Looking to get into 35mm film photography and wondering what camera to choose, from the dizzying array of possibilities? You’ve come to the right place! The following four first film camera suggestions are guaranteed to get you addicted to film and help you become a solid, knowledgable shooter (with lots of practice and reading of course)!
Pentax K1000 – Tried and True
The Pentax K1000 is often called the Ultimate Student Camera. It was the first adjustable camera that generations of photographers started with, including yours truly. What’s great about this camera is that it has absolutely no features that you don’t need. No self timer, no depth of field preview, no battery check, not even a switch to turn the meter on and off! The K1000 concentrates all your efforts to loading the film correctly, taking the photos correctly and unloading the film correctly. No distractions. Zen. K1000’s are cheap, widely available and very dependable. One downfall is that they can sometimes command more money than they’re maybe really worth due to their popularity. You could potentially get a camera with a few more features and bigger lens selection for the same or less $$. Also, the K1000 is not a camera that most people are likely to continue to use for serious/professional work as their photography skills progress. Lens selection is relatively small (though compatible with Pentax DSLR’s), there are nicer viewfinders and more accurate meters out there.
Nikon FM – Gateway into the Nikon Empire
The Nikon FM was what the wealthier kids got as their first 35mm SLR. It is much like the K1000 but nicer. Tighter construction, clearer viewfinder optics, just a few tastefully selected additional features, ultra smooth operation, excellent reliability and, most importantly, access to the truly massive and nuanced Nikkor lens and accessory portfolio. While FM users will be very likely to trade up into an FM2n or FM3a as well as professional Nikon bodies, they will probably always keep their lenses and maybe use the FM as a back-up body, which is what I do. The FM2n and F2sb are my main Nikon bodies 10 or so years after buying my first Nikon FM but I keep that FM as a reliable back-up. If you don’t mind the expense, it’s well worth skipping the FM and going straight to an FM2n or FM3a. And if you are leery about buying used or very old cameras, the FM10 is still available new, however, it is plastic and made by Cosina, not Nikon.
Olympus OM-1 – Off the Beaten Path
The Oly OM-1 really challenged 35mm SLR design conventions. It’s the camera for rebels, people just looking for something other than a vanilla K1000 or Leica shooters looking for a cheap, dependable SLR. The OM-1 is positively tiny for a full frame SLR. My black paint OM-1n seems to disappear in my hands and it’s cloth shutter is whisper quiet, making it a good candid shooter. I mention Leica because OM lenses have the aperture closer to the front element and focus ring behind that just like a Leica rangefinder lens. The big bright viewfinder, small form factor and front top plate mounted film rewind button are also characteristics a Leica shooter will recognize and enjoy. Speaking of the viewfinder, the OM-1’s finder is just gorgeous with higher magnification and frame coverage than most SLR’s or DSLR’s, it’s deadly accurate and pleasing to look through. Interchangeable screens will allow you to customize your focusing experience. Then there’s the Nikkormat-esque shutter speed control which comes in the form of a ring around the lens mount. This is just a fun and ergonomic way to change speeds. Mirror lock-up makes macro lens or astro-photography a cinch. For me, the OM-1 spends more time on my shelf than I’d like because of it’s limiting ISO range, only reaching up to 1600. I prefer an LED meter display, or at least a larger, more visible swing needle though. And there are plenty of terrific OM Zuiko lenses out there but their prices can often soar above Nikkor due to their relative scarcity. You can use these lenses with DSLR’s but only with an adapter. So the OM-1 is a great camera but choosing it can also paint you into a bit of a corner down the road.
Canon FTb – Smart Buy
Speaking of painting oneself into a corner, buying into the Canon FD mount system is exactly that. But it may be worth it. I’ve never personally owned an FTb but I always like to include it for the Canon fans. I have worked on/handled a few and think they’re worthy cameras. I don’t recommend the AE-1 because, while like the K1000, it has been monumentally popular student camera, it is not fully manual and it’s auto exposure system feels dated and backwards to me. The FTb is fully manual/mechanical but takes the same FD and similar early breech mount Canon lenses as the more popular AE-1. What I like about the FTb is it’s tank-like construction and it’s fun film loading system called Quick Load. It makes loading film a little bit easier and faster than other cameras yet Canon were the only manufacturer to employ anything like it and they only did so on a handful of models. So back to FD mount lenses. The issue with them is that they are not compatible with newer EOS film Canons or Canon DSLR’s. Unlike Pentax and Nikon, who didn’t change their mount significantly for decades, Canon FD lenses are extremely limited in what they can fit. This is often viewed as a negative and as a result prices on these cameras and lenses are quite low. So this is good if you like Canon cameras. You can easily buy an FTb and a good set of fast prime Canon FD lenses for the same cost as a smaller Nikon, Pentax or Olympus kit. Provided you’re fine with not building a larger system, this is a really economical way to go.
*I don’t have any photos I’ve taken with an FTb but if you do and would like me to post them here, please reach out!
Below, please check out a spec comparison of these 4 cameras and see what appeals to you.
If you’re interested in purchasing one of these fine 35mm SLR’s, I always recommend using them with a standard 50mm lens in your price range, not a zoom lens. Also, I recommend buying from places like KEH.com, CollectibleCameras.com or a local camera or repair shop that sells and warranties older film cameras. It’s important not to purchase off eBay when you are just starting out. These are all pretty old cameras and, when neglected or abused, will have serious problems that may not ruin your first roll of film, but could ruin one a few rolls down the line, leaving you out a lot of money and time. It’s important to me that you those interested in film photography have amazing first experiences so that you keep coming back for more. It’s an easy hobby/field to get discouraged by. Don’t let it happen to you buy trying to save a few bucks!
Thanks for reading and please don’t hesitate to leave questions/comments below!