Film? I think I’ve heard of that

By Mir
November 28, 2006

Today we have a question from the lovely Daisy about film cameras.

Hello, pretty Mir, I know you have a source for this information. (snicker, sneaky laugh). My college age daughter is a journalism major and budding photographer. She recently won a photo contest (her third so far), and part of the prize package was a roll of film Well, she usually shoots in digital, but this reminded her that she would like to take what she calls “pretty pictures” with a camera of reasonable quality that won’t break the college-tuition- paying bank. Any suggestions? Is buying used a safe thing to do?

I’m not sure why she can’t take pretty pictures in digital, but I turned your question over to Otto for his expert take, anyway. He took it very seriously and he’s really cute when he’s serious.

Here’s what Otto said:

“Pretty pictures?”

First, the camera (once you get past a certain quality level) won’t make photos any prettier — it’s up to the photographer to control the “pretty” quotient.

As for looking for used film cameras, there are lots of questions to ask. The first is does she want a 35 mm camera or something more complex, like a view camera or Hasselblad medium format system? Or, perhaps, something much less complex but in a different film format, such as a Holga (which uses 120 mm film and produces very artsy images)?

Assuming she wants to stay with 35 mm, what is she using now? The major digital single lens reflex (DSLR) manufacturers (which is essentially Nikon and Canon) have film bodies that will use most (though not all) of the same lenses. It’s much easier (and cheaper) to have one set of lenses that work on a couple of bodies, as opposed to multiple kits of lenses and bodies.

(Note that the lenses that come with some of the DSLR kits will not work on film bodies — due to the digital chip being smaller than a 35 mm piece of film, some “digital” lenses won’t cover the entire piece of film. Check the lens specifications at the respective manufacturers web sites.)

Now, as for buying used … go for it. In my nearly 30 years of shooting, I have bought one new camera — and that was my first one when I was about 12. Everything since then has been used — much of it well used.

The caveats — buy from a reputable dealer. I have used for years with no problems from their sales teams. Their ratings are comically conservative — stuff they list as “bargain” is better than most of the stuff I own and use. B&H Photo in New York City is not a bad place to go, either, or Newtonville Camera in Massachusetts.

Ebay is a little trickier — if you don’t know what something should look or sound like, you won’t know if there’s a problem when you get it. Most of the stuff on the auction site is probably fine — but you may get a few sleazy folks who are dumping broken cameras. I like the the dealers because they back up their sales with a warranty of some sort.

As for specific models … I like Mir’s readers, so I won’t start a Nikon vs. Canon war here. Both have plusses, both have limitations. There’s more film stuff on the Nikon side since their lens mounts haven’t changed since, um, 1959, whereas Canon changed theirs in the late-1980s. Make sure the camera allows for full, metered manual mode — that’s the only specific thing I would require.

But either will make “pretty pictures” — if you know what to do with the camera.

Here’s what I say: What Otto said.

I hope that helps, and if it doesn’t, I’d be happy to go back to Otto and make him think some more.


  1. I’m a big fan of the Canon Rebel line of cameras. In fact, I have it on really good authority that the Rebel XT (a DSLR) will be making an appearance under my Christmas tree this holiday season! The Rebel 2000 was a great starter camera for me, as I didn’t take any photography classes for a good while and it offers a decent range of automatic functions. Now that I actually know what I’m doing when it comes to camera, I still appreciate that I can do some point and shooting for the “oooh, take my picture!” shots and then get fancy with the shots for myself. All canon lenses post 1986 supposedly fit onto the XT or XTI, which played a big part in my choosing that camera. I already have a wide variety of lenses, and paid dearly to get them! Now (in December) I can use my old standby or the DSLR interchangeably with the lenses! Ritz Camera had a pretty great deal this past weekend that got you the XT or XTI at discounted prices plus a free photo printer. I’m not sure how long that will last, but it’s worth looking into!

  2. I bought a camera on eBay from a so-called dealer in Syracuse, NY and it was the single most horrid purchase experience in my life. Be warned!!! They send me a damaged camera and refused to take it back. They made me send it to kodak “under warranty” who sent it back refusing to fix it because it was mechanical damage. My paypal guarantee from eBay? Worthless. The denied my claim, refused to discuss it with me or tell me why.

    Horrible, horrible experience and I was out $150. I will never again buy a camera that I do not phyically try and choose first.

  3. For a complete “budget” buy, pick up one of the following cameras:
    Yashica T4 Super (or T5, as it’s called in Europe)
    Olympus Stylus Epic
    Olympus Stylus

    All three cameras are non-zooms, which is a good thing. The lenses are small, so they can’t collect much light. A zooming lens on this size of camera just means you’re using the flash all the time, which is not a good idea. Plus, without the zoom they focus faster, making them ideal for catching action shots.

    The Epic has a fast f2.8 lens, which will limit the depth of field (how much of the background is in focus) a bit, but will allow for some “artistic” pictures. The original Stylus is more forgiving than the Epic, but not quite as sharp in the lens department. (I bought my last Stylus as a refurb from Ritz Camera for $20. Great deal.)

    The Yashica T4 Super is a long-standing favorite for professional photographers who want a small camera to have with them at all times. It uses a premium lens that’s tack-sharp. Even though discontinued, they’re still in demand and will fetch $150-$250 on eBay.

    I used all three when living abroad for a year, and have wonderful photos from all of them.

    I really wish there were a digital camera out there that were the equal of these three cameras for the price. Instead, the manufacturers strap slow zooms on slow image processors and, ultimately, force one to spend upwards of $350 to get a camera that’s as responsive as a $100 point and shoot film camera of 5 years ago.

  4. Wow, this is great! I must explain — the term “pretty pictures” came about her senior year in high school when she was heading off to France for two weeks. She couldn’t decide whether to bring the family digital camera or the 35 mm she had borrowed from my stepfather. At that time, she felt she could take better quality pix on the film camera. At her high school graduation, she used her gift money to buy her own digital, with which she has taken her three (so far)prize-winning photos –among other gems. (I plan on posting the latest for Love Thursday this week.)

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