One question I get a lot is what my film camera set up is. A mess, is the answer!
I don’t have a go-to camera, although my new Nikon FM2 is earning a very high, polished spot on my shelf. I have a collection of film cameras, most of which were thrifted or found for super cheap online. In this blog post I’ll run through the protagonists in my film camera collection.
My mechanical choices
My first film camera was an ME Super that I inherited from my grandmother. She used to show me old family photos she had taken on it and I was astonished at the quality and lack of grain in the images. One day, the shutter ceased to operate, and I never managed to get it fixed, so I went to my local store to replace it. Nowadays, I would probably have looked on Youtube for a fix, but this was ten years ago and I was a lazy teenager. My second film camera ended up being a Pentax K1000, in my view an even better version than the ME Super. These two cameras operate and perform really similarly, however the ME Super is electronic and the K1000 mechanical. It is the reliability of the K1000 that has made me lean more towards fully mechanical setups later in life. ‘Fully mechanical’ means that the cameras operate just fine with or without a battery. Since buying my K1000 ten years ago, I have never had it fail me. I shoot with my Pentax K1000 and Nikon FM2 the most, with 28, 35 and 50mm prime lenses (the smallest aperture being 1.4). They are built like tanks and I am so confident in their ability to withstand time and a little bashing about in the bottom of my bag. I’ll be the first to say that I don’t take the best care of my cameras, and sometimes they look a little worse for wear.
I honestly believe that the Pentax K1000 is one of the best film cameras you can start out with. It is so simple, so rubust, and does exactly what it needs to do, and nothing more. There are no confusing extra knobs and dials, no extra functions you don’t need, this thing performs like a solid workhorse. The K1000 has only three shooting controls: aperture, shutter speed and focus – and you don’t even need to turn it on or off. It’s always ready to shoot. For that reason, it will forever be a part of my film camera arsenal. If I am going out to shoot something that is really important to me, I will likely grab my K1000 over all of my other cameras due to the fact it has never let me down. I actually just got a K1000 for one of my best friends to replace a camera of hers that broke, and I’m so excited to see her results.
The Nikon FM2 is becoming a fast favourite of mine for similar reasons. It is built as solidly (in my opinion) as the K1000, with some nifty extra features. These include depth of field preview, self timer, multiple exposure lever, and being able to see both shutter speed and aperture in the (larger) viewfinder. It also has a wider array of lenses to use with it, that are more readily available than the Pentax K-Mount. Literally the only thing I dislike so far with the Nikon is it’s shutter lock; you are unable to shoot a photo when the wind lever is not cocked out, and I do find this a little irritating. If I was to nitpick, I also prefer the Pentax K1000’s needle light meter as opposed to the LED meter in the Nikon. It is just personal preference, but I like to see where the needle is in reference to the over/under exposure guides, instead of simply overexposed or underexposed.
Canon EOS 1N
Coming from digital photography, I have always used Canon. If you are interested in shooting 35mm and are coming from Canon digital SLRs, then a Canon EOS film camera would be a good choice. Every EF lens made from 1987 until today will work on the 1N, which was the main reason for my purchase. The shutter speed goes all the way up to 1/8000, pretty much as good as it gets with film and digital SLRs. Features that I love are the film rewind button, the multiple exposure settings, and, of course, the autofocus. What a treat it is to shoot film with autofocus. The autofocus in the 1N is on point and in my experience, super reliable. There are so many more things that make this camera great, but I will leave you to do your own research. I would argue this camera is not for beginners. I would also say that this camera is nowhere near as reliable as the aforementioned mechanical cameras I shoot with. Within a month of owning my 1N, I have had lens focusing issues and had it completely cease to function in the middle of a trip abroad with a bc error code that meant I lost a roll of film whilst trying to fix it. After some research, I spent some time picking the camera apart with a screwdriver, anxiously glued to Youtube. It’s fixed now, but I will have trust issues forever. Despite this, I do still love using this camera and the feel of a proper bulky SLR to shoot film with, but I will always bring a backup camera when taking it out. I’ve made several impulsive and recklessly uninformed photography purchases in the last few years, but I can safely say the EOS-1N isn’t one of them. I love the results I get with this camera.
My go to lenses are 50mm or 35mm manual focus lenses. For portraits, I’ve been using a 50mm Nikkor 1.4 on my Nikon recently, and a 50mm 1.8 on my Canon. I really like the classic field of view that 50mm lenses afford the viewer. Sure, it has limitations it has in terms of its focal length, but this challenges me to be more creative. If you put your hands stretched vertically at the outer edges of your eyes (like horse blinkers), the edge of your hands is the limit to the frame on a 50mm lens; the magnification is pretty much exactly the same. So what you see is what you get with the 50mm photography, and a reason why I love it. I use a 50mm for portraits and documentary style photos. For those new to 50mm prime lenses, this means the focal length is fixed (no zooming). Instead of zooming with your hand, you will zoom with your feet. You will move a lot more and be very creative with your positioning. In my personal experience, shooting with a 50mm has allowed me to visualise an image before I put the camera to my eye. In my opinion, without the temptation to zoom, you will undoubtedly become more adventurous with your framing. Also, 50mm lenses still work for landscape shots, produce stunning bokeh, and allow you to shoot in low light conditions.
SLRs: a love hate relationship
The most expensive film camera I own is the Canon EOS 1N and is also the one that has let me down the most, suffering electronic failures at the worst of times. Sure, I can use my Canon L Series lenses on it, but it doesn’t always work. I have had some stunning results from this camera, don’t get me wrong, it just plagues me with a little anxiety. I do have a couple of Canon Rebel SLRs with 28-90mm zoom lenses on. The aperture on these is limited to 4.5/5.6 and so I only really use them for landscapes. I’ve never paid more than $30 or so for one of these cameras. The old silver Rebel SLRs feel cheap and flimsy, and whilst they can produce some great photos, I don’t find that my best photos come out of them. They aren’t photos I really want to blow up on large prints. Lots of my most popular photos are shot on these cameras, but that is merely because the scene is so epic, rather than the quality of the shot itself. On a recent trip to Mount Assiniboine, I do wish I had taken a mechanical setup instead. The quality just isn’t the same on those cameras, but they are lightweight and offer the benefit of a versatile zoom lens. So, pretty handy if you’re hiking and want to save weight, but I have had things like the AF/MF switch just fall off in the middle of a trip! For serious quality, I would take my EOS 1N, a backup mechanical camera, a tripod and a zoom lens, plus a screwdriver kit in case the mirror magnets stick (a common issue with the EOS 1N).
I shoot almost exclusively on Kodak Portra 400. To my understanding, this film stock is super popular because it is so dang reliable. I also order it in 5 packs from Moment, and the shipping is so fast! Now I’m not a film nerd by any means, I haven’t done a ton of film research, and I don’t tend to shoot indoors much (if ever). The consistently good results I get from Portra 400 make me reluctant to switch, although I have been experimenting a little with 800 and 160. I’m sure it will bankrupt me soon and I will switch to a cheaper version such as Kodak Gold. Now maybe I should broaden my horizons further, so if you have any other film recommendations, I’d love to hear them in the comments section. I always aim to shoot in warm, golden light and I feel that Portra always performs beautifully in soft sunlight. However, my winter photos that I will be shooting soon are often in harsh, bright light conditions and I’ll be experimenting with a few different film stocks.
I have just purchased a couple of new cameras I am excited to try. One is a Nikonos V for underwater photography which I’m both nervous and extremely excited to try out! It will be my first foray into shooting in the water with film, and I know this camera is renowned for being finicky. I have also got a Pentax 70-S Point and Shoot, which was apparently the very first compact camera with built in zoom and flash by any manufacturer. I don’t have any other point and shoots, so this will be a fun experiment. I’m also secretly hoping that it’s so easy, even my boyfriend can use it when I ask him to take photos of me 😉 More reviews on these to come!
So, in summary, the film cameras I shoot with the most are fully mechanical, but I do still use SLRs. The Nikon FM2, Pentax K1000 and Canon EOS 1N are my go-to cameras. My go-to film is Portra 400 as I have yet to find a scenario in which is has failed me. My most used lens is a 50mm prime, but I do often use zoom lenses for landscape photography. Any questions, comments or suggestions, please drop them in the comments! Follow my film adventures on Instagram for more. Thanks for reading 🙂