Recent articles by the likes of TIME magazine, BBC news, and others have announced to the masses what many of us have known for years – film photography is back. And you can bet that this coming wave of mainstream recognition will bring a whole new batch of confused shooters itching to get their hands on their first film camera without knowing where to start.
I wrote an article a while back suggesting a number of the best first film cameras for every type of shooter, but some of those machines are pricey and complicated and I understand some folk will be looking for a simple answer. So I reached out to the CP contributors, Dustin and Josh, for some help. I asked them to think long and hard and choose just one inexpensive film camera that would be perfect for a new shooter. I wanted them to choose a camera that costs around fifty bucks and allows its owner the ability to learn and grow.
Here’s what they came up with, and I’ve thrown in my own recommendation as well. If you’re a brand new shooter looking to spend around fifty dollars on your first film camera, any one of these three cameras will be just right.
Josh’s Pick – Pentax Spotmatic
The Pentax Spotmatic is hands down the best beginner camera you can buy for fifty dollars, lens included. It may look like a homely, average, under-specced machine, but this camera is simply the best choice for newcomers looking to learn the art of photography.
On paper, the Pentax Spotmatic seems like an extremely uninteresting camera. Its spec sheet reads just like many others of its era; a 1-1/1000th of a second mechanical shutter, depth-of-field preview, a self-timer, a PC sync port, and a light meter. Big whoop. But though it may appear ho-hum, there are a few things that push the Spotmatic into true greatness.
First, its metering system can only be activated by flipping the metering switch, and this switch is directly tied to the depth-of-field preview lever. This may sound inferior to the full-aperture TTL metering we know and love today, but there’s a happy byproduct for new shooters. This design forces the shooter to really consider which aperture they want to use for a given scene, which is excellent for teaching new shooters the concept of depth-of-field (a concept among the most important in all of photography). Second, the Spotmatic’s M42 mount offers one of the deepest selections of lenses available for any rage of film cameras. Incredible lenses from Pentax, Mamiya, Yashica, Pentacon, and even Carl Zeiss Jena are available for the Spotmatic, which gives new shooters ample room to build a truly pro-spec system.
And most important of all, Spotmatics are dirt cheap. Because they were produced in huge quantities, we can easily find a working condition Spotmatic complete with a 50mm lens for about fifty bucks. If that isn’t enough to sell you on this camera, I don’t know what will.
Buy it on eBay • Buy it from our own F Stop Cameras
Dustin’s Pick – Minolta SRT 101
Durable, mechanical, beautiful – the SRT is all these things. And it’s also the perfect camera for new shooters. Why? Let’s get to it.
A remarkably user-friendly machine, the SRT was Minolta’s first camera with true TTL metering (coupled to film and shutter speed), and it was also the world’s first camera with a matrix metering system (which for you newbs means it’s super accurate in all lighting situations). Minolta’s ‘Contrast Light Compensator’ system, means the camera does a wonderful job of preventing underexposed shadows or overblown highlights. This means that the camera will help you expose your photos more accurately. And it works.
It’s fully mechanical and the batteries only power the meter, which means if the batteries die, your camera still fires at all speeds. Batteries are common and cheap, so you shouldn’t run out of juice. It handles film speeds from 6 ISO to 6400 ISO (which is ridiculous for a camera of this vintage as most supported a max ISO of 1600). It’s capable of speeds from 1 second to 1/1000 of a second, plus Bulb for long exposures, and it has a mirror lock up (useful if you want to try macro or astrophotography). The viewfinder is not only large, but extremely sharp, displaying both the shutter speed and the exposure reading in plain sight. The film advance is smooth and the shutter release is crisp, and the camera feels like quality in the hand.
But what I consider the most valuable asset of the SRT are Minolta’s lenses. More affordable than their Nikon and Canon counterparts, Minolta’s Rokkor glass is criminally underrated and can hold its own against the great Japanese powerhouses.
Good copies of the SRT 101 (in silver – black copies run a bit more) with a 58mm F/1.4 or 50mm F/1.7 lens can be found for under fifty dollars on eBay, and anyone who chooses an SRT as their first film camera will be welcoming a lifelong friend to the family.
Buy it on eBay • Buy it from our own F Stop Cameras
James’ Pick – Canon EOS Rebel XS
Not as sexy or vintage as Dustin and Josh’s picks, the Canon EOS Rebel XS has got it where it counts. This camera is from one of the best names in photography, and is absolutely packed full of technical capability. Why’s it perfect for new shooters?
For one, it’s modern enough to not feel completely foreign to anyone who’s used a DSLR in the past twenty years. Shooting modes include full automatic, full manual, aperture-priority auto-exposure, shutter-priority auto-exposure, and more. This massive variety of shooting modes makes it the perfect camera for shooters who just want to point and shoot, and also ideal for those who want to really dig deep into the foundations of creative photography.
It boasts an impressive and exceptionally responsive autofocus system to help new photo geeks nail focus, has an LCD panel with extensive information display so we know what we’re doing with every shot, exposure compensation for tricky lighting situations, a camera shake warning to let us know when things are just too dark, automatic film loading and rewind, a self-timer, a multiple exposure function, and a built in flash. All this capability equals a camera that can do everything any photographer could ask of it.
It uses Canon’s EF mount lenses, so it’s a body that can grow with your skill set, and some of these world-class lenses are a ridiculous value. Grab and mount a nifty fifty (Canon’s 50mm F/1.8 prime) and you’ll be holding a humble package capable of taking gallery-class photos (once you get a bit of practice under your belt).
It’s not as durable as Josh or Dustin’s picks, and being from the era of bubbly, plastic design it’s certainly not as handsome. But that shouldn’t dissuade anyone who wants to simply take excellent photos from buying the XS. It’s a great camera.
Buy it on eBay • Buy it from our own F Stop Cameras
Well, those are the picks. And here’s some parting advice – try to find a camera that’s guaranteed to work, either by the eBay seller or from a reputable shop, like mine. Don’t risk your money on an “as-is” camera, because often this is code for “doesn’t work”. Sure, the price might be a bit higher than what we’ve promised here, but you’ll have peace of mind if you buy a guaranteed machine.
Now listen, I know there are hundreds of cameras that could easily be the best sub-fifty dollar machine for any new shooter. These are just some simple picks to guide those who are floundering in their new hobby. If you think we’ve missed the mark don’t call us names. Instead, shout out your picks in the comments below. Let’s hear ‘em. And while you’re here, share this post with all your newb friends!
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Guys, I like your picks but personally, I don’t recommend anyone besides tinkerers buy sub $50 35mm SLR’s.
Why? Because any business that actually tests and services their cameras, such as KEH seldom can afford to let a 100% functional 35mm camera body go for this cheap. I mean, most shops charge $30 just to replace light seals, which we know that the vast majority of old cameras out there need at this point.
Buying sub $50 cameras usually means you’re getting it from an unreliable source such as eBay as you linked to, and therefore, you are likely to be getting an unreliable, neglected camera. You’re also giving your money to someone who neglected a classic camera instead of supporting our community’s retail and repair industry.
Personally, I’ve never seen a Spotmatic and lens with a working meter sell for less than about $125. Any random Spotmatic with lens that you find on eBay for less than $100 usually has a bad meter or is not tested and certainly will have bad light seals, which are easy enough to replace but, bad seals usually also means debris on the optics and inside the camera.
Nearly every SRT 101 I’ve picked up in my life has had a jammed shutter. Great optics but factually, these just aren’t as reliable as K1000’s or FM’s, which only cost around $100, or more in your $50 budget if the dice are rolled on eBay.
Now, the EOS Rebel, you’ve got a point there. Mostly electronic and much newer than the other choices so it is probably going to work fine. The thing is, the only reason you can get them for $50, even from retailers is because most film shooters don’t want plastic electronic cameras as you mention. But I think this is the strongest choice in terms of budget and likelihood that it will be working and continue working many rolls of film later.
At the end of the day, I just don’t think it’s sound advice to tell someone to buy a dicey camera off eBay or other non-dedicated/reputable camera retailers. Doing this is fine for people who collect cameras or who do or are learning repair, but it’s not good advice for someone’s first camera. They need to concentrate on shooting, not replacing light seals or shooting whole rolls of film only to find out that the light meter wasn’t really working. It may sound silly but this is the stuff that can discourage a new film photographer from continuing.
If you’re going to be a film shooter, you’re going to burn money. So you may as well spend $50 or $100 more than your proposed budget and buy something that has almost no chance of ruining your first rolls of film (or it can be refunded) discouraging you and ultimately, perhaps costing more money in repair or replacement when all’s said and done.
I mean, so what if you get, what appears to be a cherry SRT 101 off eBay but it’s sold “as is” as old items often are, and it takes you till your 5th roll before the camera locks up? Which they sometimes do after sitting for years, working fine for a few rolls and then jamming. Then you’re out your $50 because the seller’s not going to take the camera back and your choices are to have the camera repaired which will be a minimum of $60 but could be up to $150, OR buy another $50 SRT and hope that that one works. I mean, it really makes little sense to recommend this method to a new shooter.
Buy from someplace like KEH.com, get a 6 month warranty. Have any issues? They will replace the camera if you’d like, not just give you your money back and wish you luck.
Not to say there aren’t occasions when eBaying a cheap camera actually pans out but as someone who’s been using classic cameras for over 15 years and keeps about 40 working cameras at any given time, after probably a several hundred have passed through my hands, I just don’t think this is the norm. And let’s face it, these cameras are only getting older so the problems will only get worse, not better.
So enough disagreement though! My choice? The Nikkormat FTn with a 50mm f2 lens. The meter will likely be jumpy and the light seals will need to be replaced but the mechanics on these are rock solid and they’re fun cameras to use. I think they are as cheap as they are because people are too lazy to do the Nikon Shuffle!
Of course there are plenty of simple 35mm view cameras such as an Agfa Solina that often don’t need service for many decades due to their simplicity. They have no light seals or meter and their apertures and shutters are pretty simple. The Argus C3 is great too. Easy to rebuild the whole camera oneself and they usually sell for less than $15 on eBay, plus you’ve then got a rangefinder!