Choosing your first film camera
Like many aspects of film photography, choosing your first camera can be a little bit intimidating at first.
Believe me, it’s not as difficult as it sounds and if you are like many of us, chances are your first camera certainly won’t be the last.
To keep it simple, we will focus mostly on the “traditional” 35mm film cameras for now, but just know there are other types of analog cameras as well. For instance, you have probably heard of instant film cameras, like the infamous Polaroids or the popular Fujifilm Instax. You can also find medium format as well as large format film cameras.
The last two take a bigger size of film compared to 35mm, which means you have a lot more detail in your pictures. That obviously comes at a price though, with the cameras often being bigger in size and heavier, but also more expensive to purchase and to operate. You see, the cost of film typically goes up as the size of the negative gets bigger.
Medium format and large format cameras also tend to be geared towards slightly more advanced users. That is particularly true for the large format ones.
More on that in a future article!
Through this article, there will be references to places where you can purchase used cameras.
In some of these scenarios, I would highly recommend doing the following before making your purchase:
- Having a quick look on YouTube or Google for a review of the camera, see how it operates and view sample images taken with it.
- Double checking what that particular camera model goes for on eBay when sold in similar conditions. I would do that by looking at auctions that have been completed (sold!) and not the ones still active. That ensures you are not getting ripped off!
- Make sure the camera is in working condition:
(a) If you’re buying off eBay you can’t really test this yourself, but you can still read the conditions, review the photos for any physical damage with a special attention to the lens for instance. You should also ask the seller if the camera has been tested and in working condition.
(b) If buying in person, you will have the opportunity to look at the physical condition of the camera yourself. You can also ask the seller for a quick demo, try it out yourself or bring with you a friend that knows about these things.
Now back to our main topic, purchasing your first 35mm camera.
You can classify 35mm film cameras in four categories:
- Disposable Cameras
- Point and Shoot Cameras
- Single-Lens Reflex (SLR) Cameras
- Range Finders
With time, you will eventually be able to distinguish what type of camera you are dealing by having a quick look at it since they all have distinctive visual features.
Notes: A general idea of the prices will be given for each category of cameras. Keep in mind this really is just a “general idea” so you can compare the prices of different categories. Prices will vary fairly regularly as the demand for certain models go down, when celebrities start using a specific model and for “premium” brands.
Enough introduction chit-chat let’s dive into it!
If you are a 90s kid, disposable cameras are the ones your parents would buy you before going on vacation or on a school trip.
They feel extremely plastic-y, advancing to the next picture makes this instantly recognizable noise and you will probably end up using the flash a lot if you’re indoors.
The Fujifilm QuickSnap, a popular option for disposable cameras. Photo provided by @markpjn.
These cameras comes pre-loaded with film, so it is ready to be used when you buy it. Note that with these type of cameras, you won’t have the widest selection of film available. That is because there is only a few remaining options in terms of disposable cameras still being made.
Besides setting the flash on or off, there generally aren’t much more features than that. The focus and aperture will be set for you and all you have to do is compose your image, press the shutter button and hope for the best.
Once you finish the roll and bring it to your lab, they will process it and recycle or clean and reload them with fresh film.
As you can imagine, these don’t produce as high-quality pictures as other options, but they can still be fun to use in a party, a ski trip or somewhere you don’t want to carry a more expensive camera.
Sample image taken on the Kodak Fun Saver.
Examples: Kodak Fun Saver, Fujifilm Quick Snap, Ilford Single Use Camera, etc.
Where to buy: Camera shops, John Gunn Cameras, Conns Cameras, BuyMoreFilm.com, Amazon, eBay, etc.
Average price: €12.50 — €18 (development not included)
Point and Shoot Cameras
Point and shoot cameras tend to be on the “easier side of the spectrum” in terms of usability.
The name even says it very clearly: you “point” to your subject and you “shoot” the picture by pressing the shutter button. Easy enough, right?
You can think of the most basic ones as a “re-usable disposable camera”, but most of them will come with additional features.
The Canon Sureshot Telemax, an affordable point and shoot camera.
For instance, some might have multiple zoom levels you can change, the camera may have autofocus on your subject when you take the photo, a flash is available, you might have exposure compensation, etc.
These cameras will likely produce better results than the disposable cameras in terms of image quality, sharpness, focus and exposure accuracy while maintaining the same easy approach.
Sample photos taken on an affordable Canon Sure Shot Telemax with Kodak Gold 200.
Overall, you usually still just have to compose and press a button to take your image. Nothing complicated here.
In terms of camera quality and price, there is quite a big range.
You can find a decent one for as cheap as 5–10 quid in a thrift shop or Adverts.ie as much as you can pay over a thousand euro for a fancy one on eBay.
Personally, I wouldn’t spend more than €30–€75 on a point and shoot camera. Why? Well, these cameras are mostly made of plastic for one thing so they can break more easily than other options we will cover later.
The second reason is that they have a lot of electronic components in them that when broken, will typically not be repairable or not worth repairing.
With that being said, point and shoot cameras are very fun to use and extremely convenient.
They are small and can easily fit in a jacket pocket to carry anywhere.
Hand it to any of your friends or family during a social event and they will instantly know how to use it.
You will also be able to try different film types as you please, unlike disposable ones where you are limited to specific stocks.
One important detail is that you will need a battery to operate them. This is common to many film cameras, not special to point and shoots.
The batteries are usually easy enough to find in any regular convenience, hardware or camera stores, so this should not be a problem at all.
It is more something to keep in mind before going out with you camera.
The type of battery needed will vary from one camera to the other, so I recommend using Google to find which type your camera requires.
Additionally, it should go without saying, but you will need to purchase film separately and load it in the camera before you can use it.
Rest assured, this is a straightforward process, and if needed you will be just a quick YouTube search away from learning how to load film in your new camera before taking photos.
Most point and shoots will even do half of the loading job for you!
Again, there is an upcoming article to cover this.
Examples: Canon SureShot Telemax, Pentax Espio, Minolta Hi-Matic, Olympus XA, Yashica T4, etc.
Average Price Range: €25 — €120
SLR camera stands for Single-Lens Reflex camera.
What does that mean? Without going into too much detail, it refers to way the image goes through the lens of the camera and is then reflected by a mirror into the viewfinder so you can view and compose the image you are about to take.
Once again here, you can expect an array of functionalities and LOTS of choice in terms of cameras and lens.
One of the main advantages of these cameras over the previous types it that you will have full control over how your image will look.
You will be able to set your own shutter speed, aperture, even set the ISO of the film yourself in most cases.
These are topics covered in previous guides so for now, you just need to know that if you want to learn how photography actually works, these cameras are a great tool for it.
Sample photos taken on an entry level Minolta SRT-200 with Kodak Portra 400.
Some will be fully mechanical, meaning you will need to do everything manually (including focusing on the subject as well as setting the shutterspeed and aperture to produce a properly exposed image).
More advanced cameras will come with additional features like autofocus, aperture priority and other modes.
No need to know what all of this means for now, but it means that you could still use some of these cameras in automatic mode just like you would with a Point and Shoot camera if you wanted to.
Another advantage of these cameras is that you can change lens. This is good for a few reasons.
First, if you break or scratch your lens, you can change it. No need to replace the whole camera.
Second of all, you can change lens based on what you want to do.
You can use a wider lens for landscape or street photography, a telephoto for portraits or a very big zoom for wildlife photography for example.
This is not necessary at all, but each type of lens will come with pros and cons and it is nice to have the possibility to change if you want. You will also be able to “upgrade” to a better-quality lens if you ever decide to get into photography “more seriously”.
These types of cameras have been around for a while now and they are generally built with better quality than disposables and point and shoots. They can also be easier to get repaired compared to the above options. That’s always something worth considering as well when you are talking about old objects bound to break eventually.
Now, that’s a lot of advantages. For the inconvenience list I will start by saying they are bigger than points and shoots, so you will likely need some sort of bag to carry your camera around if you don’t want it around your neck all day.
Secondly, without being extremely complicated to use, they still require a bit of knowledge and using your first SLR will have a bit of a learning curve.
Luckily for us, there are loads of videos on YouTube teaching the ins and outs of cameras. Once again, a quick search of your camera will go a long way and if you’re already comfortable using a digital camera in manual mode, you’ll be more than halfway there.
The Nikon FM2, a slightly more expensive than average SLR camera.
Price and availability wise, these are also fairly affordable and easy to find online, in thrift stores and even some photography shops will have some cameras for sale.
If you ever want to go all-in and buy something fancy, there is also the option to do that. But I will say, it is always worth asking a family member if they have an old one lying around in the attic or checking online for reviews of specific models before making your first purchase.
Examples: Minolta SRT-200, Minolta X-700, Canon AE-1, Pentax K1000, Olympus OM-1, etc.
Again, local places like John Gunn Cameras might have some for sale from time to time. It is worth ringing them to ask!
Average Price Range: €30 — €250
Range Finder Cameras
Range finders are probably the least common of the categories we have covered so far.
They will share a lot of features and pros as the SLRs with the exception of a few details.
The Canon P, a range finder film camera. Sample photo by @markpjn.
Remember when we mentioned the SLRs had a mirror reflecting the image coming from the lens?
Well, range finders don’t have that mirror inside of them. They use a different mechanism to show you what you are photographing.
The main benefits is that your shutter will be much quieter and you will be able to reach slower shutter speeds while using the camera handheld (ie not on a tripod). The cameras tend to be lighter and more compact as well.
These design differences come with a different focusing mechanism.
With a regular SLR, you would simply look through the viewfinder and see when your subject becomes in focus as you shift the focus on the lens.
For range finders, what you see through the viewfinder does not go through you lens.
It shows you exactly things as they look with your eyes, just like looking through a window.
When you want to focus, there will be a small patch of image that has an semi-transparent overlay with a copy of the image. When adjusting the focus, that overlay will usually move from left to right. Your image will be in focus when both the “regular part” of the image and the “overlay” section are aligned.
That probably sounds a bit confusing right?
Let’s have a look at how it looks in practice:
A sample photo of the viewfinder of an Hasselblad XPAN II, courtesy of @shaka127. You can see the ellipse-like patch in the middle of the viewfinder.
Comparison of an image out of focus (left) and in focus (right). Images provided by @shaka1277.
Let’s zoom in a little bit inside the view finder and compare the two images.
In the left image, you can see the overlay patch showing the roof of the blue car is misaligned with the actual car.
As you shift the area of focus, the image in the patch translates from left to right. When the image in the patch and the real one are aligned, your image is in focus. This is what you can see in the right image.
It all comes down to preference and getting used to it after a little while. I suggest trying a ranger finder before you buy one though.
Samples photos taken by @markpjn on the Canon P using Ilford HP5 at ISO 1600.
Examples: Yashica Electro 35, Canon P, Leica M6, etc.
Where to buy: Thrift Stores, adverts.ie, eBay, some camera stores, etc.
Average Price Range: €50 – €500
Well, hopefully all of this was useful for you as you purchase you first (or fifth) film camera! If you ever have some more questions, please feel free to reach out or even have a look at our Discord channel linked in our Instagram bio. We are quite a decent bunch and between all of us, we have tried quite a decent range of film cameras.
Chat to you next time as we will cover the different film roll options available to you!
For more film photography-related content, find us on instagram @irelandanalog.