When you’re ready to take the dive into film photography, or perfect the skills you’ve been working on, a solid 35mm SLR with interchangeable lenses is absolutely imperative. An SLR, or Single Lens Reflex, means that a mirror and prism system lets you see exactly what you are shooting. Interchangeable lenses mean just that - you can take the lenses on and off.
Most SLRs are sold as “kits,” meaning you get at least one lens with the body; however sometimes you may come across an amazing body on its own which means you’ll have to find a lens yourself.
So what exactly makes a good SLR for beginners? First, it should be fully manual! You’ll never learn shooting automatic, so let that one go. Second, it should be easy to repair and easy to find extra lenses and accessories. Go with a well-known brand versus something obscure (no matter how gorgeous it is!) to make sure you won’t be struggling.
Quite a few major brands manufactured 35mm SLRs, but we’ve put together a list of solid, reliable models that are a perfect fit for any beginner looking to invest in a camera that will last a lifetime. You cannot go wrong with one of these classics:
1. OUR CHOICE is Nikon F100 and F5
The Nikon F series includes the original Nikon F, the mythical Nikon F2, the indestructible Nikon F3 with some few variants, the Nikon F4 and of course the state of the art Nikon F5, and the latest film camera Nikon F6 is currently in production Starting with production of the Nikon F in 1959, the Nikon F6 is one of the two film cameras still currently available by Nikon.
The simple fact that Nikon F series cameras have been in production for so long makes them very easy to find, easy to repair and they are compatible with a very large quantity of lenses. Any Nikon F bayonet mount lens is compatible - even newer models. The only issues you may run into are an incompatibility with autofocus - all Nikon F series cameras before Nikon F4 are manual focus only - and newer lenses that lack an aperture ring that can work only with F5 and F6. That being said, any lens you buy for a Nikon F series body will also work on your Nikon DSLR no problem. (Side note: Im working right now with my five Nikon F5 everyday.)
The Nikon F5 is a 35mm film-based single-reflex camera body manufactured by Nikon from 1996 through 2004. It was the fifth in Nikon's professional film camera line, which began in 1959 with the Nikon F. It followed the Nikon F4 of 1988, which had introduced in-body autofocus to Nikon's professional line. The F5 was in turn succeeded by the Nikon F6, as well as Nikon's parallel range of professional digital SLRs, beginning with the Nikon D1.
Important advances in the F5 included:
- Nikon 3-D color matrix meter (the Nikon F4 had introduced multi-segment matrix metering to the F series, but color sensing was new).
- A self-diagnostic and self-adjusting shutter.
- A mirror-balance system that reduced camera shake.
- Electronically controlled exposure times from 1/8000 second to 30 seconds.
- Built-in 8 frame per second motor drive (up from 5.7 frame/s on the Nikon F4).
- 1/300 second flash sync (up from 1/250 on the Nikon F4). However, at 1/300 second, flash units could not use their full capacity.
- Full support for Nikkor AF-S and G designated lenses (the Nikon F4 could not use G lenses in aperture-priority or full manual modes).
- Support for the Vibration Reduction (VR) image stabilization feature of newer Nikkor lenses.
- Five focus points for the autofocus sensor (up from one on the F4) with intelligent dynamic autofocus mode.
- A new industrial design by Giorgetto Giugiaro (also designer of the Nikon F3 and F4, and the most innovative Nikon F-801.)
- An integral vertical/battery grip with additional shutter release and adjustment wheel controls (previous Nikon F models had used a range of removable battery grips).
Like all previous Nikon F series cameras, the F5 maintained a manual film rewind (with a rapid power rewind built in), high durability, exceptionally short shutter lag, interchangeable 100% coverage viewfinders (including a large-view Action Finder, Waist-Level Finder, and 6x High-Magnification Finder, in addition to the stock DP-30 multi-metering pentaprism), and support for a wide range of Nikon F mount lenses lenses. In common with the Nikon F3 and Nikon F4 it relied upon battery power in order to function, either from eight AA batteries or an optional rechargeable NiMH battery pack.
The Nikon F100 is a 35mm film-based single-lens reflex camera body introduced in 1999. It is often thought of as a scaled-down version of the Nikon F5, and as a precursor to the Nikon F6. The F100 was discontinued, along with most other Nikon film cameras, in 2006.
The Nikon F-100 is a prosumer version in the Nikon F serie. Exceptional camera, it is a perfect compromise if you like to have a modern SLR camera with separate battery pack and grip. It is of course suitable for all Nikon lenses AF, G and Ai, Ai-S. This camera is light and indistrauctible.
The F100's metering system is a development of Nikon's matrix metering technology introduced in 1983 on the Nikon FA. The meter in the F100 uses a 10 segment light sensor and uses distance information from Nikon D-type and G-type lenses for more accurate exposure calculations when using direct flash In addition to matrix metering, the F100 also offers standard center-weighted and spot metering modes.
Also incorporated into the camera is Nikon's Dynamic Autofocus system and a 4.5 frame per second motor drive with automatic rewind. The top motor drive speed can be boosted to 5 frames per second with the addition of the Nikon MB-15 battery pack.
The F100 also provides many features which are common among high-end 35mm SLR cameras, such as automatic bracketing modes, DX film speed sensing, and custom functions which allow the photographer to tailor certain aspects of the camera's operation to the way he or she works.
Back to the day the Nikon F-100 was as choice if you want to save some money since Nikon F5 was an incredible expensive camera, but today they are both become very affordable and then choose one or another is just a personal matter, about size, shape, dimension and weight.
2. CANON AE-1
The CANON AE-1 is one of the most well-known 35mm SLRs of all time and has a hugely loyal fan base - people literally swear by this camera. It was manufactured in Japan from 1976 to 1984, and in those 8 years enough were produced that you will not have a hard time getting your hands on one for a reasonable price. This camera was not designed for professionals, but instead featured straightforward and easy-to-understand controls intended for beginners or hobbyists. It has an automatic aperture feature, but you won’t be using that if you actually want to learn something. It uses a Canon FD lens mount, making it compatible with any FD or FDn lens. It’s not technically compatible with Canon EF lenses, but plenty of adapters are available to solve that problem.
A couple of fun facts: this camera sold an unprecedented one million units - a first for any SLR. It was also the first SLR on the market to be equipped with a microprocessor. The microprocessor is essential to the electromagnetic focal plane shutter system - which brings us to the one downfall of this camera: if the battery dies the shutter won’t pop. Batteries for most 35mm SLRs are specifically for the light meter, but this is not so in the case of the Canon AE-1. Basically, buy extra batteries if you go for this camera and you’ll be fine. The follow up model to the Canon AE-1 is the Canon AE-1 Program, and is also a good option.
3. Pentax K1000
The Pentax K1000 is often referred to as a “beast” or “workhorse” because of it’s insane durability. It was manufactured from 1976 to 1997, making it one of the longest produced 35mm SLR models of all time. It’s inexpensive, simple and loved by photographers worldwide. Because of its reasonable price tag and long-standing production, over 3 million Pentax K1000s units were sold over time and today you can easily find them in great condition without looking very far.
It’s all metal, all manual and accepts ALL Pentax K bayonet lenses. On top of that, almost all Pentax K-AF and K-AF2 autofocus lenses also work with it - you just have to focus manually. With the help of an adapter, it also accepts screw mount lenses and will even work with new autofocus lenses that lack an aperture ring - albeit with limited functionality. Essentially, Pentax claims that any Pentax lens will have some functionality on a K1000 so it’s a camera that will give you lots of options. Plus on this body, if the battery dies no biggie - it’s only for the light meter.
4. Nikon FM Series (Any)
The Nikon FM series includes the original Nikon FM, Nikon FM2, Nikon FM2n, Nikon FM-10, Nikon FM3a and a few special variants (like the illusive Nikon FM2n Tropical Edition, which unfortunately does not feature a palm tree print.) Starting with production of the Nikon FM in 1977, the Nikon FM10 is one of the few film cameras still currently available. You can buy a new one from Nikon right now.
The simple fact that Nikon FM series cameras have been in production for so long makes them very easy to find, easy to repair and they are compatible with a very large quantity of lenses. Any Nikon F bayonet mount lens is compatible - even newer models. The only issues you may run into are an incompatibility with autofocus - all Nikon FM series cameras are manual focus only - and newer lenses that lack an aperture ring. That being said, any lens you buy for a Nikon FM series body will also work on your Nikon DSLR no problem. (Side note: I’ve had my Nikon FM2 for 26 years, have never had to have it repaired and it still works like the day I got it.
5. Olympus OM System
The Olympus OM system includes quite a few models, but we specifically recommend the Olympus OM-1, Olympus OM-2, Olympus OM-3 and Olympus OM-4. These were considered professional series of Olympus cameras line
Back in the day have / use Olympus was like think different. Exceptionally compact, with incredible beautiful and peculiar lenses that only Olympus brand was capable to offer... they was a choice of a few, but a great one.
(Side note: one of my best friend, a photographer of course, is name Olimpio, and he was having the most complete Olympus system you can imagine....)
The Olympus OM-1 was released in 1972 at a time when plenty of 35mm manual focus SLRs were available, but what distinctly set it apart was it’s extremely compact and lightweight design combined with a significantly quieter shutter than other models. For those of you specifically interested in extended exposures, night photography and astrophotography, the original OM-1 has a mirror lock-up feature; the subsequent OM models do not have the mirror lock-up. The Olympus OM-4 was discontinued in 2002, giving the OM system quite a lengthy run.