When I wrote our Ten Best Mechanical SLRs Ever Made article, I almost immediately knew I had to follow it with a Ten Best Electronic SLRs Ever Made article. This was followed by a hint of excitement, which was then tempered by a big helping of dread and anxiety. We are, after all, talking about the most popular, well-known, and most diverse segment of film cameras out there. Everybody’s going to have an opinion.
So before we get started, let’s establish some ground rules. The electronic 35mm SLR category encompasses any 35mm SLR whose exposure capabilities are aided by electronics. This can range from something like the humble, aperture-priority-only Nikon EM to the autofocus-equipped, armed-with-every-mode-ever Minolta A7. That’s as varied as it gets.
It is this category’s extraordinary variety that makes this list so difficult, yet so exciting to organize. I ended up having to ask myself some rather serious questions about cameras and list-making in general. What really, and I mean really, makes a camera (or anything) great? Is it their stat sheet and groundbreaking tech, or is it the beauty of their execution of existing tech? Is it their sales figures or their historical importance? Is it what the camera is objectively, or is it how that camera made you feel?
Each camera on this list revealed to me a different answer to every one of those questions. To other shooters, other cameras may hold different answers still. This isn’t an objectively perfect Top 10 list, but these are my and I’m sticking with them. Do check my answers you’ll find links to reviews of each of these cameras in the paragraphs below each.
I should start this by saying that this list isn’t intended to be sequential. Every one of these cameras are about as good at helping you make images, are as interesting, and are as worthy of your love and attention as each other. But heaven help you if you thought that I wasn’t going to put the Nikon F3 first, even symbolically.
Sure, the F3 is hyped up by literally everybody (including myself). Sure, it’s not as capable as any pro-spec autofocus SLR. Sure, it’s nearly functionally similar to nearly any bare-bones electronic SLR. And yes, the LCD display sucks and the AE lock button sometimes aggravates my carpal tunnel. I know – it’s not perfect.
But look at it, just for a second. Look upon its Italian, Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed body, with its sharp, defined lines terminating in a soft curve accented by the now-iconic Nikon red stripe. Look into the viewfinder and enjoy brightness and eye-relief beyond compare. Marvel at the accuracy and utility of its uncommon 80/20 center-weighted meter, and watch in awe as it works in immaculate concert with its aperture-priority mode. And press the shutter button and listen to its crisp chirp, feel the smooth ratchet of its perfectly-engineered, ball-bearing mounted, self lubricating advance lever, and frame the next shot with joy and inspiration in your heart. It’s not perfect, but God, it’s close.
Now, I’m only being slightly facetious. The Nikon F3 really is a beautiful, historically important, and still-relevant machine that has occupied its lofty place in camera history from the day it was released in March 1980. It was Nikon’s last professional manual focus camera, and may still even be its greatest. It enjoyed an incredible twenty year production run from 1980-2000 and remains an incredible camera even in the 2020’s, owing to its sleek lines, spartan charm, and easy usability. I recommend it to those shooters who are loyal to 35mm, the SLR genre, and good design as a whole. Even after all the hype, the Nikon F3 is still one of the best there ever was.
I know what you’re thinking. This is a top 10 list for all electronically-controlled SLR’s, and we’re giving Nikon two spots? Is that really what we’re doing?
Yes. That is, in fact, what we’re doing.
That’s because our next camera is Nikon’s most advanced manual focus camera ever, and a camera that is likely more influential than any in their entire roster – the Nikon FA, otherwise known as the Technocamera.
The FA makes this list for two reasons – its influence, and its still-astonishing usability. For one, the FA’s emphasis on technology over pure pro-spec performance should sound familiar – it is one of the familiar plays of the “advanced amateur” camera and one that carries on to this day. Sure, the Minolta X-series and Canon A-series did this first, but the FA is arguably the genre’s greatest exponent. It blew all those other electronic manual focus cameras out of the water with its pioneering technology, matrix metering, which was the first to utilize a computer to analyze a given scene to produce a meter reading. Any doubters to the FA’s influence need not look further than their own digital camera – matrix metering (or evaluative metering) is likely the default metering mode.
Perhaps the greatest attribute of the FA is that it utilized its incredibly complicated technology just to make everything easier for any level of shooter. Shooting an FA is simplicity in manual focus form – just focus, shoot, and you’ll get a perfect image. I recommend it highly for anybody looking for just one SLR body to grow with (provided, of course, that you find one that works).
But that’s enough of looking at this list through Nikon multi-coated glasses. If you’re tired of hearing me squawk about how cool Nikon is, how about this – there’s a camera that might be better than the both the FA and the F3, and it’s not a Nikon. It’s the Olympus OM4-Ti.
Those who remember 1983’s Olympus OM4 remember a camera that may have been the most advanced, and smallest, professional-level SLR of its day. It crammed all of Olympus’ most advanced technologies into a shock and weather-resistant chassis the size of a Leica-M camera. It featured the world’s first multi-spot meter (which could take a spot reading from eight different segments of the frame), as well as their famous off-the-film-plane style of metering, which ensured an incredible amount of metering accuracy. Whereas the FA took care of everything for the user, the OM4 gave the user ultimate control over the exposure, and to a degree arguably finer than even the Nikon F3. And similar to the F3, the OM-4 enjoyed an incredibly long production life spanning from 1987 to 2002 in its now-famous Ti form.
If we’re talking absolute endgame cameras, never mind the greatest electronic 35mm SLR’s of all time, the Olympus OM-4 ranks near the top. This is the camera that best represents Olympus’ philosophy of quality, compact design, and technological ingenuity. I heartily recommend the OM4-Ti, the titanium-clad version of this camera, as they are the easiest to find in stellar condition.
Minolta XD (XD-7, XD-11)
Even though this is a list of The Greatest, I despise the GOAT (greatest of all time) debate, in any form. If I have to hear Stephen A. Smith get into a shouting match with some other weird talking head about lEbRoN jAmEs I may just lose it. Aside from the tendency of GOAT arguments to devolve into obnoxious rants made to harvest hate clicks and provoke engagement-at-all-costs, it’s that the argument often fails to take into account the limitations of the knowledge and the changing values of the time of any athlete, artist, or whoever. Bjorn Borg never had the chance to play with a graphite tennis racquet, polyester strings, and years of sports science research; Rafa Nadal never had to play with a wooden racquet, natural gut strings, and in a time where smoke breaks were a thing.
Considering this, a camera like the Minolta XD becomes even more remarkable in hindsight. Released in the olden days of 1977, the Minolta XD became the very first multimode SLR at a time when such things did not exist. I can’t stress that enough – nobody had even seen a camera that could perform both aperture and shutter priority duties with a flick of a switch until this camera came along. Just like we wouldn’t have had Kobe Bryant or LeBron James without Michael Jordan, we wouldn’t have the FA, the OM4-Ti, the Canon A-1, or practically any multi-mode camera in history without the Minolta XD. It’s that important.
Now before anybody hurls a tomato at me and accuses me of picking cameras purely on historical relevance, I will remind you that this is the Minolta freakin’ XD we’re talking about. This is, to this day, one of the finest shooting manual focus SLR’s ever made. It was perhaps the best child of the union between Minolta and Leitz (yes, that Leitz), and features the best combination of the former’s technological wizardry and the latter’s elegance in design. While not as well equipped as the later Nikon FA or Olympus OM4-Ti, the Minolta XD still holds a distinct edge in shooting layout and build quality. Its Acute Matte focusing screen is the same found in Hasselblad cameras, its controls are snappy and smooth, and if obtained in the black trim, you get a black chrome Leitz-approved finish. It is also, in my opinion, the most elegantly designed of the compact manual focus SLRs on this list. It may not be the greatest of all time, but its greatness transcends that tired moniker.
While the Minolta XD came sprinting out of the gates first in the photographic technological arms race of the late 70’s, there was a rival following close behind. It was clad in all black enamel, cut a Darth Vader-esque figure, and packed one key technology that the XD was too timid to give an official name to – programmed auto-exposure. It’s Canon’s finest creation from their manual focus FD mount days, the Canon A-1.
More than most other cameras of its ilk, the Canon A-1 is emblematic of the hyper-technological advanced amateur segment. It’s covered in the technology of the day, most importantly becoming the first camera to feature shutter priority, aperture priority, manual override, AND programmed autoexposure in one body (note: the rival Minolta XD does technically have a program mode, but it’s not as explicitly stated as it is on the A-1). The feature list goes on longer than Too $hort’s music career, and includes an exposure lock, an exposure compensation dial, an extended range of manually selectable shutter speeds from 2 to 30 seconds, a viewfinder shutter, double exposure capability, and discrete dials for each shooting mode. Yes, this may contribute to a cluttered control interface, but it’s a small price to pay when the entire photographic world is just a switch away.
I can practically hear the furious keystrokes of Canon AE-1 owners in the comment section. Why the A-1 over the obviously more important AE-1? It’s simple – it’s a better camera. The A-1 does everything the AE-1 and AE-1 Program can do. It also does more, does it better, and most importantly, does it cheaper.
But even all that said, I can’t in good conscience leave the Canon AE-1 out. It’s the VW Bug, the Coca-Cola, the Fender Stratocaster of electronic SLR’s. It’s also the reason the consumer-focused electronic SLR segment even exists.
Just like we did with the Minolta XD, we have to consider what the photographic world was like before the AE-1. Before it, the amateur SLR market consisted of bulky bare bones cameras that were often simplified versions of their professional counterparts. Although these were often very good cameras in their own right, they painted the entire SLR format as something reserved only for professionals, while amateurs were largely better off with fixed lens rangefinders or viewfinder cameras.
The introduction of the automated Canon AE-1 in 1976 completely shattered the popular preconception of what an SLR should be. It was small, lightweight, and due to its groundbreaking microprocessor-powered shutter priority mode, incredibly easy to shoot – in short, the opposite of what an SLR was. It sold like no other SLR before it, eventually selling 5.7 million units worldwide. The AE-1 proved so popular that it opened up an entirely new consumer-focused amateur SLR segment in the market, and paved the way for every automated SLR to come afterwards.
Though I will always pick the more fully featured A-1 over the AE-1 and the later AE-1 Program from a shooter’s perspective (and have actually spoken ill of said cameras in an infamous article), I will admit there is a certain charm to shooting an AE-1. It’s practically a rite of passage as a beginner; millions of shooters experienced SLR photography for the first time through its viewfinder. It isn’t the best camera on this list, but it’s certainly the most important, and is still a fine shooter for any class of photographer.
James once called the Pentax LX “The Best Professional 35mm Camera.” I remember holding my Nikon F3 kind of like how this lady holds Kevin Hart. I later realized I didn’t do this out of skepticism; I did it because it was probably true.
Fitting for the Pentax design ethos, the Pentax LX is maybe the most unassuming of the pro-spec electronic SLRs of the day (this is, of course, the same company that gave us the Wonder Bread of cameras, the Pentax K1000). But similarly befitting of Pentax, it is the near flawless execution of the LX’s build and the thoughtfulness of its design that gives it its power.
In abbreviated terms (for the long form review, click here) the Pentax LX is what you’d get if you shrunk a Nikon F3, a Canon F-1 New, or a Minolta XK down to the size of an Olympus OM-series camera while somehow sacrificing none of those camera’s features. It features nine interchangeable viewfinders, ten different focusing screens, motor drive capabilities, and a TTL OTF metering system which controls a stellar aperture priority mode. While managing this, the LX still managed to surpass its competitors by adding a mechanical backup across five different shutter speeds, and by being uncommonly well sealed against the elements, making it shock and water resistant to a degree those other cameras would envy. No other pro-spec SLR, manual focus or autofocus, can lay claim to this kind of a spec sheet.
Best of all, it’s an incredibly user-friendly camera. Its small size and thoughtful control layout makes it perhaps the most ergonomically friendly camera to shoot on this list. And if you can find one, prepare to enjoy the best Pentax SLR body ever made.
A few months ago, the Casual Photophile writers’ chat had a small debate about what their subjective perfect camera would be. I chimed in with, “Black Minolta XD with an exposure lock would be pretty near-perfect” James quickly reminded me that that camera already exists, only that it isn’t a Minolta XD. It’s the Leica R5.
The Leica R5 is often reductively considered a German Minolta XD on the juice, which is true to some degree. The R5 itself is based on the R4, Leica’s version of the Minolta XD, which was itself born out of a particularly interesting collaboration between Leica and Minolta, which you can read about here. The R4 took the XD and added an incredible metering system which, in aperture priority mode, can utilize both spot and center weighted metering, and officially added both an AE lock (in selective spot metering mode) and a program mode (!!). The R5 expounded on this by adding a wider shutter speed range (15s – 1/2000th of a second), TTL flash metering, and an even fancier program mode with a shift capability.\
Where the XD excelled in innovation and layout, the R5 excels in sheer build quality, shooting experience, and lens roster, and that’s saying something considering what I just wrote about the XD a few paragraphs before this. The R5 equipped with a 50mm Summicron is pure luxury in electronic 35mm SLR form, with every action streamlined, smooth, and of the very highest quality. You can’t expect less from a company like Leica.
Contax RTS III
The camera which takes the penultimate spot on this list is, admittedly, my pick of the bunch. As much as I love my old faithful Nikon F3 and all of my Nikkor lenses, I have to give it up for the last great SLR of the manual focus age (barring the Nikon FM3a), the Contax RTS III.
The Contax RTS III is the platonic ideal of the manual focus electronic 35mm SLR segment. Released in 1990, it was one of the last of its kind due the mass shift towards autofocus SLRs. With the manual focus SLR’s last gasp, Contax perfected the form, bestowing their already beautiful RTS series of cameras with every piece of tech they could muster. The camera featured an incredible 32 – 1/8000th of a second shutter, an integrated motor drive that maxed out at 5 FPS, and a freakin’ vacuum film pressure plate for maximum film flatness (seriously, who does that??). Combine this with access to the entire roster of Zeiss C/Y mount lenses and it’s hard to think of a pound-for-pound more impressive SLR system.
Historically, the Contax RTS III can be seen as a swan song for the thirty odd years manual focus SLRs ruled the world. It combines the ease-of-use, flexibility, and raw capability of the later autofocus SLR’s with the elegant, concise control layout of old school manual focus cameras, and wraps it all up in the impeccable lines Contax is known for. For the manual focus faithful as well as Zeiss fanatics, it is the ultimate electronic SLR.
Seasoned readers of the site will likely have noticed our omission of autofocus 35mm SLR’s, a class of cameras objectively more capable than any on this list. This is intentional – I believe judging cameras purely on raw capability is just as shallow as judging athletes purely on final trophy count. Ichiro Suzuki, who maybe the greatest hitter to ever play baseball, never won a World Series and yet occupies a space among the legends. In the same way, I don’t think that cameras can simply be reduced to their picture-taking ability – there’s something more to them that we love.
With all that in mind, it might be surprising to pick the Canon EOS-1v as the representative for the roided-up autofocus SLR segment. It is not the statistical leader of the segment (that would be the Minolta A9), nor is it a personal favorite (that would be the Nikon F6). I do, however, think the EOS-1v is the epitome of the genre, has the best professional pedigree, and represents a culmination of technology in film photography as well as an important link to the digital future. The feature list is mind-boggling, so I’ll just list some of the greatest hits: 45-point autofocus, a shutter speed range from 30 seconds to 1/8000th of a second, 21-zone evaluative (matrix) metering, an 8.5% partial meter, 2.4% spot meter capable of multi-spot metering , and a centerweighted meter, and a 3 FPS motor drive, among other features. It was rugged and reliable, ergonomically near-perfect and distinctly modern in its design (it’s basically a 35mm Canon EOS-1D), and subsequently a favorite of professional photographers in the twilight of the film era.
The EOS-1v makes this list not only because of its capabilities, but because it is a camera that represents the link between the film and digital eras. The proof lies in two things – its design and its lens mount. The design of the EOS-1v foregrounded every modern Canon DSLR, and can be seen almost unchanged in cameras like the 5D Mk II and 1D. For my Nikonians out there, I’m sorry to say that history shows that Canon’s EF mount surpassed the F mount in the transition from film to digital. The EOS system became the de facto professional standard, with the “L” series of lenses becoming legendary in the modern era. Professionals who have already built up a formidable arsenal of EOS lenses can use Canon EOS-1v as a virtual 1:1 film version of Canon’s DSLR offerings, making it the most sensible choice for working professionals still interested in shooting 35mm. If it is pure performance you’re after, this is the camera to get.
Well, that’s the list. If you have another favorite mechanical SLR, let us know about it in the comments below.
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