Bottomfeeder's Guide to Film Photography, Part 1: Cameras and Lenses

2010-12-11
How To Live Long and Prosper In The Land Of Film Without Going Broke

This is the first of a three-part series on doing film photography on the cheap.  No, the emphasis is not going to be on being a Lomo/Holga hero, though you can go that route if it appeals to you.  Instead I will be addressing how to get reasonable, even professional results for the least amount of money.  The three sections are:
  • Cameras and lenses (this installment)
  • Films and processing
  • Accessories and Hybrid (figital) Process
The Camera
Yes, I know...The Camera is the name of the first book in the Ansel Adams photography series and I, like the master, know that the camera is where it all starts.  Photographers have this "thing" about cameras.  Sometimes I think many of us fell in love with the gear before we found out that we liked to take photos.  Well, that is a separate discussion...Back to talk about film cameras.  Needless to say, you can't do film photography without some sort of film camera.  For those of you who are new to the idea of film photography here is a short list of the general types of cameras available:
  • 35mm
  • Medium format (roll film)
  • Large format (sheet film)
As you may have noticed, the major groups are determined by the the size of the media.  Yes, size is important and factors related to size will influence your choice of tool.  In simplest terms:
  • Bigger means better quality
  • Bigger means bulkier
  • Bigger means heavier
  • Bigger means higher cost per exposure
  • Bigger means more involved technique
That is all I will say about the above.  I will leave it to the reader to confirm or refute the generalizations in their own mind.  You can go cheap in any of the three categories, though it is easier to go cheap with the smaller formats.  If you are new to film, I would suggest that you start with 35mm and work your way up to the big stuff as you learn more about the film medium.

The Core Principle

Before we go any further, here is the central concept and core principal in bottom feeding...

    Your best value is in quality gear that is orphaned or out of vogue, but has robust technology

Got that?  Given a little thought and research and other people's junk becomes your treasure!

35mm Cameras and Lenses

By far, the best values are manual focus 35mm SLR cameras from the late 1970s on.  Think auto exposure with full manual override, electronic shutters, and full feature sets.  Think advanced consumer product.  Think manual film advance.  Think orphaned lens mounts or K-mount (Pentax and many others).  Now you might ask why these factors are important and how that makes for value.  Here are the answers:
  • Most of the auto-exposure cameras feature robust electronic shutters and circuitry.  These have the advantage of either working very well or not working at all.  (Chew on that one a bit.)
  • Full manual override allows you to take over from the camera when the built in meter is dead wrong
  • Manual focus means no AF to break
  • Manual film advance means no drive motors to break
  • Most use readily available batteries (no mercury cells)
  • Lenses for orphaned mounts have reduced value in the current market (read disclaimer below)
Now for some specifics:
  • M, P, and A series Pentax bodies. The P3n/P30n are particularly underpriced despite having robust build and features (http://kmp.bdimitrov.de/bodies/film_P/index.html).  The K1000 is a great camera, but is generally overpriced due to its reputation as the ultimate student camera.  The KM is better at a much lower price.
  • Chinon, Ricoh, Cosina/Vivitar.  Yes, Yes, Yes!
  • Minolta.  Great values to be found here.  Think XG-M or similar.
Any of the above bodies can be bought, often with normal lens attached, for less than $50 in very good to excellent condition.  Nikon, Canon, Olympus, and Konica are also good, but come at a premium price.  If you have a question about a particular model, see if you can find the manual online (http://www.butkus.org/chinon/ is a great resource. Leave him a donation if his manuals are useful to you.)  The camera manufacturers Web sites often have manuals for legacy product as well.  The camera's features and specifications are usually listed in the manual.

Lenses are a much trickier proposition.  Until this last year (2010), you were pretty safe with almost any lens mount.  Most had been orphaned.  With the advent of micro 4/3rds digital cameras, the market is heating up for many of these previously orphaned lens mounts.  Still though, good deals can be found in the Vivitar and store-brand lines.  Many of these cameras were sold with "walk-around" 35mm-80mm zooms of reasonable quality.  These are often under-valued in the current market due to limited application on most digital bodies.  Also consider that 28mm, 50mm, and 135mm prime lenses are usually very good even when sold as a store brand and are often reasonably priced.

What About 35mm Rangefinders?

Fixed lens 35mm rangefinder cameras are wonderful tools and are often great values as well.  Rangefinder cameras are the ultimate for street or club photography.  Many have excellent fast optics mated to lightweight compact bodies.  Again, the best value is in models made from about 1970 on.  Some of the rangefinders from the 1960s are nice, but many will need a fairly complete overhaul before being useful.  Think Yashica, Minolta, Canon, Olympus, and Ricoh.  Think auto exposure with manual override.  Avoid auto-focus.  Don't even think about interchangeable lens rangefinder cameras.  You can't afford to play in that space.

Medium Format?

While most of the high-value product of interest to us bottom feeders is in the 35mm space, there are some great values to be had in cameras that take 120/220 roll film.  Unfortunate, you have to be a bit of an expert to determine a good deal.  If you are set on the larger negative, think Yashica Mat 124 twin-lens reflex as a good starting point.

Other (a.k.a. What about...?)

This is going to sound cruel, but if you are tempted by FSU (Former Soviet Union) models such as Zenit, Zorki or Kiev, don't be.  Ditto for all but the most recent Chinese stuff.  The value is not there.  For similar money you can get a Ricoh or a Minolta.  I know that from which I speak.  I have a Zorki 4K, a Kiev 4A, and a FED-2.  I love all three of them, but I am a fanatic and none of the three are as useful as a general photographic tool as my Ricoh XR-2s which was less money that any of them.  Ditto for any of the various "toy" cameras such as Lomo and Holga.

Do I Have An Example?

Sure, how about this Ricoh XR-2s from the late 1970s.  It features aperture-preferred auto exposure with metered manual, electronically controlled vertical metal shutter (yes, it will work at 1/125s without batteries), exposure compensation, DOF preview, and a full information viewfinder in a robust standard K-mount body.  I paid $35 with attached lens for this dependable workhorse.

Ricoh XR-2s next to Gossen Luna-Lux Meter

If I remember correctly, Hin has a Ricoh XRP that he is quite fond of and which is also a value classic.  Here is another good candidate:

Pentax Super Program

I think I paid $35 for this body with case in like new condition.  The Super Program was almost top-of-line for Pentax in the early 1980s.  The only thing better would have been the LX.

Next time, I will reveal the secrets of cheap film!

Addendum:

I forgot to add one essential section...where do you get all this cheap stuff?  The answer is, of course, in all of the usual places.  These are:
  • Craigslist:  Do a global search by brand name.  Don't just look in the photo section
  • eBay:  The obvious one.  Be careful and patient.  Only bid on items where the seller confirms fully operational status.  Never bid more than you really want to pay.  Be wary of any seller that counters negative feedback with a pointed attack on the buyer.  Be aware of inflated shipping costs.  Most cameras can be shipped, insured, anywhere in the U.S. for less than $15.00.
  • Thrift shops:  Goodwill (their web site) often has camera stuff.  I was talking to a fellow the other day ago who scored a full Pentax Auto 110 mini-SLR kit with original display box, flash, power winder, and several lenses for $15.00.  All items were like new.  (Probably not a good example since the Auto 110 is of interest mostly to collectors...film and processing are extremely hard to find.)
  • Estate and yard/garage sales
  • Flea markets
  • Camera shows and swap meets
  • Camera repair shops and camera stores that cater to pros
That is all.  You may leave now!

5 comments:

57thStIncident said...

I would suggest inclusion of Konica along with Minolta in your list of dead mount bargains.

Anonymous said...

Can't wait for the secrets of cheap film!

Species: Cheekius_Geekus said...

One category you left out is the half-frame 35mm. Olympus Pen EEs can be had pretty reasonably and you get twice as many shots (albeit smaller negative size) per roll of film.

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Welcome to Hin's Photo Corner, this is my learning blog on photography, blogging and advertising. And I hope you enjoy your visit. For contact, please comment in blog post or email me directly hintheman at gmail.com.

 

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