The Five Best Beginner 35mm SLRs

Learning film? Let the right camera guide you.

All that is old will be new again. This adage – adopted, applied and modified thousands of times over – is more applicable to 35mm photography than anything else right now. The resurgence of 35mm film is not conjecture or anecdotal either. Hard evidence proves that people around the world are returning to analogue photography in hoards large enough to make multi-million dollar companies like Kodak Alaris and Harman Technologies (ILFORD) take notice.

Giles Branthwaite, marketing manager at Harman Technologies, recently told TIME that the company had seen a 5% growth in film sales “year-on-year”, while Kodak Alaris Imaging President Dennis Olbrich confirmed the trend, saying that many of the sales were attributed to professional photographers interested in obtaining a unique image and setting themselves apart from their fellow photographers.

Though the amplified use of film on the professional spectrum has had a ripple effect, causing more labs to open their doors to the public, alongside a wider range of film and film cameras to be made available. Companies like Kodak Alaris are even relaunching films that saw their demise over the past few decades. Ektachrome is the first roll off the rank, set to return in the latter part of 2017 after a 15-year hiatus. Olbrich says the response was enough to make the company consider which other films had earned another production run.

Perhaps the biggest secondary effect of the huge surge in professional film use is the influx of beginner photographers ditching the traditional digital SLR and starting out with film, a medium far less forgiving but infinitely more rewarding. As a professional photography studio, we’re now asked near-daily what the ‘best’ film camera to start with is. While the answer isn’t nearly as simple as the question, there are a few options all beginners should consider.

Before we start…

This list is collated with the idea that you’re purchasing a film camera with the intention to learn the key concepts of photography, namely (1) shutter speed, (2) aperture, (3) ISO and the correlation these three elements have on light. Because, irrespective of your camera, you are merely purchasing a light tight box that allows varying amounts of light to enter it, pending the settings you’ve selected in the areas we have explained above. A more expensive camera might have added functionality, but all cameras will allow light in for a set period of time to render an image you are looking at through the viewfinder. No more of less. If you don’t wish to learn any of these functions, point and shoot cameras (P&S) are a great way to pick up a light tight box and get an image without having to do so little as twist a dial or flick a switch. SLR’s are Single Lens Reflex cameras, a type of camera that uses a mirror and prism system. More than that, however, SLR’s typically offer the user control over the shutter speed, ISO and aperture, meaning they’re the perfect tool to learn on. With that said, here are Racquet Film’s recommendations on getting something that both suits your skillset, and allows you to advance as you learn without having to buy a new camera two months down the track.

Minolta Maxxum 7000

The Maxxum 7000 is more advanced and expensive than many of the cameras in this list, however the increase in price comes with good reason. Released in 1985, it was the first camera to feature both integrated autofocus and automatic film rewind, alongside program mode, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual mode. The camera was very advanced for its time despite being fairly easy to use. Given its autofocus ability, new film photographers can spend more time on the shutter and aperture settings in order to maintain correct exposure. Interestingly enough, the technology we see in the current Sony A series is the result of the past merger between Minolta and Konica (2003), and their eventual withdrawal from the camera market during which they sold off the majority of their assets to Sony.

Specs & Basic Details:
Format: 35mm SLR.
Lens Mount: Minolta A-mount.
Focus Type: Manual & Auto.
Shutter Speed Range: 30s to 1/2000th.
ISO Range: 100-3200 (Manual)
Film Advance & Rewind: Automatic.
Weight: 697 grams.

Canon AE-1 (& Program)

The AE-1 and AE-1 Program cameras are the cornerstone of lists like this. In 1975, the film marketplace was as lucrative as it was competitive. At the time, Canon had always been overshadowed by Nippon Kokagu K. K. – known also as Japan Optical Co. – who were responsible for the production of cameras beneath the still world-renowned Nikon brand. In response, Canon completely overhauled their 35mm cameras and released the AE-1, a history making camera for various reasons. It was the first microprocessor-equipped SLR, and the first 35mm SLR to sell more than 1 million units, thanks to a huge marketing campaign launched by Canon’s parent company. The Program model, released in 1981, added an automatic mode which set the aperture and shutter speed for the user, despite a slight (yet noticeable) bias toward shutter speed. Both are ideal cameras for a new user. The former is more affordable and doesn’t allow the shortcuts made possible when using the Program version, though the Program provides the added benefit of learning settings via automation, which can be a useful tool when the user struggles to understand the correlation between shutter speed, aperture and how this affects elements of the final image like exposure and depth of field.

Specs & Basic Details (AE-1):
Format: 35mm SLR.
Lens Mount: Canon FD.
Focus Type: Manual.
Shutter Speed Range: 2s to 1/1000th.
ISO Range: 25-3200 (Manual)
Film Advance & Rewind: Manual.
Weight: 590 grams.

Minolta X-700

While often overlooked, the Minolta X-700 is a brilliantly made, cost-effective camera for anyone starting out in film. Offering manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, and fully automatic modes, the camera is a dynamic, entry-level option with an added benefit that’s often overlooked. Having been in production for almost 20-years, market saturation means the camera is insanely cheap compared to models with similar functionality. The X-700 also has ‘through the lens’ (TTL) metering, which isn’t a necessity for the average user, is a modern metering method for flash photography and a great way to automate the process and understand flash functions faster than usual. Popular opinion suggests the X-700’s production was motivated by the success of the AE-1, and thus the two share many of the same specs. The X-700 also has a large array of optional extras, including film winders & motor drive (to automatically advance the film after firing the shutter), data backs (to imprint information on the film negative) and flash systems.

Specs & Basic Details
Format: 35mm SLR.
Lens Mount: Minolta SR Mount.
Focus Type: Manual.
Shutter Speed Range: 1s to 1/1000th.
ISO Range: 50-1600 (Manual)
Film Advance & Rewind: Manual.
Weight: 505 grams.

Nikon FM-10

First produced in 1995, the Nikon FM-10 shares similar functionality to all the cameras in this list, however, there are certain elements that render the FM-10 completely unique. Despite its branding, the Nikon FM-10 is not made by Nikon and is detached from Nikon’s renowned line of ‘F’ series 35mm SLRs. Instead, the model is made by Cosina in Japan, a company who base the chassis of its CT-1. The change of production responsibility was made following Nikon’s 2006 decision to focus on the digital marketplace, which rendered its film cameras almost entirely discontinued, with one exception: the Nikon F6, their flagship 35mm, a near 1kg beast that incorporates Nikon’s famous matrix metering system and sells brand new for almost $4,00o in Australia.

Returning to the FM-10, the camera usually sells with a Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.5-4.8 lens, but as with all Nikon F-mount cameras, it allows owners to utilise the broad and extensive range of Nikon lenses (given their mount hasn’t changed and compatibility is almost universal).

Specs & Basic Details
Format: 35mm SLR.
Lens Mount: Nikon F Mount.
Focus Type: Manual.
Shutter Speed Range: 1s to 1/2000th.
ISO Range: 25-5000 (Manual)
Film Advance & Rewind: Manual.
Weight: 397 grams.

Pentax K-1000

The Pentax K-1000 was the go-to camera in photography classes thanks to its basic functionality, simple needle metering system and it’s classic design, which focused on nothing more than the basics. Manufactured by Asahi Optical Co. Ltd. from 1976 to 1997, more than three million units were sold and the camera proved itself a reliable workhorse. Given the body is an almost-all metal and mechanical camera, it has a great hand-feel, good viewfinder and accepts all manual focus Pentax K-mount lenses, meaning users of the camera have a wide variety of choice when it comes to selecting their optics.

Unlike the Canon AE-1, the K-1000’s price remains fairly consistent, and with such a long production run, it’s easy to find them on various web outlets for an affordable price. The K-1000 is often paired with Pentax’s 50mm f2.0 prime lens.

Specs & Basic Details
Format: 35mm SLR.
Lens Mount: Pentax K-mount.
Focus Type: Manual.
Shutter Speed Range: 1s to 1/1000th.
ISO Range: 20-3200 (Manual)
Film Advance & Rewind: Manual.
Weight: 620 grams.

Summary

With price, functionality and the notion that excessive features are better left for a camera later in your film endeavours, it’s hard to look past products like the Pentax K-1000 and Canon Ae-1. Though if your idea is to buy a camera you are willing to spend more time learning about, and one that will initially have some functionality you should put in the ‘too hard’ basket while you master the basics, a camera like the Maxxum might fit the bill. More importantly than all of that, it’s important to remember your camera is simply a light tight box that interprets whatever light you decide to let in and renders it on a film negative. Assuming it’s functional, the type of camera you buy isn’t going to make or break whether your photos are bad, good or great. In fact, the lens you use will – more often than not – have more of an impact on your photo’s quality. Just make sure whatever you buy, it is, in fact, light tight.

Product photos via Ken Rockwell. Other imagery courtesy of Racquet Studio. Film: Kentmere 100 and Cinestill 800T shot on a Contax T2.