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What to Look for in a Film Camera

And Why Even Bother

Taken with a Pentax MV, cameras don't get much more basic than this.

Is there any reason to take up with film, when digital is so simple and cheap? Well, it is fun for a start and for most young photographers, it's an experience and a process worth trying at least once. 

The whole process: loading the film, committing to the viewfinder (no LCD screen here), waiting for several days before you see the results and, of course, the price of processing: this is how photography was, not better, but definitely different. No mature photographer, however nostalgic they get, would ever really want to go back. But like taking a vintage car out for a Sunday run, it is a simple and somewhat nostalgic pleasure.

Getting hold of a vintage (or should I say old) camera is pretty cheap these days, especially if you pick something up at a car boot sale. Even from a second-hand seller, the prices can be fair. But this depends on whether you want to buy a 'classic' camera, where the prices can start to compete with a decent digital camera. 

If you do decide to take the plunge (and I recommend it), what do you need from a film camera, in order to take decent and rewarding shots; I'd say there are only two things your camera needs: good glass and to work. I'm going to state the obvious here. A film camera doesn't have a sensor, it uses film, an obvious conclusion to this is that all film cameras will take equally good shots. The only element on a camera that will make a difference is the quality of the lens. Everything else is choice based on what you want to do with the camera.

I shoot street, so all I need is a camera that shoots auto, or by preference, aperture priority. I'd probably like the viewfinder to be accurate, and I don't like heavy cameras. What I do want is very nice 50mm prime lens. 

Having tried out my friend's Pentax MV, I decided to get myself one. It really is a basic SLR. So basic that it has no manual setting. You set the aperture (on the lens), half press the shutter, and if it is happy you see a green light in the viewfinder, with yellow and red warning lights if it isn't. Once you've mastered that, you are good to go.

If I wanted more and was willing to pay more, then I could get a camera with things like aperture preview, so that I could see the depth of field before I shot. If I was shooting indoors, I'd definitely get one with dampening. You can literally feel the camera shake when the mirror opens, the only dampening being some felt where the mirror hits the body; I hate to think what the motion blur is like at low shutter speeds. If I was more of a control freak, I may want full manual, if I was a sports buff, then I may want to control shutter speed.

But the thing is, and this is really the only essential, the Asahi 50mm lens was/is a great lens. It doesn't matter to me that this was an entry-level camera, it has the same lens as the 'better' cameras in the series and takes photos of the same quality.

At the same time that I took the Pentax out for a spin, I tried out the legendary Canon AE1 P. I really didn't get on with it. It is a great camera, with another great lens. But it was full of features I never use, and to make matters worse, it does not do aperture priority. It certainly wasn't worth me spending three to four times the price.

I'll leave you with one takeaway and one warning:

Takeaway: Think about the lens first and last.

Warning: Film cameras are only cheap if you resist the temptation to buy up every nice looking one you see.

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What to Look for in a Film Camera
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