I’ve already been told by two other photographers that my 15 Best Film Cameras list is weird and stupid, and that all the other “best” lists have only the Olympus, and maybe Leica, (but different Leica), in common. Well, ok. Everyone will not agree. But in most cases I’ve actually used said cameras, and they’re my favorites. If you have different faves,…well, what can I say. The fact that they’re all film cameras, and most people use a phone these days for pics, really puts them out of the mainstream, anyway. And, of course, one is a Polaroid camera. Still film.
Picking Only 15 is Hard!
The only other film cameras I’ve used extensively and did not list are the Rollei 6003 & 6008 and the Nikon F5. Not because they’re bad cameras. In fact, they are all exceptional. Just because the Zeiss glassed Rolleis were a little esoteric and the F5 is everybody’s best Nikon film camera ever. But I still have and use an F4s, I like that it has no LCD’s, I like that it is fully compatible with almost all Nikkor lenses, I like that it does NOT have any leatherette to peel, and I find it the most useful Nikon when viewed as a weapon in a fight. (just kidding) By the way, the Rolleis were available with Rolleigon glass, (cheaper), Zeiss glass, (what I had), and Schneider glass, (the most expensive). These 15 Best Film Cameras are subjective opinions of user experience. Not detailed reviews. Those are available all over the internet for each camera. Also, the Minolta X-700 was my first camera, and the camera used exclusively by Ren Hang. Alas, limiting to 15 is kind of arbitrary, and lots of great cameras were left out. Oh, well.
The 15 Best Film Cameras List
First up in the 15 Best Film Cameras is the Contax G2. Every Zeiss lens available for this camera is beyond exceptional. In sharpness, contrast, build quality. While the 90mm would also fall in those categories, it was the only one I felt fell short in the AF category. Expect a little “hunt” and a less than optimal rangefinder viewing. I’m unsure why some Leicaphiles feel this is not a “true” rangefinder. Admittedly, the viewfinder lacks the bright clarity of the Leica. But it’s AF, so I’ve never had a problem. (neither did Juergen Teller, I guess) And the viewfinder does have an adjustable diopter, if you’re wondering. Manual focus sucks, so buy a Bessa or Hexar or,….Leica if you prefer manual focus. Black is rare and expensive. Stick to titanium color.
Next is the Leica M7. While I’ve only used the M6, I’ve been told the metering system and aperture priority is a dream on the M7. That said, the M6 was a dream to use. Great, but expensive lenses. And if manual is your thing anyway, save a $1000 and get the M6. Comfort, beauty, build, unique lens drawing,….and a favorite of everyone from Brad Pitt to Annie Leibovitz. (yes, I know Brad’s an actor,…just sayin’)
15 Best Film Cameras includes the Nikon F4s that I use to this day. I had a choice to keep the Nikon F4s or F5. I chose the F4s. This camera is built like a brick, and does everything I ask it to. Even at slow shutter speeds, the mirror doesn’t seem to contribute to any camera shake. Yes, it has that Nikon’s Matrix metering. After many years, I still have no idea what it does. Average the light in a scene, I guess. But I’m no technical goofball. It works great, and is very accurate. You can use pretty much any lens Nikon has ever made on this camera. Forward and backward compatible. And an SB-800 works as well as an SB-25. As I said in my post here,…it’s a work of art! I know others will disagree, but it really is my favorite camera.
Next is the Mamiya 7II. This is a medium format rangefinder camera. Used by artists as diverse as Mary Ellen Mark to Martin Parr. The II does have a few minor improvements over the 7. And of course, it’s what many photographers believe produces the “perfect negative”; 6cm x 7cm. The Mamiya 6 is the 6 x 6 format version, and is considerably cheaper if you’re fine with the square “Hassy” format. With no mirror slap, excellent lenses, and a “perfect negative”, this is a hard camera to pass by. Remember, it has the same size negative as an RZ67 at half the weight!
Canon EOS 1N
Canon 1N is not the Canon others usually pick. Most list the AE-1 or some version of the Canonet rangefinder. First, this was towards the beginning of Canon making the decision to change lens mounts to maximize AF. Second, being an EOS camera made it the blueprint for Canon going digital. A 1N and a 1D look pretty similar. And for good reason. All full frame digital lenses are interchangeable with this camera, making it the perfect hybrid shooter camera. (assuming you’re a Canon shooter) Used extensively by professional and advanced amateur photographers world wide, the 1n was a high performance machine. The 1V had a few improvements and the 1NRS was very fast. But with the added booster, the 1N became the beginning of Canon matching Nikon in the AF field.
Hasselblad 500 Series
The Hasselbalad 500, 501, 503, etc. What can I say about this camera. All mechanical, square format, and Zeiss lenses that were without reproach. In fact, if you had to pick one camera used by more studio and advertising photographers than any other, this would be it. Hasselblad created a standard for excellence that would not be outmatched for many years. While I loved my Hasselblad, I did switch to Rollei for the automation. (built in motordrive, same Zeiss lenses, more advanced metering, etc.) But it did need to be charged, and I was in the minority when it comes to being on the Rollei train. David Bailey, Bruce Weber, Helmut Newton,…all Hassy guys. And they still take exceptional images.
Yashica T4 Super
Yashica T4. This was a great camera, image wise, way before Terry Richardson discovered it. All Terry Richardson did was make it more expensive in the used market. More than when they were new! I mean, this camera wasn’t what Yashica thought it would be. They were just producing a nice, but plastic, carry around. Most of the “serious guys” were buying the much more expensive, and solidly built, Contax T2 and the T3. While they all had exemplary Zeiss glass, and equal sharpness, it was the Yashica that had more contrast! These simple point and shoots were easily competing with the SLR’s of the day. (image wise) Still a good choice. And fits in your pocket!
Another one of the 15 Best Film Cameras is the Contax T2. I’m showing a “Soft Silver/Titanium” T2 here. Like mine. They also came in Black, (real black, very rare), Titanium Black, (which is really dark gray), and Gold. (uglier than sin) I love this camera. With the retractable lens, (and covered), I can easily put it in my pocket. I like the flash, and the build is without reproach. AF is swift and accurate. You can add a TTL flash to the T3, (which is normally ‘black’, but comes in silver), but NOT the T2. And there is no PC socket. (see G1/G2 for that) So, it is a real Point and Shoot camera in the purest sense. Viewfinder is big and clear, too.
I’m including all the Rolleiflex TLR‘s, in one grouping. The F, 2.8, 3.5, E, etc. Diane Arbus, Helmut Newton, (early on), Vivian Maier,…I could go on for some time. This was THE 6×6 camera to have at one time. In fact, because of Hasselblad‘s mirror slap, this was probably a better camera for slow shutter hand-held work. And the lenses were easily as sharp. In fact, the ones with Schneider lenses were actually sharper than even the Hassy’s. However, TLR’s were never that good for very close-up work due to parallax. But that’s all TLR’s.
Pentax 67II,…or the beast as I referred to it. Ya wanna talk mirror slap? OK,…think of the kick from a 12 gauge shotgun. Well, it wasn’t that bad, but in photographic terms, close. But the 6×7 negative? Absolutely beautiful. And big. The lenses performed flawlessly, with heavy saturation and contrast. A true SLR, and favorite of many fashion photographers when they could get enough light to up the shutter speed or use a tripod. The standard and optional viewfinders made Leica viewfinders feel tiny. While the Ashai 67 and Pentax 67 II both have MLU, (only the older Honeywells don’t), the TTL on 67 II is much better, but reliability is much worse. (electronics) If I was asked, I’d say the Ashai 67 is the one to get.
Super Speed Graphic
Graflex Super Speed Graphic. The Speed Graphic is just as good, but does NOT have a rotating back, like the “Super”. The super also has an all metal body, flash computer, electric shutter release, and 1/1000 shutter speed. This was a great camera that I could actually shoot handheld. Albert Watson shot the whole Levis campaign hand holding a 4×5 camera! Once you’ve seen a 4×5 transparency or negative, 35mm shooting seems like playing around. It is really amazing. And once you see an 8×10, you’ll probably faint. That said, I don’t shoot large format enough. So my lecturing doesn’t really hold water. Speed Graphics stopped being made in the 70’s, but if you can find a a nice example, you’ve struck gold!
Wista 45N Field
Continuing with large format, the all metal Wista 4×5 is a beautiful machine. Now I have never owned the $10,000+ Linhofs or Sinars, but when it comes to field cameras, I love the metal Wistas. I would only want the ‘view cameras’ as opposed to the ‘field cameras’ if I needed the extra movements for architectural, or maybe product, photography. Since I don’t, I prefer the relative portability of the field cameras. But with any 150mm Nikkor or Fujinon lens, this camera is a solidly built and beautiful piece of art that will create beautiful pieces of art. Again, once you’ve held a 4×5 piece of film or Polaroid in your hand, your photographic perspective will be forever changed.
Olympus Stylus Epic
In our 15 Best Film Cameras we also herald the most basic point and shoots. You will note that I am being very specific with the model here: Olympus Stylus Epic ‑ 35mm f/2.8. NOT the other, (especially zoom), models. This is a camera you will occasionally have seen being used by a Helmut Newton or similar high profile photographers. Reason? Powerful flash, pocketable, awesome lens, accurate auto exposure. This is a very under rated camera that should be twice the price in the used market. They came in a couple of colors. I’ve yet to find one person, myself included, that does not love this camera. And handles the rain well.
I guess you can tell I’m a Nikon guy. That’s not why I put this up. This was the last 35mm all manual film camera manufactured and I think the last film was the F6,…which still leaves me scratching my head as to what Nikon was thinking. Don’t get me wrong. I think it would be great if Nikon would actually freak everybody out by releasing a new film camera. Well, that’s not going to happen. It was designed during the same period Nikon was working on the D1. They actually continued production until 2008,…well into the “digital era”. With it’s TTL and Aperture priority, it’s really a “hybrid” camera.
More than the F6, I think it was the pinnacle of Nikon film camera design. The FM3a is really super easy to use, fully manual controls, but with the option to have automatic aperture priority exposure control. This camera can do pretty much everything. You can get a motor drive, intervalometer, modern and old lenses and flashes, and it even has a PC sync. Hell, you can even still get a Polaroid back. And more. This is a very professional camera that’s compatible with 100’s of Nikkors. While all the FM’s are cool, this camera goes above and beyond. Nikon allowing a 12 man team to spend 2 years on this project which only shows their commitment to photographic excellence. Definitely a 15 Best Film Cameras contender. This is the ONLY camera I would even think about trading my F4s for.
The Polaroid SX-70 is found both used on Ebay and refurbished through the Impossible Project. Who you can also get film through. I know the Fuji Instax, Lomos and Mints are the “easier and cheaper” way to go. But when hankering for larger film, and even SX-70 or Specctra films, Impossible’s the way to go. They even have Polaroid type film up to 8 x 10! I don’t have an SX-70 anymore, but it’s comforting to know I can still buy one, and get film for it. And the thought of doing some serious art project with 8 x 10 Impossible instant film intrigues me. (8/2017: Upon testing the new release Mint SX-70 version, I have to give them the advantage)
That’s my 15 Best Film Cameras, and I’m sticking by it. I can think of a few others I like. But then, I could go on for days. (Uhh,… after further comparison, I have to nix the Contax T2 for the Contax T3. While the T2 is extremely sharp and contrasty,…the T3 is,… “Holy Cow, Batman!!!)