I’ve simplified the film camera buying process.
Here’s the decision tree without any branches.
Now, I could have added other criteria – such as automatic metering, auto-wind, interchangeable lenses, etc. I’ve decided to stick to these for simplicity (mainly everything that has autofocus will have the other auto-modes). Also, for versatility, I try and give more weight to those bodies with interchangeable lenses.
All combined, there’s a total of 8 potential answers to this (2x2x2). And here are my 8 answers.
1. 35mm. Rangefinder. AutoFocus.
Contax G2. Honorable mention – Contax G1.
This is the first category but also perhaps one with the least number of contenders (when you look for bodies with interchangeable lenses). The 35mm rangefinder world is dominated by Leica. But they never made an auto-focus rangefinder. Keep in mind, that an auto-focus rangefinder is a bit of an oxymoron. This being due to the fact that the rangefinder is a means for a human to determine the range of something (putting them squarely in the manual focus zone).
There are many auto-focus fixed lens “rangefinders”. Konica Hexar AF, Contax T2 etc. While these are great, I prefer the interchangeable bodies and incredible lenses of the Contax G series.
2. 35mm. Rangefinder. Manual.
Leica M6. Honorable mention – Leica M3.
As I mentioned previously, Leica simply dominates this category and has for a long time. There are simply no newly manufactured contenders (Voigtlander cancelled it’s production of the Bessa line in 2015). Leica’s can get expensive (especially that gla$$) but there’s a reason people grow old with them.
3. 35mm. SLR. AutoFocus.
Nikon F6. Honorable mention – Nikon F5.
An interesting category, one that includes the pinnacle of 35mm technology reached in the early 2000’s. You could go with Canon, Nikon, Contax or any other major brand name with all the gizmos. The F6 is supposed to be the cat’s meow of high performance SLRs.
4. 35mm. SLR. Manual.
Nikon F3. Honorable Mention – Nikon F2.
This is probably the fattest of the categories. The options for which manufacturer to go with could extend for days. Olympus, Pentax, Nikon, Canon, Contax, Minox, Fuji… Of course, when making the decision, you’re also making a decision on what glass you’ll need. I love my F3. Italian designed. It feels right at home in my hand and the glass is great without breaking the bank.
5. Medium Format. Rangefinder. Autofocus.
Fuji GA645zi. Honorable mention – Fuji GA645.
Going back to a category where there are few contenders. I believe that Fuji has cornered the market here. I know of no other autofocus medium format rangefinders. Having a monopoly usually leaves the consumer desiring more. But not with these Fujis.
6. Medium Format. Rangefinder. Manual Focus.
Mamiya 7. Honorable mention – Mamiya 6.
There are some other folks in this race. If I were to add another criteria on, it might be asking “What size of negative do you need?”. For which there are 4 answers – 645, 6×6, 6×7 and 6×9. I shoot a lot with my Fuji GL 690 for that massive negative. But this is overkill for most. The 6×7 is a great frame size and aspect ratio. The Mamiya 7 is hard to beat.
7. Medium Format. SLR. Autofocus.
Contax 645. Honorable mention – Rollei 6008 AF.
Autofocus came pretty late in the game to the Medium Format crew. And these puppies are pricey. Amazing glass with amazing bodies equals all around amazement. High barriers to entry for the casual film shooter (and the cost of film should be taken into account as well). The Contax 645 is a solid fighter, great glass and fits the hand like a glove. If you’d like to go the 6×6 route, I recommend a bit of an odd duck – the Rollei 6008 AF. Look her up. Quite the camera.
8. Medium Format. SLR. Manual Focus.
Hasselblad 500 CM. Honorable mention – Pentax 67.
When it comes to Medium Format SLRs, Hasselblad has the market. With the Zeiss lenses and the Swedish design, you can’t deny those ol’ gray boxes are really lust-worthy. Makes sense. Why the Pentax? Well, the glass is really something. Also, I like the bodies (I really do).
Why do you want to shoot film in the first place I guess is the main question. Digital sensors not up to snuff? That polaroid losing it’s hipster-touch?
I don’t really understand why one would want to shoot a 35mm, slr autofocus. I just don’t. Digital sensors have come a long way (in other words – their flippin awesome now). Why do you just want to replace that digital sensor with film? There’s gotta be something else that tickles your toenails here. So I would go with manual focus there. SLR or rangefinder will both be great (the price win goes to the SLR).
I think Medium Format is the way to go with film. It really offers you something you just can’t get with 35mm.
Rangefinder or SLR? Well, this is a tough one. If you want to do really precise work, SLRs are great for that. Rangefinders are convenient, smaller and quicker. I personally have favored the rangefinders of late. But I really would love a Rollei 6008…
Manual or Auto? This is a matter of money. And I think spending $4K on a film camera for fun is madness. So I’m gonna go with manual here.
There ya have it.