Film’s recent popularity, fanned by the cult-creating effects of social media, has turned certain cameras into must-haves. And you can guess what that has done to the prices.
While many of the cult cameras you’ll see being brandished on Instagram and TikTok are premium compacts, the film SLR market has definitely not been overlooked. Take the Canon AE-1 and the Pentax K1000; the former was Canon’s first TTL autoexposure SLR, and the K1000 melded the reliability of the Spotmatic body with the easy-to-use K mount. Both were built in their millions, and both will be hard to find in working order for less than £200.
But if you look beyond the ultra-hyped models cluttering up your Instagram feed and r/analog, you can find plenty of beginner SLRs (with lens) for less than £100.
Kosmo Foto has put together this list of 10 models worth checking out. All of these cameras are prefect to learn film photography and all have the following features:
- Manual focus
- Light meter
- Run on easily available batteries
- No DX coding so you can push film if desired
A few are aperture-priority, but all have at least some form of manual operation or over-ride. And all of them were popular models; they can all still be repaired if need be.
Canon FTb (1971)
The Canon AE-1 may gain you knowing nods as you’re sat sipping your flat white at a cafe table, but here’s the rub: they ain’t cheap. Especially given that they were made in their millions.
If you can live without auto-exposure mode, another Canon from the early 1970s is a better choice. The FTb was one of the first Canon SLR to sport the FD bayonet mount. Released in 1971, it was a pared-down version of the new F1 SLR which swapped the titanium shutter for a rubberised cloth one and swapped the removable viewfinder for a fixed one.
Canon might have pared down the features but not the build quality. The FTb is, as they say, an absolute unit. It wasn’t touted as a professional camera, but that was more a reflection of its one-size-fits-all lack of interchangeable parts than its construction.
The FTb has shutter speeds from B up to 1/1000 and a stop down meter which can handle film speeds up to 3200. None of this leaps off the spec sheet, but dependable is much better than dazzling when you’re learning film photography.
Pros: Solid construction, Canon FD mount, quick film loading
Chinon CE-4 (1980)
Chinon made their mark in the 1960s with a line of unremarkable yet keenly priced M42 SLRs, and upped the ante in the mid 70s with the Memotron range. These allowed you to shoot aperture priority with almost every M42 lens ever made, a huge step giftware. The tank-like CE and CE II Memotrons led to the smaller, less imposing CE-3 and eventually the K-mount CE-4 in 1980.
The Pentax K mount made interactions between a camera’s exposure meter and the lens much easier, and many minor camera companies made bodies to fit K lenses. The CE-4 has some of the really useful automated functions of the earlier Memotrons, such as a stepless electronically controlled shutter – that is, if the camera’s metering system believes the best shutter speed you need is 1/257th of a second, that’s what it will shoot. But it also has manual shutter speeds that don’t drain the battery. You still get the benefits of the metering system too using manual speeds – the camera will tell you whether your chosen speed is over or under the right one.
This is probably the most plastic-heavy camera on the list, but isn’t flimsy. Chinon obviously didn’t make their SLRs to the same level of Canon and Nikon, but they are decent cameras to start out with.
Pros: Pentax K mount, aperture priority mode, manual shutter speeds
Cosina CSR (1976)
Cosina was one of a number of Japanese camera makers which followed in the slipstream of the big beasts like Canon and Nikon. They often made cameras that were cheaper than those offered by the major camera brands, trading features for price. Like Chinon, they embraced the M42 mount in the 1960s and produced a range of camera built for the price-conscious.
The CSR is a really good example of Cosina’s 1970s camera craft. The camera is clean and almost minimalistic in its styling. Its shutter is electronically controlled, but has a stand-by speed of 1/50 in case the batteries go kaput. The CSM will meter up to ISO 3200 which also means it’s not just a sunny-day runabout either; what’s more, you can swap between average metering and spot metering.
As others have noted, Cosina has an undeserved reputation for poor quality. Some of their 80s compact cameras may have been a bit plasticky, but their SLRS were perfectly fine or the price.
Pros: M42 mount best for choice of lenses, aperture priority, manually selected speeds, spot meter
Fujica ST605N (1978)
Fujifilm didn’t start making cameras in the digital age; in the 1970s, they had a line of very successful M42-mount SLRs, ranging across all budgets. The ST605N was one aimed at the cheaper end of the spectrum, and was an improvement of the earlier ST 605 from a few years before.
Like pretty much every other SLR of the 1970s, this is a mostly metal camera. The reassuring weight will be one of the first things you notice, thought the camera itself is smaller than most; Fuji had obviously taken some cues from the svelte Olympus OM-1.
The 605 and 605N were popular starter cameras for amateur photographers in the West, with their reliability and features a step above the cheapest Zenits and Prakticas. The ST 605N’s feature are pretty standard except for one oddity – the fastest shutter speed is 1/700 rather than 1/500 or 1/1000. Why? Only Fuji’s engineers will really know.
Pros: M42 mount opens up a huge amount of lenses, small size, bright viewfinder
Minolta SR-T 100X (1978)
Minolta’s SR-T range of SLRs is one of the great unsung marques in film photography. That they don’t get the love of Canon, Olympus and Nikon cameras of the era is nothing less than an injustice. Maybe it’s their relative heft; the earlier SR-Ts are brooding giants compared to the likes of the Olympus OM-1. But big doesn’t mean clunky.
The SR-T 100X was a budget model from the SR-T line released towards the end of the 1970s. They have been relatively overlooked because top-of-the-line models like the SR-T 303 and SR-T 102 had become so affordable after the advent of digital. With a fastest shutter speed of 1/1000 and a meter which can go all the way to ISO 6400, the all-manual SR-T 100X is great for shooting in lower light. Plus, the money left over means you can spend more on Minolta’s Rokkor lenses, which are superb.
Pros: Access to Minolta Rokkor lenses, easy to use, robust construction
Nikon EM (1978)
Nikon’s first attempt at consumer-grade SLRs were the Nikkormats of the 1960s and early 1970s; big, brutishly effective cameras, with shutter speeds bult around the lens mount like the Olympus OM cameras would later have. They were big but they were also robust.
However, if you had anything less than frying pan-sized hands, the Nikkormats could be a little unwieldy. Nikon made the much more petite EM in 1978 with an eye towards female photographers. The EM was also an aperture-priority-only camera, with no manual over-rides apart from a fixed 1/90 speed in case the batteries went flat. Nikon cut corners where they could – such as replacing the titanium shutters and losing ball bearings in the film advance mechanism – to make the EM as cheap as possible.
If, like me, you don’t have goalkeeper’s hands, or you’re not fussed with figuring out exposure yourself, the EM is a great starter camera for those new to SLR photography. Nikon also made a number of excellent E-series lenses especially for the EM.
Pros: Small size, automated for ease of use, excellent E-series lenses
The OM series was an enormous success for Olympus, especially given their relative lack of experience making SLRS. While not touted at bullet-dodging professionals, the OM-1 and the following OM-2 were cameras aimed at enthusiasts who wanted manual as well as aperture-priority.
Olympus figured – correctly, as it turned out – that the OM range could also be opened up to beginner-level photographers who didn’t want an all-manual camera. The all-automatic OM-10 was an OM SLR with the brain of a compact camera; pop the OM-10’s selector on Auto and the camera would choose the shutter speed depending on the aperture. Olympus later tweaked the design to allow a manual adapter – a shutter speed selector which screwed into the front of the camera – to allow some degree of manual over-ride. Not every example had the adaptor (it was an accessory) so you might have to search for a bit to find one.
The OM-10 wasn’t as refined or as robust as the OM-2; one cost-cutting measure was getting rid of the mirror dampers, so the OM-10 is a lot louder. But it’s a cheap and cheerful entry into the truly wonderful OM world.
Pros: Very easy to use, entry to OM lens mount, choice of fully auto or manual operation
Pentax Spotmatic SPII (1971)
The ads in countless issues of National Geographic didn’t lie; the Spotmatic series is one of the icons of 35mm SLR photography. Pentax’s gist to the photographer who wanted something simple to use but was still capable of excellent results. The Spotmatics developed from the earlier S and H-series M42-mount SLRs Pentax had already had success with.
Despite the name, the Spotmatic SPII doesn’t have a spotmeter, but it does have a perfectly usable centre-weighted meter.
The SPII is regarded as the first of the modern Spotmatics – it added a hotshoe, a meter that could handle films up to ISO 3200 and X-flash synchronisation. It was also the first camera to take the new Super Multi Coated (SMC) Takumar lenses, with no less than seven layers of coating to reduce flare and improve contrast.
The Spotmatic series absolutely deserve their place in a film camera hall of fame – you could do lot worse than starting your film photography journey with the SPII. It’s an overlooked model that doesn’t yet command the prices of the slightly better-specified Spotmatic F.
Pros: M42 mount for lens choice, fantastic build quality, easy to use
Praktica MTL 50 (1985)
More than a decade after most of the camera-making world had deserted the M42 mount, East Germany VEB Pentacon was still doggedly adding to the screw-mount SLR mountain. The MTL 50 was the very last M42-mount model in a long, long, looooong line of Praktica cameras which stretched all the way back to the early 1950s.
The MTL 50 was the last of the L-series cameras, the characteristic Praktica line used by so many amateur photographers in the 1970s and 80s. It has that classic Praktica look; a front-mounted shutter button, meter lever near the lens mount and stern, angled lines.. The MTL 50 was almost indistinguishable from the earlier MTL3/5/5B models apart from when you look through the viewfinder – the meter wasn’t the usual Praktica needle but an LED showing over/correct/under exposure. Pretty standard in cameras for a decade more, but cutting-edge stuff for the comrades at VEB Pentacon.
The MTL 50 also offers a few other quirks, namely the “quick loading” system which involves feeding the film under a plastic guard and then under a metal gate in the take-up spool. It takes a little getting used to but soon becomes second nature. Then there’s the characteristic “Praktica clack” – the MTL 50’s metal shutter is accurate and reliable but could never be described as quiet. Bring earplugs, and a bright smile if you plan on using it for street photography (I’m joking about the earplugs, but only just.)
Carl Zeiss Jena’s M42-mount lenses are probably the worst-kept secret in 35mm photography; all of them are excellent, but a few of them – the 35/2.4 Flektogon and the 50/1.8 Pancolar – are among the ever made my any lens manufacturer.
Pros: M42 lens mount, front-mounted shutter button much more ergonomic, very reliable shutter, metering easy to read
Yashica FX-D (1980)
Can’t afford a Contax? Buy a Yashica instead! That must have been the thinking at Kyocera, who by the 1970s owned the rights to both names. They brought out two lines of SLRs sharing the same Contax/Yashica lens mount, and broadly similar models that differed on build quality and features. More money in your pocket? You bought the Contax.
The Yashica FX-D was the budget equivalent of the Contax 139Q. The FX-D is an automatic-exposure SLR, with the selected shutter speed highlighted with an LED in the viewfinder. Its all-electronic operation means it’s perhaps not the camera for you if you want to start learning how changes to aperture and shutter speed influence photography.
The FX-D’s small size will please those who don’t want to be lugging around a big camwera, and the Contax/Yashica mount allows for some truly stellar lenses to be used. Note that the camera’s leather-effect vinyl covering has a tendency to peel off easily. Many cameras remaining in working order have been re-skinned.
Pros: Yashica/Contax lens mount, small and light, aperture priority for ease of use
What other cameras would you add to the list? Let us know in the comments below.
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Ooh I have tried most of those and agree with you. Especially the fx-d and ce-4, great cameras.
While I think that the FX-D is a fine camera, I would suggest either the FX-2 or the FX-3 as a beginner camera. Both are fully manual, and neither is battery dependent. The FX-3 is compact and lightweight, while the FX-2 is bigger and more robust, along the lines of the Canon FTB or the Pentax K1000.
Nikkormat EL! Great build quality, manual and automatic exposure, takes Nikon lenses, and it’s cheap, cheap, cheap! Pentax ME or the P3/30! Underrated, capable, and cheap!
I didn’t think Canon AE-1s were that expensive, maybe the AE-1 Program. I’ve just sold an AE-1 and an FTb, for £77 and £75 respectively on eBay. The CE-5 is my favourite Chinon, with the same 1/2000s shutter speed and features as the CEII, plus the potential to use fugly AF lenses. I have a pair of these, they’re my favourite K mount cameras. I also like the Contax 139 and Yashica FX-D. I have a pair of each. The Carl Zeiss T* lenses are great but can be expensive. If you’re lucky you might get one included with a… Read more »
Thanks for the inclusion of the SR-T. I know that some might leave it off of a “beginner SLR” because of the “dreaded mercury battery” problem, but honestly, that problem isn’t that big to surmount. It’s a great alternative for those who want a basic SLR like the K1000 without paying current K1000 prices. And yes, all that great Minolta/Rokkor glass!
Nikkormat (Nikomat) FT and FT-N. Simple, reliable and near bulletproof, with any Nikkor standard lens.
A second vote for the Canon FTb for the same reason, and its brilliant light meter.
The Pentax ME super is also brilliant – offering auto exposure with over-ride possibilities
I recently picked up a Fujica STX-1 at an antique store for $15 or so. It had a partially exposed roll of film which I developed and got a few interesting pictures out of. Initially it appeared the camera was not working but I think the shutter just needed some exercise because I got it to work just fine. The rewind crank handle is missing but it was no great effort to just turn the knob to rewind the film. The first picture is from a roll of Kodak Pro Image 100 I ran through the camera, the second is… Read more »
Steve what you consider “affordable” others will laugh at, to me affordable is between £20 and £40 none of the 10 you listed are in those price brackets I can’t believe you didn’t list a Zenit B, E or EM 🤦
Much as I love my Zenits, there is often a little searching that needs to be done, or even some tweaking to bring it to optimum condition (capping shutters etc). Plus the metering isn’t intuitive for beginners in the 20th Century.
But everyone who gets beyond that stage should deffo try a Zenit.
The issue is that the value is in the lens. Historically, I’ve used Zenits and had good results, Recently I bought a Zenit for the Helios lens for use on a Fuji 605n.
I’d just like to add a shout out for the Minolta X- series from the early to mid 80’s.
I think all three (X-700, X-500 & X-300) are good, with (IMHO) the edge being with the forgotten middle brother the X-500 which despite being nominally lower in the range has a number of extra features (compensated with the loss of the X-700’s rudimentary program mode).
Yep, I have a 500 and several 300s but have never bothered with a 700.
Back in the late 90s, I started my own film photography journey with a Ricoh XR7. It’s a Pentax mount camera with manual and aperture-priority modes and, at least back then, worked very well. Assuming that the electronics are still sound in 2022, it would be a great choice. You could buy it, start building your k-mount lens collection and later get a Pentax LX.
One small addition to this great list. Pentax designed their K-Mount in a way that an adapter ring can be installed for using seamlessly M-42 mount lenses. The adapters are still available from Pentax and third party. When having a camera with K-Mount you have acces to the excellent Pentax glas with M-42 or K-Mount but also the, infinite, range of good M-42 glass.
Rolleiflex SL35-E because you can use cheap Rolleinar lenses as well as the famous range of Zeiss lenses. Light metering is very good. It has a genius memory function (release button with three positions). Unlike all cameras on the list, the Rolleiflex is a symmetric camera, the lens is positioned in the center of the body.
Plenty of other cameras that are suitable for photo students. I.E Ricoh XR5, KR10, XR7, XR-s, KR30SP, XRP and their cousins with sears name. Yashica FX3, FRll, FX2. Nikon FM, FM2, FE, FE2,FM10, Minolta SRT series ( all of them), Canon AT1, AL1, AV1,etc.Konica FT1. FS1. Pentax ME, ME super, MV, MV1, MX, etc, etc. How about Mirandas, Rolleis Sl/SL35. Voigtlander VSL,Vivitar, Praktica, and of course the better ones such as F3s,F100, F4s, A1,LX, F1, F1n and there are many other ones.
Just a quick +1 on the older Ricoh SLRs and their Sears rebadges. In particular, I think that people overlook the Sears models because of a house brand stigma.