The Ten Best Mechanical 35mm Film SLRs Ever Made

The Ten Best Mechanical 35mm Film SLRs Ever Made

2000 1125 Josh Solomon

Mechanical SLRs are single lens reflex cameras which can function without electrical power (usually supplied by batteries). These cameras instead charge their mirrors, shutters, and other mechanisms by way of human-powered movements of levers or knobs. This action builds up tension (usually in springs), the release of which then cycles the mechanisms needed to make a photo. Simply put – if you can crank a camera’s film advance with your thumb, press the shutter release, and take a picture without batteries, you’re likely shooting a mechanical camera.

These bare-bones, all-manual cameras can bring seasoned vets to their knees and make professional photographers out of simple snap shooters. If used correctly and creatively, the humble mechanical SLR rewards like no other. Not only do they provide greater control over the fundamentals of photography, they give users access to some of photography’s legendary lenses.

Some of the greatest classic cameras of all time have been mechanical SLRs. As such, any fan of vintage cameras should know how to shoot one – and maybe own a couple. With this in mind, I’ve compiled a master list of ten cameras which I feel best represent the genre “Mechanical Camera.”

In addition to the few paragraphs on each model included on this list, we’ve also written extensive reviews of each of these cameras. You’ll find links to those reviews within each of the brief descriptions below. Click through to learn more about your favorite models on the list, and if you’d like to see every camera we’ve ever reviewed, well, here’s that index page.

Let’s get into it.

Nikon F2

We’ll start off with a classic, the Nikon F2. In my review of the Nikon F2 I called it The Standard of mechanical SLRs. And I still say so – it’s a near perfect camera. From every angle, it shines. As an everyday shooter it provides an easy, comfortable, and luxurious shooting experience while also providing reliability unmatched by pretty much every other camera ever made. Its specs (especially with the added DP-12 finder) are more than enough for the demands of any shooter, and its modularity and nearly endless lens and accessory roster means it can be configured for any situation imaginable. And as a piece of history it still reigns supreme as Nikon’s finest creation, and the camera that established once and for all Nikon’s dominance of the pro SLR market in the 1970s.

The only real caveat to the Nikon F2 is its size and weight. It’s a big camera for the 35mm format, and one must be willing to make it the centerpiece of their shooting setup. If that seems like too much an ask, read on. But if you want the very best with no compromises, the F2 really is the only choice…

[Get a Nikon F2 on eBay here]

Leicaflex SL2

…that is, unless you’re a lover of the Red Dot. Leica has always hung their hats on their legendary Leica M series rangefinder cameras, and their SLRs are more-or-less seen by many as amusing sideshows. But this is Leica we’re talking about – their fanatical dedication to quality and blatant disregard for expense means that even their mistakes are spectacular. Nowhere is this more obvious than it is in the Leicaflex SL2.

If you’re a fan of luxury, elegance, and simplicity, the Leicaflex SL2 is the mechanical SLR to get. What the camera lacks in modularity and features it more than makes up for in the quality of each and every component, the cleanliness of its design, and consummate mechanical excellence. Interchangeable prisms? Don’t need ‘em. Bonkers top shutter speeds? Who cares. Affordability? Whatever. Leica spared no expense in making the Leicaflex SL2 (and actually sold it at a loss), so it makes sense that it appeals to hardcore camera nerds who prize quality and prestige above all else.

But as great as the Leicaflex SL2 is, its R system lenses arguably steal the show. Among these lenses are the famous Leica-specific names of Summicron, Summilux, Elmarit, Telyt. Hell, even Angénieux made a zoom lens for the R-system. Any of these lenses will deliver some of the highest quality images you’ll see on 35mm film and make the SL2 worth the admittedly hefty price of admission.

[Get a Leicaflex SL2 on eBay here]

Pentax Spotmatic

Pentax has long been one of the site’s favorite brands for, well, everything, and happens to be extremely strong in the 35mm mechanical SLR category. The MX, K1000, and SV rank among some of our most personally beloved cameras. But for a list like this, the Pentax representative has to be the Spotmatic, especially for novice shooters.

Admittedly, the Spotmatic is the least glamorous of the Pentax SLRs. Its build quality and design are a step below the fine elegance of the SV, and it is technologically more primitive than even the bare-bones K1000 due to its lack of open aperture metering and its slow M42 screw mount. But it’s precisely these things that make the Spotmatic so great. The chunkier design makes it a little easier to operate in the hand, the exclusive stop-down metering always shows the shooter the effects of exposure on the final image, and the older M42 screw mount means access to perhaps the best (if not the most varied) library of vintage lenses out there, including Carl Zeiss Jena, Schneider Kreuznach, and perhaps the best of them all, Pentax’s own Super Takumar line.

For shooters who have never touched a 35mm SLR before, the Spotmatic is their best option. Its limitations work to teach one nearly all they need to know about 35mm photography and photography in general. And if that Spotmatic happens to come with an eight-element Pentax Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4, that shooter will likely be set for life.

[Get a Pentax Spotmatic on eBay here]

Minolta SRT-102/303

For reasons unbeknownst to me, the Minolta SRT series always seems to get left in the lurch when it comes to the mechanical SLR discussion. This is the camera series that bestowed open-aperture metering to the masses, gave us our first taste of matrix metering with Minolta’s patented CLC System, and, in my opinion, comes closest to the feeling of shooting an M series camera in SLR form.

Did I really just write that last thing? Hell yeah I did, cause it’s true.

Sure, it’s bulkier and louder than the M camera (it’s also, you know, an SLR), but when it comes to feel and optics, the SRT series reminds me most of my M2 (save for just one other camera). The control layout is nearly exactly the same, the advance lever is just as buttery (looking at you, Olympus OM-1), and the optics are some of the finest in 35mm photography. Any doubters to Minolta’s optical and manufacturing prowess can take it up with Annie Leibovitz, W. Eugene Smith, and, well, Leica themselves. Minolta knew what they were doing, and should never have been underestimated – not then, not now, not ever.

The SRT-102 (or 303 for our European friends) gets my pick here, as it’s the best of the SRT series, with a feature set roughly similar to the Pentax Spotmatic and K1000. Optically, it delivers equally well owing to its fantastic roster of Rokkor lenses, which features perhaps the finest 50mm lens ever made, the Rokkor 50mm f/1.4. 

[Get a Minolta SRT on eBay here]

Olympus OM-1

This list wouldn’t be worth anything if we didn’t mention the OG of the compact 35mm SLR’s, the mighty Olympus OM-1. Along with the Nikon F2, the OM-1 stands as one of 35mm’s most classic cameras, and is arguably even more influential considering it foregrounded the compact SLR revolution of the 1970s. And even though we can see the effect the OM-1 had on the industry in dozens of other cameras, none have quite been able to match the original.

The OM-1 is one of the many tiny masterpieces designed by Olympus head designer Yoshihisa Maitani. Seeking out the most compact 35mm SLR design possible, he and his team worked over many years to shrink their camera down to its smallest possible dimensions. What they ended up with was an impossibly small but eminently capable camera, equipped with one of the most awe-inspiring viewfinders in 35mm photography.

OM-1 owners are notoriously loyal to this camera and system, and with good reason. It still reigns as the most compact 35mm SLR system, with a body that weighs only 510 grams (18 ounces) and high-quality lenses that can *actually* fit into average sized pockets. Its viewfinder puts the best DSLR viewfinders and EVFs to shame with its size and brightness, and its operation is still as easy, concise, and revolutionary as it was the day it rolled out. If size is your main concern and you love incredible design, there’s no better choice on the list than the Olympus OM-1.

[Get an Olympus OM1 on eBay here]

Topcon RE Super

The Topcon RE Super is a classic case of “if you know, you know.” The Topcon name has mostly been lost to time, but those who remember it, remember a camera that once challenged the great Nikon F. The Topcon lost that battle, but boy did it put up one hell of a fight.

The RE Super is, in terms of build quality, one of the finest pieces of photographic equipment I’ve ever used. It is pure luxury in 35mm SLR form, featuring a smoothness and sureness to every operation that most manufacturers only dream of. It’s hard to think of any camera that is its equal – only the Leica M-series and Leicaflex SL2 come close, and even then I feel the RE Super bests those two in a few categories. The RE Super’s Topcor lenses are cult classics as well and can hang with the era’s very best, despite the inherent limitations of its Exakta-derived mount.

[Editor’s Note – I wanted to lead this article with a picture that people would find interesting, so I decided to create another of my exploded views of a camera found on this list. I had a nonfunctional Topcon RE Super sitting on the shelf in the shop, so I chose it without much thought. After disassembling the camera screw by screw, I felt compelled to write this note to simply reiterate Josh’s point that the RE Super is one of the finest-made mechanical cameras of its era. It’s a beautiful machine, impressively over-built, and I think it should get more credit in classic camera-liking circles. – James]

Topcon as a camera brand suffered from mismanagement, which left the RE Super wallowing in the wake of its competitors. But the RE Super is still one of 35mm’s finest, and handsomely rewards the shooter willing to go off the beaten path.

[Get a Topcon RE Super on eBay here]

Canon F-1

Those of the FD mount persuasion will no doubt be familiar with Canon’s electronic wizardry of the 1970s and 1980s through amateur-focused cameras like the Canon AE-1 Program and A-1. Curious then that their flagship pro-spec camera, the Canon F-1, would be a bare-bones mechanical camera, made to compete with the Nikon F-series.

Now, I’m not a Canon guy. I do think their cameras are a bit Toyota Corolla-like in design and function. But I’ll be damned, the Canon F-1 is actually incredible. It just goes. Its feature set isn’t the most impressive, and the build quality falls just short of its competitors, but it shines when you actually use the thing. The control layout is intuitive, and even features a handy combination self-timer and depth of field preview lever. Like other pro-spec cameras of the era, the F-1 is a modular system camera and features a huge lineup of lenses and accessories, enabling shooters to tailor the camera to their needs (Fellow writer Chris optimized his F-1 for shooting motorsport with the sports finder). But compared to its competitors, the whole F-1 system is inexpensive, which encourages shooters of any budget to shoot these cameras hard.

The F-1 is great with any and every lens in the FD lineup. My favorite? The Canon 200mm f/2.8. It’s dirt cheap, quick, and gorgeous, just as FD lenses should be. If there’s still any doubt as to this combo’s quality, I can say that it’s the setup I used for my favorite photo. The proof is in the pudding.

[Get a Canon F1 on eBay here]

Leica R6.2

Now we come to a rather interesting camera in the mechanical SLR canon, the Leica R6.2. The original R6 was released in 1988, a bizarre year for any kind of mechanical camera to be introduced. The auto-focus revolution three years prior sent the bell tolling for the electro-mechanical manual focus SLR, and virtually put the mechanical SLR six feet under. So what did Leica do? They stuck to their guns, doubled down, and released a second mechanical SLR, the R6.2, in 1992. Overly idealistic? Maybe. Quixotic? Most definitely.

The R6.2 is one of Leica’s many attempts at preserving their older, mechanically informed way of life. The R6 retained the chassis of the previous electro-mechanical R5 but switched its circuit boards with gears and levers, and put a good old mechanical shutter at the heart of it all, whose maximum speed was increased to 1/2000th of a second for the R6.2. There are a few modern accoutrements that make the R6.2 more attractive than its predecessors (namely the Leicaflex SL2), such as a switchable metering pattern from center-weighted average to spot metering, TTL flash metering, and *gasp* mirror lock-up, but otherwise it’s another dead simple, well-made mechanical camera.

Put this way, the R6.2 seems like Leica’s weirdly specific, aimless exercise in nostalgia. But let’s not kid ourselves, owning and using mechanical film camera today is an exercise in nostalgia too, which kind of makes the R6.2 perfect for the job. Modern film shooters will appreciate this camera; it’s not overly anachronistic, it’s built uncommonly well with a few really cool features, and lest we forget, it’s a freaking Leica that mounts Leica R lenses. If you’re going into battle against the relentless march of technological advancement, might as well arm yourself with a good-looking R6.2 and charge forth.

[Get a Leica R6/R6.2 on eBay here]

Contax S2

On the other side of Germany, the folks at Contax were experiencing their own nostalgia trip in 1992. It had been sixty years since the re-introduction of Contax as a brand, and the company decided to commemorate the occasion with, you guessed it, a mechanical SLR – the Contax S2.

The S2 was Contax’s take on what a modern mechanical SLR could and should be, sporting a decidedly vintage silver-on-black paint job while packing the camera with a 1/4000th of a second maximum shutter speed, a 1/250th of a second flash sync, interchangeable focusing screens, switchable diopters, and, curiously, a spot meter. It was Contax’s last ode to its days of pro-spec dominance, made to counterbalance their top-of-the-line electro-mechanical SLRs like the Contax RTS.

The S2 is, above all, a purist’s Contax. Zeiss fanatics and Contax/Yashica devotees in general revere this camera, as it gives them a rare mechanical option that actually says “Contax” on it (sorry Yashica FX-3). It’s a rarer bird than most of the cameras on this list, but is a must-have for those who live the Zeiss life.

[Get a Contax S2 on eBay here]

Nikon FM3a

And now we come to what I think is the ultimate mechanical camera on this list, and the only true hybrid mechanical/electro-mechanical camera out there – the Nikon FM3a.

The FM3a was born out of the same spirit of nostalgia as 1988’s Leica R6 and 1992’s Contax S2. But the FM3a’s birthdate in 2001 adds a poignancy to its creation; not only had the mechanical, manual focus SLR already bit the dust, but film photography itself was already on its way out the door. Even though they still held strong with their autofocus offerings, Nikon wanted one last go at developing the perfect mechanical SLR. What they ended up producing was not only a love letter to their past cameras, but a manifestation of their most advanced, idealized form.

For this new camera, Nikon revived their well-loved FM-series chassis, recalling the glory days of the FM and FE-series cameras of the late 1970s. But then they did something incredible – they combined both the FM and FE, and successfully created a hybrid mechanical/electro-mechanical shutter, with all speeds available mechanically. This, along with a bevy of newer features (DX coding, max speed of 1/4000th of a second, TTL flash metering) pushed the mechanical SLR form to its absolute limit. To this day, the FM3a remains Nikon’s most advanced manual focus SLR, a fitting commemoration to Nikon’s dominance over the mechanical 35mm SLR market.

I’d love to recommend the FM3a to anybody and everybody, but its rarity and subsequent collectibility means that there’s a hefty price tag attached to it. Still, if you’re a diehard Nikonian looking for the ultimate manual focus Nikon film camera, the Nikon FM3a is the only choice. 

[Get a Nikon FM3a on eBay here]

Other Formats

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention at least a couple of other mechanical SLRs from the other many formats which make up film photography, so we’ll highlight a few below. There are many, but these are the ones that get us going. If you have a favorite, please post it in the comments below!

MEDIUM FORMAT – Hasselblad 500 C/M

First up, medium format. The medium format mechanical SLR genre is saturated with great cameras, but they all more or less refer back to the granddaddy of them all, the Hasselblad 500 series.

Along with cameras like the Nikon F and Leica M3, the Hasselblad 500 defined the design of its entire category from the outset. The interchangeable finders, interchangeable film backs, leaf shutters, and overall form factor has been imitated by nearly every subsequent medium format SLR, simply because it works so damn well. The design offers a ludicrous amount of flexibility in a comparatively tiny package, making it suitable for nearly any kind of photo.

But even still, no camera comes close to the original. The Hasselblad silhouette is one of film photography’s most recognizable, and evocative of old-school photography studios which long featured a Hasselblad as their centerpiece. Using one is a treat for the eyes, ears, and hands, and it behooves any medium format shooter to try one at least once. We recommend the Hasselblad 500 C/M, the most long lived iteration of the 500 series, but any of the 500 series will do.

[Get a Hasselblad 500 C/M on eBay here]

INSTANT FILM – Polaroid SX-70

Next up is instant photography, and there’s really only one choice here – the Polaroid SX-70. James wrote extensively on the SX-70’s history and capabilities, but here’s the brief rundown – the SX-70 is a foldable instant format SLR famously introduced in 1972 when Edwin Land pulled one out of his blazer and fired off five instant photos (a la Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry) in just a few seconds. The SLR format enabled accurate framing and focus, exposure was adjustable through an exposure compensation dial, and its foldability enabled it to be taken anywhere. In the context of instant photography, this was game-changing, but in the context of photography and design, the camera might as well have come from Mars. Nothing else looked like it, and nobody’s ever tried to imitate it. It’s one of film photography’s few truly singular creations, and a classic tech marvel.

Prospective shooters should know that everything that applies to modern instant photography applies doubly to the SX-70. The film is expensive and a cut below the original Polaroid formula, and the cameras themselves often need refurbishing before heavy usage. Fortunately, the folks at Brooklyn Film Camera specialize in the repair, restoration, and usage of these wonderful cameras, and can hook you up if you feel moved by the spirit of the SX-70.

[Get a Polaroid SX70 SLR on eBay here]

HALF FRAME – Olympus Pen FT

And finally, my favorite camera on the list, the half-frame Olympus Pen FT. Like the OM-1, this is a Maitani-designed camera, which inevitably means ingenious design and a small form factor. Every one of his cameras carries this signature, but I find its greatest expression in the Pen FT.

Everything about this camera is a subversion of what we’ve come to expect from a mechanical SLR. The mirror goes sideways instead of up and down, the shutter goes around in a circle instead of from side-to-side, and the viewfinder is vertically oriented instead of horizontally oriented. And unlike the bulky, loud, and heavy pro-spec SLRs of the day, the Pen FT is small, quiet, and unobtrusive, even smaller than the famously compact Leicas from which Maitani drew inspiration for the Pen. It marries the capability and flexibility of an SLR to the form factor of a rangefinder, while also doubling the amount of exposures available to the photographer.

It was wonderful when new, and it’s wonderful today. The Pen FT is arguably one of the best values in film photography. If you’re looking for a cost-effective way to shoot 35mm without sacrificing the functionality of a full-fledged mechanical 35mm SLR system, the Pen FT is the way to go. A single roll of 36 exposure film can stretch on for what seems like forever, and the images are still tack sharp for most shooters’ needs. 

[Get an Olympus Pen FT on eBay here]


If you have another favorite mechanical SLR, let us know about it in the comments below.

You can find many classic SLR cameras in our shop, F Stop Cameras

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
66 comments
  • Josh, I was going to admonish you by referring to this selection of cameras as being “mechanical”. All cameras are mechanical, the difference is some need a battery to power the shutter and/or wind/rewind. Those not requiring a battery for other than the light meter have long been referred to as manual cameras, specifically those relying purely on a fully mechanical means of shutter operation.

    But then seeing your choice, especially the SL2 and Minolta SRT-303, I thought you couldn’t be all that bad so forgave you! I own both, my Minolta is the Asia-Pacific area badged SRT-Super, and an OM-1 and which I acquired extremely cheaply (1/1000 sec doesn’t cap properly, but everything else is in order)) purely out of curiosity as so much gas been written about it and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I can appreciate why it was so popular, although personally I don’t like the speed setting dial arounf the lens throat.

    • Isn’t the distinction typically “mechanical” (no electricity needed) versus “electro-mechanical” (electrically charged mechanisms)? I’m not an engineer, just a wordy professional camera-liker. 🙂

    • Not sure I agree, Terry. I’d suggest, for most of us here, ‘manual’ refers to the means of control (the alternative being some variation on ‘automatic’) while ‘mechanical’ refers to the means of operation and specifically the absence of electricity (the alternative being, say, ‘electro-mechanical’ or even ‘solid state’. Is an iPhone camera still mechanical?)

      So a Canon AT-1 is manual but not ‘mechanical’ in the pure sense. I can’t think of an example of the opposite combination – but if there is one, I’m sure someone here will know about it!

      • Clive, I partially agree, especially your understanding in para. 1. Before the advent of the electronic shutter, or more accurately electronically controlled shutter, all cameras were entirely mechanical, but there was never a need to describe them as such. How these cameras were distinguished were by referring to them as being “manual” or “automatic” which was the principal operating system they employed. To describe each type as “mechanical” wouldn’t have made any sense at the time as there was no such thing as an electronic camera to compare them with.

        However, with the introduction of the electronically controlled shutter cameras, manufacturers made much of the more accurate shutters that were possible and even automation, although early on the camera was either shutter or aperture priority until Minolta introduced their much lauded XD-7 (XD-11) and if you were a Canon fan, you had the choice: AE-1(aperture priority) AV-1 (shutter priority) in addition to the totally manual AT-1 that you reference. So, henceforwarded, to describe a camera as electronic or manual (or mechanical) made sense.

        Interestingly, when Leitz followed the trend with the R3, they also produced a variant called the R3 Electronic. Confusingly, this was Leitz speak for the motor winder capable R3. But they later introduced the all mechanical R6 which is rightly referred to as a mechanical camera to distinguish it from the whole of the R series bodies.

        As for the iPhone, I know nothing about them. But a quick google search reveals it uses a rolling electronic shutter, so IMO it qualifies as an electronic camera,not mechanical. But everything is open to interpretation.

      • Avatar
        Salvador Castorena January 12, 2021 at 2:56 pm

        Mechanical but not manual: Kodak Instamatic.

  • I own the Nikon F2, Minolta SRT 303, and the Canon F1 original, as well as a host of other mechanical marvels in my collection. In the case of the Nikon F2, I agree that it’s a heavy, we’ll crafted superb machine and I enjoy using it. Where I have to disagree is I believe the Canon F1 original is easily it’s equal in terms of build, Quality and system availability. The Nikon v Canon argument is as hollow as the Ford v Vauxhall argument. It’s true, Nikon built the first pro system with the F and the F2 but once Canon introduced the F1 original the balance started to shift towards Canon and has done pretty much ever since. Now both Nikon and Canon make world beating systems for pro photographers which in terms of Quality and reliability are pretty much neck and neck.

    • I totally agree with you on the Canon F1. It is an incredible camera. I have the original one and I certainly feel it is better than the Nikon FTn I once owned. Gave that away to my brother because of its awkwardness and relatively poor viewfinder. However, I have never tried the Nikon F2 so I can’t comment on it.

      I do want to point out though that you are under a very common misconception that the Nikon F was the first professional SLR systems camera. That was clearly the Exakta series. Just think of the great Alfred Hitchcock movie “Rear Window.” Remember it was with an Exakta VX and a Kilfitt 500MM that the Jimmy Stewart character, a professional sports photographer, watched Raymond Burr “possibly” do his wife in. Hitch knew what camera was the most appropriate to use in this great movie. In the 1940s and 50s, the Exakta was THE single lens 35 mm camera. It was definitely a systems camera with all sorts of viewfinders, lenses, micro and macro attachments and a range of speeds (1/1000 second to 12 seconds) only duplicated with electronic shutters. In the 1950s they even had a slide down behind the lens meter for macro work. Probably the first actual TTL. You could eventually add one of two TTL meter prisms to a 1950 Exakta Model V and later models. The selection of great lenses was vast – Zeiss, Schneider, Angenuix, Steinheil, ISCO, Nikon, Soligor, Meyer, Killfitt – well basically almost everyone. Plus, Exaktas were absolutely beautiful. Just look up an embossed name plate Exakta VXIIa. Very few cameras are anywhere near as elegant.

      The first real expert on SLRs, Herbert Keppler, in his 1960 book “Keppler on the Eye Level Reflex” compares a number of cameras including the Nikon F, Contarex, Alpa, Minolta, etc. writes this about the Exakta:

      “Body essentially the same as 1936 model, which shows how far ahead the East German focal-plane shutter reflex actually was. This is grand old lady of reflexes with fantastic number of lenses available…..Accessories galore….Exakta still has features not found on other cameras…..This camera is probably the most popular single lens reflex extant…..Complete system of accessories is available.” (page 29)

      Of course in a couple of years, the Nikon F was ascendant and the communist run Ihagee did not keep up with the new technologies of the 1960s.

      I wanted to add a couple of things. Even on Exaktas from the 1950s, the viewfinder is surprising bright especially with a fresnel focusing screen. I feel it is actually better than the Nikon F and many modern DSLRs. An Exakta is an easy camera to focus.

      The second thing I want to touch on is the misconception that that the Exakta is a left handed camera. In fact, it is one of the few right handed cameras around. Just think what you do most with a mechanical camera, focus of course. Advancing the shutter and firing the camera takes no time at all. But often one spends considerable time following the subject with the lens focus ring. You definitely want to use your dominant hand for this most important and possibly difficult function. Leica came out first, so most other camera makers followed that lead. Pre War Ihagee was one of history’s most innovative camera makers and went a different way with right hand focus and left hand shutter advance and tripping. They, after all, were the guys who sold the first 35mm single lens reflex, had the first flash synch internal to the camera and made the first camera with a lever advance rather than a wind knob. The last two were not replicated by Leica for nearly 20 years. Often, people who review the Exakta will call it difficult to use because their hands are trained to shoot a camera differently. Shoot with an Exakta for a while, and you will realize – Hey, this makes sense!

      • Tom, if I may I’d like to expand a little on your excellent appraisal of the Exakta as a system camera. In the immediate post-war years, new German cameras were not imported into the UK but the Exakta was an exception. It could be imported under special license for use by technical labs, educational establishment (universities) for all sorts of photography that they specialised in as there was simply no other system camera that couild possibly compete with its versatility and, importantly, it did not compete with the nascent British camera industry. Whilst serious amateurs valued it for its unique capability as an early slr, if you look at what it can accomplish with its varied accessories one can readily see it was a designed with specialist uses from the start, not simply to appease the amateur market. Add in cassette to cassette operation and a built-in film cutter and one can see it was far removed from your average photographer as it could be.

        Today, it is seen as somewhat quirky, but this is by photographers who don’t appreciate its history. Ihagee, I doubt ever set out to win the equivalent of modern-day designer awards, but to make a camera that was supreme in its versatility for those photographyers who needed it.

        • Terry, thank you for your UK perspective. It is really interesting. I first learned about Exaktas as a young boy from advertisements in National Geographic magazine which took the approach that the Exakta was made for explorers. Totally cool in my 12 year old mind. This approach seems similar to how the Exakta were marketed in the UK, though other advertisements do seem to go after the advanced amateurs and professionals.

          It is not my sense that camera imports from Germany to the U.S. were curtailed. Though I will check on it. For a period, Exakta cameras were marked with the words “USSR Occupied,” which I am sure did not help from a public relations standpoint. Some Kine Exaktas had an Anglicized name of “Exacta” rather than the Germanic “Exakta.” I imagine that the change was to help the American public feel that the camera was less of a foreign entity. The “Exacta” cameras were not usual but also not uncommon. I have one. It is my understanding that it was more of an American marketing approach and was usually not seen in Europe.

          Finally, Exaktas in the U.S. were not able to use the “Varex” name. This was a registered trademark of the Argus Camera corporation. At its peak of sales with the Exakta VXIIa (Varex IIa in the rest of the world), the Exaktas shipped to the U.S. had their face plate removed and replaced with a face plated marked “Exakta VXIIa.” At one point, sales became so heated that they ran out of replacement face plates. The original face plates were taken off and the model designation stamped out. The face plate was then rather crudely plated with new chrome and re-engraved with either just IIa or VXIIa. These cameras are highly sought after by collectors because of their rarity.

          Finally, I really used the cassette to cassette a lot in high school (1964-68). I was on the yearbook staff at that time and would run around taking pictures after school. I would then cut the film and run to the school darkroom to develop the partial roll of photos I had taken. The cassette to cassette capacity and the film cutting knife were actually very useful.

          • Thanks for your further input. Regarding imports following WWII, the UK was in a parlous state, it was in fact bankrupt, something not impacting on the US economy which profited hugely from wartime manufacturing. In fact, the UK’s final payment to the US for its war loans debt wasn’t made until 2006.

            In view of the economic position the UK was in, manufacturing was concentrated on the export market (with the domestic market being particularly neglected) and imports of many non-essential products were curtailed or even banned. Stoicism, typical of the British of that era, got us through, and as a child, b. 1945, I was spared the reality of it all. Food was rationed until 1954 when meat was the last product to come off rationing.

  • This is the part where commenters point out all of the great cameras that were missed (and there are too many).

    If we’re just sticking to SLR’s, the entire 4×5 format was missed. Obligatory mention of the Graflex Super D here.

    • The Super D is quite a machine!

      Our list here was restricted to mechanical 35mm SLRs. We added three honorable mentions at the end from different formats, since as you rightly say there are so many excellent ones out there.

      And that’s fine if people add their favorites, even if we missed them! I would love the conversation to continue here in the comments!

      • I have several on your list. Decades old SRT-102, the F2, several Spotmatics and an LX, an OM-2n instead of 1, and then the Topcon RE Super, Super D, and D-1. Having recently shot the Super D around the empty UC Berkeley campus architecture it feels just a bit smoother than the F2. The F2 has a shorter stroke but the Super D just glides. Now maybe the F2 will feel that way after Sover tells me to send my F2 over to him for a full CLA. However, the Super D is truly the most elegant SLR to shoot with in form and function.

  • Sono basito dell’assenza della Pentax LX da questo indice, il più bel capolavoro di ingegneria meccanica applicata al formato 35 mm; il suo infinito sistema infatti non solo elevò lo standard della casa nipponica ma diede un impulso fortissimo al parco ottiche che di colpo salì di livello. Spero proprio si tratti di una svista.

  • Good morning!
    I enjoyed the article. You wanted input from your readers, so here I go:

    For a couple of years (1972-74) I worked at a professional camera store, catering to the working photographer rather than the non-professional. We sold the the Topcon. Back then, it was called the Beseler Topcon Super D. Beseler was the importer into the US. It was the ‘official’ US Navy 35mm camera. One of our government account execs. told me the story that the camera sounded like it was made in the USA, not Japan so the Navy adopted it. The Topcon was miles ahead of Nikon in design and optics, but lagging in business sense and marketing.

    Nikon, Hassellblad, et al, were imported through distributors rather than directly imported by the manufacturer. Back then, you had a personal relationship with the company rep. The Nikon guy would stop buy and drop off a lens for someone to try; ‘send it back when you’re done with it…’ If a commercial shooter needed to use a 70mm back for their ‘Blad, the rep would bring one by, give it personally to the photographer to keep as long as it was needed. The same was true with Leica, Rollei, Sinar & Linhof. They were just a phone call away.

    The Kodak professional catalog was like the Sears catalog. It seems they had a product for any photo situation, from working in the tropics to films and chemistry for the printing industry.

    It was a good time to be involved with the industry. But we must evolve and change to keep current with the existing times.

    My pick for the best 35mm SLR? The original Nikon F with the prism finder, black body, fitted with a 55mm f/1.2 lens.

    Now, to make things interesting: The BEST pizza in America is Pepe’s in New Haven CT. Take your black Nikon F with you and grab a pie. Shoot candid’s with the 55mm lens. The BEST lobster roll is lobster with butter served on a New England bun, lightly toasted. Have that while you shoot seagulls with the Topcon.

    Stay safe. Follow CDC guidelines. Get the vax as soon as you can. If not for you, for the people around you that you love & cherish.

    • What a great comment, start to finish.

      I have a couple of those old Kodak catalogs in the shop here. They truly are amazing, and the breadth of products with the big K on them is truly astonishing (coffee makers and toothbrush holders and beach coolers… not to mention the stuff that actually makes photos).

      I really mean it about my note in the article – the Topcon is the best-made camera that I’ve ever disassembled completely. It really is amazingly tough and smartly made.

      The Nikon F is of course fantastic, and that lens is great. But you are definitely going to cause some arguments with that pizza…

      • RE: Pizza
        I hope so Jim!

        Not to minimize the severity of last week’s attack or the crushing weight of COVID-19, but we need a little pizza non-partisanship.
        Just a few moments to step back and take a deep breath.
        We’ll soon be in the fray again.

  • The legendary Pentax LX was in my view the ultimate professional camera that was automatic and mechanical, able to continue in all weather conditions and continue to function even without batteries.

    • The Pentax LX and FM3a are exactly tied for me. They are both just about the best 35mm SLR (manual focus) that you could get.

    • The LX can function without batteries, but only in a limited capacity (speeds above 1/75). Incredible camera, but not ‘mechanical’ in the context of the article.

  • Minolta SRT series. Such nice cameras. I hear they make nice 24mm lenses as well…………….. still waiting to hear back from you. Multiple messages, no response.

  • Another vote for completely mechanical – no meter, no battery, no nuthin’. Going that route, for Minolta we have to reach back to the SR-2 or SR-1. If we allow the meter, why not the SRT-101, which surely must get some points for paving the way for the 102 and others? For Nikon, at least give us the unmetered F2, but while we’re at it, is there any more iconic camera than the original F? I believe there was a pre-meter version of the Pentax, not sure about the Contax, while the Leica, Topcon and Canon seem to fit nicely into my totally mechanical non-electronic box. These were the cameras for when men were men (well, actually I was a boy). Great article!

  • I still have my Pentax Spotmatic F. It’s a fabulous camera, second only to the Pentax LX

  • I enjoyed reading about all of your choices. I got to use many of them and am familiar with all of them. The F2 was my first pro camera which I got when I was a sophomore in high school. My only question is: The Polaroid? Mechanical? I believe it was electronic and dependent on the battery that was in the film pack. Older film with a dead battery couldn’t be used. Your input?

  • Wonderful list, i need to find a Topcon now after reading your lines.
    Glad i own 6 from the list especially the last one that is my favorite.

  • There was a batteryless Nikon FS sold as a cheaper alternative to the FT…..not many were sold making them now relatively rare, though many can still be had in Japan

  • What a great lineup of cameras. I have taken some wonderful images with the Spotmatic F which I believe is the best model of the line. What scores with the Spotmatic is the incredible lenses up and down the roster.

  • IMHO (well, I’m not all that humble), I’d replace the Pentax Spotmatic with the H3/H3V. Pentax metering systems of that era are so inaccurate that they aren’t worth having so go pure mechanical with the H series.

    I’d choose the Nikon F3HP over either of the other Nikon choices with the only disadvantage between the requirement for a battery for the shutter. Well, it does have a mechanical 1/60th speed without a battery. Simple to just replace the battery once a year.

  • While the Nikon FM3a is amazing & fully deserves its place on this list, the title of “Nikon’s most advanced manual focus SLR” belongs to the Nikon FA. It matches all the specs of the FM3a and adds Nikon’s first matrix-meter & a titanium shutter mechanism. And it did all of that 14 years before the FM3a. However, the FA is definitely not a purely mechanical machine & relies heavily on its groundbreaking electronics.

  • I had a soft spot for the Nikkormat, can’t really say why but I always wanted one. Perhaps you can identify what its charms are please.

  • Bravo Josh one more time 😉
    I am agree with this list and the comment of Jason Butler : the Nikon FA is also a gem.
    The point is which one will you choose if you choose only one without any money restriction 😉
    For me Nikon FM3a for the brass touch (despite the FA is very nice because the matrix when we use slide films).
    If a second one : the Minolta STR 303 this is a beast and some Minolta lens are gorgeous.
    The Leica and Contax have never given me more (only some mechanical troubles and electronic problems), the lens despite the Zeiss 3D of the Contax, at my old age now, I can say that the difference is too small, Leica has a cold rendering.

  • Excellent list of course, but honestly some of these cameras seem to be listed for their place in camera history and not necessarily because they are the best of the line. Case in point is the spectacular Olympus OM-1. There is no debating its immeasurable importance to the advancement of the 35mm SLR design standard. But if you are allowing electronic metering to exist in this list of fully mechanical cameras, there is no question that the Olympus OM-3Ti of the mid-90s is a vastly more competent all-mechanical camera than the OM-1 of the early 70s. The OM-3Ti boasts advanced metering modes that I still envy today–how about memory spot metering that allows you to record multiple spot metered measurements for a single exposure, including setting highlights and shadows? How about TTL flash metering with a mechanical shutter? All in the same small forum factor pioneered in the OM-1 (not to mention access to one of the widest ranges of accessories, and excellent Zuiko optics). The OM-3Ti gets my vote.

    Thanks for the great article!

    • You’re right, and we had this conversation when compiling the list. We eventually decided that, in the case of the OM line, the first was so revolutionary that it needed to be included. Hope that makes sense.

    • I was going to say exactly the same thing. Sadly, I don’t feel I can justify the expense, but having both an OM1N and an OM4Ti, I’m pretty sure that I’d like an OM3Ti more than any of the 35mm cameras on this list

  • There was another revolutionary SLR German camera manufacturer Kamera Werkstatten KW that in 1953 produced the Praktina. This was a true Pro level camera system with interchangeable viewfinders focusing screens, camera backs and auto winders which inspired the Nikon F that came out six years later.

    • Indeed, Geoff. And unlike the Exakta 35mm SLRs which evolved into an SLR system, the Praktina was conceived from the outset to be a system SLR.

  • I agree with all these choices. I would add the Exacta XV which I owned before along with Rolleiflex TLR, take your pick. I had one with the Tessar f3.5. Talk about mechanically wonderful cameras. Out of that list I currently have the F2a, 500 CM and Minolta. Those were the good days for cameras and photographers. Exciting and forward-looking to the next brochure or catalogue. I even enjoyed having to use a separate light meter for the Exacta and Rolleiflex. Ok, enough reminiscing, I’ve got to grab my 500 CM and head to New Haven, Ct for a pizza at Pepe’s. Then some lobster. Keep shooting and thanks for the memories.

    • My suggestion for Pepe’s is the bacon pie…Leave the ‘Blad at home and bring along on of your 35’s…:-))

    • I would agree with you to include the Exakta VX. I have several. They still work great. I never had an Exakta VX that didn’t keep firing away. The next model the VX IIa is the pinnacle of refinement. It smoother, quieter, and just plain beautiful. But you know what? I have owned a bunch and not one is still working. The shutter curtains all went out. I think Ihagee used better rubber material in the VX than in the VX IIa.

  • Wonderful article, James. Glad to see you included the Spotmatic. Absolute coincidence, but a few days ago I mounted the lovely Jena Biotar 58mm on my NOS SP and plan to shoot a few rolls of Acros 100 with it.

    https://flic.kr/p/2kry25G

  • Avatar
    Jerome (EarthSunFilm) January 12, 2021 at 12:24 pm

    In the process of working my way through Minolta SLRs, I have come to appreciate the SR series, especially the SR-3. The SR-3 is overlooked and rarely mentioned, but it’s very pleasant to use—1/1000 shutter speed, clear viewfinder, easy to focus, nice weight.

    https://earthsunfilm.com/the-vintage-minolta-love-project/

  • I think it’s a good list. My only quibble might be the inclusion of the Nikon FM3. I would have replaced it with the legendary Nikkormat.

  • I’m glad you did NOT include the Pentax MX. Hard to turn shutter speed dial. LEDs in the VF that get washed out easily in daylight. Excessively long film winder throw. Viewfinder that is impossible to see the sides if you wear glasses (and without you still need to jam your eye into the peephole).
    And frankly, too small.
    Ya I have black one. And it looks nice. But it sits there with me wondering why all the hoopla? Much better to shoot an LX in manual mode than an MX.

    • Each to their own! I think you know my feelings for the MX, but for me it’s the LX that looks on forlornly wondering why I always reach for the underspecced little sibling.

      The MX is mechanical perfection, everything it needs to be and nothing more.

      (But you’re right about the focus throw…)

  • p.s the Contax S2? I dunno dood. It feels like a cheap camera in a fancy shell. I woulda put a Nikon F in that slot instead…

  • This conversation is soooooo cool. Has it reached a record for number and intensity of comments yet?

  • Add the Minox sub-min range and the Swiss Alpa range

  • Great list! I was given a Spotmatic not long ago, and would love to add the S2 to my Contax collection!

  • Wow, the second time in a couple of weeks the SRT series has gotten some love. I have a 201 and yes, the 50mm Rokkor is that good. I also have a Leicaflex SL with the 50mm F/2 Summicron. It’s tough to tell the end results apart head to head except for specific types of shots. Are the SRTs noisy? Heck yes but that’s what I grab for deep winter landscapes. The tolerances are sloppy enough that the mirror NEVER sticks up.

  • Avatar
    William Brière Daigle January 13, 2021 at 7:01 pm

    I’m quite a beginner in film photography but since I work in a photo lab my passion about 35mm didn’t stop to grow. My boss had a pretty big collection that was collecting dust in cardboard boxes, one day we did a little bit of cleanup and he gave me a Topcon Super D, with a 25mm f3.5 and a 100mm f2.8, and it has the waist level viewfinder! It’s such a smooth camera and you can tell that it’s built like a tank! Other than that I have the Olympus Om-1 with a couple of lenses, and a couple of rare brands rangefinders. Very nice article, definitely a discover for me!:)

  • Avatar
    Peter Bidel Schwambach January 14, 2021 at 4:36 pm

    I’ve wanted to get an FM3a forever, and I could probably justify buying one, but I already have an FM2n that I love to death and is basically my idea of a perfect camera. Am I missing out on something truly, really special here?

  • I miss the Pentax MX, with bright near 1:1 Finder, with Shuttterspeed and Aperture info. also My Miranda Sensorex is very attractive and well thought.

  • Avatar
    Fred Swartzendruber January 17, 2021 at 5:56 pm

    Many years ago my ex-wife and I had a Beseler Topcon Super D. My dad had a Nikon F he bought new in Hong Kong in 1962 which he used for >30 years. Nikon was out of my price range at the time (early ‘70s), and the used Topcon was affordable and highly recommended by a photographer who had used one in Vietnam. If anything it felt even more solid than the Nikon. It was stolen during a trip to the Caribbean in 1976, but we found another used one at Willoughby’s in Manhattan with the same 50mm and 28mm lenses. After ten years living in SE Asia and Southern Africa, and many rolls of film, that one was also stolen from a friend’s apartment in Washington DC. I still remember and miss the solid, precise feel of the Topcon’s controls. I believe Topcon by then had exited the consumer photography market but still makes optical instruments for ophthalmology and surveying. The photo of the dismantled Super D is great – it’s hard to imagine what it would cost to manufacture something like that today.

  • Avatar
    Christopher Deere January 18, 2021 at 3:15 am

    My two cents? Gipi’s Pizza House on High Street at Preston, in Melbourne, Australia. (It’s just a little pity that the starving hotel-quarantined tennis players cannot order in.) – As far as life’s other necessities are concerned: From this list I own the Nikon F2AS, the Minolta SR-T Super, the Olympus OM-1n and the Nikon FM3a. Desert island camera, hands down, is the F2AS. That camera will be coming into the coffin with me (if the 3a doesn’t mind too much). No better walk-around SLR than the Oly OM-1 was ever put into play. Size and weight, it wins every day. I also own the FM2, the SR-T 101 and the OM-3, as long as we’re talking about purely mechanical cameras. (If nobody minds a segue to range-finders … well, just try asking to borrow my Yashica 35, the original 1958 f1.9 model. I’ll give you a brand-new name.)

  • No love for the Nikkormats. Doesn’t get more mechanical than the Nikon shuffle. Built like tanks.

  • I own most of the cameras mentioned here but I always come back to my Fujica ST series with their EBC coated lenses. While they weren’t pro level cameras their range of lenses from fisheye to 800 mm ( also macro and soft focus 85mm ) were extremely good.

    • Dave, wonderful little cameras. Around 1989 my slr system was based on the Leica R3 + 28, 50, 90mm lenses, and I was beginning to feel it was just a little heavy to cart around, so when I wanted a 35mm lens, instead of looking to Leica, I was pointed in the direction of the EBC Fujinon f2.8/35 by my regular dealer and which I was told was an excellent lens. I also had to have the body, and this was the ST705W which came with the winder, a novelty for me at the time for an slr. But the deal was at a price I found irresistable. The lens was indeed excellent and I found I was preferring the 35mm FoV over the 28. It wasn’t long before I parted with the R3 outfit (to fund an M6 and the first CV lenses) but kept the little Fuji, which I have to this day, but not used.

      Sadly, the market has taken note of the EBC lenses and their prices reflect this.

      • Yes , I see the prices have gone up especially from dealers in Japan. As a collector I began buying them about twenty
        years ago and now own all of the screw mount lenses except for the 1000mm which I have seen listed in their literature
        but has never come up for sale and I doubt it went into production.

        Collecting is a disease !

  • I inherited a Topcon Super DM (the last version of the RE Super) from my granddad. It was a bit behind the other manufacturers in 1973 but the build quality is something else, it was used a lot over the 10 years he used it as his main camera, probably shot more than 10000slides, the brassing shows how much it has been used. Still works like new and shutter speeds and light meter seem to be spot on!

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

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