110, 127, 35mm, medium format, large format, ultra large format, half-frame, pinhole, polaroid, the possibilities abound. Each camera gives its own special brand of magic to the over-arching theme of “Film Photography”
My advice is to start simple. Find a good, used, manual, 35mm SLR. What’s an SLR? SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex. And in the simplest terms, when you place your eye to the viewfinder, you see through the lens. This makes composition very easy because no matter what lens you put on the camera, you will always see exactly(ish) what the final image will look like.
If you shoot either Nikon or Pentax digital, I would recommend sticking with your brand. Both Nikon and Pentax have kept their bayonet mounts, so there is a very good chance that your film camera lenses can be used on your digital. Canon, Sony/Minolta, and Olympus all use different mounts for their DSLRs.
Let me be forthright. I love film photography, but I also love my DSLR. I don’t believe in one particular method of photography being more noble than another. Film, digital, hell, a sheet of paper shot in a coffee can all have the potential to amaze. Vision, is what matters, not equipment.
BUT, if you are interested in shooting film, there are quite a few variables that can make getting started a little overwhelming. This is by no means a complete survey of film photography, merely a starting point.
For Nikon, I would recommend the FM. I own one personally and have shot more rolls of film through mine than I can remember without any functionality problems. It is small and lightweight, a fantastic travel camera. Mine is almost exclusively paired with the 50mm 1.8 E Series pancake lens. It is a very well built, completely mechanical, camera that will continue to function even when the battery is dead.
Current Market Value is somewhere between $120 and $160 USD, and for the money they are a great value.
For Pentax, I would recommend the K1000. I also own one personally, and while it does not see as much use as the FM, it is as rugged and reliable camera as ever built.
I worked for a camera store shortly after graduating from college, and not a single employee in the chain of 100+ employees had ever seen one broken. Because of this, I have never hesitated to advise folks to buy one from eBay. A common going price is around $50 USD with a 50mm f2 lens on eBay and are a fantastic camera for the money.
For Everybody Else, I would suggest picking up a K1000. They are, in my opinion, the best, most affordable SLR on the market. Other cameras to consider would be the Canon AE-1 or the Minolta SRT-201.
Why Manual Cameras?
So, why not a Nikon F5, or a Canon Elan 7, or any of the multitude of fully automatic cameras out there? The answer is quite simple. The more advanced the camera, the more potential points of failure. Newer film cameras are heavily reliant on electronic components, as opposed to the mechanical functionality of older cameras. Also, starting out simple will help you to fully understand the process of shooting film. Fewer variables will lead to more consistent results. Shoot with one of these for a while; get comfortable with the workflow, then pick-up the F5 or Elan 7. They are great cameras too!
The most common lens for SLRs is some variation of a 50mm, often with an aperture of f1.8 or f2.0. The reason for this is that 50mm is a pretty close equivalent to what one human eye sees. These tend to be a very good starting point. Some people, however, prefer the 35mm focal length because of its slightly wider angle of view. This will ultimately come down to personal preference. My advice would be to buy a 50mm first, and explore other focal length lenses from there.
I’ve bought quite a few cameras from ebay over the years, but I’ve found that the functionality of the camera rests solely on the knowledge of the seller. If they know a bunch about cameras, the description will be accurate. However, if they are selling their grand-dad’s camera and are not photographers themselves, you might end up with a camera that does not function exactly as it should.
I buy most of my used gear either from KEH.com or in person at flea markets/antique malls. If you are just starting out, I would recommend against buying a camera from a local flea market or antique store for the exact same reason I stay away from eBay. You are relying solely on the seller’s knowledge of camera functionality.
The folks at KEH are the most reliable, honest, easy going online retailer I have ever worked with. Their online camera grading system is very conservative and they offer a 45 day money back guarantee. The best part? They’re camera folks! If you buy an item from them, you can trust that it will be functional or stated otherwise.
Flea Market Finds
If you do come across a camera at an antique shop that’s too good of a deal to pass up, here is a short video going over some things to look out for.
Here is where Film Photography really gets fun. There are still tons of film options out there and each one has a slightly different look. I almost exclusively order film from Freestyle Photographic Supply. They carry everything from 8mm movie film all the way up to 11”x14” sheet film.
To start out, I generally recommend trying Freestyle's house brand, Arista EDU. A 24 Exposure roll of 100ASA 35mm film generally runs around $2.70USD. This price point makes it easy on the wallet to learn and is a very decent film for the price. Ordering 36 exposure rolls will run about $3.00USD, but yields 33% more frames, making it great for experimentation. Other good starting films are Kodak TMAX ($5.50USD) or Illford Delta 100 ($5.00USD).
The most important thing is have fun. Experiment with different types of films, try different focal length lenses, just get out there and start shooting! Don't worry or get discouraged if your first roll doesn't turn out just the way you envisioned. Keep at it and over time you will get better! Stay tuned for our next installment on how to develop your film at home!