While it’s hard not to see the endless announcements of new-better-bigger digital cameras and accessories, slowing down and rolling some film will help you become a better photographer faster than relying on a computer with a lens attached on the front. If you want to become a better photographer, make photographs. That means being present to what you want to create, shooting film, trips to the lab and making prints. If you have not shot film, the experience is both fun and liberating, free of notifications popping up, and that old camera smell when you hold it up to your face as well as just the overall experience can be therapeutic.
When getting into film, you’ll want to choose a manual 35mm film SLR and a 50mm lens. That’s what we all learned back in the day for many reasons, mainly it was cost-effective and straightforward to get into. There are loads of good deals on vintage 35mm SLRs on eBay and Amazon, so choosing one can be difficult. I made a list of the top three 35mm film SLRs based on affordability, compatibility with modern cameras and reliability. When looking for a used 35mm film SLR reference these two posts where we cover how to purchase vintage gear and how to remove fungus if it happens.
35mm Manual SLRs
The Asahi Pentax K1000 is Pentax at their best. This is super simple, fully manual camera and one that you can hand down to the kids down the road. The K1000 can operate with or without batteries as it is fully mechanical, the batteries power the light meter only which is a basic +/- matchstick type so using the sunny 16 rule is the norm. Made up through 1994, you can pick up a good condition Pentax K1000 used on Amazon or Ebay with a 50mm f2 lens for under $150.
Pro tip – Earlier K1000’s with the Asahi stamp were made in Japan, later models made in China. Be sure to pickup an LR-44 battery when you purchase.
The Canon AE-1 was Canon’s answer to the Pentax K1000 and what could be best described as the “5D” of its time. The AE-1 was a Canon film SLR for the masses it but it cannot be operated without a battery.
Pro tip – There are many versions of the Canon AE-1. Just get a clean one and you’ll be fine. Pickup a 4 pack of LR44 batteries for the light meter to work.
It might not seem like it today, but in the pre-digital era, Nikon was king. Everything Nikon did felt like a higher level of quality and attention to detail over other brands. Hold the classic Nikon FM2 and you’ll understand right away. The FM2 feels solid and better built than the Pentax K1000 and Canon AE-1, and to many it looks better too. A huge benefit is that the FM2 uses the legendary F Mount which has a 50-plus year legacy of world-class optics available to you. The glass, build, and name are going to make the Nikon FM2 a bit more expensive than it’s competitors but if you want a super solid camera with room to grow then the FM2 is for you.
Pro tip – You can find some nearly new on Ebay if you hunt around. Needs LR44 batteries
Adaptors for Mirrorless Cameras
Adapting vintage glass to mirrorless cameras is one big advantage of shooting mirrorless over DSLR. Good quality vintage glass is cost effective, will give you a unique look, and when you want to shoot film – you already got the glass. Below are some adaptors to mount Pentax, Canon, and Nikon SLR lenses on popular mirrorless cameras.
Pro tip – Go for the less expensive adaptors here. You’re adapting a fully mechanical lens so no electronic information is communicated from body to lens.