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What is an SLR Camera?
SLRs (single-lens reflex cameras) are the precursors of the modern digital single-lens reflex (DSLRs) cameras. They might have a less convenient system of photograph development, but they offer photographers customization, clarity, and a more detailed view of their subjects which leads to more control over the finished product.
An SLR (single lens reflex camera) is a camera that uses a mirror and prism system that allows the photographer to view through the lens and see exactly what will be captured. This can get very technical. I love research, but I prefer someone to tell me exactly what I need to know and to explain it in terms that I can understand. So, I’ll try.
Before SLRs were invented, cameras had two optical paths within them. One went to the film – obviously… if not, where would we get pictures from? And the other path went to whatever the photographer used as the viewfinder. This left a lot of room for error, especially in low light or low speed photography. Think about it – as the photographer, you’re looking at the subject from an optical path that provides you with a different angle than the path that will actually be sending light information to the film.
SLRs on the other hand allow photographers to have a single optical path for both the film and the viewfinder by using a roof pentaprism situated in the optical path between the reflex mirror (going to the film) and the viewfinder (going to the photographer). I could go further, but I really just wanted the basic idea for this particular article. I wanted to understand the basics of how this technology works.
With this technology came other advancements in cameras, such as through lens light metering, semi-auto and then full-program auto-exposure, and finally autofocus. These advancements came all through the 20th century and by the 1990’s some viewfinders were being replaced with LCD (liquid crystal displays) and soon digital SLRs (DSLRs) would become the new normal.
SLRs are still very popular, because they have interchangeable parts that allow for customization. They also have far less shutter lag, allowing for precise timing on photographs. Many professionals will tell you that an LCD preview is no comparison to a direct-viewed SLR viewfinder, the clarity and shadow detail is just not there. However, these cameras are more often than not, hobbyist cameras, because they simply are not as efficient as their descendants – DSLRs.
For one thing the processing of the film is a hands-on operation. At one time – when I was a kid through to when I was a young adult – you could take your film to pretty much any grocery store or drug store in town and get your film developed rather quickly. Now that digital is the rage, this can only be handled using digital media. If you have film to develop, most places have to ship that film to an off-location developer. Or, you could develop the film yourself. Just keep in mind that this is a very tedious process involving chemicals and a specialized area for the development.
But one of the things that film photography is good for? Learning the processes manually, so that you understand your art better. Considering they are usually fully manual, you will also be able to better learn the technical components of photography with a film camera (aperture, ISO, and shutter speed). Because you are limited on the shots and you can’t see an image of what you are shooting until the film is developed, shooting with an SLR forces you to take your time and learn about framing and composition.
These cameras are not difficult to come by, but they aren’t the “new product” either. Most of the time, you’ll have to get them second hand through Amazon, eBay, in thrift stores (if you’re lucky) or from an enthusiast. Buyer beware at all times – be sure you check a seller’s reviews, ask the right questions, and get all Q&A recorded before any purchase. That way you can get a refund if anything is broken or non-functional. That’s the caveat for thrift shop or yard-sale buying – there’s no guarantee of functionality.
You’ll need to order film and possibly batteries for your camera and be prepared to send them off to have them developed – I suggest always getting digital proofs in a flatter color so that you can then photo edit them yourself. If you don’t want to edit them, you can go for a deeper contrast. You do not have to actually order paper prints of everything like I used to do when I was a child and young adult. You can look at digital proofs and pick the prints you want.
You’ll notice that the brands of SLR Film Cameras are much more varied than those of the DSLR world. Nikon and Canon have pretty much taken over the DSLR line-up with good quality cameras that are only just getting a bit of competition from Sony. Film Cameras were a different breed, and there are a lot of great brand choices, some have even been around since the early 1900s.
You don’t have to go old school to enjoy a flow from digital to film photography. The more modern they are, the more adaptable. For example, think of the first Canon EOS models from the 90’s. They might be large but their lenses are often interchangeable with modern auto-focus versions. If nothing else, getting into film photography opens the door to a fabulous community of people willing to help other professionals and enthusiasts find their way.
I’m a beginner. And this is a hobby for me that I might make money from or might not – so I’m not above buying a used camera in good condition. After all, I want a camera that’s not going to burst my budget. More importantly, I need something that has better image quality than my smartphone and yet isn’t overwhelming to my brain. I also need it to be easy to transport. After understanding what I was looking for and the history behind it, I began my research into what most photographers – both amateur and professional – feel are the top picks among cameras. In this case, I focused on SLRs.
I’ll list them below, with relevant information. If you want the statistics of each SLR, you can always go to the retailer or manufacturer’s website that you prefer to find them. I felt it was more important to share the opinions of those who had used the equipment.
You should purchase your chosen products from wherever you feel most comfortable purchasing camera products. I always look over reviews from multiple sources before I make a decision on a purchase. I share the most relevant information on my website, but it’s by no means a full endorsement. Be your own advocate, know your product, ask questions of the seller, get information in writing, and be clear on warranty limitations.
Our Top 10
Canon AE-1 & Canon AE-1 Program
Either the AE-1 or the AE-1 Program appeared on almost every listing I could find of favorites and bests of the film camera world. It was one of the most widely circulated 35mm cameras of its time. Why? Because it successfully aided in the shift between professional photographers and hobbyists. The Canon AE-1 Program was the first Canon to advance into automatic mode and shutter priority.
These cameras are sturdy and work with Canon’s FD lenses – which are not expensive and well known to the industry. It’s extremely intuitive. I remember having one myself (now if I could just remember what I did with it).
Price Range: $75 – $200 depending upon what accessories are offered with it.
The Pentax K-1000 appeared on most of the top ten listings I could find for film cameras that were recommended by enthusiasts. This camera has an all metal body, which means it’s heavy and it’s simplistic all-manual settings make it a workhorse for those that know what they are doing. It doesn’t even need a battery – unless you run the light meter.
If you don’t know what you’re doing, it will definitely force you to learn how to use a camera! It’s absolutely straightforward – no bells and whistles at all. Other Pentax cameras become more automated, but these are still widely recommended for beginners. The other suggestion would be a Pentax MX which is also all-manual or the Pentax ME which has some automation to it. There are plenty of lenses available for this camera as well. Photography students have come to love this camera as a teaching unit, because of its durability, simplicity, and low price point.
Price Range: $50 – $200 depending on what comes with it
Leica M-A, Leica M6, and Leica M3
These cameras are descended from the very first 35mm developed by Oskar Barnack, an employee of Ernst Leitz II – owner of a microscope company. They are often collectibles, because functionality can be questionable, or they are very expensive. However, the company is still making cameras and if you can find a Leica from the M-class that works, the images might be worth it.
They regularly sell for over $1000. One model was mentioned on almost every listing I combed through, all M-series. The M-6 and M6TTL both have through-the-lens metering, easy dials, and are considered in the rangefinder class of cameras. The M-A is particularly simple to use and allows the photographer to really concentrate on the basics. They take very high quality pictures, even for older models like the M3 which began being produced in the 1950s.
Price Range: $3000 – $7500 – anything less than that is a very good deal indeed.
Olympus OM-1 & Olympus OM-10
These two Olympus models are designed with lightweight bodies compared to other SLRs of its time. They are also of good quality in design. Their lens options are also abundant and cheap for the quality put into them. The OM series and in particular the OM-1 has been mentioned by professionals as the best film camera for beginners.
It does need batteries, because it has a meter inside that warns about proper exposure, but all other settings, including shutter speed are manual. If you want to set shutter speed up front and then let it go auto so you can put your attention on aperture, focus, and shooting – the OM-2 or OM-10 for a less expensive alternative.
Price Range: $69 – $189 (some over that price come with lenses and kits)
I honestly couldn’t write this article without mentioning Minolta. I was prepared to only mention it, but then, to my relief, other camera enthusiasts liked them as well! I remember having a Minolta that my grandfather gave me just for fun. I think I only got to use it twice before my mom packed it away, never to be seen again. Funny how you remember the things that make your parents look bad!
Turns out, if you didn’t have one given to you, they were pretty cheap for the quality you got at the time. The X-series (X-700, X-300, X-500) all are cameras that have autofunctions mixed with manual settings. Because it has the option of both, it can be a tool for both beginners and seasoned photographers alike. The only warning I’ve seen about these cameras? Making sure you get the proper lenses (Minolta MD or MC mounts).
Price Range: $70 – $179 depending on what comes with it/condition (sometimes the lenses are more expensive than the camera itself)
This camera has been the easiest for me to find and it seems very well-liked. Several writers and photographers have called this the “workhorse” of the Nikon line – it had one of the longest production runs of any professional camera at 19 years. It was used by photojournalists in the 1980’s because of its reliability and simplicity. Obviously, this is a great camera pick.
It’s manual except for the light metering system, therefore a photographer shooting with it has to rely on their knowledge of adjusting settings manually and using the light available to get the proper shot. The shutter speed is also phenomenal for a camera of its type – as fast as 1/4000th of a second. And remember – because the only thing that uses the battery is the meter, you can use this camera even after the battery has died. It takes any of Nikon’s selection of F-mount lenses made beyond 1977. By the way, that’s A LOT!
So, for a used camera, this may have a higher price point, however it may also be the only film camera you ever need to purchase. These things are down for the long haul. By the way – if you want to save some money, purchase the Nikon FM (not the FM2) and you’ll get a slower shutter speed, but it’s half the price and you may not even need that shutter speed.
Price Range: $150 – $699 – depending on condition & accessories
Nikon F6 & Nikon F series
The Nikon F-series is a step into the more modern cameras beyond the FM series and are geared toward professionals. They are automated, but some portions of the settings can be switched to manual mode as well. You could say these cameras are the bridge between the older 35mm SLRs and the modern DSLRs. As a matter of fact, the controls and settings are very familiar to photographers who use DSLRs.
These cameras can use most Nikkor lenses and I’ve found that they can cost as much, if not more than the camera itself.
When shopping, don’t get these cameras mixed up with European versions of other cameras that have similar series numbering. Those are very different cameras. Also, the F2 in the series tends more toward rangefinder cameras of the genre and are less automatic. As the series developed, so too did the improved automation for these film cameras.
Price Range: $200 – $1500 depending on the camera and accessories for less than $200 you are essentially going to get just the body with very little guarantee.
Lomography Belair X 6-12 Jetsetter
With its accordion folding design and color scheme, this camera really stood out to me as a retro camera. The Belair has auto shutter settings. Those settings allow you to capture panoramic shots (6×12) as well as the standard square (6×6) and rectangular (6×9) images. Included with the camera are supposed to be 58mm and 90mm lenses.
It also has a surprisingly extensive ISO range. It has a bulb setting available to allow for multiple exposures within a single frame and zone focusing. It uses 120 film, so be aware of the need for that purchase.
Some reviewers warn about the shutter button being in an awkward position and it’s not very good for long-exposure shots – which is kind of bad when you consider it is made for panoramic picture taking (and some of those need longer exposures). There are some loopholes, so look for blogs and reviewers who share their secrets!
Price Range: $145 – $399
3 – Lomography Diana F+
The use of this camera is all about style from it’s retro appearance and outer flash unit to what it does for the photographs it takes. Aaron Chapman, from Globe magazine, even mentions the Diana F+ a “cult classic…a medium format favorite renowned for its soft focus and vignetting.” It is a very simple camera that forces photographers to make sure your setting and lighting are all just right for the shoot.
The camera is very inexpensive and basic, but there is a boxed accessory kit out there you’ll want to look into. Don’t forget, it used a 120mm film, not 35mm and the flash will need a battery. Oh, and they come in all kinds of colors and designs…
Price Range: Camera as low as $35 but if you get it with accessories kit, it can be up to $249
Want something that truly looks old fashioned? Want something that will also blow your mind?
The Rolleiflex was first made right after WWII and they’ve been produced for some 27 years since – meaning if you get one, it truly may be an antique. The F models began in the late 1950’s and continued through the 1970’s.
This 120 film camera will give you quality far beyond what you could ever think to reach with the modern digital cameras. This camera has created some of the most well-known and recognized photographs in the world. One blogger is echoed by several others that the best photographs were made with this camera while using the 75mm 6-element lens (available from Zeiss Planar or Schneider Xenotar).
The aperture and shutter speed setting wheels are nestled between the lended and can be read in the viewing lens. It has a film wind crank and a waist-level viewfinder. The pictures are made on a 6×6 format. There are improvements in later models, but all of these cameras are very well-designed for their time and collectors and film fanatics love them.
Price Range: $599 – $10,000 these prices are all over the board! Most fall between $700 – $3000, but I did find a few on Etsy (of all places) but several of those turned out to be “Baby Tessar 4×4” or non-guaranteed to work models or they were selling prints of the camera. So be aware…
Keep in mind, you’re most likely dealing with used camera equipment when you are looking for an SLR film camera. That’s why there is rarely a listing from most standard camera suppliers. So BUYER BEWARE when you go in to purchase a pre-owned camera. You’ll need to dot your I’s and cross your T’s and be sure that you have a warranty or a guarantee that allows you some recourse if you purchase something that does not function – or be prepared to take your camera to get it repaired.
So unless you are a collector of cameras or one who loves to shoot with good old fashioned film cameras, then I would suggest looking at the newer DSLR or Mirrorless cameras on the market. If you’re not sure where to start then check out my articles on the Best DSLR Cameras or the Best Mirrorless Cameras to help you out.