Getting Started in Film Photography – What Camera Should You Buy?

Getting Started in Film Photography – What Camera Should You Buy?

2000 1125 Jim Graves

There’s a whole new generation of would-be film photographers who want to explore their creative side by shooting film. Some have friends who can point them in the right direction, but for all the rest… you have Casual Photophile. In this article we’re answering the first question that most new shooters ask –  Which camera should I buy?

There are a multitude of YouTube channels dedicated to film photography, including ours, and it’s easy for new shooters to become overwhelmed by the barrage of ideas and opinions. Everyone has a favorite film camera, and a lot of the opinions on YouTube and elsewhere don’t take into account the needs and perspective of people who are totally new to the hobby.

The aim of this article, therefore, is to speak directly to newcomers in a frank and honest way. No hype. No brand worship. No aspirational nonsense asserting that you need a Leica, Mamiya 7, or a Hasselblad X Pan.

We’re here to tell you, depending on your needs and budget, which camera to buy. Every camera on this list will cost no more than $100 from a reputable camera shop (often far cheaper on eBay), will be reliable, and will do everything a newcomer needs their first film camera to do.

For Those Who Want to Simply Point, and Shoot!

The period between 1990 and 2002 was the high point for 35mm film cameras. Even entry-level point-and-shoot cameras were amazing – full of high tech features, reliable electronics, and great lenses. These pocket cameras had autofocus, zoom lenses and ran off of small and inexpensive batteries. Every major manufacturer made them by the tens of thousands and they sold just as many – the result today is that the used market is overflowing with great point and shoot cameras.

If you’re the type of new film shooter who wants to achieve the gorgeous look of film photographs without diving headfirst into learning all about aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and the complicated math of exposure using a manual or semi-auto camera, then you need an advanced point and shoot.

Here are three point and shoot film cameras that make amazing images with zero effort. They’re reliable, effective, and cost less than $100.

Pentax IQ Zoom Series Cameras (also known as Espio series cameras)

This series of point and shoot cameras was covered in 2020 by our fearless leader, James, in his article headlined Ten Great Point and Shoot Cameras from $25 to $99 and for good reason. Pentax build solid, dependable cameras, and they always have. And their range of point and shoots (called IQ Zoom and Espio, depending on the country in which where they’re sold) come in many varieties. Most of them have high spec auto-focus and zoom lenses – some are even waterproof.

Pentax made their name by giving the photography enthusiast the right tools for their needs and that was prevalent with their offerings in the point and shoot market. If someone tells you there’s a Pentax for everyone, that could very well be true.

Another big bonus – they’re cheap. If you’ve budgeted $100 to launch into film, you can buy a great IQ Zoom camera and still have money for a roll of film and a coffee.

[Find a Pentax IQ Zoom on eBay here]

Olympus Trip XB AF 44 (also known as Olympus Trip XB 41 AF / Olympus Trip XB 40 AF / Olympus Trip XB 400)

Olympus were also a company that gave the photography enthusiast the tools they needed. They were also responsible for perhaps the greatest ad campaign in history when renowned photographer David Bailey led the ads for the Olympus Trip. That campaign sold Ten Million Cameras. However, the resurgence in popularity of the original mighty little Trip has put it over our budget, and don’t even look at the price of an Olympus Mju…. Seriously… Don’t.

We chose the successor to that pocket powerhouse, the Olympus Trip XB AF range. For less than $100 the Trip XB AF range of cameras is equally as capable as the original Mju and substantially cheaper. With their fine Zuiko lenses the TRIP XB AF range have enough bells and whistles to make them a joy to use.

Best of all they’re dead simple, making the Olympus a great choice for people who really want to point and shoot, and nothing more. Put batteries in, load the film and have fun.

[Find an Olympus XB on eBay here]

Canon Sure Shot Series

The Canon Sure Shot series sold an incredible number of units throughout the ’90s and into the 2000s. In fact, a Canon Sure Shot was the last Canon film camera ever made (the Canon Sure Shot 90UII was designed and released as late as 2005). Canon began the Sure Shot range with solid dependable cameras with great lenses, and they added features and technology over the next 20 years.

Today you can buy an advanced spec Canon Sure Shot for between $50 and $100 and it will simply work until the Photography Gods commend its long and distinguished service with a seat in Camera Heaven. When the human race wipes itself out, a cockroach will be taking pictures of what we leave behind using a Canon Sure Shot.

I suggest buying one of the models from the ’90s or 2000s. These will be from the “U” range of Sure Shots (examples; Sure Shot 90U, Sure Shot 120U, etc.). The larger the number (usually) the longer the zoom lens. And all of these will have user controls for long exposure, flash photography modes, self-timers, and more. They’re among the more advanced point and shoots you’ll find.

[Find a Canon Sure Shot on eBay here]

For Those Who Want Creative Control

We’ve given you a few options to explore if you’re just looking to point and shoot. But what if you want to get a little more serious about photography? Beginners with this mindset need an SLR camera, and they really should buy a modern SLR with autofocus, auto-exposure, semi-auto modes, and all the other helping hands that come with an SLR film camera from the 1990s and 2000s. The problem is that Japanese camera companies were making 35mm SLRs for sixty years, and when it comes time to buy one it can get pretty confusing!

Here are three great model ranges that will work just like a modern DSLR, except these shoot film!

Minolta Maxxum 5 (also known as Dynax 5)

Minolta may not be a household name these days, but throughout the 1960s and ’70s they made a grea tmany popular cameras, and in the late 1980s to early 1990s they became a dominant force in Japanese SLRs competing toe to toe with Canon and Nikon for a time. One of their best mid-level models of the autofocus era was the Minolta Maxxum 5 (Dynax 5 in Europe) and you can buy one with a decent 35-70mm zoom lens for less than $75 today.

This camera has everything a modern digital camera has in terms of settings, auto focus, auto aperture, auto shutter and computer-aided scene modes. At the time this camera was unleashed upon the film photography community it was an advanced enthusiast grade camera that punched way above its class in every way.

This camera performs as well as any professional grade camera and will have your photos looking amazing with very little effort. It uses Minolta A Mount lenses, which are stellar performers, cheap and cheerful too.

[Find a Minolta Maxxum on eBay here]

Canon EOS Rebel XS / EOS Kiss / EOS 500

Another plastic fantastic that shoots above its class is the Canon EOS Rebel XS, also called the Kiss in Asia and the EOS 500 in Europe. Designed for the enthusiast, the Rebel has a range of automatic and programmable modes designed to assist the photographer to get the best exposures they can. Another model that shoots just like today’s digital cameras, it’ll feel comfortable for anyone who’s used a DSLR.

This is another camera that sold by the ship load. A decent example today with a mid-range zoom lens generally sells for around $75-100. Shopping around has seen some bargains to be had. My pal Keith bought a Canon EOS 300V with two lenses for less than £50. (That’s around $65 at time of writing) The Rebel uses Canon’s lauded EF mount lenses, ensuring a good supply of decent used lenses is never too far away at a reasonable price – and if you’re a Canon DSLR user, many of the lenses will swap over!

[Find Canon EOS on eBay here]

Nikon F50 / F55 / F60 / F65

Just like the Minolta and Canon listed above, the Nikon F50/55/65 range of cameras were designed for mid-level photographers in the heyday of film. They have the familiar feel that I have come to love about my Nikon DSLRs. The F55 and F65 in particular have very similar controls to my Nikon D90.

A good example with a pair of lenses can be had for a bargain price if you are willing to shop around. I have seen an F55 with a Nikon 28-100mm zoom lens on sale for around $65 online that will quite happily give whoever bought it a good decade of joy and excellent pictures.

They are solid and dependable, underneath the plastic case is a metal chassis that everything is fixed onto giving the user peace of mind that it has can handle a wide range of conditions. They use Nikon’s excellent AF Nikkor D and G range of lenses and cheap Batteries.

[Find a Nikon F-series camera on eBay here]

The Camera That I Chose – Pentax Spotmatic

Now, this last suggestion won’t be for everyone, and it’s included here more for conversation than as a real suggestion for brand new film users. But when I came back to film after a fifteen year hiatus, I had to pick just one camera. All I wanted was a basic mechanical camera that had a light meter. No fancy bells and whistles, I just wanted to learn how to take a photo and I didn’t have a lot of money to spend. (I’m still working on taking a good photo.) The camera that I settled on was a Pentax Spotmatic.

The Spotmatic range consists of interchangeable lens 35mm film SLR cameras with an M42 lens mount and a choice of lenses that is mind boggling to this day. It is a fully mechanical camera with a simple match needle light meter that is visible through the viewfinder. The battery is only needed for the light meter to function.

But I really should emphasize that this camera does not feature any shooting aids (beyond a light meter) nor autofocus or semi-auto or full auto exposure. And it’s a bit archaic. Thus, I can only recommend this camera for those who want to dive in and really learn about photography in an old school way.

When looking for yours, be sure to buy from a reputable camera shop online, or from a seller who guarantees the camera to work.

[Find a Pentax Spotmatic on eBay here]

Buyer’s Guide and Final Thoughts

This guide is for those new shooters who want to try film, but are put off by the suggestion that they need a super-expensive or super-niche film camera. We think the cameras in this article will give folk new to photography a decent start whatever their level of experience and confidence.

The only caveat we have is to make sure you know the camera you buy is working properly, has a guarantee if at all possible and is clean and presentable. The best way to ensure this is to buy from a reputable camera shop.

Ebay can be a minefield of turds dressed up as diamonds so give thought to buying from a reputable retailer. No doubt our fearless leader James will put a link to his shop at the end of this article, where you can pick up a decent 35mm film camera for a very reasonable price, but there are many excellent shops doing great work to spread the joy of cameras and photography – Brooklyn Film Camera, Blue Moon Camera, and many more.

There’s a camera out there for everyone. All you need to do is determine your budget and your needs and we are confident you won’t go wrong with any of our choices today. Happy shooting!

Browse for a film camera on eBay

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  • This is a great little guide, thank you Jim! I agree that the Pentax IQZoom/Espio series is a good choice.

    I know that this guide can’t be extensive, but I’m slightly disappointed that there is no mention of fixed-lens rangefinders for those who want more control of their photography. There were a good number of them produced in Japan during the 60’s and 70’s. The key thing is to find one that allows full manual exposure control–there were a lot of autoexposure ones in the later years. Having a fixed lens means you learn on one lens vs. all the choices with SLRs, there’s no “this shot would be better if I was using a different lens” problem. A fixed-lens rangefinder is how I got back into film a couple years ago.

    • Thank you for your kind words. Fixed lens rangefinders can be a bit pricey, which is why we left them out. I was incredibly lucky to find an Olympus 35RC for less than $50 a couple of years back, but that was and still is a lucky find. The Olympus 35RC, the Olympus XA and a few others besides are all over $100 today. We wanted to show newcomers a camera they can load with film and go and have fun with for less than $100.

      • True. Fixed-lens rangefinders can be spendy. I was lucky to find my Hi-Matic 7s for just $35 plus shipping. I picked that because it seemed to fly under the radar of popular opinion–everyone wants the Hi-Matic 7sii instead, or a Canonet G-III QL17. I looked at the Canonet and couldn’t find a working one for the price I wanted to pay, basically because that camera is so hyped. If the Hi-Matic 7s was constantly talked about, that price would rise too.

        • Cameras also get hyped when A list celebs are seen with them and suddenly everyone wants one. eg the Contax G2 was reasonably priced around 5 years ago, then one of the Kardashians was seen with one and of course the Jenner’s had to join the party and prices rocketed. The good thing about the choices we have made is they are not cameras A list celebs would use. All are cheap to buy and simple to use. These are the two things I looked for in a camera when I came back to film 5 years ago.

  • One correction: actually, Minolta was a dominant force from the 1960’s.
    Before buying I would recommend that the would-be film photographer borrow a camera – any camera – from a friend or acquaintance. If someone asked me I would hand them an older Minolta or Pentax. That would put them one step closer to buying the right camera.

    • With complete respect for what you suggest, I can’t agree that we should tell people who are new to film to try a rangefinder (or a manual focus, manual exposure camera of any kind – even though we included Jim’s personal choice, since he wrote the article). The concept of focusing with a rangefinder is more obtuse compared with an SLR, and the fact that very few rangefinders offer AF is a problem. This guide is for people who are about to shoot their very first roll of film, and I really think that these type of shooters should absolutely avoid the flashier, hype cameras and just stick to AF SLRs and point and shoots from the 1990s and 2000s. Then, when they’ve figured out how to get what they want out of film they can move on to more complicated controls and systems.

      • James, I think this response was meant for me, not Tom.

        Anyways, I see your point, but don’t exactly agree. Some new film shooters do want to try something without autofocus, especially since AF is the default of digital. I mean, that’s what I ended up doing. There is a learning curve with a rangefinder, but I didn’t feel like it was that steep. Everyone’s wants and experiences are going to be different, and I realize that some people are going to want that autofocus. But not everyone.

        I agree with you that newbies should avoid the “flashy, hyped” cameras. But I wouldn’t put my Minolta Hi-Matic 7s, that fixed-lens rangefinder that I mentioned, into that category. And if for some reason it’s fallen into that category, wanna buy a camera? 😉

        In any case, I’d hardly

    • Very true, about Minolta, of course. I’ll update the article. I think we just had the AF era in mind when writing this one.

  • I would simply recommend going to a garage sale and buying every $2 working point and shoot camera you find and commence shooting the cheapest film available. Make sure it doesn’t take a $20 battery. Ones that take AA or 123 Lithium cells are best. You can easily spend more on batteries than the camera is worth on some of these. Old color film can be developed in cheap B&W chemistry. ie: Rodinal, Adonal, even instant coffee. Develop it in the kitchen sink with the cheapest developer available. Scan the negatives at Wal Mart. Shoot with plenty of light on a tripod stopped down to f8 if possible. I also recommend pointing the camera at something interesting.

    • Absolutely agree with this. I picked up lots of bargains from car boot sales. All for under £10. Canon A1, Minolta X300, mju i, mju ii and Yashica T3.

  • Jim G-Thank you for writing this, I enjoyed it.

    No disrespect intended, but I have to disagree on the Spotmatic choice. For context, it was my first real camera, bought new in 1968, and the results were great, but it had a cumbersome lens mount (threaded screw), and did not have full aperture metering, so the viewfinder got darker if the meter was on. Who would use it without the meter on? If I recall correctly the same switch that activated the meter also stopped the lens down.

    Almost any Nikkormat is a much better choice, and are <$100.


    • None taken, Ross. If we all agreed on everything the world would be very boring and we would all be using the same camera. I bought my Spotmatic because it was very cheap and did what I needed it to do. It taught me the exposure triangle and I get as much joy today as I did five years ago when I bought it. I paid less than $30 for it and it came with a Helios 44m-4 58mm f/2 lens. Thread mounts are a little cumbersome yes, but you have to agree that the availability of great quality M42 mount lenses is enormous. I currently use a Meyer-Optik Goerlitz 30mm f/3.5 Lydith on my Spotmatic and really like the photos I take with it.

      • I agree, in part, with both Jim and Ross. Spotmatics are a great camera, but their meters require obsolete 1.35v batteries. In order to use modern 1.5v batteries, you need to either deal with metering that is inaccurate and requires compensation, or you have to buy a rather expensive adapter/voltage modulator to get proper metering. This really seems like a consideration which is far beyond the consideration of most film Noobs, to be perfectly honest. I personally have a Nikkormat FT2 which takes a single 1.5v SR44 battery for the meter. Additionally the Nikkormat offers open aperture metering. But the big drawback of the Nikkormat is the required lens mounting and indexing process in order to properly engage the camera’s metering prong and ensure accurate metering. To me, performing the “Nikon Shuffle” every time I change lenses on my Nikkormat FT2 is no big deal. I will stipulate that the M42 lens mount opens up a large number of interesting, high-quality, and diverse lens options, at all price points, even if the screw mount itself is a bit cumbersome. Looking at Simon’s Utak YouTube channel is a great way to learn in-depth about the wide world of M42 lenses. I highly recommend the channel.

  • Great !
    Agree with James.
    Reason why the camera I propose is the Olympus µ Mju II 35mm f2.8 35mm Point & Shoot Film Camera.
    Yes, expansive, but great lens and very efficient camera : put an Ektachrome 100 E inside or a Tmax 100, or Ektar 100.

    • I explain:
      Of course manual cameras which are fantastic are not the best tool for someone who begins on film photography. When we start, I believe we would like to have first encouragement images which are good, and manual cameras SLR or RF make these good results very very very difficult : focusing well, taking a good exposure …
      But I dont like all these plastic SLR or Zoom PS because zoom is also one way to complicate the things. A fix lens is a better choice for photographer who starts with film in my point of view.
      There is also, a little cheaper with the Nikon L35 AF 35mm Point & Shoot Film Camera which has also a great lens.
      But, I love the Olympus Mju because it is very very compact and very capable. You can have it all the time in your bag or pocket and you will not feel it.
      I have used this camera for 2 years, and it has given me fantastic images.
      Yesss, it is now an expansive camera for a simple PS despite it has a marvellous lens, but what do you propose? A Contax T2, a Nikon 38 TI which are very expensive PS. In fact they are not really better! The Yashica T3 is also a good option.
      In fact what I want to say : this is, I dont recommend a SLR and any camera with zoom! I advice very small with very good fix lens and a very good film with a very good lab.

      • Andrew Shippin (@ADShippin) January 7, 2023 at 9:34 pm

        With no disrespect I have been involved with various levels of both film, and digital photography for over 40 years. When it comes to point & shoot cameras. The entire Contax T “series of point & shoots”, the Nikon 35tI and couple of others ARE FAR SUPERIOR to the more affordable rivals. Especially if you are shooting E6 where accuracy is extremely important. I have owned several of those cameras over the years and I will forever kick myself for selling them. These days however E6 shooters are in the minority, and how good C41 or Black & White prints are is very much dependant on the lab and/or the person processing the film.

  • I absolutely agree on the Spotmatic choice when you are someone with a little bit of experience coming back to shooting Film!
    Over the last five years or so I tried many, many old cameras, always looking for something special or reading a review and thinking I needed that one.
    Eventually I came up to a point where I was fed up with shooting film because I lost sight of taking good photos. Instead I was very much focused on the cameras I used. At this point I decided to just get rid of my six or seven cameras and give myself a break.
    About a year later, I found an absolutely beautiful black Spotmatic F, just like one that I had a few years ago but sadly broke.
    I decided to get that Spotmatic F and I couldn’t be happier. This was the camera that sparked my interest in photography again. It has everything I need, no more no less.

    • Glad you enjoy using your Spotmatic, Paul. There’s no frills with it and even the light meter can go unused if you have learned to read the light. Some cameras just do the basics very well indeed.

  • The simple fact of the matter is there are no best cameras out there. It all depends on what you want to do with it and what you want to learn. Most ‘complex’ electronic cameras of the 80s to 00s have dubious electronics and will ultimately fail. Simpler mechanical cameras might fare better in the long-run but most, in my experience, that are cheap and not from a reliable vendor have broken or inaccurate light meters necessitating a hand held meter or the use of the flaky Sunny 16 rule. You have to make a choice based on your wants, needs and available cash. Personally, if I was making a recommendation to someone who was interested in learning the fundamentals of film photography, I would go with something like the F65 or similar, later, all singing all dancing SLR. They are cheap, the meter is likely to still work and be reasonably accurate and you can have as much, or little, control as you wish. Becoming disillusioned with poor exposures is a sure way to cut short an interest in film photography so choosing something that should give accurate auto exposures is important. Then again, duff exposures and ‘accidents’ seem to be all the rage at the moment. I recently saw a post about someone wanting to recreate the look of the first frame on a roll where half the frame was correctly exposed and half the frame fully burnt out. Like I said, it all depends on what you want to do and what you want to learn.

  • You missed possibly the best of the inexpensive Nikon autofocus SLRs – the N75/F75. The last of their consumer SLRs, it started production in 2003, so unlike the others it’s less than 20 years old. All the modes you could want, good autofocus, an sk,ost important pretty inexpensive. Put it in program and just shoot.

    • Nor did the author mention the Nikon F80/N80 which, I think, is the best bang for your buck Nikon AF 35mm SLR. You can find these for $50-75 and they offer about 75-80% of the capability of the F100. The F80/N80 has multiple focusing points, multiple metering modes, fully customizable settings, front and rear command dials, 1/4000 max shutter speed, 1/125 flash sync, and depth of field preview. The F80/N80 was introduced in 2000, so it’s basically the same age as the F75/N75. And like the F75/N75 the F80/N80 is lightweight, compact, easy to carry, and cannot meter with vintage manual focus Nikon lenses. In terms of being a more pro-spec 35mm SLR, I think the F80/N80 has the edge. I have one myself and have used it to shoot sports, street photos, and portraits using both screw-drive Nikon AF-D and electronic Nikon AF-S lenses.

  • The Spotmatic was my first camera, and I learned a lot from having a mechanical, all-manual camera. I think it was a good choice not only because the basic’ness (not a real word) of it made it necessary that I learn basic photography, but the basic’ness made it approachable. Minimal settings to have to figure out, twist this thing or that thing and make the needle go up or down. An AF camera from the 90’s has so many buttons and modes to keep track of that it can be intimidating.

  • Thank you everyone for your comments. I went into this with a view to appeal to the millennial generation, the kids who never knew film as the dominant media we used to document history as it happened. Film Photography is enjoying a renaissance that it really shouldn’t have been able to. Digital dominates our world as much as film did in the 20th century. It has killed off many formats of film and who shoots video anymore?
    I appreciate your suggestions and comments about various cameras that didn’t make this list, but that doesn’t mean they were ignored. Many of them were above $100 at the time this article was written and are still rising in value. The electronic camera market is the sleeper as just about all of them are ignored as the means to repair them is either lost or way too expensive to justify their purchase. Whilst that may be true, they still provide a decent entry into film photography for someone who never knew the joy of film photography in the first place.

  • This article is exactly what I needed! I am from the born-and-raised-in-analog crowd and yet when a friend recently asked me where to get started, I wasn’t sure where to direct them. This overview is just what’s right for that I think: it’s a great starting point that gives quite enough to follow through and yet not too much to feel overwhelmed, thanks Jim.

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