Film photography has been getting steadily more popular over the past ten years or so, with former shooters as well as people new to the medium. The “why’s” are varied, but tend to follow the same trajectory as vinyl records. Vinyl, as a medium, was replaced by CDs and then by MP3 files on your computer, laptop, phone, tablet, etc. Vinyl was once the undisputed standard, and a lot of work went into the design and packaging, sales and marketing, and people took pride in their collections. Then something shifted, and no one wanted large things anymore. The digital age meant having very tiny machinery playing files, rather than physical objects, and people loved having everything on their phone… until they didn’t. Somewhere along the way they read something on the internet, or were influenced by someone famous, or just saw that everyone else started buying records again, and didn’t want to miss out. These people came to discover they LIKED having a piece of physical media that they could hold. Hold it, enjoy the album art, read the liner notes, organize and store them and to physically interact with the record to make the music come out. It was a refreshing change in a world where everything was becoming less tangible and more, well, Bitcoiney.
Film photography was like that. Cool kids are doing it, the devices look neat, and you get to go shopping for more stuff that is actual stuff, not just a data card inserted into a piece of plastic that will no longer be relevant in five years, at which point you’ll need to replace it with the newest piece of plastic. Film cameras haven’t changed, and there will be no time in which your film camera needs to be replaced by this year’s new model. And the film? Can probably last forever if you care for it right. No hard drives to crash, no files to corrupt for seemingly no reason at all. This appeals to a lot of people who are feeling buyer’s remorse in the 100% digital lifestyle we’re all living.
Yes, I know, TLDR… but if you’re getting into film photography you’ll get used to delayed gratification.
Just like vinyl, your journey will often start at eBay, or some other websitey thing like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. I use eBay. I like it, there are a lot of cameras to choose from in all price points and all levels of condition. There are a lot of sellers, sometimes it’s an established camera store like “Roberts Cameras” (or Green Mountain Cameras, in my case), sometimes it’s an estate sale or an auction for charity, or someone selling their Dad’s/Grandma’s/Uncle’s old stuff, or just a camera collector who is selling off stuff he’s not using anymore.
It’s a very viable source for gear, and there’s no reason to fear doing business on eBay, however, there are plenty of cases of “Buyer Beware.” The first and most reliable of red flags is one that states “untested” or “seems to work though I’ve not tested it with film/batteries but it’s probably okay” or “as-is/no returns but it seems like it’s probably fine, but still, no refunds!” People will try to sell you a broken camera while playing dumb, “I don’t know much about cameras and this may or may not work – 200 dollars and no refunds!!” If they “don’t know” if it works, chances are it doesn’t, and they’re setting up a layer of plausible deniability to make their sale. Any serious sellers will test the camera, or have someone else test it. That’s just what you DO when selling something. The good news is that eBay has a buyer protection plan in place that allows you to get a refund on anything NOT sold with “as-is/not working” as the official condition on the listing. If the listing is “Used” but the seller says in their listing “as-is” you’re still protected, because a condition status of “Used” declares the item as a working item, not a broken item. The seller knows this already, they’re just being shady.
Also, sellers with low buyer feedback numbers don’t necessarily fall into the “shady character” category, but I avoid them personally. Low feedback or zero feedback means there’s no one to vouch that they do good business. This is fine if I’m buying a 10-dollar t-shirt, but not if I’m buying an expensive vintage camera.
I look for auction posts with a lot of photos of the actual camera that’s for sale. Not only does it convey that they have nothing to hide, but it also gives me the opportunity to look at everything I’d look at if I were buying in-person at a brick and mortar store. Is the leather covering peeling? Is there any rust or broken/bent pieces? Mold in the lens? Is it banged-up and dirty? Mind you, even a perfect camera can appear dirty, because when you zoom in on parts or it, the white dust on the shiny black camera surfaces looks like a dirty camera. I’ve bought cameras that looked dirty but the price was right, so I bought it expecting to do a thorough cleaning when I get it, but the camera winds up looking great in person! Be sure to read the descriptions carefully before clicking that Bid button.
Brick and Mortar Stores
eBay is an easy place to find virtually any camera you want, but you don’t get the ability to pick it up and feel it, to see how the experience is in-person. Pictures on the internet are one thing, but they don’t compare to the ability to feel it in your hands. Does it feel solid and good quality? Is it smaller/larger/heavier/lighter than you thought it might be? How about the action on the controls, how do the buttons and switches and knobs feel when you adjust them? Cameras are full of those and you’ll be using them all the time. You will notice a lot more things in-person on a camera than you will from photos and descriptions online.
This comes with a price, of course, because an in-person camera usually costs more than one online. When you buy from a brick and mortar store you are keeping the store alive, your cost takes into consideration the rent and insurance of the building, their electric bills, all their employees, your purchase covers their cost of doing business. Sure, you COULD just walk in, try out the camera to see if it sparks joy, then get in your car and buy one for $100 less on eBay, but consider buying that very model in the store, and supporting a local business that gives jobs to your neighbors and contributes to your community, rather than buying online. Even if it’s just one camera, lens, strap or roll of film. We do need these stores. They are what keeps our hobby alive and makes our communities a good place for locals and not just tourists. They’re the ones who fix our cameras when they’re broken, and they’re probably the ones developing our film. They’re also the ones who will be least likely to sell you a broken camera for 200 dollars and yell “No Returns!”
Prices and Models
There are a number of different specific cameras that have been placed on multiple “Best Ever Top Ten Most Sought After Etc Etc” blog lists. The more a thing is blogged about, the higher the price becomes, and some camera models make every single list. “Top 10 Cameras for Beginners!” “Top 10 Mechanical Cameras!” “Top 10 Bestselling Cameras!” These lists are fun to read, they’re fun to write, and people on the internet love lists! However, you don’t need those cameras. Canon AE-1 is on every list, so they’re expensive on eBay, but the Canon A-1 is essentially the same camera, but better built and superior in quality, but nobody blogs about it so it’s much cheaper. Pentax K1000 is another one of those. Super popular, but there are several other K models that are the exact same camera, but not blogged about. Don’t feel you need to spend the money on a popular camera to get the most out of your new hobby.
Not all cameras are created equally, and some models age better than others. This is something you would want to look into before choosing which camera you want to buy. Some cameras are known to be prone to failure in one area or another, due to a variety of inherent design weaknesses in a consumer product not intended to be re-sold and collected 40 years after its manufacture. Yet, you might be surprised at how well these machines DO hold up over the decades.
I have several “professional” cameras in my collection, and I love them. A “professional” camera is one designed to take a bit of a beating, they are usually built more durably and are better sealed against the elements. These cameras tend to cost a bit more, naturally, but you also should give them a good looking-over before buying, as they were designed to take a beating because they DID take a beating. I’ve never had any problem with any of mine, but that’s likely because I wouldn’t buy one not visibly in pristine condition. I prefer to spend the extra $100+ to ensure I get a product with a longer foreseeable lifespan.
Do some Google searches for blogs and other websites that review old film cameras to see just what’s out there, and what model may “spark joy” for you. See what types of film cameras that might best suit you. There’s multiple families of film camera for you to consider…
Stands for ‘Single-Lens Reflex,” what you might ordinarily think of when you think of a standard camera. A rectangular camera with a big removable lens on front. Light goes into the lens, bounces off a couple of mirrors to reach the eyepiece, and an internal shutter quickly opens and closes to expose the film at the back of the camera. This is the type of camera people start with nine times out of 10.
These cameras are smaller, frequently older (as this is the style of camera that was replaced with SLRs back in the 60’s and 70’s), and lighter than SLRs. They are quieter, because of the tye of shutter they use, and the focusing doesn’t involve mirrors but rather a lining-up of two split images. Most film cameras tend to fall into the rangefinder-vs-SLR category, and people often identify with one of the other. I think of it like laptop computers in the early-2000’s, you’re either Mac or PC. If you were a PC person, you will probably prefer SLRs, but if you used Mac then you’re probably a rangefinder type. This is my very scientific analysis of the user base. You’re welcome.
These are smaller consumer-targeted cameras. Lighter weight and usually have a built-in lens cover and a built-in flash. A reasonable entry into the world of film photography, as they are much easier to operate, but not all are very solidly built. These were designed for vacation photography and family outings, not serious photography. While there are several higher-end point-and-shoot camera models, they are outnumbered by less reliable models, so do a little research before buying.
This is a more advanced camera system, usually a professional camera, with some exceptions. These use 120 roll film and can create beautiful images given the larger exposure size, but at a somewhat steeper learning curve for novice photographers and generally at a higher price point. Perhaps wait to see if you like shooting film before dropping $500+ on one of these.
Bigger cameras using larger sheet films. You are probably never going to use one
The film is expensive and the images are very low quality, but these machines are a cult favorite for many people. Self-developing film is at the heart of this type of camera. Open the camera, point it, push the big red button and a photo will pop out the front for you to take out and shake, despite the fact that shaking it has no effect whatsoever on the rate of self-development… it’s just a thing people think they should do, and have been wasting their time doing it for nearly 50 years now.
This name is applied to a number of low-tech cameras with soft zone-focused plastic lenses. Not the best quality or most reliable methods, but this experimental type of camera is a fun and low-barrier way to try out film photography.
Somewhere along the line, some camera designer was tasked to “Think Outside of The Box!” The result usually sucks. Okay not always, sometimes these will at least be fun cameras, but bear in mind they weren’t being sold on their merits as a finely tuned machine, they were being sold purely on their novelty value.
Not all cameras have light meters. If you’re just getting started in film photography it would be easier going if the camera had a light meter. If you end up with one anyway, no worries, download a light meter to your smartphone. Or learn the Sunny-16 rule. If your camera has a plethora of automatic settings, great! Yet you should try shooting in manual mode, or aperture-priority mode rather than full programmed auto. You’ll learn so much more about how your camera works that way.
Mechanical cameras are less prone to failure than cameras with electronics, and there are many of them built in the 1970’s, 60″s and 50’s that are still going strong today. These can be reasonably priced and don’t require batteries to function (just for the light meter).
Camera collectors tend to gravitate to the older, metal-bodied manual focusing cameras, while ignoring most of the plasticky 90″s auto-focusing cameras. Older cameras have that retro cool factor, something lacking in the newer auto-focus cameras. However, these cameras are packed with features and can shoot some of the best pictures a film camera can shoot. I mean, these WERE the newest and most advanced cameras to date, before we all went digital. Lacking that cool factor, many of these are really, really affordable. You can find a working Nikon N6006 for $40, a Minolta Maxxum 7000 for $20, or a Canon EOS Elan for $10. These cameras can also be used in manual mode, should you wish to do so.
Finally, try not to spend more than fifty bucks on the camera, if it’s your first one and you have no idea what to get. Chances are, after few rolls of film you’ll have a better idea of what sort of camera would work best for you. There are plenty of film cameras, with a lens, under $50 that will work great. Search online for a Minolta, Pentax, Ricoh, Olympus, Nikon or Canon camera and set the filter for $50 and under, and you will have many many choices.