How to choose your first 35mm film camera


If you're a seasoned digital photographer and you use a 'real' camera with settings and all that, then you already have all the information you need about picking a film camera. Unless you're looking for something completely different from what you already know, you can stop reading now. Just go buy a film camera, go out and shoot. You'll be fine - you already know how to use a film camera. It's the same beast, except the image is being recorded on a piece of film instead of a digital sensor.

Now, for the rest of us beginners, noobs, padawans, young grasshoppers, e.t.c., here are some insights;

I use affiliate links in this article from Amazon, KEH and Apple and may be compensated if you purchase via a link. I have not been sponsored by anyone. This article is based solely on my experience as camera enthusiast. Enjoy.

What is 35mm Film?


"Film", or photographic film refers to a thin sheet of transparent plastic coated with a photosensitive material. Said material is an emulsion containing very tiny particles of silver halide.  Exposing the emulsion to light creates a latent image of that light on the emulsion. It is this latent image that is then developed via the corresponding chemical process to produce a final photograph.

"35mm" refers to the width of the film. The various formats of film basically reflect the different film widths (hence surface areas) of the film.  Pretty much the larger the surface area of the film, the more light information it can capture, hence a higher resolution image (all other things remaining constant that is)

There have been many film formats used by professionals and amateurs alike, but the most popular amongst amateurs, by far, was/is 35mm.

Let's leave that there to avoid information overload.  There's a lot more to it, but the above is a very brief overview.

Negative Film vs Slide Film

Developed Kodachrome Slide | Developed Fujifilm Negative

Simply put, 'negative film', when developed, creates a negative image on the plastic strip (called a negative). The correct image/colours are obtained by inverting the colours and shades during scanning or printing. Slide film on the other hand produces a positive image when developed. You can print slide film too, but they're usually for display via a slide projector. Slide film is also referred to as 'E-6' or 'Colour Reversal' film.

The chemical and process differences between Negative and Slide film types are beyond the scope of this article. This is ok because the information is not really needed when deciding which camera to buy, with the exception of one thing; Exposure. Negative film has a high exposure latitude. This means that (depending on the specific film) you can get the exposure wrong by a few stops and still get a usable image which can be 'corrected' in post production. Slide film on the other hand is not as forgiving. Some slide films are so fussy that even a single stop over/under exposure turns the image to complete garbage. It's therefore advisable that if you want to shoot mainly Slide film, you get a camera with a very good (working and accurate) light meter or invest in a good external light meter.

Apart from that, 35mm Slide and Negative films are the same from the point of view of picking a camera.

Colour vs Black and White


Let's clear this one up straight away.  Black & White film and Colour film are the same from the point of view of picking a camera. All cameras that shoot black and white, also shoot colour because, of course, that's based on the film and not the camera.

Most people reading the above paragraph would laugh at it, but you'd be surprised how many times I've had someone ask me that question, or shown surprise that I could get 'colour photos' out of my vintage cameras. I suppose if you look back in time at vintage photos, after a while you only see monochrome photos. This is because black and white film was invented first before colour film and even after the advent of colour, many professional photographers kept to black and white.

Nikon Nikkormat FT-2 - AgfaPhoto Vista 200

Zenit-E - Lomography Lady Grey


Camera Types / Form Factors

Now we are getting into the decision zone. The camera form factor is something that can be extremely personal. In the 35mm world, the main form factors are; Rangefinder, SLR and Compact. Your choice of camera form factor depends on your style of shooting, preferred camera aesthetics, how much money you're looking to spend, and so on. All these are deeply personal and different for everyone.

The Rangefinder

Yashica Electro 35 FC

The term 'Rangefinder' refers to cameras that are fitted with a rangefinder system as their focusing mechanism. The view from the viewfinder (which you are seeing) is not the same as that from the lens (which the film is seeing). This is known as 'Parallax Error'.  Focusing is usually achieved by aligning a split image in the viewfinder. If the rangefinder and the lens are coupled together then focusing the lens will also activate the rangefinder aligning in the viewfinder. If they are not coupled, then you would have to first focus the image in the rangefinder, check the distance scale, then focus the lens accordingly.

Olympus 35RC - Lomography Lady Grey

For many reasons like those listed below, rangefinder cameras were a favourite of street photographers of old like Henri Cartier Bresson.

Rangefinder pros:
  • Since there is no mirror or prism in a rangefinder camera, they are usually smaller and lighter than SLR cameras.
  • Focusing can be very fast and accurate if the rangefinder patch is clear.
  • They can be fixed or interchangeable lens.
  • They are usually more silent than SLRs and Compacts, so they are unobtrusive.
  • They usually have larger viewfinders than the actual frame, meaning you can anticipate subjects moving in and out of the frame.
Rangefinder cons:
  • They suffer from parallax error.
  • They are usually more expensive than most SLRs and Compacts.
  • No depth of filed preview.
  • Shutter speeds were usually limited compared to SLRs


The SLR


Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras basically are cameras that use a system of mirrors/prisms to present the same image to the film frame and the photographer's eye. The image is that which is seen through the mounted lens.  Most film SLR cameras are interchangeable lens cameras, even though there were fixed lens film SLRs made, especially in the later periods when they became more electronic. Since you're looking through the lens, more often than not, what you see is what you get. As such, SLRs don't usually require any frame lines or framing guides in the viewfinder apart from exposure indicators and focusing guides.

Nikon Nikkormat FT-2 - AgfaPhoto Vista 200

SLRs were loved by portrait and lifestyle photographers back in the day. They were also the tool of choice for sports and wildlife photographers due to some of the reasons listed below.

SLR Pros:
  • WYSIWYG. The image from the lens is what you're looking at, so there are often no surprises.
  • Depth of field preview.
  • High Shutter speeds.
  • Interchangeable lens flexibility. There is often a good range from super-wide to super-telephoto.
  • They are often easier to find and cheaper than Rangefinders.
SLR Cons:
  • They tend to be larger than Rangefinders and Compacts.
  • They usually have louder shutter release noises since the mirror has to move out of the way.
  • They are susceptible to camera shake caused by the movement of the mirror. 

The Compact


The Compact camera is a difficult one to define because it often pulls in elements of both SLRs and Rangefinders, and varies widely depending on make, era and cost. There are Compact cameras that are basically black boxes with a fixed focus fixed aperture plastic lens, one shutter speed and a winding mechanism. With these cameras you basically pop in the film, take shots outdoors with good light and hope for the best. On the other end of the scale there are compact cameras with auto-focus or rangefinder systems, apertures as wide as f2, beautiful sharp glass lenses, shutter speeds over 1/1000 seconds and some manual controls. The difference between cameras on each end of the scale is usually cost. There are, however, some relatively unknown compact cameras that are high quality, but cheap while there are some not so (technically) good compacts that are pricey due to their cult following, or because a celebrity has been seen using them.

Generally, they are characterised by a compact size (as their name suggests), non-interchangeable lenses, budget prices and lower quality performance because they were made for the mass consumer non-professional market. Compact cameras were usually intended to take the technical decision making away from the user, yet produce good enough photos, hence they're usually auto-everything. They were usually referred to as "Point and Shoot" cameras for that reason.

One-time use or 'disposable' cameras also fall under the Compact category. These are the cheapest cameras to buy because they are made of disposable material, and already come loaded with film. One advantage of this kind of camera is that they are still being made today (as of November 2017). This means you're (hopefully) getting fresh film and a working camera for sure.

Olympus AF-10 - AgfaPhoto Vista 200

Olympus Trip 35 - AgfaPhoto Vista 200


Other Considerations

Even after picking the camera form factor you want; Rangefinder, Compact or SLR, there are still some choices to think about that may further influence your choice of camera, or change your mind completely.

Lenses

The lens is the most important part of a camera in my opinion, so I advise that you spare some time thinking about it. The lens for one decides how 'sharp' your image will ultimately be. Plastic lenses often produce low-contrast or 'dreamy' images popular in the Lomography community, while lenses made of good quality glass usually produce sharp high resolution images.

Compact cameras have fixed lenses, so the lens that is inbuilt in the camera would be the deciding factor for me if I were choosing a compact camera. In fact, some compact cameras have such high quality lenses that the photos they produce rival more expensive high-end SLRs and Rangefinders. Some compacts also have apertures that open to f2.8. That, along with an inbuilt flash, can make a compact camera a viable low-light camera. So if you're going to use it as a party camera, that may be worth considering too.

The lens would also be my deciding factor when obtaining a fixed-lens Rangefinder camera.  Again, a good quality glass lens with a wide maximum aperture (usually up to f1.7 but f2.8 is good enough too) would be what I'd go for.  For interchangeable-lens Rangefinders, I would consider what lenses are available for that lens mount. I would opt for M mount if I had the money because that opens the possibility for using some incredible quality Leica lenses in the future.

SLRs are mostly interchangeable-lens cameras, so they have the most versatility when it comes to lenses. You can probably find a great lens in every type of mount. If not, they are easy to convert from one format to the other. My favourite mount is the M42 mount because of the vast number of relatively good quality, yet affordable lenses. It also means I'd be able to use my Helios-44-2 lens. It is worth considering getting an SLR camera that can take lenses you already own. For instance, some of the modern Canon, Pentax and Nikon lenses are backwards compatible with old 35mm film SLRs!

The most modern film SLRs, just like compacts, also have autofocusing capabilities so that may be something worth thinking about. For example if you already own a digital Canon EOS camera with Canon EF lenses, you can use those EF lenses with the film EOS cameras. This is because the digital EOS SLRs were based on the film ones - they just replaced the film back with a digital sensor back. Most of the other electronics stayed the same.

Yet another consideration with lenses is prime vs zoom. Both types exist SLRs and Compact, but to the best of my knowledge, all Rangefinders use prime lenses only. Zoom lenses are often larger and heavier, while prime lenses usually have a larger maximum aperture.

Vintage vs Modern


Ironically, as we move more and more into the future, the 'modern' film cameras, particularly point and shoots, will keep dropping off the scene, leaving the vintage ones built much earlier between the 30's and 70's. This is because in the olden days, things were built to last. As time progressed, modernism and capitalism gave birth to mass production and the concept of planned obsolescence. The need for mass market high-volume production meant cameras were built with lower quality materials with inferior workmanship and, in my opinion, art. 

Having said that, vintage cameras were pretty limited in technical specs compared to modern cameras. Modern cameras are much much faster, more accurate and less quirky than vintage ones. If they're in good working order, they are also more likely to give you a better exposed, better focused photograph as a beginner.

It all depends on what you're into. With a vintage camera, you're riding a bicycle made of stainless steel and brass. With a modern camera, you're riding an aluminium and plastic motorcycle. It's up to you.

Manual Settings vs Fully Automatic

If you're looking for a camera to just take photos and are not worried about creative control (apart from maybe composition), then you may want a fully automatic camera - auto-exposure, auto-focus, auto-wind e.t.c. A compact point and shoot may be the best choice. However you can still pick a Rangefinder or SLR camera that has a fully automatic mode. Some SLRs and Rangefinders are in fact fully automatic only with no manual exposure settings.

If you're after a camera you can fully control, then you may pick something with full manual settings that would be a Rangefinder or SLR. Compact cameras with fully manual settings do exist, but are very rare.

If you want something between the two, or you want flexibility to go from one to the other, then there are Compacts, Rangefinders and SLRs with semi-automatic modes like aperture priority or shutter priority. Some have manual focus, while others have auto-focus.

Exposure Meter / Light Meter

When it comes to auto-exposure, that means the camera must have a built-in and coupled light meter. Beware, many cameras have built-in light meters, but they are not coupled, so they are the same as having an external light meter. Also, auto-exposure usually means the camera will need battery power, with the exception of cameras that use selenium cells such as the Olympus 35 Trip. Some cameras meter through the lens (TTL), which means if you intend to use lens filters, you don't have to compensate for the change in exposure. Others have their own metering window somewhere else (non-TTL). For those, you have to compensate for the change in exposure caused by using a filter.

If you don't need auto-exposure, then you may opt for an external meter. You have a choice of vintage ones, or a digital app on your smartphone. Alternatively, if you're so skilled, you can use the Sunny 16 rule and do away with light meters altogether.

Many compact cameras have auto-exposure. You can also find some SLRs and Rangefinders with auto-exposure.

Shutter Speed

If plan to take photos of action sports, wild life or children, then you require the higher shutter speeds available, in addition to autofocus. Compact cameras with inbuilt flash are probably the best for taking photos of children. The autofocus and flash come in handy in freezing motion and catching them in that great pose. If you want to shoot wildlife and sports, then an SLR is probably the best option as they have the highest available shutter speeds as well as the fast lenses.

1/125 seconds shutter speed is what is required to freeze everyday motion of, say, someone walking down the road. You probably need at least twice that (1/250 seconds) for children. Many vintage cameras have a maximum of 1/250 seconds which isn't fast enough for any serious motion.

Aperture / Depth of Field 


Depth of field, simply put, is the measure from front to back of the scene, that is in focus in the photo. The three things that affect the depth of field are; Aperture, Focal Length and film format (i.e., 35mm, Medium format, Large format, e.t.c.,). If you want to control depth of field in your photo, then you want the ability to set the aperture manually - so either fully manual or aperture priority. In which case, you're going to need an SLR or a Rangefinder with that ability.

People that shoot food, portraits of people and lifestyle stuff usually are really into controlling depth of field, for example.


ISO/ASA

You really only need to tell the camera what the ISO/ASA (Film Speed) of your film is if the camera has a light meter. Some cameras can detect the film speed on their own via the DX Code.  If you look on the body of most 35mm film rolls, you will see black bars that the camera can read. You can get this function in modern film cameras only.

If you chose to lie to your camera about the film speed for any reason, then there are various ways of doing this.  Look for cameras that have the option of setting ISO/ASA manually. That's the easiest way. If you can't set the film speed manually, then look for Exposure Compensation settings.

If that fails, you can hack the code by scraping off part or all of the black bars on the roll. There are guides for doing this online.  Also consider that most compact point and shoots that have the ability to set the ISO/ASA have a very limited range and may not be able to set a 3200 ISO speed for instance.

An example of lying to your camera about the film speed is if you want to push or pull the film but your autoexposure camera doesn't have an exposure compensation function.

Flash



If you're going to be using the camera indoors or in the dark, you may require a flash. You may want to consider if you want a built-in flash, or a camera with a hot or cold accessory shoe, or a pc sync socket. Also you may want to look into the sync speed of the camera.

Most modern compact point and shoots have built in flashes. Many modern SLRs such as Canon EOS  series also have built in flash. They are very rare, but I have also come across Rangefinder cameras with built-in flash.

The issue with built-in flash, due to the proximity of the flash to the lens, is the red-eye effect - the reflection of the retinas of the people (and animals) you are photographing. To avoid this, you may want to consider a camera with red-eye reduction or a hot shoe / pc sync socket for the option of off-camera flash.

Filters and Hoods

Lens filters were a big part of film photography, however some cameras or lenses were not built with filter threads. Lens hoods are also important for preventing stray light from entering the lens and reducing the contrast or causing flare. Some vintage point and shoots have filter/lens hood threads, but most modern compacts don't. Most Rangefinder and SLR Lenses do.

Extras

There are some professional photographers that still shoot film or have gone back to shooting film in this day and age. I would say most of them shoot Medium Format or even Large Format.  Some of them do shoot 35mm. To my knowledge, the vast majority of people shooting 35mm film in 2017 are doing so for fun. That's including myself. As such, here are some fun features you may want to consider when picking your first 35mm camera;


  • Multiple Exposure: This is the ability to expose more than one image unto the same frame of film. This can be used very creatively and can be a lot of fun. Some cameras have a dedicated multiple exposure setting, or will let you expose as much as you want before winding the film to the next frame. Examples are the Chinon CE-4 and the Smena 8M respectively.
  • Long Exposure:  Exposing the frame for a long period of time can be used for many creative or practical reasons. Some cameras have up to 4 seconds of exposure, but a Bulb setting is particularly useful for this. Also look for cameras with a threaded shutter release  or a dedicated mechanical or electronic socket for shutter release cables.  A tripod socket is also essential. Soft Release buttons can help reduce camera shake when shooting at lower shutter speeds.
  • Panorama: Some cameras achieve panorama by changing the aspect ratio of the frame by dropping a letterbox frame in front of the lens. This uses the same amount of film as normal frames. Other cameras are true panorama and expose more than one frame at the same time.
  • Macro: If you are interested in Macro photography, say, of insects and tiny subjects, you may want a camera with a macro lens, or those that take adaptors. I find SLRs to be the best option for this because of their inherent ability to focus closer and, of course, the lens versatility.
  • Underwater / Rain: Some compact cameras are water-resistant or can fit in waterproof casings for underwater photography. Some SLRs are weather proofed and can operate in the rain without worry of damage. 
  • Fashion: Yes! It shouldn't matter, but it does. If you love the look and feel of your camera, and it makes you feel good to use, then you're more likely to take it out and shoot, and enjoy doing so. You may want to pick a fun-looking colourful camera for instance, rather than the typical boring all-black plastic. Many compacts have colourful models.
Fun Red Point and Shoot


Double Exposure

Macro | Zuiko 50mm F2 Macro Lens

Conclusion

If you're reading this, you may or may not know that I run a YouTube channel based on vintage cameras called 'Old Cameras'. Hence, I receive a lot of questions from people looking to get into shooting film for the first time and are looking to buy their first film camera. Most are interested in the 35mm format expectedly. That was my main motivation for writing this relatively basic, but concise guide. It is meant for the beginner.

I have also been on the learning end of such guides - now that I'm looking to buy a hybrid fuel/electric vehicle for instance.

What I have noticed is that having read such a guid, one usually ends up having more questions than answers. One becomes even more confused than before reading the guide. This is because one is now aware of certain things one didn't know about prior to reading the guide, and one now definitely needs that thing.

If that is you, and you're still not sure what 35mm camera to get after reading this guide, here is my advise to you;

Ask your older relatives if they own a film camera they don't mind you having a look at. Perhaps look in storage or in the attic. Chances are, there's at least one camera somewhere, and chances are it's a 35mm camera - probably a Zenit-E or Canonet, depending on where you live.  Take that camera, buy some cheap film, go out and shoot it. See how you feel.  That may be the camera you've always wanted.

Leica IIIb - Ilford HP5


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