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Analog photography today is alive and well, though the cameras most photographers favor have long been discontinued. From the professional and commercial photo world to hobbyists and family photographers, film photography is a medium that caters to the young, old, beginner, and expert alike. (And increasingly, celebrities, too.)
As film dominated as the main photographic medium for decades, the world of film cameras is vast and can be intimidating, if not confusing. And everyone has an opinion on what makes the best film camera—ask a famed fashion or street photographer, iconic documentarian, or even your uncle, cousin, or partner, and you might get different answers from each. It seems when one person loves something about a camera, another hates it.
But there is consensus on a handful of film cameras, which have made the below list (and our list of the 10 best point and shoot film cameras). The others, well, those have been chosen based on decades of shared professional experience between myself and Field Mag family and friends. Scroll down to get to the good stuff. Or keep reading for more on why film photography is still relevant today as it was in pre-digital times.
Modern digital cameras are beasts—so powerful that not only is the cost of equipment intimidating, but the learning curve to use is too. The best film cameras on the other hand are paired back and easy to use, or at least intuitive. Part of why I think film continues to gain popularity is that a beginner photographer, so long as they understand basic principles of exposure and composition, can take a great photo without needing editing programs or even a computer for that matter.
What is the difference between 35mm and 120 film?
Though a number of other film formats exist, over the years 35mm and 120 (aka medium format film and definitely not 120 mm!) have evolved to be the most common and user friendly. Large format is incredible and also still widely practiced, but it’s a whole other animal, so I won’t get into it in this article.
The main difference between 35mm and 120 film is the size of the actual film. The surface area of 120 film (again, not 120 mm!) is roughly 4x that of 35mm film, which allows for higher resolution and great dynamic range (smoother gradients). The larger, medium format film is much better for making larger prints, as it features less apparent grain and finer details.
35mm film, also known as 135 format (though oddly 135 has nothing to do with the size) features a 24mm x 36mm film size and is available in 24 and 36 exposure rolls, the latter being much more common these days. 120 medium format film can produce 16, 12, or 10 frames per roll, depending on the camera format used—645, 6x6, and 6x7, respectively. The film is the same, regardless of which camera it’s used in—the difference is the size of the resulting frame. A keen eye will notice many medium format cameras are named for their formatting, like the Pentax 67 or Fujifilm GA645. 120 is also available at times in 220 rolls, which is the same width film, but twice the length, allowing for more exposures.
The Camera The Photo pic.twitter.com/EGKc6kxMGT— Field Mag (@fieldmag) October 6, 2021
What is the difference between SLR and Rangefinder cameras?
Aside from film formats, there are a number of different film camera types, too. The most popular being SLR and rangefinder. SLR stands for Single-Lens Reflex, a design in which an internal mirror reflects what the camera is “seeing” into the viewfinder. When you look into the viewfinder, you’re actually seeing through the lens, which allows for more precise composition and depth of field analysis.
The viewfinder on a rangefinder camera, on the other hand, doesn’t “look” through the lens like an SLR does, but instead through a mechanical series of lenses and mirrors that approximates what the lens is seeing. There are frame lines in this viewfinder, and it does align with the lens to allow accurate focusing and composition. But, you don’t see the same depth of field perception as with an SLR. That's the con of a rangefinder. The main pro is that the lack of collapsible mirror in the body—the function that characterizes an SLR—allows rangefinder camera bodies to be much smaller and more compact.
Street photographers often prefer rangefinders as they are generally more slender and able to shoot a little more off the cuff. Landscape photographers and other generalists often prefer SLRs because of the depth of field POV.
Of course, there are also Twin-Lens Reflex cameras, commonly referred to as a TLR. They are either greatly loved or fiercely hated. Your mom might have a dusty one on a shelf somewhere. Ultimately, preference boils down to a matter of opinion, style and experience. The same goes for camera models as well.
Where to buy film cameras
You can’t just waltz into Best Buy and snag a Contax. These days, it seems the best place to buy a film camera is either patiently bidding on eBay auctions or keeping an eye on obscure film enthusiast groups on Facebook or other online forums. Goodwill used to be a reliable source, but now that popularity has surged in recent years, those wells are running dry, and fast.
That said, whenever you’re on a road trip, it’s always a good idea to check local small town thrift stores. And of course, we always suggest speaking with the knowledgeable folks at your hometown camera shop, too. These mom & pop shops and film processing labs are also drying up (or rather, shutting down) fast, so do your part to support and shop local when and where possible. Online resources like KEH Camera, B&H, and even Moment have growing film camera selections, too.
10 Best Film Cameras for Beginner, Intermediate, and Professional Photographers (Plus a Bonus)
Read on for our top picks for the best SLR and rangefinder cameras for 35mm and 120 film photography.
Skill Level: Beginner to intermediate
Year of Release: 1976
Some (i.e. me) would compare the Canon AE-1 to the Toyota Tacoma—a workhorse of a 35mm camera that takes excellent photos and due to mass production is quite affordable and easily serviced, even today. Since its inception in 1976, the AE-1 has played a huge role in the history of photography and remains an archetype of film cameras worldwide.
The AE-1 is one of the more simple and best 35mm film cameras out there, offering only the bare necessities in terms of settings and controls and capability of working with a vast assortment of Canon lenses. The AE-1 Program was introduced five years after it's namesake predecessor, introducing, among other notable upgrades, electronic auto exposure “Program” setting which allows you to simply worry about focusing while the camera does the rest. There is also a Shutter Priority mode setting and on both, of course, you can manually adjust exposure if desired.
Been shooting film for years? The AE-1 is a capable and dependable rig. Buying your first film camera? Once again, the AE-1 is an affordable and quality 35mm camera that will help you learn the basics and evolve as a film photographer.
The Canon AE-1 is nearly as relevant now as it was back then, so it’s easy to see why it has been around forever and will likely continue to be.
Example Photo Essay made with Canon AE-1: Backpacking Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park by Zach Bergamin
Average Canon AE-1 Price on eBay (2023): $250 Shop Now
Skill Level: Beginner to Intermediate
Year Released: 1976
The Pentax K1000 was Pentax’s entry level 35mm SLR. Also released in 1976, the K1000 immediately grew to enormous popularity due to its affordable price tag and dependability.
Completely mechanical save for the small battery that operates the light meter, you need not worry about being stuck with a dead camera because of an electronic failure (a major issue for most modern point and shoot cameras).
There is no automatic operation or mode and shooting a K1000 requires the use of only three controls: the aperture, shutter speed, and focus. It’s an excellent beginner film camera as it forces you to learn basic camera controls without being distracted by a hundred other settings/modes for taking photographs.
A fan favorite feature is the small dot by the advance lever that shows if the film is advanced and ready to be shot or not—orange for “ready” and black for the opposite. No more missing the moment because you forgot to advance the lever!
Example Photo Essay made with Pentax K1000: Exploring British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest by Nicola Anderson
Average Pentax K1000 Price on eBay (2023): $200 Shop Now
Skill Level: Intermediate to professional
Year Released: 1996
The Contax G2 is like the rich uncle of the Contax T2. It is perhaps the most popular range finder of all time, and for obvious reasons.
The G2 is able to auto focus, has auto exposure and auto film advance/rewind. The Zeiss lenses are razor sharp, known to have a distinct “Contax look,” and are considered to rival Leica glass. The shutter is able to fire at 1/6000th of a second in auto mode, and has a bulb mode setting (wherein the shutter remains open for as long as the shutter release button is depressed). It is specifically designed to work seamlessly with a flash, which looks extremely cool when integrated and is functionally an added bonus to the already long list of credentials.
However, the camera operations, including the shutter function, are battery controlled which means you won’t be able to take a photo if your battery juice runs dry. It has its own line of Contax G lenses, so in addition to the camera body keep in mind you’ll have to dish out some extra cash for the legendary 28mm, 35mm, 45mm, and 90mmlenses.
The Contax G2 is a dream 35mm camera—if you’re able to afford it, you’ll get what you pay for.
Example Photo Essay made with Contax G2: Desolation Wilderness Backpacking by Skyler Greene
Average Contax G2 Body Price on eBay (2023): $1,800 Shop Now
Skill Level: Intermediate to Expert
Year Released: 1984
If the Canon AE-1 is the Toyota Tacoma of cameras, the Leica M6 could be considered the Range Rover of 35mm cameras—we’re talking early 90s big body Classic. Pure rugged performance that exudes a certain elegant, aspirational lifestyle. (Though this analogy admittedly falls short when you consider reliability—the German-made M6 will never quit, whereas you’ll probably need a good mechanic to make it far with a British Land Rover.)
The M6 is an incredible rangefinder and everything about this camera feels beyond sturdy and solid. From the shutter button to the film advance lever, it feels like you could drop it down a mountain and it wouldn’t skip a beat. (Trust me, I’ve done it.)
Two things are characteristic of the Leica M6’s fame—Leica lenses, and durability. The Carl Zeiss Leica M mount lenses are arguably some of the best glass ever made. Functionally, all camera operations on the M6 are purely mechanical and manually operated—save for the light meter which takes easily sourced batteries and won’t affect camera function if inoperable. From the shutter function to the film advance and rewind, no automatic functions or modes exist on the M6, meaning it’ll work for as long as the mechanics are maintained.
In addition to the M6, which is sometimes referred to as the M6 Classic, Leica made the M6 TTL which is essentially the same camera designed to be used with a flash. The TTL versions are harder to find and therefore more expensive. In both iterations, the shutter is able to fire from 1 second to 1/1000th and it also has a bulb mode.
The excruciating price of Leica cameras are due to their origin, as each camera is machined and assembled by hand in Germany, and great attention was and is given to quality over quantity.
No digital systems to crap out. Nothing to leave you stranded. The only flaw in this Leica camera seems to be within the analog film counter which is occasionally known to give out with time. Which ultimately won’t affect performance, assuming the user can keep count. Other than that, it seems like you just can’t kill them.
Compared to other 35mm cameras, the M6 is extremely simple, but it has and will continue to stand the test of time. There isn’t much else to say, other than that the Leica M6 rules. Buy one, keep it forever, and then give it to your grandkids.
Example Photo Essay made with Leica M6: Climbing Mount Denali by James Barkman
Average Leica M6 Body Price on eBay (2023): $2,800 Shop Now
Skill Level: Intermediate
Year Released: 1999
The Nikon F100 is an advanced 35mm SLR considered by some to be the best ever made. A standard of professional sports photographers (along with the Canon EOS-3, shown below) until the very end of film’s reign in the early 2000’s, this camera is capable of capturing action in crisp detail with amazingly fast auto focus (and focus tracking). The F1000 is capable of shooting 4 frames per second with a shutter that can fire up to 1/8000th of a second.
The F100 isn’t something that is as easy to use straight out of the box, but give it time and attention and you’ll be glad you did. As you can expect there are plenty of modes to choose from, such as Manual, Program, Flexible Program Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority. Plus it offers bracketing and exposure compensation, too.
Settings are displayed on an LCD screen, and there are up to 22 custom settings to tailor the rig to your style and preference. Consider this a full on modern digital camera, save for the actual process of image capture.
As you may or may not know, there are different types of camera people, many of whom swear allegiance to one particular camera brand or another. For the Nikon followers, their devotion only grows stronger thanks to the F100.
Example Photo Essay made with Nikon F100: Fall in the Adirondack High Peaks Region by Sean Madden
Average Nikon F100 Price on eBay (2023): $200 Shop Now
Skill Level: Intermediate
Year Released: 1984
If you want to take your 35mm film photography to the water (or other hazardous environments) camera options are limited. The Nikonos V is used by a host of 35mm enthusiasts and has a loyal cult following which makes it very helpful when sourcing parts or troubleshooting. With unmistakable orange rubber on the front and back that come in handy for grip, the camera almost looks like a prop from the Life Aquatic film.
Expect a bit of a different shooting experience as this isn’t your ordinary landlubber camera. Focus is manually operated, and unlike some of the other Nikonos models the Nikonos V has Auto Exposure, but manual metering is also an option. Lenses are interchangeable between the Nikonos series and are known to be sharp and crisp.
The TTL flash control is imperative for exposing images underwater, and the camera is able to survive up to a depth of 50m. If shooting in the ocean be sure to properly clean and lubricate the seals and O-rings with every use.
Overall this is a fairly basic 35mm camera that can be tricky to get the hang of, but the intentional design for shooting in water makes it a fun and extremely functional camera to shoot.
Example Photo Essay made with Nikonos V: Intimate Underwater Photography by Andrew Kearns
Average Nikonos V Body Price on eBay (2023): $300 Shop Now
Skill Level: Professional
Year Released: 1998
Throughout the generations, Canon has always played an integral role in the evolution of modern day photography, and the EOS-3 35mm SLR was no exception. Designed for the professional and advanced amateur, the EOS series is legendary and eventually evolved into the well known and iconic digital EOS 5D Mark II, III, and IV cameras.
The EOS-3 has a remarkable and sophisticated electronic 45-point autofocus system. The EOS-3 was manufactured at the tail end of the film so it utilized a bit of more modern technology. Believe it or not, the viewfinder actually watches what you’re looking at, and the autofocus focuses on it. A thing that’s called Eye Controlled Focus— what the hell?
There are a host of focus modes, exposure modes, and the ability to create custom functions, which some would argue is to a fault. The camera can fire up to 7 frames per second if you have an attachable battery grip installed, but I don’t know who in their right mind would ever want to blast through a roll that quick. Oh yeah, and it’s weatherproof! (allegedly)
Like the Nikon F100, the shutter on the EOS-3 can also fire at 1/8000th of a second. Pretty darn fast considering a lot of 35mm cameras’ maximum shutter speed is 1/500th.
There’s a lot this camera can do and not a lot it can’t. If you’re looking for a 35mm SLR that feels closer to a modern day DSLR, then you’ll love the Canon EOS-3.
Example Photo Essay made with Canon EOS-3: Chasing Waterfalls & Fall Foliage in New York's Catskill Mountains by Graham Hiemstra
Average Canon EOS-3 Price on eBay (2023): $300 Shop Now
Skill Level: Intermediate
Year Released: 1984
The Pentax 645 is a medium format SLR camera that shoots 120 film and 220 film and exposes images in a 6 cm x 4.5 cm frame size, hence the name. Considered to be one of the best entry level medium format cameras, the Pentax 645 is simple but effective, and generally considered “affordable” for the format.
The Pentax 645 offers a few different exposure modes including Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and of course a Manual mode. It has a motor drive that advances the film at a 1.5 frame per second rate, and is capable of making 16 exposures on a 120 roll or 32 on a roll of 220.
Operating the 645 can feel a bit aggressive at times, but in a good way. The shutter sound is less than discreet—some photographers joke that there’s even a bit of recoil. Many also complain about how dark the viewfinder can be. But remember, this is a four decade old vintage camera, so embrace the quirks.
In terms of size, medium format cameras are often quite large, enormous in fact, though the minimal functions of the Pentax 645 allow it to be fairly portable.
The Pentax 645 was eventually replaced by the Pentax 645N, followed by the 645NII, 645D, and 645Z, each slightly more advanced than the last. There are numerous conveniences to the other models (and they’re worth looking into) but that doesn’t discredit the 645—it’s still a fantastic camera and an excellent entry level camera for 120 film at that.
If you’re experienced with 35mm film but new to medium format photography and unsure of where to start, look no further than the Pentax 645. The image quality cameras in this category are capable of producing is simply stunning. Like going from standard definitely to HD. It takes a bit of an investment, but boy is it worth it.
Example Photo Essay made with Pentax 645: Sea Kayaking Mexico's Baja Coast by Clayton Herrmann
Average Pentax 645 Price on eBay (2023): $500 Shop Now
Skill Level: Intermediate
Year Released: 1995
The Fujifilm GA645 is a medium format camera that shoots 120 and 220 film in a 645 format. It’s known for its impressive autofocusing capability and its relative compact size. Many would consider this to be as close as you can get to a point and shoot in medium format. It uses a fixed 60mm (equivalent to about a 35mm focal length on a 35mm camera) f/4 lens, has automatic film advance, and even a pop-up flash that’s very effective.
One of the unique features of the GA645 is its shooting orientation. It shoots vertically, or in a portrait mode, and if you want to shoot an image in landscape mode, or horizontally, you need to shoot in what would normally be portrait mode. (The 645 format images naturally shot in portrait mode are ideally sized for Instagram, which is painful to type but true.)
Program Auto, Aperture Priority, and Manual modes give you different shooting options. Program Auto is a trusted fan favorite, and it sure does feel amazing to go around snapping 120/220 film in point and shoot fashion. Exposure compensation is offered in ½ step increments from - 2.0 to + 2.0. Data info is recorded on the film outside of the exposed frame area, and not just time information but exposure info as well.
It’s hard to get more compact than the GA645, and for that reason it’s not surprising that it’s commonly used as a travel camera and less of a studio/portrait camera (although that’s not to say it can’t).
Example Photo Essay made with Fujifilm GA645: Hiking Mount Marcy, New York’s Tallest Peak by Graham Hiemstra
Average Fujifilm GA645 Price on eBay (2023): $1,000 Shop Now
Skill Level: Beginner to intermediate
Year Released: 1981
The Minolta X-700 is a 35mm manual-focus SLR that’s considered to be in the same family as the Pentax K1000 and on par with the Canon AE-1. It was designed to appeal to a wide audience of photographers and it continues to do just that. As such, it’s a great choice as both an intermediate and a beginner film camera.
There’s quite a pile of cameras in Minolta’s 35mm SLR lineup—especially with the X series—and from model to model there are often only slight differences. Plenty of them are absolutely worth looking into (one of my first cameras is the XE-7) but the X700 seems to have risen to the top of Minolta’s SLR camera offerings. Upon its release in 1981 it won the European “Camera of the Year” award, which didn’t come easy.
The Minolta X-700 is known for a crispy clear finder and multiple exposure modes, including Manual, Program, and Aperture Priority, which now are a basic requisite of nearly all cameras but at the time was a big deal. Additionally, using a Minolta camera means you get to shoot Minolta lenses. I personally think Minolta glass is incredible and very much underrated, but as I stated earlier these discrepancies are up for opinion from photographer to photographer.
A clear strength of the X700 is its TTL (through-the-lens) flash metering which users claim is exceptional for a 35mm camera from this era. In Aperture or Program mode, you click the shutter and the flash/camera does the rest. A great character quality for those of us who like to be flash-happy. Also, these rigs were liberally cranked out on the assembly line back in the day, which has resulted in them being fairly affordable and easy to find. An arsenal of accessories, such as power grips, data backs, film winders, and more, further make the X700 a fun camera to invest in.
The Minolta X700 is a fairly straightforward 35mm SLR and while not perfect, it is an excellent and trustworthy camera to have in your quiver.
Example Photo Essay made with Minolta X-700: A Ritual Wander in Death Valley by Linnea Bullion
Average Minolta X-700 Price on eBay (2023): $150 Shop Now
Bonus: Hasselblad XPan
Skill Level: Professional
Year Released: 1998
A quick Google search for the Hasselblad XPan may leave you with more questions than answers. Why? Because the Hasselblad XPan is a panoramic 35mm film camera. Meaning it produces panoramic photos the size of 24mm x 65mm (it’s also capable of making conventional 35mm photos with traditional 24mm x 36mm dimensions but the real beauty of this bizarre camera is the former capability). Few cameras alive today rival this true, one-of-a-kind 35mm rangefinder camera.
Built via a joint effort between Fuji and Hasselblad, the truly unique XPan can be seen as nothing short of a frankensteined Leica M6 and Contax G2. With superb lenses, of course.
Thinking you might want to pick up an XPan? Maybe a lens or two? Be prepared to sell your car or forego rent for a few months to afford it.
Average Hasselblad XPan Price on eBay (2023): $4,500 Shop Now
That’s all for now. Over and out.