Now I hear you saying “all that stuff you said in Why Shoot Film is all well and good, but it must be expensive.” Well actually, it isn’t as expensive as you might think.
First thing to remember, like you hear a lot of other photographers saying “it’s not about the gear.” When you first start out in film you don’t need to go out and get a fancy rangefinder or SLR or even a top of the like compact. Find something simple to use that allows you to concentrate on learning how to load the film and then compose an shoot without worrying about stuff like shutter speed, focus, or aperture. That said you will find you can get some really nice gear, often for less then a mid-range compact digital or entry-level DSLR.
Where to Look
While eBay isn’t always the best place to find old camera gear it is a good reference for some prices. Search around and you may find some incredible deals.
Check out yard sales as often as you can. Not only can you find great deals, but you also have the chance to look closely at the camera and inspect for any issues. To give you an idea of the types of deals you might find at yard sales, I got a Pentax Espio 80v, an Agfa Optima1a and a Yashica compact all for $5. I got rid of the Yashica because it was gummed up with soda. More recently I got a Nikon FE with a 50mm lens and a Minolta XG1 with two lenses and a tele-converter for a grand total of $20.
Another place to look is in thrift shops, you will often find really good deals. The better equipment is usually kept in locked cases, but you can find some decent stuff out on the shelves to. I suggest that you check online before buying the cameras in the cases just to make sure they aren’t trying to charge too much. I have seen some nice compacts for $2-$5. You can also look closely at the cameras in the thrift shops, if they don’t let you, just walk away even if it is the most wonderful looking camera around.
Some camera stores also have a selection of old film equipment. While they will let you look at the equipment, it is usually very clean. The prices will usually be high, but that is often worth it as it may come with a CLA (Cleaning, Lubricating and Adjustment.) Don’t be afraid to ask if that has been done and if there is a warranty, sometimes you will get that as well. If it comes with a CLA and warranty then the camera is probably well worth paying for the extra premium for as it will last you a long time.
Finally there are online sources like eBay, Craig’s List, or Kijiji and many more. Usually you can get a chance to inspect the camera if you go through something like Craig’s List or Kijiji, normally eBay purchases are more awkward.
What Should I be Looking for?
One of the first things to do is, look closely at the lens and viewfinder and make sure there aren’t any scratches or there isn’t any fungus. On a compact, rangefinder, or viewfinder camera if there is dirt and/or fungus in the viewfinder it isn’t a big issue because you’re not looking through the lens but still look closely at the lens. If it is an SLR and you see scratches or fungus, remove the lens and check to make sure there isn’t anything wrong with the lens. If the lens is clean then it is probably just in the viewfinder, so no need to worry.
Next look at what kind of batteries the camera uses and are they readily available. Most SLRs use a variety of small special batteries, my Nikon FE and Minolta XG1 use a pair of small AG13 button cells, while my AE-1 used an old 6v mercury battery which is the same as an alkaline L1325 battery that you can usually get for a reasonable price at a hardware or camera store (an they last a long time.) Some SLRs and a lot of compacts use AA or AAA batteries. My Canon SnappyQ and Kodak Star 435 use AA batteries. If you can find a camera that uses AA or AAA batteries you’ll be laughing because they are cheap and readily available, however sometimes the battery life is not as good as specialized batteries. My Canon Sure Shot WP-1 and Pentax Espio 80v use a special 3v CR123A Lithium battery. I think the cheapest price I found for the CR123A was around $18 for one battery. Then there are some cameras that don’t need batteries. The Kodak Star 435 only needed the batteries for the flash, otherwise it worked without. The Agfa Optima1a didn’t use batteries but could automatically adjust the aperture and shutter speed. Then the Kodak Instamatic X-15F also didn’t use batteries.
Which brings me to, check the type of film it uses. This is a key factor in choosing a camera. The most readily available film is 135 aka 35mm. Thankfully the majority of cameras you will find use 135 film and most places that develop film can do at least 135 colour film. Also it can be found almost anywhere, drugstores, big box stores (Walmart, Target, etc) and camera stores, usually cary it. Besides 135 the other formats you are likely to find are, 120, 220, and instant. Then there are 120 and 220. They are larger than 135 often with negative that are roughly 6cmx6cm although depending on the camera the size can vary. 120 and 220 are packaged in rolls with a paper backing on the film and are the same type of film, 220 just takes more shots than 120. Instant is stuff like Polaroid or Fuji Instax. 120, 220 and Polaroid usually need to be ordered specially online, although some camera stores may carry them. 120 and 220 usually need to be sent out for developing unless you are into developing your own film. Instax is readily available in stores. Then you might see 125, 110, or disc, steer clear as those films are no longer produced and most places can’t process them. 110 and 125 film can be identified by the cartridge format they use. It is a black plastic cartridge with an area for exposed and unexposed film. The Kodak Instamatic X-15F uses 125 film. Disc film is a little wheel like that of a viewmaster toy with the frames placed around the outside of the “disc”. Another film format that’s not made anymore is Advanced Photo System (APS). APS comes in a cartridge a little like 135 but without the film sticking out. It has a smaller frame than 135, approx 1.5x cropping and is where the common DSLR sensor size of APS-C gets its name. APS had some great
Now that you know some of what to look for, go find a camera. First think about what you want to do with the camera, a beautiful Leica, while amazing isn’t the best for the casual point and shooter or someone who wants ease of use or automatic modes.
If you are just used to point and shoot then I recommend finding a decent compact camera that does all the work for you. I recommend looking at one of the more advanced compacts with zoom, autofocus and automatic exposure. There are many out there but to name a couple the Pentax Expio 80v and Olympus Stylus Epic are both excellent. If the seller can’t give you any information take the time to look for the manual online.
If you are an advanced shooter with some knowledge of how aperture, shutter speed and ISO/ASA work then you’ll probably want something with more control. To gain that control you’ll want an SLR, Rangefinder, or compact camera with some form of manual adjustment, but you will also want ease of use for your first film camera. For the ultimate ease of use an advanced compact would be perfect. Several people on Twitter recommend the Olympus XA with aperture priority. Some rangefinders like the Minolta Himatic series or the Canon Canonet offer a small amount of automatic controls usually in the form of aperture priority where you set the aperture and the camera sets the shutter speed. There may also be full automatic or shutter priority rangefinders as well as some may have autofocus, but most are manual focus. With some rangefinders you can also change the lenses like on an SLR. Then there are the SLRs. You can get anything from aperture priority to full automatic with the ability to view through the lens and change lenses. SLRs along with compacts are very easy to find for a reasonable price. My Nikon FE and Minolta XG1 are aperture while my Canon AE-1 is shutter priority. They are also manual focus however, you can easily find autofocus cameras like newer Nikons, Canon EOS cameras.