Film diaries: Picking a camera

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If my recent forays into the whys and hows of film have gotten you curious enough to try it (or revisit it) yourself, the next question you’ll probably be asking is also the one that’s natural for all photographers: which camera should I buy? Fear not: it’s a pretty simple question to answer, and the best thing is that there are two enormous advantages that film has over digital in this regard: image quality, and price.

What? Image quality? Specifically, consistency: cameras that shoot the same format are capable of producing comparable results, assuming there aren’t huge deviations in the lenses. Grain, color etc (note that I didn’t mention sharpness or resolution here, because that is lens-dependant) of course depend more on your film type than your camera; an enormous Nikon F5 will give you the same noise level as a compact Olympus Mju II if loaded with the same film. (Of course, you may get different results under the same shooting conditions, given that you can get an f1.4 lens for the Nikon, but you’re stuck with the fixed 35/2.8 on the Olympus.)

I mentioned two advantages: the second has to do with price. These days, outside of Holga (and similar Russian equivalents) and Leica, there are almost no 35mm film cameras still in production and available new. This means that you’re going to be buying on the secondary market; it also means that there’s relatively little financial risk involved in buying a camera, trying it, and then reselling it if it’s not to your liking – not something that can also be said for anything digital. Couple that with the fact that prices appear to be at an all-time historical low* and it’s very much a buyers’ market. I don’t know how much longer this is going to continue, though.

*The aforementioned Nikon F5s are going for a song these days – remember, the F5 was Nikon’s flagship back in the late 90s: the D4 equivalent of today, and priced in the same ballpark, too.

Whilst it’s almost a given that we’ll never again see a similar proliferation of high end film cameras as we did in the late 90s or early 00s, the good news it that most of these were made in sufficient numbers that there still both relatively easy to find and affordable – limited editions aside, of course. That period in photography represented what I like to think of as the height of the Goldilocks camera: compact, full-frame 35mm cameras that were pocketable but uncompromising on optical quality or control; something which is only now being approached with the likes of the Sony RX1, and even that still doesn’t quite get the formula right: it’s more electronic gadget than proper camera. In some ways, we appear to have regressed.

Before I examine some of the more interesting options available, there are a few things to bear in mind when hunting for a film camera:

  • Format: realistically, 35mm or 120?
  • Age: the older the camera, the more likely it is to a) break and b) be difficult to repair. There are of course exceptions to this rule. Although modern electronic cameras (under 10 years old) are more likely to be in perfect working condition, older mechanical cameras are more likely to last – simply because a spring or lever can be re-fabricated fairly easily, a chip or circuit board can’t. It’s probably also safe to say they were better made back in the day…
  • Usability and ergonomics: I was lent a Rolleiflex by a friend: I still haven’t used it because I’m not sure how to load it, and neither is he. Awkward controls, difficult loading, beware. I’d add any model-specific quirks to this category, too.
  • A slightly marked, well-looked after and regularly-exercised user is probably a better buy than a 40 year old safe queen or photojournalist’s beater; especially with mechanical cameras, you want something that’s been regularly exercised; lack of use is just as bad for mechanical cameras as abuse. Such cameras are also likely to be more reasonably priced than perfectly mint examples. Think of it as a vintage car that’s never been driven: I don’t know about you, but I’d probably send it for a complete overhaul before taking it out on the road.
  • The lenses matter, much more so than digital: you can’t realistically sharpen or add contrast or correct color; otherwise you might as well be shooting digital, it’s just easier.
  • Somewhat tangential, but almost all mechanical cameras should be stored with the shutters uncocked to avoid weakening the springs; the one notable exception are the Hasselblad V series, which should be cocked – otherwise you won’t be able to remove the lens without breaking the leaf shutter drive shaft, plus you’ll lose a frame if you cock it after mounting a back.

Let’s break things down into a few categories to make it a bit easier. Note that I’m going to ignore Lomos and the like for the most part to focus on serious photographic tools; they’re both unmetered and have almost zero manual control, so I don’t consider them serious photographic tools. (In any case, I’m guessing you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog if that’s what you were looking for…)

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35mm compact
There are a lot of great choices here: interestingly, none of them seem to have come down much in price from when they were new; or if they did, I missed the slump and subsequent rise. I think the market is recognizing that these cameras were both the pinnacle and end of an era. In this category, the best picks as shooters are all fixed with moderately wide lenses and mostly pocketable. At 40mm, there’s the Leica CM; 35mm gives you the Nikon 35Ti, Contax T2/ T3, Yashica T4 (the T2/3/4 have Zeiss lenses; the T3 even has synthetic sapphire viewfinder windows to prevent scratches), Konica Hexar AF, the Olympus Mju II (also known as the Stylus Epic), and if you don’t mind something a bit older, the Rollei 35S, Minox 35GT and Olympus XA/ XA2. The Mju II is even splashproof. Going wider, at 28mm we have the Ricoh GR1/GR1s/GR1v; Nikon 28Ti and Minolta TC1. Even wider still, there’s the Ricoh GR21 at 21mm. If you’ve got friends in Japan, Fuji made a limited run of Natura cameras with a fixed 24/1.9 lens – the fastest and widest available in a compact.

Note that all of these cameras were high-end products, and are built accordingly. They’re pleasant to handle, have (often very nice) built in viewfinders, fast, high-quality lenses, and some degree of manual override; usually aperture priority, exposure compensation and sometimes also zone focus. They all meter accurately enough to shoot slide film with, though I suspect none have spot meters, sadly. Almost all of them have little gremlins and foibles, too – the GR1 is notorious for LCD problems, for instance; the CM had electronic issues, and the T3 has idiotic settings that revert to defaults every time the power is cycled. Some Minox 35s use mercury batteries that are no longer available. Oh, and the Rollei 35s are upside down: the wind lever is on the bottom of the camera.

You’ll notice I haven’t suggested anything with a zoom: this is for good reason, because zoom lenses on compact cameras have horribly slow apertures – I think the worst I’ve seen was something like f8-f13. That means you’re stuck using flash all the time, and you can be almost certain the optics are a very poor compromise.

Expect to pay anywhere up to $800 for a nice black Contax T3 or Leica CM at the high end, down to a few bucks for a beaten up Mju II at a garage sale. My favorite of the bunch, the Ricoh GR1v, runs between $400-600 depending on condition.

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35mm rangefinder
If anything, this is an even broader field than the compacts: you’ve got the Leica Ms and Barnack cameras, Voigtlander Bessas, Konica Hexars, Yashica Electros, Canon Cannonets, Nikon S’ and Zeiss Ikons – and that’s just some of the manual focus options available – not to mention of course the Contax G series, which had autofocus. Most of these also have the benefit of interchangeable lenses; a lot of them are also Leica M or screwmount, which means they can be used even on modern digital versions like the M9 and M Type 240. This also means that used lenses aren’t always cheap – and they almost certainly aren’t up to the quality of modern glass.

With the exception of the Leica MP, M7 and Voigtlander Bessas, the rest are out of production – even the Ikon was discontinued recently. The electronic models suffer from potential battery availability issues, as well as limited replacement parts should something go wrong; the earlier mechanical models have become very collectible and commensurately priced. I doubt you’ll find anybody buying a mint condition original Nikon SP to shoot with.

The obvious choice here is a Leica M of some description – M6es are a good place to start; they’re reasonably priced in the US$1,000 range, relatively modern, still serviceable, and have a meter. They do have a known rangefinder flare issue that made the RF patch difficult to see under some lighting conditions; modifications to later versions solved this. The M7 adds aperture priority but requires batteries to operate; personally, the MP would be my pick – fully manual, wonderfully tactile, all speeds work without batteries, but you do have the benefit of a meter if you’re not sure. Avoid the Bessas unless you shoot wide – the rangefinder base length is too short to accurately focus very fast or telephoto lenses; but they are the only cameras with built in 21mm frame lines (Bessa R4M). The Yashica Electros are interesting budget options, but note that they have fixed lenses and non-TTL meters; this is probably only important if you’re shooting slide film.

If you’re particularly masochistic, you can try a screwmount Barnack Leica (I, II, III and variants) – it’s not for everybody. Slow shutter speeds are on a separate dial; the rewind crank is a stiff knob, and you have separate (and tiny) viewfinders for focusing and framing; also, the only built in frame line is 50mm – everything else requires an external finder. They’re very nice cameras as engineering objects and vintage objects, but a total pain to shoot with.

The final interesting option is the Contax G series; they were offered with a set of excellent Carl Zeiss AF lenses, have unique zoom finders (rather than variable frame lines, as with the Leica Ms) and seem to be pretty much the final evolution of the rangefinder; in many ways, they remind me of an interchangeable lens version of the high end T series compacts.

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35mm SLR
If anything, we’ve got even more choices here. The confusing part is that some of the newer, cheap entry-level AF SLRs are very competent indeed, and are probably more camera than one needs. I’m talking about things like the Nikon F55 (N55 in the USA) – not particularly nice as an object, but will get the job done, and coupled with say a cheap AF 50/1.8 D, capable of providing some excellent output – afterall, it’s the optics that make all the difference. I realize that there’s no way I can provide a rundown of even the major cameras in this category, so instead I’ll single out interesting options. The F55-class would not be my choice at all: though cheap, frankly, they’re nasty to handle, and a load of cheap-feeling plastic isn’t the kind of thing that inspires one to get out and shoot.

Since these are system cameras, the primary consideration will be lenses: what’s available, and at what cost? Systems with longevity – Nikon F and perhaps to a lesser extent, Pentax K – are the best choices here. Not only is excellent glass still available, chances are you’ll probably already have some. The reverse is also true – AI/ AIS lenses are still relatively easy to find and not too expensive on the secondary market, and will work just fine on most of the midrange and higher DSLRs. I can use the same excellent Carl Zeiss ZF.2 lenses on my D800E and F2 Titan – despite a 40 year age gap between the cameras. Note that the modern Nikon electronic-only G series lenses will not work fully on anything earlier than the F5.

In the Nikon stable, the F series and FM series are the ones to go for – not only were they constructed as befits the flagships of the day, they’re also reasonably cheap, easy to fix, and easy to find – for the most part. The original F is probably not the best shooter because of its removable back and (most cameras) lack of metering; it’s also not very ergonomic and has an oddly-placed shutter release. I like the F2 a lot, both because I’m biased towards it as my first serious foray into film, and because apart from the FM series, it’s the only F that is fully functional without a battery. The F2 is available in metered and unmetered versions; fortunately the latter is a lot easier to find than the former, and oddly, cheaper, too. The K screen is ideal for focusing – it has a microprism ring and split prism, as well as wonderful focusing ‘snap’. A user in nice condition user will set you back no more than $300-400 or so, but prices range into the thousands if you want a mint condition Titan. Just check the foams (mirror, back) and shutter speeds, because remember: these are entirely mechanical cameras. The timing system – especially for the faster 1/2000 speeds – functions much like a mechanical watch. Watch out for any slack in the rewind crank or hesitation at slower shutter speeds.

Personally, I’d avoid the F3 and F4 because they feel too much like transition cameras; you get some of the odd ergonomic holdovers from the mechanical era without the full integration of electronics. The F100 is very much a mini-F5, and much lighter and less battery-hungry too, though it won’t do 8fps. I personally like the F5 anniversary because of its titanium prism, and the F6, because in many ways it is and was the ultimate film camera ever made – and almost certainly the final incarnation in the line. Interestingly, all of the Fs – even the electronic, motorized ones – have a mechanical rewind crank so you can get the film out in case you run out of power. Of course, with the F2 and and it siblings, power is never an issue – I suppose that’s one of the joys of shooting with one of these cameras; I know it’s almost certainly going to outlast me.

The FM3A gives you the benefit of both mechanical shutter speeds up to 1/4000s (without batteries even), as well as aperture-priority and match-needle metering if you do put a battery in. It even has backlight compensation and AE-lock, in a smaller and lighter body than the unmetered F2 – though admittedly, it simply doesn’t feel as nice in the hand. These are not cheap on the secondary market, and sell for pretty much their original retail price – around US$700-800 or so for one in excellent condition, or ~$450 for a beater.

There are a few other interesting systems worth mentioning: notably, Canon FD. Canon abandoned all of its legacy users with the shift to EOS in the 80s; as expected, resale value for these cameras and lenses fell through the floor. A friend recently picked up an excellent+ condition AE-1 Program and two lenses for about $50 – granted, the cameras have some operation quirks, but if you can get used to them, are of course capable of delivering great results. And L glass from the FD era is both good and cheap.

I’ve always been intrigued by the Contax RTS system with it’s Zeiss lenses (this particular C/Y mount series of optics are very popular for conversion amongst filmmakers due to their look) and of course the Leica Rs; but the relative expense and difficulty in obtaining spares and accessories is somewhat off-putting. Better to buy into a familiar, cheaper system and spend the rest on film…

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120 (medium format) SLR
Though there are quite a few options in this category, the main contenders are of course the Hasselblad V and Pentax 645/ 67 systems; the former represents the higher end of the market, and the latter the lower – but we’re talking relative pricing here, as a nice Hasselblad 501C kit with waist level finder, A12 magazine and 80/2.8 will probably go for around the US$1k mark. Pentax 645 or 67 beaters can be found below $200. There are also the Mamiya RB/ RZ systems, Rollei SLX etc. but these are comparatively rarer, with the latter being quite pricy. It’s worth noting that there are Russian (Kiev) or Chinese clones for most of these; some of the parts are even interchangeable with the originals (Hasselblad prisms, notably). I make no secret of the fact that personally, I love my Hasselblad 501C – look for a future article on an introduction to the Hasselblad V system. It’s the only one of these options that can accept digital backs (though there’s a digital version of the Pentax 645 – imaginatively, the 645D.)

It’s worth noting that almost none of these cameras can be shot handheld unless you’ve got astronomically high shutter speeds or hands of stone, because the mirror slap is enormous – if you really want to make the most of the large negative, you’ll need a sturdy tripod and low-ISO film; then prepare to be surprised by the tonality and detail of the negatives, even if you’re a DSLR shooter.

120 (medium format) TLR
Your only two real options here are either a Rolleiflex of some description, or a Segaull; I wouldn’t personally go for either. There are a lot of disadvantages with TLRs – parallax, size, non-interchangeable lenses, potential alignment/ calibration issues – and only one advantage: almost no shutter vibration thanks to leaf shutters and no mirrors/ focal plane shutters, which means that the cameras are hand-holdable to very low shutter speeds. Expect to pay $1-2k for a clean Rollexiflex, or a few hundred for a new Seagull.

120 (medium format) rangefinder and compact
Here’s an interesting segment: you can still buy a lot of these cameras new. Fuji still makes both medium format rangefinders – notably the GF670 normal bellows rangefinder (which also has a Voigtlander counterpart) and the wide GF670W – as well as fixed lens, autofocus ‘point and shoots’ (GA645 and variants). They’re not small, but they’re not as bulky as the SLRs or TLRs, either. And they’re fun to use. The rangefinders have fixed lenses, and run in the $2k range; the GA series are more like $600-1k depending on condition. There’s also the older GSW series – available in 670 (6×7 negative), 680 (6×8 negative) and 690 (yep, you guessed it, 6×9 negative) flavors. They all have fixed lenses, though their predecessors – the G series – had interchangeable lenses. Expect to pay something in the $500 region for one of these.**

**Trivia: these cameras came to be known as the ‘Texas Leicas’ due to their similarity in appearance, but considerably larger size and cruder finishing.

The other major option are of course the Mamiya 6 and 7 series rangefinders. The Mamiyas are electronic, leaf-shutter (read: low vibration) cameras with some slight differences. The 6 shoots a 6×6 square negative, and allows collapsing of the lens into the body to save space; the 7 drops this feature, but produces 6×7 negatives and allows the use of a 43mm ultrawide lens. These are reputedly amongst the best lenses available for medium format, thanks to their conservative apertures and short back focus distance. Unfortunately, they’re also costly: the bodies run in the $1200-1600 range, and lenses are easily another $1000 or more apiece. 43 (for the 7), 50, 80, 150 and 210mm lenses were available. One interesting design feature is the use of a polarized viewfinder to enhance contrast, and thus improve ease of focusing.

On a closing note, the Plaubel Makina might also be worth a look – a collapsible-bellows rangefinder producing 6×7 negatives, equipped with Nikkor lenses – legend has it that after developing the camera, there was no money left over for the optics. Not a bad thing in this case, if you ask me. The downside is that these cameras have become quite collectible, and aren’t cheap – $1800 for a beater, to $3k and upwards for a mint one.

Large formats: 4×5″ and upwards
I’m not even going to go there.

Well, there you have it – film cameras in a nutshell. Personally, I’m shooting with a Hasselblad 501C, Nikon F2 Titan and Ricoh GR1V – what I consider to be a representative spread of the genre, cameras that are beautifully engineered objects, and (perhaps with exception of the GR1V) something which I hope to be enjoying for some forseeable time in the future. Unlike the current crop of DSLRs and compact digitals, there’s a very tangible tactile pleasure to using these cameras – I just don’t the same sort of emotional connection with my digital tools as I do with the fully mechanical vintage film cameras; I can only hope that some of the current manufacturers eventually understand how important this is. In the meantime – there’s no reason not to enjoy the secondary market. MT


Enter the January 2012 black and white challenge – win a multispectral Sony NEX-5 B&W machine modified by yours truly!

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