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Gear & Apps

What Kind Of Film Camera Should I Buy?

By Christina Blanarovich on January 15th 2016

The first thing to think about when starting your film journey is what type of camera is right for you, from 35mm to medium format to the large format beasts. The beauty (and draw) of film is that you can choose from literally hundreds of different cameras, each unique and with its own personality. Because of the uniqueness of each camera, it can be easy to become a film camera junkie.

I have 13 working cameras and seven more that take a film I can no longer easily find. What can I say? I’m a sucker for the unique qualities each camera brings, not only to the photograph but also the experience. Since there are so many options (and much of it is a personal bias), I’m going to only address the most commonly used types in wedding and portrait photography, the 35mm and the medium format.

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The 35mm Film Camera

35mm film cameras are some of the easiest to use and often the least expensive option. I usually recommend people starting out to go this route. They are easy to find, the film is usually cheaper, and often you can get one that takes your digital lenses. So Nikon peeps, you want to be on the lookout for an old F100 or F5. Canon folks, the EOS 3 or 1v is your jam. Yes, there are other camera choices, but these tend to be the most commonly used and easily found. These cameras use your current digital lenses and make shooting hybrid pretty easy. Shooting 35mm film gives you 36 shots, so it’s not as scary as going medium format and getting only 12-16 shots at a time. These cameras are generally fast, often use autofocus, and have decent in-camera metering. They feel much like your digital camera, so switching between your digital and film cameras at a wedding or portrait session is pretty simple.

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Another type of 35mm camera is the rangefinder. This is not your regular 35mm camera. Rangefinders are usually smaller and much lighter. They can produce sharp, amazing images, if you know how to use them properly. Focusing is manual and a little tricky. You have dual images, and when the superimposed images line up with each other, you have achieved focus. It takes a little practice, but once you get the hang of it, you can focus super fast. Rangefinders are also different in the eyepiece. You don’t see through the lens. You look through an eyepiece at the top right, so your image isn’t exactly what you see. Remember those old disposable cameras you played with as a child? They are based on the same idea.

Rangefinders are amazing. On a wedding day, they can be nearly silent, making them ideal for getting ready or ceremonies in silent churches when you don’t want to have that shutter ruin the moment. However, my favorite use for the rangefinder is street photography. They are so light and easy to carry; these are my go-to cameras for travel! The mack daddy of the rangefinder line is the Leica M6. Older Leica models are amazing too, and you can get the deal of a lifetime with the Bessa if you know what to look for.

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The Medium Format Film Camera

The workhorses of the wedding and portrait film community are the Medium Format cameras. Medium format cameras use 120 or 220 film. The negatives are larger than the 35mm negatives, thus giving the film a less grainy, more rich and polished look. The size of the negative will be determined by the actual camera, for instance. There are the 645s (the most commonly used MF cameras), 6×7, 6×6… all depending on the camera you use. See what I mean about it being hard not to have all the film cameras?

Let’s talk about the 645s. The negative will be in a 4.5×6 ratio format, which lends itself well to standard print sizes like the 5×7, 8×10, and 11×14. You will get 16 shots on 120 film and 32 shots on the now-extinct and hard to find 220 film.

The premier (and most expensive) MF camera is currently the Contax 645. It’s gorgeous, mostly because of the amazing Zeiss glass it uses. The 80mm lens is standard and generally what is used 90% of the time. That particular lens produces some of the best bokeh I’ve ever seen. Creamy, soft, buttery bokeh. It’s the most popular 645 camera mostly because many of the big name film photographers use it, but also because it just works. It’s a beautiful camera that, when you know how to use it, produces stunning images. There are other 645 options for more budget-minded photographers, though. The Pentax 645n is rapidly becoming a major contender in the 645 game, and the Mamiya 645 is another great option. Both are cheaper and do a great job. The Hasselblad H1 is also a great option and is the 645 version of the Hasselblad.

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You also have your 6×6 medium format cameras. These square format cameras really appeal to photographers who prefer a more unique style and aesthetic. The earlier Hasselblads use Zeiss glass and are solid workhorses, but are pretty slow to focus and have limitations on max shutter speed. The Yashica Mat 124 is a cheaper twin reflex square format camera (around $350 or so) than the king of the twin reflex cameras… the Rolleiflex 2.8. This camera just sings. It is considerably more expensive, but worth its weight in gold.

Ultimately, you really can’t go wrong with any of these. It’s just about choosing which system is best for you and your budget and mastering it. So get out there, find an old film camera and start shooting!

About the Guest Contributor

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Christina Blanarovich is a film photographer based out of NY. She has a passion for all things Nutella and Star Wars and is nice enough to share both with her husband and two little boys. An avid traveler/adventurer, Christina’s work has taken her to many locations around the world, for both photography and teaching. As a former educator and track coach, she loves helping others explore and reach their potential (and also loves telling people what to do, sometimes in a loud voice). When she isn’t geeking out on film photography, she loves homeschooling her boys, kicking butt in Muay Thai and watching dorky sci-fi shows.

Christina Blanarovich is a film photographer based out of NY. She has a passion for all things Nutella and Star Wars and is nice enough to share both with her husband and two little boys. An avid traveler/adventurer, Christina’s work has taken her to many locations around the world, for both photography and teaching. As a former educator and track coach, she loves helping others explore and reach their potential (and also loves telling people what to do, sometimes in a loud voice). When she isn’t geeking out on film photography, she loves adventuring with her boys, kicking butt in Muay Thai and watching dorky sci-fi shows.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Bob Davis

    Wow there are still some die hard film shooters out there….My last film cameras were: Nikon F3 and Hasselblad ELM &503. In the day they were the best however the ease and instant access of the digital age has it’s upside to hours in a darkroom.

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  2. Dave Haynie

    I spent a good number of my formative years in a darkroom… did B&W, color (Cibachrome and E-4 Ektachrome processing). Good experience, but I also recall how difficult it was just to make small changes in your photos… burn in, dodge, etc… whoops, try again. And it got expensive.

    The things that got me into the digital world were my Dad and Photoshop. Despite being a computer person, professionally (or maybe because of it), I didn’t give much thought to early digital photography. It was for people doing web sites, not for photographers.

    But Dad got a film scanner and one of the first printers — something from HP — that didn’t totally suck at photo printing. We bought a copy of Photoshop 3 together at a computer fair. And that kind of did it for me: everything I had learned from the darkroom was possible in Photoshop. All at once. With an “undo” button. I bought a film scanner and scanned in my 35mm close to a decade before I got a DSLR. There was even a photo service that would processor your C-41 film for a few bucks a roll, scan the negatives a low resolution (1.5Mpixel), and you send the negatives.

    But the DSLR was pretty seductive on its own. I recall shooting a roll on my OM-4, sending into that negative-processing place, and getting it back in the mail… seems at the time, no one had sent them a roll in over two years. How time does fly. I sold most of my old collectable Leica-mount rangefinders, but I still have the OM System gear, and an old Canon EOS Rt that needs a to have its pellicle mirror replaced, and my Dad’s Nikon N90 and N8008. He’d have been happy to learn that some of his grandkids messed around with film and those old cameras…

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  3. Ramon Acosta

    The main reason I use film once in a while, is to keep a hard copy that can be easily reproduced. That being said, a fuji 6×9 has been in my wish list for many years.

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  4. robert raymer

    Probably not a popular idea, but I don’t see much point in 35mm film. If I want to use my current lenses, I will just shoot them with my current digital camera and enjoy better sharpness, higher quality, and easier/faster workflow.

    When it comes to larger formats, however, I LOVE film. I am personally pretty attached to the 6×6 and 6×7 cameras. I loved my old Rolleiflex TLR as well as my old RZ67. I wish that I hadn’t sold them and if I ever had the chance (and expendable income) I would buy them again in a heartbeat. Plus, in the absence of a truly full frame MF, you simply cannot recreate the look and depth of film.

    To me the best part of film is its potential to make you a better photographer. First, It forces you to slow down. You have no live view, no back to review shots on, and in many cases only manual focus with a split prism or ground glass, meaning that you have to pay far more attention to the details in each shot, which in turn will make you faster and better when shooting the automatic everything DSLRs we mostly shoot with now.

    Sad though that Large Format was left out. I realize that there are not many LF photographers anymore, but I love my 4×5. In addition to everything listed above, the addition of movements gives you so many more creative opportunities and the sheer size of the negative gives you a look that is unrivaled.

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    • Christina Blanarovich

      You are right, Robert, I did leave out large format. Mostly because I feel large format is not something a new to film (or old to film but getting back into it) photographer is going to gravitate towards. It takes a skill level that is well beyond new to master large format. It is stunning though. You really can’t beat the look. As for 35mm, I see your point… if you shoot digital. But I find value in my 35mm cameras for when I need speed (wedding ceremony or receptions, capturing moving children) or lightweight (travel, hiking, street photography). I think every camera has it’s place. How you utilize them is up to you!

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  5. Gabriel Rodriguez

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Christina. Cleared up some questions I had about the different formats. Now…time to start hunting!

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  6. Colin Woods

    I was recently offered a pretty much 100% complete darkroom. I couldn’t let that opportunity go past so I took it and bought a Nikon F100. Its fab, for the silly money that I paid for it, it offers so much photo goodness – functions perfectly with my new Nikon G lenses, great AF. Putting Tri-X through it and loving it. I love my pixels but there is something special about film, in the same way that clicking ‘Play’ on an mp3 file is not the same thing as putting the needle on the record (which I also still do).

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    • Christina Blanarovich

      That’s awesome! I love your film and records analogy. It’s perfect (and perfectly true). Have fun in the darkroom!

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  7. Peter Nord

    Sold all my working film Nikons and Leicas. Then a friend gave me a bag of old film cameras, yikes! No longer have a darkroom. Yet there are a couple old Speed Graphics on the shelf. And among the film holders is a nice 120/220 holder that I look at from time to time and think….

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    • Christina Blanarovich

      Oh to have those old Nikons and Leicas! There are plenty of great labs out there you can send your film to (I’ll be doing a post soon about them). I say if the film is calling…

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  8. Carroll Tice

    Film is its own brand of art and this article really showcases that, truly such an amazing read !

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  9. Ralph Hightower

    You talking to me? I’ve been shooting film since 1980 and even though I bought a DSLR in 2013, I continue to shoot film. Why? Because my cameras still work, film is still available, and I enjoy it.
    I have a bias towards Canon. I bought an A-1 in 1980 and I still shoot with it. It was state of the art when it was introduced with shutter-priority, aperture-priority, and program mode; it also can be used manually and in stopped-down mode where the lens doesn’t signal the aperture to the camera, such as T-mount lenses.
    I bought a used F-1N in 2013 with the AE Finder FN (for aperture priority), AE Motor Drive FN (for shutter priority), but most of the time, I shoot in manual with the match needle.
    I think that film SLRs are lighter in weight than DSLRs; using the analogy of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, my A-1 is “Baby Bear”, my F-1N is “Mama Bear” and my 5D Mk III is “Papa Bear”. My A-1 and F-1N have their respective motor drives and the 5D has a battery grip.
    There are still a wide variety of film choices available, B&W, color. With B&W, there is the opportunity to use different B&W contrast filters: yellow, orange, red.
    I want to get into medium format photography and I have my systems picked out: Mamiya 645 and RZ67.

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    • Christina Blanarovich

      Film is here to stay for sure! I love how many of my digital friends are going back to film and loving it! Your medium format choices are awesome! You really can’t go wrong with them at all! Enjoy shooting!

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  10. Joseph Ford

    I love the film medium. especially how it slows you down and make your shots more deliberate. while there are so many good deals on film cameras I believe they all do the same thing. Make you a better photographer.

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