The Best Retro Film Cameras To Buy in 2023

the best retro film camera shutter

Film is back and if you're looking for the best retro film camera to buy in 2023 you're in the right place. Film is so much fun and having a great film camera feels so different. If you've never used a film camera but want to or you're looking to add to your collection of cool retro cameras check out the this list.

Note: If you see a price or price range listed it's for the camera body only (unless specified). Too, this is being published at the beginning of 2023. If you're reading this in the future the prices may have fluctuated. Don't blame me - unless of course this article causes a huge rush to buy these cameras. In which case, you can blame me.

No matter what camera you buy you don't want one that will break immediately. There may be certain things you can check to make sure that won't happen. Some of these will seem like common sense but it's worth remembering these things.

Tips For Buying A Retro Film Camera

The first tip for buying a retro film camera is to buy from a reputable seller. Of course thrift store finds are hard to resist. The second thing thing you can do is look the camera over. If there is rust, sticky stuff, or any other stuff you can see that make it look like the camera has had a rough life it might be risky.

Next you want to make sure that, if the camera takes a battery, you can find a replacement. A lot of cameras made in the 80s or 90s took batteries that are hard to find today. Before buying be sure to look up the model and see if you can easily buy the batteries that you'll need.

Finally you'll want to make sure the price is right. There's no point in over-paying for a camera you can find priced better elsewhere.

Best Affordable Retro Film Cameras

If you're looking for great affordable retro film cameras you'll find a ton of choices on eBay. Additionally, film, processing, and printing are themselves expensive so why not save where you can. As long as your camera works, has the lens mount you like or want, and delivers on your other needs there's no need to chase after crowd favorites.

Similar lists will include a lot of nice and widely available classic cameras. However, my advice for great affordable retro cameras is to consider some of the most affordable overlooked cameras if price is your first consideration.

The lowest price retro film cameras are going to include the Pentax K1000. These fully manual cameras served as workhorses for generations of kids learning photography in high-schools and colleges. This means they're abundant and inexpensive.

Alternatively, for autofocus, look for cameras that were made in the 1990s as higher end consumer cameras by the big manufacturers like Nikon or Canon. Models like the Canon EOS 55 or the Nikon F100 can be found on eBay for less than $50 (without a lens).

Coolest Retro Features

Coolest Feature When It Worked

I've already mentioned the Canon EOS 55 which has one of the coolest retro features of any film camera. Along with the Canon EOS 5 these cameras came with Canon's breakthrough idea of eye-tracking auto focus.

This feature was supposed to change which focus area automatically as you looked around. The idea is that the focus spot would activate when you looked at it. In practice this feature didn't work well. You needed to have light colored eyes and lots of light to work in. Still the idea seemed so futuristic at the time and Canon has only reintroduced the idea again with the EOS R3 DSLR.

Real Coolest Working Feature

If you're looking for a real cool feature that works all the time there are a few choices. Having a cameras with the fastest frames per second (FSP) has always been important. With film that meant moving the film, not just the shutter. This was a real challenge. Canon's EOS 1V will rip through 10 fps which made it the go-to for sports. If you're looking to capture a lot of film frames quickly then there's no alternative.

Speed is great but in reality film can't match digital if speed is what you're after. Therefore, you're likely looking for other cool features like waist-level finding, or panorama cameras. If so, here are the tops in those categories.

Best Waist Level Cameras

cool retro twin lens reflex film camera Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) cameras has long been a go-to when you want to shoot from the hip. This is because they often are less expensive medium format cameras with great lenses. Additionally, they offer such a cool retro look that they might make people super curious and more likely to smile or make weird faces at you if you're taking their photo.

A standout TLR is the Yashica 12 which you can find for under $200 (complete with lens). These, like other TLR cameras just look great and feel great to shoot with once you get the hang of the reversed mirror image you're looking at. 

The Nikon F series of SLRs also came with interchangeable viewfinders as did the Soviet made Kiev medium format SLR style cameras like the Kiev-60. Still they don't match the cool look of a classic TLR.

Best Panorama Film Camera

The top spot for panoramic film cameras goes to the Soviet made Horizon (Горизонт) which provides a 120 degrees angle of view. This is such a cool looking camera. It's going to attract viewers. There are other less retro cameras like the Lomography Sprocket Rocket which has retro styling but is modern made.

Toughest Classic Camera

Photo of a Nikon F2 by Paul Goyette (CC) one of the toughest retro film cameras ever made. The Nikon F2 is legendary because of it's toughness. I had a mentor tell me a wild story about her F2. She dropped it at the Grand Canon and watching it tumble to the bottom of the gorge. She managed to retrieve her camera after hiking down after it. While the lens was busted the camera itself functioned like nothing had happened. The viewfinder, the shutter, everything was intact. These cameras are tanks. To be clear, I'm not recommending that you drop yours even from waist level but they are really something.

The East German made Praktica MTL 5B is strong second contender. The Pentax K1000 mentioned above is also a tough camera in addition to it's affordability.

Best Beginner Film Camera

Selecting the best film camera for a beginner is not easy. Before I can say what is best I need to define what we mean by beginner. Are we talking about a beginner to film or a beginner to photography more generally? If we mean the first, do we assume this is someone who understands enough about exposure to manage a fully manual camera? Before we start let's talk about film camera light meters.

Film Camera Light Meters

Let's assume you're buying a film camera with a working and reliable light meter. Tat's a big assumption but we'll go with it. That meter is likely a spot meter found in the center of the frame. This means you're going to need to point it at different areas of your scene to get an idea of the dynamic range you're working with. Because the dynamic range of film varies you'll need to consider that when you're calculating your exposure.

Once you've got accurate light meter readings from the shadows and highlights you can set your exposure by calculating where, in between these you want your absolute middle-tone to be. In other words, where is 18% grey in your scene. You could use a grey card too, if you want an easy solution but that's a whole other post.

Later models of SLR film cameras did come with different metering methods but keep in mind that only the most expensive of these had any computational knowledge built in. They were mostly just a choice between spot and scene metering. Either way they were still looking for that 18% grey.

Beginners To Film, Not Photography

Let's first say we expect our beginner to be someone who understands digital photography. This is great. For these users I'd strongly recommend buying a film camera that has the features to do what you want. Is that street photography, is that portraits? What do you want to do with the camera? You need to know that first.

The cameras I've listed above are all good first film cameras for experienced digital shooters. None of them are going to overwhelm anyone who understands how to get a good exposure. So the best film cameras for experienced digital photographers are:

  • Pentax K1000
  • Canon EOS 5, EOS 55, or Canon's EOS 1V
  • Nikon F2 or F100
  • Yashica 12
  • Soviet cameras including the Praktica MTL 5B, the Kiev 60 or Kiev 88
  • Lomography Sprocket Rocket

Best Beginner Film Cameras for People New To Photography

Of all the film cameras listed above there are a few I would recommend for people brand new to photography. There is going to be a learning curve. Learning photography itself is not the easiest thing to do. Learning when you can't immediately see your results is more difficult. The good news is anyone who learned photography before 2003 almost certainly learned on film.

So my first choice is the Pentax K1000 or a similar fully manual model. These cameras give you only the basics. As a result there are no bells and whistles or weird outdated features that can throw you off.

Alternatively you can buy a cheap point and shoot film camera to get a feel for using film before switching to an SLR. It's more fun to start with an SLR in my opinion. This is because you'll need to learn the foundations of photography in order to use the camera.

If you want private photography lessons in Pittsburgh I'm available 7 days a week. I also offer virtual photography classes and teach group photography classes near Pittsburgh and occasionally virtually as well. To find out when I'm teaching sign up for my mailing list. If you'd like to schedule a class you can also contact me here.

January 9, 2023 | Don Orkoskey
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