Updated: Jan 6, 2022
Proclaimed science fiction author Douglas Adams once said "Lovers of print are confusing the plate for the food" indicating that those that would still read a physical book as opposed to an e-reader are getting caught up on the wrong thing when they consume their media. This is a fairly common idea held by more and more people as time goes on; newspapers, magazines, DVDs, totally bitchin' CD collections, tons of things are being relegated to a distant inefficient past that is giving way to convenience, minimalism, and instant gratification. Of course this isn't necessarily a bad thing: the age of information has given us unprecedented access to an unfathomable amount of data in an instant, it's truly a modern miracle. But of course being exposed to all of this digital technology can easily burn one out and as such certain parts of our analog past have either held on for dear life or, as promising digital babies turn into jaded digital adults, they have sprung back up, a major example being vinyl records. Tell me you don't know at least one twenty-or-thirty-something that has a sweet vintage British rock collection that isn't also self medicating because they can't afford a therapist. This same mindset has brought back an intimate love affair between the digital generation and analog photography. As camera phones begin to gnaw larger and larger chunks out of the consumer photography market fascination with vintage equipment has been on a sharp rise. And with a sharp rise in interest came a sharp rise in cost, average analog camera prices have doubled or tripled in the last five or so years and suddenly this hobby is getting less and less inexpensive to get into. So where's the smart money finding itself for the beginning film photographer? Ask a dozen film photographers and you'll get a dozen different answers. So let's explore what to look for in a beginning film camera for a price that won't hurt too much.
So what are you looking for in a film camera? Something old school? Manual in every way? Something more automatic that might match up with your digital setup? There's something for everyone. Let's start with that fully manual thing. Barebones, maybe-has-a-meter-maybe-doesn't bodies are abundantly available in varying qualities and price ranges. This category also contains what many would consider the golden standards for film students; such examples being the Pentax K1000, Canon AE-1, and Olympus OM-1, each of which we'll take a brief dive into in a moment. First we're going to look at some tried and true workhorses that would do everything a beginner would need it to do for a lower price than the models mentioned above. Take for starters the Pentax Spotmatic line of SLRs. These bodies, made between 1964 and 1976, can best be described by the word "heavy," the metal body is dense, the wind mechanism is stiff, and the shutter kicks like a mule. The meters on these guys are old and are in varying states of functionality, many of which don't work at all, so try to find a body that has been tested if the internal meter is important to you (and when you're starting out it's pretty nice to have). The real beauty of the Spotmatic line is its M42 lens mount which opens the camera up to a stupid huge amount of cheap glass and you'll have the privilege of shooting with Pentax's beautiful Takumar lens series. For the build quality these cameras are crazy affordable, working examples with a Takumar 50 or 55mm lens can often be found for $50 or less. In the same vein as the Spotmatic we have Minolta's SRT line. Another camera line from the sixties and seventies that is a formidable mass of metal. Meters on these guys are typically a bit more reliable than a Spotmatic's, and the Rokkor lens series is reasonably affordable and highly underrated glass. Early Canon FD models, such as the FTb or the EF, will also fit this bill quite nicely.
But hey, we're here to talk about those Titans of student cameras I mentioned earlier, aren't we? These bodies have certainly earned the reputations they now carry and if cost is no issue any one of these would make a great beginner body. Lets talk, for starters, about the Pentax K1000. This camera is the gold standard of student photography, most school programs that provide bodies to students will provide them with a K1000. These bodies were introduced in 1976 as a stripped down and subsequently crazy affordable iteration of Pentax's K series and was so popular production was carried nearly to the 21st century with the last body rolling out of the factory in 1997. The only nonessential thing on this camera is a simple matchstick style light meter powered by a single LR44 battery, the shutter is mechanical meaning this body literally only needs a battery for the meter and will actuate just fine without one. The beauty of simplicity is what elevates this camera, since there's not much that can break down on them they rarely do and will handle a knock or two with grace. Getting one of these guys with a Pentax 50mm f/2 will set you back probably between $100 and $150 with untested models going for a bit less and fully serviced or Special Edition bodies going for a bit more. Next we'll look at the Olympus OM-1, the eldest of the bodies I'm going to talk about in this section. Olympus released the OM-1 in 1972 as a compact alternative to other big and heavy professional camera bodies that plagued the early 1970s. Compare an OM-1 to a Spotmatic, Nikon F2, Canon F1, or an SRT and you will immediately notice a huge difference in weight and stature of the camera but not in a bad way. Early Olympus cameras are both light and small but still feel genuinely good in hand, while a body that size would often introduce awkward use of controls because of a cramped layout the body of an OM-1 gives you space to work and just feels natural as you do it. Like the K1000 the OM-1 is fully mechanical and only uses batteries to power a matchstick meter. The other big thing about this not-so-big camera is that its viewfinder is enormous, it feels larger than life as you hold your eye up to it and it has an unparalleled brightness as a result. Match this with some beautiful Zuiko glass and you've got a camera that can easily go anywhere. Now we've got the fan favorite, the bee's knees of 21st century analog photography: the Canon AE-1. This camera is an undeniable juggernaut of the photographic world, in its day it was one of the highest selling and most produced cameras of all time. This body also carries the distinction of being the first microprocessor equipped camera to hit the market and was at the forefront of automation in film bodies at the time. This body has a couple of things that sets it apart from the other cameras on this list: one is that this body is the only one that will not operate without a battery, another is that this body is the only one with an optional automatic function, offering a shutter priority mode for those who wish to let the body select the aperture settings.
Now let's look at the next option many beginners may wish to explore: getting a film body that would work with your existing arsenal for a digital camera. This is primarily going to be for the Canon and Nikon kids but hey if you picked up digital Pentax with no film experience more power to you. If you're a Nikon or Canon EOS shooter your lenses could potentially be used on a later film body. With EOS lenses it's pretty straight forward: EF lenses work, EF-S lenses don't, get a Rebel or an Elan and go nuts. Nikon shooters, you'll be here for a sec. DX lenses are pretty much a general no go, you'll get a strong vignette with any of them. With everything else the first thing you'll need to know is if your film body relies on a physical aperture ring or not. All MF Nikon bodies need that aperture ring, some AF bodies do as well. D series Nikon AF glass will carry you the farthest, this series of lens has a physical aperture ring and will work across pretty much any AF or MF Nikon platform (save for the older bodies put out before the Auto Indexing system like the F and early Nikkormats). For G series glass it would likely just be easiest to look up the prospective Nikon body to check its lens compatibility. Looping back briefly to Pentax: go nuts, the K mount is still the K mount. If you happen to shoot a Sony DSLR you can throw that glass onto a Minolta Maxxum body or vice verse.
Rangefinders? Did one of you say rangefinders? I'll be the first to admit partial bias here but I'd really sooner go the SLR route on my first camera, nothing against rangefinders necessarily, but ease of use is the forefront factor in my mind while throwing my unsolicited stream-of-consciousness advice on this page and SLRs in my experience are much more approachable as a starter. But I know that's not what you asked. Leica, Voigtlander, Contax, there's a lot of allure and prestige to the rangefinder family. They're compact, they're pretty, and they have a reputation, deserved or undeserved depending on who you ask, for being excellent cameras. And I don't mean to sound like I'm 100% negative on rangefinders, I've played with several that deserve the praise that follows them, but they are all united in one thing: a hefty price tag. While cheap rangefinders certainly exist they can often be unreliable and not super refined. Most cheap rangefinders with interchangeable lenses are going to be Soviet replicas of WWII era German cameras like FED and Zorki. These cameras aren't necessarily bad, heck for the price they're actually quite fun and give interesting results, but they also almost always need to be serviced before use anymore, the rangefinders are often out of calibration and shutter speeds are often inaccurate.
But wait! I want to start with medium format! How can I do that affordably? The short answer is "not easily." There was a time not too long ago that quality medium format equipment was undervalued and being sold for a steal but that time has since passed. Your most affordable way is going to be a TLR, probably something decent yet simple like a Yashica or Rolleicord. There are other primitive TLRs out there for less if you don't mind putting up with some potential quirks, the Ricohflex being a prime example. Like with the rangefinder, if you want affordable you'll be looking at a lot of Soviet-made cameras. Your main affordable non-Soviet SLR options are going to be the early Zenza Bronica models like the Model C or maybe a Kowa Six. Bronica offers decent construction that will remind you of a not quite as refined Hasselblad but sporting Nikkor glass. The Kowa is a quirky little thing, it shoots 6x6 and is an SLR with a tall body and generally an external grip.