It only takes a visit to your local record store to understand the economics of a reemerging market. In the last decade (or closer to 12-13 years) an audio format on life support has gained popularity to the point where it now outsells CDs and nearly every new release is available on vinyl (a fact unthinkable twenty years ago). Fortunately for the music industry, and vinyl in particular, there will always be new music being created and a demand for it to be pressed on vinyl. It’s a different situation for the film photography community.
We’ve seen two stories in the last months that highlight the fragility of the analog photography ecosystem: the discontinuation of Fujifilm Pro 400H and the discontinuation of production of the Nikon F6, the last “newly” produced film SLR on the market. The discontinuing of films is nothing new, but to see a 400-speed pro film go down is a particular type of gut punch, made all the more painful when considering that the only “new” films being announced are more exercises in creative rebranding than actual new film emulsions.
The silver lining for all the celluloid lovers out there is that despite an almost complete lack of new film cameras available, there are decades of used gear available and begging for some love. As recently as five years ago, the majority of these could be purchased for pennies on the dollar. But as more people have returned to film photography, they’ve brought with them a higher demand for equipment that will never increase in supply. The inevitable result of this supply and demand arithmetic, as any Economics 101 student will tell you, is higher prices.
We’re now far from the fire sales of yesteryear, and sellers have caught on to the used film camera economy and (often aided by the trends and hype of social media) are charging more than ever.
It’s worth asking in 2021; are film cameras still the best deal in photography? Or has a marketplace doomed by digital and abandoned by vendors caused prices to rise beyond the cameras’ true value?
I wanted to examine the most popular film cameras’ pricing and determine which models are overpriced (over-hyped), which ones are priced right, and which are still a bargain.
To answer these questions, I’ve investigated the current going rate for twelve cameras in different formats and levels of popularity. To create an average current price I have used the largest amount of current prices each camera currently sells for online, along with a “normal” lens for each camera (unless otherwise noted.)
Single Lens Reflex
Pentax K1000 – $130
The tried and proven narrative around the Pentax K1000 is that it’s the cheapest, most helpful learning tool for budding photographers wanting to dip their toes in the film world. It’s still a great camera to hand to a beginner before letting them run wild with the cheapest film available. Its uniquity among the uninitiated is the chief testament speaking on behalf of an otherwise vanilla wafer camera.
Manufactured for more than 30 years, there is no short supply of K1000s. This helps keep the prices low, but even in the last five years a camera that was once available for a few twenty dollar bills is now averaging about $130 online.
Is the K1000 worth that much? No way. There are too many other cameras that are equally good as learning tools and have more features than the K1000. Someone could buy any number of SLRs from the nineties brimming with technical capability, or something contemporary to the K1000 like Minolta’s SRT-101 that offer the same mechanical foundation with a much deeper selection of lenses that are all available at lower prices. A higher price tag for a more basic camera that uses the K mount instead of M42? No thanks.
Canon AE-1 – $190
The AE-1 is almost as iconic as the K1000, but benefits from additional capabilities including the Program mode available in the AE-1 Program variant. It’s the first SLR to include a microprocessor and its shutter is the tone you hear when you take a screen snapshot on Apple devices. In his review of the Program variant, Aidan called the AE-1 the ultimate beginner camera.
The AE-1 sells for only $60 more, on average, than the K1000. For not much more money you’re getting a better camera with access to better lenses. This one seems to be priced just right. Luckily Canon made so many of these that you won’t have trouble finding one.
Nikon F3 – $350
I have a bizarre and unconscionably adversarial opinion of the Nikon F3. It’s not because I think it a bad camera. In fact, I think it’s one of the best SLRs ever made, or at least chasms ahead of 90 percent of SLRs that were ever made. And maybe it’s that awareness that makes me avoid it, as I am a die-hard F4 fanboy. Roll your eyes if you must, but the fact that I think the F4 the absolute king makes me avoid the much more adored F3.
I’ve gone back and read Josh’s review of the F3 a number of times in the four years since he wrote it. Of course it’s a well written review, but there are few things I enjoy more than reading someone’s words about something they love. Everything he writes about the camera is factually true. It’s definitely an incredible camera and offers every tool you need to create stunning images. At $350 the F3 doesn’t seem overpriced, and it could even be argued that this remains an undervalued camera today. It was, after all, Nikon’s professional system camera for a very long time.
But Josh was also correct when he wrote that the F3 doesn’t offer much beyond most other SLRs of the era. So maybe it would be smart for buyers looking at the Nikon F3 to more seriously consider the Nikon F4, which offers some big improvements and costs about a hundred bucks less than the F3.
New shooters tend to start with an SLR. But most new shooters would be much better off with any number of cheaper cameras than the ones I’ve mentioned so far. The lower-end Minolta X series cameras offer far more capability in a lighter body than both the K1000 and the Canon AE1. Dozens of SLR cameras from makers like Chinon and Ricoh cost half the price, and do more. And let’s not forget that the best film cameras ever made are the dorky AF SLRs of the 1990s (which cost, what? Forty bucks?).
Leica M3 – $2,000 (without lens)
Every single Leica is overvalued. Period. Cameras like the Minilux, Sofort and Mini Zoom are the most egregious offenders, but every Leica camera is evidence of the company’s historic success in marketing and branding. When you take a detached look at what you’re getting when you purchase a camera, it makes no sense to choose a Leica over something else.
The intensity of your response to this opinion will get stronger in either direction when applying it to Leica’s M series. Yes, these are legendary rangefinders, made with absolute precision and quality. They are also spartan, and when anyone says that camera bodies are simply light proof boxes with which to take pictures, then my mind drifts to the M series. A well-built box for sure, but a more austere one is difficult to find.
As a balm to heal the wounded ego of Leicaheads out there, I will say that while their lenses are at least as expensive as the bodies, at least here the buyer is getting their money’s worth. There’s no doubt that Leica makes some of the best lenses in the world. But paying at least $2,000 for a body to put them on reeks of vanity and prestige.
Josh accurately called Leica a brand that photographers aspire to in his article on the M2. But when I think of what’s behind that aspiration, I’m left with a bad taste in my mouth. And if I walk down that aspiration’s road, I’ll leave with an empty wallet, and maybe a second mortgage.
Fed-5 – $50
Now we take a 180-degree turn from Wetlzar and end up at Karkhov in the Ukraine. It was here that the Soviet Union produced the FED series of rangefinders, a line of cameras born out of the USSR’s plagiarism of the Leica II, which was about as accurate a rendition as me attempting to draw “The Birth of Venus” from observation.
Cameras made east of the Iron Curtain come with stereotypes belittling their quality and reliability. In some cases, one of which is soon to follow, these are undeserved. But the FED is why the stereotypes exist in the first place. To save myself from going on a tangent, assume that everything wonderful about a Leica rangefinder is what’s wrong with a FED. You can still have a good experience taking bad pictures with a Leica, but outstanding pictures with the FED are a miracle. Okay maybe that’s going too far. But only slightly. These are cheap for a reason, and I’ve learned the hard way that you only need to go to that well once.
Minolta CLE – $1,200
We’re known for being fans of Minolta here and I’m as guilty of that as anyone else on the team. Maybe more than most. So I’ll let someone else talk about why Minolta’s CLE is better than the M series. Ironically, the CLE was born on the tail end of a partnership between Leica and Minolta that saw the two companies exchange technologies and cooperate on cameras and lenses for two decades or so. Cameras like the Minolta XD and Leica R series SLRs came from this alliance as well, and most of these cameras are undervalued today.
It doesn’t take much to fall in love with the techno-marvel CLE. It’s the showpiece that illustrates a brand operating at the absolute height of its talent (it’s the smallest M mount rangefinder ever made, and offered aperture-priority auto-exposure twenty years before Leica themselves would ever do so). Don’t confuse the CLE with the earlier Leitz/Minolta CL, which sells for about the same price as the CLE. It’s just not as capable a camera and discerning Photophiles would be better off buying the later CLE (don’t worry about electronics). James even went full scorched earth when he wrote that he would take the CLE over any Leica M camera.
The CLE holds a unique place in the Minolta canon – a camera that isn’t cheaper than its quality would otherwise demand. I’m not saying it’s overvalued, only that nearly every other Minolta is still a bargain. The CLE is worth every penny you’ll pay for it, and the proof will be in your celluloid pudding.
We’ve actually written three articles which spotlight less expensive and less-hyped rangefinder cameras, and many of the cameras on those lists are still relevant today. The first article was from way back in 2017, the second was more recent, and in the third article we showcased high quality rangefinders that most people have never heard of. See those articles for some great alternatives to the well-known (expensive) models.
Point and Shoot
Olympus Mju II – $270
When we talk about the current film camera market, this hype beast is a perennial favorite of those lamenting a supposed film camera bubble. It’s a long-running punchline that the Olympus Mju II takes the cake regarding overpriced cameras. It says a lot about this camera that the benefits of the camera are secondary and often attempt to justify the outrageous cost of a plastic, automatic point-and-shoot. But the benefits are worth mentioning anyway. Anyone who holds one appreciates just how small and compact it is. It’s one of the few cameras that actually would fit in the pockets of some Levis. And the lens really is as good as advertised.
But is $270 dollars a reasonable price for a plastic camera that feels vulnerable in spite of its “weather resistant” label? Will you think of how much you paid when you have to manually turn off the eager flash every time the camera turns on?
Even though it’s not quite the “it girl” it used to be, the Mju II still sells for offensive prices, often up to $500. Also worth mentioning is the “trickle down” effect that the popularity of the Mju II has brought to its siblings. That means prices for the different zoom versions, as well as the first Mju, are also unreasonable compared to their abilities and reliability.
I recently bought this camera for 200 euros ($225) because it seems to be the only camera that meets my requirements for being a “daily carry.” The pictures are great, but I’ll never know for sure if it was really worth the coin I paid.
Nikon L35AF – $175
The Nikon L35AF came out in 1984 and was Nikon’s big coming out at the Point and Shoot Gala. While it’s not as compact as most point and shoots would eventually become, it’s a testament to the best parts of Nikon’s brand language in the 1980s, and boasts an awesome and tack-sharp 35mm f/2.8 lens. We’ve written about this camera multiple times, including James’ by-the-book review from 2014, and the time when I was forced to say goodbye to mine.
I made a lot of my favorite images with this camera, and never forgot when looking at them that it only cost me $50 at my local camera store. But the days of the $50 L35AF are long gone. Today they regularly sell for three times that amount and often even more for a pristine copy.
Despite my feelings for the L35AF, I have to call it overpriced at nearly $200. Because for every single “fantastic” image that came through its lens, the skittish electronics completely ruined as many whole rolls of film. Elements of randomness and luck are often the pinch of spice that makes film photography so worthwhile. But in the case of my L35AF, dropping in a roll of film felt more like playing Russian Roulette. It’s completely possible that you’ll buy a version that isn’t cursed (or won’t be cursed soon,) but $170 is a big ante just to roll those dice.
Point and Shoot Bargains
Buyers looking for a cheaper point and shoot that doesn’t sacrifice quality should look to the Pentax IQ Zoom range. With seemingly hundreds of models to choose from (with prime lenses, zooms up to 200mm, wide angle variants, and waterproof models) there’s an IQ Zoom for every need – and most of them cost under $70. They have great lenses, too.
Additionally, seek out the later model Canon Sure Shots. Like the Pentaxes listed above, these were made in the 1990s and early 2000s, and they’re some of the best point and shoot cameras that were ever made (measured by feature-set, compactness, reliability, and lens performance).
Mamiya 7II – $4,200
Moving up in negative size, we start medium format with the camera which many (most?) phot geeks consider to be the best camera in the category. There are even plenty of people who consider this beast to be the best film camera that money can buy.
The Mamiya 7II is a portable rangefinder shooting in the 6×7 format. It has a few of the standard exposure modes, but otherwise apes the “less is more” approach so familiar to Leica shooters. What makes the Mamiya such a renowned (and expensive) camera is its series of leaf-shutter lenses. I know, the value of a lens is a relative concept. Crappy lenses can still make good images, and awesome lenses can produce rubbish. But I would dare anyone to find better lenses than those made for the Mamiya 7II. They are unrivaled in terms of quality (both in build and output), color rendition, micro contrast. You name the metric, and they are leaders in the rankings.
The fact that the Mamiya 7ii camera body is so revered is that it’s lightweight and compact form makes its beastly lenses portable in ways that Mamiya’s RB/RZ cameras do not. As a result, this is one of the most expensive film systems on the market. Is this camera worth the cost of slightly more than a ticket into the S&P 500?
I know: “But you said the opposite about the Leica!” That’s true. They’re about the same price. But I would say the much larger negative, and the unbeatable quality of the lens system makes the Mamiya 7II an appropriately-priced camera, especially when compared to its digital equivalents.
Rolleiflex 2.8 D – $1,350
Is there anything that shines that #filmaesthetic more than the Rolleiflex? It’s an absolute icon of photography, and a masterpiece of product design. Were there a way to constantly see the world as it looks through a Rolleiflex viewscreen (minus the mirrored motion) few people could resist that
Nearly every TLR camera has aped the Rolleflex since its release in 1929. But none have matched its level of build quality and material sophistication. As a confirmation of its performance, the camera changed very little throughout the many decades in which it was made. It’s a finely-tuned instrument that is equally an artwork of design.
As our review attests, the Rollei is a unique machine that gives the shooting experience a special atmosphere. So I would say it’s appropriately priced. Well taken care of, this is a generational camera that anyone would be lucky to have passed down to them.
But to add a caveat, I would recommend potential buyers unfamiliar with TLRs to start cheaper, with the budget-oriented Rolleicord, or the (early, non-124G) Yashica Mat. There’s a chance you’ll find the vertigo associated with TLR compositions too disorienting, and in that case you’ll be glad you spent a fraction of the cost of the Rolleiflex.
Pentacon Six – $350
It’s already been established that cameras from Warsaw Pact nations have a reputation for poor quality and reliability. In the case of the aforementioned FED those claims prove to be true. But it would be disingenuous to apply them to all cameras from the Socialist bloc. In fact they made a lot of cameras that remain reliable, albeit without the flare, panache and technological pedigree of their democratic competitors.
Made for more than 20 years, the Pentacon Six is without a doubt the best of these cameras. It’s a 6×6 shooting SLR. Operation is fully mechanical and analog (the exception being the optional metering prism) and its most attractive quality is the assortment of stunning Carl Zeiss Jena lenses. Despite there only being about five, they are outrageously good lenses with the 180mm f/2.8 “Olympia” having a reputation as one of the finest portrait lenses available.
The complaints that people have leveled against this camera – that its frame spacing is horrible, and that the original grease can gum up shutter speeds – are the gripes of people who expect to treat their cameras like sledgehammers.
Among cameras that can mount lenses of this caliber, the Pentacon remains the best value in medium format photography. Even though shipping costs will kill you, the Pentacon Six is still a fantastic option for someone looking for incredible lenses at a huge value. Considering that it’s a third of the cost of something like the Pentax 67, you’ll have plenty left over for buying film.
Medium Format Bargains
There are quite a few. We made a list of some of our favorites here.
The One You Knew I’d Mention
Hassleblad X-Pan – $4,500
We’ve saved the best for last. The monster. The behemoth. The final boss of overpriced cameras. Once you’ve bought this, every company in the world knows you’ll buy anything.
What do you say about the X-Pan that isn’t overshadowed by the running gag of its price tag? It’s the best quality panoramic camera ever made. It has a few really terrific lenses. Would I love to have it? More than any other camera I can think of. But it’s a niche product, and that uniqueness makes it a limited-use camera. What’s interesting is how severely the price for an X-Pan has spiked in the last few years. It’s as though suddenly everyone realized that very few copies of this very unique camera are available.
But that’s capitalism for you. Find a niche, dominate it, charge as much as anyone is willing to pay. On the “bright side,” if too many more beloved film stocks are cancelled, you’ll start to see that market re-adjust and you’ll be able to afford what would then be a gorgeous piece of home decor.
[Editor’s Note – Skip the X-Pan and buy the Fuji G617. Or at least pick the TX-1 over the imposter X-Pan. Fujifilm made them both, after all. And the TX-1 is much, much prettier.]
Do you have thoughts on the current film camera market? Let us know about it in the comments.
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The thing you miss about the difference between the pro-grade Nikon F3 (and F2) – as well as the Canon F-1 (new and old versions) – and consumer-grade cameras such as the Canon AE-1, is durability. The F’s are built like tanks and can take a licking and keep on ticking – and probably have in their 35-45 years on earth. Not so for the AE-1s of the world, which were mass produced much more cheaply out of lower grade materials. The AE-1s were made for people to take vacation pics or pics of tennis matches, not truck around the world in harsh conditions, absorb abuse, and keep reliably snapping photos like the F’s.
So, although feature-wise a camera like the F3 does the “same thing” as the AE-1 (but in aperture priority, rather than shutter priority), the F3’s durability makes it a much better camera and worth the $, IMHO – especially in light of the fact that there’s a shortage of people out there who know how to fix these old film cameras anymore…