How To Discover Your Ideal Film Camera (The Test / Best / Rest Plan)

My hunt began some four and a half years ago with a birthday gift of a Holga 120N, my first film camera.

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Holga 120N, Fuji Velvia 50 film cross processed

Little did I know that now over 50 months later I would have shot at least one roll of film with over 120 film cameras and owned maybe 50 more.

I didn’t set out to be a collector, but what happened with film was that using the equipment came to equal, maybe even eclipse the final photograph.

Pre-film, I shot first with phone cameras, mostly Sony (Ericsson), simply because it was the camera I always had with me.

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Sony Ericsson C902

A few years later I invested in a fantastic little Nikon CoolPix.

Like the phone cameras, the compact Nikon was really just a tool, something super pocketable that I could take with me when out walking and capture something of the beautiful things I found.

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Nikon Coolpix P300

But even from the early days using the humble Holga, the sensations of unwrapping and loading the film, winding it on after each shot, then having to wait to see the results, were all new to me and tremendously engaging and exciting.

And still are.

Add to this the side of my personality that loves shiny new (to me) toys to play with, and I soon found I was seeking out new possibilities of film – the greater convenience, compactness and affordability of 35mm, plus all the different cameras to shoot it with.

As I write this I feel as settled with my small arsenal of film cameras as I have ever done.

At the heart, five SLRs (Contax, Contax, Contax, Asahi Spotmatic, Canon EOS), accompanied by a handful of compacts, including arguably my favourite I’ve used, the humble Olympus Mju-1.

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Olympus Mju-1, Ilford XP2 Super expired film

For further variety I have a Kiev-2A (the oldest camera I have ever, c1956) and a not much newer Voigtlander Vito B.

The little I use the latter two, I could easily sell them too, relying on the wonderful Spotmatic for when I wanted the unplugged all manual mechanical experience.

But, as I mentioned when we began, I didn’t get here quickly!

The system that has worked for me in finding the film cameras (and lenses) I love most, has been pretty simple, and can be summed up in three words -Test, Best, Rest.

To expand a little –

Test

We all have to start somewhere. The first 35mm film camera I bought was a Lomo Smena 8M, surprisingly manual in retrospect – I could have chosen something far more automated.

My first SLR was a Praktica BMS Electronic, a solid and serious leather coated chunk of German engineering and electronics. The pictures from my first roll were a revelation – I had discovered (unintentionally!) shallow depth of field and bokeh!

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Praktica BMS Electronic, Prakticar Pentacon 50/1.8 lens, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 film

This opened the floodgates and I went on various voyages of exploration with my reading and browsing images online to find the next port of call, seeing how cameras of a similar style (eg, SLR) differed between models and manufacturers.

In other words I just set about testing different kit to find what I liked. Which leads us to the second word and stage – Best.

Best

After a while (and indeed even after trying two cameras), you can make an informed decision about which camera you like best. It can’t be a judgement based on all the cameras in the world, because no-one has used all the cameras in the world, but only what you’ve used thus far.

Plus sometimes, indeed often, it’s not a decision based on the spec sheet or technical prowess of the kit, but more about how it makes you feel when you hold and use it.

With me for example, after trying Praktica, Konica and Canon, I found I much preferred Pentax, especially the M range – ME, ME Super, MV et al. I just really liked how it felt to hold them, wind them on and shoot film with them.

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Pentax ME Super, SMC Takmar 55/2 M42 lens, Tudorcolor XLX200 film

Each time you try something you like better than anything you’ve liked before, you have your new yardstick. 

These of course become the cameras you keep, the ones you can’t wait to use again, the ones that seem to call you from the shelf they sit on each time you pass…

Rest

So what happens when you compare two cameras and like one better than the other? You have a choice.

If one is amazing and the other is even more amazing, but slightly different, you might want to keep both.

But if one is clearly preferable, and you feel that every time you picked up the “inferior” camera you’d be wondering why you weren’t shooting with your favourite, then it’s probably time to let it go.

It becomes one of “the rest”, that don’t quite make the grade for you, but might become someone else’s new (old) favourite camera. You can either sell it on, and use the funds for a future purchase, or donate to a charity shop, or photographic friend.

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Olympus OM40 Program, Olympus OM 50/1.8 lens, Solution VX200 expired film

So that’s the methodology I use, and the journey I’ve been on over the last four and a half years, very simply.

Test, test, test, keep the Best, sell/donate the Rest. 

There are still I’m sure thousands of cameras I’ve not tried and never will. But I’m ok with that.

The ones I do have are special enough to make me not want to use anything else, or to seek any further.

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Contax 167MT, Yashica ML 50/1.7 lens, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 film

Have you found your ideal film camera(s)? How did you go about it? 

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