Why do we need to know about the best film cameras in the 2021? Well, analogue photography is far from dead in the digital age. While it may be slow, unpredictable, expensive and time-consuming, for many photographers, analogue shooting has a certain je ne sais quoi that all the megapixels in the world can't replicate.
The imperfections of film, its latitude and its richness have photographers young and old continuing to fall in love with analogue photography, and that's before we even get to the wonderful mechanical magic the cameras themselves. People's love of photography isn't invested solely in the images themselves, but in the process of taking pictures and the physical objects used to do it.
• With that in mind, we've kicked off a series of classic camera retro reviews. We've already looked at three of our favorite 35mm SLR cameras which were popular enough in their own day but have become legends since then: the ground-breaking Canon AE-1, the mechanical Nikon FM2 and the students' favorite, the dependable, no-nonsense Pentax K1000.
There are absolutely loads of used film cameras on sale today on sites like eBay, in camera stores, charity shops, yard sales and car boot sales. You have to know what you're looking for and be prepared to accept a few duds in exchange for the occasional gem... but for classic camera collectors, it's worth it.
Furthermore, you don't even have to buy second hand. You still buy brand new film cameras, and while these can be rather specialised and expensive, something like a modern Leica M-A will give you an analogue experience that you simply won't get from a digital camera. Then there are also large-format 'view' cameras, which take larger film sizes and provide a level of quality and sophistication that's arguably unrivalled.
In an impressive synergising of old and new, some manufacturers produce digital backs that fit onto these cameras to provide a crossover between old and new. One of the most intriguing is the new Hasselblad CFV II 50C, which fits directly onto the classic Hasselblad 500 c/m (one of the cameras on our list below). This amazing modular system provides a shooting experience that is both cutting edge and charmingly retro, and promises an exciting future for the synergy of digital and film.
But for some photographers, it's a simpler matter. For many, the simple lo-fi charm and unpredictability of old snapshot cameras is what's really missing from photography today, and here one company has changed everything. The best Lomography cameras have resuscitated dozens of old camera designs, especially cheap plastic snapshot cameras, usually Russian. Don't expect technical perfection (or even technical competence). Do expect a timeless and evocative glimpse of another life.
We finish off with the cheapest option of all – disposable cameras. Single-use cameras are great for kids, great for holidays, great for parties – and you can get them cracked open and developed in high street stores.
Digital is all fine and dandy, but you can't get an underwater digital camera for $15/£15 like you can with film…
The best film cameras in 2021
Best used 35mm film cameras
We've picked out ten 'classic' film cameras you can still find in good working condition today – that's an important factor, because the best film cameras are the ones that are still working! There are many more we could have included, but these are based on popularity, reputation and price, with a few almost-forgotten masterpieces thrown in. The first five are 35mm cameras, the second five are medium format roll film cameras. And yes, you can buy both types of film quite easily even today.
The Canon AE-1's plastic construction kept the price affordable for novices and enthusiasts, while its electronically controlled cloth focal plane shutter offered a wide and repeatable shutter speed range. This meant it needed a battery to power its operation but offered more potential consistency than mechanically operated shutters. The AE-1 used Canon's FD breech-lock bayonet mount, which has since been superseded by its EF lens mount, though adaptors are available. Metering was carried out by a single silicon photocell offering centre-weighted meter. The AE-1 was unusual for offering shutter-priority automation at a time when most makers favoured aperture-priority operation. The AE-1P was a later variant that added a program AE mode.
Read more: Canon AE-1 review – we revisit this groundbreaking legend.
The K1000's reputation has developed through what must have been seen at the time as simple cost-cutting. It was the cheapest of Pentax's DSLRs and even had the self-timer and depth of field preview on other models removed, just to save money. It's an entirely manual camera, and although it does need a battery for its meter, the mechanical shutter will operate without one. Generations of students have come to love this camera for its low cost, simplicity and durability, while generations of lecturers have chosen it for its purely manual controls and the way it forces you to learn exposure theory. The K1000 uses the Pentax K bayonet mount still in use today (though with some revisions for autofocus and electronics).
Read more: Pentax K1000 review – a no-nonsense manual classic
The Nikon FM2 came out at a time when other makers were bringing out smaller, cheaper SLRs and new electronic controls, so it seemed a bit of a throwback even then. But its handsome looks and its reputation for longevity and durability drew lots of fans and kept it in production right up until 2001. If you think the current Nikon Df looks good, you need to pick up an FM2. It used a vertical metal shutter rather than the horizontal rubberized cloth shutters in most rival DLRs but it was fully mechanical so the FM2 could work without a battery – this was only needed for the internal light meter. Its 1/4000sec top shutter speed and tough copper-aluminum-silicon alloy body made it sought after amongst pros, not just enthusiasts.
Read more: Nikon FM2 review – affordable for amateurs and loved by pros
The 1970s were a golden age for 35mm SLRs and one of the top models of the time was the Olympus OM-1. It was a purely manual SLR, flanked by a more expensive OM-2 and cheaper plastic OM-10 with added aperture-priority exposure modes. The OM-1 was designed by the same team that produced the PEN and PEN F, the models that inspired today's digital PEN models. The OM-1 was tiny compared to other bigger, heavier SLRs at the time, yet still boasted a big, bright optical viewfinder which even had interchangeable focusing screens. Unusually, the shutter speed was adjusted via a ring around the lens, while a big dial oin the top of the camera was reserved for setting the ASA (ISO) value for in-built light meter – this was before the introduction of DX coding on film canisters.
Best used medium format film cameras
If you asked any professional photographer in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s which was the best film camera, they would have said a medium format camera. This might have been a twin-lens camera like a Mamiya C330 or a medium format SLR like a Hasselblad 500 C/M. For pro photographers, medium format cameras were the standard, large format was for 'expensive' clients and 35mm was for amateurs. Probably!
Twin lens reflex cameras use a unique double-lens design, with the camera and its taking lens in the bottom half and a matched lens for viewing and composing photos in the top half. The viewing lens projected an image of the scene on to a ground glass screen viewed by flipping up the lid, which sprung open into a kind of lightbox. The image was reversed, which took a bit of getting used to, but the combination of a square image (long before Instagram!) and waist level viewing encouraged compositions and angles that you just don't 'see' with other cameras. It's a simple and reliable design that shoots 12 frames on medium format 120 roll film, with shallow depth of field effects we pay a fortune to achieve with modern cameras.
Where the Yashica Mat 124G was an affordable twin lens reflect camera with a fixed lens, the Mamiya C330 was a professional version with interchangeable lens pairs, which was introduced and became popular in the 1970s as a less expensive and less complex alternative to the Hasselblad 500, THE professional medium format camera of the time. The C330 was a true system camera, with interchangeable lenses (from 55-250mm), interchangeable focusing screens and a choice of viewfinders. It's a big old lump to carry around but it's still possible to see analog camera fans and photography students still using them today.
• Used Mamiya C330 deals on eBay.com
• Used Mamiya C330 deals on eBay.co.uk
Looking at the Hasselblad 500 C/M now, it's hard to believe this camera design first arrived in 1957. Its utilitarian box-shaped design looks as if it could have been designed yesterday, and modern high-end medium format cameras still use its flexible, modular design. The camera is the central box, to which you can fit a wide variety of lenses, a number of different viewfinder attachments and different film backs. The interchangeable backs deserve a special mention – you could swap backs in moments, with your assistant loading new films into a spare back as you shoot, swap between the square 6 x 6cm or 6 x 4.5cm formats or even clip on a Polaroid back to test lighting and composition – this was instant playback (or near it) before digital capture was even invented.
And best yet, new life has been breathed into the Hasselblad 500 C/M with the release of the Hasselblad 907X 50C, a state-of-the-art digital back that fits straight onto the 500 C/M with a series of satisfying clicks and clunks. A tactile analogue experience meets digital perfection, it adds another point in favour of this fantastic film camera.
An evolution of the RB67, introduced in 1970, the RZ67 keeps the revolving back that gave the earlier system its name, and the just-off-square 6 x 7cm image area. Just to put this in context, this is far larger than the 6 x 4.5cm area of the largest medium format digital models today. Like the Hasselblad 500 C/M, the RZ67 is a modular camera with interchangeable lenses, viewing systems and backs. It's a bit big and heavy for extended handheld use, though, and it's best used on a tripod. High-quality medium format film cameras are holding their prices pretty well at the moment, and you might have to shop around to get a good working, affordable example.
The great thing about film, and especially medium format 120 roll film, is that it's so flexible – both literally and metaphorically. The film rolls are 120mm wide, but it's up to the camera maker how much width they want to use. 6 x 4.5cm medium format cameras shot rectangular images 'sideways' on a roll, regular 6 x 6cm cameras shot square images so it didn't matter which way you turned the camera, but other cameras like the RZ67 above and the Fuji GW690 shot extra-wide images. You got fewer exposures on a roll, but extra-large negatives and transparencies. The GW690 is a no-frills fixed-lens manual exposure camera that offers huge images in a comparatively portable package.
Modern film cameras are pretty specialised. They're aimed either at analog auteurs who just love the look of film and the feel of film cameras, or technicial specialists for whom large film formats, extensive perspective-correcting camera movements and the ability to mix and match a wide range of lens, film types and even digital backs is more important than than the quick-fire simplicity of regular digital cameras.
The Nikon F6 is like the missing link between old-school 35mm SLRs and modern digital SLR cameras. Many of its specs will seem quite familiar to modern digital users, including its full program AE, aperture-priority, shutter-priority and manual modes, powered film advance at up to 5.5fps and an 11-point AF system backed up by Nikons 3D Color Matrix metering system. Styled by Giugiaro, the aluminum alloy body looks a dream, but the 5.5fps continuous shooting speed is modest by today's DSLR standards. Nevertheless, the F6 offers a chance to get a beautifully designed and made film camera is as-new working order with modern controls and technology. The Nikon F6 is available new in some places, but has been discontinued in many countries.
Best new film cameras
Leica M rangefinders will always be controversial. To some they're overpriced, overhyped throwbacks to an era that's long gone. To others they're beautifully made classics of engineering that have reached a plateau of perfection. The M rangefinders take a bit of getting used to. Rangefinder focusing is fast and precise in the right hands but takes some learning, while the pain of paying for an M-A body is only the start, because Leica lenses are equally expensive. But if you like your film photography to be stripped back to its basics, the M-A will oblige. You'll need to work out the exposure yourself, you'll need to apply the settings yourself and you'll need to focus yourself, but for Leica M fans that's what it means to be a photographer.
The Cambo Ultima is a modular monorail camera. The Ultima 45 is not a complete camera in itself because you'll also need a lens plate and lenses and either a film or digital back. It's a very interesting crossover product that handles very high quality large format film photography but also modern digital backs with much smaller sensor areas. The point about a monorail system is partly its supremely modular and flexible (and, uh, expensive) design, and the way the back and front plates can be shifted and angled independently for unprecedented control over perspective, depth of field and planes of focus. It's well suited to studio and architectural photography for those reasons, and harks back to the days when top quality commercial photography was made using 5 x 4" sheet film.
Some may remember Hasselblad's much-loved XPan panoramic camera and a few more may know of the Linhof Technorama. Unlike the XPan, however, the Technorama is still going. The Technorama 617s III is sold body-only but a number of different lenses are available. It's a camera for experts, not just because of its manual exposure but because of the need for precise manual focus (it doesn't have a through-the-lens camera) and the need to keep the camera absolutely level for those ultra-wide 17:6 ratio images. The Technorama is designed for high-quality technical photography and shows the flexibility still offered by the analog film format.
Film cameras fall into different size categories, just as digital cameras to today. 35mm cameras were 'miniature' models, believe it or not, and medium format cameras were called 'medium' because there was a 'large' format above that. These use sheet film, usually measuring 5 x 4", to offer supreme image quality. Well, almost supreme, because there is also a 10 x 8" size with four times the negative area. The Toyo-View 8x10 810MII is an example of this camera type that's still made today. You'll need to source your own lens plates and lenses, track down 10 x 8" film and work out how to carry a camera weighing 15lb on its own, but with sublime image quality and a wide range of lens and camera back movements, it's a chance to follow in Ansel Adams' footsteps.
Lomography's shops and online store provide an Aladdin's cave of photographic curiosities, from relaunched budget snappers from Russia to new widescreen wide-angle panoramic cameras to a 35mm kit camera you can make yourself.
If you bought a Russian Lubitel back in the 1970s/1980s you probably paid about £8 and you were probably doing well to nurse it through a couple of rolls of film before it packed up. We haven't tried the Lomography version but we hope it will keep going a little longer – especially at this price. The modern Lubitel 166+ is unashamedly plastic in its construction and unapologetically basic in its features. You get manual aperture control (f/4.5-22), manual shutter speed control (1/25--1/15sec plus B) and no light meter. But the Lubitel isn't about engineering finesse, it's about rediscovering the imperfections and naivety of old snapshot photography.
If the reimagined Lomography Lubitel 166+'s price tag is too rich for your blood, then there's always the Diana F+. It's a celebration of brightly-colored plastic and bargain-basement features, and a reminder of what cameras used to be like – and how the conditions had to be right for taking a picture. With three-position zone focussing, only one shutter speed (1/60sec) plus b, and apertures linked to the lighting conditions (pinhole, f/8, f/11, f/16), you're going to need optimism and a willingness to experiment, for sure. On its own the Diana F+ is very cheap, but if you fancy embracing the full experience there is a boxed accessory kit with a flash, cable release, interchangeable lenses and heaven knows what else.
• See also Best Lomography cameras
This camera is probably a lot more fun to make than it is to use. It comes as a surprisingly inexpensive kit, but there are lots of plastic panels, parts, screws and springs to put together so it's going to take some patience and dexterity. What you get is a camera with a plastic lens, a single 1/80sec shutter speed (plus B), a fixed-aperture 50mm f/10 lens and manual (obviously) focusing. You'll need patience to use it, plus some very exposure tolerant film – we'd suggest colour negative for its latitude. It does have a very interesting waist-level viewfinder though, with through-the-lens viewing provided by spring-loaded mirror lever.
• See also Best cameras for kids
Yes, it's a lot to pay for a plastic camera, and you've got to be a fan of the heavily-vignetted, super-saturated, none-too-sharp Lomo look, but the Lomo LC-Wide certainly lives up to its name. Its 17mm lens is way wider than the kit lens can go on any regular camera and well into ultra-wideangle territory. The LC-Wide has a streamlined pocket-friendly design that looks as contemporary as flared trousers (which is the idea, right) and has the luxury of automatic exposure, with shutter speeds from 1/500sec to (it says here) infinity and apertures from f/4.5-16. It does need three (yes, three) LR44 batteries, though.
Panoramic medium format cameras are typically very expensive, but the Belair X 6-12 is not. It can shoot medium format images at three different aspect ratios, including 6:6 (square), 6:9 and an extra wide 6:12 ratio. That's the great thing about 120 roll film, that it has a fixed 6cm height but allows camera makers to choose all manner of different frame widths. The Belair looks very cool, and the Belair trim is only one of several options. There's a lot of plastic, though, so don't expect too much from the finish and feel. This has to be just about the cheapest way to get into medium format panoramic photography, though, and it even comes with two (plastic) lenses.
Disposable film cameras
It's film photography at its most basic – low cost, low risk and, er, perhaps low expectations. Single-use or disposable cameras come pre-loaded with 35mm film, pack a basic basic lens on the front and have no photographic controls. If it's bright outdoor light, you're fine; if you're indoors, use the flash. Anything in between – well, you're on your own. The results are variable, but they're great for kids, parties, holidays and cheap gifts.
• See also Best disposable cameras
Yes, it does cost a few pounds more than your usual disposable camera, but you're getting a waterproof camera, for heaven's sake! Fujifilm says its plastic case is water-resistant to a depth of 10m, so it's likely you're going to be in trouble long before the camera is. The Fujifilm Quicksnap Marine comes loaded with 24 exposures of Fujifilm ISO 800 Superia colour negative film which you should be able to get developed at any regular high street chemist or online photo lab. Control is limited, obviously, in that there isn't any. The exposure is fixed at 1/125sec at f/10 so really you're going to need good outdoor light to get decent results, but that's true of any single-use camera.
Here you get two new adventures for the price of one. You can return to the lo-fi land that time forgot with this super-basic disposable camera and try out the tonality of one of Lomography's own black and white films. You might have to hunt around a little to find a lab to do the processing, but Lomography does in fact run its own lab so you can always send the camera back for processing when you're done. The camera is cheap, but analog processing, sadly, is not, but that's the difference between analog and digital – you're capturing the world on a physical medium, not just as a bunch of binary bits.
The Fujifilm Quicksnap Flash 400 is pretty ubiquitous and typical for 35mm disposable cameras. We've not been able to find out anything about the lens but it's pretty clear it's going to be a semi-wide plastic lens with a small fixed aperture and a single, fixed shutter speed. This camera also comes with a flash, so it's a bit of a mystery how they make them for this money. The quality will depend on how well you choose the lighting conditions – it's going to work best outdoors in good light, though the flash has a range of 10ft so indoor party shots are possible too, but expect eighties-style red-eye effects and rabbit-in-the-headlights facial expressions.
Ilford's single-use camera looks no more sophisticated than any of its rivals, but it's what's inside that's interesting. It's loaded with Ilford's XP2 black and white film, which is pretty unique in that it can be developed with regular C41 chemicals which are used for developing colour print films around the globe (other black and white films need chemicals formulated by people wearing thick glasses and lab coats). If you decide you prefer your black and white with traditional chemistry you can use yourself (handily, it works at room temperatures), you can get single-use variant loaded with Ilford's classic ISO 400 HP5 Plus film.
Fancy trying analog photography but don't want to commit to an actual, proper camera? Then these re-usable cameras from Lomography could be perfect, especially since you get to try out three different films from the Lomography range. One is loaded with regular ISO 400 color negative film, one uses Lomography's Lady Gray ISO 400 black and white film – but the most exciting is loaded with ISO 400 Lomography Purple, which gives images a surreal purplish-green infrared effect... kind of. With what looks like a fixed shutter speed of 1/12sec and an aperture of f/9, it looks like these cameras will lean heavily on the legendary exposure latitude of negative film, but there is a built in flash (with colored gels, even).
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