The absolute beginner’s guide to film photography: Which camera type is right for you?

Introduction

Elsewhere in our Absolute beginner’s guide to film photography, we wrote about common types of film cameras and not-so-common types of film cameras. So which type is best for you? That depends on what you want to get out of film photography. In this article, we’ll attempt to match different types of film photographers with the best type of camera for their needs.

Photo: Dan Bracaglia

‘I want the easiest way to start shooting film’

If your primary goal in film photography is to get that distinctive ‘film look’, a 35mm compact point-and-shoot or ‘pocket’ camera is your best bet. These cameras are super simple to use, as they were designed for the type of snap-shooting for which people use smartphones today. These film cameras will handle most tasks for you, including focusing, setting film speed, setting exposure, and (in most cases) loading, winding, and rewinding the film – you just point and shoot, hence the name.

Point-and-shoot film cameras are small and discreet, which makes them great for street photography

Point-and-shoot film cameras are small and discreet, which makes them great for street photography. The downside: Their mostly all-automatic operation limits your creative control. There are hundreds of these types of cameras available, and most (with some notable exceptions) are affordably priced. Stick with the major brands, and beware of cameras labeled ‘focus-free’ or ‘fixed-focus’ – their super-simplified mechanisms can compromise image quality.

Photo: Dan Bracaglia

‘I want creative control, but I’m concerned about the learning curve’

Consider an auto-focus, auto-wind 35mm single-lens reflex camera (SLR) from the 1990-2005 era, such as a Canon Rebel 2000, Minolta Maxxum (Dynax) 400si, or Nikon N55/F55. These cameras have fully automatic exposure modes and will focus, set film speed, and wind the film for you, so the experience is very similar to using a DSLR: Just one button-press is required to take the photo.

Most of these cameras also have aperture- and shutter-priority semi-automatic modes and full manual exposure modes, so they’ll allow you to take more creative control when you’re ready

Most of these cameras also have aperture and shutter priority semi-automatic modes and full manual exposure modes, so they’ll allow you to take more creative control when you’re ready. They’re also among the most inexpensive used cameras on the market. These cameras typically use interchangeable lenses, affording you the opportunity to fit higher-quality glass, though the ‘kit’ lenses most of them come with are perfectly adequate. You might also consider a ‘bridge’ camera – an SLR with a permanently affixed zoom lens.

‘I want the most hands-on film photography experience I can get, without breaking the bank’

If you really want to take control of the process, you’ll want a fully manual SLR, which offers the maximum level of creative control, often at a reasonable price. Everything is manual: loading the film, setting film speed, focusing, setting exposure, cocking the shutter, and winding (and rewinding) the film. Some have an automatic exposure mode (usually aperture priority) but will still let you set the exposure manually.

A fully manually SLR offers the maximum level of creative control, often at a reasonable price

Most camera manufacturers embraced automation in the 90s (because what today’s photographers consider an engaging experience was once seen as a pain in the neck), so we’re talking about film SLRs made from the 1960s to the early 1990s. Zoom lens quality still had a ways to go in this era, so you’re better off using prime (fixed focal length) lenses, which makes for a bit more of a challenge as you must zoom with your feet. These cameras vary in price (though bargains abound), and most are built to last.

Photo: Dan Bracaglia

‘How about something in between the last two?’

Yep, we’ve got you covered. In the late 1970s and ‘80s, before compact point-and-shoot cameras ascended to popularity, camera manufacturers made semi-automatic SLRs aimed at less serious photographers. These are (generally) manual focus, manual-wind cameras, but they shoot exclusively in aperture priority automatic mode, where the photographer sets the lens aperture and the camera picks a corresponding shutter speed.

These cameras use the same lenses as more advanced SLRs so they can produce the same image quality while simplifying the photo-taking process

These cameras use the same lenses as more advanced SLRs so they can produce the same image quality while simplifying the photo-taking process. There are several models like this, including the Pentax ME/MG/MV, Nikon EM, Minolta XG-series, and Ricoh XR-6. You can usually identify these cameras by looking at their shutter-speed knobs; instead of a range of numbers, most have only an ‘A’ setting and perhaps one mechanical flash-sync speed (marked with a number or X). These cameras offer less flexibility than an SLR with both manual and auto exposure, but they deliver the full classic camera experience (and image quality) at a much lower cost.

Photo: Dan Bracaglia

‘I want a camera that’s small and stealthy’

You should look for a compact rangefinder. These cameras have a similar form factor to compact point-and-shoot cameras, but they generally have manual focus, exposure and winding systems. That and their quiet leaf or cloth curtain shutters make them the quietest and least-obtrusive of cameras. (Nothing like having your P&S suddenly start rewinding film in what is supposed to be a quiet environment!)

Their near-silent leaf shutters make them the quietest and least-obtrusive of cameras

35mm rangefinders were popular before the rise of the SLR in the 1970s, and older, classic compact rangefinders can be fairly affordable. Newer rangefinders like the Leica M-Series are among the most expensive of used 35mm cameras, but they are a joy to shoot with.

Photo: say_cheddar

‘I want the best possible image quality’

If a sharp image with minimal grain (or printing very large) is most important to you, then you should consider medium- or large-format cameras. Medium format (MF) cameras from Mamiya, Pentax, Bronica, Hasselblad, and Fuji strike a nice balance between quality and portability. They use 120 size roll film and shoot negatives between 6×4.5mm and 6x9mm, yielding 8 to 16 shots per roll.

MF cameras use 120 size roll film and shoot negatives between 6×4.5mm and 6x9mm, yielding 8 to 16 shots per roll.

Large format cameras use sheet film of 4”x5” or larger, allowing development to be customized for each shot. Most large-format cameras allow tilt and shift adjustments for perspective correction, but even portable ‘field cameras’ are very bulky and take time to set up for a single shot. Generally, the larger the film format you choose, the slower and more expensive your photography will become.

Photo: Classic-Photographic

‘I’m not sure if film is for me, I just want to try a roll’

Borrowing a film camera is the best way to dabble in film, but another option is the disposable camera. These simple one-time-use cameras are basically fixed-focus point-and-shoots, which shoot at a pre-set exposure setting and depend on the latitude of the film and the printing/scanning process to get an acceptable-looking photo. Some even come with waterproof housings.

To develop your film, you send the entire camera to the lab, and it will not be returned

To develop your film, you send the entire camera to the lab, and it will not be returned. Disposable or single-use cameras can be had with a variety of color print and black-and-white film types. Remember, though, they don’t deliver the whole experience – while the pictures will have the unique look of film (albeit possibly at reduced quality), their lack of exposure and focusing control don’t really provide the full-on film photography experience.

About Film Fridays

Our ‘Absolute beginner’s guide to film photography‘ is an educational series of articles focused on demystifying the ins and outs of analog photography. Geared toward those discovering (or re-discovering) film, the series will cover everything from gear, to technique and more. View all of the articles in our guide here.

Photo: Dan Bracaglia

Introduction

Elsewhere in our Absolute beginner’s guide to film photography, we wrote about common types of film cameras and not-so-common types of film cameras. So which type is best for you? That depends on what you want to get out of film photography. In this article, we’ll attempt to match different types of film photographers with the best type of camera for their needs.
Photo: Dan Bracaglia
‘I want the easiest way to start shooting film’

If your primary goal in film photography is to get that distinctive ‘film look’, a 35mm compact point-and-shoot or ‘pocket’ camera is your best bet. These cameras are super simple to use, as they were designed for the type of snap-shooting for which people use smartphones today. These film cameras will handle most tasks for you, including focusing, setting film speed, setting exposure, and (in most cases) loading, winding, and rewinding the film – you just point and shoot, hence the name.
Point-and-shoot film cameras are small and discreet, which makes them great for street photography
Point-and-shoot film cameras are small and discreet, which makes them great for street photography. The downside: Their mostly all-automatic operation limits your creative control. There are hundreds of these types of cameras available, and most (with some notable exceptions) are affordably priced. Stick with the major brands, and beware of cameras labeled ‘focus-free’ or ‘fixed-focus’ – their super-simplified mechanisms can compromise image quality.
Photo: Dan Bracaglia
‘I want creative control, but I’m concerned about the learning curve’

Consider an auto-focus, auto-wind 35mm single-lens reflex camera (SLR) from the 1990-2005 era, such as a Canon Rebel 2000, Minolta Maxxum (Dynax) 400si, or Nikon N55/F55. These cameras have fully automatic exposure modes and will focus, set film speed, and wind the film for you, so the experience is very similar to using a DSLR: Just one button-press is required to take the photo.
Most of these cameras also have aperture- and shutter-priority semi-automatic modes and full manual exposure modes, so they’ll allow you to take more creative control when you’re ready
Most of these cameras also have aperture and shutter priority semi-automatic modes and full manual exposure modes, so they’ll allow you to take more creative control when you’re ready. They’re also among the most inexpensive used cameras on the market. These cameras typically use interchangeable lenses, affording you the opportunity to fit higher-quality glass, though the ‘kit’ lenses most of them come with are perfectly adequate. You might also consider a ‘bridge’ camera – an SLR with a permanently affixed zoom lens.
‘I want the most hands-on film photography experience I can get, without breaking the bank’

If you really want to take control of the process, you’ll want a fully manual SLR, which offers the maximum level of creative control, often at a reasonable price. Everything is manual: loading the film, setting film speed, focusing, setting exposure, cocking the shutter, and winding (and rewinding) the film. Some have an automatic exposure mode (usually aperture priority) but will still let you set the exposure manually.
A fully manually SLR offers the maximum level of creative control, often at a reasonable price
Most camera manufacturers embraced automation in the 90s (because what today’s photographers consider an engaging experience was once seen as a pain in the neck), so we’re talking about film SLRs made from the 1960s to the early 1990s. Zoom lens quality still had a ways to go in this era, so you’re better off using prime (fixed focal length) lenses, which makes for a bit more of a challenge as you must zoom with your feet. These cameras vary in price (though bargains abound), and most are built to last.
Photo: Dan Bracaglia
‘How about something in between the last two?’

Yep, we’ve got you covered. In the late 1970s and ‘80s, before compact point-and-shoot cameras ascended to popularity, camera manufacturers made semi-automatic SLRs aimed at less serious photographers. These are (generally) manual focus, manual-wind cameras, but they shoot exclusively in aperture priority automatic mode, where the photographer sets the lens aperture and the camera picks a corresponding shutter speed.
These cameras use the same lenses as more advanced SLRs so they can produce the same image quality while simplifying the photo-taking process
These cameras use the same lenses as more advanced SLRs so they can produce the same image quality while simplifying the photo-taking process. There are several models like this, including the Pentax ME/MG/MV, Nikon EM, Minolta XG-series, and Ricoh XR-6. You can usually identify these cameras by looking at their shutter-speed knobs; instead of a range of numbers, most have only an ‘A’ setting and perhaps one mechanical flash-sync speed (marked with a number or X). These cameras offer less flexibility than an SLR with both manual and auto exposure, but they deliver the full classic camera experience (and image quality) at a much lower cost.
Photo: Dan Bracaglia
‘I want a camera that’s small and stealthy’

You should look for a compact rangefinder. These cameras have a similar form factor to compact point-and-shoot cameras, but they generally have manual focus, exposure and winding systems. That and their quiet leaf or cloth curtain shutters make them the quietest and least-obtrusive of cameras. (Nothing like having your P&S suddenly start rewinding film in what is supposed to be a quiet environment!)
Their near-silent leaf shutters make them the quietest and least-obtrusive of cameras
35mm rangefinders were popular before the rise of the SLR in the 1970s, and older, classic compact rangefinders can be fairly affordable. Newer rangefinders like the Leica M-Series are among the most expensive of used 35mm cameras, but they are a joy to shoot with.
Photo: say_cheddar
‘I want the best possible image quality’

If a sharp image with minimal grain (or printing very large) is most important to you, then you should consider medium- or large-format cameras. Medium format (MF) cameras from Mamiya, Pentax, Bronica, Hasselblad, and Fuji strike a nice balance between quality and portability. They use 120 size roll film and shoot negatives between 6×4.5mm and 6x9mm, yielding 8 to 16 shots per roll.
MF cameras use 120 size roll film and shoot negatives between 6×4.5mm and 6x9mm, yielding 8 to 16 shots per roll.
Large format cameras use sheet film of 4”x5” or larger, allowing development to be customized for each shot. Most large-format cameras allow tilt and shift adjustments for perspective correction, but even portable ‘field cameras’ are very bulky and take time to set up for a single shot. Generally, the larger the film format you choose, the slower and more expensive your photography will become.
Photo: Classic-Photographic
‘I’m not sure if film is for me, I just want to try a roll’

Borrowing a film camera is the best way to dabble in film, but another option is the disposable camera. These simple one-time-use cameras are basically fixed-focus point-and-shoots, which shoot at a pre-set exposure setting and depend on the latitude of the film and the printing/scanning process to get an acceptable-looking photo. Some even come with waterproof housings.
To develop your film, you send the entire camera to the lab, and it will not be returned
To develop your film, you send the entire camera to the lab, and it will not be returned. Disposable or single-use cameras can be had with a variety of color print and black-and-white film types. Remember, though, they don’t deliver the whole experience – while the pictures will have the unique look of film (albeit possibly at reduced quality), their lack of exposure and focusing control don’t really provide the full-on film photography experience.
About Film Fridays

Our ‘Absolute beginner’s guide to film photography’ is an educational series of articles focused on demystifying the ins and outs of analog photography. Geared toward those discovering (or re-discovering) film, the series will cover everything from gear, to technique and more. View all of the articles in our guide here.
Photo: Dan BracagliaRead MoreArticles: Digital Photography Review (dpreview.com)

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