A couple weeks ago Kai of DigitalRev, with the help of Bellamy of JapanCameraHunter, did a video on the “5 top film cameras for under $1000”. Interesting, but having grown up shooting film in my opinion they got two major things wrong.
First and foremost these days, buying used gear, 1000$ are often an exceedingly big sum for someone that’s just starting with film. You can get away with much muuuuuch less – especially if you are interested in 35mm – and still buying pro equipment.
Second of all, although every choice is highly subjective, I think they chose the wrong cameras. Not because they were actually bad, quite the contrary, but mostly because they are not the best you can get at their price point.
So here you will find my “5 top film cameras + 1” list. Like every other similar list this one will be at least a bit subjective, but based only on gear I actually used in the past or use to these days.
Before each entry you will find the format for which they work. If I did a review of one of the cameras in the list you’ll find the link just below each line.
By the way, you can see from the pictures that I tend to use pretty heavily my cameras! 🙂
Naturally you will notice that generally – but not always: see Contax – the price increases with the format, so you can get away with 50€ for a 35mm camera and lens combo (for example a beautiful Pentax ME Super, the camera with the best viewfinder I ever seen, combined with a superb 50/1,7 Pentax M), but you’ll need various time that sum for a medium format one of comparable build quality.
You will also notice that I cheated a bit on the 1st and 2nd place (other than adding a + 1!). On the 1st because you will most likely buy a film body depending on which lenses do you have already.
On the 2nd because a 35mm rangefinder is really a matter of taste. Personally I liked both the Minolta CLE and the Contax G1, but the Minolta was much more enjoyable in the end. Besides, I like the warmer rendering of the Leica M and M-Rokkor lenses better than their Contax Zeiss G counterparts – even though they are of stunning quality as well.
Like I said: a matter of taste. Remember, though, that the Contax G1 is an autofocus camera, not a real rangefinder – hence the word “rangefinder” between quotes.
As a side note: the Rolleicord, the two Fuji and the Olympus are all nearly silent in operation; if street photography is your passion this is a major benefit. But I can tell you that even as a landscape shooter is nice not to have the peace of the forest suddenly disturbed by a huge CLANK (Pentax 6×7 anyone?).
Keep in mind that all the prices are averages; obviously there will be often a huge difference between buying from a shop and from a private seller. More, if you are patient or lucky you can score huge deals.
In some case you might choose to buy a cheaper lens to lower the overall price or simply because you like it better; for example you may pair the Minolta CLE to a nice Russian made Jupiter-8 50mm f/2 and save almost 300€.
If you need a more fine-grained guide to buy your next film camera and want to explore more alternatives please check my previous series of posts “The cheap bastard guide to (film) photography”:
or check my “Camerapedia” page for “star ratings” of a few more cameras.
Ok, now for real : the list
1) 35mm, SLR, ex-aequo: Nikon F4s & Canon Eos 1n
Canon Eos 1n + 50mm f/1.8 = ~200€
Nikon F4s + 50mm f/1.8 = ~200€
Both amazing tools; I recall the viewfinder of the Nikon F4s as a bit better, but I didn’t own the 1n at the same time. They are both scary fast in every operation, and “transparent”, working like an extension of your eyes without getting in the middle between you and your pictures.
2a) 35mm, manual rangefinder: Minolta CLE
Minolta CLE + 40mm f/2 M-Rokkor = ~500€
2b) 35mm, electronic “rangefinder”: Contax G1
Contax G1 + 45mm f/2 = ~500€
The main difference, other than the obvious electronic vs manual one, is in the finder. The viewfinder of the Contax is tiny and, even worst, if you don’t put your eye exactly centered goes black (i.e. its exit pupil is quite small). The Minolta one, on the other hand, is plain gorgeous. With the Contax you don’t see what is in focus, you just have a distance scale for reference. The Minolta rangefinder, on the other hand, can be out of calibration and you will still get out of focus shots even if the picture looks fine in the viewfinder. The Contax, because of the motor, will be slightly noisier.
3) 35mm, compact with rangefinder: Olympus XA
Olympus XA with F-Zuiko 35mm f/2.8 + auxiliary flash A11 = ~50€
Tiny, with an extremely well made and easy to use rangefinder, a beautiful 35mm f/2.8 lens quite sharp from the start and a light meter accurate enough for slides. Thanks to the leaf shutter, practically silent in operation and with an hair trigger. What can you possibly want more?
4) 6x6cm, twin lens reflex: Rolleicord III
Rolleicord III with Schneider Xenar 75mm f/3.5 = ~150€
Review: Rolleicord III
Really compact and lightweight (barely the size of the Fuji GS645 but it shoots on 6x6cm). As sharp as an Hasselblad but with half the weight and 1/4th of the cost. I use it under pouring rain without a hitch. Nearly silent in operation.
Close the door and you can slide it in a jacket or cargo pants pocket. One of the sharpest lenses I ever had the pleasure to use, and with a beautiful rendering as well. The rangefinder is a snap to focus (even better than the Leica ones, IMHO), and in the finder you will see the exposure values as well. A killer combination with Velvia and low ISO (25, 50, 100) b/w films. The original bellows is prone to developing pinholes, but you can build your own quite easily or have it replaced. Zero vibrations and nearly silent in operation thanks to the leaf shutter.
Bonus entry) 6x9cm, rangefinder: Fuji GW690 (I, II or III)
Fuji GW690 I with EBC Fujinon 90mm f/3.5 = ~250€
A bit on the heavy side, but zero vibrations thanks to the (quite silent) leaf shutter, so you can use it even handheld. Extremely sharp lens with one of the best bokeh I ever seen. The size is quite considerable, but for the format covered it is indeed extremely small! On the plus side in winter you can easily operate it even with heavy snow gloves. And the lack of whatsoever electronics means you can use it under pouring rain or drop it into the thawing snow with zero concerns.