Film photography has been “making a comeback” ever since it “went out of style”, and rightfully so! We have always enjoyed the beautiful images that can be captured by film. If you’re looking for an easy, affordable way to shoot film for the very first time, or to get back to film after shooting digital, then a 35mm film camera is the best way to do it. In this article, we’ll list the best 35mm film cameras; specifically, we will list the all-manual, metal, mechanical film cameras that are truly classic, and yet also rather affordable.
The craft of photography is indeed part of the fun, part of the art. The camera itself, as a mechanical tool, is part of the experience! This is why many photographers who got their start with a phone camera eventually buy a “real” camera: they want to hold a camera, with the lenses, dials, and a shutter button to press; they want to embrace the craft.
With that in mind, this list is entirely dedicated to the simple, all-manual, old-school 35mm film cameras, and which ones are the best. These cameras are incredibly affordable since many of them are 30-40 years old, and yet, they are sturdy, durable, and professionally capable. So, let’s dive in!
What To Look For In A Good 35mm Film Camera
Physical Durability & Longevity
One of the best things about an old 35mm film camera is that, for the most part, they are built as a definition for
Shutter Reputation & Aperture Mechanics
Some older cameras do have a “bad rep” when it comes to their shutter lifespans. In other words, some cameras have shutters that either break easily, or, they get out of calibration. If the latter happens, you may not know it until you get your film back and realize that your shutter speed was 1-2 stops faster or slower than you thought it was!
Old manually actuated apertures can have similar troubles, such as getting stuck in the open or closed position. If your aperture gets stuck open, all your photos will be blown out. If stuck closed, all your photos will be nearly black. The best way to avoid these issues is to buy your camera from a reputable dealer such as KEH.com, or to at least ask about a return policy if you are shopping on eBay etc.
Command Dials & Ergonomics
If possible, it is highly recommended to hold the camera you are thinking of buying. This may not be possible if you are shopping on eBay, of course, but it’s still a very good idea. How does your hand grip the body? Are the dials for aperture, shutter speed, and setting the ISO easy to reach, smooth to operate, and intuitive overall?
Good news! Every camera we are about to recommend will almost inevitably have used options which include a 50mm lens with the body. However, beyond that, there is a lot to consider. Different cameras’ lens mounts have some very different options available for them. Therefore, you may find that if you’re a landscape photographer, for example, you might tend towards a Nikon or Pentax camera, because their wide-angle 20mm and 24mm prime lenses are truly impressive for their age. Alternatively, if you’re a portrait or candid street photographer, you might lust after the gorgeous “character” seen in the images from a Canon L (FD-mount) lens, or of course a highly coveted Leica lens.
Do You Want Automatic, Or All Manual?
The last thing to be aware of is this: all of the cameras we are recommending here today are traditional, all-manual cameras. Everything is mechanical, almost everything is metal. Basically the only thing you need a battery for is to make the light meter work.
For some photographers, this is a good thing, this is exactly the experience they want! To physically turn every dial, to pull the subject into focus with a buttery-smooth focus ring and a split-prism focus aide, is a delightful experience.
However, it is important to note that there is a whole other category of 35mm film cameras, which of course offer autofocus, auto exposure, and automatic film advancing, etc. These cameras will be covered in a different article, which we’ll link here when it’s done!
Best 35mm Film Cameras
Nikon FM2 (Used, $300-500)
The Nikon FM2 is a milestone in 35mm film camera history, indeed. Its titanium shutter with a beautiful honeycomb pattern isn’t just pretty to look at; it is a truly magnificent piece of machinery that, for many film photographers who take care of it, just “refuses to die”…
One of the best things about Nikon’s 35mm film cameras is that their F-mount is the longest-living mount in existence. While other brand have either faded into discontinuation or updated to a newer, incompatible mount, Nikon’s F-mount still has a few lenses actively made in their factories, and you can still buy them brand-new! Plus, of course, there are literal decades worth of used lenses on the market. Many legendary photographers, from landscape photographers to photojournalists, used old Nikon FM-series cameras. Anyone looking to enjoy the nostalgia of 35mm film, and do it on an incredibly tight budget, should consider the Nikon FM2 and some Nikkor AI-S lenses.
Like all of the cameras on this recommendation list, it is fully mechanical, and operational even without a battery. You’ll want to put a battery in it to make the light meter work, (again, similar to other cameras) but even if the battery dies, you’ll still be able to focus, click the shutter, and advance the film.
Olympus OM-1 (Used, $150-250)
This 35mm film camera is absolutely legendary. Why? Just raise it to your eye, and you’ll see. The optical prism is truly enormous, with an impressive 0.92x magnification. Honestly, this viewfinder technology, which was revolutionary in its day, basically went unmatched for SLR style cameras, even in the DSLR era. If you are a photographer who simply loves seeing the world through a viewfinder, this is the camera for you.
Additionally, of course, the Olympus OM-1 is built with rock-solid mechanics, including a shutter that ought to stand the test of time. (Again, its dampening technology was innovative in its day!) Last but not least, Olympus’ Zuiko lenses are truly legendary as well, with superb optical sharpness. They are especially lightweight and portable
Canon AE-1 (Used, $100-200)
Honestly, the Canon AE-1 itself is not the star of the show when it comes to Canon 35mm film cameras. Yes, it’s a rock-solid, classic film camera, of course! However, Canon is most famous for its lenses, to this day. What you may not know, however, is that Canon actually changed their 35mm lens mount, not just for the transition from DSLR to mirrorless, but also for the change from manual 35mm film to automatic film SLRs!
The Canon FD mount was their previous 35mm film mount, and its lens arsenal is also still a legendary one. Their “L” series existed back then, and such dream lenses for portrait photography as the Canon FD 85mm f/1.2 L are highly sought after. Even though their resolution today is far outclassed by modern technology, the aesthetic and character of images that Canon FD lenses produce is just magical.
Pentax K-1000 (Used, $100-200)
This was my other grandfather’s camera, and I still have it today; in fact, I’m currently putting a roll of film through it as I write this! Of course, it is not just nostalgia that causes me to love using this camera; it is a truly great machine, indeed. Plain and simple, it just works. It’s nearly indestructible, and Pentax lenses have quite a few legendary optics among them. Some of their wide-angle lenses have unique 5-blade and 7-blade apertures which offer impressive sunstars, and their telephoto lenses offer stunning sharpness as well.
Leica M3 (Used, ~$2,000)
For those with a whole lot of money to spend who are looking for a true symbol of luxury, a Leica 35mm film camera is inevitably on the list… Of course, for those who have nearly $5,300 to spend, the Leica M6 is about to make a return after being discontinued in 2002. A used Leica M6 will still cost about $3,000 today.
However, for those who wish to own a piece of history without utterly breaking the bank, a Leia M3 gets our recommendation. This is one of their earliest cameras, and it was a major breakthrough for Leica and 35mm film photography in general. The M3 doesn’t have the iconic red dot, but it does give you that classic Leica rangefinder experience.
Conclusion | Best 35mm Film Cameras
Honestly, the craft of photography itself is an art form that will remain timeless. Part of the experience, in our opinion, is the mechanical, manual control of shutter speed, aperture, and focus.
We will create another article soon about the best 35mm film cameras which offer full automation, such as exposure metering, autofocus, and film advance. However, we strongly believe that any photographer who is looking to get into 35mm film photography should own at least one of these truly classic cameras.