To start, there are two kinds of people that get into film. Those that inherit a camera and those that don’t. If you were given one from a family member or friend or whatever, I would suggest moving on to picking out film stocks or general advice for film photographers. There is no real reason to replace a fully functioning camera for something ‘better’ for a first camera. For those that need to pick one up, please read on.
The most straight forward advice I or anyone else could give on picking out a camera would be to consider first and foremost opportunity and cost. If you were to really think through what you need or want out of a camera and search around at camera shops, on eBay, craigslist, etc… you’ll probably find a great deal. Since this is how I suggest approaching all things of this nature, I’ll start to lay out some things that should be considered when identifying your first film camera.
Some serious consideration should be made for what would be the cap on the spending. Trying to find a camera and then rationalizing the price can present a danger to your budget. As much as it can be sometimes be fun, it’s rarely the wisest choice. When you think through what the ceiling of your budget is, I would ask yourself if you’re the kind of person that just wants 1 camera with 1 lens. If not, the cost of lenses – particularly the focal lengths of interest – should be factored in when deciding what cameras to look at.
Plain and simple, what do you need the camera to do for you? Are you game for carrying around a light meter or do you want a camera that has a built in meter; or even more- do you want a camera that has an aperture priority mode? Are you okay with manual focus lenses or do you want something autofocus? To a much lesser extent, how are you on manual film advancing? I personally find it very satisfying and it’s something I like about film. If you personally don’t care about it one way or the other, you may want to look at something a bit newer – from the 90’s or so that were much more advanced and had a lot more features.
Size and Weight
Cameras, just like everything else, vary in size and weight. And while you may not think they vary by much, my Nikon F2 with its 28 f/2 is a whopping 42oz – a full pound more than my Pentax K1000 with its 50 f/2. Admittedly, it would be weird if someone knew the ideal weight of their prospective camera. That said, you should probably start to think about what all you want to do with it and ask yourself if you want something small for ease or large if ease wasn’t an issue.
Plenty of people carry their cameras in their backpacks because carrying them otherwise can be unruly or inconvenient. I’m one of those people sometimes – my RB67 w/ lens and prism is almost 10lbs.! With that in mind, I often decide what camera I’m taking out with me with the sole consideration for what I wouldn’t mind carrying around. It’s unlikely the RB67 is going on a several mile hike with me but if I know I’m going to really want a quality shot at the end of the hike, I may carry my 645. The same goes for long walks around a city.
Availability of Lenses
Unless you’re the kind of person who is ‘sure’ they only want one lens for their camera, you’re receptive to expanding your collection of available focal lengths. And if you’re coming from digital, you may even know of other lenses you’d like. Well… Depending on what you want and your price point, some manufacturers may suit your purposes better than others. Some manufacturers switched from a screw mount to a bayonet mount (i.e., Pentax) and some switched from one bayonet mount to another (i.e., Canon) and some maintained the same mount and still makes manual focus lenses to this day (i.e., Nikon). And as you can imagine, the glass from some brands are more expensive than others.
I’ve always found Nikon to be the most expensive. Pentax and Canon are about the same and make really good glass. Minolta is usually the cheapest and widely available. I don’t have much experience with Yashica or Contax lenses but I think about the same as Nikon in some cases and more expensive in others – I don’t know that they would ever be cheaper.
Speciality, Point & Shoot, and Toy Cameras
Chances are, if you want one of these cameras, none of the above really apply to you. One of my closest friends wanted a Nishika N8000 and knew no other camera would do. Another close friend didn’t want anything other than a Polaroid. (both of them ultimately got their cameras) If you know you want a Holga, Polaroid, Nishika, or any other camera like that, I’m not sure why you’ve read this far.
If you want a point and shoot, you and I are in the same boat. I keep meaning to look more into them and pick one up. There are a lot out there and some of them produce really great work. One day I’m going to get one to carry around with me in my work bag so I never have to miss a shot again. (Hopefully*)
I saved this one for last because I doubt it applies to most people. Much like the section above, if you need something other than 35mm, you probably know it. I can’t recommend shooting 120 enough but I can’t speak for shooting large format as I haven’t dived into it yet.
If someone were wanting to consider a medium format camera, much of the above points are still valid. While you can get an RB67 for not much money, they can be a pretty big hassle. From my knowledge, most other 67 format cameras are considerably more expensive. In the 645 format, there are a lot of options- all of which have their pros and their cons. I love my Mamiya Pro TL because it has more functionality than any of my 35mm cameras, is pretty light, and has interchangeable backs. I can’t recommend interchangeable backs enough for people like me. It allows you to change the film at the drop of a hat. I can go from high-speed black and white film to slide film, one frame at a time.
While I have never owned a 6×6 camera, I’ve been tempted by them just as much as the next 120-loving film photographer. If I had to say now what my next camera would be, I would probably guess a classic Hasselblad with a waist-level finder. The only reason I haven’t done it so far is that getting into it – getting the body, a spare back, and a couple/few lenses would set me back way more than the Mamiya and I’m not in a place where money is no issue. If you find yourself in a similar position, you’re not alone.
Almost everyone would like another or a different camera than what they have. Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) is real. But remember – the best camera for you is the one you have and can enjoy. Rather than drop hundreds or thousands more for one camera over another, perhaps consider trying some new film. Don’t forget – photography exists to capture a moment and feeling; the nicest, most expensive gear isn’t going to make that happen for you. Get what you can get, experiment, try new films, try pushing film, grow a passion for photography. It’s worked for me.