The analog film movement. The analog community. The analog revolution. Whatever you call it, film photography gained momentum over the last few years and a community gathered. Like every community, the analog community has unwritten rules and customs. Those rules and customs gel into recommendations offered to outsiders and newcomers. The community almost invariably recommends old, full analog, preferably heavy and all-metal cameras to cameras with electronics, plastic, and/or automation. This is gospel. Electronics are anathema. Broken meters are acceptable while matrix metering is a transgression. A fully functional battery that might die is more worrisome than fiddling around with a cell phone taking a meter reading then fiddling some more with a bunch of camera dials while the person you are photographing is looking at you like a dope wondering why it is taking you so long to take a picture.
I am making this observation as an outsider/newcomer after recently returning to film after a 20-year hiatus. During my re-education I went full Rain Man and read the websites, took notes on the lists, watched the YouTube videos, and listened to the podcasts. I say re-education because things have changed since 1995 when I purchased my last film camera – a Nikon N6006. Back then the guy in the photo store sold me a camera BECAUSE of all of the features and automation. As far as I can remember, style and street cred weren’t a thing (at least not in my world or the guy in the camera store), lighter was better than heavier, and worries about batteries werent a thing either. I hauled that camera all over Southern Africa and even in Malawi in the late 90’s batteries didnt seem to be an issue.
Something dramatic changed with film camera recommendations over the last 20+ years. The cameras that are currently sold and recommended to new film photographers as “beginner cameras” is entirely different than when I wrote off film many years ago.
Defining the enemy. Lack of style or electronics?
Lists and recommendations are made to help people make decisions and overcome problems. When a newcomer to film (whose prior experience with cameras might only be a cell phone) asks “What film camera should I buy?” I am a little worried that the current recommendations miss the mark. I am thinking it is possible that at least some of the recommendations made by the analog community are intended less to help people take pictures, learn about film photography, and find a new hobby/creative outlet than they are to help them win style points and/or buy a camera that will last forever.
If the recommendations are based on style, I get that. Trust me when I say that I am just as superficial and shallow as the next guy with a website about Leica lenses. There is no sarcasm in the previous sentence. I absolutely get the attraction of a big chunk of clicky-clack metal from the 70’s. I am a member of that club. I also understand how those roundy shape, black, plastic, cameras from the 80’s and 90’s are about as inspiring as Alf or Punky Brewster. I am in that club too. I can almost gurantee I watched more Alf than you did (Punky Brewster too!!) If, however, a lack of style is the problem those lists are trying to solve, the top 10 lists should be called “The Top 10 film cameras that will guarantee you style points and maybe get you on Tokyo Camera Style even if they are a pain in the ass to use.” If style is paramount to deciding what cameras are in a top 10 list, that should be disclosed. No harm no foul.
If the recommendations are based on fear regarding electronics failing that is reasonable too. I completely understand that electronics can suffer an acute and fatal death like a dog with a bleeding splenic tumor. I have extensive experience with canine bleeding splenic tumors. I am in that club. I understand that a completely analog camera will have more longevity than one with some electronics but should longevity be the main concern for a newcomer buying a camera? From my re-eductaion it seems that this concern has been taken to an extreme and longevity is more important than useability. My question to the community is “should there be a more objective risk:benefit:cost analysis before disregarding electronics full stop?” Back in the days when Def Leppard had a drummer with two arms, electronics and automaton were considered innovations and nobody worried about batteries. By recommending fully analog cameras are we really saying that the risk of electronic death and/or the hassle of carrying an extra battery outweigh 30 years of innovation? More importantly, if we are that worried about acute electronic death, do we really know what the incidence of acute electronic death is in the wild or are we just reacting to the loud chorus of a vocal minority whose cameras died and they went on the internet to tell the world. Until we have a good answer to those questions I will continue to use my Minolta XD-11, Olympus OM-4, and Contax RX because that Spotmatic on the shelf and the metering app on my cell phone just aren’t giving me the warm fuzzies like they did when I got them.
The current recommendations are so uniform they are skewing the market in weird ways
I worry that the current recommendations are so pervasive and uniform that people are starting to believe that the only cameras worth buying are fully analog. My evidence is that there is weirdness in the used camera market. I have five examples (there are many many more) demonstrating just how weird things are right now at the end of 2020.
- I can buy a Contax RX for the same price as a Rollei 35SE?
In my mind, the Contax RX is the perfect manual focus camera but that is a story for another time. It is remarkable, if not bizarre, that I can buy a top of the line, professional level, manual focus, film camera for the same price as a Rollei 35se that doesn’t focus and doesn’t even have the dials on the correct side of the camera (!!). It is equally as interesting that a Contax RTSII costs less than a Minolta Hi-matic 7sii or even a Canonet.(!!)
- The Leica M7 is maligned while the Leica M6 (M4, M3, etc.) are revered
In researching an M-mount film camera to use for testing for this website, I learned that the aperture priority mode on a Leica M7 is a crime against humanity while the Leica M6 is revered as the last great thing Leica did before everything came crumbling down and all was lost. Is an internal light meter and/or aperture priority really a crime against humanity? As a result, it seems that M6 cameras are disproportionally expensive and harder to find when compared to an M7.
- People are recommending fast lenses for monster bokeh then affixing them to a camera with a 1/1000 shutter speed (or slower).
Fast primes are nifty. I like bokeh as much as the next photographer (real people don’t care or even notice bokeh) but if you want to go all bokeh monster with that f/1.4 lens, you are going to need to get your bokeh on after the sun goes down if you only have a max shutter speed of 1/1000 sec. Moreover, it seems stupid to recommend an expensive bokeh monster if you are always shooting stopped down. Even mediocre vintage glass is good when shot stopped down. Is everyone really breaking out the ND filters all the time because I am not seeing or hearing about it. Technology like 1/2000, 1/4000, or (gasp) 1/12,000 shutter speed might make the lens investment worthwhile but you are going to need a battery to make that happen. I havent done a market analysis but I bet if you did, and you excluded Leica cameras, you would find that cameras with a higher than 1/1000 shutter speed, in general, cost less than cameras with a max 1/1000 shutter speed or lower. This is nonsensical.
- Nobody (almost) anywhere is recommending motorized film advance
If you look at the top 10 lists of analog cameras for people to buy almost nobody recommends a camera with a motor drive. I understand how a motor drive is boorish, gosh, unsheik, and the subtle whirr is no replacement for a loud clack of a mirror slapping for the style inclined, but is advancing film with a thumb lever really that cool and impressive to people watching you get your film on? To be honest, manually advancing the film lever warmed the cockles of my heart at the start (I promise you I am right here with you) but after about 1000 exposures it loses its appeal. Moreover, when you are freezing on top of a mountain and all you have is the frozen tip of your thumb sticking out of a glove and you keep missing the film lever, you are going to feel like a complete idiot for not opting for a camera with a motor. Even if you are not freezing but you are photographing something other than gas stations, parked cars, and/or garden gnomes a motor drive goes from something handy to something that really helps you stay in the flow so you can focus on taking pictures of things with pulses. If you want an inexpensive camera, look for one with a motor drive. They are all dirt cheap.
5. Focusing technology isn’t even considered.
As stated previously, I understand if the community wants to go hard on not recommending electronics. Electronics fail but focusing screens? Recommending a camera without at least a sprit prism focusing screen is just cruel and unusual punishment to someone coming from an iPhone. Moreover, cameras with a simple microprism focusing screen (and no split prism) are also of an age where they are also more likely to have dust and junk in the already dim viewfinder which complicates focusing even further. I am not going so far as to say that the community should be recommending autofocus lenses and cameras but little things like making focusing with manual lenses easier goes a long way and it should be given at least some consideration. I don’t know how this recommendation is affecting the market but I felt it should be included in this list anyway.
What to look for when shopping for a film camera LLFNP style
I don’t know enough about all of the different camera models from all of the manufacturers make a “Top 5 list of cameras for new analog photographers that are easy to use” but I am going to ask around the industry and see if I can generate a list. More on that soon. For now, these are the general guidelines I would use to recommend a camera to someone looking to buy a film camera:
- For your first camera, don’t worry about style. These things are inexpensive enough. Get something easy to use. If you find you like it and you have the basics down with an easy to use camera, throw it away or give it to a friend and get a style based replacement. You are welcome to ignore this advice but don’t say I didn’t give it to you.
- For your first camera, ignore the “electronics are bad” mantra. Electronics might wear out over time but this camera is your training wheels. Nobody ever wore out their training wheels. You will throw it away or give it away before it dies. The camera (electronics and all) should last during your training period.
- For your first camera, be sure you have these minimum specifications 1) aperture or shutter priority mode 2) a split prism focusing screen 3) a working TTL light meter. 4) a camera that takes a modern battery you can get at a supermarket 5) a maximum shutter speed of at least 1/1000 sec and a camera that 6) lets you see your aperture and shutter settings in the viewfinder window 7) a film advance motor. I know you want the flippy thumb lever and will ignore #7. That is ok. Ill give you that. Let’s make #7 optional. I probably would have done the same.
- Get your camera from a store. Don’t go on craigslist. Don’t go on eBay. Don’t get it from your stepfather’s closet. You know you hated him anyway until you learned he had a camera up for grabs. Too many of these old cameras (including the camera from the stepfather you hate) has issues. Skip the frustration and get a camera from someone responsible who knows what they are looking at and will take it back if it doesn’t work. You won’t save a few dollars on eBay. So many of those cameras on eBay are from people who find them in an estate sale and have no idea if they work or not. Buying from a store might be a little more expensive than Craigslist but if you can afford that roll of Portra that you know you are going to buy, you can afford to save yourself some headache. Some options include Photodom, Drakes Camera, Fstop cameras, Acme Camera, KEH, Usedphotopro. If you cant find a starter camera in one of those 6 places you are doing something wrong.
- Before we leave the topic of being cheap, many top 10 lists are designed to help you buy cameras for as little as possible. Smart people, however, understand that in some cases spending as little as possible on a camera might be bad math. As they say “don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.” You might have noticed that my list of general recommendations suggests that you might dump your first camera. That was actually a sleight of hand. If you follow my advice and get a camera that does all of the things I recommend, even if you spend just a little more, my prediction is that you will actually be buying a camera that you love and won’t want to get rid of unless you are searching for style. If you follow my advice you might not need or want camera #2.
Top film cameras for people who value function over style (and are not pathologically afraid of batteries.)
I don’t yet have enough experience with all of the different camera models over the years so I cannot responsibly offer a complete “Top 10 list of film cameras for people who value function over style (and are not pathologically afraid of batteries)” but I reached out to some industry folks and will update this page when I have their recommendations. For now, here are three that work for me that I can recommend to help get you started. Again, this anything but an exhaustive list. Do your research. I am decidedly not an expert in all of the options.
- Olympus OM-4: This is my current favorite camera for personal use. The spot meter function is to die for. It is also tiny. I am getting a motor drive.
- Contax RX: I already had a set of Contax lenses so I got this so I could use those lenses. It is a perfect size and everything is laid out perfectly. This is the camera I use if someone is standing in front of the camera. This is the camera I use if I dont need to be hiking in the woods or traveling. It has a motor drive. Nobody wants to wait for me to advance my own film. Ignore the Contax RTSII. It might have been designed with the Porche folks but the layout is weird, the light meter is weird, and the location of the AE lock is weird. Contax glass is expensive but there are plenty of Yahica lenses you can use if you want my ultimate camera body. This is probably not the first choice for most people getting into film.
- Minolta XD-11 (or XD-5): I will go to my grave recommending these cameras to everyone who asks if they are looking for something less expensive than #1 and #2. They are so inexpensive and have everything you need. You can get a body and a full set of Minolta lenses and maybe never need anything else. Be sure to get one that has been CLA’d recently or from someone that has been using it. There are some sticky shutter things that happen but they are fixable if you do happen to get a dud.
I guess I am asking the community “Are the current recommendations for film cameras for photographers made for style points or for fear or hatred of electronics?” If the answer is style, I get it but we should be honest and at least tell them style is a part of the equation. If it is for fear of electronics failing, maybe those Top 10 lists need a disclaimer saying there are easier cameras out there to use.
I might be wearing rose-colored glasses but I foresee an enterprising YouTuber who is going to get instafamous with a YouTube channel dedicated to roundy looking plastic SLR’s from the 90’s and cameras with motor drives; or some celebrity who is going to rock a Canon Elan 7. When that happens, we are all going to feel stupid for not grabbing them while we could get them for pennies. King Jvpes did it with Minoltas #minoltagang. Last I checked, the Yashica T4 is made of plastic and riddled with electronics and we all know what happened with that one.
And a shout out to those who figured this out before I did
It is important to note that I am not the first one to notice or comment on this trend. I only wish I found these before I made some bad purchases. Casual Photophile did a post about this recently and declared that we should all be shooting dorky SLR’s from the 90’s. To that, I respond by declaring James of CP the GRAND ALL HIGH EXALTED MYSTIC RULER OF THE DORKY 90’s CAMERA and founder of the nascent analog backlash against style at all costs. That is meant as a compliment. Cameraquest unrepentantly said he was using a CanonT90 and also seems to cast more than a dispersion against Rollei 35 cameras. Few would dare criticize Cameraquest for playing to the trends. The fine folks the Film Photography Project also crushed this entire discussion on Podcast #264 when their guest from Trev Lee from The Darkroom who (gasp) said he does his commercial stuff with a Canon EOS and-recommends the lowly EOS Rebel to first-timers who ask for his advice (oh my).
And thanks to all of the other websites and podcasts that helped me with my re-education even if, from time to time, you maybe might have sort of maybe possibly valued broken meters over motor drives at one time or another. These include Japan Camera Hunter, The Darkroom, Studio C-41, 35mmc, Emulsive, Sunny 16 Podcast, Matt Day, The Phoblographer, Todd Glaser, Cameraquest, the folks (especially Andre) at Cinestill, Kyle Mcdougall, King Jvpes and all of the other random Youtube channels and websites I am forgetting to mention.
P.S.Rollei 35? Really?