Shot on the Pentax Spotmatic SP1000 by Tommy Spencer
Best Cameras to Get Started in Film Photography
Film photography’s resurgence is solidly in full effect in 2023, leaving many who began their journey into the craft of photography after the end of the film-only years wanting to dive in and try it. Of course, you can always post-process your digital photography to have the “film look”. Drop the saturation, boost the grain, and tone down the contrast, but there’s no substitution for the real deal. One problem, the rise in film photography’s popularity has made many cameras skyrocket in value and popularity, making them harder to find in good working order and more expensive once they are.
Opinions on which camera film camera is the best will vary depending on who you ask. The ease of a point-and-shoot from the ‘90s might sound appealing. The camera does most of the heavy lifting in making proper exposures. And who can resist that classic rangefinder with the luxury leatherette and highly recognizable red dot on the front? That said, 30-year-old electronics put into most ‘90s point-and-shoots could be nearing the end of their life cycle and luxury cameras typically come with luxury price tags.
So which are the best film cameras to help a beginner venture into the world of film photography?
Let’s look at a few factors that could help you choose your first film camera.
Shot on the Nikon 35 TI by Tommy Spencer
Unless you have extensively studied the science of light or have some sort of mystic powers, a camera with the ability to evaluate the lighting and give you an indication of a proper exposure is a good beginner's camera. Being able to evaluate the light and help you choose the proper settings will help you achieve better results and thus flatten the learning curve for beginners.
Many of the SLR cameras from the ‘70s have built-in light meters. Cameras like the Pentax K1000 or the Canon AE-1 have built-in light meters that evaluate the amount of light coming through the lens in combination with the settings its user has chosen to indicate whether or not the image will be properly exposed. These built-in exposure meters typically measure the average value of the overall scene, which will most often give good results.
However, when shooting scenes with complex lighting or scenes with high contrast areas, cameras that use meters utilizing average metering can give a reading that may lead to an over or under-compensation of exposure from adjustments made based on the reading. Some later models of film cameras will have multiple different modes of metering, like evaluative, center-weighted, and spot, that can be selected to prioritize the various parts of your scene.
Some film cameras don’t have an internal light meter or you may find a camera whose internal light meter is inoperable. If that’s the case, an external light meter like the Sekonic L-858D-U Speedmaster Light Meter or a phone app like Pocket Light Meter can be substituted for an internal camera meter. External light meters are great and can often offer a few different types of metering but also are an additional cost. Apps like Pocket Light Meter are fairly affordable, and for the most part pretty accurate, but then you’re relying on the camera lens attached to your phone in addition to the lens attached to your camera.
Why is a meter important? Because it gives the photographer control over their exposure.
Shot on the Canon Canonet QL17 G3 by Tommy Spencer
Buying a camera like the popular point-and-shoots that take care of getting you a proper exposure might flatten the learning curve for you, but it also takes the skill and intention out of your photo-taking.
A fully manual film camera will force a photographer to understand the exposure triangle (ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed) and use their control over the factors to achieve a proper exposure to create an image with intention. By learning what aperture, shutter speed, and ISO do, you can better utilize them to get portraits with shallow depth of field, action shots with stopped motion, and low-light images with low noise and proper contrast. Fully manual cameras like the Pentax K1000, Canon AE-1, or Nikon F series cameras are great ones to start with. These cameras will give you full control over shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.
Shot on the Pentax Spotmatic SP1000 by Tommy Spencer
An affordable way to test whether you’re into film photography enough to invest time and money into it is what are considered to be toy cameras. Cameras like Lomography’s La Sardina, Lomography’s LomoApparat, the Original Holga, and the Ilford Harman EZ-35 Motorized Camera are all low-priced and offer varying degrees of manual control over the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO settings.
While toy cameras are often affordably priced, they are often made from primarily plastic and may not have the longevity of a metal 1970s SLR. They can also have unique characteristics, like the like leaks and soft focus areas of the Holga. These characteristics aren’t entirely bad, in fact, the Holga has a cult following, but they can create speed bumps in the learning curve.
Shot on the Lomography LC-A+ by Tommy Spencer
So what is the best film camera for beginners? The answer is to find the camera that best fits your budget and gets you the features you need to learn how to create proper exposures and make photographs with intention. If you have a lower budget, the LomoApparat or Holga might be a good choice. If you can spend a little more, say $150-$300, something like the Pentax K100 or Canon AE-1 would be an excellent choice!