How I pick a camera

Alternative title: what I think about when suggesting film cameras for first-time users.

While I’d been planning on starting with a large, comprehensive guide to the things a first-time film camera buyer should think about when picking their first camera, halfway through writing it I realized it’s 1) a super long post, and 2) possibly throwing way too much information at someone who doesn’t even know where to start.

So instead, I’m going to start with a shorter, but very opinionated, primer on picking a good starter camera.

The two keys

The two key things for me that make a good starter film camera are

  1. Manual focus lens
  2. An auto exposure mode

I think manual focus is important because it slows you down while shooting. Slowing down reminds me that I’m shooting film, and that unlike digital, each image comes with a cost. I’m not a purist, I don’t think you should only capture Very Important Things™ on film, and that experimentation or even just taking a photo for the aesthetic is bad, but being slowed down, remembering each image costs something makes me consider the framing and subject a little more.

For context, auto exposure modes is where the camera picks some settings for you, ensuring your image comes out with the right amount of light — not too bright or too dark. There are three flavors of auto exposure, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, and program mode. Aperture-priority is where you dial in the aperture you want to use and the camera picks a shutter speed, allowing you to choose the depth of field you want the image to have. Shutter-priority is the oppose, you select a shutter speed and the camera decides the right aperture to use, which lets you decide how much motion you want to capture. Program mode is where the camera selects both the aperture and shutter speed for you.

You may be thinking “well now wait, if your first requirement is a manual focus lens to slow down, doesn’t an auto exposure mode speed you up?” And you’d be right. But more importantly it lets you think about the image you want to take, instead of the camera settings.

My personal preference for auto exposure mode is aperture priority. This is because it’s very easy to see how aperture affects an image, and when you’re starting out the differences between aperture stops will immediately jump out in your final images, while shutter speed is much less visible. The reason for that is most subjects don’t move very much once you get faster than 1/15th of a second, and a good deal of those that do aren’t moving enough for that movement to be noticeable on your film.

My suggestions

Depending on preference or interest, I fork in two directions: a lightweight, fixed-lens rangefinder, or a mid-range SLR.

If someone cares more about weight and size, and wants something pocketable (these cameras are at the extreme end of pocketable, but they’ll fit), I’ll lean toward the rangefinder. There are really only two that immediately come to mind, a Canon Canonet QL series camera (leaning towards the QL17 GIII, it has a wider maximum aperture than the QL19 and QL28, which gives you more room to play), and the Yashica Electro 35 GSN. The main difference between them is that the Canonets have shutter-priority, where the Yashicas have aperture-priority.

But, for most people, I think a mid-range SLR is a better starting point. An SLR allows you to see exactly the image you’re going to capture, and they allow you to change lenses, which means if you want to start experimenting with a different focal length you just need to buy a new lens and not an entire camera (that said, a lot of lenses are more expensive than these cameras now).

I can’t stress the what-you-see-is-what-you-get aspect enough. If you’re just getting started and aren’t feeling super confident in your skills, it can be hugely helpful and a great confidence booster once you see finished images that look the way you imagined in your head.

But an SLR also has an additional consideration beyond the camera, you have to pick a lens. This may feel intimidating, but I think if you’re starting out you should pick one of two focal lengths: 50mm or 35mm.

A 50mm lens sees at about the same “zoom” as your eyes. What I mean by this is if you look through a camera viewfinder with a 50mm lens, and keep your other eye open, there will be very little, if any, distortion between the two. This makes it super easy to visualize what the image will look like without pulling the camera up to your eye, it’s just what you’re seeing cropped a little.

A 35mm lens gives you a wider field of view, but without any of the distortion you start to see with wide angle lenses. Instead of being your eye’s “zoom”, you can think of it as approximately equal to the same area you can focus on. This is much harder to explain. It’s not everything you can see with your eyes open, but it’s close to the area you focus on intently without your peripheries. That may sound weird but I don’t have a better way to explain it.

Fortunately for you, a 35mm lens is almost always more expensive than an equivalent 50mm, so the choice of 50mm has basically been made for you. This is due to a combination of factors, but the biggest one is that 50mm is the lens that was sold with most of these cameras, so there are more of them on the market in general. Frequently you’ll find a nice camera body with the 50mm lens sold as a single unit.

In addition to the lens focal length, you need to consider its maximum aperture. The smaller the number next to the f, the wider the aperture can get. Most of the 50mm kit lenses you’ll find come in f/2 or f/1.8, both of these are perfectly fine to start.

(As a very quick primer, apertures are denoted with f/a number. This is because it’s a ratio, f is the focal length of the lens in question, if you divide it by the denominator you get the diameter of the aperture at that that stop. So a 50mm lens at f/2 has an aperture diameter of 25mm. Correspondingly, a 100mm lens at f/2 has a 50mm diameter.)

For concrete suggestions, there are a lot of cameras that fit what I’ve described. I’m only going to list cameras I’ve actually used, and highlight some of their specific features.

Starting off, there’s a large host of Minolta models. The advantage of choosing one of them over another brand is that their bodies and lenses are generally cheaper because Minolta doesn’t manufacture cameras anymore (their camera division was bought by Sony). They’re good, solid hardware, and a number of them were made in collaboration with Leica.

  • The Minolta X-700, or Minolta X-570 are both great. They’re Minolta’s last manual focus cameras, and were made between 1981 and 1999. Both can be found in the $75-$200 range.
  • The Minolta XE series, made in collaboration with Leica (the Leica R3 is based off it), can be found in the $50-$150 range.
  • Look for the 50mm f/1.7 lens if your camera doesn’t come with a lens. They can be found in the $10-$30 range.

The Olympus OM-2 is another great camera. The biggest advantage it has going for it is just that it’s tiny and light, especially compared to contemporary cameras. After about a decade of manufacture, Olympus replaced it in the line up with the OM-2S, which is broadly similar to the original OM-2, but adds a spot meter, swaps the swinging needle light meter for an LCD one, and adds a mechanical 1/60 shutter speed for use when you run out of batteries.

  • The Olympus OM-2 (also OM-2 MD, and OM-2n, they’re all mostly the same) were made between 1975 and 1984. They can be found in the $75-$175 range
  • The Olympus OM-2S (sometimes referred to as OM-2SP and officially OM-2 Spot Program) was made between 1984 and 1988. It can be found for the same range, $75-$175.
  • Look for the 50mm f/1.8 lens if your camera doesn’t have one. They’re in the $20-$50 range.
  • Do not get an OM-10. The OM-10 is a fine camera in its own rights, but it only has aperture priority exposure mode. You need an additional attachment to manually set the shutter speed.

Rounding out my suggestions is the Nikon FE2. Unfortunately, because Nikon is still a fairly large name in photography, their cameras all tend to be more expensive. The FE2 does have two pretty big advantages over the other cameras listed. The first is that it has a maximum shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second, where the others listed max out at 1/1000, which gives you an additional two stops of light to play with (meaning you can get more “bokeh-licious” images in bright light). The second, and much less important, is that it has a lever that makes taking multiple exposure photos incredibly easy.

  • The Nikon FE2 was manufactured between 1983 and 1987. You can find one in good condition in the $100-$200 range.
  • Look for a Nikon E 50mm f/1.8 lens if your camera doesn’t come with one, they’re in the $20-$75 range (Nikon has made a large number of 50mm lenses over the years, the E series was their entry level set of lenses, still great, but available for substantially less than other series).

Wrapping up

Hopefully that wasn’t too much information right in your face all at once. My hope is that even if you don’t pick one of the cameras I listed, you at least now have more of an idea of what are useful things to look for, and what sort of price ranges you can find equipment in.

Comments, suggestions, and questions are always welcome. You can leave them here on the page, or email them to me at don@dontakes.photos. Thanks for reading!

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