It’s one of the questions we’re asked most often here at CP, across our social media accounts, and through our online shop. Every day, new shooters and experienced digital photographers ask us to help them choose their first film camera.
It’s not an easy task. Often we don’t know the shooter’s goals, experience level, or budget. What we do know, is that there’s a film camera out there for everyone. They just need to find it!
With this in mind, we’ve put together a list of recommended cameras for people looking to buy their first film camera. From totally inexperienced shooters to those seeking the ultimate film camera, we’ve taken the time to curate a list that’ll help any first-time film shooter find the film camera that’s right for them. We’ve even included links to our full reviews where applicable!
We should add that there are many more cameras out there that could’ve made this list. We tried to focus on cameras we’ve reviewed.
Check out the list, and if you’re a veteran film shooter let us know in the comments which camera was your first!
New Photographer, Shooting Just for Fun
You love the look of film, but you’ve never shot a serious camera before. Furthermore, you’re not too interested in manual controls, or learning how shutter speed, aperture, and ISO affect the process of image-making. You just want to have fun with your friends, hit the beach, run around town, and shoot some film at the same time. Sounds like a damn fine time!
If this sounds like you, then you’re looking for a point-and-shoot film camera with as many automatic features as you can get. Auto-focus and auto-exposure are a must, and automatic film advance and rewind would be good, too. And if the camera can make slick images with a beautiful lens, that’s a big bonus.
Our recommendations for this type of free-spirited shooter run the gamut, but whichever you choose you’re bound to have fun. If you want your shots to look as unpredictable and spontaneous as the adventures they’re made on, try the Lomo LC-A. It makes saturated, imprecise photos that are dripping with vintage appeal.
For those looking for better image quality, you’ll want the Nikon L35AF. This camera has one of the best lenses ever built into an inexpensive point-and-shoot. It’s totally automated and totally fun.
And for those who just can’t wait to get their film developed, get shooting with a classic Polaroid 600-series instant camera or Fujifilm’s Instax machines. With instant film, you’ll be carrying an instant memory maker.
Because these cameras allow you to point and shoot without too much thought, you’ll be able to concentrate on what really matters to you; having fun.
New Photographer, Wants to Learn the Craft
Many of the visitors to this site will identify as this type of shooter. You haven’t been shooting very long, maybe even just using your phone and Instagram, but you’ve been bitten by the photography bug. You’ve seen the kinds of images experienced shooters can make with a real camera, and you want to get better. You’re looking for a film camera that will be easy to pick up, difficult to master, but totally rewarding for those who put in the effort.
We’ve written about a good number of cameras that fit this bill. You’re going to want something with a selection of shooting modes, rather than a fully automatic point and shoot. You’ll want a camera that allows Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority shooting. Manual mode would be fun, here and there, but you’re not likely to use it much at this point. Interchangeable lenses are a must, since you’ll want to experiment with different focal lengths. If this sounds like you, you need a classic, Japanese SLR.
We recommend the Canon AE-1, the Olympus OM-10, or Minolta’s XE-7. Each one of these cameras offer exceptional interchangeable lenses, solid construction, and are common enough that buying one won’t kill the budget. They also provide at least one auto-exposure shooting mode. That means that the camera’s going to help you make a proper exposure. Set one variable (like aperture or shutter speed) and the camera will read the light and set the other variable to the correct value, resulting in a perfectly exposed image.
Because these cameras lend a helping hand without completely taking over, you’ll be able to concentrate on framing, composition, learning the craft, and getting better.
Enthusiast Photographer, Shooting Just For Fun
You’ve been shooting digital for a couple of years now, and you’re in love with your DSLR. You go out once in a while for the sole purpose of making pictures. You post your shots on Instagram and Facebook and love getting feedback from your friends and family. You know the basics of photography and you’re interested in trying out film as a way of keeping things fun and fresh.
You care about the craft of making good pictures, but you’re not obsessed with specs or having the best machine in the world. You want a camera that’s going to help you feel connected to the process of making an analog image. You want a machine that has a little more soul than your digital camera.
Our recommendations for this type of shooter are pretty varied. For those looking for a purely mechanical experience, we recommend the Minolta SRT series. These cameras are unbreakable, have an amazing metering system, and feel like serious, vintage machines. Shooting an SRT will get you right to the heart of photography; manual exposure, manual film advance, manual everything (though they do have a light meter). You’ll learn a thing or two, and you’ll enjoy every minute of it.
If you want to try something totally different, try a medium format, 120 film TLR camera. Choose a TLR as your break from digital and you’ll find a totally new experience from any camera you’ve shot before. Another fully manual machine, the Minolta Autocord is the perfect blend of performance and affordability. They’re beautiful, classic, timeless, and they make amazing images.
For shooters who want more automation but don’t want to lose image quality, we recommend the Leica Minilux. This camera is relatively affordable, has a legendary lens, and allows for adjustment of aperture and manual focus for when you want more control. In the same breath, it can be used as a fully automatic point-and-shoot.
Serious Photo Geek, On a Budget
You’re a true photo geek. You love sharp lenses. You also love bokeh. You can’t even remember a time before you were obsessed with cameras, and you can’t imagine living without photography. You shoot everything and everyone, and you post your shots on Flickr, Instagram, Facebook, and forums.
But something’s missing. All the cool kids are shooting film and you’re still stumbling around with a crummy Sony A7RII. You need a serious film camera to earn back your street cred. Unfortunately, you blew all your money on that Sony.
Fear not. We’ve got you covered. Here are some serious machines for the serious shooter that won’t break the bank.
First, try Nikon’s F3. This is just about the pinnacle of Nikon’s film SLRs. It’s perfectly proportioned, indestructible, and offers everything any serious shooter could ever ask for. Endowed with Nikon’s ever-lasting F mount, you’ll have an embarrassing wealth of lens options to choose from. It’s one of the most respected film SLRs of all time, and it’s actually really affordable.
We can also recommend Canon’s A-1. While less awe-inspiring than the pre-mentioned Nikon F3, the A-1 costs about one-third the price, and offers more shooting modes. It’s not as pretty, or reliable as the Nikon, but find a model that’s been lovingly kept and you’ll have a full-suite camera system for under $100.
And for serious shooters who want an alternative to 35mm, try the Rolleicord. This TLR is a lower-spec version of the world-famous Rolleiflex, a camera used by numerous professional photographers for over half a century. The ‘Cords have a slower maximum lens aperture, but they’re still amazing cameras for those on a budget.
Serious Photo Geek, No Budget, Wants the Ultimate Film Camera
You’re just like the photo geek described above, but you’re throwing caution to the wind. You want the very best film camera available. You feel that if you’re going to bother shooting film, you might as well do so with the ultimate film camera.
Our recommendation will be obvious, because you’re obviously a huge photo nerd. You need a Leica M. You’ve heard the legends, and you won’t be happy until you’ve got an M in your sweaty little mitts, so just get one already.
But which one? M2, M3, M4, M6? Just pick one; they’re all pretty amazing. Our personal favorite, the M2, eschews the fancy light-meters and cluttered viewfinders of some later M cameras. It’s also the most aesthetically concise of the M rangefinders. But, you can’t really go wrong with any M.
For would-be film shooters looking for the ultimate in prestige brands and the most timeless film camera ever, this is it. It’ll cost you, but it’s a camera that will last for generations.
Or maybe you should try a Hasselblad… or maybe you need a Linhof… on second thought… just buy them all.
Think you know of a more suitable first film camera? Let us know which camera and for whom it’s best in the comments below.
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Nice advice James. I have been using film since I was 9 years (47 now) but my first decent camera was a Konica Big mini compact launched in 1990. Some years later I bought my first SLR, the Minolta Dynax 600si, mainly because of its great ergonomics. The thinking was to bring it on my first long trip to Cuba. In the end I decided it was too big and heavy and brought a small Canonet QL17 III instead. Couldn’t have been happier with the results. Since then I never have left film, just added digital quite late in 2007 with a compact Fujifilm F30. Over the years I have kept adding: several Minolta XD7, a sweet Rolleiflex with a Tessar lens manufactured during WWII, Konica Hexar AF, Minolta Dynax 7, more film compacts, a Canon F-1 New, a Hasselblad 500 CM and finally a Leica M4 from 1969. I bought the M4 based on the recommendation of an experienced repair man for the reason that it was the latest manufactured classic styling model that still was completely mechanical, no batteries needed for anything. It is beautiful. As is the almost mint Pentax Spotmatic that I inherited from my grandfather. Finally a digital Ricoh GRDIII, and a Pentax K-01. Despite (or maybe because of…) all these cameras I have never been anything else than a happy amateur and enthusiast and I still prefer film with one exception. If I were to recommend some favourites from all these lovely cameras it would be the semi-compact Hexar, the Dynax 7 SLR, a well kept classic XD7 and the superb Ricoh GRD/GR. BUT! There is nothing like the reassuring and heavy “thud” of releasing the shutter of that Hasselblad. One last comment: while any classic and well cared for Leica M may be a good choice, you maybe should have pointed out that not all Ms can take the same focal lengths. So if you have a favourite lens focal length make sure that it matches the frame lines inside. For example my M4 can take 50mm lenses which I prefer, but not 28mm which is a growing favourite after having used the compact Ricoh GRD for many years now. All the best/Mattias