Film has experienced a bit of a resurgence in the past decade and we’ve seen a proliferation of never-before-made film stocks and even brought some back from the dead. But if you want to get started in film photography now, you’ll need a camera. So where should you start?
As a life-long, avid shooter of film — from 35mm to 4×5 and experience with thousands of camera models — I have created this guide to point out some of the best 35mm camera models at various prices.
Each pick is based on user experience and, naturally, my personal preferences. There are obviously hundreds, if not thousands, of options that others may prefer. So, before you ask “what about such and such?” please keep in mind that I probably already considered it, I probably love the camera, and my decision to choose something else isn’t a slight against it, but for the sake of this guide, some choices had to be made.
We’ll be looking at three categories: 35mm SLR Cameras, 35mm Compact Cameras, and 35mm Rangefinder Cameras. Within each of those, they are broken down into four pricing brackets: Ultra-Bargain, Bargain, Mid-Range, and Premium.
While used cameras can come from a variety of sources, quality can vary. In our opinion, the best U.S.-based sources for vintage cameras are Robert’s Camera (UsedPhotoPro) in Indianapolis, Indiana, and KEH Camera in Smyrna, Georgia. Both offer six-month warranties and free shipping on a majority of products.
Table of Contents
The Best 35mm Film SLRs
Ultra-Bargain SLR: Yashica FX-103 Program
Image by KEH Camera
This is one of my favorite hidden gems of the film world and can routinely be found with a Yashica 50mm lens for $100 or less. It uses the Contax Yashica (C/Y) bayonet mount, which means it can utilize all of the extremely excellent Contax Zeiss lenses, many of which still hold their own even on high-resolution digital cameras. In fact, some of the lenses were so good that their designs exist to this day in the Zeiss Classic and subsequently the Zeiss Milvus series.
The FX-103 Program has four modes: P (Program), HP (High-Speed Program), A (Aperture Priority), and M (Manual). That’s far more than most cameras in this price range, plus it has an unusually extensive ASA range from 12 to 3200. There really isn’t anything to complain about here.
Similar alternatives include the Yashica FX-3 and Yashica FX-3 Super 2000.
The Best Bargain SLR: Minolta X-570 or X-700
Image from Robert’s Camera
There are a number of great options I considered here: Nikon FE, Nikon FM, Pentax K2, or MX, but ultimately settled on Minolta because the X-570 was one of my first cameras and they’re powerhouses — loaded with features, and compared to the Nikons or Pentaxes, the glass is a great deal more affordable. The X-700 has Program, Aperture Priority, and Manual modes; the X-570 lacks Program, which is honestly not a mode I ever use with 35mm cameras anyway. Otherwise, the bodies and features are nearly identical.
There are a plethora of great Minolta lenses available at very reasonable prices; there is also the renowned 58mm f/1.2 Rokkor which is a nice chunk of glass that produces nice, dreamy images wide-open. Even that lens can be found at a modest cost. Your regular 50mm f/1.8 or 50mm f/1.7 Minolta lenses are dirt cheap, and 50mm f/1.4 or 55mm f/1.4 lenses are incredibly affordable as well.
Make sure to check compatibility between lens types (MD versus MC) if you intend to use the X-700’s program auto mode (MC lenses are aperture priority or manual only).
Robert’s Camera is rarely without several X-700 bodies in stock.
The Best Mid-Range SLR: Nikon F3 / F3HP
Image by James P. Fisher, Creative Commons
The F3 is, unsurprisingly, the successor to the legendary Nikon F2, but now with a built-in light meter (no clunky finder necessary) and aperture-priority automation. Like Nikon’s FE/FE2/FA models, the F3 has an electronically controlled shutter, so it will not function without batteries. On a personal note, in my experience with thousands of cameras, there is no correlation regarding longevity or reliability and whether the camera is mechanical or electronic.
The F3HP is simply the F3 with a high-eyepoint finder (very nice for those of us who wear glasses). Since the finders are interchangeable, a regular F3 can become an F3HP by swapping in the DE-3 finder, and an F3HP can use one of the many other finders available – including the basic DE-2 finder. There’s even a (very cool) waist level finder available (DW-3). Focusing screens are also easily interchangeable.
The Best Premium SLR: Canon EOS-1V or Nikon F6
Image by Christopher Kesting | Creative Commons
I was tempted to put the Nikon F2 Titan here, but I set aside my personal bias that sees the Titan as my “white whale” of cameras to instead choose not one, but two of the best (and last) 35mm cameras ever made. Why two? Because they are both excellent, “can’t-go-wrong” options and the only thing that separates them is the lenses — if you already have EF mount lenses, you should go with the Canon and if you have F-mount glass, you should choose the Nikon.
The Canon EOS-1V, released in 2000, was the fifth generation of Canon’s top-of-the-line professional series which started with the F-1. Capable of an astonishing 10 frames per second, it was the fastest moving-mirror film camera ever made at the time — only fixed pellicle mirror cameras like the Nikon F3H, capable of 13 frames per second when used with the MN-2 battery, were faster.
With five metering modes — evaluative, spot, center spot, partial, multi-spot, and focusing point-linked spot — and 45 zone TTL (through the lens) phase detection autofocus, the EOS-1V was a powerhouse piece of technology. It can use any Canon EF lens made since the introduction of the mount in 1987, though you may encounter issues with various third-party lenses. Most, however, work just fine. So capable and tech-filled was the EOS-1V, Canon would continue to manufacture it for another 18 years until they ended production of all non-digital bodies in 2018.
The Nikon F6 — unsurprisingly the sixth model in Nikon’s highest tier of professional models that began with the Nikon F in 1959 — was released in 2004, supplanting the also excellent Nikon F5. While the F5 sported an integrated vertical grip, Nikon opted for a smaller, traditional body (with optional vertical grip) in the F6 — a design choice I personally prefer over the F5 for its versatility, smaller footprint, and 225-gram weight difference.
The F6 is fully compatible, including metering, with almost all F-mount lenses since 1977. Non-AI lenses — unless they have been modified — and the newer E series lenses with an electronically controlled aperture are not compatible, and as with the Canon, you may encounter issues with some third-party lenses. Like all Nikon autofocus SLRs (and DSLRs), the F6’s crowning achievements were its remarkable focus tracking abilities via the Multi-CAM 2000 autofocus sensor module and its 3D Color Matrix metering mode. Like the Canon, the F6 would remain in production for over a decade until its discontinuation in 2020, at which time it was the last remaining film SLR still being manufactured.
The Best 35mm Film Compact Cameras
The Best Ultra-Bargain Compact Film Camera: Minox 35 GL or GT
Image from Robert’s Camera
These little fellas are such gems. They’re possibly the smallest 35mm camera ever made (I believe that was the company’s claim at the time), though others come close. It is by no means perfect — the exposure control is limited, the film advance can be finicky (likely due to how tiny and cramped everything is), it’s zone focus only, and the leaf shutter is prone to failure at a higher rate than others.
No camera ever made is more deserving of the adjective “discreet” than these cameras. Zone focus only and the limitation of aperture-priority only metering system means you really only need to raise the camera to your eye for framing. The leaf shutter and manual film advance mean you’ll never hear the camera in action unless you happen to be alone in a padded isolation room.
There were 18 models released over 24 years, from 1974 to 1998, starting with the Minox 35 EL. Aside from the fixed focus Minox 35 AL, all models were fitted with one of two Tessar-type lenses — the 35/2.8 Color Minotar and the later 35/2.8 MC Minoxar. While the Minox 35 GT-X or GT-S may be the best of them all, the earlier GL and GT — both of which can be identified by their orange shutter release button — are the best value options. I also have a personal preference for the Color Minotar over the MC Minoxar.
The only difference between the two is the addition of an electronic self-timer in the GT, as well as the relocation of the cable release socket to a position less likely to result in accidental triggering.
Best Bargain Compact Film Camera: Olympus XA series
Photo by Ashley Pomeroy | Creative Commons
The Minox 35 is just about the only discreet, pocketable 35mm camera out there that comes in at an affordable price. Designed by Yoshihisa Maitani, chief camera designer of Olympus Optical Co Ltd. and the man behind the Pen, OM, and mju series of cameras, the Olympus XA line comprised five distinct models.
The first model, the Olympus XA, is a tiny rangefinder-coupled, aperture-priority (with +1.5 backlight compensation) compact fitted with a sterling six-element 35/2.8 F.Zuiko lens and a leaf shutter up to 1/500 of a second. The following model, the XA1, is a fixed-focus point and shoot with a 35mm f/4 lens, programmed auto exposure, limited film speed settings of ASA 100 and 400, and maximum 1/250th of a second shutter. The XA2 uses a four-element Tessar variant 35/3.5 D.Zuiko lens, leaf shutter up to 1/750th of a second, programmed auto exposure, ASA from 25 to 800, and a 3-position zone focus mechanism.
The XA3 retained identical features as the XA2 but added automatic DX coding, ASA 1600 support, and the backlight compensation feature from the original XA. Finally, the XA4 pivoted to a new five-element 28mm f/3.5 Zuiko “macro” lens, programmed auto exposure, maximum 1/750th shutter speed, and a new scale focus mechanism. Unlike the XA2 and XA3, which only gave users the choice of one of three focus positions (1.2-1.8m, 1.8m-6.3m, and 6.3m to infinity), the XA4’s sliding scale allowed for incremental positioning anywhere between infinity and the camera’s 0.3m minimum focus distance.
All of the Olympus XA models remain quite affordable and can usually be found for under $200. Your choice will depend on the features you want. The faster 35/2.8 lens and rangefinder coupling of the original XA, along with aperture priority, allows for a bit more versatility and control compared to the XA2 and XA3. It also commands the highest prices of the bunch. If you prefer a wider 28mm lens, the XA4 is the way to go. The XA1, in my opinion, is a poor choice with no clear benefits — but many deficiencies — over the other models.
The Best Mid-Range Compact Film Camera: Rollei 35S
Photo by Janne Moren | Creative Commons
In 1966, DHW Fototechnik — successor of Franke & Heidecke of Rolleiflex and Rolleicord fame — introduced the Rollei 35 at Photokina. The camera — at the time the smallest 35mm ever made — was designed by Heinz Waaske, chief design engineer of Wirgin, and featured a somewhat odd, boxy design with a battery-powered CdS light meter and a fantastic, collapsible Carl Zeiss Tessar 40mm f/3.5 lens. Later models transitioned to a 40/3.5 Rollei-HFT Tessar lens and marked “Made by Rollei,” but the optics are identical to the original Zeiss. Furthermore, from 1972 to 1973, some Rollei 35 cameras featured a 40/3.5 S-Xenar lens made by Schneider.
Because of the Rollei 35’s success, in 1967 a higher-end variant was planned for market, but due to the production’s shift from Germany to Singapore, it would be a number of years before it saw an audience. Eventually, the Rollei 35S — now the most desirable of Rollei 35 models — debuted with a new, faster 40mm f/2.8 Zeiss-designed and licensed Sonnar lens. Like the Tessar, focus was controlled via a ring at the end of the lens, while the aperture and shutter speed were set via dials positioned to the right and left of the lens, respectively.
As with all Rollei 35 models, the Rollei 35S featured a large, bright viewfinder without focusing aids, which meant the camera was, like the Minox 35, zone focus only with a match needle metering system. While the design of the camera — from its left-handed shutter advance to its quirky controls — can be off-putting to some, there’s a lot of logic (and charm) that begins to click once you use the camera. Shutter speed, aperture, and light meter values can be easily seen and adjusted while looking down at the camera and the quality of the Zeiss-designed 40mm Sonnar lens speaks for itself.
The Best Premium Compact Film Camera: Konica Hexar AF or Nikon 28/35Ti
Photo by Matt Williams
I’m including two options here because they are both exceptional and about the same price, yet one or the other may better suit your personal preferences.
There are a lot of options when it comes to premium compacts and plenty of other articles written about them. I absolutely love the Nikon Ti series (in either 28mm or 35mm flavors): they’re fitted with utterly fantastic lenses and the — at first odd and potentially off-putting — dials on top are one of my favorite points of design in any camera. They’re the only autofocus point-and-shoot camera I can think of that allows you to see your aperture, exposure compensation, focus distance, and the number of exposures remaining without raising it to your eye. Shutter speed, however, is only displayed in the viewfinder.
Nikon 35Ti Top Display | Photo by Matt Williams
My personal choice favorite, however, is the Hexar AF because it’s the only autofocus, auto-advance point and shoot that is quiet enough (unbelievably so, in this case) for me to describe it as inconspicuous. The Nikons, the Minolta TC-1, the Contax T2/T3 — all are fantastic cameras with top-notch optics, but they’re stripped of discretion by their loud, whirring film advance motors.
The Hexar AF is a bit larger than others due to its significantly larger (and magnificent) lens, but none of these cameras will comfortably fit in a jeans pocket or shirt pocket anyway. After you cross that point, the differences become academic in my opinion — all of them will do just fine in a jacket pocket or dangling from a wrist or neck strap. Yet still, the Hexar is undeniably larger, however, the weight is similar to the others because of their titanium-bodied construction.
Photo by KEH Camera
The Hexar also excels in several other ways due to its larger construction: there is actually a slight grip rather than the flat-fronted, boxy designs of the others, and the viewfinder is of significantly higher magnification — closer to an actual rangefinder than a point and shoot. Many compacts have (let’s face it) abysmal viewfinders, with the Leica Minilux being a particularly notable offender. This is an inherent trade-off in return for their diminutive size.
Of course, if size is a priority, the Nikons, with their smaller bodies and fully retractable lenses, are going to win out. You absolutely won’t lose anything to the Hexar in terms of sheer image quality — though the Hexar’s lens is a full stop faster — and there’s one notable advantage in favor of the Nikons: matrix metering.
First introduced in the Nikon FA and later the F4, Nikon created what is today the most commonly used exposure mode. Other cameras of the time had a spot or center-weighted meter, which can be tricky to use under some circumstances. Matrix metering (also known as evaluative, multi, et cetera) uses a microprocessor to analyze a scene, compare it to similar scenes in its library of computer knowledge, and choose an exposure based on what it believes is best for that scenario. Taken for granted today, it was incredibly remarkable technology when first introduced and only improved over time.
The Best 35mm Film Rangefinder Cameras
The Best Ultra-Bargain Rangefinder Camera: Canon P / Canon 7
Image from Robert’s Camera
When we think of rangefinders, our first thoughts drift to those of Leica and Zeiss Ikon, the two earliest and most highly regarded rangefinder camera manufacturers. But the market landscape, particularly in the 1950s, looked quite a bit different — numerous Japanese manufacturers offered options more accessible to those without deep pockets. Nippon Kogaku (later Nikon), Chiyoda Kogaku Seiko (later Minolta), Tanaka Kogaku, Showa Kogaku — there was no shortage of options, many of which used Leica’s M39 thread mount.
The first rangefinder to hit the market from the Canon Camera Company was the Hansa Canon in 1936, which was fitted with a Nikkor bayonet focusing mount. At the time, Canon did not have the means to manufacturer its own lenses, so it turned to Nippon Kogaku (Nikon) for help. This cooperation continued for about a decade until Canon began manufacturing its own Serenar branded lenses. In 1952, the company released the Canon IIIA with its standard Leica M39 pitch thread; subsequent Canon lenses were now compatible on Leica thread mount bodies.
Leica’s release of the revolutionary M3 in 1954 presented a challenge for other manufacturers — its huge, bright viewfinder, simpler film loading, and move from a film advance knob to a lever winder all made for a significantly improved user experience. Canon responded with the Canon VT in 1956, but it wasn’t until the release of the Canon P (often referred to as the “Populaire”) in 1958 that the company saw truly huge success.
The Canon P bundled already existing features from other companies — the integrated rangefinder/viewfinder and non-rotating shutter speed dial from Contax, the lever advance from Leica, the huge 1:1 viewfinder from Nikon to name a few — and presented them in an affordable and very dependable body. There were also some improvements: a hinged door, which would eventually become the standard camera design, 35mm framelines and parallax correction in the viewfinder, and metal shutter curtains, preventing burning.
The result was the most popular camera the company had ever made with nearly twice as many sales as any previous model.
Three years later, Canon would release the Canon 7, whose biggest design change was the addition of a selenium exposure meter into the camera’s top. The Canon 7 was also coupled (both literally and figuratively) with the fastest lens ever made at the time: the Canon “Dreamer” 50mm f/0.95.
Both the Canon P and Canon 7 are very desirable rangefinder options, with a plethora of affordable M39 lenses to choose from. The Canon P, despite being the less advanced of the two, commands higher prices, but can often be found for under $225, though prices have been on the rise. A working Canon 7 can be sourced for under $150, though if you intend to use the light meter, be sure to check its accuracy as selenium meters often didn’t stand the test of time.
The Best Bargain Rangefinder Camera: Contax G1
Image by Den Dowling | Creative Commons
Contax, again pioneering some of the most innovative technology, surprised the camera world in 1994 when it released an autofocus rangefinder. That camera was the G1 — a titanium-clad body with electronically controlled exposure, autofocus, and rangefinder system. Lenses are screw-driven via an in-body motor that turns a pin on the lens mount, driving the helicoid back and forth.
Unlike every other rangefinder camera to that point (and since then), the viewfinder field-of-view changes depending on the lens being used. Instead of relying on a small box in the middle of the finder for a 90mm lens, for example, the viewfinder “zooms” to fill the entire frame. No matter your chosen focal length, the entire viewfinder will be used.
None of this itself is a reason to add it to your bag, but the lenses are what clinch the deal. Like most Contax lenses, G-mount glass was made by Carl Zeiss, and they are some of the company’s finest work. Ranging from a 16mm Hologon to a 90mm Sonnar, all of the lenses are optical works of art. In my opinion, the 2.8/90 Sonnar and 2/45 Planar stand out as the crown jewels.
The 90 Sonnar can be found for very reasonable prices and is a must-have lens for any G1 or G2 owner. It also adapts easily to most mirrorless systems as well — though due to the lack of a focus ring on G lenses, focus must be controlled by a ring on the adapter, which is not as bad as it sounds in practice. I recommend either the Metabones or the Fotodiox Pro, with an edge to the Metabones. There are even autofocus adapters available — the Techart TZG-01 for Nikon Z mount and the Shoten GTE adapter for Sony E mount. The 28mm and wider lenses don’t perform as well on most digital bodies, but the 45 and 90 lenses sing.
If you search for Contax G1 bodies, you may find some described as “green label.” These are updated versions with modified ROM and will have a literal green label inside where the film canister sits. The upgrade allows these bodies to use the 21mm and 35mm lenses (regular G1’s can only use the 16mm, 28mm, 45mm, and 90mm lenses). Only the G2 can use the 35-70mm zoom, which happens to be the only rangefinder zoom lens ever made.
The Best Mid-Range Rangefinder Camera: Minolta CLE
Photo by Matt Williams
When it comes to rangefinders, the Minolta CLE is one of the best deals on the market.
Its predecessor, the Leica CL (sometimes labeled “Leitz Minolta CL”), was designed in concert with Minolta and released in 1973. Unlike many other M-mount rangefinders, the CL has framelines for 40mm lenses in addition to 50 and 90mm. Leica and Minolta designed and released the Leica 40/2 Summicron with the camera as well as the Leica Elmar-C 90/4.
Like the M5 that was released one year prior, the CL uses a CdS meter on a pivoting arm in front of the shutter that drops down just before the moment of exposure. Because of this, certain lenses cannot be mounted without damaging the arm: those with excessively protruding rear elements (often super wide-angle) and some collapsible lenses (which can be used if you don’t fully collapse them).
Seven years later, Minolta introduced the very similar Minolta CLE — one of the most advanced rangefinders of its time due to the inclusion of aperture-priority autoexposure (something Leica wouldn’t accomplish until the release of the M7 decades later). Unlike the CL, the CLE utilized a silicon photodiode meter that measured the light reflected off the unique spotted patterning of the shutter curtain — protruding rear elements or collapsible lenses were no longer an issue.
The CLE also added a frame line for 28mm lenses in addition to 40 and 90mm lenses — the former was paired with the release of Minolta’s new M-Rokkor 28/2.8. Minolta also released the M-Rokkor 40/2 and M-Rokkor 90/4 — identical to the previous Leica versions optically, though the Leica variants are single coated, while the Minoltas are multi-coated.
The Minolta CLE is not only superior to the Leica CL by every metric, but usually, not much more expensive, and the M-Rokkor lenses are decidedly cheaper than their (single-coated) Leica counterparts.
The Best Premium Rangefinder Camera: Leica M4-2 or M4-P
Image from Leica
There are legitimate reasons to choose just about any Leica rangefinder here — the M3, M2, M4, M5, M6, M7, M-A, and MP are all worthy for their own reasons. The M3 may be my personal favorite because of my love for 50mm lenses and that gorgeous, bright 0.91x viewfinder. But if I had to pick the best all-arounder, it would be either the M4-2 or M4-P.
The production of the Leica M4 stopped in 1972 and its successor, the Leica M5, was released to a very lukewarm reception and poor sales. Ironically, the M5 has risen in value more than any other model over the past few years — it has at least doubled in four or five years. In response to the M5’s market failure, Leica restarted production of the M4, and in 1977 released the M4-2 using a streamlined production process. The M4-2 saw the cold shoe swapped for a hot shoe, the removal of the self-timer, and motor drive compatibility. Like the M4, it had framelines for 35/50/90/135mm lenses with a 0.72 magnification viewfinder.
Four years later the M4-P was launched, which added framelines for 28/75mm lenses and the trademark Leica red dot on the front of the camera.
While the later M6 and M7 cameras were fitted with a built-in light meter, they also come at a significantly higher cost and the M7 is entirely dependent on its electronics. For me, the M4-2 and M4-P hit the sweet spot of versatility, build quality, aesthetics, and price. If you prefer chrome over black, you’ll have better luck with the original M4, though — most M4-2 and M4-P bodies are black.
Image credits: Header photo by Mia Domenico.