatic SP

I’ve wanted a Pentax Spotmatic since I rebooted my collection in 2006. It is a seminal SLR, the first to offer through-the-lens light metering. Finally, I have one.

Pentax Spotmatic SP

You need to know three things about the Spotmatic’s built-in meter:

  • It is a match-needle meter. A needle inside the viewfinder shows the meter’s light reading. You adjust aperture and shutter speed until the needle is horizontal, which means you have a good exposure.
  • It is a stop-down meter. The meter reads light only when you turn it on by sliding the lever on the side of the lens mount housing up until it clicks. The viewfinder dims when you do this because the aperture blades engage (“stop down”) to limit the amount of light passing through the lens.
  • It is NOT, however, a spot meter, despite the camera’s name. The camera measures light across the frame and sets exposure at the average reading.
Pentax Spotmatic SP

Except for the light meter, the Spotmatic is entirely mechanical. And except for stopping down to meter, it works and handles just like the later Pentax K1000, which is built on the Spotmatic chassis. Unlike the K1000, however, the Spotmatic can’t use Pentax’s K-mount lenses. Instead, it uses M42 screw-mount lenses. Pentax made a very nice line of M42 screw-mount lenses, all of which had Takumar in their names. I bought a 55mm f/2 Super-Takumar for my Spotmatic. But many other manufacturers made M42 screw-mount lenses, giving the Spotmatic an incredible range of glass. I follow the blog of another collector and photographer who routinely uses his Spotmatic with a delightful Mamiya 135mm lens; see some of his work with it here.

Pentax Spotmatic SP

Pentax offered a range of Spotmatics from 1964 to 1976. The SP came first, accepting film from 20 to 1600 ASA and offering a focal plane shutter that operates from 1 to 1/1000 sec. Other Spotmatics offered slightly different features but all worked the same, except the last in the line, the Spotmatic F, which did away with stopping down (with SMC Takumar lenses only) and was tantamount to the K1000.

The Spotmatic’s meter needs juice from a 1.35V PX-400 mercury battery that is no longer made. A 1.5V 387 silver-oxide battery is the same size, so I ordered one online. The 387 battery is just a 394 battery fitted into a removable plastic ring. The ring is durable, so I guess that next time I need a battery for my Spotmatic my options are doubled.

If you like Pentax SLRs, also see my reviews of the Spotmatic F (here), the ES II (here), the H3 (here), the venerable K1000 (here), the KM (here), the ME (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.

I loaded some Arista Premium 400 black-and-white film and got busy. As usual, I started in my yard. This table and chair grace my deck in the warm months.

Table and Chair

I visited the covered bridge and mill at Bridgeton and brought my Spotmatic. It was a blisteringly bright day and I didn’t bring a yellow filter, so I got the dreaded white sky effect. But dig that sharpness. The 55mm f/2 lens is a winner.

Bridgeton Mill

Here’s a photo from inside the bridge. The original 1868 bridge was destroyed by arson in 2005; locals rallied to rebuild, and the new bridge was finished in 2006. It was here my Spotmatic gave me some grief: the meter stopped registering. I whipped out my iPhone and metered using the Fotometer Pro app.

Bridgeton Bridge

The Spotmatic later accompanied me downtown on a visit to the Indiana State Museum at White River State Park. Whatever had ailed the meter in Bridgeton had corrected itself here, and I had no more trouble.

Sculpture

The Indiana State Museum features sculpture all over its exterior that represent each of Indiana’s 92 counties. This is the sculpture for Henry County. Wilbur Wright was born here; hence the plane. The Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame is also in Henry County.

Hoops Plane

The museum backs up to the Indiana Central Canal, a waterway built in the 1830s to connect the Wabash and Erie Canal to the Ohio River. It’s a Downtown attraction now, with walking paths on either side. I just pointed, metered, focused, and shot this without worrying about exposing for that deep shadow, and the Spotmatic managed it all right.

At the Clock

I forget which county this little Atlas represents. But I sure thought he was interesting, so I moved in close. Under my fingers the Spotmatic’s controls all felt solid but not luxurious. The stop-down lever was a little hard to push, but that’s nothing a proper CLA couldn’t fix.

Atlas

See more photos from this camera in my Pentax Spotmatic SP gallery.

I enjoyed using my Spotmatic but for the stopping down. I might not mind it so much if my Spotmatic F didn’t offer open-aperture metering. The stop-down step eliminated, this later Spotmatic just handles more easily. But I’m glad to have experienced this Spotmatic for its historic significance.

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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