The Gold Digger
There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of film cameras you can choose from. The used camera market is littered with them, so much so, that I went to eBay recently and searched “film camera” and was rewarded with 15,000 results. And while your next camera is possibly one of those 15,000, I want to tell you about three of them specifically: these are the three worst film cameras you can buy as a beginner.
The absolute worst film camera that I’ve ever purchased was an 8x10” Burke and James View Camera. “Wait, what? You bought a large format camera and it wasn’t erhmagerd amazing,” you’re probably thinking. To be honest, I don’t blame you, because I think I was looking for some sort of transcendental experience.
Let me tell you, it was a disaster from the beginning, most notably because it wasn’t what I really wanted. I made due because the price was right, and when the price is right, sometimes you have to ask yourself a second or third time what your motives really are. If you’re satisfying some sort of lust, and you’re able to be honest with yourself about it, chances are you’ll save yourself a good deal of money, embarrassment, and pain in the long run.
I am not about that life, however, and did in fact buy the Burke and James. Later I converted it to a field camera, since that is what I originally wanted, and sunk a little more of my hard earned money into the experience. I later bought a lens, and then later even still bought a pair of film holders for it. Eventually, I bought film, and shot it a handful of times before realizing that the learning curve, logistics, and expense of film were such that I was never even going to have a shot with this beast.
The worst film camera you can buy is the one you can’t afford to shoot. When you buy a camera like this you’ll find yourself on an island with no means of escape. In the end I sold the camera, most likely at a loss, but learned a great deal during the brief experience. Not only did I learn about large format photography, the general in’s and out’s, but I also learned a little about who I am as a photographer.
I knew shortly after using the camera that I actually like to take quite a few photos of a scene. This was something that I knew subconsciously of course, but in working with the 8x10” camera I learned that I often wasn’t satisfied with taking only one frame of a scene. This would later lead me to the epiphany that I am, in fact, a small format photographer who prefers roll film to sheet film any day of the week.
The second worst film camera you can buy if you’re starting out is the one you can’t afford to repair or can’t find parts for. I’ve owned a couple of these as well, wouldn’t you know. I can tell you first hand that when you receive your repair bill you’ll likely wish you’d thought twice from the get go.
I had one of these cameras that I made the mistake of falling deeply in love with. It was a blast to shoot and I enjoyed the experience of using the camera immensely. When it failed, the repair shop said they’d gladly take it in for $300, but that parts were scarce, the model was finicky, and that as such they couldn’t warranty the work. I imagined myself walking into their shop and lighting $300 on fire in protest, but I snapped out of it when I realized I didn’t have $300. The camera became a paperweight, and I spent a good deal of time longing for it again, but knowing that the money that I would fork out for the repair would not be money well spent.
Before moving on, I have to say that I had a struggle when I chose the second worst film camera, and that we may in fact have a tie. The second worst film camera you can buy could possibly be the camera that doesn’t take readily available film.
I have to say that I’ve been fortunate, and have yet to purchase a camera that I know film is not available for. The unfortunate thing about cameras that take rare or obscure film is that you’re less likely to use them frequently and thus less likely to learn from them. I am by no means trying to keep you from using your grandfather’s baby Rollei, but I do think that if you’re in the market for your first camera you should be somewhat cautious about buying cameras that use films that are non-standard in size. Though I am aware that films like 127, and even 620, are available from a number of places the likelihood of you walking into your neighborhood camera store and finding them are slim.
Finally, the last camera on my list of the three worst film cameras you can buy is the one with a learning curve such that it takes the joy of learning away. Shooting film should be an enjoyable process and one that you take a great deal of time to learn; it shouldn’t be constant second guessing of your settings or yourself. So if you’re all about that Program Auto mode on your DSLR and you’re thinking about getting into film, there is no shame in getting a film body that has Program Auto mode.
In high school, when I first took photography, I used a Minolta SRT Super. Some years later when I decided to journey back into film I naively neglected the SRT Super for a more modern, consumer grade, Canon Rebel (T2; film baby!) The Canon T2 paired nicely with a Canon Digital Rebel XT that I was using at the time. And as I grew as a photographer the T2 got out of the way and it just let me explore.
During that time I took a lot of crappy photos on a lot of different film. The ease of use that the T2 afforded allowed me to just get out there and make photographs. I think in the beginning this is really important, and so as I said before, the third worst film camera you can buy is the one that complicated everything so much that the joy is gone.
I write all of this not to dissuade you. In fact, if the next thing you do after reading this is run out and buy one of the aforementioned cameras, then awesome, you’re one step closer to shooting film! Instead, I write this because I want to see people get interested in film and thrive. Hopefully, by avoiding some of the worst film cameras out there, you will find your path quicker than I did.