What really are the “Best Film Cameras for Beginners” - Part 1

Part one of three

WARNING – people easily offended by other people disagreeing with their entirely subjective views might want to look away now. This post might upset a few people, but that certainly wasn’t our intention when we started writing it.

So, here goes…… 

We have read many articles entitled “The best ever film cameras for beginners” or “film cameras beginners must try” and so on.

And we’re afraid to say we think a lot of them are absolute toilet.

Not because they contain cameras that aren’t our favourites, or because we would have a different list, but because the articles fail to do some basic things:

  1. Explain what the writer thinks makes a good beginners camera; and
  2. Tell us why the cameras they have selected meet those criteria

Instead what these articles should really be called are; 

  • Here’s a list of some random cameras I’ve put together that I can write some unspecific praise about; or
  • Here’s a few popular cameras that I am going to include in my list to get lots of clicks; or
  • These are the cameras I have heard other people say are great beginners cameras, so I am going to copy them because that’s much easier to do than thinking for myself.

Not very snappy titles, granted, but you get the point.

For instance, if you look for a “best film cameras for beginners” article online, I can virtually guarantee the Pentax K1000 is listed in there.

Now, we love Pentax cameras – see here for why – but calling this one of the best film cameras ever for beginners is, with respect, nonsense. Not only is it not one of the best beginners cameras of all time, it is not even one of the best Pentax beginners cameras of all time. It isn’t even the “best” Pentax camera of the mid 1970s.

And we think we can say that categorically.

Here’s why………

K1000

 

Pentax switched from their universal M42 mount in 1975, launching a range of cameras in their new K mount.

The cheapest of those cameras was the KM. The most expensive was the K2, and in between those was the KX.

 

The KM had a self-timer and, more importantly, depth of field preview. DoF preview is great when you’re starting out in film, as it will help you see how much of your shot is going to be in focus, and which bits will be all nice and bokeh-a-plenty.

Pentax kx

 The KX was like the KM, but it had a better metering system in it, and a wider range of available ISOs. It also showed you both the aperture and shutter speed settings in the viewfinder, useful at all times, but especially when you’re starting out and things aren’t as intuitive.

 

 The K2 not only had manual aperture mode, but also aperture priority mode. Again, a big help when you’re starting out and wanting a bit of help out of your camera every now and then.

 The K1000;

  •  No aperture priority option, like the K2;
  • No aperture and shutter speed preview in the viewfinder, like the KX;
  • No self-timer or depth of field preview, like even the basic KM had.

Therein lies the problem with the K1000 – it was released as a basic, cheaper option to the main Pentax range of the time. Nothing wrong with that of course but what it meant was:

…..A lot of students and people starting out in photography purchased a K1000 as a good value way of getting into photography….

…..and so for a lot of people the K1000 was very much their first love…..

…..the K1000 was made for nearly 20 years as a result of its popularity, so right through the 80s it continued to sell in good numbers…..

………It was often a camera teachers would tell their students to buy, as it was very basic and got them to grips with the fundamentals quickly….. 

….this helped create a bit of “cult status” around the camera, with lots of people associating it with beginners…..

….and this reputation stuck.

These days, because of this popularity the camera is still pricey. Chuck in that “cult status” we mentioned, and the fact people keep listing it as a “great beginners camera” and the price gets higher still. Ridiculously so in fact; you can buy a K2 for a similar (if not lower price) and the KX would be cheaper than the K1000 every time. In other words, you can get a better spec camera for a lower price, with some useful features for beginners. 

And yet, people keep listing the K1000 as a great beginners camera.

If you ask us, it’s probably the worst beginners camera Pentax made in that period, taking into account the silly prices they continue attract. You can buy the far superior Pentax MX for a similar price to the K1000, or the ME Super for far less money. And for a tiny fraction of the price you could get one of the many great aperture priority only cameras Pentax made in that era, which we think make great beginner cameras. And that’s just the Pentax cameras!

 So in a nutshell, we don’t think there’s any logical, considered reason to rank the K1000 as a great beginners camera; you can do much better for less money.

 

Canon AE1

Ah the Canon AE1. A stripped down camera with a lot of plastic, with shutter priority and manual mode, and not much else.

 A solid camera, sure, although a lot of them develop unreliable metering over the years. Shutter priority a useful mode to have for beginners, absolutely, perhaps not as useful as aperture priority though.

But why oh why is this camera better than all the other cameras with shutter/aperture priority and manual modes of the time, I hear you cry….

Well. It isn’t. But people sure love saying it is. A bit like with the K1000, that’s partly because it sold by the bucket load.

The mid 1970s had seen SLR cameras become common household objects, not just things reserved for the professionals and the hobbyists. All the major camera brands were competing fiercely with one another to get their cameras sold, and it turns out Canon had the deepest pockets. Their marketing spend on the AE1 was unprecedented at the time, and it worked – the AE1 sold millions of units.

So again, you’ve got a lot of people who had this camera as their introduction to photography, so a lot of praise for it that is emotive rather than based on anything tangible.

But one of the other reasons this camera sold so well is because it was considerably cheaper than the rival cameras of the time, especially those from Nikon, it’s biggest rivals. It was cheaper because Canon used lots of plastic and other costs cutting measures in its construction. It’s by no means badly built – and in fact, it’s probably far better built than most DSLRs are these days - but it doesn’t hold a candle to plenty of other cameras from the time in terms of build quality.

 It’s also got shutter priority as its “helper” mode, rather than the more common aperture priority. Now there’s an argument to be had as to which you might use more, but we’d wager that more people would find aperture priority useful/intuitive than those who would find shutter priority more of a help. Clearly if you’re shooting live sports, for instance, shutter priority is helpful, but how many of us are really doing that with a manual focus SLR?

So all things told, it’s a perfectly decent camera. But does it deserve its reputation as the “ultimate” beginners camera?

 We don’t think so; if you’re starting out there’s no reason to especially favour this over, for instance, the Nikon FE, the Olympus OM20, a Pentax ME Super, or the Canon AL1 perhaps, with aperture priority and the “quick focus” viewfinder screen. Or any of the many fully manual cameras out there, if that’s how you want to get into film. Or any of the aperture priority cameras, like Canon’s own AV1, if that’s what you prefer. Or………well, you get the idea!

……….

So that’s our take on a couple of manual focus SLRs that we think don’t necessarily deserve their place on the “best film cameras for beginners” list.

In part two of this article we’ll take a look at what we think you should be thinking about when deciding which camera is the one for you to start your 35mm film journey with. And then in part three we will give our own considered view on what we think are the best beginners cameras and why.

Film Camera store


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