Today, we’re hopping back in the Delorean for another trip to the days when megapixel wasn’t a word and Google didn’t make special glasses that allow you to photograph with your mind (or whatever it is they do).
In the first installment of this article, we covered the classic film vs. digital debate, film speeds and sizes, black and white film, slide film and color negative film, along with a bunch of cameras.
Today, I hope to build on the knowledge and give you a snapshot of what is actually still available. Some may argue that film is an obsolete medium, but some cameras are far more obsolete than others.
Rest in Peace (Unless You’re Resourceful)
If you want to actually use them, not all film cameras are worth buying. The most common problem people face when purchasing a vintage camera is determining whether it takes film that is still available.
There are three film formats that were wildly popular back in the day, but are no longer practically available. Due to the prevalence in their own time, that means tons of these cameras are still lying around. They may look cool, but you should think twice before diving in.
127 film was a roll film like 120 is today. 35mm film is considered a “cartridge” film. While 120 is a 6cm wide, 127 is 4cm wide. There were literally hundreds of different cameras that used 127 film. Kodak made a lot of them. Yashica made a great little twin lens camera that used the format (pictured above).
You’ll find these cameras everywhere today, and usually for cheap. Some may even look like they take 35mm film. They don’t. If you want a mantle piece, feel free to grab up these cameras, but know that it’s not a practical shooting choice.
If you already have one of these cameras, you can get film for them. Rollei/Agfa and Efke produce a few different types. Regardless of what you buy, expect to spend about $10 USD per roll.
Getting the film processed is a pain, too. You either need to hunt down some 127 reels and do it yourself or send it off where it will cost you $5 USD just to get your negatives back, and more for prints.
At a certain point, Kodak was getting fed up with people using their film in some other company’s camera. So they said, “let’s create a new format, slightly different than our popular 120 format, and start making cameras for it.” They were such a goliath in the market that it worked. The format was called 620.
The actual film on a 620 spool is exactly the same as 120. The spool itself is slightly narrower. Kind of annoying right?
Film on 620 spools is still produced, but expect to spend $12 USD or more per roll. If you already have a 620 camera, you can attempt to bend or remove some of the pieces in it so it can accept 120, or you can respool. To respool, get your hands on some 620 spools, then buy some 120 film. In complete darkness, removes the 120 film from its spool and wind it on to a 620 spool.
16mm and other miniature formats
Miniature spy cameras, most famously the Minox and the Minolta 16, are just awesome. Many are smaller than cell phone. The cool factor makes you want one, bad. The trouble is the film. Minox film is just 8mm wide, but can cost $15 USD per roll or more, and that’s if you can even find it.
The slightly bigger 16mm film used in the Minolta and other clones is just as hard to hunt down. For years, people repurposed 110 film, respooling it into the 16mm cartridges. There’s now a new steady source of 110 film, so that may become an option again. You just have to find cartridges to put the film into.
Another option for “sub-miniature” shooters is cutting your own film from rolls of 35mm or 120. There are some commercial cutters available, but with some careful measuring, a good razor blade and some patience, you can make your own cutter.
Several very small cameras and point-and-shoots were made in the aforementioned 110 format. Lomography.com has begun to sell new 110 film in black and white. I suspect that 110 camera prices will rise because of this. If it catches on, Lomography will start producing different types of films as well.
Another pitfall of buying vintage cameras is that some originally took mercury batteries that are no longer produced. Some of the compartments for these batteries look like they should accommodate a modern button cell, but just because it fits doesn’t mean it will work.
If you find yourself in this situation, you’ll need to look for Wein batteries. Wein produces some batteries that meet the original voltages and sizes of old batteries. They’re a little pricey, but it most case will last a year or more. A better solution is to by an adapter. These are small metal devices which hold an even smaller modern button cell. They control voltage problems and are designed to match the original sized compartments.
Many film cameras in traditional formats are still easy to feed with film. 35mm is obviously the easiest, but 120 is also widely available. As I mentioned, 110 film is now being produced by Lomography. Large format film is also available, though I won’t really be covering it in this article. The Impossible Project is producing a variety of Polaroid-type films, and Fuji is also still making instant films that fit in some older cameras.
If you stick to these formats, you’ll actually be able to use your camera the way it was intended to be used. Film is far from dead, and it is still capable of outperforming digital cameras in some ways. More than that, there are so many different film cameras out there, that the variety alone makes me keep shooting. Unlike modern digital cameras that all seem to look the same, these are different and in most cases way cooler!
Like last time, I’m going to outline a few cameras for you. These are all cameras I have personal experiences with. I currently own and use all but a couple of them. They range in price from a $10-$600 USD. There’s no doubt that each one is worth every penny.
Point and Shoots
We all know what point-and-shoot cameras are, right? Small auto focus cameras with few, if any, manual controls. We take these on vacation, to birthday parties, out to the bar. These are the cameras we always have with us in our pocket or purse. They make you concentrate on moment and composition instead of whether you need +.03 EV exposure compensation and a little less depth-of-field.
I love Nikon cameras. I’m not a diehard fanboy, but back in the film days, they really were top notch. The L35AF is Nikon’s first auto-focus camera. It was introduced in 1983. It’s built like a tank and takes AA batteries (wooo hooo). It has a filter thread and meter cell inside of the thread so you don’t have to compensate.
The 35mm f/2.8 is tack sharp. The focus is fast, and not only that, you can verify it. Instead of just trusting the auto-ness, when you depress the shutter button halfway, a small needle will point to where the camera thinks you want to focus. If it looks right shoot, if not try again. The half-press is also a focus lock, so you can focus on your subject then recompose.
Prices for this camera are hard to predict. In an online auction, they can bring upwards of $75, but if you shop around you can score one for $20 or less.
The Mju or Stylus Infinity is an all around classic. It is small enough for a front pocket and utilizes a sturdy and protective clamshell design. There you have a button to control your flash, a button for the self-timer and a button for your shutter. That’s it.
Subsequent versions of this camera are even nicer. Some have zoom lenses or weather sealing. Some have an f/2.8 lens instead of an f/3.5. Your pictures will be sharp most of the time, just don’t shoot subjects too close to the camera.
These cameras are popular, so the prices can be a little inflated. Don’t pay more than $100 for one, even if it’s a later version with more bells and whistles. A typical original version should be around $40 USD. Look for the Stylus Epic as well.
Cartier-Bresson, W. Eugene Smith and Garry Winogrand. Do these names sound familiar? Each of these iconic photographers utilized the rangefinder camera to make some of their most influential images. The ability to see through the viewfinder as you do in real life, without the shallow depth-of-field created by lenses, forces to think different and gives you time to anticipate.
Photo by Rei Shinozuka
What can I say about the Leica that hasn’t already been said. They’re well-built, classic cameras that support the best lenses in the industry. Too bad their so expensive, right? Well, not really.
The Leicas we all know and love are from the M series. The most recent being the M9 and its spin offs. Before the M series, there was the Leica I, II, and III. These take screwmount lenses instead bayonet-type M mount lenses.
They sport separate viewfinder and rangefinder windows, which can take a bit of getting used to, but what really counts is the excellent glass you can put on them.
Most Leica IIIs, with the exception of rare collectible editions, will run you between $160-350 depending on how nice of an example you want. Add a 50mm lens to that for an additional $250-450, and you have yourself I nice kit. Even at the top end you’re talking $800 or less… for a Leica!
This is actually the predecessor to the aforementioned Mju. It’s the smallest rangefinder camera ever made. It sports a fixed 35mm f/2.8 lens. It has an electronic metering system and allows you to control it via an aperture priority system.
The cameras are a blast to use. They’re easy to focus and have a super light shutter release. In exchange for the fixed lens, you get an extremely small package, and Olympus’ favorite clamshell closure.
When buying one, please check the foam seals around the film door. Olympus didn’t use the best foam. It can become sticky and work itself into the camera gumming things up.
These cameras have held there value well. Expect to pay around $100 USD for a working one. Don’t get sucked into the later version of the camera. The XA2, XA3 and XA4 are all fine cameras, but they do not have a rangefinder and rely on scale focusing. They do not demand the high prices of the original XA.
The single lens reflex camera is the gold standard for photography. It allows for precision of focus, composition and even depth-of-field. There’s a reason why the design has lasted as long as it has.
Through the 1970s and ’80s, photography classes in high schools and colleges across the globe had Pentax K1000 cameras for their students to use. What made them so desirable? They had no fancy features to confuse people. They were basic and easy to use. They were cheap. And most importantly, they were strong. A photography nerd could wallop 10 bullies in the head with a K1000 and still take photos with it.
The K1000 has everything you need in an SLR and nothing you don’t. You can buy one in “like new” condition for $160 USD. For slightly used example, expect to pay about $100 USD. I haven’t seen a single Pentax mount manual focus lens sell for more than $200, most are less that half that.
Leica R Series
Photo by Robert Couse-Baker
In the mid 1970s, Leica was starting to feel the burn of advanced automatic SLR sales. So the teamed up with Minolta to create an SLR with some technology in it. The result was the R3. The R4 followed, but was fraught with bugs. The R5 fixed those the bug. The R6 returned to being all mechanical. The R7 was much like the M7 in terms of electronics. There was also an R8 and R9.
The cameras themselves are very affordable for a Leica ranging between $200 and $600 USD depending on the model. The point of buying any Leica camera is to put great Leica glass on it. Most of the lenses for the R series are $400-600 USD.
These cameras might not be the best value for any SLR, but they’re great value for Leica.
When you want it bigger, there’s nothing that compares to medium format. It’s still highly portable, but offers you HD resolution. There’s nothing that beats the thrill of getting back your negatives from a medium format shoot. Instead of squinting at tiny little squares through a loupe, you can take in the image as is.
Medium format SLRs are impressive. With modular film backs, viewfinders and focusing screens, it’s hard to get a more customizable system. Hasselblad is the legendary maker of these cameras, but there were a few others in the game.
Bronica also made a variety of the hunky camera. The one I own is the SQ-A. Some had built-in meters and motor drives, others didn’t. That’s the main different between the different SQ models.
The electronic shutter makes it less finicky than the mechanical Hassies, and the multi-coated glass is wonderful. The best aspect of it is the price.
You have to buy a lot of pieces when you buy a Bronica. You need the body, a film back, a lens and a viewfinder. If you go for the cheapest combination of those things, you can get kitted out for less than $300 USD. Additional lens are relatively cheap running between $100 and $400 USD. The film backs are what really get you. Some of them can cost as much as $200 USD. Be patient if you want to buy several.
In the last installment of this article, I mentioned a Zeiss Nettar 120 folding camera. Those are, in fact, vintage folding cameras. Since that time, I’ve found many other great versions of 120 folding cameras.
The basic idea with all of them is that they have fixed lenses and collapsible bellows. When purchasing these, note the frame size. Some will be 6 x 4.5cm which will typically give you a vertical photo when the camera is oriented normally. Some will be 6 x 6cm, others 6x7cm or even 6x9cm.
If possible, use a flashlight in a dark room to test the bellows for light leaks. Many times, you’ll need to gamble on these cameras, but often they’re so cheap that it’s ok.
Zeiss remains a good option here, but Agfa and Kodak were also major manufacturers of folding cameras. There were also dozen (or likely hundreds) of independent manufacturers that went into and then out of business. Some of these cameras are quite good. My current favorite is a 6×4.5cm Korelle camera. The struts for this camera are in a unique configuration, and it folds up small enough for a back pocket.
In this category, I’ve decided to feature two cameras that fall in the “alternative” format category. If you choose to shoot with either of these cameras, you’re bound to fall in love. There are hundreds of great, viable cameras out there that don’t fall into the formats above just like these. Just be sure to do your research before buying.
Pentax 110 Auto
Photo by skagman
As I mentioned at the top of this article, 110 is now being produced by Lomography for about $8 USD per roll. Not a great price, but not so high that you’re worried about each and every shot.
I’d argue that the best 110 camera ever made is the Pentax 110 Auto. It’s most likely the smallest true SLR camera ever made, meaning a camera that allows you to look through the lens. It also has interchangeable f/2.8 lenses. 100 film is about half the size of 35mm, so you double the focal length of the lenses to get a 35mm equivalent.
Since the film is so small, you’re not going to get fantastic results by today’s standards, but you should have no trouble making 4×6 prints from your negatives.
The Pentax 110 Auto with three lenses could fit in a big coffee cup. If you’re concerned about portability, this is the camera for you.
Polaroid EE100 Special
Thanks to the Impossible Project, Polaroid instant films are not being made again. Unfortunately for users who remember the real thing, it doesn’t seem like Impossible has managed to create something that’s as stable and true-to-color as the original films. For some that’s fine, for others, maybe not.
Never fear, there is another option. Fuji has been making instant film for years and some of it fits in old school Land cameras. Their FP-100C and FP-3000B films both fit Model 100 through 450 Land Cameras and the EE100 Special.
The reason that I’m electing to feature the EE100 is that the other Land camera models take weird 4.5 volt batteries that are no longer widely available. The EE100 and two similar cameras called The Reporter and the Pro-Pack all use normal AA batteries. But that’s not to say the other Land cameras are unusable, but more trouble.
They make images that are 85x108mm. Keep in mind that these cameras are folding cameras, so they require the normal check of the bellows.
Go Get One
I think it’s pretty obvious that I love old cameras. And I think you should, too. If you hope to find one of these gems, head to your local thrift shop or Goodwill. Antique stores may be a good bet, but can sometimes be over priced. Ebay is an option, but you won’t usually find great deals. In my city, there’s a camera swap every few months that always yields something. And finally, don’t forget grandma’s attic or basement. Good hunting!