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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Film Camera Buying Guide

Mamiya C220 TLR
© 2009 Simon Hucko

I keep talking about film here on the blog, and some of you might be interested in taking the plunge but aren't quite sure where to start. I thought I would throw together a few tips and tricks about buying into and starting to shoot film, from the perspective of someone who got started on photography with digital.

If you've never shot a roll of film, I highly recommend getting a 35mm SLR with a built-in meter. This will be the most familiar to you coming from a DSLR. If you're a Nikon shooter, you're in luck - Nikon hasn't changed its lens mount in 65 years or whatever, so you can share lenses between your digital and film body. For an experience almost identical to your DSLR without the image review window, check out something like the F80 (this will even take those G lenses as long as they're full frame). If you want more of a manual camera, the FE or F3 are both great options. It's hard to go wrong with any of the manual bodies, though, and since the F mount hasn't changed you can share lenses with your digital body just fine, as long as they are AI, AI'd, AI-S, AF, AF-D or AF-S and have an aperture ring. For you Canon users, I think any EOS body will work with EF mount glass (including the Rebel line). Canon changed their mount not too long ago, so the older manual Canon bodies won't work with modern lenses. There are two other SLR's I can recommend - the Canon A-1 (FD mount) and the Pentax K-1000 (K mount). Neither one is compatible with modern lenses, but they're both well built manual cameras and are the recommended "first SLR" that I see a lot on the film forums. Since the lenses aren't compatible with modern cameras, they tend to be less expensive, so if you don't already have a large lens collection that might be a good way to get the most bang for your buck.

Once you decide on a camera, you have to figure out where to buy it. Very few 35mm film cameras are still being manufactured new, so you're going to have to dive into the used market. Buying used gear can be a bit tricky, as it's much more of a free-for-all than new in the box equipment from a store. There are three sources I can recommend: KEH, eBay, and Craigslist. Each has their own pros and cons. is the closest to a retail experience that you're going to get with used gear. They have a pretty big selection, and their prices are fixed (no bidding or haggling). All of their gear is inspected and graded before being listed, and from what I've heard they tend to be pretty generous with their grading (ie something listed as "bargain" can actually be in pretty good shape with just a few dings). KEH is definitely the "safe" option, as they know what they're doing and will offer customer support and a return policy that you don't get elsewhere. You do pay a bit of a premium for that, but their prices are pretty fair. You certainly can get stuff for less on eBay or Craigslist, but it's a bit more risky. I always check KEH to get an upper-limit idea of how much to pay for something, even if I'm planning on buying it elsewhere. Think of it as the "blue book" value for used camera equipment.

eBay is probably where most film equipment gets bought and sold. There can be some great deals to be had, but there are also a lot of overinflated prices and bad quality thrown into the mix. "Buy it now" prices are usually a good bit higher than what winning bids go for on the same items, so unless you're all about convenience I would pass on that. Look for good seller ratings and listings with photos of the actual item for sale. Check the description for comments like "film tested, no light leaks, shutter speeds are good," and other wording that shows that the seller has some knowledge of the camera and what condition it's in. "Recently CLA'd" is great, it means that the camera was recently serviced and should be in good operating condition. (CLA stands for Clean, Lubricate and Adjust, and typically involves replacing light seals, making sure that the shutter is accurate, and cleaning any gunk on the camera, especially any optical surfaces.) Watch out for "I don't know anything about cameras" or the wording "as is" - it's not a no go, but usually a bit of a red flag that the seller either hasn't tested the equipment or is trying to hide some defect. Sometimes these turn out to be the best deals, because other buyers get scared off, but there's also a good chance that you're going to purchase an overpriced paperweight. It all depends on how much of a gambler you are. Don't get sucked into bidding wars - set a top price you'd be willing to pay for an item given what it is and what condition it's in, and then walk away. If you're persistent, you will eventually get what you want at a reasonable price. If you're hasty or emotional, you're likely to wind up overpaying for something.

Finally, depending on where you live, Craigslist can be a great source of deals. Craigslist is sort of like fishing - you just have to cast a line out there and see what turns up. It's not the place to go if you're looking for something specific. I recommend adding the photo/video listings to your RSS feed so that you can keep an eye on what's out there. There are typically three types of seller on Craigslist. One is the old photographer who is finally switching to digital or is retiring and wants to sell their film gear. You probably won't get any great deals from them, but they'll know a lot about the condition of their equipment and will likely have a lot of good quality stuff available for sale, including darkroom setups. The next type is the "I bought this camera for a film class a year ago" listing, where the person took a black and white photography class and was required to buy a SLR for it. From what I've seen, they're usually a bit over-optimistic when setting a price ("but I just paid X dollars for it a year ago!"), and the equipment tends to be lower quality (more modern plastic bodies with kit zooms.) You might be able to talk them down on price, but know that this camera probably won't give you that lifetime of use that a metal, more professional SLR will. Third, you have the people who inherited a box of camera stuff and have no idea how much it's worth. Prices from them can be all over the place, but these are usually where the best deals can be had. Listings are usually vague ("I have a box of camera stuff"), so definitely set up a time to look at what they have and talk pricing. It's more effort, but you might be able to get your setup for a steal.

If you get the chance to handle a camera before buying, do a few quick checks to make sure everything works well. Open the back of the camera (typically done by pulling up on the rewind lever) and look at the light seals (foam, felt or string around where the back and the body meet). Run a finger over them - they should have a little give and not flake off all over the place. If they do, you're going to need new light seals (not difficult, but a messy job that will cost you some time and materials). Fire the shutter a few times at different speeds. Of course you can't time them exactly, but 1/125th should be noticeably faster than 1/30th, and you know what 1 second should sound like. Check the meter - point it at something light, then something dark, and make sure it changes. You can reality check it with Sunny 16 if you're outside or near a window. If the battery is dead, check the battery compartment for corrosion (flaky white crystals). If it's there, there's a chance the wiring is fried and the meter won't work even with a fresh battery. Make sure all the mechanicals work smoothly, on both the camera and any lenses. Check the optics for mold - dirt and grime will clean off no problem, but mold can ruin a lens. Little scratches in the coating are ok, but big dings could cause flare. "Pretty" doesn't really matter - as long as the camera is light tight and the mechanics function well a little brassing, scuffing or dents won't hurt anything.

Most SLRs come with a 50mm prime attached, usually in the f/1.4-f/2 range. I recommend sticking with just that lens for a bit as you learn more about the camera and about shooting film in general. If you feel the need to diversify you can add two more inexpensive primes, a 24/28/35mm on the wide end and an 85/105 on the tele end, typically around f/2.8. That triplet of primes (maybe 4, I understand wanting a 24 and a 35 on the wide end) should cover you for just about everything you'll want to shoot. I highly recommend staying away from older zoom lenses, as they tend to be of lower quality (it took a while for the engineering and coating to get to where it is today). It also defeats the purpose of shooting film, IMO - I shoot film to slow down and put more thought and effort into my photos. If I want speed and convenience I'll grab my DSLR.

So there ya have it. I'll write a bit about choosing film in the future. Any questions or comments are always appreciated :)


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1 comment:

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    i need to write some blogs so i can boost my sales in my online
    store atleast i have a idea now thanks for you.