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.
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…
…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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you have another favorite mechanical SLR, let us know about it in the comments below.
[Some of the links in this article will direct users to our affiliates at B&H Photo, Amazon, and eBay. By purchasing anything using these links, Casual Photophile may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps Casual Photophile produce the content we produce. Many thanks for your support.]